From Glory and the Master of Shadows (c) 2023 Grace Callaway. All rights reserved.
1836, Coastal village near Canton (Modern-day Guangzhou)
“Heavens, Wei, that feels good.” On her hands and knees, Chun arched her neck, her hair a river of onyx rippling down her back. “Do it harder.”
Gripping her slender hips, eighteen-year-old Wei Chen obliged his lover. He pushed inside her, groaning at her slick warmth. She pushed back at him and moaned loudly…too loudly.
Wei curved over her and whispered, “Have a care, my love. We cannot risk discovery.”
“This cottage has been abandoned for years. No one is going to find us here.” Chun twisted her head to look at him, her doe-brown eyes gleaming with defiance. “And I do not care if my husband finds us. He’s a useless old fool. He blames me for not giving him an heir, but it is not my fault that his prick is as wilted as a dying chrysanthemum. He cannot even find it beneath the folds of his belly.”
Now five-and-twenty, Chun had been married to Fulin Li, the village governor, for a decade. The union had not produced children, and Governor Li publicly blamed Chun for this. Wei understood her bitterness, yet her husband was a rich and powerful merchant who ruled over their village on the coast of the Pearl River Delta. If he discovered that his wife was committing adultery, it would be within his rights to have her and her lover killed.
Trepidation knotted Wei’s chest. Nearly a year ago, he and Chun had had a chance encounter in the village market. Chun had spilled a basket of apples, and as he’d helped her to retrieve the shiny red fruit, he’d fallen under her spell. She was as beautiful and unattainable as Chang’e, the Goddess of the Moon, and he still couldn’t believe that she had chosen him, the undistinguished son of a soldier, to be her lover.
At the same time, Wei knew the risk he was taking. He didn’t care about himself—he had made his bed and would sleep in it—but his family would also bear the brunt of his dishonor. Shame flooded Wei as he thought of how his father, the righteous Captain Qiang Chen, would react to his illicit affair.
The Qing Emperor had sent Captain Chen to this coastal village to wage war against opium. While the dangerous substance had long been illegal in China, foreigners—especially the British—were smuggling in the drug by the boatloads.
“The barbarians do not care about the devastation they are causing to our people, son,” Wei’s baba would say grimly. “They are governed only by greed. By their insatiable desire for silver to trade for our tea and silk. Yet equally treacherous are the traitors within our borders. Our fellow countrymen who would betray their own people and aid the injection of poison into the veins of their own society…”
The captain’s mission to stamp out opium required continual travel. Wei had resented the upheaval, the constant cycle of having to leave old friends behind and earn the respect of new ones. He’d been an outsider his entire life, and his ten-year-old sister Meiling, known as Ling Ling, was suffering the same fate.
Whenever he complained, his mama would chide, “Your baba follows the orders of the Emperor. It is your duty and privilege to support him in this.”
Wei had heard enough lectures about filial piety to last a lifetime. Yet his resentment was tempered by guilt. He did respect his father; who wouldn’t revere such a dedicated and stalwart soldier? A man who, for meager army pay, fulfilled his duty with unfailing diligence. Who stood strong in the face of bribes and threats, all in the name of justice and loyalty to his country.
Yet the captain was also taciturn and critical. He had one ambition for his only son: he wanted Wei to become a scholar-official. He was determined that Wei would bring honor to the Chen name by studying hard, passing a series of rigorous imperial examinations, and attaining an elite position in civil service.
Easier said than done. Scholarship did not come naturally to Wei, a fact that not even his tutor’s bamboo cane could rectify. Nonetheless, he’d done his best and taken the first round of local examinations this year.
His failure had humiliated himself and his family.
“Wei, darling, let us stop talking.” Chun’s husky words jarred him from his thoughts. “We have far better things to do, don’t we?”
She squeezed her inner muscles, the decadent massage making him grunt.
“You’re so big,” she purred. “Do it to me, Wei. Satisfy me the way only you can.”
While studying had never been Wei’s forte, he’d always been good at physical activities, and lovemaking was no different. By now, he knew what pleased Chun—knew she liked it when he was rough. When he took her hard and used filthy words, she turned wetter than a rice field.
