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Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Special Issue 7: Leather & Lace

Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2012 Shousetsu Bang*Bang

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Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com

Table of contents

in monocromia, by Kohakuiro Kameyo

嬰櫻 (Little Cherry Blossom), by Kim Chee (沈菜),

illustrated by beili

War Bonds, by shukyou (主教),

illustrated by serenity_winner

In Attendance, by Hinotori (火鳥)

Big Name Fan, by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ),

illustrated by hybridcritter

Love Lights Up the Darkness, by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ),

illustrated by carbonidiot

And I got ready for the future to arrive, by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)

Ravencloak, by Tsuki Akari (月あかり)

Ultimate Illusion, by Haitoku no Honou (背徳の炎),

illustrated by neomeruru

Anne Skye, by Lady Memphremagog

She Wants To Move, by Matsuri Yuri (祭百合)

This Song Is About Your Sister (What Happens At The Villa, Stays At The Villa), by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子),

illustrated by lihsa

———

Hers, by beili

Front cover by r_a_parker

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Special_Issue_7

in monocromia

written and illustrated by Kohakuiro Kameyo

When Lulu woke on the third day of the seventh month of her fifth year of being kept by the House, she stared at the white ceiling of her room, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Some half hour later, she was dragged from her dreams by the soft but insistent knocking of the hall’s attendant, who she snarled at before swinging her feet over the edge of her bed and donning the gauzy robe she favored whenever she wasn’t on official business. She had a showing later, but she’d be damned if she was going to strap herself into latex one instant sooner than she had to. The display screen on the wall opposite came softly to life in response to her movements; words scrolled up it, listing her tasks for the day, the weather (not that it made a great deal of difference), the names of her opponents. She gave it only a cursory glance before settling in with her breakfast and her book.

Two hours into it, the attendant returned and fetched her out of her reverie and into the cold, white present.

“You must be prepared,” the woman said softly from behind her veil.

“The hell I do,” Lulu snapped, stalking down the hallway beside her. “It’s not for an hour.”

“You know the procedure.”

“Fuck off.”

She swept into the bathing room, threw her robe aside, and dropped herself into the bath with the intent of soaking anyone who came near her. It worked.

Once the water on the floor had been cleaned up, two attendants came with a tray, which she knocked from their hands. Crystal liquid intended to loosen her limbs spilled across the freshly-mopped floor. She rose from the bath as regally as a queen and dripped soap across the tiles between the attendants without giving them a second glance.

The garb for showings was ineffectual as real armor, but she was long accustomed to that and strapped herself into it anyways. In the next chamber over, she could see Stephanie doing the same. She gave a little wave through the glass and Lulu lifted her middle finger. Stephanie laughed soundlessly and returned to fastening on her boots.

The wings of the showing room were dark. Just beyond the doors, Lulu could hear the murmurs of the crowd and the occasional boom of an announcement blaring through the speakers. She gathered her thoughts, exhaling them out and leaving only stillness behind in her head.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The doors swung open, admitting a blinding burst of light punctuated by the flare of cameras from the small army of fashion photographers crowded together on one side of the showing room. She stepped into the light’s embrace, ignoring the spots swimming before her eyes. The murmurs rose to a din, commentary and speculation that was impossible to dissect but irrelevant even if she could. Her sandals sounded quietly on the spotless white floor as she walked in a carefully choreographed arc in front of the photographers and style reporters. Her compatriots followed, equally adorned in vinyl and horn and metal.

On the other side of the room, more richly appointed, sat the guests of the House. Some lounged in chairs, others perched on tables; most had drinks in their hands and practiced expressions of polite interest. They were largely unremarkable compared to every other such group Lulu had ever laid eyes on, though her eyes caught on one – perhaps the only one worth noting – a woman, tall, dressed all in black save for a plain gold mask hiding her face. Her hair was wheat-blonde, giving the impression of her head’s being crafted entirely of gold.

Lulu’s gaze swept over her, then away to the platform where her circuit would end.

Stephanie followed close behind her as the small cadre of women and men selected by the House for this day’s session lined up facing the wall, waiting for the signal to begin – it came, moments after the last sandaled foot stepped up onto the platform, a pulse that heralded the start of a thumping beat that echoed through the floor and their bodies like a living thing. Lulu took a breath underneath the wave of sound, then dropped the fur from her shoulders and took a blade down from the hooks on the wall.

Though it might seem otherwise from the ferocity of some of the competitors, the fights that opened each showing were highly ritualized; the House traded in blood and beauty, and its denizens were valuable commodities. Serious injuries were rare – it had happened but twice in the time Lulu had been in residence. She still bore the scar, faint but present, on her left thigh.

Neatly dodging the swing Stephanie aimed at her, Lulu threw herself into the dance of combat.

Her favored weapon was a sword, mid-length and light, with a blade that curved slightly and shone bright from countless polishings. She was fast, if short – the sword made up for what reach her arm lacked, even if the point was not to draw blood. Dominic caught her eye and she nodded slightly, stepping past a pair already dueling to cross blades with him.

Though it lasted perhaps sixty seconds, the fray scattered all of them across the room in complex patterns that seethed and shifted with the music pounding through the air. As she whirled past the guests of the House, Lulu’s gaze snagged again on the woman with the gold mask, who seemed to be watching her in particular. Through the cloud of black hair that whipped across her peripheral vision and the crystals that dangled from her headpiece, Lulu caught a glimpse of the woman leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees, watching. She dragged her gaze away in time to catch a strike from Dominic against the flat of her blade. Sloppy. She tipped her headpiece down further over her forehead and concentrated as she moved into the next set.

The rest of the showing was a blur, punctuated only by spare sharp moments when she managed to catch a glimpse of the mask woman looking at her with interest in her dark, half-hidden eyes. Chest heaving and clothing sticking to her as the final note echoed through the room, Lulu cast one last glance around, then turned on her heel and vanished into the depths of the back rooms. Applause and the flash of cameras followed her out.

