Zhai Chengda's Wife
The file had not done Zhai Fuchun justice. Beneath her elegant but outdated silk robes was a woman of porcelain pale beauty, with the floor-gazing subservience Chinese bureaucrats loved in their wives. Lady Zhai's looks must have been a great asset to her high-flying husband, but Lord Zhai Chengda ignored her as he stepped imperiously from the airship, his towering body barely shifting as he gave the slightest possible bow to Tao Yong.
Jealousy twisted inside Tao Wan as she looked at Lady Zhai, and she hated herself just a little for that betrayal of her professional pride. Like Lord Zhai, her husband was a diplomat. But Lady Zhai's unforgettable elegance would have been a drawback in Tao Wan's work, where fading from notice could be the difference between victory and death.
Unlike the Chinese Song emperors, the Kingdom of Xia's rulers accepted women into their service, pretty or not. Tao Wan knew that she was better than this woman, because she had been given the chance to become better. No amount of beauty could make up for a lack of education or for living in such subservience. Yet the jealousy remained.
Tao Wan shuffled across the wooden veranda of the Blue Mountain tearooms, her bow slightly deeper than Lady Zhai's. This was the way of things when dealing with the Song court - follow the forms, show respect, know your place in the machine. Even when that courtly machine came hammering on the door of Xia, demanding its neighbour's attention. Tao saw through the facade of protocol to the bully beneath.
"Honoured hostess, I have brought you a gift." Lady Zhai handed Tao Wan a small wooden box inlaid with an image of the moon.
When Tao raised the lid a set of delicate, shining gears sprang forth on silken threads, hovering above a set of magnets as they turned to reveal the time. Flames flickered from the watch hands, blazing like miniature suns. A thing of beauty, to be sure, and one that for a fleeting moment took her breath away. But also a message between their husbands, a crude reminder of which country had the technological edge.
"Most honoured guest, I thank you." Tao snapped the box shut and gestured towards the open door of the tearooms. "Please, enjoy our hospitality."
Together they followed their husbands into the building, leaving Tao Yong's armed guards out on the veranda. The men exchanged pleasantries as they walked, warming up before their diplomacy, while the ladies made small talk appropriate to their station.
Tao paused by a window to look back at Lord Zhai's dirigible. A golden sun was painted across the silk of the balloon, with a three-tiered wooden gondola hanging beneath. Rocket batteries lined the underside, and an ugly steel barrel had recently been attached to the front. The whole thing clung like a fat cloud to the rickety docking pylon, Song industry casting an ominous shadow over the Xian lands below. An absurdity in Tao's view. When ascending a mountain, one should enjoy the climb.
Lord Zhai himself unsettled her. It was not just the way he towered over her, or the threat he presented to her people. It was his expression. There was a menace there that reminded her of how her father looked when he was frustrated, just before his fists flew. An expression she thought she had escaped.
Inside the deserted tearooms, the men ascended the stairs to the upper floor, Zhai Chengda with his assistant in tow, Tao's husband all alone. She smiled inside. Tao Yong had no need of an assistant like Zhai Chengda's, with the flitting eyes of an ill-trained spy. He had something far better.
He had her.
With the men drawn off into diplomacy, Tao Wan could get to the real work. She had never met a politician's wife who did not see into the guts of her husband's work, nor one who would not gossip over tea. The information they let slip sometimes seemed like scraps from a far greater feast, but the nation of Xia would eat any morsel that could lend it strength.
She led Zhai Fuchun into the East Wind Room, pulling a lever as she entered. With a clatter of gears one wooden wall folded away to reveal the breath-taking valley below. Herons flew through low wisps of cloud, paused to fish in the gurgling stream, or rested amid the willow trees. It was a much an artifice as everything else today, but she saw Lady Zhai step almost to the brink, watching with a smile as the imported birds dreamed of their far-away homes.
"My daughter will love this," Lady Zhai said. "She adores herons."