“Want my big prick, do you?” He shunted his cock forcefully into her passage. “Want it hard and deep?”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
Egged on by her mewls of delight, he took her, harder and harder still, his queue whipping against his back with the power of his thrusts. She came with a carelessly loud shriek that echoed through the empty cottage. As his own finish boiled over, he had just enough sense to yank himself free of her spasming sheath. He bit his lip against a shout, tasting blood as he shot his seed onto the grimy floor.
Panting, he gazed at Chun. She’d collapsed onto her forearms, her cheeks flushed, a smile on her lips. Pride puffed his chest that he’d satisfied this beautiful lady, made her happy, and while he knew it was foolish, he wanted to protect her—even from her husband.
“I love you,” he blurted.
She met his gaze, and her lips formed a beckoning curve.
“Then show me again,” she said.
After two more rounds of lovemaking, Wei escorted Chun as far as he dared back to the extravagant governor’s compound. Then he continued his way to his family’s small house. The path took him along the cliffs overlooking the Pearl River Delta. The sky flowed seamlessly into the water, forming an ink-black canvas, but he didn’t risk using a lantern. Instead, he relied upon the crescent moon to light his way.
As he trudged toward home, the pleasure was already fading, replaced by gnawing shame. He knew what he was doing was wrong. While he loved Chun, he knew that their affair could come to no good end. Once, he’d tried to end things with her; she had cried, and he’d tried to comfort her…and the next thing he knew, she was beneath him, her legs circling his hips as he pounded into her.
“You’re an animal. A filthy beast,” she’d moaned. “You make me wild.”
She was not wrong, Wei thought starkly. He was no better than a beast. Perhaps that was why he’d never be the good son his baba deserved. Why he’d failed the examinations and dishonored his family. Why he was addicted to the taste of Chun, the feel of her, and all the dirty things they did under the cover of darkness.
He reached his home, a single-story building with a walled courtyard perched at the highest point of the cliffs. Baba had chosen it so that he could scout for clandestine opium vessels docking in the coves below. Ironically, the only smuggling going on tonight was the captain’s son trying to get back into the house unnoticed.
Moving stealthily along the perimeter of the wall, Wei found the lowest point. The top stones had crumbled, leaving the partition about three times his height.
If I had proper training in kung fu, this wall would be no barrier, Wei thought bitterly.
While academics had a sedative effect upon Wei, martial arts awakened his appetite for learning. His family had never stayed in one place long enough for him to train with a shifu, but he’d picked up techniques here and there. He wanted to be a fighter…maybe a soldier like his father. When he’d told his baba of his desire, the captain had given him a stern lecture.
“You will obey me and become a scholar. You must show filial respect, set a good example for your younger sister. Bring the family honor, and do not fail again.”
It was how every conversation with Baba went.
No negotiation. No room for personal desires. Nothing but duty, duty, duty.
Clenching his jaw, Wei gazed up at the wall. I can handle this.
In the village his family had lived in prior to this one, there’d been a shifu who taught a technique known as “qing gong” or “lightness kung fu.” The method emphasized agility and speed, resulting in a seeming ability to defy gravity itself. The shifu had given Wei a few tips, and Wei had practiced ever since.
Ling Ling had begged him to teach her as well.
“When you’re older,” he’d told his mei mei, tugging on one of her pigtails.
His irrepressible little sister had stuck her tongue out at him. Yet that hadn’t stopped her from keeping him company as he trained, whooping and cheering as he’d learned to scale trees and walls of increasing height.
The memory made Wei grin. Backing up, he took a running start, pairing his muscles and breath to maximize the lightness of movement. The soles of his shoes whispered against stone as he swiftly ascended the vertical surface. He’d almost reached the top when he made the mistake of looking down—and the distraction cost him.
He slipped backward, flailing, one hand managing to grab the top of the wall. Gritting his teeth, he pulled himself up and swung over the edge. At least his landing in the courtyard was soft, his queue swishing behind him.
Wei straightened, his senses on sudden alert. The windchimes his mother hung to ward away hostile spirits tinkled eerily. Shadows shrouded the courtyard, broken here and there by shards of moonlight. As he wondered why the lanterns were out, a figure exploded from the darkness and barreled into him. He sprawled onto his back, the newcomer leaping atop. In the next heartbeat, a blade arced toward his face. He reached out, grabbing the assailant’s wrist as the glinting tip hovered above his throat.
