Chapter 6: Poison Tester

Jinshi found this a most congenial turn of events. The unusual girl he had spotted by sheer chance would now help him solve one of his many problems.

Lady Gyokuyou, the Emperor’s favored consort, was presently served by four ladies-in-waiting. That might be enough for some concubine of mean account, but for a high-ranking consort like Gyokuyou, it seemed rather too few. The ladies-in-waiting, however, insisted that the four of them were perfectly sufficient to take care of everything that needed doing, and Gyokuyou herself didn’t seem inclined to press for more servants.

Jinshi understood well why this was the case. Consort Gyokuyou was a cheerful and generally tranquil person, but she was also intelligent and careful. In the garden of women that was the rear palace, a woman who received the Imperial favor and was not suspicious of others was in mortal danger. There had, in fact, been several prior attempts on Gyokuyou’s life. Notably, when she had become pregnant with the child who would go on to be Princess Lingli.

And so, although she had had ten ladies-in-waiting at first, she now had less than half that number. Typically, a lady only brought her own servants with her when she first arrived at the rear palace, but Gyokuyou had called on special privilege to bring in that nursemaid. She would never accept an anonymous servant girl from some far-flung corner of the rear palace as one of her ladies-in-waiting. But she had her station as a high consort to think of. Surely she could take on at least one more woman.

And this was where the freckled girl came in. She had saved Gyokuyou’s daughter; surely the consort wouldn’t be averse to her. What was more, the girl knew something about poisons. That could only be useful. There was always the possibility that this freckled girl would put her knowledge to evil ends, but if she tried anything, they would simply have to corner her somewhere she couldn’t do anything harmful. It was all so simple.

If all else failed, Jinshi thought with a grin, he could always use his charms. Yes, he found it just as repugnant as everyone else that he was so ready to take advantage of his ethereal beauty. But he had no intention of changing his ways. Indeed, his looks were what gave Jinshi his value in life.

⭘⬤⭘

When one became a servant assigned to a specific mistress, and a lady-in-waiting to the Emperor’s favorite consort at that, one found that one’s treatment improved. Maomao, who had heretofore been squarely at the bottom of the palace hierarchy, suddenly found herself in the middle ranks. She was told her salary would see a significant increase, although a tenth of it would go to her family, and another tenth to the merchants that had sold her into this life. A distasteful arrangement, in her opinion. A system created so greedy officials could line their pockets.

She was also given her own room—cramped, but a far cry from the overcrowded accommodations she had shared in the past. From a meager reed mat and a single sheet for bedding, she now found herself with an actual bed. Granted, it took up half her room, but Maomao was frankly happy to be able to get up in the morning without treading all over her coworkers.

She had one more cause for celebration as well, although she wouldn’t know it until later.

The Jade Pavilion, in which Gyokuyou lived, was home to four other ladies-in-waiting besides Maomao. A nursemaid had lately been dismissed, allegedly because the princess was beginning to be weaned, but Maomao thought she had an inkling of the real reason. It was an awfully small number of women, in view of the fact that Consort Lihua had more than ten ladies-in-waiting attending upon her. Gyokuyou’s ladies were more than a little taken aback to discover that one of the least important people in the palace had suddenly been elevated to their colleague, but they never harassed Maomao in the way she had half expected. Indeed, they seemed sympathetic toward her.

But why? she thought.

She would find out soon enough.

A palace meal, packed with ingredients traditionally believed to be of medicinal benefit, sat before her. One by one, Hongniang, the head of Gyokuyou’s ladies-in-waiting, took samples and put them on little saucers, placing them in front of Maomao. Gyokuyou observed the scene apologetically but gave no indication that she was going to stop what was happening. The other three ladies-in-waiting likewise watched with pitying gazes.

The location was Gyokuyou’s room. It was appointed in the highest style, and it was where the consort ate all her meals. Before the food reached her, it would pass through the hands of many others, and being the Emperor’s favorite, it behooved her to consider the possibility that one or more of those hands might try to poison the product.

And thus a food taster was necessary. Everyone was on edge because of what had happened to the young prince. Rumors were rife that the princess might have been sickened by the same poison the infant boy died from. The ladies-in-waiting hadn’t been informed of what the toxic substance had ultimately been discovered to be, and so they were understandably paranoid that it might be in anything or everything.