Because your daughter is as predictable and old-fashioned as you are, Tao thought. But again, jealousy stirred unwanted within her, a whispered tribute to the family she had chosen not to have.
She settled herself down beside the low tea table, carefully flattening a crease in her dress.
"Your daughter is with you?" she asked.
"Oh yes, Chun is over in our airship." For a moment Lady Zhai showed a warm, open smile. Then she seemed to think better of it, reverting to courtly restraint as she sat down on the cushion opposite. "Chengda says it is not proper for a woman or child to be left unattended."
Tao poured her a small cup of tea, then one for herself, and sat waiting. It was neither her place nor to her advantage to start the conversation with a noblewoman.
"Do you have children?" Lady Zhai asked.
"No." Tao took a small sip while she considered her next move. If children interested Lady Zhai, why not try that? "Lord Tao and I have no children."
It was true enough. One could not have everything in life, and they had both wanted their careers. Everything else followed from that.
Lady Zhai almost managed to stifle her shock. Tao suppressed a smile in response.
"But it is a woman's place to raise children," Lady Zhai said. "To be of value to her husband. To be loved by your little ones."
So, she is needy as well as old-fashioned, Tao thought. And disdainful for those whose lives amount to more than looking pretty. But any desire was leverage, even the desire to be told that you mattered.
"I am sorry." Lady Zhai bowed her head. "That was most inappropriate of me. Your choices are yours."
Heavens bless her, she almost sounded like she meant it. Tao bit the inside of her cheek, suppressing a bitter laugh. "It is no matter," she said. "My mother shares your opinion and expresses it frequently."
She sometimes wondered if Tao Yong also shared that view, and accepted their childlessness to maintain their carefully built contentment. She hoped not. He had done so much to make her happy, she would have been a wretched creature to do the opposite for him.
"Your tea is very good." Lady Zhai placed her empty cup beside the pot, a polite request for more.
"I will pass on your compliment to the owners when they return." Tao poured for both of them, shifting so that a small leather-bound book slid from her robes onto the floor. "Excuse me."
She picked up the book and placed it on the corner of the table, making sure the title was visible. Lady Zhai glanced at the book and blinked. Tao returned the teapot to its place while she waited to see how her guest would take this. Of all the plans she had laid to entice Lady Zhai, this was the one of which she was most proud.
"You like to read?" Lady Zhai asked.
"Voraciously," Tao said. "Our humble library at home contains works on myriad subjects." Don't make it too easy, she thought. Make her come to you.
"I read poetry, of course." It was almost comical to watch Lady Zhai dance around what she had seen. "Do you read poetry?"
Of course, Lady Zhai liked poetry. It was as pretty and as useless as she was. But now was not the time for such truths.
"I am currently reading this." Tao picked up the book and held it towards Lady Zhai. "Have you read it?"
Lady Zhai peered at the book like a respectable man might peer at erotic engravings on a printer's high shelves. A look of heart-pounding excitement, of the thrill of the illicit, of yearning to turn forbidden pages.
"Is that..." Lady Zhai reached out, tentatively accepted the book. As she did so her robes slipped a little, and Tao thought she glimpsed a bruise marring the elegant line of Lady Zhai's neck, the powder that covered it undone by sweat.
"Fan Juyi's Principles of Good Government," Tao said, trying to stay focused. Perhaps she had imagined it. Perhaps it came from an accident.
"You are permitted to read this?" Lady Zhai turned the small book over in her hands, barely able to bring herself to open it. Her mouth hung a little open, revealing the small red mark where a split lip was healing.
Tao's heart pounded at the sight. Such a small wound, but it could represent so much more. Her hand trembled in her lap as she remembered her father raising his hand. Was this woman's subservience born from something worse than habit and ignorance?
It was Tao's duty to play upon her target's vulnerabilities. The safety of her nation depended upon it. But the thought of exploiting a battered woman made her skin crawl. It was a line she would not cross.
