They called her the Ghost of Shencheng. With her pale-white skin and her big Western eyes, it fit her more than most foreigners and she liked it. She even dressed to it, wearing tight black pants and flowing tops or long jackets, dying her hair all sorts of unnatural colors and even painting her face for dramatic effect. They assumed she was from Muscovy or Mei Guo or maybe Vinland and talked in front of her like she wasn’t there, like she was the ghost they called her. But anyone who paid attention long enough could see she spoke in the street dialect like she grew up there, and switched to formal Shenyu just as easy.
Some of the stories were even crazier – that she sometimes worked for the crime lord Pi Xiu. That she brought drugs in from Muscovy, and if you knew the right way to ask, she also sold strange herbs that did more than get you high. That she wore amulets to keep her safe. That she flew. That she had an ancient dragon bound to serve her.
The really crazy thing was, if you tilted your head the right way, all these things were almost true.
Zhenya raced to the club twice as fast as was really necessary, weaving through the late Shencheng traffic. What was the fun of having a motorcycle, she figured, if she wasn’t running full throttle? She might as well let the driver take her out if she was going to go a reasonable speed.
The club itself didn’t look much different from the warehouses surrounding it, but the heartbeat of the bass and small crowd outside gave it away. She parked her bike in the alley next to the building and pushed her motorcycle goggles up on her forehead as she walked to the door. She was let in without a word.
She went straight for the stairs, climbing to the third floor. Up here the music was a little dimmed and it was possible to pretend you were having a civil conversation. She sat down in one of the booths, touched the stone in her ear and the pendant on her neck, then ordered a drink and waited.
The drink arrived before her contact did, which annoyed her. Usually Keileon was waiting for her, and for him to take this long was almost unheard of.
When she finally heard his voice drifting up the stairs, she understood. He had someone with him.
“-don’t see what the big deal is, Keileon,” the new voice said in Shenyu. She had an accent that spoke of the south, but Zhenya couldn’t peg the region. “Why go to the trouble of getting your drugs from some guizi?”
“It’s not my job to question the boss, Daji.”
The new girl, Daji, was small by city standards, and Zhenya guessed she was a country girl originally. Lots of them ended up in one city or another these days, looking for a factory job they could send a few yuan home from or just something that wasn’t the same small, dying town they’d known their whole lives. Zhenya saw plenty of the type in every big city: in Shenchang, and in Bao’an, in Nyen, and in Tver.
“She even looks like a ghost. I’ve never seen a guizi who took it so literally. She makes me uncomfortable. What do you even speak with her?”
“She knows what she’s doing, and she knows what she’s selling,” Keileon said, looking straight at Zhenya, “and she speaks Shenyu fine.”
Daji had the courtesy to look embarrassed, at least.
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said, her tone making it clear that it was not. “Lots of people make that assumption.”
“I bet people make a lot of assumptions about you,” Daji answered, sliding into the booth. Keileon slipped in next to her.
“Everyone makes assumptions,” Zhenya smiled. “Some are just more correct than others. I can assume you’re here to make a deal on your boss’s behalf, for example.”
Keileon laughed. “That’s not an assumption any more than you assume the sun’s coming up tomorrow.”
“Oh, one of these days it won’t, you wait and see. But tell me what you’re in the mood for.”
“What I’m really in the mood for is ecstasy,” Keileon complained.
Zhenya rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I deal in and you know it.”
“I know, I know. I just do what I’m told, a good little underling kowtowing to Pi Xiu.” Daji looked a little scandalized at his careless tone, but she didn’t say anything. “He’s looking for a couple of ounces of dragon scale and as much powdered qilin horn as you have.”
While Zhenya dug into her bag, Daji leaned closer to Keileon. “Why are they called that?”
“Because that’s what they are,” Keileon answered.
Zhenya dropped three small plastic packages on the table. Daji’s eyes were wide as she leaned in to look at them.
“Dragon scale, two ounces” she explained to the Chinese woman, pointing to a package containing small flakes with a greenish tint. Daji nodded a fraction of an inch.
“Qilin horn.” The other two packages were both tightly wrapped, but she could make out an eggshell-colored powder inside.
Keileon yawned and dropped a much larger package on the table. It was wrapped in black plastic, but Daji could guess there was money inside. “How much?”
