Jiang Hong watched the two strangers pause at the pickle stall run by Auntie Yi and counted to ten before she made her move. She was still skinny, undergrown for her age, so she could sneak up close enough without being noticed, and she made sure to bathe as frequently as she could in the public pools. Foul smells drew attention.
The strangers wore veiled hats that hid their faces, but it was fairly clear they were female. A woman and a tall girl of anywhere between eleven to fourteen, maybe; the older woman’s hair was pure white, bound in a simple ponytail left freely down her back, while the younger one had hair as dark as freshly ground ink, carefully tied into three braids that were braided together again. She had a woven bag in her left hand, and holding a jar of pickled onions in her right.
Jiang Hong’s fingers tugged on the ragged ends of her own curls. The sensation uncoiling in her thin chest was not envy, exactly, but something close to it. Then she rubbed her fingers against the heel of her palm, drying the tips, while she scanned for purses or money-pouches.
There. It was attached to the girl’s indigo cloth belt, an elegantly embroidered lilac pouch partially hidden by the cloak she wore. Jiang Hong sidled closer, keeping her breathing regular, pretending to be interested in pickled radishes. A short blade, no longer than the length of her little finger, slicked across the dark purple cord holding the purse, and then it was nothing but to grab and run—
A vise snapped close around her bony wrist. The stranger’s hand caught Jiang Hong and, no matter how hard Jiang Hong struggled, did not let go.
“What’s wrong?” asked the older woman. Her accent was odd, like she was not used to speaking Common.
“This girl tried to steal my money,” said the younger one. Her voice was soft and low.
Since the purse was still in Jiang Hong’s grip, she really had no defense. Instead, she let the purse drop to the pavement. “There! That’s yours. I’m sorry. Now let me go.”
“You’re a bold one,” said the older stranger, sounding almost amused. “What’s a little boy like you doing out here stealing purses and picking pockets?”
“I’m not a little boy,” Jiang Hong snapped. Her hand was going numb.
“She’s not a little boy,” the stranger holding her wrist agreed.
“Looks like one,” said the older stranger.
An odd sensation of warm water crept up her arm. Jiang Hong goggled when she saw streaks of faint purple light dance over the stranger’s bare hand and then shot into Jiang Hong’s own arm.
“What are you doing?” Jiang Hong yelled, shaking her arm, then tugging and shoving at the older girl with her free hand. “Let go!”
“Hey!” Auntie Yi shouted at them. “You three, go elsewhere to sort it out, yeah? I have pickles to sell, and you are taking up space!”
The purple lights disappeared, but Jiang Hong was still securely in the younger stranger’s grip. Jiang Hong tried to pull away, even using her free hand to claw at the fingers wrapped about her wrist, but it was impossible to escape.
The older woman tapped her companion’s shoulder. “Let her go, Xiang-er.”
The girl Xiang-er relaxed her hold. Jiang Hong instantly took to her heels and dashed into the alleys, taking her usual routes until she got to her hideout, a rickety shack behind the temple mostly forgotten by everyone except the beggars. Her best friend in the world, Wu Liuqi, was out right now on his route guilting rich bastards into tossing him some coins. Wu Liuqi had an incredibly good fake tremor and limp for someone barely twelve years old. Jiang Hong wished he was here so she could tell him about the freakish purple lights; he would be back soon, it was almost time for them to filch some offerings from the temple for dinner, and maybe listen to a show through the Kang family’s walls.
As she panted and tried to catch her breath, she heard the rustle of cloth. Whipping her head around, she nearly shrieked when she saw the two strangers walking into the shack.
“At least there’s a roof,” said the older one cryptically. Then she removed her veiled hat. Her white hair seemed to glow in the dim space of the shack, lighting up the dust motes around her. Her face was wrinkled, particularly around eyes and mouth, but it was clear she used to be a grand beauty in the graceful arch of her neck and the elegant smile curving her lips.
The other stranger followed suit, revealing a girl of about twelve or thirteen, perhaps fourteen; she was tall, but still had that childish softness in her cheeks, but what caught Jiang Hong’s attention were her eyes: they were completely without sclera, faceted like jewels, and glittered violet where light that had fought through the grimy windows caught her. She was also very pretty, if expressionless.
