When he reached the house, Robert lay in the shadows on the roof across the alley. He studied the street to make sure no one was watching. He didn’t know if Parkes had someone there.
He was getting good at this skulking about. He almost chuckled but bit his lower lip and kept his mouth sealed. When Shao-mei had been alive, there had been attempts on all three of them. He had to be careful.
Thinking about Ayaou and Shao-mei sobered him. He closed his eyes and rested his face against the cool surface of the roof tiles. He remembered the time Ayaou had cut his hair and Shao-mei had teased him. He could still hear the hissing sound Shao-mei made before she said, “Oh, Ayaou, look what you’ve done to the back of his head!”
Tears filled his eyes. He smiled. That haircut had been a precious moment he didn’t want to forget.
He stayed on the roof longer than planned as he battled sorrow. He was not going to risk climbing down while in this mood.
Once he was calm, he found a way to climb from the roof to the street. He still felt empty inside as if there were a space he might never fill again. He struggled to keep from returning to that dark depression. Dear God, I hope you understand how much I miss Shao-mei. I know it was a sin to live with and want two women, but you know I never used her in that way.
Taking a fortifying breath, he dashed across the street and discovered the door to the house was locked. He knocked and listened for a long moment to nothing but silence. He’d hoped to hear Ayaou’s answering scratch.
The silence was shattered as the noise of rockets hitting the city blasted through the crooked streets with an invisible force. The ground trembled. He cursed himself for being a fool. The sounds of the blasts echoed and rattled his nerves. He gritted his teeth and knocked again.
Maybe he should return to the barrack. What if they were dead? Fear coiled inside ready to sweep him toward madness.
Then he heard a scratching sound from the other side of the door—something familiar like the code used in Ningpo after Shao-mei’s death.
He started to breathe again. He scratched back. Ayaou’s muffled voice cried in surprise. He heard the door being unlocked. His heart hammered. His hands were sweaty. He looked down the street expecting a squad of British Marines to arrive and arrest him.
He lifted his revolver and pointed the weapon at the door. What if the person on the other side wasn’t her? What if this was a trap waiting to be sprung, and he’d walked into it? He attempted seeing through the darkness engulfing the street. Everyone was smarter than he was. He was a fool taking a chance like this.
When the door opened, he saw Ayaou and started to laugh hysterically. He pushed past her and locked the door. He leaned over with hands braced against knees and laughed until tears streamed down his face. He laughed until his legs grew weak and he had to lean on her to keep from falling on the floor.
Once the laugher spent itself, he saw the dark circles under her eyes. She had grown thinner. Then he saw Guan-jiah standing in a dark corner holding a revolver. As usual, Guan-jiah’s hand was shaking. Robert wondered if his servant could hit anything to save his life.
“We were about to go and look for you,” she said, between sobs as she started to cry. Then she reached for him. “We thought you were dead.”
Robert looked at Guan-jiah, who had shocked eyes the size of gold sovereigns.
“It is true , Master, you have not been here for days, we thought you were dead, I did not know what to do, we were running out of rice, that is all we have left, a little rice.”
“I’m okay. But I can’t make promises for tomorrow.”
“I will go to my room. If you want tea later, I will have it ready.” Guan-jiah slipped the pistol into a wide sleeve and left.
Robert watched his servant disappear into the cupboard-sized space where he slept. Once Guan-jiah was gone, he turned to Ayaou. “Never leave the house, Ayaou.” He cupped her chin in one hand. “You stay here and let me find you. Promise me. Guan-jiah will find food. He doesn’t need help.”
She nodded obediently. Robert had doubts. He wasn’t sure the message telegraphing itself from her eyes agreed with what he wanted her to do.
“Guan-jiah, did you hear what I said?” He aimed the words toward his servant’s room. “That goes for you too. I know you can hear me. You have the ears of a bat. Don’t go out for anything but food and water and make sure Ayaou stays inside. Only go out during the day. Most of the attacks take place at night. Also, stay away from the city’s walls and gates. That’s where the fighting takes place. I don’t want either of you getting shot or beheaded.”
“Yes, master,” Guan-jiah’s replied.
Just the thought of the risks the eunuch was taking caused Robert’s throat to thicken with emotion. He valued his servant’s loyalty. Guan-jiah didn’t have to stay. He could quit the job and go home to the safety and comfort of his family. One thing Robert valued above almost everything was loyalty.
“Come, Robert,” Ayaou said, her impatience evident. She took his hand and pulled him toward their room. The house felt deserted as if no one lived there. The rooms were empty of furniture. The floors bruised. The walls, however much Guan-jiah or Ayaou had scrubbed them, still looked filthy. The place was miserable and without hope as if a torch were coming to burn it. It wasn’t the kind of place he wanted to spend a night with the woman he loved.
His greedy hands explored every inch of her body. Her hunger was as strong as his was. They made frantic love. It ended quickly. Robert was disappointed. He’d wanted it to last all night.
When they finished, she stared at the spotted, scabbed ceiling with an empty face.
He had not satisfied her. He’d been looking forward to hearing her pleasure moans. He’d dreamed about it in that bunk bed in the barracks. The actual act had not matched the wild fantasies that had motivated him to risk his life to reach this house.
He heard a creaking sound in the hallway as if someone had stepped on a loose board. Robert closed his eyes and sighed. He disliked the lack of privacy in this house. The bedroom door couldn’t be locked. The gaps between the door’s planks made it possible for someone to spy and remain unseen.
Guan-jiah was up to his skulking again watching and listening to them making love. Robert had decided long ago to ignore such behavior. After all, Guan-jiah had sacrificed his sexuality for his family. This was as close as the eunuch would ever come to having sex. Still, that didn’t make it easy for him to keep quiet. His Christian upbringing told him to stop Guan-jiah. For years, he had ignored that voice inside his head. If he had listened to his religious conscience, Ayaou would have never become part of his life.
“When you are not with me,” she said, in a voice devoid of energy, “my dreams are always about you dead. I fear sleep.”
He studied her face as if it were a canvas that revealed her secret thoughts. The exhaustion was visible. Her skin wasn’t as radiant as it had been. Stress lines were starting to grow from her eyes like spider webs, and there were dark pouches under them. He wanted to rub them out. He wanted the Ayaou he’d met in 1855 back.
He couldn’t tell her he was living in the same state of fear. He dreaded speaking. His voice might betray him. To compensate, he held her close. Such contact had aroused him when they lived in Ningpo. Now it did nothing. The desire that had driven Robert since first meeting Ayaou had fled. He hated it. He blinked back tears. Life had become uncertain. They couldn’t even be sure about the next moment.
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