“Qilin’s not cheap,” was all Zhenya bothered to respond before the package disappeared into her bag. “They’re not easy to kill. Anything else?” She stood up.
“You’re not sticking around?” Keileon pointed to her half-full drink.
Zhenya looked around, faintly disgusted. “Not tonight. The rumors are ugly and the feng shui of this club is terrible.” The music coming up from downstairs got seemed to get louder, and the lighting was shifting from blues to reds.
Her contact didn’t say anything, only looked at her, and she sighed and dug in her pocket.
“Here, Keileon. You have to stop doing this, though.” She dropped a bottle on the table with a few tabs of ecstasy inside. She started for the stairs again, but froze as she started down.
She swore under her breath and stumbled backwards. “Kei? Find some cover, okay.”
“Cover?” Instead of swallowing the drug, he dropped it back in the bottle and pocketed it.
“Something nasty’s coming. I can feel it.” She headed instead for a stairwell door at the rear of the building.
“More like something nasty’s trying to leave.”
Zhenya glared. “Excuse me?” She’d put up with all kinds of comments because she stood out, but she never left them unchallenged in a business deal. She’d learned the hard way that people tried to screw you over if they thought too little of you.
“You won’t escape,” Daji’s voice was cold, and suddenly the situation didn’t sound like a business deal anymore.
“Daji?” Keileon looked from her to Zhenya and back, hoping for an explanation.
“I can’t let her get away with this.” The young courier untied her hair and as it fell, fox ears became visible on her head and three tails hung over the top of her low-slung jeans. Keileon stared at her and then at the unopened bottle Zhenya had given him, as if making sure he hadn’t taken anything.
Daji murmured something Zhenya didn’t catch. Wind whipped up around them, flinging the glasses and other loose items. Zhenya hurried to turn away, but one of the glasses hit her on the cheek and she knew she’d feel the bruise later. There was a crash of broken glass and the fox girl was pulling knives from her sleeves. Zhenya decided she didn’t want to stick around to see if Daji would use broken glass or sharp metal against her.
Zhenya dashed up the stairs, hoping the roof would give her a safe exit from the club. The roof was not a very impressive space. It was not nearly as wide as she’d hoped – the club was smaller than it felt from the inside – and yet the height looked higher. Well, she’d jumped from higher places before. She’d live, or she wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Behind her, the door crashed open and Daji stepped out, knives at the ready. Zhenya wondered if she’d have the speed to make it over the alley and onto the next building. As it turned out, she didn’t need to.
A green blur shot past her and Zhenya smiled before she could see what it was. She didn’t need to see – she knew. It was her dragon, easily six feet tall, all scales and claws and teeth.
“Lin!” she shouted. The dragon hesitated, looking to her, and the fox tried to press her advantage, laying into the newcomer with knives in both hands
“Stop! Both of you!” Keileon yelled as he emerged onto the roof. “Zhenya, call him off!”
“Wait, Lin,” Zhenya called, and the dragon retreated to stand beside her.
Keileon walked over to Daji and grabbed her by the shoulders. “The boss’ll kill you if you don’t lay off, kid. I don’t think he’ll care if you’re a fox spirit or a furry or what.”
“You’re working for a crime lord, Daji, what did you expect?”
“Not your kind, just humans?” Keileon snorted. “Pi Xiu knows, doesn’t he? He knows everything.”
“Yeah, he knows.” Daji looked deflated now.
“Then you must realize he wanted you to see this. He wanted you to understand what you’re getting into.” The older courier turned to Zhenya. “The two of you should go.”
“I let you live,” the dragon snorted.
“Why do you defend her?” Daji called. “Do you think she wouldn’t turn on you, if you were worth it?”
“She wouldn’t.” There was a sideways glance at Zhenya. “Plenty of humans deal in the death of their own kind and you aren’t even my kind. You make too many assumptions, little fox.”
“Go,” Keileon snapped.
“Come on,” Zhenya tugged on the dragon’s claws. She walked to the edge and jumped without hesitation this time, trusting she would be caught. She was, and she thrilled at the touch of claws pressing through her club gear.
She smiled at the dragon as she climbed onto her bike. “I’ve got other errands, love. I’ll see you before dawn.”
“Stay out of trouble.” And then the dragon was gone.
“Me? Never,” Zhenya said to herself as she revved the bike and raced away.