Fuzhou, Fukien Province, China, 1870
It was midsummer in tea-trading season, yet Captain Grayson Hunter had not come to Fuzhou for tea. Tea was the treasure of traders with small aspirations—those who wished only to build fortunes through buying and selling. Grayson’s smaller aspirations had combusted in battle five years ago. He had come here to pursue much grander ambitions.
He had walked halfway up the hill on the southern side of the Min River where the Westerners lived. From this height, he could see all the signs of the warring empires. His cousin’s ship, brought carefully up the Min, was docked in the harbor below. From here, the Lenity seemed like a toy, barely distinguishable from the other Western steamships that clamored for space, fighting—politely, always politely!—for trade goods that would bring them their little fortunes.
Crowding the northern docks were Chinese river junks, low and flat, that had come from the tea plantations that were scattered through the hills and mountains farther inland.
Every single one of the people in the harbor believed that they traded in goods—tea, silk, grain—and every single one of them was wrong.
Grayson intended to control what really mattered, and the next step was here in Fuzhou.
His journey had been directed here after a chance meeting in Hong Kong two weeks ago. He’d been talking to a missionary by the name of Leland Acheson. Grayson had been gathering the principal item that he traded in: information.
He hadn’t mentioned the disruption in his plans. He hadn’t mentioned the two separate men who had quit his employ, claiming his aim was impossible. Grayson wasn’t a chatterbox to spill his secrets. But he had mentioned other people’s plans, and when Acheson had heard what they were doing, he’d laughed.
“Ridiculous,” he’d said. “That’s the most simplistic, useless scheme I’ve ever heard. I’ve an acquaintance who came up with a superior implementation years ago.”
It had not taken much—another glass of whiskey—for Acheson to provide more details. Now Grayson was here, looking for a man known as the Silver Fox.
“Brilliant,” Acheson had said before adding with a shake of his head, “Criminally underutilized.”
Grayson had never been one to mince words. “Would the Silver Fox be willing to be employed by a Black man?”
Acheson had looked at him again, and then at his whiskey. “I honestly cannot say. That exact topic has not come up. But I think that broad-minded is a fair description of my friend.” He’d said that with a conspiratorial smile.
So here Grayson was, with no actual name—only a direction, a code name, a letter of introduction Acheson claimed would give him as good a shot as any at a fair hearing, and the intense, unbounded requirements of his ambition.
The path curved up and up, past homes decorated with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes, proclaiming fealty to countries that ruled from half the globe away. Grayson could see the other hills that made up Fuzhou—terraced gardens filled with trees and waving grain manned by the occasional worker who was visible only at this distance by a wide-brimmed hat. It wasn’t quite the height of summer yet. The air was still moving, and it was warm but not yet stiflingly humid.
A narrow-leafed lychee tree, boughs bending with strings of red-skinned fruit, had been planted at a curve in the road. He pulled one off as he went by, rolling the rough shell between his fingers. A little longer and Grayson’s plan would be moving forward once more.
He was eating the fruit when a woman came into view ahead of him. She was walking the same path as he, on the side of the cart ruts closer to the inner slope. She was dressed in Western garb—full skirts, bustle, long sleeves, bonnet and everything.
Grayson found himself grimacing involuntarily. At this time of year? Grayson was going to see an Englishman, so he’d brought a coat (currently slung over one arm) and a necktie (currently stuffed in one pocket). The buttons on his shirt were undone to his chest. Even with that degree of undress, he was uncomfortable walking uphill. The wool of his trousers was a little too warm, the linen of his shirt a little too close.
Luckily, Grayson didn’t care what foolishness Western women wore in China. He had one objective: Hire the Silver Fox. Pay him what he demanded so he could work his magic. Grayson’s telegraphic company would then gain an advantage over everyone else. It would become the swiftest, least expensive mode of communication in the entire world. Profit wildly; own everything; make up for all that had been lost.
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