Lady Zhai was looking at her, waiting for a reply. Tao forced a smile and calmed her voice despite the hammering of her heart.
"Indeed," she said, rallying her thoughts. "I am studying for the fifth-tier exam in civil service."
"Xian ladies are allowed to sit the exams?"
How much more shocked would the poor woman be if she knew that Tao had come first in her class in the other four tiers, as well as the eight secret studies of the Hidden Service.
"Chinese ladies aren't allowed?"
She knew she had gone too far the moment she said it. Lady Zhai's look of curiosity turned to outrage as she sat back, the book still clutched in her hand, a frown creasing her silky-smooth brow.
"Of course not! It would be most immoral, to go against one's place in society. You yourself should prepare to give up such things, once today is done."
A chill ran up Tao's spine. "Why today?"
"If you spent more time attending to your husband's needs you might know." Lady Zhai leaned forward and continued in a conspiratorial whisper. "Chengda came today with an ultimatum. If Xia does not accept the sovereignty of China there will be war."
She glanced around, but there was no one to overhear her. The staff had been sent away for this most delicate diplomatic meeting.
Tao sipped her tea, her face calm despite the hammering of her heart. The Chinese had been eyeing up Xia ever since they conquered Liao, looking to regain lands lost centuries before. Xia's leaders thought they still had years to prepare, but now the dragon had come pounding at their door.
Her scheme had worked. Lady Zhai had opened up, spilling the treasures of a noblewoman's mind. But instead of fine silk from which to weave a stronger nation, that treasure came in the form of a death shroud.
"It will not be easy for your men," she said, struggling to match her companion's light tone. "Ours have been planning for years, and they have the mountains in their favour."
"Oh, they've prepared for that," Lady Zhai said. "I hear all sorts of talk of new machines and new strategies. We have wireless telephony devices for all our commanders now, not just important men like my husband. There is even a new Renzong Manual, which Chengda must study every day, ready for –-"
She cut herself off abruptly, and for a moment shame broke through her mask of courtly pleasantry. She knew her mistake as surely as Tao did.
Everyone knew that the Chinese military machine was mighty, with its airships, its land cruisers, and its rocket batteries. But it had grown huge and unwieldy, as strong and unswerving as an avalanche, too inflexible for strategies not contained in its Renzong Military Manuals.
If the Xian military knew their neighbours' strategies then they could counter them. And Lady Zhai had just revealed that the latest manual was on her husband's airship.
"These are matters for men," Tao said, pretending not to have noticed the slip. The stakes had been raised, and if there was no real diplomacy then time was short. She hesitated, reluctant to play upon the woman's vulnerabilities. But what choice did she have now? "Don't you worry about the children, growing up in a time of war?"
"I bore my daughters into a dangerous world." A dark look crossed Zhai's face. "Times of peace can be as deadly as a distant war." She looked down into her cup.
Daughters. Lady Zhai had said daughters, but the file only mentioned one. The fate of the country was at stake, and some idiot had given Tao faulty intelligence.
Despite her frustrations, something about Lady Zhai's sadness tugged at Tao's heart. For all her faults, this woman cared deeply about her children. It was a shame that they were doomed to be nothing but decorative wives.
"You can give your daughters more than protection," Tao said. "You can give them learning and the chance for lives of their own. To take long walks in these beautiful mountains, to read whatever books they wish to read. This is how women live in Xia."
For a moment wonder filled Lady Zhai's face. She looked out across the valley, watching the herons flap through the clouds. Then she looked down at the book in her hands and her eyes narrowed.
"What would you expect of me in return?" Her voice could have frozen the sun. "Abandon my duty and my husband? Betray my country? Steal secrets for you?" She stared at Tao. "You're a spy, aren't you? I should report you to my husband." She rose, the silk of her dress swishing softly. "I will tell him now."
