Chapter 30: Ah-Duo

It was pure coincidence that Maomao sneaked out of the Jade Pavilion on that particular night: she couldn’t sleep.

The next day, the Pure Consort would depart the rear palace.

Maomao wandered aimlessly around the grounds. The palace was already firmly in the grip of winter cold, and she wore two cotton overgarments against the chill. One thing hadn’t changed in the rear palace: promiscuity was alive and well, and one had to be careful not to look too closely among the bushes or into the shadows. For those who burned with passion, the winter chill presented no obstacle.

Maomao glanced up and saw the half-moon hanging in the sky. A memory of Princess Fuyou danced through her head, and Maomao decided that since she was out here anyway, maybe she would climb up on the wall. She would have liked to “share a drink with the moon,” as the old poets put it, but as there was no alcohol in the Jade Pavilion she regretfully gave up the idea. She should have saved some of the stuff Jinshi had given her. She suddenly craved some snake wine—it had been so long since she’d had any—but then she remembered what had happened the other day, and shook her head, realizing it wasn’t worth it.

Using the protruding bricks in the corner of the outer wall as footholds, Maomao pulled herself up to the top. She had to mind her skirt, lest she tear it.

A proverb had it that only two things liked high places—idiots and smoke—but Maomao had to confess, it felt good to be up above it all. The moon and a sprinkling of stars shined down upon the Imperial city. The lights she could see in the distance must have been the pleasure district. She was sure that the flowers and the bees had begun their nightly communion there by now.

Maomao had no particular business up there on the wall. She simply sat on the edge, kicking her legs and looking up at the sky.

“Well, well. Someone got here before me?” The voice was neither high nor low. Maomao turned to discover a handsome young man in long pants. No—it looked like a young man, but it was Consort Ah-Duo. She’d tied her hair back in a ponytail that cascaded down her back, and a large gourd-flask was suspended from her shoulder. There was a touch of red in her cheeks, and she was dressed relatively lightly. Her footing was sure, but it seemed she’d had a bit to drink.

“Don’t mind me, milady. I’ll be leaving presently,” Maomao said.

“There’s no rush. Share a cup with me?”

Presented with a drinking cup, Maomao could find no reason to refuse. She might normally have declined on the grounds that she was Consort Gyokuyou’s serving woman, but Maomao wasn’t so vulgar as to refuse a last drink with Consort Ah-Duo on her last night in the rear palace. (Perfectly logical, you see: she certainly wasn’t simply tempted by the opportunity for some wine.)

Maomao held the cup in both hands; it was full of a cloudy drink. The wine had a strongly sweet taste, without much of the acid sting of alcohol. She didn’t say anything, just lapped at the cup of wine. Ah-Duo showed no compunction in drinking directly out of the gourd.

“Thinking I seem a little mannish?”

“Thinking that’s how you seem to be acting.”

“Hah, a straight shooter. I like that.” Ah-Duo raised one knee, bracing her chin on her hand. Her sharp nose and the long eyebrows that fringed her eyes looked somehow familiar to Maomao. They reminded her of someone she knew, she thought, but her mind was a little cloudy, like the drink. “Ever since my son slipped away from me, I’ve been His Majesty’s friend. Or maybe I should say, gone back to being.”

She stood by him as a friend, without having to act like a consort. Someone who had known him since they nursed together. She’d never imagined she would be chosen as a consort. She was his first partner, yes, but only, she’d assumed, as his guide. One might almost say a mentor. Then, because of His Majesty’s fondness for her, she’d remained a consort for more than ten years, though she’d been only ornamental. She’d wished he would hurry up and hand her off to someone. Why had he clung to her so?

Ah-Duo continued ruminating to herself. She would likely have gone on whether or not Maomao was there; whether or not anyone was there. This consort would be gone tomorrow. Whatever rumors might spread in the rear palace would no longer be any concern of hers.

Maomao only listened in silence.

When she had finally finished speaking, the consort got to her feet and turned the gourd upside down, emptying its contents over the wall, into the moat beyond. She seemed to be offering the libation as a parting gift, and Maomao thought of the serving woman who had killed herself some days before.