It would not have been strange if they’d viewed the lowly servant girl sent to them at that moment, specifically to be a food taster, as nothing but a disposable pawn. Maomao was charged not only with tasting Consort Gyokuyou’s meals, but also the baby food served to the princess. On those occasions when His Majesty was present, she was also responsible for sampling the luxurious edibles offered to him.

After it was discovered that Gyokuyou was pregnant, Maomao was given to understand, there had been two separate instances of attempted poisoning. In one, the taster had gotten off without real injury, but another had found themselves subject to a nerve toxin that had left their arms and legs paralyzed. The remaining ladies-in-waiting had had, with much fear and trembling, to check the food themselves, so they frankly must have been grateful for Maomao’s arrival.

Maomao furrowed her brow as she looked at the plate in front of her. It was ceramic.

If they’re so scared of poison, they should be using silver.

She picked up the little bit of pickled vegetable in her chopsticks and regarded it critically. She took a sniff. Then she placed it on her tongue, checking to see whether it caused a tingling sensation before she swallowed it.

I don’t think I’m actually qualified to be tasting for poisons, she reflected. Fast-acting agents were one matter, but with regard to slower toxins she expected to be somewhat useless. In the name of science, Maomao had accustomed her body to a variety of poisons bit by bit, and suspected there were few left that would have a serious effect on her. This was not, let it be said, a part of her work as an apothecary, but purely a way of satisfying her intellectual curiosity. In the west, she heard, they had a name for researchers who did things that made no sense to people: mad scientists. Even her father, who had taught her the apothecary’s trade, grew exasperated with her little experiments.

When she was satisfied that there were no untoward physical effects and that she detected no poisons she knew of, the meal could finally make its way to Consort Gyokuyou.

Next would come the flavorless baby food.

“I think it might be best to change the plates to ones made of silver,” she said to Hongniang, as flatly as possible. She had been called to Hongniang’s room to provide a report on her first day of work. The chief lady’s chambers were generous in size, but unadorned with any frivolous objects, bespeaking Hongniang’s practical bent.

Hongniang, an attractive woman with black hair not quite thirty years of age, let out a sigh. “Jinshi really had it all figured out.” She confessed with some chagrin that they had deliberately not used silver tableware at the eunuch’s instruction.

Maomao had a distinct suspicion that it was also Jinshi who had ordered her appointed food taster. She struggled not to let her already cold expression turn into one of outright disgust as she listened to Hongniang talk. “I don’t know why you decided to hide your knowledge, but it’s amazing that you know so much about poisons and medicine both. If you’d told them from the start that you knew how to write, you could have gotten a lot more money.”

“My knowledge comes from my vocation—I was an apothecary. Until I was abducted and sold into this place. My kidnappers receive a portion of my salary even now. The thought turns my stomach.” Maomao’s hackles were up now and her words came in a sharp rush, but the chief lady-in-waiting didn’t rebuke her.

“You mean you were willing to put up with receiving less than you were worth to make sure they had one less cup of wine when they were carousing.” Hongniang, it seemed, was more than perceptive enough to grasp Maomao’s motives. Maomao found herself simply relieved that Hongniang hadn’t scolded her for what she said. “Not to mention that women of no special distinction serve a couple of years and then go on their merry ways. Plenty of replacements out there.”

She didn’t have to understand quite that well.

Hongniang took a carafe from the table and gave it to Maomao. “What’s this?” Maomao asked, but almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth, a pain shot through her wrist. She dropped the carafe on the floor in her shock. A large crack spidered through the ceramic vessel.

“Oh, my goodness, that’s quite an expensive piece of pottery. Certainly not something a simple lady-in-waiting could afford. You won’t be able to make remittances to your family anymore with that hanging over your head—in fact, we should probably give you a bill.”

Maomao understood immediately what Hongniang was saying, and the slightest ironic smile crept over her otherwise expressionless face. “My profound apologies,” she said. “Please, deduct it from the amount of my salary that’s sent home each month. And if that isn’t enough, by all means, take from my own share as well.”

“Thank you, I’ll make sure the Matron of the Serving Women knows to do that. And one more thing.” Hongniang put the broken carafe back on the table before taking a wood-strip roll out of a drawer and writing on it in quick, short strokes. “This details your additional salary as a food taster. Hazard pay, you might call it.”

