Scarlett Zhou vows to wait for marriage to honor her parents, who were killed by VAIN, a sexually-transmitted disease. Hoping to find a cure, she goes off to university, and becomes infatuated with one wolfishly handsome professor, Jude Tanner. She is enraptured by his career of researching disease regulation laws, his commanding presence over his automaton servants, and most of all...his touch.
When Jude catches Scarlett violating a university policy, he makes a deal: she can choose to stay a virgin until marriage, or be expelled from university and become his slave.
Of course Scarlett chooses the former, but the deal is not so simple. As their friendship grows, Jude awakens her desires and slowly gnaws away her innocence. Will Scarlett be able to honor her parents’ deaths by remaining a virgin and finding a cure? Or will she succumb to her love and lust for Professor Tanner?
REVISED FIRST 5 PAGES
My mother did not want me to tell her good-bye. In her last moments, she refused to have me at her deathbed.
“Please,” she wheezed to my father through her respirator, which resembled a large bronze-and-black spider devouring her face. “Take the children to the cellar.”
“Mama, I want to stay with you!” I clutched my mother’s thin hand as I collapsed to my knees. I ignored the respirator, the blue veins that bulged along her fingers, and the shadows staining the hollows of her eyes. She was immortalized in my memory with her midnight tresses, the flush of her fair skin, and the warmth of health blooming in her smooth, supple palms.
Mother gasped. A bead of sweat rolled down her temple. She pressed her free hand to her throat as she coughed, lurching on her back, the final minutes of her life forcing spasms along her spine.
Baba yanked on my shoulder, holding my little brother, Teddy, by one hand.
“Scarlett, down to the cellar.”
Turning a deaf ear to my screeches, he slung me over his broad shoulder, as easily as a bamboo pole. He whisked Teddy and me out of the bedchamber to the kitchen. Coriander and ginger scented the air, and darkness slammed above my head. With the snap of the lock, Baba trapped my brother and me in the cellar among the sacks of flour, rice, and dried fruit.
Teddy clung to my waist. I threw my arms around his shoulders, resting my chin upon the tuft of dark hair atop his head. As his tears streamed down my neck, I tightened my embrace, needing the softness of his round, familiar cheeks against my collarbone.
“What’s happening to Mama, Scarlett?”
My voice felt like glass shards in my throat. “Mama’s dying, Teddy.”
Teddy was only four. “Baba keeps saying Mama won’t return. Is that what dying means?”
My tears dripped into my brother’s black hair. “That’s right. Mama will be gone. She’ll sleep and never wake up.”
“Then she’ll need a kiss!” Teddy leapt to his feet as if he had found gold. “That’s how ladies wake up in stories! Baba needs to kiss her, and she’ll live!”
“No, Teddy.” I shook my head as I pressed my fists against my soaked eyes. “Kisses can’t save her, not even ones from Baba. She’ll disappear, and we’ll never see her again.”
In a momentary halt of tears, Teddy stayed quiet in the dark. He processed my words, let them seep into his ears, soak into his brain, and felt the blunt trauma of truth bruise him deep beneath his skin before a fresh flood of tears assaulted my skirt.
“Don’t ever die, Scarlett!” He pressed his face between my ribs.
“I’m not going to die!” The declaration ripped out of my throat as we sobbed and embraced each other by the lumpy sacks of flour. We couldn’t tell whose tears were whose. They merged like raindrops streaking down windows on stormy nights and bleeding into oblivion.
Our sobs ebbed into sniffled whimpers. We didn’t hear anything. No winds through the windows, no tinkling of windchimes in the garden, no creaking footsteps, nothing but the ticking of the kitchen clock. Tick...tick...tick…
A great cry from my parents’ bedchamber shattered the silence. It resonated against the walls, deep and anguished. It couldn’t belong to anyone but Baba, but the voice did not sound human. It sounded like the cry of a mauled animal.
There was a sudden rush of sounds--a window clattering open, glass smashing and crackling upon the floor, the stomp of steel boots, and a satin-deep voice that declared, “She’s mine now!”