The attacker pushed downward; Wei resisted with equal force.
While the other was heavier and had the upper position, Wei was stronger. He glimpsed pale eyes in the holes of the attacker’s mask as he shoved the knife away from his throat. He gave his foe’s wrist a sharp twist that made the bastard mutter, “Bloody hell!” and drop the blade, which skittered across the stones.
Wei threw off his foe, handspringing to his feet. The enemy recovered with equal speed and charged again. Wei dodged the blow, delivering a palm strike to the man’s solar plexus. The barbarian stumbled back, and Wei attacked, going in with a barrage of punches and kicks. He grabbed the man’s arm; the man wrenched away, leaving Wei with a handful of fabric and a glimpse of inked vines crawling up the other’s forearm.
The man suddenly dove to the ground—the knife. Wei ran over, and the bastard jumped up, throwing gravel into Wei’s eyes. Momentarily blinded, Wei leapt back instinctively, heard the whoosh of steel cutting through the air. Hot pain sliced across his shoulder, but he reacted with a high kick. The man cursed as the knife went flying, clattering in the distance.
His vision blurry and eyes burning, Wei held his fists up, ready for more…but his foe’s footsteps pounded away in the opposite direction. The coward was retreating like a cur with its tail between its legs. Wei considered following, but a new fear drummed in his chest.
Ling Ling, Mama—I must make sure they are all right.
He raced out of the courtyard into the central hall. The air was heavy with incense from the ancestral altar, the darkness too thick for him to see. As Wei headed to the altar to find matches, he tripped, barely catching himself. Grabbing the matches, he lit one to see what had caused him to fall…and his heart slammed into his ribs.
Old Wong, the servant who’d been with his family since he was a boy. Who’d tended to Wei’s scrapes and secretly given him salty dried plums after each beating and lecture he’d received from Baba. Old Wong, who was as wrinkled as a shar-pei dog…and who now stared blankly up at Wei, his throat sliced from ear to ear.
Wei covered the old retainer’s eyes with a shaking hand.
Then he raced to his family’s chambers, shouting their names.
“I can handle this evening on my own,” Lady Glory Cavendish declared.
She took a seat in the well-appointed drawing room of her bosom friend Lady Olivia Wodehouse, the Duchess of Hadleigh. Her faithful companion, Ferdinand the Ferret the Second, nicknamed FF II, leapt onto the cushion beside her. Curling into a furry white crescent, he settled in for an afternoon nap.
From adjacent chairs, Olivia, Mrs. Pippa Cullen, and Lady Fiona Morgan, the Countess of Hawksmoor, were exchanging looks. These days, Glory’s closest friends did that a lot…as if they knew something that she did not. Those knowing glances made her feel a bit left out. Truth be told, she’d felt that way since the other ladies had been felled by love, toppling like dominoes one by one. With her twenty-first birthday approaching, Glory was the only member of the group left standing.
She didn’t mind, for she had better things to do than fall in love. For the past three years, she and her friends had been part of a covert investigative agency founded by their indomitable leader, Lady Charlotte “Charlie” Fayne. On the surface, the Society of Angels was a genteel female charity. The polite world believed that Glory and her fellow “Angels” were volunteering their efforts in the usual fashion: writing pamphlets, raising funds, and bringing baskets to the poor. The Angels were indeed helping others…just not in the way people assumed they were.
Charlie conducted discreet investigations on behalf of women in dire straits. The clients believed that Charlie had a network of “contacts” who helped with their cases. The subterfuge was necessary to protect the Angels’ reputations, and ironically, society’s beliefs about female limitations worked to their advantage. Thus far, no one had suspected that young ladies were capable of conducting investigations and solving crimes.
Charlie had trained her charges thoroughly in the art of detection. Glory and her friends had practiced their skills, from clandestine surveillance to combat. They had worked on cases involving everything from blackmail to murder. And just as they were coming into the prime of their abilities, three-quarters of the group had decided to become wives.
And mamas, to further complicate matters.