You fight lies with truth, Tao had written in her final exam. You fight truth with lies.
"Please, no, that's not..." She dug a fingernail into her thigh until tears ran down her cheeks. She sickened herself, but she pressed on. "It's the children. I can't stand for children..."
Lady Zhai stood uncertainly, her face wavering between outrage and empathy.
"I always wanted children," Tao said. "But we couldn't. And I can't bear the thought of someone else's daughter not having the chance that mine..." She let out a sob and watched Lady Zhai melt before her. "That mine could have had."
It was half a truth. She had wanted children, but it was only her career that had kept them from her. She dug out the small truth, built a larger lie around it, and presented it tear-stained to her receptive audience.
Lady Zhai hesitated, glanced around for anyone watching, then knelt beside Tao. She reached out through the walls of protocol to lay a hand on Tao's shoulder.
"Would you like to meet my Chun?" she asked. "She would be honoured to meet such a noble woman."
Tao brushed away the tears but kept her voice trembling as she looked up at Lady Zhai. She needed to push this a little further, to make sure the woman was committed.
"Aren't you worried about your husband?" she asked. "About his wrath if you bring me onto your ship?"
Lady Zhai froze and Tao feared that she had gone too far. But after a moment, sympathy chased fear from her face.
"It won't matter," she said. "Chengda doesn't worry about women."
Tao nodded and wiped away her tears. She hoped that they would hide the redness of her shame.
"You are so smart!" Chun was a charming child, her mother's elegant features rounded out by just a little fat, eyes wide with wonder at the world. "Are all women in Xian so smart?"
"We try to be." Tao laughed and smiled. Was she being too patronising? She could never tell. Children didn't work like adults, not at the age of whatever Chun was - eight maybe? Or nine?
"Can I go to Xia and be smart like Tao?" Chun asked. "I will read all the books, and write poetry like you, mother."
Lady Zhai smiled as she stroked her daughter's hair.
"Chinese women can learn too," she said, casting a brief warning glance towards Tao. "You've been in the library, haven't you?"
"Oh yes!" Chun grabbed Tao's hand and led her off down a corridor. "Come and see our library."
The interior walls of the dirigible were varnished wood, decorated every third panel with the lacquer image of a venerated ancestor. The windows were all glazed, the furniture slight but beautifully carved, and Tao wished that she had just one chair as elegant as these. This was the vessel of a man who got what he wanted, and who wanted to keep it for himself.
"Wait!" Lady Zhai called out behind them. "Chun, wait!"
But it was too late. They were through a door and into a room of tightly packed shelves, wide windows letting light spill across a reading desk at the far end.
Lady Zhai swished up behind them, snatched Chun's arm and turned her around.
"Your father doesn't let strangers in here," she said.
Chun's look of terror cracked Tao's heart.
"Please don't tell him," the little girl cried. "Mummy, please don't tell him."
"Hush. It will be alright." Lady Zhai lifted Chun in her arms and they clung to each other, disordering their carefully poised robes. Lady Zhai's sleeve fell back to reveal a line of bruises, matching those Tao could now see on Chun's legs.
Memories sent an icy shiver though Tao. Memories of the bruises on her own body, and on her mother's. Of the sound of the cellar door slamming. Of her father's angry face and his flailing fists. And then memory was replaced by imagination, by the thought of Zhai Chengda raining blows down against his innocent family.
She stepped defiantly forward into Yang's private library, striding across the room as Lady Zhai gasped.
"Please, Tao Wan, come back." Lady Zhai's voice trembled with barely suppressed anxiety. "If he finds us here he will beat us all."
"He will not touch me," Tao said. She remembered the shock on her father's face when she fought back, how quickly he had crumbled when her meekness had gone. "I can protect myself. I can protect you. This is how it works in Xia."
She looked at the contents of the reading desk. A pile of loose papers; two poetry collections; the wireless telephony machine Zhai had spoken of, with its big obvious transmit button for big dumb soldiers. Such very Chinese design.