“It must have been so cold, in the water.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“She must have suffered.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How stupid.”

After a beat, Maomao said, “You may be right.”

“Everyone, so stupid.”

“You may be right.”

She understood, dimly. The serving woman had been a suicide. And Ah-Duo knew it. Perhaps she had known the woman who killed herself.

Maybe “everyone” included Fengming. She might have had a hand in the woman’s death.

There was the serving woman, sunk in the freezing water so that suspicion might not fall on Consort Ah-Duo.

There was Fengming, who had hung herself to keep a secret that must never be known.

There were all those who had given their lives for Ah-Duo, literally or figuratively, whether she wished it or not.

What a tremendous waste.

Ah-Duo had the personality and the mettle to rule people. If she could have been by the Emperor’s side, not as his consort, but in another form, perhaps politics would have gone more smoothly. Perhaps.

Maomao let the thoughts drift through her mind, though there was no point to them now, as she gazed up at the stars.

Ah-Duo climbed back down the wall first, and Maomao, starting to feel properly chilly, was just doing the same when she was stopped by a voice.

“What are you doing?”

Startled, Maomao lost her footing and slipped from halfway down the wall, landing hard on her back and behind.

“Who the hell was that?” she grumbled to herself.

“Well, pardon me,” the voice hissed, now right in her ear. She turned in surprise to see Jinshi, looking less than pleased.

“Master Jinshi. What are you doing here?”

“You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Maomao realized she hadn’t felt any pain when she landed. There had been an impact, true, but no sense of having hit the ground. This was one mystery that wasn’t hard to solve: she had fallen right on top of Jinshi.

Whoops! Maomao made to get up again, but she couldn’t move. She was held fast.

“Master Jinshi, perhaps you could let go of me?” she said, trying to sound polite, but Jinshi’s arms remained resolutely wrapped around her midriff. “Master Jinshi...”

He stubbornly ignored her. Maomao squirmed a little, turning to get a look at his face, and she discovered there was a flush in his cheeks. She could smell alcohol on his breath. “Have you been drinking?”

“I was socializing. Didn’t have a choice,” Jinshi said, and looked up at the sky. The winter air was crisp and clear, making the light of the stars seem even brighter.

Socializing. Right. Maomao looked suspiciously at him. “Socializing” in the rear palace could mean some very shady things. It could be argued that the Emperor still gave the place’s inhabitants a bit too much freedom, even if many of them were missing some very important parts.

“I said, let go of me.”

“Don’t wanna. I’m cold.” For all his beauty, the eunuch sounded downright petulant. Well, of course he was cold; he wasn’t wearing so much as a light jacket. Maomao wondered where Gaoshun was.

“I’m sure you are, so you’d better get back to your room before you catch a cold.” She didn’t care whether the room he went back to was his own quarters or the chambers of whoever had shared the wine with him.

Jinshi, though, pressed his forehead against Maomao’s neck, almost nuzzling her. “Dammit… Asking me in to drink, getting me all soused up. Then it’s ‘I think I’ll step out for a while.’ Sure! Off you go! To… To who knows where! Dammit. Then you’re back, but now you’re ‘feeling much better’! And chasing me out, too! Damn it all!”

Maomao discovered she was impressed to realize that there was anyone in the rear palace with the nerve to treat Jinshi that way. But that was neither here nor there. I’m so not interested in having to hang out with a drunk person. They always got clingy like this, that was the problem. Actually, hold on...

It finally sank in that Maomao was in her current situation because she’d come falling down on Jinshi from above. He’d had the good grace to break her fall, even if he hadn’t known he was doing it. Even if it was the alcohol that had left him lying among the weeds at that particular moment. Maybe it was a little rude, Maomao reflected, to immediately start giving orders without even a word of thanks to someone who had just saved you from a nasty fall. But then, she couldn’t just lie there, either.

