This is the first part of an ongoing serial, written in honor of the Swords of St. Valentine initiative. Here is Part Two. Updates every day.
For two netaels apiece, you could have your pick of Neo-Quming’s most talented courtesans for an entire minute. Feeling charitable, Li Wei hired twelve of them for eight hours that night. They were soft, sleek, and unimaginably beautiful. Skilled beyond any common whore, beyond any woman he had ever paid or sought.
And yet in those hours, sated with pleasure, with the rough wetness of bliss, he realized that there was something else to the thick female scent, the thick heady smell of osmanthus and perfumed sweat. A bitter tang like the taste of sand.
And despite his grunts of pleasure, the waves of orgasmic bliss that rocked him like thunder, he began to feel a hollow speck inside his happiness, chafing, like a grain of gravel in his foreskin. A little black dot of despair.
And then he heard the blue notes in their coos and giggles, in the empty platitudes that they cast at him, the faux-admiration of his skill and girth. He saw the boredom in their perfect eyes.
Unwilling to confront any of this, he allowed himself to fall into stupor.
He laid his head on the warm thighs of one of the girls, let another rub his feet and another his shoulders. He willed himself to forget the fatigue, the dull sense of non-accomplishment that ached in his loins. He tried to remember that there was a tournament tomorrow, and that in less than a day…
“Stay with me,” he mumbled in his sleep. “Please.”
When Li Wei awoke at four in the morning, he was alone in his hotel room. The sheets were still damp beneath him, but the perfume was already long-gone. The courtesans had vacated the room without making a sound. Now the bed smelled like nothing but sweat. Sweat and semen.
He fumbled for his holophone, trying to turn off his alarm. When he hit it, a bright blue screen popped up, displaying his wallet balance.
Double digits. He groaned, swore, and shut the screen off with a rude gesture.
“I don’t have time for this,” he complained to the walls. “This is an important day for me, you know? Payday. Fight day.”
The room, sensing his frustration, turned on the lights and modulated them to a coy yellow. The window turned a filmy black, blocking out the smooth hum of traffic from the streets below.
“If anyone calls, I’m not in.”
His phone gave an encouraging beep. Li Wei sighed, dragged his lithe body from the bed, and trudged naked to the shower.
It was an easy fight, anyway. He’d make good.
He had to make good.
After seventeen years of living under the Xu roof, Xu Hai had acquired an infallible sense for when her father would open the door. She had a whole battery of gestures in reserve, macro-cues to hide her browser and clear her search history, even to terminate her cloud account if necessary. Her holophone was as state-of-the-art as any consumer product could get.
Unfortunately, her father had an equally infallible ability to fool her, and so when he stopped in his tracks, spun around and slid the door right open, she barely had any time to switch spaces.
“What are you doing, girl?” asked Xu Deng.
Xu Hai rolled her eyes and made a noise of disgust.
“Porn,” she said. “Get out.”
Father gave the shrug. She hated the shrug. It made him look like a slug, a standing slug in a starched suit, despite the fact that he was tall and broad-shouldered and handsome enough to bring home a new gold-digging bitch every night. Even when working from home.
“You still have your panties on, but, well, don’t let me stop you.”
“I get that a lot,” said Father, leaning back with his hands in his pockets. “Not from my own daughter, though. How about I just cut your data? Is that what you want?”
“Get out,” hissed Xu Hai, bunching her knees to her chest. “Just…”
She felt a hand on the back of her chair. She spun around and kicked, wildly, with perhaps more technique than she should have used.
She tripped his instincts.
Two seconds later she was in a heap against the wall, gasping, her head ringing and her ankles aching.
The chair creaked, now on its side. Father looked down at his hands, with that mild, unconcerned look he always had right after hitting. The last time Xu Hai had seen him like this was on the streets, in a sleazy back-alley near Quming Central Mall. He had killed one drunk, and broken two others so badly that the cops turned white.
A small transfer of a thousand netaels each had restored the color of the good policemen, but for Xu Hai the memory was still raw. She had cried herself to sleep that night, holding herself and shaking. She was only ten.
“Looking at the jianghu forums, I see. Playing around with those lowlife idiots, I see. Do they have another one of their playfights on tonight? Is that what this is?”
But of course he had stolen the override gestures. Nothing less from a maverick cryptocurrencier. Xu Hai blinked the stars away from her vision, focused her chi to clear her meridians, then rose shakily to her feet. Xu Deng turned from the open browser space and raised an apathetic eyebrow.
“Don’t try it,” he said. “I might really kill you this time.”
“You’re a traitor,” said Xu Hai, rubbing the snot from her lips, shocked to find that there were tears in her eyes. “You betrayed Grandfather and all our ancestors, our house and our style…”
“Ah, yes,” said Xu Deng, with the tone of a bored student. “The Xu Style of Scything Rain.”
The shrug again. Xu Hai balled her fists to stop herself from lashing out. He was so much stronger than her.
“The Xu Style of Scything Rain,” continued Father, “passed down for a hundred generations. And to me as well, might I add, and better. Maybe when you finally follow in your mother’s footsteps and get out of my house, you can become a circus performer.”
She couldn’t leave. The law forbade it. They’d catch her, send her back in days. And even worse than that…
“Shut up,” she said, trying to square her jaw and failing. “I’m not… not scared of you.”
“You stupid girl,” said Father, in the same affectionate tone he reserved for netizens and ex-wives. “It’s not me you have to be afraid of. Maybe some triad punk might actually realize that he wants a piece of your fine ass. Maybe he’ll stick a gun right up against that stupid jaw.”
“I’ll break his face! I will!”
“Really, now? Are you going to use the Crashing Torrent Palm? Stick him from every direction with the Needle-Point Downpour? All he has to do is pull a trigger, and you’re dead. And if he’s gunlinked, he won’t even have to do that.”
Father laughed. It was a terrible sound. It sounded like the laugh of one of those drunk twenty-somethings, like the one he had killed in five blows, broken from the inside-out with focused bursts of chi.
“Ah, Hai-er, Hai-er. I used to be just like you. Go to your little play-fight and watch. Run away from home if you want. I won’t stop you.”
He patted her cheek on the way out. It made her want to puke. The door slid shut, leaving her alone, swallowing, with her back against the wall and her arms ramrod-straight at her sides. Her holoscreens flickered, casting a pallid blue across the room. Her phone blinked softly in its dock.
“I’m going to do more than watch,” she whispered, licking her bruised lips. “And I’m not going to run away. I’ll beat you, Father. Just you wait.”
Only then did she allow herself to cry.