It was perhaps three days before she encountered the gold mask woman again. This time she was in one of the House’s parlors, sipping a drink from a tall white glass. Lulu only spotted her because the door to the hall was open.

Lulu paused outside the door. The mask woman was alone.

She hovered in the doorway, not quite crossing the threshold, and watched the woman as much as the other was watching her. The drink in her hand fizzed softly.

“I saw you at the showing,” Lulu said, breaking the silence as neatly as if the other woman had dropped her glass.

The mask woman regarded her from behind her veil of gold. “So you did,” she agreed.

Lulu was silent for a moment. She’d opened her mouth to speak when the woman interrupted her. “Would you care to join me?” Her voice was softly accented, catching the hard vowels.

Lulu studied her in silence for a long moment, recalling the interest that had been in her eyes at the showing and was making another appearance now. “No,” she said finally, and left.

The third time they spoke was outside the changing rooms for the pools near the guest wing.

“My name is Helen,” the blonde woman said. “Helen Kunitskaia .”

“Nice name.”

“It was my grandmother’s.” Helen chuckled softly, as if this were some private joke.

“Mine’s Lulu.”

“I quite like it,” Helen said. She had long fingers, Lulu noted, with nails cut close to the quick. She realized she was staring at the woman’s hands and dragged her gaze upward from where they were absently toying with the strap of a bag that held, judging by the way they were spilling out, towels and a swimming suit. Helen’s close-cropped hair was damp from the pool. She still wore her mask. “Might I ask its origin?”

Lulu shrugged. “I picked it.”

Helen’s eyebrows rose, just visible through the eyeholes of the by-now familiar veil of her mask. “No familial association?”

“My family’s dead,” Lulu said curtly. She turned and stalked off.

Lulu’s bedroom was little more than a box; she shared showers with all of the other denizens of the floor, which irritated her faintly but not enough for her to do much more than scowl at them from time to time. She stormed into it, tearing off stiffened lace and kicking the sandals from her feet. If she’d had a bed large enough, she’d have flopped across it; as it was, she threw herself into her reading chair and fumed.

The next unsubtle attendant to suggest she should court the favor of the masked guest in a more intimate setting was going to get her foot so far up their ass they’d be able to taste her boring white nail polish.

Before she’d had a chance to let her rage build up to a really good blaze of fury, a knock sounded at her door. She glared at it, prepared to deliver a blistering tirade when she opened it – but when she did, she found only Stephanie with an armful of alcohol, food, and books. Her anger expired, like a match blown out.

“Hey, Steph.”

“Lulu.” Stephanie nodded greeting and invited herself in. She arranged her burdens on the counter and opened up the cupboard for glasses. Lulu flopped back into her chair. Stephanie handed her a drink and opened a case that revealed soft cheese, crackers, and almonds. The second case she popped open held some sort of cake.

“You must be psychic,” Lulu said, burying herself in the greenish drink. Every time she said it, Stephanie denied it, but she was certain it was true.

“No, I just use my brain.” Stephanie took the second-nicest chair, as was her custom, and arranged the offerings of food and booze around herself. She’d left the books on the counter, a gift to quell Lulu’s near-certain later anger. Lulu’s films were still in Stephanie’s care, evidence of a similar, though reversed, exchange a couple of weeks ago. “They’ve been hassling you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Fuckers.” A hint of the fire flared up in her chest again. “I’ve been here five years, I can pick which goddamn guests to entertain.”

“It was your anniversary, wasn’t it?” Stephanie turned her glass in her hands and offered the almonds. Lulu took them automatically. “Long time.”

“Yeah.” Lulu sighed and took another sip. The alcohol was a pleasant burn down her throat. “Two more to go.”

Stephanie studied her and nodded, apparently satisfied. “What’re you going to do?”

Lulu blinked. “After? I hadn’t really thought about it. Maybe I should become a famous singer.” She laughed.

Stephanie smiled. The last time she’d caught Lulu singing in the showers, she suggested she take up a career in music. Lulu laughed then as well, saying that she was no great fan of paparazzi, but the fashion at least would be familiar.

Both of them fell silent, taking turns at the cheese and sipping their respective drinks. Finally, Lulu sighed. “What do you think I should do?”

Stephanie told her.

That night as she lay naked in bed in the near dark, Lulu let her hands wander over her breasts. She toyed absently with her nipple, staring up at the unremarkable ceiling.

“Fucking hell,” she breathed. Her hands slid downward.

“Why do you stay?” Helen asked, tipping her head slightly in accent to her query. Lulu didn’t answer.

“It must be an interesting life,” she went on when it became clear that Lulu wasn’t going to say anything. “Here.”

“That’s one word for it.”

“I have lived in the north most of mine.” Helen turned her glass in her hand. “Though I have traveled far abroad. There are a great many sights I have yet to behold. I thirst for them.”

Lulu shrugged. “Guess I’ve never had much interest in travel.”

Helen set the glass down on the table beside her. Her fingertips brushed over Lulu’s knuckles, perhaps an idle gesture. It caught Lulu by surprise, and she barely kept herself from jumping out of her chair. “I must recommend it,” she said. “It broadens the mind.”

“Books do the same thing.”

“No page can describe what it is like to step outside into a Russian winter.” Helen chuckled, low and rich. “Or a Saharan summer.”

“Well, fuck,” Lulu said, “Why would I want to burn to a crisp just for walking around?”

“For the experience.”

“Sounds like a pretty shitty experience to me.”

“But without the, ah.” Helen’s mouth rolled around the words, as if they didn’t quite fit. Perhaps, in truth, they didn’t. “Shitty experiences, the sweet ones would not hold their savor.”

“I live in the east wing,” Lulu said abruptly. “Number forty-three C.”

“I see.” Helen nodded, folding her hands in her lap. Lulu lifted her eyes from them – again – and looked away.

A knock sounded at her door, three taps in swift succession.

Lulu flicked her eyes up to the door in time to see it open, then returned her gaze to her book and shifted slightly in her chair in irritation. Helen stepped through and closed the door behind her. Lulu did not look up.