“Master Jinsh—” Her latest attempt to free herself was interrupted by a feeling of something dropping onto her neck. The warm feeling ran down her back.

“Just a moment longer,” Jinshi said, hugging her tighter. “Help me warm myself just a little bit.”

Maomao sighed: his voice sounded nothing like it ordinarily did. Then she looked up at the sky, and started counting the gleaming stars one by one.

A great crowd gathered at the main gate the next day. The rear palace’s longest-serving consort was, in contrast to the night before, dressed in a wide-sleeved jacket and skirt that suited her hardly at all. Some of the women around clutched handkerchiefs. The handsome, boyish consort had been something of an idol to many of the young ladies.

Jinshi stood in front of Ah-Duo. One might have worried about them after all the drinking the night before, but neither showed any sign of a hangover. She gave him something: a headdress, the symbol of the Pure Consort. Before long, it would pass to another woman.

They could stand to trade outfits. The nymph-like beauty and the handsome woman. In principle, they could hardly have been more different, and yet oddly, they seemed to share much. So that’s it, Maomao thought. The night before, she’d thought Ah-Duo resembled somebody, but hadn’t been able to think of who. It must have been Jinshi. What would have happened if Consort Ah-Duo had been in Jinshi’s position?

But it was a silly question. Not worth thinking about. Ah-Duo in no way appeared like a pitiful reject being chased out of the rear palace. She walked with her head high and her chest out; one could even say she had the triumphant look of a woman who had done her duty.

How could she look so proud? How, when she had never done the one thing a consort must do? Maomao suddenly found herself in the grip of an absurd possibility. Ah-Duo’s words from the night before came back to her: “Ever since my son slipped away from me...

Now Maomao thought: Slipped away? Not... died?

One could very nearly take the consort to mean her son was still alive. Ah-Duo had lost the ability to bear children because her delivery had come at the same time as that of the Empress Dowager. The Imperial younger brother and the consort’s child were uncle and nephew, and they’d been born at almost the exact same time. It was possible they had practically looked like twins.

What if they were switched?

Even as she was giving birth, Consort Ah-Duo would have known with absolute certainty which of the two infants would be the more diligently raised, the more treasured. The best possible patronage for a child would never come from Ah-Duo, the daughter of a wet nurse. But from an Empress Dowager...

It couldn’t have been easy for Ah-Duo, whose recovery after the birth had been slow, to be sure what was right. But if, by making the switch, her own son might be saved—it would be understandable if she wished for such a thing.

And if it came to light later? If the true Imperial younger brother was already dead by then? Then it would make sense why Maomao’s father had been not only banished, but mutilated as well. Because he had failed to notice that the infants had been switched. It would explain why His Majesty’s younger brother led such a constrained life. And why the otherwise chaste Ah-Duo had remained so long in the rear palace.

Bah. This is ridiculous. Maomao shook her head. An outrageous fantasy. A leap even her fellow ladies-in-waiting at the Jade Pavilion wouldn’t make.

No point in staying here, Maomao thought. She was just about to head back to the Jade Pavilion when she saw someone coming her direction in a rush. It was the sweet-looking young consort, Lishu. She showed no sign of having noticed Maomao, but veritably ran toward the main gate. Her food taster trailed behind her, gasping for breath. Her other ladies-in-waiting came behind them, not running at all, and in fact looking thoroughly annoyed by the entire scene.

Some people never change. Well, I guess at least one of them has. It wasn’t like Maomao would or could do anything about it. Someone who couldn’t take her own people in hand was someone who wouldn’t survive in this garden of women.

But now she wasn’t alone. That, at least, was heartening.

Consort Lishu appeared before Consort Ah-Duo, her arms and legs moving awkwardly together, almost mechanically. She was tripping on the hem of her own dress, and presently tumbled headlong to the ground. As the crowd attempted to suppress its laughter, and Consort Lishu lay there looking like she might cry, Ah-Duo took out a handkerchief and gently helped the young woman wipe the dirt off her face.

In that moment, the face of the handsome young consort was that of a loving mother.

