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This is chapter three of A Tangled Web. If you haven’t already read chapters one and two then I urge you to do so first. At the very least you should read the disclaimer at the start of chapter one.
Vera allowed herself a lie in. It had been nearly dawn when she had been led from Xui-Li’s bed, given a light tunic to wear, blindfolded, and lightly restrained before being put in the carriage and, after another long and bumpy ride, returned to the town. When the carriage had finally stopped, she had been bundled into the street and her hands untied. Reaching for the blindfold, she had found that it was quite securely knotted and by the time she had removed it was only to see the rear of the carriage rattling off in the distance with a dark figure climbing aboard. She had stumbled over a bundle lying at her feet, which turned out to be her clothes, neatly wrapped and folded. Still, she could hardly get dressed out here by the side of the road so, so wearing nothing but the tunic, she slunk off the short distance through the sleeping streets to the tree, the one overhanging the fence, which she knew she could use to get back into the compound unnoticed.
When she had arrived at her billet, completely shattered, she had thrown off the tunic and collapsed exhausted into her bed, for once not even bothering with her nightgown and it was mere moments before she was fast asleep. Thus it was that, come mid-morning when she had finally woken up again, she was shocked to find that all she was wearing was the collar. Why had she been so indecorous as to sleep without a nightdress and why had she not thought to take the collar off as well? She knew she really ought to get up but, after the strains of the previous night, she felt she owed herself a few more minutes in bed. Wrapping the sheet around herself she lay back and thought things over.
Writing her report, well that was going to be much easier this time. She actually had some hard facts, some real intelligence. She felt a glow of pride on a job well done. Colonel Fortesque could never be allowed to know the price she paid but surely now he would start to appreciate her worth.
Far, far more complicated was how she felt about the price she was paying. In order to get this intelligence she had been forced to play Xui-Li’s perverse games, to be her pet, her plaything, and had suffered the pain, and far worse, the humiliation that this had imposed on her. Why then did she not despise Xui-Li, why then did she not hate every inch of her? In her mind she replayed the shameful things she had been put through; it had certainly been a journey of extremes. She nearly gagged at the memory of some of the jobs she had been made to do at the club but, for all that they were disgusting, was the filth of the pig bins worse than the way they had treated her, the way she had been a nothing, the lowest of the low, at each and everyone’s beck and call? Then there was her treatment at the house she had been taken to. The beautician and her assistant had acted as if she were a doll, an object; her wants and needs were certainly no part of their concerns. She hadn’t even been consulted about the haircut…. With a gasp of horror she remembered the haircut and how short her hair had been left. She jumped out of bed, grabbed her dressing gown and went to to stare at her reflection in the mirror.
The face that stared back was a mess. She had been so exhausted the previous night that she hadn’t bothered to clean off her make-up and now it was streaked across her face in smudges of black and white. At least the haircut, almost masculine in its shortness, wasn’t too bad. In fact it was rather well done and, whilst extreme, a known ‘rebel’ like herself might get away with it given the current ‘boyish’ fashions. She went to her basin and gave herself a good wash, scrubbing her face clean. The cold water freshened her up and she returned to her dressing table to start getting ready for the day.
But it wasn’t just the hair on her head that had been trimmed. She undid the belt of her gown and looked down at the neatly shaven triangle where her pubic hair had been. If anything symbolised her passive role it was this, the way they had shaved her most intimate areas without a by-your-leave; and the way that, having been shaved, it left her feeling open, exposed, vulnerable. She ran the tips of her fingers over the shaven skin; already it wasn’t as smooth as it had been and she could feel that it would soon get rough and itchy. Either she was going to have to let it grow back out again or she was going to have to keep it shaven; she already knew which was the only available option as long as she was playing along as Xui-Li’s pet. With a sigh she refastened her gown and turned back to her dressing table.