“Gloriana Cavendish, you are not going to a club in Covent Garden by yourself. And one crawling with the criminal element, for heaven’s sake.” Olivia, a petite brunette who wore her hair in fashionable looped braids over her ears, rolled her green eyes. “It wouldn’t be safe for any of us to go alone. Unfortunately, no one is free to accompany you tonight. Or rather, I am free, but I would not be of much use hobbling around on a sprained ankle.”
She gestured at her foot, which was propped up on a velvet stool.
“Does it hurt, Livy?” Pippa, a sunny blonde, asked with sympathy.
“My pride is injured more than my ankle,” Livy said ruefully. “I have bested villains in combat, yet here I am, felled by a toy my two-year-old left on the nursery floor.”
Pippa placed a hand on her midsection, where the pleats of her butter-yellow carriage dress had been let out to accommodate her pregnancy. Her blue eyes turned dreamy.
“I hope Cull and I have a girl,” she said. “Then our daughters could be playmates.”
“Perhaps they could wear each other out?” Livy looked hopeful.
“Better yet, they could have adventures together.” Glory made her selection from the refreshment tray on the coffee table, adding pointedly, “The way we used to when we were girls.”
The way we did until recently. Now everything is changing. And I am not certain I like it.
Feeling peevish and guilty because of it, Glory munched on some biscuits and cheese. She loved her friends unconditionally and wanted them to be happy. But she also wished that things weren’t changing so rapidly.
An unconventional girl, she had never fit in with her peers. She’d grown up in a small village in Dorset, where her curiosity and love of adventure had made her stick out like a loose nail. The schoolmaster and village children had tried to hammer her into place; when they failed, they labeled her a peculiar hoyden and washed their hands of her. Pride had kept Glory from showing how much the rejection had hurt. She’d kept her chin up as her mama and Aunt Hypatia had taught her to do and carried on.
Then, when she was just shy of nine, Papa had entered her life. After a whirlwind romance, he’d married Mama and taken the family to London. As the newly minted daughter of a duke, one would think Glory would fare better socially, but she proved even more awkward with her new peers. It didn’t take long for the well-bred misses to begin whispering about her.
“Why does she keep a ferret, of all things? Why not a normal pet like a cat or bird?”
“Goodness, what a muddled excuse for hair she has, neither a proper shade of red nor brown. And did you see her freckles? Hasn’t she heard of a fading lotion?”
“There is no lotion that can fade her un-English looks, alas.” A sly pause. “I suppose she gets it from His Grace.”
The latter was a reference to the fact that Papa had Chinese heritage from his mama’s side, and the resemblance between him and Glory was too obvious to be ignored. Before their wedding, Glory’s parents had told her the truth: they’d met years earlier and had a brief affair that had resulted in Glory’s conception. Papa had left without knowing that he’d fathered a child, and Mama had married Paul Foley, Aunt Hypatia’s brother.
Glory had grown up believing that Paul was her father, and she’d mourned the gentle, middle-aged scholar deeply when he died. Yet from the instant she’d met Rhys Cavendish, the roguish Duke of Ranelagh and Somerville, she’d felt an inexplicable sense of kinship. In truth, she hadn’t been all that surprised to learn that she was his daughter in blood. Her parents, however, had wanted to protect her from the scandal of illegitimacy, and officially, she remained the duke’s daughter whom he’d adopted after marriage.
Even so, rumors about Glory swirled as fiercely as the surf along the Dorset coast. She had resigned herself to being an outcast…until she met Livy and Fiona at age nine. The girls turned out to be her sisters in spirit. Livy and Fi didn’t care about Glory’s unusual interests, origins, or looks; they liked her for who she was. Dubbed “the Willflowers” for their spirited ways, the girls had bonded over countless adventures, and for the first time, Glory had experienced the bliss of belonging.
Now, however, it was as if her bosom friends had joined some secret club to which she did not belong. They were all swooning over their husbands while she hadn’t the slightest clue what romantic love felt like. Certainly, no fellow had held her interest more than a case. To be fair, she wasn’t precisely an object of desire to the opposite sex either. Not with her freckles, reed-like figure, and peculiarities.
The faint gargle stirred Glory from her thoughts. It came from Fiona, a redhead known for her beauty and charm. Currently, however, her face was an alarming shade of green.
Worried, Glory asked, “Is something the matter, Fi?”
