“Is something amiss, Milord?” the boots asked my husband. Sylvester stood there gazing sadly at his Hessian’s, glossy black, gleaming in the candlelight, a vast improvement on their condition after our brief walk this afternoon along the shores of this Lake Geneva with its sparkling blue waters and the white-tipped mountains rising high around the lake. Twas almost as picturesque as the seven peaks of the Song mountains where I had spent so many of my youthful years.

“No, it’s nothing, my good man,” Sylvester said. “’tis good for a man to be removed from civilization on occasion.”

I giggled and now ’twas the boots glance that fell my way. A glance askance, for I was seated at the dresser, carefully honing the blade of my short sword and my long sword lay unsheathed and gleaming across the dresser before me.

“This entire benighted Europe of yours is far removed from the civilization of the Middle Kingdom, milord husband,” I murmured, glancing sideways at my dearest Sylvester.

Now he laughed. “Anywhere that is not the Middle Kingdom is uncivilized to you, my dearest Li-hua,” he said. “I am constantly surprised that you accepted the hand of a barbarian such as I in marriage.”

I smiled in turn, delighted to have removed that look of melancholy from the face of my beloved, for he did attach such importance to appearances, barbaric though they were.

Of course, I was constantly surprised myself at this strange marriage, but when the Emperor himself commands one’s father to order his daughter to marry the barbarian who sought her hand, it is a daughter’s duty to obey. Particularly when she is the youngest and with a sad reputation for spurning proposals. I’d only threatened to kill two and I hadn’t actually maimed either of them for life. They would no doubt have recovered by now. It had caused my father some embarrassment though, as well as leading the matchmaker to reject any further attempts on my behalf.

“What did you expect, father,” I’d said, for I was no normal daughter. When one’s father is not only an senior official of the Emperor but also one of the Ten Tigers of Shaolin, what girl could be normal?

“You sent me to Shaolin for my upbringing. I will accept no man as a husband who expects me to obey his mother and a First Wife and who will not permit me to continue my training. Least of all would I accept a husband who wishes all the joys of marriage before the marriage takes place.”

“You broke the nose of the oldest son of the Fifth Assistant Deputy Minister of the Office of Tributary-bearing Barbarian’s Secretary, Youngest Daughter,” my father had almost wailed. “And now what am I to do?” He had buried his face in his hands. “The Minister of the Office of Tributaries himself has commanded me to go to the coast and negotiate with these new barbarians, and you have no mother and you refuse obedience to Second and Third Wives.”

“They’re idiots, father,” I said. “Of course I understand why you are married to them, but obey them I will not. Leave me at home and I’ll kill them.” I had smiled sweetly. “You could marry again then, father. Someone younger. More amenable to reason. Perhaps I should stay.”

“Silence, Youngest Daughter. Do not even think about it. Your brother, now. Perhaps I should send you to stay under his care?”

“Kei-ying?” I said. “Father! He’s only six and he’s about to begin his Shaolin training! Master Luk Ah-choi himself has agreed to train him! You cannot keep him at home for my sake.” Even at six years old, Kei-ying was such a boy as one would obey, even one such as I.

“What can I do with you?”

Now I smiled. “Take me with you, father. I’d like to see these barbarians.” I giggled. “Maybe I can marry a barbarian. See the world, meet barbarians. Surely it would be acceptable to kill one or two. There are too many barbarians in the world already.”

“No!” my father had said, flatly. “These negotiations are going to be difficult as it is. You are not to kill a single one of them.” He eyed me. “Or injure any,” he added.

I had smiled. “Of course not, father.”


* * *

“This is the ship of the foreigners, Honorable Master,” the translator said as the small junk took us out across the dirty waters of the Peiho. “It’s named Alceste and it is one of their fighting ships. They are ruled by a woman.”

“It is strange, this ship,” I said. “The masts and sails are very different from ours. Are those cannon where they have holes in the side?”

“You are astute, Honorable Mistress. Their ships have many more cannon than ours, they are rigged differently and they sail them across the entire world. I understand that this ship was captured from another barbarian tribe called Fiance in a war they fought for many years.”

“Tribal squabbles,” my father dismissed this war. “Barbarian feuds are of no interest to the Middle Kingdom.”