And then, as she applied her make-up, she remembered what had come next. This was a whole different kettle of fish. It had been strange sharing a bed with another woman; no one had even seen her naked since canlı bahis her schooldays, but there Xui-Li, after the harshness of the beatings, had shown a softer side and with the gentle touch of a skilled lover had led her, indeed, led both of them, to ecstasy. The memories of the feel of Xui-Li’s body, her fingers, her tongue, the warmth, the closeness, the simple flesh on flesh…. Vera’s whole body flushed at the memory. Whilst it had been strange and unnatural to share such intimate caresses with another woman, those caresses had released feelings within her that had carried her to heaven and back. And then, when it was all over, Xui-Li had simply held her, cuddled her, hugged her and, for all the unreality, she had felt safe, loved and cherished; feelings that had been missing for so long from her life.
Still this daydreaming would never do. She had to get on; she had a report to write.
“Well, this is much better than last time,” Colonel Fortesque commented as he read through the report. “Rebel activity up river. Thirty or forty new recruits. Some woman called ‘the crane’ in command. Pity you couldn’t have got a real name. Still, I’ll have some enquiries made, see if they can back up your story and, maybe next time, you can get a name for me. There will be a next time, won’t there?”
“Thank you, sir,” Vera replied, “and yes, I’m sure there is more I can find out. I’m getting to be quite accepted there.”
“So no wrestling this time?” Colonel Fortesque continued, flicking back and forth through the report. “What do you girls do all night?
“Just idle chatter, sir. You know how we girls like to talk.” Vera hated saying this but it helped to gloss over what had really happened.
“Talk, eh, well, you girls are certainly good at that. This Madam Hong, is she the sort that only likes girls? A bit… err… mannish, is she?” Colonel Fortesque asked.
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” Vera replied, ducking the question.
“Maybe not, an innocent little thing like you, maybe not, but if Madam Hong… if she should make any… advances towards you. Well, let me know, will you. You are under my care, you’re my responsibility at the end of the day and I do need to know all the details.”
“Yes, I appreciate that some of it may get a bit… personal but I need to know so that I can judge if you’re getting into any… moral danger. If there’s any more wrestling, for instance, or anything… unseemly let me know, will you?” Colonel Fortesque seemed to be getting quite red in the face.
“I did see two of the girls holding hands and they seemed to be acting very friendly towards each other.” Vera couldn’t resist saying.
“Yes, quite, any of that sort of thing; girls that seem a little too friendly, maybe.” Colonel Fortesque was now quite short of breath. He seemed to get a grip on himself, and closed the file and put it in his filing tray. “Yes, indeed, very interesting. Fine, young lady, thank you, that will be all. You can return to your post now.”
As Colonel Fortesque got up from his desk to show her to the door Vera couldn’t help but notice the bulge in his britches. Silly old fool: how innocent did he think she was?
“Thank you, Huan-Yue; you’re a treasure as always,” Xui-Li said as she flicked through Vera’s report.
“The colonel, he makes it too easy. The file wasn’t even in his safe. No-one will look for it until tomorrow morning at the earliest and I’m in there cleaning up his mess well before any of them have even stirred,” Huan-Yue laughed.
“And do you only clean the offices, or do you do the sleeping quarters as well?” Xui-Li asked casually.
“I only clean the offices but I do have a pass key and no one notices a cleaning lady, wherever she goes. Is there something I can help with?”
“Can I ask you to deliver a message for me, a private message?”
“Of course, anything for you, Madam Hong, just tell me where.”
“Maybe this could find its way to someone’s pillow,” Xui-Li scribbled a few words on a slip of paper and handed it over. ” Thank you, as ever I’m grateful. Just be careful, that’s all I ask.”
“That will not be a problem,” Huan-Yue said with a smile. “I know the room where she sleeps.”
“Mei-Xing, I’ve got news from the British compound,” Xui-Li said as she caught up with her lieutenant. “It looks like she’s taken the bait. Can you get some of the girls to spread some rumours, nothing too concrete, just make sure that there’s some gossip about ‘the crane’. We’ll have that fool of a colonel marching his troops up and down the hills all summer by the time we’ve finished.”
“Ah, Miss Talisker, come on in, take a seat. I’ve got some news, rather exciting stuff.” Colonel Fortesque was rather effusive.
“Yes sir, what news is that?” Vera said as she sat down.
“I’ve got some agents, up in the hills, and they’re reporting a rumour, a rumour bahis siteleri about ‘the crane’. Not that I disbelieved your story in the slightest but it’s so gratifying when it’s corroborated by an independent source. Of course you realise that it makes it all the more important for you to get back in there and find out all you can about this ‘crane’ woman. See if you can get a name, we must have a name.” Colonel Fortesque urged.