“So the room number was real,” Helen said without preamble. “I’m a little surprised.”

“I’m not a liar,” Lulu said to her book. “Only a bitch.”

“Mm.” Helen tucked her hands into her pockets and looked around the spartan chamber with some interest. Bed, counter, cabinets, softly lit screen, clothing tossed on the floor, closed washroom door, drawers, shelves holding the few possessions that were truly Lulu’s and a handful of hardcopy volumes, poetry and prose alike. It was hardly the most fascinating domicile to be had, even within the House’s walls. The guest suites were miniature masterworks of interior design. “You have your own books?”

“There’s a library.” Lulu read the sentence her eyes were on for a third time without registering its meaning.

“Ah.” Uninvited, Helen took a seat in the only other chair in the room, the second-best one that Stephanie favored when she came visiting. Unlike Stephanie, Helen’s presence was like a beacon to Lulu’s attention, inescapable. “I’d like to see it sometime.”

“The guides will show you anything you want to see.”

“I don’t care for tours.”

Silence fell as Lulu tried very hard to read the rest of the page and Helen studied the white on white of the furnishings against the walls. There was a sparse splash of color in the form of one piece of artwork, carefully framed (in white, of course) and hung across from the bed. Some minutes passed before Lulu set the tablet down.

“Your room has to be more comfortable than this,” she said, attempting to bore a hole into Helen’s forehead with her stare.

“To be sure,” the other woman agreed. “But it lacks company.”

Lulu, if possible, stared harder. “I don’t even like you.”

“I’m aware,” Helen said amiably. “Will you show me the library?”

“…Fine.”

The showers were deserted at this time of night – the lights were dimmed, except for the ones that blossomed to brilliance as she passed by and faded as she moved beyond their range of motion detection. She left her nightclothes on a bench and strolled bare through the banks of lockers to the showers proper. A mirrored wall reflected her walking beside herself, prominent nose, olive skin and all. Her hand moved automatically to press the buttons for soft light before she stepped onto the gently sloping tile and slid the glass door shut behind her.

The water hissed from the showerhead hot and welcome, and she bent her head into the stream. Thoughts bled from her mind and washed away like so much soap scum. The drops pattering across her shoulders and the smooth tile almost masked the sound of metal rasping against metal behind her.

A footstep alerted her to the presence of another body half a second before hands slid up her stiffening back. She didn’t turn.

“It’s late,” Helen murmured, barely audible over the rush of water and the blood beating in her ears. “I’m surprised you’re not asleep.”

“Insomnia,” Lulu said with what she hoped was cool indifference despite the fingers wandering around her naked hips. “It’s genetic.”

“I see.”

The butterflies in Lulu’s stomach started dancing complicated waltzes as Helen’s hands crept toward the thatch of hair that she refused to shave off despite the urging of the House’s salon mistresses. Her breath caught, quivering, in her throat for a second more as Helen’s fingertips twisted in the curls. “Why are you up?” she murmured weakly.

“Insomnia,” Helen said into the back of her neck. “It’s genetic.” Her fingers slipped down.

Lulu’s breath hitched again as Helen’s fingers explored, parting flesh and hair to seek out her clit, and further back – god, she was soaked already, and not just from the water. A little moan escaped her lips and she tipped her head back, closing her eyes as Helen’s fingertips stroked right beside her clit. Lulu parted her knees a little more, standing with her feet splayed and certain she looked ridiculous but far from caring about it.

“I love how you sound,” Helen murmured in her softly accented voice. She slid her fingers back and slicked them again, lifting her other hand to tweak Lulu’s bared nipple. Lulu arched against her hand, inviting her to keep it there. Helen’s fingers worked against her, high and low, and she panted as heat pooled low in her belly, winding her tight as a spool of thread. Lulu squirmed, shoving back against Helen’s bare skin and trying to get as much contact from her fingers as possible, a maddening combination of motions that helped as much as it hindered.

Her legs shook as orgasm washed over her; she was dimly aware of Helen supporting her lest her knees go out from under her. She threw out an arm and braced herself against the wall of the shower, riding out the last of it clenched around Helen’s hand.

Long moments passed like that. When she turned her head, she had a glimpse of Helen’s smile before the other woman rinsed off her hands in the spray and sauntered away, out the sliding glass door into the dimly-lit locker room, taking the opportunity for a full look at her face with her. Lulu stared after her, but did not follow.

The library held a vast collection of digital books, all available for borrowing either on one’s own tablet or one of the ones provided for temporary use by the House. It also held a small – more restricted but also more prized – selection of hard copy books. Lulu had access to both, and made ruthless use of it.

“Reference volumes are here,” she said in hushed tones to Helen. “And fiction, here.”

“I cannot remember the last time I saw such a collection,” Helen answered. “I’m quite impressed.”

A little swell of pride rose in Lulu’s heart. She smiled. “Good.” She paced down the aisle between the tall shelves, pointing out volumes and sections here and there to Helen, who followed close at her heels. She found a ladder and rolled it down the length of the shelves in the next row, then climbed and fetched down a handful of books, some from this shelf, some from that. “You should look at these,” she said, pushing them into Helen’s hands. Helen’s mask glinted in the glow of the soft, artfully arranged lights.

“I will read them,” she promised. “Thank you.”

“They speak for themselves.” Lulu shrugged. “This next row starts the nonfiction.”

They wandered together between the shelves as Lulu spoke quietly and Helen answered. As luck would have it, the library was largely deserted, so no one interrupted them. The lounge area, appointed with couches, chairs, and low tables all in pristine white, was equally empty. There were lamps, also, which could be manually adjusted to enhance the illumination provided by the ambient light. Lulu switched two on, deposited her selections on one of the tables, and dragged the table closer to her favorite couch. Helen joined her with an armload of books, some chosen by her, some by Lulu. They fell into silence, each with their respective reading.

“Why do you wear so much white?” Helen asked, some minutes – or perhaps hours – later.

“It’s dictated by the standards of the House,” Lulu replied. “I don’t choose it.”