Chapter 31: Dismissal

“What am I going to do?” Jinshi gazed mournfully at the paper.

“What do you wish to do?” his taciturn aide asked, likewise looking at the document. The situation was enough to make any man despair. “This is a list of names,” Gaoshun observed. “Fengming’s family, and their known associates.”

Fengming was already dead, and her clan and family relations would be spared total annihilation, but her relatives were to be subject to the confiscation of all their assets and would each be punished with mutilation, though to varying degrees of severity.

Jinshi could be grateful, at least, that there had been no sign of any instructions from Consort Ah-Duo. Fengming was to be held to have acted alone.

Among the associates were a number of clients who engaged her family’s services. Jinshi had always taken the clan to be simple apiarists, but they seemed to have their hands in quite a few cookie jars.

“Eighty of their girls serve at the rear palace,” Gaoshun remarked.

“Eighty out of two thousand. A respectable ratio.”

“I should say so,” Gaoshun said, watching his master furrow his brow. “Shall they be discharged?”

“Can that be done?”

“If you wish it.”

If he wished it. Whatever Jinshi told him, Gaoshun would see done. Whether it was right or not. Just or not.

Jinshi sighed, a long, slow exhalation of breath. He recognized at least one of the names on the list of associates. The purchasers of a kidnapped apothecary’s daughter.

“What to do about this...” he mused. All he had to do was choose. But he sat in fear of how she would look at him, depending on what he decided to do. It was so simple to give an order. But how would she take it, if it was contrary to what she wanted?

Maomao saw the divide between herself and Jinshi as that between a commoner and a noble. No matter how distasteful the command, he suspected she would ultimately accept it. But he saw it making the gulf between them that much wider.

But—send her away? He waffled. She wasn’t here voluntarily, that much was true. Yet could he end her service at his own whim? And what if the ever-perceptive girl caught a whiff of it?

“Master Jinshi,” Gaoshun said, as Jinshi turned the questions over and over in his mind. “Was she not a very fortuitous pawn?”

His aide’s words were coldly rational. Jinshi ran a hand across his brow.

⭘⬤⭘

“A mass dismissal?”

“Yep,” Xiaolan said, munching on a dried persimmon. Maomao had helped herself to a few persimmons from the fruit orchard, then discreetly hung them under the eaves of the Jade Pavilion to dry. If anyone had noticed, she would have been in a spot of trouble. In fact, she actually was: there was no way Hongniang would fail to notice the fruit. Gaoshun had arrived at just the right moment to save her skin. When Hongniang discovered that he was quite fond of persimmons, she said she would let it go “this one time,” with a conspiratorial wink.

“I guess it’s like, you know how sometimes they slaughter everyone related to a case like this? All the girls from all the merchant houses they had dealings with are going to have to quit. That’s what I heard.”

Xiaolan’s explanation left something to be desired, but Maomao nodded. Not sure I like where this is going. Got a bad feeling about it, she thought. And her bad feelings had an unfortunate tendency to be accurate.

Maomao’s nominal family was a business and sometimes engaged in commerce. Fengming’s family were beekeepers, so there could well be a connection between them.

It’d be tough on me if they fired me now, Maomao thought. Besides, she was starting to like her life here. True, there was no question she would be happy to be able to go home to the pleasure district, but as soon as she got there, she would wind up in the clutches of the old madam, a woman who wouldn’t let the smallest coin go unnoticed. Maomao still hadn’t sent her any customers since Lihaku’s visit. A fact that would not have escaped her calculating mind.

She really will start selling me this time.

Maomao said goodbye to Xiaolan, then set off to find a person she would normally have had no interest whatsoever in seeing.

“How unusual. And breathing so hard,” the gorgeous eunuch said lightly. They were by the main gate of the rear palace, where Maomao had only arrived after visiting the residences of all four of the favored consorts. She struggled to muster a biting riposte, but Jinshi said, “Calm down. You’re bright red.” On the nymph-like face was a shadow of alarm.