The amount was almost as much again as Maomao was currently receiving. And insofar as nothing would be taken from it to pay her captors, Maomao came out ahead.

This girl does know how to use the carrot, she thought as she bowed deeply and left the room.

Chapter 7: Branch

The four ladies-in-waiting who had always attended Consort Gyokuyou were exceptionally hard workers. Granted, the Jade Pavilion was not the largest place, but they kept it humming along neatly, just the four of them. Serving girls from the shangqin—the Housekeeping Service, those charged with keeping rooms clean—did come sometimes, but by and large the four ladies-in-waiting handled all the cleaning and tidying themselves. That was not, for the record, something ladies-in-waiting typically did.

All of this meant that the new girl, Maomao, had little to possess her other than tasting the food. Besides Hongniang, none of the other ladies-in-waiting ever asked Maomao to do anything. Maybe they felt bad that she was stuck with the most unpleasant job, or maybe they simply didn’t want her intruding on their turf. Whatever the reason, even when Maomao offered to help, they would gently rebuff her with a “Oh, don’t worry about it” and urge her to go back to her room.

How am I supposed to settle in here?

Cooped up in her room, she was summoned twice daily to meals, once to afternoon tea, and every few days to try one of the sumptuous banquets offered when the Emperor came calling. That was all. Hongniang was kind enough to try to find little tasks for Maomao to do, but they were never anything difficult, and didn’t occupy her for long.

In addition to her tasting duties, she found her own meals became more elaborate. Sweet treats were offered at tea, and when there were extras, they would be sent to Maomao. And because she was no longer working like an ant as she once had been, all those extra nutrients went to flesh.

I feel like some kind of livestock.

Her new appointment as food taster had brought with it another thing Maomao didn’t like. She had always been rather slim, but this meant that if a poison caused her to waste away, it would be hard to detect. What was more, the dosage of any given toxin that might be deadly was in proportion to one’s body size. A little extra weight could improve her chances of survival.

In Maomao’s mind, there was no way she could miss a poison so powerful as to make her waste away, and meanwhile she was confident she could survive an ordinarily fatal dose of many toxins. But no one around her seemed to share her optimism. They only saw a small, delicate girl being treated like a disposable pawn, and they pitied her for it. And so they plied her with congee even after she was full, and always gave her an extra serving of vegetables.

They remind me of the girls from the brothels. Maomao could be cold, reticent, and unsentimental, but for some reason the women had always doted on her. They always had an extra treat or a bit of something for her to eat.

Although Maomao didn’t realize it, there was a reason people were so inclined to look kindly on her. Running along her left arm was a collection of scars. Cuts, stabs, burns, and what seemed to be repeated piercing with a needle. That is to say, to others, Maomao looked like a petite, overthin girl with wounds on her arm. Her arms were frequently bandaged, her face sometimes pale, and once in a while she was given to fainting. People simply assumed, with a tear in their eye, that her coldness and reticence were the natural result of the treatment she had suffered to this point in her life. She had been abused, they were sure—but they were wrong.

Maomao had done all of it to herself.

She was most interested in discovering the effects of various medicines, analgesics, and other concoctions firsthand. She would take small doses of poison to inure herself to them, and had been known to let herself be bitten by venomous snakes. And as for the fainting, well, she didn’t always get the dosage quite right. This was also why the wounds were concentrated on her left arm: it was preferable to her dominant limb, her right.

None of this sprang from any masochistic proclivity for pain, but was fueled entirely by the interests of a girl whose intellectual curiosity inclined rather too much in the direction of medicines and poisons. It had been her father’s burden to cope with her for her entire life. Yes, it was he who had taught Maomao her letters and first instructed her in the ways of medicine, in the hopes that she would see a way forward in life other than prostitution, even though he had been obliged to raise her in and around the red light district. By the time he realized he had far too apt a student on his hands, it was too late, and the calumnies about him had already begun to spread. There were a few who understood, just a few; but most turned cold, hard gazes on Maomao’s father. They never for a moment imagined that a girl of her age might commit self-harm in the name of experimentation.

And so the story seemed to be complete: after suffering long abuse at the hands of her father, this poor child had been sold off to the rear palace, where she was now to be sacrificed to discover poison in the consort’s food. A sorrowful tale indeed.