“As you say, Honorable Master,” the translator said.

“Importunate barbarians. We should destroy them. Them and their filthy opium.” The Captain of the Green Banner who commanded our escort spat over the railing.

That ship we approached, to my eyes, seemed far more warlike and capable than the junk on which we were being transported and in his quick dismissal, I thought to myself that my father was sadly mistaken. The Captain of the Green Banner? Eyeing that ship as we drew close to its sides, I thought he was perhaps overly optimistic. It seemed a fearsome thing to me and not one to be so easily destroyed.


* * *

“Lord Amherst, the Honorable Prince Wong Chun-kong and his daughter, The Honorable Princess Wong Li-hua,” the translator said as my father inclined his head with delicate precision. A precision I followed exactly although it was interesting with the wooden floor of this vessel swaying under my feet.

The Captain of the Green Banners stood behind my father, silent, implacably hostile, on guard, hand on the hilt of his sword and he was not the only one on guard. A dagger was threaded through my hair, my short sword strapped to my thigh beneath my robes, two more daggers in my boots and two more in my wrist sheaths and the razor sharp edge of my fighting-fan would slice flesh asunder for I was no girl with the lotus feet, I was shaolin-trained and sure of my skills, for had I not been tested at the Shaolin Temple itself. Did I not have the marks burned on the inner skin of my forearms?

“Honored Prince Wong, Princess Wong, the barbarian leader welcomes you onboard HMS Alceste,” the translator said. “This one speaking now is Lord William Amherst, leader of the tribute bearers to the the Emperor, and this other hairy sweaty looking one is the commander of this ship, Captain Murray Maxwell. Captain is the rank they give the commanders of their military ships.”

“It is not ‘leader of the tribute bearers to the the Emperor’, father,” I said. “He used the word ‘ambassador’, it is not the same meaning.”

“Hush, Youngest Daughter,” my father murmured as the translator glared daggers at me, but knowing I had studied this ghastly sounding language, all grunts and noises such as cattle and sheep make, he was forced to translate the true words without circumvention. Myself, now I looked around the ship with interest.

“The Ambassador,” the translator said, his face blank, “asks if the young lady wishes to tour the ship.”

“Thank the Ambassador,” I said. “I would enjoy that.”

“Baskerville,” Lord Amherst said, looking around and a young man stepped forward. His eyes met mine, his eyes widened, a shock rippled across his face and almost, I felt a little breathless as a strange attraction made itself felt. Desire stirred within me. Desire for a barbarian with skin the color of a ghost? Surely not. “Please escort the young lady over the ship. We’ll take tea on the poop deck in an hour.”

“Sir!” Baskerville turned towards me. “Princess…”

“You may call me Li-hua,” I said, smiling a little breathlessly. “And your name, Sir, is…?”

“Sylvester,” he said. “Lord Sylvester Baskerville, aide to Lord Amherst. If you’d come with me, Li-hua, perhaps we can start at the bow and work our way to the stern.”

“Bow?” I asked.

“The front of the ship,” he said, and it seemed natural for my hand to rest on his arm as he led me forwards across the planked wooden deck.


* * *

“Nice little piece of slant-eyed tail,” a coarse voice that I barely understood said from behind me as I followed Baskerville through an interior deck crowded with cannons and men, and where he stooped, my head almost brushed the wood above and fingers pinched at my butt. Without thought, I whirled to see a coarse looking barbarian seated at a wooden table leering at me, the men around him and at other tables watching him and I and they were grinning.

“Kydd,” Baskerville barked, but I was not amused and by then my dagger had slid from its wrist sheath and I had slammed it through the barbarian’s hand to the hilt, pinning his dirty paw to the wooden table.

“You bitch,” he groaned, his free hand tugging the knife out and he was standing now, my knife in his hand and that I had not expected. His other hand dripping blood. “I’ll kill you for that, you slant-eyed little whore.”

“Put this man in irons,” Baskerville barked, and men were rising to their feet as Kydd lunged for me with my knife.