“Of course, sir. I’ll certainly do my best.”
“Can’t ask for more, can I?” Said the colonel. “So, when do you think it would be safe for you to return?”
“I was hoping to go back tonight, sir, as it happens,” Vera offered.
“Good girl! By Jove, I might have underestimated you. It seems as if there’s some damn good pluck inside you and not just a pretty little face. Now, don’t forget, if there’s any hanky-panky I want details. Don’t worry if your report gets a little… blue. The reports are for my eyes only and you won’t shock an old buffer like me.”
“Of course, sir.” Vera wondered just how shocked the colonel would be if he knew that the reason she was going back that night was a note, a note she had found tucked inside her nightgown under her pillow, a note that read ‘East Quay, 6pm, X’, a note that was now charred ashes in her waste bin.
Vera had hardly eaten all day she was so nervous. The note had just appeared, as if by magic. She’d asked around if anyone had seen anything but she couldn’t be too specific without arousing suspicion and the one guard she questioned closely was prepared to swear that no one had entered the sleeping quarters all day. But, however the note had got there, it was a summons and she knew she had to obey.
After a long soak in the bath, during which she made sure she was scrupulously clean, she dressed herself with the same care as last time. Although, if she were treated the same way as last time, Xui-Li might not actually see her clothes, it was still an important part of her preparation; it helped to put her in the right mood. As she stared in the mirror she wondered exactly what was in store for her. How much would be pain and how much would be pleasure? She reached again for the collar and held it against her neck. It was a cheap little thing, a nothing, certainly not an object of value, was this what Xui-Li had thought of her, was this what Xui-Li still thought of her? Carefully she put it in her handbag; she didn’t want to forget it.
At five o’clock she slipped out of the compound and headed for the town. She had quite a walk ahead of her but she didn’t want to risk using a rickshaw as there would be too many questions about what a white girl was doing heading for the docks at this time of day. When she got down-town the city was bustling and she had to push her way through the crowds that always seemed to mill around the various stalls set up in the narrow streets of the dockland area. She was jostled and pushed, the crowd having little respect for a round eye ‘lady’. Suddenly she realised her path was blocked by two burly men who wouldn’t let her pass. She turned round and another man stood blocking the way behind her. In a panic she ducked into an alleyway on her right only to realise that this was exactly what they had wanted. It was a dead end and the three men were bearing down on her. She turned to face her attackers.
“Please, please don’t hurt me. Here, take my purse.” Vera begged but, whether they understood her English or not, this just seemed to amuse them and it wasn’t her purse they wanted. They were enjoying frightening her and her pleas just met with broad grins. They herded her deeper into the alleyway and Vera, backing away, tripped over a loose cobble and fell to the ground. In a flash they were upon her, a brawny arm reached down to pick her up and….
There was a sudden commotion, a flurry of black cloth and one of Madam Hong’s guards was standing between them with her dagger drawn. Vera was vaguely aware that the man who had been reaching out for her was now clutching his arm, his arm that ran bloody red. Of the other two, one was long gone and the other was doubled over, clutching his side.
“Leave, now, scum, leave whilst you still have your worthless lives!” the guard snarled.
Vera’s assailant may have been bigger then the guard but he wisely saw that he was completely outmatched and, grabbing his companion, he backed out of the alleyway and disappeared into the crowd.
“Come, you are awaited,” the guard said to the astonished Vera and, grabbing her hand, led her back out of the alley and into the docklands. They set off at a furious pace and Vera was nearly running as she tried to keep up but the grip around her wrist was locked firm so she just concentrated on not falling over.
Suddenly they were at the quayside where there were a multitude of junks lined up, each one a hive of activity. There were piles of cargo stacked here and there waiting to be loaded and the guard and Vera weaved in bahis şirketleri and out as they made their way to the far end of the quay. Suddenly the guard jinked to the right into a gap between two of the junks where, at the bottom of some steps, a small rowboat was waiting. It was a bit of a scramble to get down into the boat but, with the guard’s help, Vera managed it and she was soon sitting in the stern.