“No!” I heard Baba cry. “No! She’s my wife!”
I clutched my brother to me, his cheeks squished against the curve of my neck as we held our breaths. Was this why Baba locked us in here?
“Leave my family alone!”
“That simple, is it? You’ll never be left alone.”
I heard another scream from Baba, like an arrow shot through my ears.
The unfamiliar voice chuckled. “I am perfectly aware that you have a daughter.”
“No!” Baba’s ragged voice was fading, and I had to raise my head and widen my eyes to catch his words. “No children!”
Only a laugh. “You’re still a poor liar. I’d like to meet her very much.”
Dragging my brother by the hand, I buried us both beneath a pile of rice sacks. I clamped my hand over my mouth as the lock shattered open, and light stabbed into the cellar.
I screamed when a large hand snatched my tresses. With brute force, I was dragged into the daylit kitchen, and back to the bedchamber. There was my father, clutching the door frame as he leaned forward with heavy breaths. A syringe with clear fluid stuck out from his shoulder, the very shoulder I had been slung over less than an hour ago.
“Look at me, girl!”
I shrieked like a pig to be slaughtered as my head was yanked back by my hair. The intruder’s face was obscured by a white mask with painted black slits. His velvet coat was long and green, and his hair was hidden beneath a wide-brimmed black hat with a gold feather.
“What a pretty girl.” His deep voice was like a purr, a soft breath stained with sneers. “How old are you, child?”
Tears streaked down my face. My mouth hung slack.
“Eight? Nine? Ten?” He yanked harder on my hair. “Answer me, girl!”
“Nine!” The stinging in my scalp shot the truth out of me.
“Nine?” He laughed, and met Baba’s red eyes, which were delirious with anger. “You and your wife produced a future minx. Give her another ten years, and she’ll be at the apex of ravishment.”
A flash of black movement jerked another shriek out of me. One lash of a whip against the intruder’s arm, and I crumpled to the floor. I crawled to Baba. He clenched his bared teeth as I yanked the syringe out of him. A shadow loomed over us.
My grandmother stood tall, her teeth bared with an axe in one fist, a whip in the other, and a pistol at her belt. She glared at the intruder, her legs spread in a formidable stance.
“You dare come after my family?”
“I have only come to collect my debts.” The intruder rubbed his arm where he had been whipped, chuckling.
I clutched Baba’s hand as he tried to stand, but the injection from the syringe made his legs quiver, as if he had been reduced to the strength of a fawn trying to take its first steps. Nainai’s axe swung out many times, slicing into the hem of the intruder’s coat. I could barely see him dashing through the room in blurs, blasting back my hair like wind.
“Dammit!” Nainai’s blade had sunk into the bedside table.
The intruder gathered my mother’s corpse as Nainai struggled to free her axe. Mother hung over his arms like a marionette, her black hair like a swinging drape. The respirator had been removed from her pale, parched lips, and the white lace of her nightgown fluttered along her protruding collarbone like flowers shriveling beneath a blast of wind.
Large mechanical hands attached with springs shot through the window and snatched both the intruder and my mother, flinging both of them into an airship that hovered outside the window. The massive red and copper structure gleamed in the daylight like an angry shard of sun threatening to burn us all alive.
“Mama!” I screamed as the airship’s engines roared, releasing exhaust fumes like fire from between dragon’s fangs.
“Scarlett!” Nainai grabbed my shoulder, stopping me from running towards the window. She then flung out her pistol and shot at the airship. I slammed my hands over my ears as the shriek of each bullet bounced off the metal, and the vehicle sputtered smoke and flames as it roared and flew far up into the sky, far above the trees that surrounded the cottage, and disappeared.
I clutched Baba’s arm as we both huddled on the floor. The sound of the spring wind fluttering against the death-white drapes of my mother’s bed overpowered his wheezes.
When I woke up on my tear-soaked pillow the next morning, Nainai and Baba told Teddy and me that we had to move to a new home in the town nearby.