Truing something different–I’m going to be posting some of my old short stories in place of Writing Wednesday for the next few months or so. First up is a fanfiction piece I wrote for The Lunar Chronicles fanfiction contest. I’m actually pretty happy with this–though in hindsight, the femme fatale vibe gets dangerously close to full-on “Oriental dragon lady”, I’m quite fond of the main original character in this, to the point that I’ve seriously considered writing a sequel. As you’ll notice, the title eventually became the name of blog!
There were twelve of them, real girls, no escort-droids or cheap cyborgs here. Twelve dancers, each more beautiful than the last, sharing a single dressing room, like the kind of man who would frequent such a place’s secondary school fantasies. Twelve vanity tables and twelve mirrors, all in a row, and twelve pairs of those iconic embroidered silk slippers. Every night, the door to the dressing room was securely locked to keep such men out. And every morning, twelve pairs of dancing shoes were worn from the girls’ nightly dance number.
And what a number it was! They made their entrance through a trapdoor, to rapturous (and usually, inebriated) applause. A forest of enchanted trees made of silver and gold and glittering diamonds matched the Shanghai Slippers’ fabulous knee-length dresses and endless loops of crystals bedecking their swan necks and limbs. Eleven Slippers wore silver qipaos, but one wore gold. The spotlight followed her sauntering catwalk, heels tottering, hips swaying, the other girls adding to her glamour like a peacock’s tail feathers. She looked at the audience as if they were unworthy to kiss her silk-swathed feet, and she wasn’t wrong. Her sensuous red lips parted like a rose in bloom as she sang a brassy ditty about riding off into the sunset without a horse and beasts who turned into handsome princes with a kiss and elegant ladies whose finery vanished at the stroke of midnight, as the eleven other dancers waved silk fans and twirled paper parasols. No sooner had the last note trailed off like cigarette smoke or a stolen kiss in woozy summer air than twelve boats, each with a strapping young man carrying a paper lantern, appeared on stage. The girls stepped inside and each couple danced a duet, the boats still rotating on the stage, which had transformed into the Summer Palace of Old Beijing overlooking a moonlit lake.
At the back of the nightclub, a handsome young man turned to his woman companion with his second-most charming smile. He was saving his most for later in the evening.
“Here you go,” said the woman, as he slipped forty univs into her withered monkey’s paw of a hand. She produced a red jacket just his size.
“Thanks, gorgeous. Did anyone ever tell you you completed them?”
“Take a number, pretty boy,” she said, exhaling putrid green smoke from her puckered mouth.
“I love you, too.” Onstage, the curtain had gone down to thunderous applause. “Any parting words? Warnings? Wisdom? Blank spaces for the will and testament to your entire fortune?”
“Don’t eat or drink anything from this dump. It’ll make you sick.” He downed his sake, winked, and vanished down the hall.
He just managed to slip in as the youngest of the Shanghai Slippers, a gorgeous girl of sixteen, shut the door. In his haste, he accidentally stepped on her dangling macaque stole.
“Watch it!” she hissed. Her little slippers danced across the floor to join the rest of the girls, leaving him to ponder his incredible fortune.
“Luck really is a lady,” he murmured. How else to explain how luck—like most women who crossed his charmed and charming path—would follow him anywhere? Here he was, on the brink of incredible riches, surrounded by beautiful showgirls, one of whom—
“Aren’t you a little short for a stagehand?”
It was the dancer with the qipao of glistening gold. She had lily-white skin the color and texture of egg whites and a lovely figure like a second-era Ming vase. Her black hair was as soft and thick and fine as she’d always said his head was. Her eyes were heavily lidded, with jade green shadow and inky black eyeliner like calligraphy strokes. He had seen one other female with eyes like that and she was a Sumatran tiger he sprang from the zoo when he was eight.
“Carswell Thorne,” she said, smirking.
It was just like he’d imagined it. “Zhao Lu-ping,” he said dramatically, brandishing his most charming smile as if it was a gun or an ancient samurai sword.
She matched his gaze, maintaining that raised-eyebrow-action/smirk combination that he liked. “Girls, I think you all have somewhere else to be.” The other eleven Shanghai Slippers packed up their makeup and slipped on their coats without so much as a grumble. They giggled and blew kisses at the pair as they made a very pretty procession out the door.
“Surprised to see me?” said Thorne when they were alone.
“Not really. You’re like a human Hachiko. You just don’t know when to give up.” She turned and sashayed (and how!) to the liquor cabinet.
“Care for a drink?” she said, returning with two ceramic cups and a bottle of amber-colored rice wine. Inside was a dead snake, its gaping eyes glossy and opaque.
“Stars!” he cried, recoiling from the coiled cobra.
“It’s rượu rắn. Picked it up at the Saigon night market. I’ll never understand the American neurosis over some kinds of meat over other kinds. Red-blooded men shriek like babies at the sight of a hint of duck fetus in eggshell or fried scorpion.”
“Please. I eat red-blooded men for breakfast.” Thorne was trying hard not to look at the dead snake in a way that looked like he wasn’t trying hard not to look at the dead snake. “Er, that isn’t poisonous, is it?”
“Don’t pout. You’re cute when you’re grinning stupidly. It’s venomous, but it won’t kill you. The deadly poison, when distilled with spirits, is a powerful aphrodisiac for men.”
