The mare’s white flanks were flushed with rose in the glow of the red paper lanterns.
This second-tier House of Flowers was unaccustomed to patrons who did not arrive in its courtyard on foot, but I would have stared in any case at such a fine beast.
It was not the effortless command in the rider’s deep voice that brought my hand to the bridle, nor hope of a small coin, nor even that he rightly called me “girl”, though it took a moment for me to recall that I was not presently in boy-guise. For a lowly servant in such a place, it made very little difference, after all. No, it was the dialect of the far-off province of my birth that sparked my incautious reflex.
The mare fidgeted, and my grip tightened. I spoke to her soothingly in that same dialect. A sidelong glance showed a look of satisfaction on her master’s face, as though I had confirmed his speculations.
I am no “flower,” being taken for woman or boy depending on circumstances and the set of my mind, but the angles of my face speak clearly of the horse tribes of the western steppes to any who have seen them. The man looked me over as though I might be a workhorse he contemplated buying, but said no more until the doorkeeper appeared, and then his speech was as fluently Mandarin as any Peking bureaucrat’s.
He asked for the proprietress, and disappeared within. Was I to tend his mount in the courtyard while he indulged a taste for the low and tawdry? How long would it take for his Jade Stem to wilt? Something about him spoke of great age, though his general appearance and bearing were of a man in his late prime.
It was pleasant enough to walk the horse about the courtyard, and I was keenly tempted to mount her.
The urge to then flee with her would have been great, however mad. But her master emerged in a mere ten minutes, glanced at my hand stroking her white haunch with something like amusement, then mounted quickly and was gone.
The old Madame drew me within, a mix of annoyance and glee on her painted face.
“Red Lotus, that gentleman is to be your new master. Once you have finished the night’s work and carried enough water for tomorrow’s baths, you will go to his household.” He must have paid her well.
Her name for me, Red Lotus, signified the tongue, and was proof that she found me of use for more than water-bearing. The strength of my hands and arms, too, had been of use to her both personally and as a source of punishment—and reward—to keep her bawdy brood in order.
I forbore to mention that I was not hers to sell, being no slave. Wanderlust had brought me far, and would take me farther still. There was something to be said for working among the “flowers” of her establishment, but I was ready for a change, and a household whose master rode such a horse was bound to be of interest. If I were treated badly, I knew how to disappear and eke out a subsistence as a “boy” laborer at the docks.
“If you are allowed the time,” she went on, “you are always welcome to visit, of course—” she laid her plump hand on my thigh—“and to give us news of your new life.”
I saw that she was more avid for gossip than for any services I might render. “Tell me then, Mistress, what I must expect there,” I said, my gaze meeting hers squarely. She knew well enough that I would go nowhere but by my own choice.
“Few know the secrets you will soon enough observe,” she confided, clearly proud that the she herself knew something of them. “The gentleman is very high-placed, very rich, and, though you must never speak of it—I have assured him of your discretion—it is whispered that he is a Jade Dragon whose consort is Bai Hu, a White Tigress. Such women develop the highest sexual skills in the forbidden Taoist arts of Absorbing the Dragon’s Breath, by which means they achieve immortality.”
No wonder she wished to maintain contact. But, at my first glimpse of the serene face and graceful form of the White Tigress I was to serve, I had no doubts of where such loyalty as I might ever feel must lie.
The Lady’s body was both slender and voluptuous, her hair a long cascade of deep black silk, her pale skin glowing like the finest porcelain. She might have been no more than twenty-five, except that there were many years of wisdom in her eyes when she chose to let me look deeply; and something indefinable in her voice, like that of her protector, spoke of a far greater age.
I trod carefully at first, wondering what was expected of me, why I, out of all others, had been selected as her body servant. I soon discovered that her Jade Dragon had spent several years in my distant province in a bureaucratic post of some distinction, and had a nostalgia for the wildness of the place and people. He had seen me running errands in the marketplace, guessed my origins, and made inquiries as to where I might be found.
He seldom spoke to me, however, and it seemed that the Lady was to be my sole concern. So, indeed, she was, from the moment she let her silk robe slide to the floor, stepped into her bath, and turned to let me pour steaming, jasmine-scented water over the slender curve of her back. My arms kept steadily to my task, but my blood raced as the fragrant rivulets streamed like jungle rain along the face of a tiger tattooed across her lower back and buttocks. Black stripes curved inward from the upper swell of her hips; large golden eyes stared at me from either side of her spine; and a wide pink nose perched just above the crack where the inner curves of her own cheeks met, descending into a vertical mouth now tightly closed but tempting me to pry it open in search of softness, dampness, heat. Or, perhaps, teeth.