Jiang Hong covered her mouth before she could scream. She had never seen eyes like that. But screaming might anger the strangers and get her killed.
“Why are you living here, child?” asked the older woman. “Did your parents pass away?”
“I’m not telling you anything,” Jiang Hong stammered, her heart racing. “Who are you?”
“My apologies, I should have introduced myself first,” said the woman. Inclining her head slightly, she said, “I am a teacher of martial arts. You may address me as Madam Bai. Leng Xiang here is my pupil.”
“Why does she have eyes like that?” Jiang Hong demanded, pointing a shaking finger at her.
Leng Xiang arched an eyebrow. “I have eyes like that because my people had eyes like that.” The smallest hint of annoyance crept into her tone. “I'm not asking why you have a boy’s body but a girl’s soul.”
Jiang Hong froze. There was no way these two women knew that, not in the short time they took to chase her from the marketplace to the rundown shack, unless they were sent by her stepfather, but the older woman’s boots and clothes were much too well-made to be someone her stepfather could afford to hire.
Madam Bai turned to look at her pupil, and then at Jiang Hong. “Is that true, now?”
“I’m a girl,” Jiang Hong declared. To her own horror tears sprang to her eyes and she blinked them away. “And there’s nothing wrong with my body.”
“I know that. I’m just saying your body is different from other girls’ bodies.” Leng Xiang folded her arms, the hem of her cloak fluttering.
Madam Bai walked over to Jiang Hong and looked at her kindly. “Have you seen a physician about this?”
“About what?” Jiang Hong asked.
“About you being a girl, though not born one.”
Jiang Hong flushed and averted her gaze. “I’m a street urchin,” she spat out angrily. “No physician will care about me. And the ones in town will just tell my stepfather.”
Madam Bai’s mouth thinned. “Your family is in this town, then? But you’re living like a beggar?”
“And what’s wrong with living like a beggar, ma’am?”
“Qi-gege!” Jiang Hong darted around Madam Bai and Leng Xiang to run to her best friend.
Wu Liuqi took Jiang Hong’s hand and tugged her behind him. His begging stick – a stout ironwood cane, stolen from the governor when he was carousing in the local brothel – was angled diagonally across him. He was thin and gangly, but a good head taller than Jiang Hong, so she had to peer around him to look at the two strangers. “Who are the two of you, and what do you want with Hong-meimei?”
“She has family here,” said Madam Bai, straightening from her crouch. “So why is she living in this hovel?”
Wu Liuqi snorted. “Her stepfather is a bastard, that’s why. And her mother is too frightened of having to earn her own living to protect Hong-meimei.” He spat a gob of phlegm to the side and wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand. “Having that kind of family is worse than being an orphan, in my opinion, and since I am an orphan, I know what the fuck I’m talking about. Now leave.”
Madam Bai looked thoughtful. Jiang Hong tightened her grasp of the back of Wu Liuqi’s tattered shirt. She had sewn in the patch on the left shoulder just yesterday, having begged some string and a bent needle off the tailor’s apprentice, and already the string was giving way.
“I have a question.” Leng Xiang stepped forward into the light. Wu Liuqi did not even flinch from the sight of her inhuman eyes, and Jiang Hong wished she had that much composure. “How well does he know you?”
Wu Liuqi bristled and pointed the begging stick at her. “What do you mean? I know her plenty well.”
Leng Xiang ignored him and gazed at Jiang Hong behind him. “Does he know about your… physique?”
“Yes, he does.” Raising her chin, Jiang Hong made herself let go of Wu Liuqi’s shirt. “He was the one who saved me when my stepfather tried to beat me to death and nursed me through my recovery.”
“What, you mean if I know about her having a penis? Yeah, I do,” said Wu Liuqi. Blushing furiously, Jiang Hong kicked him in the side of the shin, and he glared at her. “What? It is what it is. You’re such a girl about it.”
Her face still flaming, Jiang Hong stared at Madam Bai and Leng Xiang. “Why did you follow me anyway?”
“Because you managed to pick Xiang-er’s purse,” said Madam Bai. “It is quite the feat.”
