So: she came.
Hu Tao, the dissident’s daughter.
In reality she didn’t have much choice. If the city’s Magnate sends you an invitation to his New Year party, you need a good reason to refuse it. Though I suppose mourning may suffice.
I mix her drink. I measure the powder carefully: she is slight.
Her hands tremble as she takes the glass. I smile. The shy ones are the best.
The glass slips and shatters on the marble floor. I curse inwardly, but etiquette demands I hand her mine.
Ah-Mei cleans up, then discreetly withdraws. Simple servant-girls: what treasures!
“I’m so sorry!” Hu Tao blushes. “Please, let me get you another.”
I watch her go to the buffet and mix bitters. She stands erect in straight silk – high-collared, floor-length: a classic. She brings the glass – bows as she hands it me. I notice she has removed her long jewelled hair-pin. One frost-white hair gleams among the otherwise perfect raven black. I believe that is my doing.
She raises her drink to mine:
“Drain the glass dry!”
I taste exquisite bitters: the rim of the glass frosted with a circle of salt.
She smiles. “A true Revolutionary can endure bitterness.” It is her challenge. I run my finger slowly round the rim and lick the salt with pleasure.
She hides her disgust well.
It is late. She has declined my offer and departed: in mourning. A good line, but it will not last forever. The wait will make the conquest all the sweeter.
My neck – my face – grate tired and stiff as I climb into bed.
I am woken by pain shooting across my shoulders. My back aches; I shudder. My teeth grit. This is not good.
I ring for Ah-Mei.
“Fetch the doctor.”
She stays put.
“Half the city’s in lock-down. Explosion at the Laboratory: a spark, from the New Year fireworks. Doctors are treating hundreds who inhaled the fumes.”
Her voice is frost.
“I know who cut safety costs on his newly-acquired asset: my son’s workplace.”
The shock sets the convulsions off anew. I am racked with pain.
“Hu Tao wishes you peaceful ‘Year of the Dog.’ She asked me to prepare your suicide note. I have practiced your signature and borrowed your seal. You will die with your reputation in mud, where it belongs.”
She bows before her father’s portrait. She places the letter in the metal stand between the two smoking joss-sticks and lights the paper.
You have been vindicated: your concerns for the Laboratory’s safety justified.
Thank you for teaching me the preparation of Strychnine crystals. I have put the knowledge to good use: he is gone.
Now at last we can bring you home. Home, from the bitter Northern mines where they sent you for speaking out: voicing your fears. Where they told me they couldn’t even bury you, in that earth gripped year-round in frost.”
She turns: bows to the tiny, white-haired figure beside her.
Her mother smiles as Hu Tao hands back the glittering, hollow hairpin.