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 The Misfortune Cookie

Esther Diamond - 6

by

Laura Resnick

Dedication

To my dear friend Cindy Chivatero Person, who was a good sport about wading through ankle-deep slush with me in New York’s Chinatown during the Lunar New Year.

Much happiness and long life.

Prologue

Ghost Man

Sometimes in his dreams he still saw her, though she had been dead for more than a century. He saw again the grace of her tapered fingers as she poured tea, the warm smile that could unexpectedly brighten her serious face, and the intent way she listened when others spoke. Her dark eyes, so direct in their shrewdness, could be so bright with anger and so rich with tenderness. He remembered her unflinching courage, the delicate strength of her wrists as she wielded a weapon, the discipline and artistry of her body in combat . . . Her hair, when unbound and unwound, flowed like black silk . . .

And sometimes in his nightmares, he again saw her battered, blood-drenched corpse.

A world away and several lifetimes later, his memories of her were still as sharp as a blade.

“Gwai lo,” she had called him when they met. Ghost man, referring to his white skin.

It was how the Chinese referred to Westerners, and it had come to signify “foreign devil.” It was a phrase more commonly used in Canton, where her mother’s family was from, far south of where he and she met. Unfriendly at first, the phrase later became her affectionate nickname for him.

Well, he hoped it was affectionate. Li Xiuying was not a woman who readily showed her emotions, after all, and the two of them came from such different worlds. But he knew that trust, respect, even friendship had developed between them. And after her death—after it was too late—he wondered if there could have been more . . .

They knew each other so briefly, though, in that tumultuous era which crushed all tenderness in its bloody fist. And apart from the rifts of language, culture, and society that lay between them, there was also an age difference of more than two hundred years. That alone might have prevented him from ever speaking his heart to her—or even opening it wide enough to look inside it himself—if she had lived.

Even so, he thought that if he had ever known a last love, a final blossoming of that all-too-human yearning, it had been she.

Li Xiuying . . . Beautiful Flower.

Brave, gallant, talented . . . Proud, defiant, principled. Stubborn, impatient, a little sharp-tempered.

He remembered his first sight of her, her delicate skin flushed with exertion, her eyes alight with pleasure as she worked with her students. She later told him that her fighting art was called Wing Chun and had been developed by a woman in the south of China. Li Xiuying’s late mother had learned Wing Chun there many years ago before coming north with her new husband, now also deceased. She had taught it to her daughter, who now taught it to others.

He first arrived at her remote compound on a bright summer day with his one-man entourage—who was an incompetent interpreter and an even worse guide. They had been wandering in circles for days, and they had apparently broken the law in the last town they passed through. Two days ago, they had also narrowly escaped stumbling straight into a skirmish with the Boxers—the European name for the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, whose rebellion against the corruption of both foreign powers and the crumbling Manchu dynasty was sweeping violently across northern China.

Upon being presented with her visitor, Li Xiuying said tersely to his interpreter, “If you and this gwai lo are looking for the Christian mission, then you’re very lost.”

He had learned enough of the language on his previous two visits to China to understand her words, and he made a gesture to silence his interpreter, who was translating this ungracious greeting into slow and stumbling English.

“I am Dr. Maximillian Zadok,” he said in careful Mandarin, talking over the interpreter, who refused to give up. “The Magnum Collegium sent me. I thought I was expected.”

The only change in his beautiful hostess’ expression was a slight pursing of the lips. After a moment, she said, “Yes. You were expected some time ago. By now, I had ceased expecting you.”

“I’m afraid my departure was delayed, and the journey took longer than expected,” Max replied apologetically. “And I have met with further delays since I arrived in China. I assume you are aware of the Boxer Rebellion?” Rather than struggling to pronounce the Chinese phrase for the current hostilities, he used the English words.

Li Xiuying glanced at Max’s interpreter, who just stared blankly at him.

Max made little punching motions as he clarified, “The Harmonious Fists. There’s fighting all over this region.”

“Yes, I know. I thought perhaps they had killed you,” Li Xiuying said dispassionately. “They are not pleased with the presence of gwai lo in China.”

“I understand. But I have not come to steal land, kill Chinese, convert people to my religion, or feed opium to children,” Max pointed out.

“The Harmonious Fists will not ask you why you are—”

“I have come to consult a respected sorceress about the mystery of my long life and slow aging, in hopes that I might unlock its secret and share that knowledge with my colleagues.” He added, “I was given to understand that the sorceress was also keen to explore this mystery.”

She said, with a change in her tone, “Your Mandarin is not good.”

“I apologize.”

“No need. Very few gwai lo bother to learn our language. I appreciate your courtesy in speaking it . . . a little.”

Max realized she was amused. He smiled ruefully. “It is a very challenging language.”

“Are you English?” she asked.

“No.”

Li Xiuying gestured to his interpreter as she said, “But that is the language he uses with you, is it not? I recognize it from the missionaries.”

“I speak English, but it is not my native tongue. I was born near Prague.”

She frowned. “Where?”

“It’s a city in Austria-Hungary.” Seeing her perplexed expression, he added, “That’s a kingdom in Europe.”

“Oh.”

“I have a certain ability with languages, but I found it very difficult to learn some Mandarin during my previous visits to China.”

“When were you here?” she asked.

“My last visit was almost 50 years ago.”

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