Dreams to Ashes: Red Butterflies Volume 1

Two powerful clairvoyants, from opposite sides of the world, are having the same nightmares. Dreams so real and terrifying, that they threaten to destroy both sense and sanity. Driven from their homes by forces both political and supernatural, this tormented young man and woman must overcome doubt and adversity, and believe in their own truth. Their subsequent journeys will take them to an exciting and robust new land, full of danger and promise.

Excerpt

The city of Canton
Guangdong Province, China
February 7, 1843

“It’s time. Ling Fu!” Auntie yelled at me from the corridor.

She always made sure to remind me I was her slave. But after tonight, I’d have a new master. She couldn’t tell me what to do anymore. I took my time while painting my lips, just to spite her. In the mirror, my face was the white of a courtesan, my lips a demure spot of red. My long hair was knotted loosely, with only two tasseled pins holding it up.

I had a surprise planned for this evening. I was no fool, to believe that only my superior physical qualities would earn me the status I craved. To attract the richest and most influential men, I had to be daring, unusual, and irresistible. And I knew just what to do, though surely it would anger Auntie, and the owners of the Floating Joy. I didn’t care about this depraved excuse for a teahouse, or anyone in it. I wanted out of here. Tonight was my only chance to secure my future.

Before I left my room, I scented myself with oil of fresh jasmine. Then I took my favorite silk fan, the one with the lovely phoenix painted on it, and I walked right past Auntie, out the door.

She shouted after me. “Where are your shoes? Why do you have those silk ribbons on your feet? Come back here!”

She was too late to stop me. I walked through the door to the large gathering hall of the House of Floating Joy, and waited behind a divider screen.

The room on the other side was filled with men. They all sat at low tables, conversing, and drinking wine and tea. A musical ensemble played folk songs quietly in the corner. My erhu waited on a small stool, beside the dulcimer player.

When the time arrived, everyone fell silent.

A man called everyone to attention. “My honored friends, you’ve all been invited to the House of Floating Joy for one special reason. Tonight, we’re offering you the chance to behold something most rare. For the eyes of our finest patrons, and only for you, we have the most beautiful and mysterious lady in Canton. A true courtesan, with all of the skills a man desires.”

Someone in the crowd yelled. “How skilled is she between the sheets?” And the entire room laughed heartily.

I smiled to myself. My plans were going to work better than I thought, if these men were already only thinking about sex. How typical. It was right to my advantage.

The announcer continued. “Ah yes, she’ll be a tigress in the bedchamber one day. But don’t be fooled, this young lady is a virgin. We have certification of her intact condition by the venerable physician to our magistrate, Xiao Lo. You surely know, my friends, how rare it is these days to find a virgin courtesan in Canton.”

More laughter from the crowd.

“And now, to be seen for the first time, here is Ling Fu.”

I needed no further introduction. I drifted from behind the divider screen, into the room so heavy with smoke, and the odor of many men in an enclosed place. Round paper lanterns lit the corners, and in the dim light I could see the stares, as I took my place beside the musical ensemble. I set my erhu upon my lap, pleased at how silent the room was. I felt all eyes upon me. And I gathered my courage, for what I was about to do.

The ensemble began a folk song that I knew well. My fingers slid along the strings with boring precision, the notes familiar and uninteresting to me. This was standard procedure for every courtesan. Men expected us to play instruments, serve tea, and make conversations, aside from looking beautiful all the time.

It was time to show them that I was not an average courtesan.

Without hesitation, I set my erhu down, and stood before the audience. I still had my fan, tucked inside the blue silk sleeve of my robe. I unfolded it, and stood forth to dance. I’d practiced with the musical ensemble earlier that day, and this had not been a part of our rehearsal. They stopped playing a moment, staring in confusion and awe. But I smiled once at the percussionist and flicked my fan, and he took the cue. They played another song for me to dance to.

Thus far, everything was perfect.

I was never a good dancer, but I’d taken enough lessons to know how to move, how to step, how to use expressions. I pretended my feet were indeed fragile lilies, and tried to be graceful, yet simple. My arms and my finely shaped hands, together with the fan, melded into unity with my trailing sleeves. There were no rules to this dance. I made it up as I went along.

I turned my back to the audience, reached up with one hand and pulled out the pins binding my hair. It spilled like soft black water down my back. Just like Lady P’an Chinlien from my second Auntie’s stories, I laid aside all morals and all fear.

It was time for my finale.