And one of which the protagonist was entirely unaware.

I’m going to be a pig at this rate! About the time Maomao began to fret about this particular possibility, her woes were compounded by a most unwelcome visitor.

“It’s rather late for you,” Consort Gyokuyou said as a newcomer entered the room.

The caller in question was the nymph-like eunuch, this time with one of his compatriots in tow. The gorgeous youth evidently made routine rounds of the chambers of the upper consorts. Maomao tasted the sweets the compatriot had brought for poison, then withdrew discreetly behind Consort Gyokuyou where she reclined on a chaise longue. Maomao was standing in for Hongniang, who had gone to change the princess’s diaper. Eunuchs these men may have been, but they were still not allowed an audience with the consort without the presence of a lady-in-waiting.

“Yes, there’s been word that the barbarian tribe has been successfully subdued.”

“Has it? And what’s to come of it?” Gyokuyou’s eyes glowed with curiosity; this subject was more than enough to excite the interest of a bird trapped in the cage that was the rear palace. Though she was the Emperor’s favorite, Gyokuyou was also still young, not more than a couple or three years older than Maomao herself, as Maomao understood it.

“I’m not certain it’s appropriate to discuss in front of a lady such as yourself…”

“I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t endure both the beautiful and the terrible in this world,” Gyokuyou said boldly.

Jinshi glanced at Maomao, an appraising look that swiftly vanished. He insisted there was nothing interesting about the subject, but proceeded to speak of the world outside the birdcage.

⭘⬤⭘

Some days before, a band of warriors had been sent out, on information that a tribe was once again plotting ill. This country was largely a peaceful one, but issues such as this did sometimes mar its tranquility.

The warriors successfully drove back the barbarian scouts who had ventured into the territory, with hardly a casualty to speak of. The trouble started on the way home. The food in the encampment was compromised, and almost a dozen men came down with food poisoning. Many more were deeply demoralized. They had obtained the provisions at a nearby village just prior to coming into contact with the barbarians. The villages in this area were technically part of Maomao’s nation, but historically they were not without their ties to the barbarian tribes.

One of the soldiers, armed, arrested the village chieftain. Several villagers who attempted to resist were killed on the spot for conspiring with the barbarians. The rest of the villagers would learn their fate after it was determined what would happen to their chief.

⭘⬤⭘

When Jinshi had delivered this précis of events, he took a sip of tea.

That’s outrageous. Maomao wanted to grab her head in her hands. She wished she had never heard the story. There were so many things in the world one would be happier not knowing. The nymph saw the furrow in her brow and turned his fine countenance on her.

Don’t look at me.

Ah, if only wishes made things so.

Jinshi’s lips formed a gentle arch as he took in Maomao’s expression. He almost seemed to be testing her with his smile. “Something on your mind?”

It was as good as an order to say something, so she had to find something to say.

Will it even matter? she asked herself. But one thing was for certain: if she said nothing, then at least one village would disappear off the map of the frontier.

“I offer you only my personal opinion,” Maomao said, and picked a branch out of a nearby vase in which some flowers had been arranged. This branch, which had no blossoms itself, was from a rhododendron. The same kind of branch upon which Maomao had left her message. She plucked off a leaf and put it in her mouth.

“Is it flavorful?” Consort Gyokuyou asked, but Maomao shook her head.

“No, ma’am. Touching it can induce nausea and difficulty breathing.”

“And yet you’ve just had it in your mouth,” Jinshi said with a probing look.

“You needn’t fret,” Maomao said to the eunuch, setting the branch on the table. “But you see, even here on the grounds of the rear palace, there are poisonous plants. The rhododendron’s poison is in the leaves, but others contain their toxins in the branches or roots. Some release poison if you so much as burn them up.” These hints, Maomao suspected, would be enough to lead the eunuchs and the clever Gyokuyou where she wanted them to go. Despite doubting it was necessary to continue, she did so: “When encamped, soldiers make their chopsticks and campfires from local materials, do they not?”

“Ah,” Jinshi said.

“But that—” Gyokuyou added.

It would mean the villagers had been punished unjustly.

Maomao watched as Jinshi rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

I don’t know how important this Jinshi is…

But she hoped that he might be able to help in some way, however minor. Hongniang came back with Princess Lingli, and Maomao left the room.