“No. Well, yes,” Fi choked out. “What kind of cheese is that?”
Glory looked at the blue-veined crumbles on her plate. “Roquefort, I think?”
“The smell—excuse me…”
Fi shot up, her peach satin skirts billowing as she dashed from the room.
“Poor Fi,” Livy murmured. “My morning sickness wasn’t as bad as hers.”
“Hers isn’t just in the morning; it’s morning, noon, and night.” Pippa pushed herself to her feet. “I’ll go check on the poor thing.”
After Pippa toddled off, Glory said, “Do you think Fi will be all right?”
“She ought to be fine in a few weeks. And she has Hawksmoor looking out for her. She told me that the earl is taking impending fatherhood quite seriously. He takes notes at every physician’s visit and has apparently read multiple manuals on childbirth. Fi says that he is so involved that he has even begun experiencing some of her symptoms.”
Glory had to grin at the thought of the stoic Earl of Hawksmoor getting queasy. His attunement to Fi didn’t surprise her, however. Like all the Angels’ husbands, the fellow adored his wife and was inordinately protective of her. Glory was glad that her friends had chosen their mates well.
I, however, have made a different choice. While I might be a dismal failure as a debutante, I am a jolly good investigator. And I am not letting my skills go to waste.
“About tonight.” Glory straightened her shoulders. “I will be in disguise. You know my Cockney is first-rate. I’ll pop in, do a bit of reconnaissance, and be out before—”
“We never embark on missions alone. It’s too dangerous,” Livy said firmly. “If Charlie were here, she would say the same.”
Botheration. As usual, Livy was right. The motto for their society was “Sisters first,” which meant the Angels always looked after one another. The strength of their bond made them a formidable team. But what if Glory’s friends got too distracted by their new lives to focus on investigating? With Livy injured, Fi casting up her accounts, and Pippa about to pop like a champagne cork, the Angels were presently a shipwreck. And not just the Angels…the entire organization had hit the rocks.
The Angels’ instructors, Hawker and Mrs. Peabody, who’d also served as Charlie’s de facto butler and housekeeper, had married a few months ago. To everyone’s surprise, Hawker had inherited a duchy; now the Duke of Ryedale, he and his new duchess were managing their estate in Yorkshire. Although the pair promised to return when things were settled, Glory missed her teachers dreadfully.
Then Charlie had begun to take frequent trips as well. When she left town yesterday, she claimed it was to visit an ailing friend, but Glory’s intuition told her something else was afoot. Some secret mission, mayhap, that their mentor could not speak about.
Someone has to woman the fort, Glory thought resolutely. That woman might as well be me.
“We have an urgent case,” she reminded Livy. “We promised Mrs. Mumford-Mills that we would recover Sir Barkley, and there is no time to lose.”
As Glory stroked her snoring ferret, her heart ached for their newest client. A wealthy widow who lived alone, Mrs. Mumford-Mills doted upon her bull terrier, Sir Barkley. She’d been out shopping when dognappers snatched her beloved companion from her carriage. That night, a shady fellow had paid a visit to her home. He claimed he was a “middleman” who didn’t know Sir Barkley’s location but was working on behalf of the dognappers to negotiate a ransom.
Not knowing what else to do, Mrs. Mumford-Mills had paid the twenty pounds he demanded. The next week, the same fellow reappeared, without Sir Barkley and demanding fifty pounds to ensure the dog’s continued well-being. He had warned Mrs. Mumford-Mills against contacting the police, saying that the dognappers would kill Sir Barkley on the spot if she did so.
Distraught, the poor widow had confided in a friend, who’d told her about Charlie’s secret organization. Mrs. Mumford-Mills had begged Charlie to help, even providing a miniature portrait to aid the search. The painting showed a sprightly white-and-brindle bull terrier with pricked ears. Upon his collar was a charm Mrs. Mumford-Mills had commissioned for him, the letter “B” topped with a small garnet-studded crown.
Disguised as sweeps, Glory and Livy had lain in wait outside Mrs. Mumford-Mills’s home three nights ago. Sure enough, the middleman had shown up to collect his payment, and they’d tracked him to an establishment in Covent Garden with the dubious name of Fanny Bottom’s. The club was open to members only, and the Angels, unable to gain entrée, had lost their target.