Helen fell quiet, seemingly lost in her book. After a few minutes more, she broke the silence to ask, “What is your favorite color?”

“Red,” Lulu answered, and returned to her reading.

“Take this off,” Lulu said, ghosting her fingers over Helen’s mask. “It’s stupid to wear it all the time.”

“Perhaps,” Helen murmured, catching Lulu’s hand and holding it. She pressed her lips to Lulu’s fingertips, barely a kiss. When she spoke, her mouth moved against Lulu’s skin. “But I favor it.”

Lulu took a shaky breath. “I favor being able to see your damn face.”

“Then come with me,” Helen said. She let Lulu’s hand drop, though it brushed against Helen’s breast before she quite let it go. Almost without input from her conscious thoughts, Lulu lifted it again and tipped the mask up, over Helen’s forehead.

Helen stared at her for long moments, curiously exposed without the barrier of gold separating her from the world. She was not classically beautiful, but Lulu found her totally arresting; after what could have been an eternity or the blink of an eye, Helen tugged the mask back down, hiding her sharp nose and angular cheekbones.

Wordlessly she held out her hand, and Lulu took it.

The room Helen was staying in was opulently large; it was sparsely furnished, though, which drew the eye unavoidably toward the great dark bulk of the bed centered along one wall.

Helen’s borrowed bed was stripped of covers (they were piled, Lulu noted distantly, on the furry rug beside the nightstand; the cleaners would have a fit) aside from pristine white sheets. Helen herself lounged in the midst of them, shirt open nearly to the middle of her breastbone and trousers creaking softly as she shifted and sat up with her legs spread wide. Her mask was carefully nestled atop a cushion on the nightstand. She settled her feet on the floor and leaned back on her hands.

“I wasn’t sure you were going to come out,” she said blandly as Lulu emerged from the washroom. (It was several times larger than her own, with a deep bathtub that she could have fit five of herself into.) Lulu rolled her eyes and tossed her coat onto the floor. She crossed the room in several strides, climbed up onto Helen’s lap, and kissed her without bothering to reply.

Helen kissed her back, leaning forward and letting her hands rise to Lulu’s hips. She gripped them, slipped her fingers beneath the band of her scant skirt, grasped her rear and squeezed. Lulu pushed her ass against Helen’s hands in approval. She sucked Helen’s tongue into her mouth, toyed with it, bit at her lips.

Helen’s pupils were blown wide when Lulu, panting, drew back enough to look at them. “Fuck,” she swore. “I want your fingers in me right the fuck now.”

The fingers in question shook as they unfastened Lulu’s bra, freeing her breasts. Helen tossed the garment aside and dipped her mouth to lap at said breasts while Lulu fisted a hand in Helen’s hair to encourage her. “Fuuuck,” she sighed as Helen took a nipple in her mouth and sucked it to hardness. Helen’s teeth grazed the sensitive flesh, making her gasp.

“Take this off,” she hissed. Her fingers plucked at Helen’s shirt. Helen obliged, shrugging it off her shoulders and pulling her hands and mouth from Lulu’s flesh long enough to undo the last few buttons and toss the shirt away. Her skin was pale, though a light dusting of freckles graced her shoulders. Lulu unfastened the other woman’s bra with practiced ease and cupped her small, high breasts.

“You’re really fucking gorgeous, you know that?” Lulu said, catching Helen’s eye.

“I would say that of you,” Helen breathed. Her gaze strayed down to Lulu’s bared nipples, then further. Lulu hadn’t bothered wearing underwear on her lower half.

“I want to touch you,” Lulu said, voice rough with wanting. “Let me touch you.”

“Only if I may do the same.”

“I figured that was a given.”

Lulu unfastened Helen’s pants with a kind of sure determination reserved for people searching for lost lovers. Her hand stilled when her fingers met a strangely smooth, velvety surface, and she pulled her mouth from Helen’s long enough to investigate with her eyes what her fingers had already found.

Helen wore a deep violet dildo strapped to her hips beneath her leather trousers – its color was a shocking splash against the whiteness of the House’s furnishings and the stark black of the clothes Helen herself favored. Lulu’s brows rose beneath the curled fringe of her hair.

“Do you object?” Helen murmured. Instead of answering, Lulu kissed her again, harder.

“There’s lube in the drawer,” she said, finally, when she could bring herself to drag her mouth from Helen’s. “Little white bottle.”

Helen leaned back and stretched her arm out to rummage through the nightstand drawer in question, discarding a few things before coming back with the right one. She popped the cap and squirted out a liberal amount – perhaps too much, some dripped off – on her fingers, and from there onto the violet dildo. The bottle went the way of her clothing, off the side of the bed. Lulu stroked herself, watching Helen do this, and she spread herself wide with her other hand so that Helen could watch her in turn.

“That’s very distracting,” Helen murmured.

“No shit,” Lulu said agreeably. “Now fuck me.”

“Ride it,” Helen said, holding the toy in place for her. Lulu scooted forward on Helen’s lap, bracing herself on Helen’s shoulder. She rose up on her knees, settled the head of the dildo – there, yes, perfect – and sank down, letting the toy push inside her.

“How’s this?” she panted, rolling her hips to settle it inside.

“Perfect.”


Helen’s hands rose to Lulu’s hips again, gripping them as Lulu rocked. “Feels nice,” she said. Helen slid her fingers down and stroked Lulu’s clit, making Lulu gasp and her hips buck harder. “Shit.”

Helen took hold of Lulu, who held onto Helen’s shoulders with her hands and Helen’s waist with her legs, and rolled them both over until she was kneeling bent over Lulu and Lulu was on her back amidst the rumpled sheets.

“Yeah,” Lulu panted. “Like that, don’t you? You like – ah – fucking me like that–”

Helen set both hands on Lulu’s hips and dragged her in, hiking her ass up onto her thighs and pushing the dildo deeper into her.

“Ah, fuck,” Lulu swore. She tipped her head back, laying her throat bare.

“Touch yourself,” Helen murmured. Her voice lay low in her throat. “Rub it for me.”

