Near midnight, an explosion, much larger than the rockets, shook the house and woke them. Robert held Ayaou and felt her trembling. He listened to the sounds of bugles and drums calling the British and French troops to assemble.
“I have to go,” he said. He tried to get off the mat, but Ayaou wouldn’t let go. “Ayaou, I’m needed.” He managed to pry her off and stand. He started to pull his clothes on.
Ayaou sobbed and walked to him on her knees. She wrapped her arms around his legs and held on. “Do not go,” she said. “Do not leave again.”
“I can’t stay, Ayaou. The commissioner needs me.” He tried to pry her arms from his legs so he could finish dressing. She hung onto him. He moved toward the door dragging her with him.
“No,” she wailed. “You will die.”
He didn’t know what to do. He stared at the top of her head. He couldn’t see her face. She was pressed into the space between his knees. Her arms were stubborn ropes.
“Do you want me to go with you, Master?” Guan-jiah asked, as he came into the bedroom. “I have my pistol. I can help.” Guan-jiah was fully dressed.
“No, stay here. Look after Ayaou. Keep her safe.” He gestured at her. “Guan-jiah, help remove her. I can’t move.”
Guan-jiah managed to pry her off. She rolled into the shape of a ball, placed her forehead on the floor, and sobbed with great gulping sounds. Her shoulders shuddered and shook. The eunuch kept a reassuring hand on her.
The guilt Robert felt was terrible. “If something happens to me, take care of her? I am counting on you, Guan-jiah. I have no one else I can trust.”
The eunuch stared at the floor and didn’t reply.
“Guan-jiah,” he said, “you are like a brother. I depend on you.”
“Stay, you will be safe here?” Ayaou said. Her face was flushed and wet with tears. Guan-jiah seemed to notice that she was naked. He started to leave.
“Guan-jiah, stay with her. She’s in no shape to be left alone. I have to go.”
“Master, she has no clothes on.”
“Guan-jiah, you’ve seen naked women before. What’s the difference? Besides, she can put clothes on. Did you hear me, Ayaou? Get dressed. This isn’t acceptable.”
“Do not leave!” She broke into more sobs. Guan-jiah found clothes and attempted to dress her but she did not cooperate. She kept her arms wrapped around her knees and rocked back and forth.
“This is impossible, Master.”
“Nothing is impossible. She will settle down. Get a blanket around her. Keep her warm.”
Guan-jiah found a blanket. Then he did something Robert had never seen before. He wrapped his arms around her as if she were a child and started to hum. Ayaou turned and pressed her face against the eunuch’s chest. Her arms went around his neck. Guan-jiah started to rock her and pat her back while he hummed. Her sobs subsided.
Robert had to leave. When he reached the door, he hesitated. She looked so fragile, so lost, inside Guan-jiah’s arms. He was glad his servant wasn’t a real man. He couldn’t make himself open the door, so he knelt on one knee beside her. “I have to go, Ayaou. It’s my duty. To stay here would brand me as a coward in my colleagues’ eyes. I can’t live with that. Besides, Commissioner Parkes knows about this house and has forbidden me to come here. If I’m not in my quarters, he’ll send soldiers to find me.”
“What about your duty to your child?” Her tears had stopped. He face was puffy. A defiant look appeared in her bloodshot eyes.
Guan-jiah’s head snapped up, and his eyes fastened on Robert. “The mistress carries a child?” he said. “I did not know that, Master. I would have told you.”
He saw a gleam of hope in the eunuch’s eyes. Robert almost groaned. His servant was thinking he was going to have a second chance to become an adopted uncle again. “Maybe we didn’t hear her right,” he said. “What did you say, Ayaou?”
“What do you expect after having planted your dragon-seeds in me so many times?” she said. “I have to carry it for a while before we find a way to get rid of it.”
“Get rid of him!” Blood rushed into his head along with anger. “What are you talking about?” He signaled Guan-jiah. “Get a robe on her!”
The eunuch rummaged in the closet. When he returned, he had a satin robe and draped it over her.
“Get up,” Robert said. She stood and let the robe hang open revealing her naked body.
“You don’t look pregnant.”
She barked a laugh. “You want to be blind. What does it matter what you believe? I am not your wife.” She waved her arms and the robe slid off.
“Guan-jiah,” he said.
“Master, she isn’t cooperating.” Ayaou walked about the room with the servant chasing her attempting to put the robe on.
Her face was twisted and ugly. She stopped, placed fists on her hips and leaned toward him. “I am not even your concubine. I still belong to Ward. I do not want to be shamed.”
Why does she keep throwing this at me? Then he remembered Uncle Bark's words of advice and fought his anger.
Guan-jiah managed to get the robe on her. He struggled to tie the cord. She lifted her arms and the robe slid off. Guan-jiah looked embarrassed as he pulled the robe around her and struggled to tie it. She ignored him and focused her fire on Robert. This time the robe stayed. Guan-jiah looked relieved.
Robert ignored the furious look on her face. “What’s important is that he is our child,” he said. His anger struggled to break free, but he managed to keep his voice calm. “How long have you known?”
“What does it matter when it started to grow?” she said. “It is a foreign devil’s seed. This creature will be condemned in China. When they see it on the streets, they will spit on it.”
“How long?” Maybe the child belonged to another man. The anger was winning. He closed his eyes and thought of Uncle Bark's words. "When her tongue tests you, remember the good times before Ward murdered Shao-mei."
“April!” she replied. “I knew in April!”
“I want him, Ayaou. This child is mine, and he belongs to God. We have no right to take his life. I’ll think of a way. Now I have to go. The Taipings or the Braves or both could be invading the city. Every man is needed.” He hurried to the front door.
She followed with Guan-jiah close on her heels. The robe started to slip from her shoulders again. It was too large for her. It was one of Robert’s. Guan-jiah pulled the robe back up.
“I do not believe in your silly, filthy God,” she said.
He stepped outside the house and looked back. “Don’t talk about God like that,” he said, his voice still calm. The anger locked inside felt like fists pounding to escape. His heart thudded with the effort to maintain control over his emotions. He shifted his eyes to his servant. “Don’t let her out of this house, Guan-jiah. Keep her inside.”
Guan-jiah had a look in his eyes that Robert recognized. He was thinking of the baby that had died with Shao-mei when she had been murdered.
Dear God, spare me, he thought. “Yes, Guan-jiah,” he said. “I know what you want. You can be the adopted uncle. Heaven knows the child will need someone to watch over him—someone I can depend on when I'm not here. Someone who will love him like I will.”
Guan-jiah smiled. “Mistress Ayaou, we must get inside. You could get sick standing here half-dressed. We must think of the baby.”
“Close the door,” Robert said.
The look on Ayaou’s face changed from anger to one of loss. Her face dissolved into pain. That was the last thing Robert saw before the door closed. He heard the locking bar being dropped into place.
Ayaou’s expression followed him down the street. Tears stung his eyes. He shouldn’t have left, but he didn’t have a choice. War was calling. He thought about the time Ayaou had saved his life after Ward's defeat at Sungkiang. Robert had been wounded, and Ayaou managed to hide him in an abandoned farmer's hut where he had time to recover. She could have left him and saved herself. Instead, she risked her life.
He knew that behind her angry words, she still loved him. Then he stumbled when a bright flash lit the sky followed by the rumble of another explosion. The ground trembled. Robert started to run.
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction