Chapter 1 1
Ice had frosted over Rosalind Lang’s bedroom window, drawing a bizarre shape that resembled a broken heart—the anatomical kind, with half-severed arteries stretching into the corners. Its edges were starting to melt, though, thawing under the first sunny day they’d had in a while and dripping rivulets of condensation down the glass.
Rosalind was watching the street below. She didn’t know how they expected her to leave without causing a fiasco. The media had been relentless for weeks, with different outlets flocking outside her apartment building, hoping to be the first to snap a recent picture of Lady Fortune. Ever since she was discharged from the hospital and told to rest up, she hadn’t left her apartment once, relying on her landlady Lao Lao to do the shopping and bring news from the outside. She hadn’t needed the rest. As soon as they took the bullets out, her body had healed at supernatural speed, returning her to normal function. If it were up to her, she wouldn’t be sitting idle, but her superiors had given her a very stern warning about needing to lie low. Today she had been summoned in at last for a meeting to discuss their next steps. The papers had splashed her entire identity in the headlines: Lang Shalin, former Scarlet showgirl turned Nationalist assassin—not dead as the city had been left to believe but wreaking chaos and killing merchants up and down the country’s coast for four years.
With Fortune’s real face in the open, she could hardly continue her missions as per usual. She had been pacing her bedroom relentlessly these few weeks, drawing up plans and then tossing them out, knowing she would be barred from acting upon them. She had already made the mistake of telling Jiemin that Alisa held Lady Hong’s last vial, a show of good faith while she begged for them to go after Orion, and yet that had achieved nothing except sending the Nationalists on the chase after Alisa. She wasn’t going to relinquish the remaining card up her sleeve.
I can help you get him back.
Find me in Zhouzhuang.
The note sat crinkled on her desk now. Its words were hardly legible after all her folding and unfolding, but it didn’t matter. She had long memorized those three lines; night after night, when she stared at the walls blankly in her version of rest, the note would flash in her mind on every blink. Without even sleep for an escape, there was nothing for Rosalind Lang to do within these four walls but think and think and think.
How was she supposed to get to Zhouzhuang without directly going against the Nationalists? As frustrated as she was, they were still her employers, and she couldn’t break away so rashly. Besides, what if it was a trap? What if she fled to the countryside only to find nothing but a dead end? She didn’t even know what JM was supposed to mean. She didn’t know anyone with those initials. A nurse at the hospital had inscribed this note after taking the message on the telephone. Anyone could have made the call. News had already broken about her identity by then. All someone needed to do was locate which hospital was plucking bullets out of Fortune and ask for the message to be passed along. Hell—maybe it was only a reporter who wanted to meet for the exclusive scoop.
Still… this was better than nothing. The Nationalists had made it clear that they had given up on Orion Hong. He is a liability. There is nothing we can do except try to eliminate him.
“He is one of your best agents,” Rosalind had yelled at Jiemin’s retreating back when he’d come with instructions to stay put. “How can you tell me there is absolutely nothing to be done?”
He had paused at the doorway. Shaken his head sadly.
“Even if—somehow—we physically remove him from his mother’s side, his mind has been altered to follow her every instruction. And if his mind is always going to be under her influence, we cannot trust him on our side ever again. Think of Hong Liwen as having perished in combat. It’ll be easier.”
A traitorous part of her wished Dao Feng were still here. He wouldn’t have told her to stay put. He would have made a plan to rescue Orion. Except her handler had switched sides—or rather, her handler had been on the opposite side all along. The question of whether Dao Feng had truly cared for her or Orion as his disciples was up for perpetual debate.
“Damn you,” Rosalind muttered under her breath. She wasn’t sure who she was talking to. Dao Feng, maybe. Or the world at large for setting her in this role.
On the street below, a car started to pull up alongside the reporters, stirring interest in the crowd. A girl tumbled out from the passenger seat in a flurry of pink tulle, coming into the building with her key and slamming the door closed before any of the reporters could follow suit. Seconds later there was the sound of heels clacking up the exterior stairs, then the apartment door opening too.
“Saozi, you better be dressed already.”
Rosalind was not dressed. “You don’t have to keep calling me that. I give you full permission to defy cultural terms of respectful fake kinship and use my name.”
Phoebe Hong appeared at the bedroom doorway. She propped her hands on her hips. In stark contrast to Rosalind’s lack of preparedness, Phoebe wore a rose-colored dress with a series of complex ribbons down the front, a blot of color suddenly bursting onto a monochromatic scene. She took in the sight before her—Rosalind perched at the edge of her messy desk, her hair spilling down her back and her legs bare—and strode forward immediately.
“Is that my brother’s shirt?” Phoebe demanded.
“Maybe,” Rosalind replied defensively. The smooth white fabric draped down to her thighs, and she tugged at it, though she doubted Phoebe cared whether she was adhering to modesty. “You’re incredibly early. I thought Silas said he was coming at three.”
Phoebe went to the dresser and pulled out a qipao. When she tossed it at her, Rosalind barely had a second to catch the bundle of silk before Phoebe was also throwing a necklace, putting together a complete outfit in the most disorderly way.
“You can’t be lying around wearing my brother’s clothes on today of all days. Go change.”
“I was going to get ready,” Rosalind insisted. She shook the qipao out. Though she stood, Rosalind couldn’t help glancing at her desk again, at the note sitting beside her stack of books. The shirt was warm on her shoulders. It felt safe in a way that her own clothes didn’t, as if Orion were still around, making a racket through the apartment.
She missed him. Terribly. She had thought him a complete menace while he was here, complained to his face that he was a terror in her space, and he had only ever grinned in return, making an effort to bring her food or smooth her hair down when she was busy writing something.
Now he was gone, and Rosalind felt utterly off-kilter. As false as their marriage had been, Orion Hong had molded himself onto her like an extra attachment of the flesh. Being cut away wasn’t something she would eventually get used to: it was an invisible wound that refused to close like her bodily ones did, and the damage had been carved into the deepest part of her heart. If she pulled her ribs open to look at the organ, she could point to its exact site… at last, an injury that wasn’t healing over at rapid speed. If she didn’t get him back, eventually she would bleed out entirely.
Rosalind tore her eyes away from the desk. A terrible sting was pricking behind them, and the last thing she needed was to start crying.
“Go change,” Phoebe prompted again, gentler this time. “If we’re going to get him back, you need to receive the task.”
“Yes,” Rosalind agreed absently. “I must receive the task.”
The problem was, weeks had gone by and the Nationalists hadn’t changed their tune about Orion. For all she knew, this meeting would move her onto a completely different mission—tell her that Jiemin was going to be her permanent handler and then assign her some silly task chasing after an unruly politician—and what then? Did Rosalind have to leave? Give up bettering this city and follow a wild lead into the countryside?
She would. That was the most alarming part. For so long she had only wanted to keep fixing Shanghai, but the focus she once possessed was wavering, loosening its hold and allowing her to crane away. She wanted to love more than her city; she wanted the love that had been wholly hers for that gasp of a moment. Given the choice between the two, she had her suspicions about which one she would run toward.
Except the thought terrified her. And so she had been playing nice these past few weeks, sitting tight instead of outright rebelling. Her employers had a chance to get it right. Let them act agreeably, and maybe Rosalind wouldn’t have to go off on her own. It wasn’t as if she had done a very good job of that in the past. Her track record was abysmal, in fact.
A loud honk blared suddenly outside the window: Silas Wu, getting impatient in the driver’s seat.
Phoebe gave her a prompting look.
“Five minutes,” Rosalind promised, hurrying into the washroom.
She changed fast. Too much time had passed since she’d last worn her hair up, and she almost dropped her pin when she stuck the metal into a small plait, pinning the tail end behind her ear. Phoebe was waiting at the front door when Rosalind emerged. She beamed happily, offering a quick clap of approval.
“I should warn you,” Phoebe said while Rosalind locked up. “There’s been a new article.”
“Another one?” Rosalind swore under her breath, putting her key away. “How much more can they dig up? I have been in this world for only twenty-four years.”
And she had been aging properly for only nineteen of them before disappearing off the grid to live as some shadowy myth. Up until two months ago, people hadn’t known whether Fortune was a real person or merely something that the Nationalists had made up to scare their enemies.
“You got on some restaurant owner’s bad side in 1926. He had a whole spiel of slander prepared about you and your lack of respect for chairs. Apparently you threw one and broke it.”
Rosalind winced. “That was actually my cousin’s doing.”
“He also said you called his hat ugly.”
“Fair. That was me.”
The only reason this media storm had blown so large was because Rosalind Lang hadn’t been some nobody before: Fortune’s identity leaking wasn’t just the shock of an ordinary girl with unspeakable science running in her veins. When the Scarlet Gang was still around, any gossip column that wanted to slam her cousin Juliette Cai usually dragged Rosalind in too. The city already knew her. They had constructed an existing image of Lang Shalin, a child of Shanghai’s gangster elite who fell away when the rest of their system did. For her to arise again as this politician’s assassin was absurd, something that felt like lumping clay into a skin of flour and calling it a dumpling.
“Either way,” Phoebe said. They paused in front of the building door. Rosalind could hear the rumble of chatter, the reporters murmuring with one another in speculation over when she was going to emerge. “They’re hungry for new material. As evidenced by how far back they are willing to dig. The whole country is waiting for a glimpse of Lady Fortune.”
“They’re going to have to wait longer.” Rosalind pushed down on the door handle. “Lady Fortune is away at the moment.”
The blinding flashes came immediately. The yelling followed as a close second, voices from every direction demanding, “Look here, please! Lang Shalin, look here!”
With weeks to prepare for this moment, Rosalind kept her head down, forging ahead on the driveway. It was only a short distance to the roadside, where Silas’s car awaited. They only needed to get through the crowd without stopping.
She was doing so well. Until:
“Lang Shalin, what are your thoughts on Hong Liwen being sighted in Manchuria?”
Rosalind’s head whipped up. She sought the voice who had shouted the question, but the flashes invaded her sight immediately, leaving only blots in her field of vision.
“What?” she demanded. “What did you say?”
“You don’t need to get information from a reporter,” Phoebe cut in, taking hold of Rosalind’s elbow. “Come on.”
But Rosalind had paused, and the reporters scrambled to take advantage of the opportunity. They had grown ravenous, left out here in the cold for too long. Though the sun beamed high today, it had been rain and gloom in the days prior, some afternoons pouring with fast-falling sleet. Even then they had not desisted, too intrigued at the prospect of being the first to take a photograph to their boss.
“This way! This way!”
“Lady Fortune, show us your talents!”
Without warning, something sharp came flying in Rosalind’s direction, scratching her cheek before landing with a loud thunk on the path behind her. Her hand lurched to her face with an instinctive gasp, cupping the painful sting. When she lowered her fingers, she found blood.
Her vision turned red in a visceral, livid tilt. Who dared to throw something at her? She could already feel the skin on her face knitting itself back together, healing in front of these cameras, every moment captured under a flash. This was what they had wanted, wasn’t it? To turn her into a piece of sensation, put her under a microscope to be picked apart under newsprint.
These damn reporters had forgotten that she was an assassin, that they were so interested in Fortune only because she used to be a feared shadow stalking the night, killing people with a mere exhale of poison.
Slowly Rosalind wiped the remaining blood off her face. She had changed her mind. Lady Fortune was here after all.
She lunged forward.
“Hey!” Phoebe cried.
Just before Rosalind could make contact with the nearest reporter, Phoebe scrambled to rein her back, her small frame lifting right off the ground in her vigor to keep Rosalind’s arms down. The reporter cried out in alarm. Some around him hurried a step back. Others grew even more excited, yelling for her to come their way instead.
“You really don’t want to do that, saozi,” Phoebe wheezed.
“Let go of me,” Rosalind said through her gritted teeth. “Orion would let me tear them apart.”
“And that’s why I’m being the responsible little sister. Don’t make me cry to guilt trip you.”
“Phoebe, let me go—”
Phoebe gasped. When a second rock hurtled in their direction, Phoebe snatched it right out of the air before Rosalind had scarcely registered its presence, then hurled it back at the reporters. The crowd screeched, shuffling to protect their cameras.
“You’re so lucky I used to play softball.” Phoebe gave her a push. “Come on, come on!”
Rosalind gave up on her mission to incite a fistfight. With a huff, she shoved through the rest of the crowd, reaching Silas’s car at last and flinging the rear door open. She slid onto the seat behind him, her whole disposition locked in a sulk.
Phoebe came around the other side, flopping into the passenger seat and closing her door.
“So, that could have gone better.”
Silas turned around to peer into the back seat, checking on Rosalind with concern. Meanwhile, the reporters were already flocking closer to the car, getting their notepads out to record the series of events that had unfolded before them.
“What happened out there?”
“Please drive,” Rosalind said sharply. She pressed the heel of her hand into her eyes. When she ran her palm down her face, her cheek was smooth again. “Just drive.”
At the front, Silas and Phoebe exchanged a glance, silently debating their response. Before Silas could pull on the wheel, however, there was a sudden thwack on his window, and he flinched in fright, his glasses sliding down his nose.
“Go!” Rosalind commanded. The reporter pointed his camera into the gap where the window was slightly rolled down. “Hurry!”
Silas stepped on the accelerator. Phoebe leaned over to push his glasses up before they could crash from his obscured vision. And Rosalind watched her apartment fade from view, leaving behind the reporters.
Even as the clamoring noise faded, she hardly dared release the immense exhale that strained inside her lungs. Rosalind only shifted in her seat to face the front again, her shoulders tense and hunched into herself.
The vehicle jolted, passing a bump in the road and weaving into heavier traffic. While Silas and Phoebe resumed their conversation, Rosalind silently reached her hand toward the other side of the back seat, hovering in the empty space there. Then she set her hand down, upon nothing.