Lulu grinned and slid her hands shamelessly across her breasts and down. “Fuck yes I will. You can – mm – watch me.” She dipped her fingertips down between wet folds of flesh, found her clit, and rubbed right along the side where she liked it best. Helen’s eyes darkened, and she rolled her hips harder. Lulu ground herself against Helen, shoving them as close together as she could.

Lulu’s constant stream of dirty monologue fell into a largely repetitious reiteration of “Fuck me, god,” as she rubbed her clit and Helen obligingly fucked her into the mattress.

“Fuck,” Lulu said. “Helen.” She said her name like a curse, or perhaps a prayer.

“Yes,” Helen breathed.

Lulu squeezed Helen’s hips between her thighs, rocking her hips and rubbing herself faster. Her head tipped back and she gasped, her whole body shuddering as she came. Helen’s hips rocked gently as Lulu sagged, shuddering, body loosening and legs releasing their grip.

Lulu blew out a long breath, feeling a ridiculous smile come to her face but unable to stop it. When she lifted her head, she noted Helen gazing down on her with a curious expression, which at once kindled her pride and ire.

“Get up here,” Lulu snarled, “And get on my face.”

Helen disentangled herself from the knots of Lulu’s limbs and obliged her, crawling up and settling herself at the head of the bed with one knee planted on either side of Lulu’s head. Lulu curled her hands around Helen’s strong thighs and buried her face immediately in the hot, wet center of her.

Helen’s breath hitched, and Lulu’s fingertips dug into her flesh. She sought out Helen’s clit amidst her sparse, curly hair and the splayed straps of the harness and set to it with her lips and tongue, lapping at its tip. Her breath gusted hot, reflected back against her face. Helen’s hips started to rock, following the motion of Lulu’s tongue, and the dildo she still wore rubbed against the top of Lulu’s head. Some of her hair caught on it, but she ignored the tug in favor of devoting her attention to Helen’s clit. The other woman tasted fucking fantastic.

The little moans she drew from Helen’s throat were music to her ears; as she wormed her hand underneath Helen’s rear and pressed two fingers inside her, that music rose to a symphony. She could really get used to that, she thought. Helen’s hips rocked as Lulu pressed her tongue against her, lapping and sucking as if she couldn’t quite get enough.

When Helen came, it was not with an ostentatious scream, just a tensing of her whole body and a tiny, breathless sound, forced out from airless lungs. She shook, catching herself against the headboard, and panted as she lifted her hips from Lulu’s face to allow her more air.

“Come here,” Lulu demanded, slapping at Helen’s legs. The other woman obliged her, climbing off and flopping down at her side, where Lulu offered her a slow kiss. Helen accepted, licking the taste of herself from Lulu’s lips. They lay like that, kissing wordlessly, for a long time.

“Come with me,” Helen said, stretching out long and lacing her fingers with Lulu’s over Lulu’s belly. Her bare skin was flushed still, and sticky where they touched. “When I go.”

“I still have two years of service to the House to pay,” Lulu said.

“Whatever debt you owe them, I’ll pay it.”

“It’s a lot.”

“I have the money.”

Lulu was silent for long moments, staring at the ceiling. It was blank, featureless white.

“You can wear red,” Helen murmured, “If you want.”

With color in her eyes, Lulu nodded assent.

嬰櫻 (Little Cherry Blossom)

by Kim Chee (沈菜)
illustrated by beili

After a month’s absence, Lieutenant-General Liu was back again that evening to celebrate another major victory, but one thing had changed: he was no longer a Lieutenant-General, but a full-fledged General. Word of Liu Yang’s courage and intelligence on the battlefield quickly spread. When Ying-Ying wasn’t afraid for his life, she worried that he might begin to choose the fancier diner over their modest wineshop due to his newfound fame. Most of the high-ranking officers chose not to mingle with the juniors and soldiers at mealtime.

But luckily for Ying-Ying, General Liu was friends with a small group of his men from his own province. As he rose up the ranks, he remained close to them, and these soldiers continued to follow his lead. Ying-Ying considered them a less pretentious bunch than most of the men she encountered. They were young and old, sickly and strong, warriors and commanders—but they stuck together.

After dinner, General Liu’s men ordered for him a large jug of hot liquor, ordinarily enough to turn four hefty warriors into one motionless pile of armor and flesh. They chanted for him to drink all of it in one swig, to which he answered in his steady tenor voice: “I don’t think I can even drink that much water.”

He wasn’t large for a warrior—perhaps the size of an average man from Ying-Ying’s village. A man of few words who chose to practice calligraphy and compose poetry in his spare time, he was rather sweet and unthreatening. He drank quite a lot, but never to the point of drunkenness. It was hard to imagine him as a ruthless leader of men without seeing him firsthand in battle.

As General Liu sat pondering how he might empty the jug, Ying-Ying handed out smaller cups of the same liquor to each of the men. The younger men made passes at her under the table when they thought the General wasn’t watching, and occasionally, someone would manage to grab her leg and cause her to stumble. She would then glance at the General to see if he had noticed, hoping that he’d have his head turned the other way so he wouldn’t think her clumsy, but he always seemed to be looking back at her.

Just as Ying-Ying was about to leave the room with the empty tray, a large hand encircled her arm.

“Don’t go yet,” said the man who grabbed her. He held her in his rough grip—though he tried hard to be gentle—and led her to their table, before General Liu. She complied, afraid that he might break her arm if she struggled.

The General shook his head. “Let her go, Brother Yu,” he ordered mildly. “She has work to do.”

“But she wants to see you finish the jug. Don’t you, auntie?”

Ying-Ying didn’t know how to respond. Truthfully, she wasn’t too eager to see General Liu drunk, assuming that he wouldn’t vomit all over the table before he finished.

“She’s just too shy to admit it,” one of the other warriors suggested.

“Come on, the old auntie is waiting.”