But no Renzong manual.
"You can come with me," Tao said, scanning the shelves. "You can leave him far behind."
"My life is in China. All my family. I don't even know what life is like in Xia."
"There is peace and education for all. A better life for women. I can find a place there for you and Chun, opportunities you would never have in China."
"I don't know." Lady Zhai looked down at her daughter. "The things we would leave behind..."
"Those things include your husband. You can be safe from him."
"Only until the Chinese conquer Xia. Then he will come for me."
"If my people have the Renzong manual there will be no conquest." Tao scanned the shelves. She had seen old versions of the Renzong manuals, prized trophies in the library of the Hidden Service. They were always red-bound, with the same gold characters on the spine and the edition number in black. This would be Renzong Eighteen.
Something else crossed Tao's mind. If this was to be a defection she would need to retrieve the whole family.
"You said daughters before. Where is the other one?"
The only reply was the sound of flapping robes. Tao turned to see Lady Zhai sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth as she clutched Chun tight. All poise and concealment were ripped away, revealing a woman overwhelmed.
"Lady Zhai?" The other woman's grief was a flood washing over Tao, soaking into the dark corners of her soul. "Fuchun?"
"I couldn't protect her." Tears streamed down Zhai's face. "She was so small, and he was so angry."
Rage blazed through Tao as the words sank in. She clenched her fist but there was no one to strike. Here there were only victims and the last thing they needed was anger.
She took a deep breath, unclenched her fist, and sank to her knees beside Zhai.
"You can tell me," she whispered. "I'm here for you."
And in that moment, the words became true. The rise and fall of nations, the intricate web of espionage, they meant nothing to her beside a woman the world had so mistreated.
"I love him," Zhai sobbed. "Is that wrong of me? I love him but I fear him. I was scared and I was weak, and I couldn't stop him hitting her. What kind of mother am I?"
"You protected Chun, didn't you?" Tao wrapped her arms around Zhai. It felt strange, to be so close to someone she had just met. But it felt needed, for both of them. "You were strong for her. You can be strong again."
Sharp footsteps sounded in the corridor.
"Get away from me, all of you!" Lord Zhai's voice was a terrible roar. "You're as bad as these obstinate Xian savages."
Both women leapt to their feet as he strode in, his face red with anger.
"What are you doing here?" he snapped. He was a huge brute of a man, a head taller even than his wife. Tao backed away from his towering presence. Gone was the civil diplomat she had seen entering the tearooms; long gone the proud Chinese restraint. Here was a monster of fury, far more terrifying than her greying father had ever been.
"I'm sorry," Lady Zhai wailed. "It was an accident."
"An accident?" Lord Zhai raised his hand. "What, you got lost on your way to the kitchen, idiot wife?"
"It wasn't my idea." Lady Zhai glanced frantically down from him to Chun, still cowering in her arms. With a look of guilt and desperation she pointed at Tao. "It was her. Her idea."
"You?" Lord Zhai turned on Tao, and she backed away across the room. "I turn my back and you start corrupting my wife, you dirty Xian slut? I'll show you."
She found herself backed up against the desk, heart hammering, mind whirling, scrabbling around for something to defend herself with. But the books were too slight, the telephonic array screwed to the desk.
"You think it's bad now?" Lord Zhai slapped her across the face, the sharp pain followed by flashing stars. "Once we take your wretched little country I'll have you killed. Maybe I'll even do it myself."
"Not Tao," Chun wailed from behind him. "Daddy, I like Tao."
"Quiet, child," he snapped. "I'll deal with you next."
"Think of Chun." Tao looked past Lord Zhai, deep into his wife's eyes.
"I'll think of what I like." He slapped her again and blood ran from her nose.
Her face flushed as pain turned to fury. She clenched her fist, small as it was. She was like a mouse facing down a tiger, but at least her claws could scratch him before he tore her apart.