I smiled as I stepped sideways and forward, seizing his wrist, his hair, using his weight and momentum as he lunged to break his arm, dislocate his shoulder, sweep his feet from beneath him, take the knife from his now loose hand and drive it into his liver. He fell to the wooden planks on which we stood, shuddered, groaned, died. Leaving my knife embedded in his body, I stood. No doubt a servant would clean it for me and if not, I had more.

“It is not important. May we proceed with the tour,” I said, ignoring the peasant on the deck but I did smile at the men around us.. “This is most interesting. May we look at one of the cannon without more discourtesy?”

“You speak excellent English, Princess.” Baskerville seems a little stunned.

“Li-hua, Sylvester. Li-hua. The translator teaches me a little on the joruney from Pekin,” I murmured.

“Journey,” he said without thought. Then, “Stockwin, summon the Officer of the Watch to take care of this. Lady Wong, this way please…” His expression as he glanced around was one of anger but he said nothing further.

“Jesus,” I heard someone’s voice sound in amazement. “Killed Kydd as cool as cucumber, she did.”


* * *

“Li-hua!” my father said, as Sylvester escorted me towards where my father sat with Lord Amherst, the Captain of this ship and others and they were drinking tea, but such tea. “You were not to kill anyone.” But his face did not disapprove and was the Captain of the Green Banner smiling.

Captain Maxwell stood, bowed low. “Your pardon, Princess. He would have been punished most severely for his disrespect.”

“I was in no danger with Sylvester with me, Captain,” I smiled. “Is that tea? I’m so thirsty. Your ship is indeed fascinating, Captain. I would so enjoy more time to look her over.”

“Pray take this seat, Li-hua,” Sylvester said, and I did, smiling at him as he assisted me.


* * *

“Now this is a man I would marry, father,” I murmured as Sylvester had handed me down the stairs to the main deck and I had eyes only for him and his face as he gazed at me was rapt.

“Hush, child,” my father had said. “Such a barbarian would be far beneath you. It is unthinkable.”

“Ask this Lord Amherst and his mission to a banquet tomorrow evening, father,” I had said. “Let them see the magnificence of the Middle Kingdom as compared to this….” I gestured at the squalid meal behind us, laid out on tables fit only for a village tea house. A poor village tea house. And yet, the cannon were polished and immaculately cared for and the men were well trained and obeyed orders instantly and with surprising discipline. I wondered if my father had observed that. “Let them know their place.”

“Yes,” my father had said, thoughtfully.

“Invite them,” he had said to the translator.

“Let me, father” I said, laying my hand on my father’s arm, smiling at the translator. “Let me practice my slight knowledge of this strange tongue. Honorable Translator can assist me where I am mistaken in my words.”

Father looked at me thoughtfully. “You are more useful that I thought, Li-hua. Please do.”

“Thank you for your trust in me, Father.” I bowed my head, turned towards the tall Englishman in his smelly uniform of poor quality cloth. No wonder they sought the Middle Kingdom as beggars. And yet this ship was beyond anything of ours. A puzzle.

“Lord Amherst,” I said, “my father, the Prince Wong Chun-kong invites you and your mission to a banquet tomorrow evening in honor of your arrival here at Peiho. It is a small and insignificant port of the Middle Kingdom but we shall do our poor best to welcome and entertain you while you and my father knee-go-shee-ate.”

Lord Amherst blinked, bowed as these foreigners did and it seemed strange that he would bow to a woman but I returned the gesture, seeing no harm in politeness and if this was their custom…


* * *

Of course the negotiations had dragged on. Father was an expert at negotiating with barbarians and these ones, they were so impatient. So importunate and really, who was interested in barbarians. The Emperor was favoring them by even permitting them to trade with the Middle Kingdom, for did not the Middle Kingdom possess everything that was desirable.

Of course Baskerville was there. Sylvester. His attentions were constant, his fascination for me a matter for spreading gossip and I did not discourage his pretensions for I in turn found him rather more than fascinating.

“He wants to marry me, Father,” I had said, over the course of that slow journey to Pekin.

“I am not sure of that, Youngest Daughter,” my father had said. “Perhaps it is as a concubine that he desires you.”

I shrugged. “If that is his intent, I will kill him of course.” I smiled. “Please negotiate for me, father.” I looked at the translator. “Make sure he understands, Honorable Translator, for if there is a misunderstanding you will die.” I smiled. “The death of a thousand cuts.”