Ying-Ying knew they were fond of her and meant no harm by the joke, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at the General. This month, she would turn twenty. Her mother had given up hope of finding her a husband, and it was common knowledge among the villagers and warriors that she was no longer a virgin.

General Liu also lowered his gaze. Ying-Ying could sense his discomfort in her presence. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to being near an unclean woman; she noticed he was much less reserved in front of her mother and younger sister. He was so young—only twenty-six, although he appeared even younger—and it was easy for her to forget that he had already accomplished so much for his age. She wondered where his family was, if he had parents or siblings at home who prayed every day for his safe return.

Suddenly, he took a deep breath, picked up the heavy jug by the neck with one hand, and tipped it in her direction in a sign of respect. The men took this as a mocking gesture and laughed, but the General’s expression remained solemn. Then he swung his head back and lifted the jug to his lips.

The room fell silent. General Liu’s eyes were squeezed shut, his fine brows knitted, as if he were concentrating hard to remember something. The first few mouthfuls came easily enough, but after about ten large gulps, his arm began to shake. Still, he held on. Ying-Ying felt the room spin, just watching him.

“It’s qigong,” Brother Yu her whispered into her ear. “Watch—he can control his body so that the alcohol doesn’t go into his blood.”

More than halfway through, the General’s chest heaved and each swallow became more labored. His face and ears flushed from the heat of the drink. He made a strangled noise and small drop of liquor trickled from the corner of his mouth down his long neck—taut and sinewy from the effort of his posture—before disappearing under his armor.

Ying-Ying almost cried out, raising her hands to her face. She didn’t want to embarrass the General by seizing the jug from him (not that she had that kind of strength), but she could barely restrain herself. “Is he okay?” she finally asked, convinced that General Liu’s life was more important than his reputation for alcohol consumption. “Maybe he should stop. Has he done this before?”

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” said the elderly warrior who sat closest to the General, delighted by her anxiety. “No need to worry.”

“Look, he’s almost done,” another man pointed out.

Sure enough, General Liu finished the last drop and threw down the jug, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

The men cheered and slapped his back, proposing toasts and tossing their own drinks down. To Ying-Ying’s relief and wonder, the General appeared merely dazed, laughing along with his men. If anything, the alcohol had given his face a healthier glow.

Ying-Ying quietly slipped out of the room, but before she left, she took one last glimpse of the General, and it seemed to her again that he had been looking at her a moment ago. She closed the door behind her, smiling at her own foolish fantasies.

Outside, she found her sister carrying a basket of steamed buns to the adjacent room. There was smoke coming from the kitchen, which meant their mother was still working. The recent victory would keep them busy for the next few nights.

“Mei, let me help you with that.”

Mei hugged the basket in her arms. “But I’m having fun,” she whined. “There are two young captains in the main dining room who like me. They say I carry myself like an elegant woman. One of them asked if I was old enough to get married.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Of course, I told him I’m old enough—I am old enough—but I didn’t tell him I was engaged. He’ll talk to Ma if he’s serious, and she can turn him away.”

Mei’s future husband was a wealthy but good-natured widower, who’d fallen in love with her at first sight and offered their mother an unthinkable sum of money for her daughter’s hand. Ying-Ying personally wished to see her sweet dimpled sister with a younger man—perhaps a dashing warrior who was also from a working family—but Mei had been so indifferent about the arrangement that Ying-Ying stopped caring herself.

Almost. Mei was only happy to be admired by so many men; she was still too young to realize the impact of marriage on the rest of her life.

“Listen to yourself,” said Ying-Ying, patting her cheek. “You’re still a little girl.”

“What about you? You’re still in love with Lieutenant-General Liu. Or should I says General Liu?”

Ying-Ying frowned. Were her feelings so obvious? She noted to herself that she would have to do better at hiding them. “Don’t talk about what you don’t understand,” she chided. “I think he’s a very kind and worthy man, but I want nothing more to do with him.”

“Then why do you always insist on serving their table?”

“Would you like to serve them instead? I thought you said you didn’t like the way one of his men looked at you.”

“That was a year ago,” Mei retorted. “It doesn’t matter which room I’m in—they all look at me like that now.” She readjusted the basket in her arms. “Anyway, I need to bring these over before they get cold.”

“Just be careful,” called Ying-Ying after her. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

She helped her mother wash dishes in the kitchen for a while, then picked up the empty wooden bucket against the wall and headed for the well. When she got there, she set down her lamp on the stone edge and rolled up her long sleeves, securing each side in a knot. Then she attached the bucket to the end of the rope.

“I remember doing that a long time ago,” said someone behind her.

Ying-Ying jumped. The crank slipped from her hands and the bucket plopped into the water below. “You scared me,” she stammered. “I didn’t know you left the room.”

“I had to relieve myself.”

Ying-Ying blushed at the General’s frankness, glad that it was dark.

He sat down on the edge of the well, next to the sleepy glow of her lamp, and leaned back slightly.

“Are you all right?” asked Ying-Ying, holding out her hands in case he might lean back too far. “Do you need to lie down?”

“Don’t worry about me. I just want to watch you lift the bucket out.”

He didn’t sound drunk at all, but his request was so unusual that he had to be.

Ying-Ying slowly turned the crank, prepared for him to pass out any moment. What would it be like to wrap her arms around his chest and catch him before he fell? The thought terrified and excited her at once, but he only continued to watch her quietly with his large slanted eyes, like the eyes of a phoenix.

“This isn’t very interesting,” she said, after she unhooked the bucket and set it on the ground. They were alone, and if anyone saw them together like this, the General’s reputation would be tainted. “Why don’t I take you back to the wineshop first?”

“Are you scared of me?”

“No, why should I be?” Ying-Ying held back a smile. It barely crossed her mind that he was taller and stronger than her. She took him by the arm to help him stand, but when he flexed his muscles in response to her touch, she remembered her place and snatched back her hand.

After a while of walking, it became apparent that he had no trouble finding his way back to the wineshop on his own. What was she doing then? He probably wondered why an ugly unchaste girl like her was following him in the middle of the night, but was too polite to say so. Maybe he thought she was trying to seduce him and was thinking of ways to get rid of her.