Since then, Charlie had managed to obtain a pair of membership cards. In a stroke of luck, Glory’s parents were away on a trip to promote her papa’s political campaign against the opium trade, leaving her under the charge of her aunt. A proud bluestocking, Aunt Hypatia was delightfully supportive of female autonomy. Thus, it would be easy for Glory to come up with an excuse to leave the house tonight and, hopefully, rescue Sir Barkley.
All she needed was a partner for the mission.
“I understand the urgency,” Livy said. “And I have a solution.”
Glory sat up straighter. “You do?”
“Initially, I thought Hadleigh could escort you. But he insists on being here to carry me up and down the stairs.” Although Livy cast her gaze ceilingward, her blush betrayed that she didn’t mind her husband’s attention. “In his place, he has asked Master Chen to accompany you.”
At the mention of Hadleigh’s friend, Glory felt a strange quiver of excitement. Wei Chen was an austere gentleman who operated a clinic that treated opium addicts in the East End. Although a social connection between a Chinese commoner and an English duke was unusual, to say the least, Livy had confided in the Angels about the men’s history.
Before marrying Livy, Hadleigh had struggled with opium use. The drug had wreaked havoc upon his life, taking him on a downward spiral that had led him to an alley in Whitechapel, where he’d been attacked by cutthroats. He might have died had Master Chen not intervened. A master of both healing and fighting arts, Chen had saved the duke from the murderous thugs and helped him to stop his opium habit.
Glory was fascinated by the noble master. He was around Hadleigh’s age, yet his broad cheekbones, straight nose, and chiseled jaw had an ageless quality. His hair was the black of midnight, and the short, thick layers had a slight wave. Beneath his straight eyebrows, his eyes were an intense, clear brown—like tea brewed strong. To Glory, those eyes revealed everything and nothing.
Truth be told, she had never met anyone with Mr. Chen’s degree of self-possession. It was as if he observed the world from some high and motionless perch, unaffected by the vagaries of human emotion. For a girl who preferred action, his quality of stillness was as puzzling as it was intriguing.
Yet he was fully capable of acting when warranted. He’d assisted the Angels on several missions, and his kung fu had filled Glory with awe and, truth be told, a bit of envy. While she wasn’t pretty or popular, she did pride herself on her athleticism. Growing up in Dorset, there hadn’t been a tree or cliff she couldn’t climb or a boy she couldn’t outrace. She loved physical activity and sports…although her competitive nature sometimes got the best of her. At a recent party, she had decimated the other debutantes at archery. The gentlemen, too. When it came to dancing, she was often quicker and nimbler than her partners, which resulted in her unfortunate habit of taking the lead.
As sporty as Glory was, however, Master Chen’s physical abilities cast hers in the shade. With his muscular frame and absolute control, he seemed capable of conquering gravity and air. She’d never seen anyone move like him, fight like him. He combined the power of lightning with the stealth of shadows.
What she wouldn’t give to learn some of his techniques.
She was also intrigued by another commonality they shared. From her papa’s side, she was a quarter Chinese, but Papa’s mother had died when he was young, and he knew little about that part of his legacy. Glory had pestered him into finding her a tutor; she’d learned to speak rudimentary Chinese, but there was so much more she wanted to learn about the culture.
Nothing excited Glory more than discovering new things.
She tried to sound casual. “Did Master Chen agree to accompany me?”
“He said, and I quote, ‘This is a bad idea’.”
Livy smiled, reaching for her teacup. “Hadleigh, however, talked him into it.”
“Where shall I meet him?” Glory asked eagerly. “What is our cover story?”
“Don’t worry, dearest.” Livy sipped her tea, her eyes twinkling over the rim of her cup. “I have a plan.”
“Shall we go in now? Or should we wait?” Lady Glory Cavendish peeped through the drawn curtains of the carriage window. “What do you think, Mr. Chen?”
“I think that this is a bad idea,” Wei said.
Actually, he knew it was. Yet he’d agreed to this escapade anyway, which puzzled him. He was not a man who acted against his better judgment. Once upon a time, he’d allowed selfish desire to be his compass, and his family had paid the price. He felt the familiar sear in his chest, the agony of a scar too deep to be healed. His mistake was a part of him, woven into the essence of who he was, the unrelenting force behind his every action.