“Put this on.” The guard took Vera’s handbag from her and handed her a strip of cloth. “It is ordered that you are to be blindfolded, and don’t think of cheating. If you make me have to tie it for you it will be far more uncomfortable.”
For barely a moment Vera contemplated tying the blindfold loosely, or crooked, so that she could peek out of the bottom but a woman who could deal with three thugs in an alley without even getting out of breath was not one to be trifled with and, come to that, she was on her way to meet Xui-Li who was not to be trifled with either.
It wasn’t long before the rowboat was skimming across the choppy waters of the busy harbour. Vera, not a natural sailor, reached out to hang on tight to the gunwales so as to keep her balance. After perhaps ten minutes, there was a shout from above and a slight bump as the rowboat pulled up alongside some larger vessel. Vera, still blindfolded and finding her way by touch alone, was helped aboard and, judging by the sounds around her, immediately led into a cabin. There she was told to wait. As soon as she heard the door close she reached for the blindfold but a sharp word from the guard let her know that she was not alone and was not allowed to see just yet.
Outside on the desk there were sounds of frenzied activity, shouted orders and ropes being pulled and, suddenly, the ship gave a lurch and Vera nearly lost her footing. The ship swayed one way, then another, Vera guessed it was weaving its way through the busy harbour before it settled to the slow roll of a ship under way on the open seas and, judging by the relative quiet from outside, the commotion on deck settled down as well. Once more the cabin door opened.
“Thank you for looking after our guest, Chu-hua. I’m grateful that you made sure she got here safely,” Xui-Li said as she entered. “I’ll take over from here.”
“I’ve got to go on a short sea trip and I fancied some company whilst I’m away,” Xui-Li said to Vera. “Will anyone worry if you’re away for the weekend? Will anyone notice?”
“I don’t think so. There’s a dance this weekend but I don’t think anyone will miss me,” Vera admitted. She hadn’t really fitted in with the regimental crowd and felt sure that no one would notice her absence.
“Well, if they do then I’m sure you can think of some sort of excuse. Just tell them you had the ‘vapours’; isn’t that what you English girls suffer from?” Xui-Li laughed. “Now, take that blindfold off and come and meet the rest of the crew.”
As Vera took off the blindfold Xui-Li led her out of the cabin and onto the main deck. Vera got a quick chance to look around. A brisk wind was filling the sails and the ship was sailing along smoothly on a broad reach. Up on the poop deck was the steering oar where a helmsman, or should that be helmswoman, stood whilst four other women were working away tidying the deck. Night was falling fast but a large lantern, which hung from the mainmast, provided light over most of the ship.
“Ladies!” Xui-Li called out as she pushed Vera to the middle of the main deck. “Here is our newest crew member. Why don’t you show her how we do things on the Ming-Xing?”
As Xui-Li ascended the ladder to the poop deck the four women stopped what they were doing and gathered round Vera. They may have been women but they were sailors first and foremost. Their clothing and their demeanour was rough and ready and their simple presence alone was threatening.
“Look at the clothes on this one. Thinks she’s a posh bit of stuff,” the first one said in the broad patios of the docks. The accent was so thick that Vera had trouble making out the words.
“Yeah, really thinks she’s someone special,” another answered. “Well, huli jing, do you think you’re someone special? Do you think you’re better than us?”
“No, no, of course not,” Vera replied. In her mind she struggled to translate ‘huli jing’ and came up with ‘fox spirit’ but the intonation had turned the phrase into something far nastier.
“That’s ‘no, no, of course not, ma’am’,” the biggest of the four, a burly, matronly woman who had the air of leadership about her, stepped forward. “I’m the boatswain here which means, as far as you’re concerned, I’m in charge. You will address me and all other crewmembers as ‘ma’am’, you will obey all orders and you will do so immediately and without question. Is that quite clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Vera replied shocked at what was happening to her. She had been expecting more time with Xui-Li, definitely not to be press-ganged like this.
“And do you expect to work in these clothes?” The boatswain reached out and tweaked the collar of Vera’s coat.
“Err… No, Ma’am.”
“Well, get them off then. Those who can’t work go overboard. I’ll have no passengers in the crew of the Ming-Xing.”
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