As the music swelled, I stepped into the middle of the room. I glanced here and there, made eye contact with a few men as I passed them. Highly improper, yet this was a courtesan’s art. I saw many mouths and eyes agape, heard several sighs and whispers as I passed. I wanted them to stare in wonder, to catch my scent as I passed. I wore no shoes, my feet bound up in silk ribbons, and I held the front of my robe aloft as I walked, so every man could see how small they were. No woman at the Floating Joy could compare her big ugly feet to mine.

They were all entranced, as I wanted them to be.

Before anyone from the Floating Joy could stop me, I stepped onto one of the low tables, where three noblemen sat. I glanced once around the room, saw that Auntie stood with the owners of the Floating Joy by the far door, her fists clenched, looking embarrassed and furious. She didn’t matter to me.

I lifted my chin, stood as tall as I could, and swiftly untied my robe.

The music stopped, as I let the silk fall to the floor, and posed naked before the throng. Clutching only my fan, I extended one leg and tiny foot, for all to see and admire.

I’ve never heard a deeper silence, than the one that occurred in that room.

Before I could move, or put my robe back on, before the owners of the Floating Joy could say anything, and as Auntie stormed towards me in rage, a man raised his hand.

“I’ll bid for her, fifteen taels of silver!”

Another man shouted. “Twenty, twenty from the house of Sing here!”

A kind of madness ensued, with an eager crowd bidding around my table. I stood proud and unclothed before them all, never wavering in my bold demeanor, like the pale figurine of a goddess carved from pearl.

I was pleased to see that most of the potential buyers were Chinese. Though to my dismay, there were a few foreign devils vying to bid too. I didn’t want to be sold to a foreign devil. But I’d accept even that kind of life, rather than stay in this house of Floating Vermin as a whore. It didn’t matter who bought me. I just wanted to get out of this place. I’d go mad if I had to remain here one more day.

The bidding continued at a rapid pace, until finally, one man stood forth before them all. There was a look of power and importance to him. He was older, a bit overweight, but surely from eating lots of fine food. He had a trailing mustache as long as his queue, and the long fingernails of the idle rich.

He was exactly the type of man I wanted.

“I’ll fill both of her little shoes with silver to have her,” he said. “If anyone can best me, let him stand forth.”

A surprised murmur passed through the crowd. It would take a small fortune of taels, a price unheard of, to fill my shoes with silver.

After a continued silence, another man stood, from a table in the corner.

“I represent the Lord Qi Shumin,” he said. “And my master will best your offer, noble sir, by filling both of the lady’s shoes with gold.”

The older man glared at his challenger.

“Now that would be something to see,” he said, laughing. “If you can indeed pay with such an incredible sum, let’s see you do it, right now. Fetch the lady’s shoes!”

Cries went up from every table, a raucous crowd of drunk, lusty men.

No one in Canton had much yellow gold, only the truly wealthy. I myself had never seen it, only heard what it looked like.

This servant of Qi Shumin was bluffing, or his master was rich beyond imagining. He was finely dressed, though he looked very austere. Almost like a scholar or an official, not like a nobleman’s servant. He was young, with a kindly face that hinted at being handsome.

Neither of the men looked at me, only watching each other. A servant brought my shoes in upon a silk pillow, and set them on the table.

The young representative of Qi Shumin stepped forth, with a small leather bag in hand. Without delay or presumption, he poured coins made of shiny yellow metal into my shoes. First one, and then the other.

The entire room was dumbfounded.

“Such is the bid my master offers you, noble sirs of the House of Floating Joy,” the young man said. “My name is Wong Tse Chen. If no one can best this, then I claim the girl.”

There was no counter offer. The deal was finalized when I put my robe back on, stepped off the table, and bowed to Wong Tse Chen, acknowledging that he represented my new owner.

My Auntie and the proprietors of the Floating Joy were speechless, shocked to receive such a large payment for me. I’d far surpassed their expectations of what I was worth. And now, as I followed Wong Tse Chen and his attendants out of the room, I felt as if I were nobility myself. What other courtesan in Canton, even in all of China, would be able to claim such a value? Every person in the city would surely be talking about me in the morning. Ling Fu, the courtesan worth both of her shoes filled in gold. My scheme had worked, just as I’d hoped.

As I went to my room to prepare for my departure, I passed Auntie in the corridor. She didn’t say a word to me, nor I to her. I hated the cruel old hag, and was glad to be leaving.

The maids of the helped me pack all of my chests and boxes. Most of my clothes belonged to the brothel, and I wouldn’t be taking them. I was sad to leave behind many things I loved, including my favorite dress of green and brocade. I thought, surely, there would be more beautiful clothing for me to wear at the house of the wealthy Lord Qi Shumin.

I shut the door of my old room, and left forever, never looking back.

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