In the next breath, he let go of the feeling. Unhooked himself from it like a rowboat from a rotting dock. As Master Lam had taught him, he let himself float on the waves of anger and despair, riding the tide until it once again calmed. It had taken him years to develop this ability; now detachment was a reflex. He was able to channel his inner turmoil so that it flowed through him without disturbing his outer calmness.
He taught this practice to the students who flocked to his East End clinic looking for a cure to their opium habit. Many were quick to declare his methods “un-English,” and they were not wrong. He had no snake oil or miracles to sell. The secret was that there was no secret: everyone had to work at their own healing. Benedict Wodehouse, the Duke of Hadleigh, had been one of Wei’s successful pupils and was now a friend. Thus, when the duke had asked him, as a personal favor, to accompany his wife’s friend to a disreputable club, Wei had agreed.
Wei reasoned that friendship and loyalty were acceptable explanations for his presence tonight. Yet he couldn’t deny that there was another reason too. That reason being the lady disguised as a foppish, curly-haired gent sitting across from him. At present, Lady Glory had her small nose pressed against the carriage window like a child peering into a toy shop. And it was precisely her innocence that drew Wei to keep an eye out for this wayward duke’s daughter.
He had become acquainted with Lady Gloriana Cavendish over the course of three years. He’d only been in her company a handful of times: when he’d assisted with the Angels’ cases and during social occasions hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Hadleigh. The time spent in her company had solidified his perception that she was a rare and untamed spirit.
As outrageous as Lady Glory’s covert activities were, they were driven by her crusader’s heart. She had a genuine desire to do good and help others. These qualities, coupled with unquenchable idealism, were admirable…and more than a little worrisome.
Wei flashed back to memories of his sister, Ling Ling. She, too, had been a fearless campaigner for good, even at ten years old. No matter where their baba’s orders took the family, Ling Ling had been sure to stand up for those who needed help. In the last village where they’d lived, she had organized the other girls to travel in groups and look out for one another to avoid being harassed by some of the older boys.
“When everyone adds fuel, the flames rise high,” she’d declared.
Her apple-cheeked face had glowed with pride as she’d informed Wei of her plan’s success. He’d gravely offered her his congratulations while keeping his bruised knuckles hidden. Although he knew the true reason for the bullies’ retreat, he’d wanted to protect his sister’s optimism.
Ling Ling had also been a lifelong lover of animals, which resulted in rescued chickens, pigs, and assorted creatures running amok in the Chen household. One day, she’d proclaimed that she would no longer eat meat. When she tried to convert the entire family to vegetarianism, Baba had put his foot down.
“I am a soldier, daughter, not a monk or rabbit,” he had said with exasperation. “I cannot survive on grass and hay.”
Yet even the taciturn captain had been fighting a smile. That had been Ling Ling’s effect on people. Her goodness had lit up everything around her…until it had been snuffed out. The image of his baby sister lying in a pool of blood, her eyes unblinking and pigtails shorn and missing, caused Wei’s insides to churn with rage.
When I let go of who I am, I become what I might be.
He took in a breath and released it. Emotions were mere leaves floating on the surface of his larger purpose. He would not allow them—or anything—to distract him from his goal.
Vengeance required a cool head and calm heart.
“You are not going to be a wet blanket, are you?” Turning away from the window, Lady Glory shot him a disgruntled glance. “The last thing I need is a killjoy for a partner.”
“I have no intention of being a killer of joy. Merely the guardian of good sense.”
Lady Glory directed her gaze upward toward her curly brown wig. While her disguise was first-rate, Wei thought that her eyes gave her away. They were the color of jade illuminated by sunlight; if one looked closely enough, one could see specks of bronze embedded in the irises. Wide, tip-tilted in shape, and fringed by lush sable lashes, her eyes brimmed with a mix of intelligence and innocence. Her gaze was that of a female who saw what was wrong with the world and believed she could single-handedly fix it.
Her naïveté underscored her youthfulness. The dozen or so years that separated her and Wei in age might have been a hundred when it came to life experience. He couldn’t recall ever being that idealistic, that unspoiled by the darkness of life. Perhaps that was why she pulled at his protective instincts.
