The Very Excellent Society of Gravekeepers
Lau Tong, the old gravekeeper, arched his eyebrows. ”It has been a long time. Maybe too long.”
“I am still a daughter of this place.”
Lau Tong snorted. “Here, and now – ” He jabbed his index finger on the edge of the stone fence surrounding the ancient graveyard. ” – is not the place you left, Madame Loong.” He folded his arms thrusting out his grizzled chin defiantly.
The old man fixed his gaze on Lotus, the First Wife of the warlord, with an eye accustomed to watching the way people moved around the dead. Some were fearful. A few, secretly delighted, many red eyed and wailing. But always, they wanted something, often the mother’s jewels, the next youngest daughter, or the land. He watched every movement with interest. How they held a gaze, the way they bowed.
But Madame Loong, she was a puzzle.
Lau Tong saw before him a pale faced woman wrapped in expensive silks, her black eyes glittering as she spoke. It was always this way once the young village girls became wives or concubines of the warlord living on the other side of the main gate. His ears were surprised by the cold edge in her voice.
She looked at him sharply. “We both share – respect for certain traditions, shall we say.”
She ignored the challenge in his voice.
“We, the Loong family, Lau Tong.”
Lau Tong spit on the ground. “Your traditions. Your privileged ways. What about us? The ones left outside the gate?
“You belong to the honorable profession in charge of customs concerning the dead. My family – ” Lotus chose her words carefully. ” – values respect for their ancestors. I wonder if you do.”
“What are you saying, Madam Loong?” Lau Tong stiffened, his hands clenched at his side.
“There was a poem, Lau Tong. A couplet. My husband wrote it when she – ” Lotus glared, her lips tightening as she spoke, ” – when Jade died.”
The old gravekeeper failed to hide a startled look. The warlord’s love affair with Jade, the poet’s daughter was no secret. She was his First Love, and only love, leaving behind two baby girls in the care of Lotus, his First Wife. His marriage to Lotus dutifully arranged at birth and aligned by horoscopes, was blessed and approved by the village matchmakers. But, loveless. He lowered his eyes and murmured, “No poem. Only names in family book.”
He knows. Who else? Lotus stared at him with a triumphant flicker in her dark eyes, her delicately painted lips curved in a hard smile.
“Ah, that is where I will look first. When can I see the book?”
Lau Tong frowned and scratched the back of his neck. “Not for me to decide, Madam” he said, clearing his throat dismissively. ”Only Society Chairman can see to that. These things have to be – arranged.”
As he leaned forward and unlatched the gate to leave, Lotus stepped in front of him placing her hand on the edge and firmly closed it with a soft click.
“I am well acquainted with the ways of the The Very Excellent Society of Grave Keepers. If the Chairman can provide me with access, he can be certain I will be grateful for his efforts.” She took her hand off the gate latch and pulled out a velvet purse heavy with gold coins. Then, with unmistakeable menace in her silky tones, “You would be wise not to disappoint me, Lau Tong.”
Lau Tong took a deep breath and glanced around. His wizened fingers clutched the purse hungrily – a Mandarin money pouch, heavy in musical fortune. Lotus watched him pluck out a coin, put it between his teeth and bite it. He gave her a crooked smile and thrust the bag into the pocket of his tattered vest. His shovel clattered to the ground.