“So? She caught me.”
“She can feel a butterfly landing on her foot with her eyes closed.” Madam Bai’s smile softened with approval. “You are the first person in the past two years to have got that close to her without her noticing, other than me, and you haven’t got any training in qing gong. You have genuine talent, and I would hate for it to go to waste.”
Wu Liuqi stepped forward, putting himself between Jiang Hong and Madam Bai more assertively. “So, you want to take her away.”
“I want to ask if she wants to learn from me,” said Madam Bai. “Hong-meimei, correct? Is Hong your surname?”
“What can she learn from you then?” Wu Liuqi interrupted rudely. “I can teach her lots. I already have.”
“You can’t teach her this,” said Leng Xiang, standing right in front of Wu Liuqi, the fluttering strands of her glossy hair the only indication that she had, in fact, moved, and not merely magicked herself five paces in the blink of an eye. Leng Xiang tapped Wu Liuqi on his nose and darted away, this time dodging the wild swing of his begging stick. “I could have killed you at any time.”
Jiang Hong’s heart raced. “Can you teach me to move as quickly as that?”
“With your natural talent? Even more quickly.” Madam Bai sounded very certain of herself. “I’ve told you our names. May I have yours?”
The young girl swallowed and shifted her feet. “My name is Jiang Hong. Jiang, like the ginger root, and Hong, like the rainbow.”
Madam Bai beamed, the soft glow of her skin pulsing slightly. “It’s a lovely name, Hong-er.”
“Not Hong-er.” Jiang Hong shifted her feet. Memories of her stepfather’s sneering face surfaced and she pushed them down again. “Just Hong will do, or Hong-meimei.”
Leng Xiang put her veiled hat back on. “Teacher, it’s getting late. We should go home now.”
“In a minute, Xiang-er. Young man, you have a good heart. Do you wish to be a beggar forever, or to make something of yourself?”
Wu Liuqi scoffed. “My foster father was a beggar, and his foster father before him. It’s a legacy, it is, and I’m doing exactly what I ought.”
“Really? What is your name, please, young beggar with a legacy?”
“I am Wu Liuqi.” The boy flashed the numbers five, six and seven with his fingers as he spoke.
“Ah. Your father must be Master Si of the Beggar Sect,” Madam Bai said, with a wry grin. She cupped her hands in the pugilist fashion and bowed slightly. “Send my regards to your father, should you see him soon. Tell him Madam Bai from the Valley of Butterflies wishes him good begging and generous patrons. And here’s five taels of silver for you.” She tossed him the money.
Catching the silver in his left hand, Wu Liuqi cupped his fist and returned the courtesy. “I shall.” To Jiang Hong, he murmured, “Hong-meimei, do you want to go with her? She seems legitimate, what with all that glowing qi, and she sounds like she knows who my useless old man is.”
“But… If I go with her, what happens to you?”
“I keep doing what I do, of course,” said Wu Liuqi, flashing her a grin. He had a missing front tooth. “Don’t worry. I was taking care of myself before you ever came into my life. And if you don’t like where she takes you, return to me.”
“What if she takes me very far away? I wouldn’t know how to come back here.”
“Not here, silly.” He rapped a knuckle on her head of curls. “Return to me. Just tell any beggar with a begging stick that you’re looking for Wu Liuqi, and they’ll get you to me.”
Jiang Hong glanced at Leng Xiang and Madam Bai, then back at the boy she had been living with the past seven months. “You promise you’re not just trying to get rid of me? Because I will come back and kick you where it hurts if you’re just trying to foist me off on someone else.”
Grinning, he ruffled her hair and hugged her. He smelled of salted fish, spilled wine, and dogs; the smells meant comfort. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly in case she cried. Wu Liuqi would make fun of her forever if he saw tears on her face.
While keeping her in his embrace, he whispered, “If she is who she says she is, you’ll be going to the Valley of Butterflies. If not, you know the symbols I scratch on the walls around the city. Use them and tag them with my number. I’ll come get you.”
“Wherever I am?” Jiang Hong asked, her whisper barely above the rasp of a breath.
“Wherever you are,” he vowed, and hooked her pinky finger with his own as he released her. “I promise.”