“Girl,” my mistress said sternly, “I grow chilled. More water!” But I knew, as I bent to lift another steaming ewer, that she was not chilled at all. Her scent, and the slight flush of her skin, told me that she was heated by my gaze, that my reaction was entirely as she intended. The tiger’s face stared insolently up at me, daring me to lay the full force of my hand across its full cheeks; and I swore silently that the challenge would be met before I left this place.
But I was in no hurry to leave, and there was much more to be observed. The elderly housekeeper put me to work in the kitchen and courtyard, interspersing her orders and idle chatter with seemingly unstudied allusions to the affairs of her mistress, surveying me sidelong to gauge my reaction.
By the end of the first day I knew that the White Tigress entertained men frequently, Green Dragons brought sometimes by her Jade Dragon, or sometimes enticed by her as she traveled about the city. I knew that in some manner she drew on their qi, their vital energy, for the practices that kept her young, fusing their yang forces with her own yin. Meditation and intensive visualization were also involved, but I found those concepts of much less interest than the implication of fleshly acts. And what, if absorption of male energy was the Lady’s central focus, was my place in the household to be?
On my second day I was sent to discourage an unwanted supplicant at the gate, a former Green Dragon reluctant to accept his dismissal. “Nine times she has pleasured him beyond most men’s dreams,” the housekeeper muttered. “None may expect more!” There were stablemen who could have been called upon if muscle alone were needed, I knew. Perhaps it suited my mistress’ purposes that a woman—she had clothed me in robes just feminine enough to dispel ambiguity—should be the symbol of discipline. I put on my fiercest face and went to confront the man, a minor merchant by his look. “She will not see you again,” I told him firmly. He looked at my height and breadth, and all trace of threat left his face, leaving only a great sorrow. I felt some measure of pity for him. “You have had much more of her than most,” I told him more kindly. “Hold that good fortune in your heart, and do not mar it with ill feelings.” So he went away peacefully, if sadly.
That very afternoon I was called to attend my mistress while she entertained a new Green Dragon, and I began to think that I understood my role. While the fellow would certainly not wish to be observed at such a time by another man (though I was fully aware that the Jade Dragon watched from concealment,) precautions must still be taken. My mistress could be fierce enough herself, I knew, and her slender form belied her strength—I had seen the elegantly rigorous exercises which were an essential part of her regimen—but she chose to present herself as entirely submissive, to inspire and enhance the flow of male sexual energy.
The session began serenely enough. I brought a tray with fragrant jasmine tea and sweet dumplings, baotzu, filled with lotus paste. The young man was a scholar, a poor one by his hungry look, but polite in his efforts not too gobble up too many dumplings. I made sure to remove the plate while there was still one left. He lounged on a padded bench, while my mistress sat on a cushion at his feet. I watched with great interest as she leaned close to him, and murmured words I could not hear, and drew her wine-red robe down from her shoulders until her rose-tipped breasts were revealed. I though of drawing closer still, but contented myself with biting into the last dumpling and working my long tongue languorously into the sweet cream at its core, winning a sidelong glance from my mistress which held, I thought, more of amusement than disapproval.
When she rose to her knees and parted the young man’s robes, neither he nor I had thought for anything else. With delicate fingers she drew forth his stiffening Jade Stem and stroked from scrotum to tip, urging him to greater engorgement with a practiced touch. Her mouth was painted bright red, the only cosmetic she wore or needed; and, as she lowered it toward him, his throbbing tip leapt into it as a bumblebee burrows into a scarlet flower. She held the intruder off, though, with a firm grip at the base, pulling her head back and then plunging forward, drawing away again until the very tip of her tongue lapped at the pearls seeping from within, then working her wet lips down along the shaft so that its considerable length disappeared deep within her throat.
The young man’s groans became deep and chaotic. My breathing quickened, and the dragon-force deep between my own thighs stirred. Still my mistress gripped him tightly, holding off his eruption, until the pent-up pressure grew so great that on release his white geyser filled her mouth and kept on even as she drew back, streaming over her face and neck and shoulders. Calmly she sat back on her heels and massaged the creamy liquid into her glowing skin, and I understood at last exactly what was meant by Absorbing the Dragon’s Breath.
When the Green Dragon had begun to recover, the Lady ordered more tea, and stroked him gently for a while with both touch and praise. Then she lowered her robe still further and began to stroke and pinch her own breasts until he reached out to feel the succulent firmness of her nipples, and bent to taste them.
Her little cries inflamed me, too, making my tongue and fingertips tingle, and my own dragon-force growl in silent fury.
The young man, whose hunger must indeed have gone long unsatisfied, soon sprang to readiness again. The White Tigress played him even longer this time before permitting him to bathe her smooth breasts with the unguent she desired. When she tried to rouse him yet a third time, though, it was clear that his spirit still hungered but his flesh lagged behind.