“I—I h-have to... to talk to you,” Maomao managed between gasps. Jinshi almost seemed to smile, and yet, for some reason she couldn’t guess, there was a hint of melancholy in the expression, too.

“Very well. Let’s speak inside.”

She felt a little bad for the Matron of the Serving Women, who (for the first time in a while) was forced to wait outside while Maomao and Jinshi used her office. Maomao gave the woman a polite bow as she passed; it seemed she had been terribly busy of late handling Ah-Duo’s departure. By the time Maomao got inside, Jinshi was already sitting in a chair, eyeing a piece of paper on the desk. “I presume you wanted to ask me about the mass dismissal taking place.”

“Yes, sir. What’s to happen to me?”

Instead of answering, Jinshi showed her the paper. It was of excellent material—and among the names on it was Maomao’s.

“So I’m to be let go.”

What do I do? she thought. She could hardly insist they keep her on. She was all too keenly aware that she was only an ordinary serving woman. She studiously maintained a neutral expression, wary lest her face should seem to show any hint of flattery. The result, though, was that she looked at Jinshi exactly as she always did: as though staring at a caterpillar.

“What do you want to do?” Jinshi’s voice was devoid of its usual honeyed tone. Indeed, he nearly seemed like a pleading child himself. In fact, he sounded just like he had the night before Consort Ah-Duo left. His face, though, remained frozen, grave.

“I’m only a servant. At a word, I can be put to menial labor, cooking. Even tasting food for poison.”

She was only telling the truth. If she was ordered to do something, she would do it, so long as it was within her power, and she liked to think she would do it well. She wouldn’t complain, even if she had to take a bit of a pay cut. If it put some distance between her and having to sell her body, she would do whatever it took to wrangle some new customers.

So please, just don’t cut me loose...

Maomao felt she had said, as clearly as she possibly could: Let me stay. But the young man’s expression remained unmoved; he offered only a small exhalation, his eyes flitting away for the barest second.

“Very well,” he said. “I’ll make sure you receive adequate compensation.” The young man’s voice was cold, and he looked down at the desk so she couldn’t read his expression.

The negotiations had failed.

⭘⬤⭘

How many days now, Gaoshun wondered with a sigh, had his master been cagey and withdrawn? It wasn’t interfering with his work, but when they got back to his room, he would only sit in a corner brooding, and Gaoshun was frankly getting a little tired of it. Jinshi was casting a cloud over the entire place. The boy with the enchanting nymph-like smile and the captivating voice was not there.

Maomao had left the week after receiving official notice of her dismissal. She had never been unduly warm, but she was also never rude, and she had gone from place to place in the rear palace to formally thank all her various acquaintances and benefactors.

Consort Gyokuyou had been openly opposed to Maomao’s dismissal, but when she heard that the decision came from Jinshi, she didn’t continue to push the matter. She did, though, leave him with a parting shot: “Don’t come crying to me if you find out you wish you hadn’t done this.”

“Are you certain you shouldn’t have stopped her, sir?”

“Don’t say a word.”

Gaoshun crossed his arms, frowning. A memory from the past came back to him. How much strife there had been when the young man lost a favorite toy. How Gaoshun had suffered to give him something newer, and more enticing still!

Perhaps he shouldn’t think of her as a toy. Perhaps Jinshi had chosen not to stop her as his way of refusing to treat her as an object. What point would it serve, then, to find some other remarkable lady?

It all portended a great deal of trouble.

“If no substitute will do, the only recourse is to the original,” Gaoshun murmured, so quietly that Jinshi didn’t hear him. One person in particular flashed through his mind. A military officer well acquainted with the girl’s family. “A great deal of trouble though it is.” The long-suffering Gaoshun scratched the back of his neck.

Epilogue: The Eunuch and the Courtesan

“Time to work. Get going.” The old madam hustled Maomao into a rather distinguished-looking carriage. This evening’s job was apparently a banquet for some noble. Maomao could only sigh as they arrived at a large mansion in the north of the capital. She was just one of a number of people accompanying her “sisters” to the banquet. Everyone was dressed in gorgeous clothing and done up with ostentatious makeup. When she contemplated the fact that she was made up to look just like them, Maomao felt oddly queasy.

