The World Is Yours, Chapter 8
Ivan squinted at the brothel’s name, written with pink tubing across its front - “something something Peach Garden”, or so he thought. It was written in traditional Dynastic characters, and he was only passingly familiar with the simplified version of the language, but it was probably close enough.
Styled to look like a pagoda from a classical Immortal Dynasty palace, the brothel was both impressive and sad at once - clean and shining in comparison to its grimy surroundings, but undeniably cheap and fake nonetheless. Maybe it was the chipped faux-gold paint on the facade, or the orange-tinted arclights that tried and failed to approximate warm mood lighting, or the girls in diaphanous negligees peeking and waving at him from behind the bamboo screens that faced the street.
Perhaps he should have been more concerned about being seen, but there were plenty of Hesperian tourists and expatriates in Halcyon, and its Underworld was a regional hub for sex tourism - every year, throngs of men matching his description made their way here from all over the world for a taste of the exotic girls and/or boys on offer. In any case, he wasn’t dumb enough to use his real face in the Underworld, let alone around a scumbag like Hock.
He’d disguised himself the first time he’d met Hock, and he was wearing the same face now. The first time round, he’d used hair dye, color contacts, and gum in his cheeks to change his jawline, but it was a massive pain in the ass to keep it straight, so today he was using the filter earring to achieve the same effect.
“Is the venerable Mr. Hock in? I have an appointment with him for high tea.”
“And who’s asking? Mr…” The middle-aged mamasan minding the reception did a double-take when she looked up and saw him. Ivan turned his involuntary smirk into a charming smile - most Halcyonites, particularly the older generation, still seemed in equal parts awed and horrified when they saw a foreigner speaking fluent Dynastic despite Halcyon’s affectations at being a cosmopolitan world city, and the novelty had yet to wear off for him.
“Johnson. Richard Johnson. He should be expecting me. Would you kindly check?”
The mamasan’s powdered facade was as scuffed as the brothel’s, and frayed a little further as she wilted beneath the weight of Ivan’s smile, avoiding his gaze and calling a girl over. The girl slipped out of the little alcove by the window she’d been preening in, coming over to the mamasan, who gave her a few rushed instructions in a clipped Dynastic dialect - one he’d heard around Halcyon, but hadn’t had the time to pick up.
The girl quickly ran up a flight of wooden steps to do the mamasan’s bidding, but not before covertly shooting Ivan a glance. He nodded back to Mei, disguising the motion as an appraising look, his eyes lingering over Mei as she sprang up the dark wood steps. He had to admire the lightness of her gait, even in heels - her footfalls were so subtle you could only hear them if you were paying close attention, and the steps didn’t creak despite their obvious age. She’d been practicing the movements he’d showed her.
“...long, sir?” Ivan started back to the mamasan, who’d managed to gather herself enough to address him directly. Ogling Mei had worked - it was easier for the mamasan to know what to make of him that way, easier to talk to him if he was just another foreign pervert.
“I’m sorry, could you say that again? I didn’t hear you clearly.”
“Oh, of course! No problem at all. Have you been in Halcyon long, sir?” She was in full service mode, obsequious to a fault. “You speak Dynastic very well! Very impressive!”
“Not at all, not at all! I’m still learning. I thought it would be a waste not to - Dynastic culture is as rich and deep as the ocean, after all.” He deftly dodged the question, instead dredging up an old proverb he’d heard somewhere, which made her laugh and clap, as if watching a dog perform a clever trick.
“A gentleman and a scholar! You know, we have a few girls here who would love to share the company of such a cunning linguist. How about stopping by afterwards, sir?”
“I look forward to it, but I’ll have to see how things go with Mr. Hock. I might be busy handling business - you know he’s not the type to sit around while there’s money to be made. What with the delicate situation in Emperor Drive...”
He let concern bleed into his expression and voice, and allowed the silence to stretch out, wide enough for her to fall into. Hock was indeed trying to get a foothold in the Emperor Drive district, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the recent arrest of Old Fang, kingpin of the Three-Tigers Triad.
Unfortunately for him, so was every other gang with men and money to spare. Technically, nobody was supposed to know that Hock was jockeying for influence - he was only a lieutenant in the Mirokyu Clan, and he was going behind his captain and patriarch’s backs with this move. But Ivan had been doing his due diligence on Hock, and amongst his closer associates it was an open secret.
“Indeed, indeed.” She took the bait, leaning in closer with a conspiratorial glance. “In that case, you might as well enjoy yourself before getting down to business. You never know, it might be the last chance you get. Things got bloody at Emperor Drive the day before, and we lost a few boys to the Three-Tiger bastards… and then the Enforcers turned up.”
That was news to Ivan, but it was another piece of the puzzle falling into place. Hock had never told him to meet at the Peach Garden before, instead preferring to rendezvous in Halcyon proper, near entry points to the Underworld. If Hock had been spotted in Emperor Drive by Enforcers, he’d probably go to ground in the Underworld until the heat died down.
“Ah, well said. Life’s all too short, isn’t it? I may just take you up on your offer, miss.” Fortuitously, Mei returned before the mamasan could pull out the catalogue, whispering a brief missive in her ear. The mamasan sighed and waved Ivan up the stairs resignedly.
Mei led him through a tearoom, and down a twisting set of hallways lined on either side with dark wood doors paneled with rice paper, opaque enough for privacy but too thin to keep the moans in. Business was thriving, from the sound of it.
“How many?” He kept his voice low, his words fading into the background chorus of sighs and squeals.
“Three, plus Hock. They’re armed. Watch yourself.”
Mei stopped at a private room, deftly stepping to the side with a small bow. Ivan heard raucous murmuring and the distinctive clack of mahjong tiles from inside, and knocked on the door before entering.
“Ah, so good of you to finally join us, Mr. Johnson!” Hock looked up from shuffling the tiles, speaking around a cigarette clamped in the side of his mouth. “Take a break, boys. I’m going to have a chat with our friend here.”
The other three players - Hock’s goons, from the looks of it - dutifully filed out of the room, shooting him distrustful glances on their way out. As he waited for the cloud of cheap cologne, cigarette smoke, and whisky breath that hung around them to dissipate, Ivan shut the doors, leaving him alone with Hock.