In the morning, people place covered baskets full of red envelopes on their doorsteps. Dust and debris is swept from front step into the narrow alleyways between the maze of buildings. Iniwa wakes up in the garden to find the innkeeper tying strings of unlit lanterns to tree branches. Looking out the window, Min sees many people doing the same, or leaving open wooden mailboxes on their porches full of bright red ribbons. The Festival of the Moon. It had been a long time since she’d seen it. The activity, the smell of dumplings, the memory of soft lights warming the autumn evening and playing in the streets. How had she forgotten these moments of her childhood?
After some discussion over morning tea, a hard bourbon for Laslow, Min led the group to where she remembered Big Ears Tam had an estate facing the long Heavenly Garden. Guards in banded mail stood at attention atop a fifteen foot wall. They looked down at Min when she called up in Cantonese, and moments later the wide doors swung open – their ornate dragons reeling back.
In the courtyard a girl danced in a cloud of perfumed incense which swirled between two large ceramic censers. A crowd of about 20 gardeners, guards, kitchen staff, and other manual laborers sat smiling with rapt early morning attention. The smell of styrax blossoms was heady. The woman sang long and high-pitched notes, pained at some loss most of the group could not understand. Min quietly whispered, " She sings of otherworld." She remembered the soiled doves of the Gold Lotus Parlor House dancing impossibly to the lute and singing similar songs – their countless unspoken losses communicated in the songs they sang.
The group wandered the meticulously tended garden, Iniwa noticed the flora was of the variety to attract birds, and indeed, he saw more birds flitting about the garden than most places in Shan Fan. They picked at late blooming pink and white flowers, and ate seeds. Eventually, the song ended. The group looked to the large building in the center of the courtyard, approximately three stories high and very wide, with lacquered wood panels and interlocking bats carved into the archways of the porch. A large familiar man came out of the double doors, with a heavy chin and narrow, unreadable eyes. Ototo. The man who took a couple buckshot rounds from Laslow to the chest, and one of Dr. Jourdain’s flashing pouch grenades to the skull and kept going like a mad bull. The man who shrugged those off to nearly bludgeon Dr. Jourdain and Laslow, and only turned away when struck by lightning, and then only retreated when he saw his master, Misaki, was no where to be seen. He approached the group and quietly spoke in English, “Please. Follow.”
One onlooker watched as the group wandered into the courtyard, a man with uneven whiskers, and murmured to his portly friend, “Styrax is supposed to keep away snakes…” Before the door closed Iniwa noticed a woman with a fox’s spirit in her eyes watching the group from the outer gates which were also just closing.
Inside, Big Ears Tam sat on carved wooden throne of two Maze Dragons entwined. Behind him stretched colorful mural.
Big Ears Tam began mundanely. Ototo took up his shoulder, and above Misaki glowered from a balcony. Masked men in closely wrapped garments stood in the shadows, watching carefully. Above them four men leaned over the railings with crossbows trained on the group. A woman in shimmering robes brought tea in on a tray. Only when the tea had been served, and the woman had left, and everyone had the opportunity to take a sip of their tea did Big Ear Tam finally speak, his long white whiskers shaking just a touch. “What do you think you’ll do if you find out what happened to your mother? What do you think it will give you? Happiness? Peace?”
Min reluctantly spoke about her desire to talk to her mother, to discover what happened, but she kept the conversation safely vague. Best not to get too personal. Big Ears Tam thoughtfully chewed on his gums for a moment. “Perhaps you mother is like the Immortal Moon Goddess Chang Yi. Perhaps she flew into the sky to always be near you, and to never die. Impossible to catch her.”
“Whatever it is that you decide to do, I would hasten to your decision. You are becoming increasingly visible. I am not the only one who has noticed. Shan Fan grows more dangerous for you by the day.” The implied threat was not lost on Min, though Laslow and Iniwa shrugged. This wasn’t new information. Felix and Dr. Jourdain asked why were they attacked and now invited. Big Ears explained, “We can help each other. I have become convinced that you will not leave empty-handed. I can tell you where you’ll find answers, but you must do me one small favor.”
He told them of the The Ivory Onyx, an opium den, I have recently discovered operating outside my jurisdiction. Min and Felix noticed his irritation at its existence. “Kang has been using it for the past year as a meeting place for his most select agents. It is a place of terrors. Lost several soiled-doves. It’s an opium den on the surface, but I believe he uses it to draw otherworldly energy and creatures in. Go there, make a mess of things. Disrupt the energy. Let that teach him to traffic in the dark arts in my city. We are an orderly city. But in there, you will likely find a ledger, or a manager, someone who knows the particulars of who has visited the Ivory Onyx. And I suspect you will find information on your mother there in those particulars. They operate mostly in the day time as a spa, and after 11 at night. So the hours of sunset to 11 are pretty tame. Some people apparently stay longer though – patrons and guards both. The manager lives on premises; known only as the Mrs. A.”
Felix observed the offense the den appears to give the Chinese crime lord. He asks a question designed to prod Big Ears Tam to reveal a little more, and predictably, the crime lord sneers and admits the British have used opium to weaken China before and he has no wish to see it repeated in his city. “They used it to weaken the nation by providing luxuries to British agents. Tariffs were enormous, but the need is great. I will not see this diseased hunger grow in my streets.”
The meeting concluded with Big Ears Tam offering a generous sum of money for their work, on top of the mutual favor. Before leaving, Iniwa stopped to suggest the caged songbirds in the parlor would be more happy free, but he sadly reflected that their beauty was intentionally held captive in gilded cages.
That day the group got back to work. They were growing more familiar with the city, and between Felix and Min, they found a back way to The Ivory Onyx through sewage passageways. Iniwa also discovered the passages by speaking to the rats of the city – the crafty survivors that saw things no one suspected. They told him to be wary of certain sewage passageways that led to the water where a maze dragon kept its nest. Together, in the evening, they made their way to the cargo entrance of the den. In moments they dispatched the guards, who were too busy squabbling over a mahjong game to hear their approach. Iniwa brought his new wooden tool down on the heads of the unwitting guards brutally. Ototo’s weapon proved deadly. Iniwa hoped the one poor man he found on the latrine lived to die a more noble death.
As they ventured deeper into the den, they discovered those horrors Big Ears Tam spoke of…