"This one." Lady Zhai's voice wobbled, but she stood firm, a red-bound book now clutched in her hand. "This is what we came for."
"Put that back," Lord Zhai said, turning towards his wife.
"No. I'm leaving."
Tao's spirit soared.
Lord Zhai's laughter was hard and jagged as the mountainside.
"I am leaving," Lady Zhai spoke more firmly this time. "If you try to stop me, I will give this book to ambassador Tao Yong."
"Oh really?" Lord Zhai stalked across the room. Poor Lady Zhai stood frozen in the fury of his gaze.
Tao darted around the table and slapped the poetry books down on the transmitter's switch. Something whirred, the speaker crackled, and a distant voice spoke.
Lord Zhai turned as Tao stepped away from the desk.
"I don't know who you spoke to last," Tao said softly, looking the ambassador in the eye. "But do you want them to hear this?"
Now it was his turn to freeze. He bared his teeth and raised his fist, on the verge of flying at her. But though he was a beast in the shadows of his home, in the bright public light he was a politician, a creature made to preserve itself. He lowered his fist and stood glaring at Tao.
She crept over to him, looked up and whispered.
"Maybe it's a foreign embassy. Maybe it's your colleagues back home. What would it do for your career, do you think, if they heard you beating your wife, or shouting at a foreigner about Renzong Eighteen?"
She ran her finger through the blood running down her chin, wiped it on the front of his robe. He was trembling with rage, but he kept his mouth firmly shut.
"Hello?" the crackly voice said. "Ambassador Zhai, is that you?"
Tao waved Lady Zhai out of the door, still clutching her daughter and the Renzong manual.
"By the time I leave, your wife will be among my husband's guards." Tao straightened her robes. "We think very much alike, my husband and I. If you stop me leaving, he will tell your superiors how you lost the manual. I may die in a Chinese prison, but you will be ruined. If you turn your rockets on the tearooms, he will have you shot down in return. Then we all die, and I don't think you want that. So, you will let me leave, yes?"
"You think I would betray my country like this?" Lord Zhai hissed.
"I think that your career means more to you than your patriotism."
"What of my career when others find out?"
Tao hesitated. She would have paid dearly to tear down that career, to see this monster destroyed for what he had done. But as sure as moon followed sun, he would drag his family down with him, and he would make them feel his pain. Revenge was a luxury they could not afford.
"Why would anyone find out?" She pulled out the carved box that Lady Zhai had given her. With a flick of her finger, the lid opened and the gears sprang up, flames flickering from the hands of the timepiece. "Tell them your wife and child died in a library fire, and the manual burned with them. No one will question the word of a grieving widower."
"But why would you help keep this secret?"
"Why would I ruin a man over whom I now have a hold?"
Lord Zhai nodded, eyes fixed on the desk. Whoever was listening, he really did not want them to hear.
"One day I will have my revenge," he said.
"In that case..." Tao punched him in the gut and he crumpled over, still silent, onto the floor.
"No one attacks me." She crouched down beside him. "No one attacks my country. If your country tries, we won't just use your manual against you. We will copy it, send it to every nation in the world. Try defending your borders when your enemies know your every move."
She stepped out of the library, down the corridor and past a cluster of guards hiding from Lord Zhai's rage. Her pace was calm and confident, though her whole body thrummed with tension. Was Lord Zhai a man who took risks, or one who did as he was told?
As she crossed the boarding plank and descended the docking pylon she saw Lady Zhai and Chun waiting for her, along with Tao Yong and his rifle-bearing guards. Not the most handsome husband in the world, but good and kind and reliable. Her sort of husband. They bowed to each other, and she saw him relax at her smile.
The dirigible undocked, lifting away from the mountain. Flames flickered in the library window.
Tao felt a small hand reach for her. She smiled down at Chun.
"You are safe now," Tao said, and looked up at Lady Zhai. "Both of you."