“I do not require a guardian of any sort,” she retorted. “As this is a Society of Angels mission and I am the sole Angel present, I shall be in charge. You, sir, are second-in-command.”
She was naïve and a little tigress. A dangerous combination. Not for the first time, Wei wondered about her parents. English aristocrats usually prized modesty, sophistication, and propriety in their female offspring…traits that were conspicuously absent in Lady Glory. Not that he was complaining. He much preferred her honesty, loyalty, and caring heart.
He inclined his head. “I am happy to serve, my lady.”
“Jolly good.” Even the fake mustache could not hide her jubilant smile. “Now that we have an understanding, Master Chen, I think we shall rub along well. Indeed, I have long admired your kung fu and would love to learn some techniques.”
During a supper party at the Hadleighs’, Lady Glory had asked him countless questions about his martial arts training, her expression as inquisitive as that of the ferret who’d been perched upon her shoulder. At present, the animal was in a small cage on the seat beside her, his back turned to them. Glory had claimed that FF II was giving her the “cold shoulder” because she wasn’t taking him into Bottom’s.
“Proper training takes time,” Wei replied. “Years of cultivation.”
“I haven’t got years. Just tonight.” She furrowed her brow. “Won’t you give me a tip or two?”
He kept his expression bland. “Patience is power. With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”
She wrinkled her nose. Although she’d covered her features with a layer of face paint, he knew that her pert little appendage was sprinkled with golden freckles. He liked her freckles and her unaffected nature in general. In the stifling, smoke-choked world of London, Lady Glory was a blast of fresh air.
“But I don’t want a silk gown,” she protested. “I wish to have lessons in martial arts.”
He gave into the rare urge to tease. “Lessons come from unexpected places.”
“Ugh. All right, you win. No pointers this eve.” She gave a huff that was, for lack of a better word, cute. “Then we’d best focus on our strategy.”
Rummaging through a satchel, she pulled out a pair of tickets, handing him one. The voucher was made of silver-plated tin and engraved with a symbol that resembled a curvy “W.” Below the symbol was the phrase, “Bottom’s Up.”
“This is our way in. If anyone asks, I am Adam Smith, newly minted baronet.” She gave him an expectant look. “And you will be…”
“John Wong,” he decided. “Former sailor. Currently in the import-export business.”
“An excellent cover.” Her nod was approving. “Now the suspect we are looking for is a burly, brown-haired fellow. He has the mien of a prizefighter with a nose that looks like it has been broken, barrel chest, and limp favoring the right side. When Livy and I followed him here previously, the guards at the door greeted him by name as Farwell so we believe that he is a regular patron at Bottom’s.”
“What is the plan if we see this Farwell fellow?”
She beamed, clearly delighted to be asked. “We will monitor him and try to get information on the whereabouts of Sir Barkley. As Farwell is merely the go-between for the dognappers, his knowledge of their operation may be limited. We cannot afford to tip him off to our investigation, or Sir Barkley’s life will be at risk.”
“Then the goal is surveillance.” Wei preferred a hands-off approach, as it provided less opportunity for Lady Glory to get into trouble. “Observation only.”
“Generally speaking, yes.”
He didn’t trust the zealous gleam in her eyes.
“But if the opportunity arises for us to get close to Farwell, we should take it,” she said decisively. “Get into his good graces and loosen his tongue with flattery and drink. You know how males like to talk about themselves.”
He lifted his brows. “Do I?”
“I am not referring to you specifically.” She gave an airy wave. “You happen to be the exception to the rule. Trust me, after three Seasons, I’ve become an expert on male behavior.”
That she believed her words was a testament to her innocence.
“Surveillance is a sound strategy,” he said. “Being unfamiliar with Bottom’s, we are at a disadvantage. When thrown into a lion’s den, it is wise not to draw attention to oneself.”
“Adaptability is the key to survival.” With a jaunty grin, the indomitable miss jammed a hat onto her curly wig and reached for the door handle. “Let us play it by ear, shall we?”
Before Wei could respond, she opened the door and hopped down. She made a beeline for the den of iniquity, every movement of her slender frame imbued with boundless energy. Amused and resigned, he alighted and went after her.
Return to Glory and the Master of Shadows