She fell a step behind, hoping he would continue without her, but he slowed his pace until she caught up.

When they were almost at the door, General Liu suddenly stopped under one of the lamps and turned to face her. “Do you know how beautiful you are?” he blurted out hoarsely.

Ying-Ying’s heart skipped a beat. She had seen the look before—the passion in his dilated eyes was unmistakable—but it was a mistake: he was not just any man, and she was no longer the pretty innocent girl she used to be. He must have seen someone else when he looked at her. Her chest ached, thinking of that lucky girl.

“Could you be drunk?” she asked, hoping to lighten the mood with a playful tone. “You know, they say you have the tolerance of fifty men.”

She thought she saw General Liu’s face inch closer to her own. “I may be a bit drunk, but you’re even more exquisite when I can see clearly. Only I’m not as courageous when I’m sober.”

Ying-Ying was just about reply that he was brave enough without the alcohol, but instead she giggled aloud before she could stop herself, hiccupping as she tried to suppress her laughter. Her entire body became very stiff and weak, and even though she was laughing, she wanted to cry. Why couldn’t she stop? She cupped her mouth with a hand to stifle the unpleasant sound, glancing at the General to see if he was disgusted by her behavior.

To her surprise, he smiled. “So, Ying-Ying, what else have you heard about me?” he asked softly, prying her hand away from her face.


She dropped the lamp in her hand and it went out with a crash.

He was still holding her wrist, which she had left exposed when she forgot to undo the knots in her sleeves. She couldn’t stop gazing at the way his long slender fingers curled against her skin—warm and firm, but hesitant. His handsome youthful face was now so close to her own that she could smell the liquor in his breath, tinged with sweetness. He had long lashes for a man, a rather elegant nose that ended with full lips, framed by a smooth but strong jaw.

“G-General Liu, I hardly think this is appropriate,” she whispered, trembling under his grip, half wishing she could hide her face and half hoping he would hold on for a bit longer. To her horror, a tear leaked from the corner of her eye, burning against her cheek.

He instantly released her and took a few steps back. “Please forgive me,” he said, bowing his head. “I only wish you happiness.” He picked up the lamp that had fallen, placed it in her quaking hands, and hurried away to join his soldiers.

– – –

The next few days were the most delightfully tormenting days of Ying-Ying’s life. For three days, General Liu did not return, although some of his men came regularly for dinner. Ying-Ying had the good sense not to ask why he wasn’t there, serving them food and wine as she would any other day.

During the day, she found herself looking in the mirror more often than usual. Her eyes were smaller than her sister’s, but they weren’t ugly or different sizes. She’d stopped plucking her eyebrows years ago, although they were never bushy to begin with; nor were they very shapely. Her nose and mouth and chin were rather ordinary—a bit on the daintier side, or so she liked to believe—but her large front teeth ruined the lower half of her face, and she didn’t have her sister’s dimples. The only part of her face she truly loved were her ears, which were like perfect oyster shells, especially when she used to wear pearl earrings, but no one else ever noticed them.

With some make-up, she thought, she might make herself beautiful again. Finally on one afternoon, her sister left to go play with her friends and Ying-Ying could be alone for a while. Instead of setting the tables after washing the floors and cleaning the stables as she usually did, she returned to the small room they shared and sat down in front of the mirror. She found the box with Mei’s make-up, picked out a thin brush, and dabbed it with ink from the small porcelain container she had given Mei—the same one her mother had given to her.

Very carefully, she drew a thin line across her right eyelid, picking up the brush at the corner to give her eye a livelier look. She tried to do the same with the opposite eye, but it had been too long since she last held a brush, and the ink went on too thick.

Someone was coming. She flung the brush into the box without cleaning it and tucked the box back under the table. Then she hurried to wipe the ink off her eyes with her sleeve, but it had already begun to dry.

“Big sister?”

Ying-Ying froze.

It was Mei. At first, she wore an expression of shock and concern, but then she started to laugh. “You look like a panda!” she cried.

At this, Ying-Ying laughed too. She laughed until inky tears streamed down her cheek, hugging her squealing sister until they were both out of breath.

“You weren’t supposed to come back so early, you little devil,” she said, when they were lying in a tangle of hair and limbs.

“And you aren’t supposed to be playing with make-up.”

“So what if I am? It’s not like I was going to show anyone.”

Mei sat up, propping her chin on her knees. “I can do it for you,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m better at it than you now. Then you can see how you look.”

She cleaned around Ying-Ying’s eyes with a soft cotton pad and some perfumed water, then dusted Ying-Ying’s face with powder. With some red ink, she tinted Ying-Ying’s cheeks, rubbed them with her pinky, and applied the same ink to Ying-Ying’s lips.

“Close your eyes.”

Ying-Ying complied, enjoying the coolness of the brush against her eyelid. She kept her eyes closed as Mei filled in her eyebrows.

“Look.”

Ying-Ying opened her eyes again and looked in the mirror. She beamed, revealing her teeth, then quickly closed her mouth and smiled in a more lady-like manner. The make-up enlarged her eyes and covered the lines around her mouth. She could have passed for a sixteen-year-old.

“Wow,” Mei whispered, combing the knots out of Ying-Ying’s hair with her fingers and pinning it into a neat bun. “There. You should keep it on. Maybe General Liu will be back tonight.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Ying-Ying, although her chest swelled with excitement at the thought of General Liu seeing her like this.

“Really, you look like a princess. Let’s show Ma.”

“No, Mei—”

But Mei was already dragging her to the door. They giggled as they darted past the cows and chickens outside as if the animals were strange men, finally coming to the kitchen.

“Ma! Ma! Look!”

Mei pushed Ying-Ying inside. Their mother glanced at her older daughter and went back to grinding the rice grains in the mortar as if nothing had changed.

“You didn’t set the tables,” she said in a flat voice.

“Ma, just look at her,” Mei insisted, throwing her arms around Ying-Ying’s shoulders. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Ying-Ying took Mei’s hands into her own, knowing what would come next.

