Qing Dynasty China, 1850 A.D
I felt heat rising up the back of my neck as I walked past the center of the market area. Past all the places where any respectable young woman would be found. Everyone knew what lay at the end of the alleyway. We liked to think that because it was at the edge of our village, that dark little room was hidden. A secret thing. If no one spoke of it, it didn’t exist.
By the same rule, everyone knew there was only one reason anyone went out there.
Though there were no eyes on me, I could feel them all the same. Linhua was small enough that there were no secrets. It was small enough that people didn’t even pretend not to know.
The back door was buried deep at the end of the lane. As far as I knew, no one ever used the front entrance. I knocked twice and stepped back.After a pause, the door slid open, the corner grating against the dirt floor. The man who stood behind it gave me a wide grin. “Ah, Miss Jin Soling.”
A sickly sweet smell wafted into the alleyway. Though faint, the pungent floral notes were unmistakable. Our village wasn’t large enough to have a grain store, yet we had an opium den.
“Shang,” I greeted.
Cui Shang was thin, long in the face. I knew he was ten years older than me and his father was a widower. Once, a generation before, their family had worked a plot of farmland, but now the Cui family had no other trade besides opium.
“Are you here to try a pipe with me, Miss Jin? It will take away all your burdens; remove that worry line always hanging over your brow. You might even be pretty without it.”
I held out my palm to display the two copper coins, half of my earnings from Physician Lo that day.
“I have this week’s payment.”
“That’s not enough,” he said.
“This is how much it always costs.”
Shang scratched the side of his neck with one bony finger. “Don’t you know? The runners have raised their prices. News is there was a fire in the docks in Canton. Several large shipments of opium were destroyed.”
“I haven’t heard anything of it.”
He shrugged. “It’s the truth.”
I kept my face a mask. He was trying to play me like an old fishwife in the market. “This is all you’ll receive.”
Shang tried to stare me down, his lip curling into a scowl. Straightening my shoulders, I stared right back even though my pulse was racing. I was taller than most of the other girls in the village, but at my full height he was still half a head taller. Though constant opium use left him gaunt in appearance, he was still stronger than me.
I had my needle gun in my pocket, a spring-loaded weapon I kept with me when I had to travel on the lonely roads that surrounded the village to tend to patients. If Shang tried anything, all it would take was a single dart in his neck or torso to immobilize him, but I couldn’t draw with him so close.
With a shrug, he disappeared into the den while I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. It had been a long day. Old Lo had sent me far out to the edge of the rice fields for the monthly visit to farming huts. Now it was late and my family would be holding our evening meal to wait for me.
Ten minutes passed by and he had not yet reappeared. I loathed to go inside, but I was prepared to do so when he finally emerged.
“I had to give you a smaller amount,” he announced with even less of an attempt at politeness than before. “You can’t expect any special treatment, acting so superior all the time.”
Without argument, I held out the cash, which he took after thrusting the packet into my hand. Inside was a pressed cake of black opium. I slipped it into the pocket of my jacket and didn’t bother to say farewell before turning to leave.
He spat on the ground behind me. My face burned at the insult, but I didn’t stop. I hated knowing that in a week I would be back.