Their party was ushered down a long hallway, up a spiral staircase, and into a large room. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and festive red tassles dangled everywhere. Someone has money to burn, Maomao thought.

Five people sat in a row in the room. They were younger than she’d expected. Pairin licked her lips when she saw the young men in the flickering lamplight. She was rewarded with a gentle jab in the side from Joka. When she wanted to, Maomao’s sexy “sister” could be very quick about things, enough to make even the madam throw up her hands.

Wish he’d made these introductions sooner! The men at this banquet were supposedly high officials from the palace; Lihaku had been the go-between. And with him involved, at least a portion of the profits should go to paying off Maomao’s debts. If nothing else, she’d been given a substantial amount of severance pay, more than she’d counted on, so she’d escaped being forced to sell her body, but the madam still put her to odd jobs like this.

Old hag. The way she clucked when she heard... The old lady really seemed to want to make Maomao a courtesan. She’d been maneuvering toward it for years now. She kept telling Maomao to quit wasting her time with medicine already, but that was never going to happen. What, was she simply going to swap her interest from pharmaceuticals to singing and dancing? Not a chance.

As Maomao took in the room, she saw that everything was hugely ornate: each bottle of wine and every sitting mat was of the highest quality. Surely they wouldn’t notice if I helped myself to a furnishing as a souvenir, she thought, but then she shook her head. No, no, that wouldn’t do.

Calling courtesans to one’s private residence was substantially more expensive than holding a banquet at the brothel. All the more so when the courtesans one summoned were women any one of whom could charge a year’s wages in silver for a single evening. To ask all three of the “princesses” of the Verdigris House—Meimei, Pairin, and Joka—to be present at once was as good as to announce that money was no object.

Maomao was just one of those who had been brought along in support of the night’s three stars. She’d learned to be mannerly, but she couldn’t hold a tune, nor could she play the erhu. And dancing? That was out of the question. The best she could hope to do was to keep a close watch on the guests’ drinks and make sure they never ran dry.

Maomao forced the muscles of her face into a smile as she began to pour wine into someone’s empty cup. Her only saving grace was that everyone was so enraptured by her sisters’ singing and dancing that they didn’t so much as glance at her. One person had even started a game of Go with a member of the support staff.

While everyone else laughed, drank, and enjoyed the show, though, she spotted one person looking down at the ground. What, bored? Maomao wondered. He was a young man dressed in fine silk; he rested a small cup of wine on one knee, sipping from it occasionally. A gray gloom clung to him. They’re going to think I’m not doing my job, thought Maomao, who had a way of turning serious about anything she happened to be doing. She grabbed a good, full bottle of wine and sat down beside the melancholy young man. His sleek, dark bangs hid much of his face. For the life of her, she couldn’t see his expression.

“Leave me alone,” he said.

Maomao was puzzled: his voice was oddly familiar. Her hand moved almost before she could think; any thought of propriety or politeness had vanished from her mind. Careful not to touch the young man’s cheek, she lifted his hair.

A gorgeous countenance greeted her. Her reserved expression promptly changed to one of total astonishment. “Master Jinshi?” There was no gleaming smile on his face now, no sweet honey in his voice, but still she would have known that eunuch anywhere.

Jinshi blinked several times in succession, studied her for a second, then said uneasily, “Who... Who’re you?”

“A question I’m often asked.”

“Anyone ever tell you you look very different with makeup?”

“Frequently.”

The conversation gave her a sense of déjà vu. She let go of his hair and it fell back over his face. Jinshi reached out and tried to take her wrist. “Why are you running?” He looked sullen now.

“Please don’t touch the entertainment,” she said. It wasn’t her decision—it was the rules. They would have to charge extra.

“Why the hell do you even look like that?”

Maomao refused to meet his eyes as she said uncomfortably, “It’s... part-time work.”

“At a brothel? Wait... Don’t tell me you...”