Translator paled, bowed low. “I will do my utmost, Honorable Mistress.”


* * *

“Do you, Li-hua Wang, take this man as your lawful wedded husband?”

“I do.”

It was done and my heart pounded, for I was married to this strange blue-eyed golden-haired barbarian who stood before me, his hands holding mine as this strange ceremony came to a close and we had already carried out the tea ceremony with this Lord Amherst standing in for Sylvester’s parents.

I was Sylvester’s wife. “Lady Li-hua Baskerville.” It sounded strange on my tongue and his body on that wedding night was stranger still. His skin pale, his body coated with fine blonde hair that fascinated me. He made love with enthusiasm, although he seemed startled on that second night when I asked if he would like to try a different position.

His eyes when I had shown him my copy of “The Wife’s Book of Husbandly Satisfaction” had surprised me. Of course it was in chinese but the illustrations were clear enough that even an inexperienced maiden such as myself could follow the meanings.

“What on earth is this?” he’d gasped.

“Do you not have such instructions for wives in your country?” I had asked, a little startled, for while I did not like Second and Third Wives of my father, they had been more than helpful in preparing me for my duties as Sylvester’s wife. We had parted far better friends than I had thought possible and they had been full of much sound advice.

“Certainly not,” Sylvester had said. “No self-respecting woman would do something like that.”

I’d smiled.

A little later he had said, “Li-hua… what are you… oh my god… oh my god… Oh! My! God!”

And a little later still, “Oh Jesus yes… yes yes yes…” and I had smiled happily.

“Would you like to try this one?” I had asked the next evening.

He’d blushed pink and said nothing and my smile had been wicked as I had knelt for him and he had made no protest whatsoever as he positioned himself to take me as a husband should and my excitement had been uncontained and his enthusiasm had been more than reward.

“Can we try this one?” he’d asked, the very next evening, examining the pages of my book and we had. A number of times and I had decided that marriage to this barbarian suited me to perfection and there were many more weeks before we were to leave Pekin to return to his barbarian homeland..


* * *

On the shore of the Whampoa from where I was to depart, I had gazed at my father for what I knew in my heart to be the last time and I knew that my fate was sealed. I, a chinese maiden, now married to a barbarian whom I loved, destined to be carried off in this strange ship. Carried away to some far foreign land as chinese brides had been carried away by barbarians since the dawn of time. Carried away to some foreign land where I would live and die without ever seeing my family again, for in my heart I knew there would be no return home and I had turned to my father for one last farewell with tears in my eyes while my barbarian husband stood waiting.

“Farewell, father,” I had said. “I will not see you again, but be not sad, you have many sons and daughters and I am only one, only a daughter and not important.” I took my father’s hand in mine and my tears watered his skin. “Think only this of me, father. That when I die there will be a corner of a foreign land that is for ever China.”

My father too had wept, and as night fell, still he stood there watching but in the morning as we sailed, he was gone and I stood beside my husband, watching my homeland fade from sight, my loyal maid, Wei-tang, the only other chinese in sight while my half dozen little Shih Tzu’s gamboled around my feet.


* * *

It had been a long voyage, a strange voyage and one beyond anything I had imagined and for a long moment, as I sat in that hotel room in Geneva, those memories continued to hold my mind. The shipwreck in the Java Sea where Alceste sank. The journey in open ships boats to Batavia and then that long voyage across the Ocean to Ceylon, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and then north to England. There had been that strange meeting with the old Frenchman imprisoned on that lonely island in the South Atlantic.

“He was Emperor of the French,” my dear Sylvester had said to me.

I had liked that old Frenchman, barbarian though he was. He had smiled as he looked at me and he and Lord Amherst had talked of China and I remembered the old Frenchman’s words to Amherst as he looked at me. “China is a sleeping giant,” he had said. “Let her sleep, Amherst. Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”

The arrival in London, the ships, ships everywhere and yet the city was small. Small but marvellously intriguing and the energy was palpable and I looked and I met more and more of these foreigners and I saw their enthusiasm, their energy, their industry and their willingness to attempt new things at every turn and I feared for my country.