“I already saw,” said her mother. She didn’t look up again. “It’s not appropriate for someone like her. She looks ridiculous.”

Mei didn’t answer again, but Ying-Ying felt her sister’s wet face against her neck.

Ying-Ying squeezed her hands and led her outside. “Ma is right, you know. I can’t let our customers see me like this.”

Mei sniffled, lifting an arm to wipe her nose on her sleeve, but Ying-Ying pushed her hand back down.

“Stop crying. Ma and I aren’t dead yet, and you’re not a child anymore.”

This only caused Mei to sob harder. She threw her arms around Ying-Ying and cried into her shoulder, wiping her nose instead on Ying-Ying’s dress. She cried so miserably and in such earnest that Ying-Ying was touched.

“Don’t be sad for me,” she murmured. She laughed when Mei looked at her with pink teary eyes. “You’ve made me so happy already. See? There’s no reason to cry. Now go help Ma with the rice cakes.”

She dried Mei’s eyes for her and gave her a little push back into the kitchen.

The courtyard was empty and silent. Ying-Ying hurried back to their living quarters to wash the make-up from her face before heading to the stockroom to retrieve the table mats.

– – –

As Mei had predicted, General Liu returned that same night, but instead of taking his dinner with his usual cup of rice wine, he politely requested she exchange the wine for some hot tea. Ying-Ying did not ask him why, although she wanted to suspect it had something to do with the events of his previous visit.

Even after dinner, he refused any kind of alcohol and sat quietly through the evening, answering only when someone addressed him directly.

Ying-Ying remained in the room for a while, listening in on the conversations, raising her sleeve to her mouth whenever someone attempted to tell a joke or gasping when they recounted near-death experiences. As always, they found her delightful and she enjoyed their enthusiasm, but it began to trouble her that General Liu had not looked in her direction even once since he arrived.

After a while, he stood and excused himself from the room.

Ying-Ying waited for one of the men to finish his tale. When General Liu did not return, she moved the empty liquor jugs from the table onto a tray and took them out to be refilled.

He wasn’t in the courtyard. As Ying-Ying wondered if he had gone to relieve himself behind the house again, she heard the sound of a horse snorting and realized he was probably in the stable.

Ying-Ying straightened her hairpin and smoothed down her dress with her free hand, then went into the wine room and filled all four jugs almost to the brim. One of them—the one with two small chips at the mouth— was the same one General Liu drank from. Ying-Ying dipped her finger into the warm liquid and brought it to her lips, wincing as it burned her tongue.

With both hands she picked up the tray, now with the added weight of the liquor, and pushed the heavy wooden door open with her hip. As she leaned into it, someone held it open for her. She gasped and stumbled, catching herself and the tray.

“Be careful!”

Ying-Ying saw it too: one of the jars had slid to the corner of the tray, balancing on edge. But it was too late.

She swooped down and caught the fallen jug around its neck, balancing the rest of the jugs atop the tray in her other hand. A small splash rose in a perfect straight line and landed back into the jug. Now everything was too heavy for both Ying-Ying’s hands, and she sank down on her legs until she was squatting, placing the jug and tray safely on the ground.

From above, General Liu stared at her with his mouth open.

“I’m so sorry.” Ying-Ying’s heart was pounding so hard that she could feel it in her throat. She set the fourth jar back on the tray, hoping he wouldn’t detect the note of pride in her voice, and found that she was too weak to stand.

“No, no, it’s my fault. Let me hold that for you.” General Liu stooped and took the tray and its contents effortlessly in one hand, helping her up with the other. He added softly: “I also want to apologize for my behavior three nights ago. It was very irresponsible of me to have so much to drink, and I’m afraid I hurt you.”

“How could you have hurt me?” Ying-Ying replied, tucking in a strand of her hair that had come loose. “Every woman likes to hear that she is beautiful. I simply overreacted.” She had already rehearsed her response—yearning for him to confront her—and was quite satisfied with its appropriateness and honesty.

He released her arm and handed her the tray, motioning with a nod for her to walk a step ahead of him.

Her face turned very hot as it occurred to her then that he may have misinterpreted her words. What if he thought she actually believed him the other night, when he had called her beautiful? Perhaps he only pretended to respect her now, while thinking of how vain and ignorant she was.

“Have you ever held a sword?” asked General Liu.

Ying-Ying struggled to compose her thoughts, unsure if she had heard him correctly. “No, it’s always been my mother, sister, and me. We didn’t have anyone to teach us martial arts.”

“You would have mastered it quickly. You have good reflexes and nimble hands.”

Ying-Ying took a deep breath, moved by his kindness. They stopped in front of his dining room and she turned to smile at him, giving a courteous nod.

He spoke again as she inched toward the door. “You know, someone like you should learn to defend yourself and your family, should the need arise. I can teach you.”

“Really?” Ying-Ying bit her lip—she could feel the laughter bubbling inside her again. She shook her head before he could answer. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a grown woman.”

“So? Women can fight just as well as men. I know a woman who can wield a fifty-jin spear with the precision of an arrow.” General Liu sucked in his breath after he said this and looked away, flustered.

He was clearly in love with this woman, Ying-Ying decided. And here she was, thinking that he had been impressed by her silly display of jug-catching talent. “She sounds extraordinary,” she whispered with a hint of a smile, and turned to go inside.

But General Liu caught her by the arm. “Ying-Ying, do you trust me?”

Their eyes met for the first time that night. “Yes,” said Ying-Ying, when she found her voice again, and she meant it.

“If you have time, meet me by the stable tomorrow, an hour before sundown. I will show you how to use a dagger.”

– – –

“You’re really going to sneak off to a military camp? That’s so exciting.”

Mei knelt on the edge of their sleeping mat, parting Ying-Ying’s thick long hair into three sections.

“Don’t be silly,” said Ying-Ying, glancing absently in the mirror as Mei braided her hair. “General Liu is just going to show me some martial arts nearby. He thinks I have potential.”


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