It was then that I discovered the active role that had been planned for me. From my corner I could just glimpse the Jade Dragon hidden behind his screen, and now he looked toward me, his face a mask of tension that I understood quite well. He gestured toward the others with a tight jerk of his head, and I saw that the Lady had urged the young man to his feet, turned him, and pulled away his clothing until his pale buttocks shone naked and defenseless.
She beckoned to me, spoke softly to him, and suddenly I found myself seated on the bench with the Green Dragon trembling across my lap. My duty was clear, and most welcome. My first sudden smack was enough to make his feet jerk upward from the floor; then I braced my left arm across his back while my right hand came down hard across his quivering flesh, again and again, easing slightly only to take him by surprise with ever harder blows. I was tireless, driven by my own frustration as well as by my inborn taste for making my mark on bodies hungry for the intensity of pain.
His hips were narrow, but I spread my attention from side to side and along his thighs until his skin was red and throbbing from knees almost to tailbone. By this time I could feel that more than his rear had begun to throb, and knew by his gasps and groans that he was verging on a third orgasm. I smacked him with an unrelenting rhythm, interested to see whether he could erupt while pressed so hard against my thighs; but my mistress’ voice penetrated my consciousness as though from far away.
“Red Lotus,” she said firmly, “give him to me.”
If it had been her willing body across my knees, nothing short of force would have stopped me. But the scent of her excitement, the thought of touching her, distracted me, and I obeyed, setting the Green Dragon on his feet just in time for his third and final fountaining to bathe her naked belly.
I was still breathless when the housekeeper appeared to lead the young man away. The scent of the aroused White Tigress was maddening. I knew she was not fulfilled, and watched the Jade Dragon as he emerged from concealment to see what his role would be, but he only looked at her with desperate longing and gave a small shake of his head. I wondered whether I would be required to paddle him, as well, to stiffen his Jade Stem, and whether I could bear to have no part of touching her.
She turned toward her inner bedchamber. “Come, my Lord,” she said. “And come, Red Lotus.” I followed them, pausing at the threshold.
She stood beside the high bed, her back to me, her robes drawn up around her shoulders once again; and then, very slowly, she let them slide down along her body until the tattooed tiger peeked over their rich folds. Then farther still, until she stood in a pool of satin wine, her black hair streaming down until it tickled the tiger’s ears.
The Jade Dragon took an ivory-handled brush from the table and went to her, brushing her hair in long strokes, pulling it’s softness against his own face and neck, bowing his head to rest it against hers.
Then, just as I thought I should withdraw, however reluctantly, he turned and held the instrument out to me.
“Take care of her,” he said, and stepped aside.
I raised the brush to her hair, but suddenly she bent across the bed, her buttocks raised toward me, the tiger’s vertical mouth opening just slightly in an impudent smile of challenge. Instinct took over. I brought the reversed brush down across that sneering face with a sound like the crack of a tree limb. She cried out, and the Jade Dragon took half a step toward us, then retreated
I whacked her again six times, and then pulled her onto my lap, holding the brush handle between my teeth so that I could get my itching hands on her flesh. I spanked her loudly and thoroughly, cupping my hand to vary the sounds, feeling my hot-blooded dragon-force lurch with eagerness at each contact of my hand with heated skin, each moan of her pleasure. Now and then I paused to draw my fingertips along her inner thighs and scrape my short nails across her tender curves, then startle her with a sharp blow, but any time my hand began to venture too deeply she tightened her muscles in disapproval, so at last, in frustration, I took the brush to her again.
Broad scarlet stripes crossed the black marks of the tiger. Each blow distorted the feline face, but always it regained its form. How much did she want? How much could she forgive? She began to wriggle on my lap, not in resistance but arousal. The impact of my strikes vibrated through her body into mine. I wanted to drive her all the way, to feel her wetness soak my robes, but, as her sobbing groans came harder and faster, a strong hand gripped my upraised arm and stopped me. “Red Lotus,” the Jade Dragon said, “give her to me. And go.”
Much later, as I lay in darkness, the pleasant burn of arm muscles and soreness of swollen fingers doing little to distract from the hungry ache between my legs, the door to my small room opened, then closed. Someone climbed onto my bed, her familiar scent intensifying as she straddled me. “Come, Red Lotus, earn your name,” she murmured. I reached up to steady her, cupping her round buttocks with my hands, gently squeezing the still-hot cheeks of the unseen tiger; and, while her purrs and growls of pleasure penetrated the soft night, I worked my long tongue languorously into the sweet cream at the core of the White Tigress.