“Are we talking about the snake or you?” But he downed the shot she gave him. He had drank on the sly since his schoolboy days, but was still jarred by how strong the alcohol was; it was as bitter as his first taste of spirits. He wasn’t surprised, though he was dismayed, to detect a second, bitterer taste underneath the alcohol.
“How do you like Shanghai Slippers? It’s not Hong Kong, but I imagine it’s one of the nicer ways to spend time on the run.” There was a gleam in her eyes not unlike the snake’s whose bodily fluids were infused with their liquor.
“Oh, it’s great. I like the little cat android that sits on the front counter waving at people.”
“Ah, yes, Mao. He is darling, isn’t he?”
“He’s named after a second-era dictator?”
“You know second-era history? Your Classical Languages needs work. ‘Mao’ is Mandarin for ‘cat.’”
“Stars, that mouth. I’m starting to think that’s cyanide you dab on those puckers and not Chuangmu Red.”
“You never stopped to consider that before.”
“You’re always one step ahead of me, aren’t you?”
“I am a dancer.”
“I bet I could surprise you now,” he said. “Why don’t you take a guess? I have something to say to you. Go on, guess. Let’s see if I can surprise you.”
“You figured out how to use a portscreen.”
“Seriously? That was low even for you.”
“Poor pretty baby. You saw my father’s ad on the netscreens offering 500,000 univs to find me after I ran off. Did I guess right?”
Thorne’s face, so often a cherished ally, betrayed him then. He hadn’t actually been thinking about the 500,000 reward just then; he had meant to say something cheesy and sexy like “You’re beautiful” and smile.
“Wow. You really are always one step ahead of me.”
“I’m not angry. You’re a scoundrel, but so am I. How did you find me?”
“You always said you wanted to be a dancer. I knew my dancing princess would only have the best, so that led me here. I got the jacket from an ex-Shanghai Slipper. Women find soldiers very hard to resist.”
“You’re a fake and so am I. We both know you were military for barely two years.” Despite the situation, her face was no different than it ever was, not that that was a bad thing.
“I’m not going back, Thorne. I’m not angry. I’d do the same to you, and you wouldn’t be angry either. But I’ll alert the police and have you thrown in prison before I go back.”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t be angry either. I’ve bargained with your father. Once I tell him your whereabouts, he’ll make some comms, arrange to drop the charges.”
“I’ll run away. I did it once. I can do it again.”
“I’ll follow you. I’d follow you from one end of the Earthen Union to the other. You could board a spaceship and fly to Luna and I’d be waiting on the other side.”
She kissed him.
Thorne suddenly wasn’t thinking about half a million univs, or the Rampion’s much-needed repairs, or the fact that he, too, had a bounty on him. All he thought about was how bewitching Lu-ping was, her Bollywood dancer’s walk, her pop idol’s lilt, her net-drama actress’s face. He had never loved her, though she didn’t take that personally, since she had never loved him. He’d come here for business, not pleasure, but she smelled like jasmine and tasted like rosewater and one shot wasn’t enough to make either of them close to drunk but Thorne really needed something to overpower that disgusting taste of snake wine and they were both scoundrels and fakes and runaways and maybe in another lifetime…
“Not bad, Miss Zhao. I’d say you’re easily one of the top ten best-looking girls I’ve kissed.”
Zhao Li-ping, the prime minister’s daughter, one of the most desirable young society beauties in Hong Kong, let out a little girlish giggle that Thorne found much sexier than her heiress airs or her extravagant fashions or her runaway ways.
“You know what I’ve realized, Carswell Thorne? You’re all my thirteen-year-old fantasies come to life, ten years later. You’re everything I conjured up for myself as the perfect romantic hero, my leading man out of a drama, only I’ve grown older and I realize how stupid that imaginary man and I were.”
“And you, Zhao Li-ping, could be my greatest adventure.” They kissed again. “Did anyone ever tell you you completed them?”
“We went out a week and I distinctly remember you having used that one on me before. Stars, Thorne. If I didn’t know any better I’d think you weren’t any good with women.”
Thorne grinned. “What do you take me for? I’m not sixteen years old. It’ll take a lot more than one kiss to make me forget 500,000 univs.”
“Well, I’m not doing anything right now,” she said, kissing him again.
“Get up, pretty boy.”
“I love you, too.”
“Carswell Thorne of the American Republic.”
Thorne, startled, looked around. He was on the floor where he and Li-ping had so passionately kissed before. He didn’t remember anything at all after that. She was nowhere to be seen, but that snake wine was, the creepy drowned cobra still gaping at him. On the mirror of her vanity, right over his emptied wallets, were the words THANKS, GORGEOUS in Chuangmu Red. As an understanding of what had happened sank in his brain, Thorne’s heart sank with it.
“Seriously? That was low even for you.” The chief of the Shanghai Municipality Police ignored him as he locked the handcuffs around his wrists, saying, “You’re under arrest as a wanted fugitive.”
The officer began listing all his numerous charges, but Thorne wasn’t thinking his impending prison sentence, or the 500,000 univs that had almost been his. All he thought about was how bewitching Zhao Lu-ping was, her aphrodisiac kiss, her drugged wine.
“She did that,” he said. “She really did that. Stars. If I didn’t know any better I’d think I wasn’t any good with women.”