Maomao gave Jinshi a glare. So he liked to question people’s chastity, did he? “I don’t take customers myself,” she informed him. “Yet.”

Yet...”

Maomao didn’t elaborate. What could she say? It certainly wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that the madam would finally manage to force a customer on her before she was able to pay off her debt. Although thankfully, under the influence of her father and sisters, it hadn’t happened so far.

“How about if I bought you?” Jinshi drawled.

“Huh?” Maomao was about to tell him not to joke when an idea flashed through her mind. “You know, that might not be half bad.”

Jinshi caught his breath, startled. It was the face of a pigeon spooked by a peashooter. Apparently the lack of sparkle opened the door to a great wealth of expressions. Lovely though the nymph-like smile was, it almost didn’t look human. It was nearly enough to convince Maomao that he must have two hun spirits within a single po spirit: two transient yang souls for the single, corporeal yin spirit.

“It wouldn’t be so bad, to work at the rear palace again,” she said.

Jinshi’s shoulders slumped. Maomao looked at him, wondering what could be the matter.

“I thought you quit the rear palace. Because you hated it.”

“When did I ever say such a thing?” In fact, Maomao was convinced she’d all but begged to stay on in order to pay off her debt, and it had been Jinshi who’d had her fired. The place had its troubles and difficulties, no question, but Consort Gyokuyou’s ladies-in-waiting had been good women. And food taster was an unusual role, not one to which most people could—or would—aspire. “If there’s anything I didn’t like about it,” Maomao said, “I suppose it would be that I wasn’t able to conduct my poison experiments.”

“You shouldn’t be doing those anyway.” Jinshi rested his chin on his knee in place of his cup. His look of outright exasperation spontaneously slipped into a wry smile. “Heh. I know, I know. It’s who you are.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a woman of few words? Too few?”

“Yes,” Maomao replied after a beat. “Often.”

Jinshi’s smile gradually grew more innocent. This time it was Maomao’s turn to look annoyed. Jinshi reached out again. “I said, why are you running?”

“It’s the rules, sir.” The information didn’t seem to dissuade Jinshi, whose hand didn’t move. He was staring fixedly at Maomao. She was getting a bad feeling about it.

“Surely one touch is all right.”

“No, sir.”

“There won’t be any less of you afterward.”

“It takes my energy.”

“Just one hand. Just a fingertip. Surely that’s all right.”

Maomao had no answer. He was persistent. She knew him; knew he didn’t give up. Maomao, helpless, closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “Just a fingertip.”

The instant the words were out of her mouth, she felt something press against her lips. Her eyelids fluttered open and she saw a daub of her red lip color on Jinshi’s lithe fingertip. He pulled his hand back almost before she realized what had happened. Then, to her amazement, he touched the finger to his own lips.

That sneaky little...

When he pulled his fingers away from his mouth, a spot of scarlet was left on his finely-shaped mouth. His face relaxed a little and the smile became even more innocent. A flush entered his cheeks, as if a touch of the lip color had gotten on his face.

Maomao’s shoulders were shaking, but Jinshi’s smile looked so profoundly youthful, almost childish, that she found she couldn’t rebuke him. Instead she focused on the ground.

Damn, it’s catching... Maomao’s mouth formed a tight line, and her own cheeks were turning pink. She knew she hadn’t used any rouge. Then she realized she could hear laughter, chuckling men and giggling women, and she discovered everyone was looking at them. Her sisters were grinning openly. Maomao was terrified to imagine what would come next. Suddenly she wanted to be anywhere else.

Gaoshun appeared veritably out of the blue, his arms crossed as if to say: Finally. That’s one job done. It was all enough to make Maomao’s head spin, and later she hardly recalled the rest of the evening. She never forgot, though, how her sisters hounded her about it afterward.

⭘⬤⭘

Some days later, a gorgeous noble visitor appeared in the capital’s pleasure district. He came with money enough to make even the old madam goggle—and for some reason, an unusual herb grown from an insect. And he wanted one young woman in particular.


Fin.