An hour later, Shurui sits in the Starbucks a few minutes from home, set just back from the southeast corner of Harbord and Spadina, waiting for Xinhua. Outside, amid all the concrete and slate grey, autumn paints the trees gold and the sky in pale drifts of cloud, darker at their edges. Darker still in the distance: rain not far off. The smell of it is in the air. Inside, the café is mostly empty, the decor cast in warm, earthy tones.
Shurui likes the muddy, arboreal feel of the place. It offsets the autumn chill, denies winter in its turn, and welcomes spring with fair familiar hands. Her jacket lies slung over her chair behind her. Soft against her back. It’s quiet here; she likes the quiet.
A cup of tea steams between her palms. She bleeds off excess qi by keeping the tea’s temperature constant. A trick she picked up from a wuyi, Chen Xifeng, not long after Shurui made her way north to the Colony of Vancouver Island. Back during the second BC gold rush, when the mass migration up from California began.
She learned a great deal from that Xifeng before the wuyi died: better methods for regulating her qi. How to make herbal medicine. The theory of acupuncture — the proper practice of which has always escaped her. She stopped peddling it shortly before she started working her way east, helping build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, disguised as a man.
—Had taken up, instead, the sole practice of making herbal medicines and teas by the time she’d found her way east to then-Muddy York’s Ward District, back when Toronto’s first Chinatown still lay nestled along York and Elizabeth, bordered by Queen and Dundas. And as the old city’s Chinatown moved, as it did frequently, Shurui moved with it.
“Your tea’s cold.” Shurui startles as Xinhua settles down across from her. She slings her own folded jacket over the back of a chair and sets down her steaming coffee. The waft of it fills the space between them. “I’m sorry, am I late?”
The cup in her hands has cooled while her attention was elsewhere. “Not very much.” Shurui sets her tea aside. Smiles at her friend.
Shurui watches her while Xinhua settles in, pays half mind to her friend’s talk. This young woman, too, is a fixture in her life. Has been since Xinhua was an undergraduate at UofT in need of a history tutor. And their ties go deeper, though she doesn’t have the heart to tell Xinhua the whole of it: the full body costume of the Xun Long — the Swift Dragon — conceals her face, but does nothing to hide her voice. Unlike Xinhua, Shurui does not speak when they fight in costume.
It means so much to Xinhua, not being known. And Shurui is so tired of having only enemies — of having only dead lovers in her wake.
It’s been easy to stay friends, long though the tutoring has ended. Shurui will always look to be in her early twenties; something she has made peace with. And Xinhua, like her, is desperately lonely.
Sometimes, too, it’s easier to talk with someone who understands so little, instead of Zetian who understands too much.
A sleek sports car and several police cruisers in pursuit hurtle past the window, and Xinhua stops mid-sentence. Both women track the rush of air that follows — the masked woman at its centre that streaks through the air. A visible wake of whirling leaves and air lit with bursts of lightning in her wake.
The rest of the café’s patrons crowd toward the windows, trying to get a glimpse of the chase scene. “The Xun Long is out early today,” teases Shurui, sipping at her coffee to hide the fear awake in her belly. She knows exactly who the flying woman is. Her heart races. Does Zetian know the Leiyu is out of hospital already? Shurui takes out her phone casually. Calls her lover. Tries not to panic as the words “This customer is not available” whisper in her ear.
Across from her, Xinhua shakes her head. “No. Costume’s similar though. Looked more like the Leiyu. Guess she’s out of hospital. And she’s changed her look again,” grumbles Xinhua into her coffee.
Shurui takes a deep breath. Makes mental calculations: three blocks. Less than three blocks. She could run it. Remembering it’s her turn to speak, she asks quietly: “Seems soon for her to have been released.” Doesn’t add that what Zetian did to her skull should have left her in a coma. That when they brought the building down on top of her, the Leiyu shouldn’t have lived.
Does the Leiyu know where they live? Could she?
“You read the interview in the Star?” asks Xinhua.
“Yes,” lies Shurui. Interview? “How awful, what happened to her,” she prods.
Xinhua nods. “She’s lucky there wasn’t a concussion. She heals fast, but after what Nepenthe did to her–”
“Nepenthe?” Not Nepenthe: Adaora in Arizona with Tomiko at the time.
“Yeah,” says Xinhua, confused by Shurui’s reaction. “The Leiyu says that’s why she can’t remember what happened. Must have been Nepenthe, because who else could wipe her memory?” Xinhua shakes her head and finishes her coffee.
A gift. An extraordinary gift. Unless it’s a lie? Is the Leiyu that clever? Vindictive and cold, yes. But she does not lie. Has never lied. As far as Shurui knows.
Shurui rubs at sore eyes. At the heat pounding behind her skull.
“Are you alright?” asks Xinhua.
“Fine,” says Shurui. Dons a false smile. Forces herself to remain calm through centuries of long practice. Forces herself to trust that the Leiyu is telling the truth; to keep playing her role a little longer, until she can reasonably excuse herself without giving anything away. Straightens in her chair and says: “Tell me how your mother is doing.”