Chapter 8: Love Potion

There was the young man with his inhuman beauty and his perpetual, nymph-like smile. Even the way he sat on the cloth-draped sofa in the sitting room was elegant.

What’s he want today? Maomao thought. Her cold detachment was not shared by the three ladies-in-waiting who blushed and bustled off to make tea for the guest. Maomao could hear them arguing in the next room over who would have the honor of preparing it. Finally, an exasperated Hongniang made the drink herself, sending the other three ladies back to their rooms. They went with their shoulders slumped, the very picture of dejection.

Maomao, the food taster, picked up the silver tea cup and gave it a delicate sniff before taking a mouthful of tea. Jinshi had been watching her this entire time, and it made her fidgety. She squinted so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes. Most young women would have been quite satisfied to have the attention of such a fine man, even if he was a eunuch. But not Maomao. She didn’t much share the interests of the common run of people, so even if she acknowledged intellectually that Jinshi was intensely beautiful, she still watched him at a remove.

“Someone gave me some treats. Would you be so kind as to taste them, too?”

Jinshi indicated a basket filled with baozi. Maomao took one of the buns and pulled it open, discovering a filling of minced meat and vegetables. She took a sniff; it had a faintly medicinal odor she recognized. It was the same as the stamina booster from the other day.

“An aphrodisiac,” she said.

“You can tell without tasting it?”

“It’s not harmful to speak of. Go ahead and take them home with you. Enjoy them.”

“I don’t think I could, knowing who they came from.”

“Indeed. I think you might have a visitor this evening.” Maomao made sure to sound downright nonchalant. Jinshi, who had clearly not expected this reaction, looked at a loss. He was just lucky she didn’t give him her staring-at-a-worm look. Giving her a bun to taste when he knew there was an aphrodisiac in it!

There remained the question of who had given him the baozi. Consort Gyokuyou laughed to overhear their conversation, her voice like the tinkling of a bell. Princess Lingli slept peacefully at her feet.

Maomao bowed and made to leave the room.

“Just a moment, if you please.”

“Do you need something further, sir?”

Jinshi and Gyokuyou shared a look, then nodded at each other. It seemed they had already discussed whatever was going on—and it involved Maomao.

“Perhaps you could make a love potion.”

For just an instant, Maomao’s eyes lit up with a mixture of surprise and curiosity. What’s that supposed to mean?

She couldn’t imagine what they wanted with such a thing, but the subject was one she would be more than happy to entertain. Forcing herself not to smile, she replied, “I need three things: tools, materials, and time.”

Could she make a love potion? Oh, yes. Yes, she could.

⭘⬤⭘

Jinshi wondered what was the matter. His eyebrows furrowed like drooping willow branches, and he crossed his arms. Jinshi was a person of such beauty that some said if he had only been born a woman, he could have had the country under his thumb. He himself knew that if he really wished to, he could have convinced the very Emperor to affirm that gender meant nothing, but the thought brought him no pleasure.

Today as he went about the rear palace, he had once again found himself the object of something like catcalls, by one of the middle-ranked consorts and two of the lower-ranked ones, and even by two separate male officials in the palace, one military and one bureaucratic. The military official had even given him dim sum laced with a stamina tonic, so Jinshi decided to forgo his rounds tonight and retire to his rooms in the palace instead. He wasn’t slacking off; it was for his own protection.

He quickly noted some names on the scroll lying open on his desk—the names of the consorts who had called out to him today. Even if she had scant visits from the Emperor, it was awfully audacious of a woman to try to invite another man into her bedchamber. Jinshi’s list was not an official report, but he suspected they would be even less likely to receive an Imperial visit after this.

He wondered how many of the little birds trapped in this cage understood that his own beauty was a testing stone for the women of the rear palace. Women were chosen to be consorts based first and foremost on family background, but beauty and intelligence played their part, too. Compared to the first two qualities, intelligence was trickier to measure. They also needed an upbringing befitting a mother to the nation, and of course they must be of chaste outlook.

The Emperor, in a nasty little tweak, had made Jinshi the standard for selecting his consorts. It was in fact Jinshi who had recommended both Gyokuyou and Lihua. Gyokuyou was thoughtful and perceptive. Lihua was more emotional, but possessed unimpeachable manners. And both had unquestioned loyalty to His Majesty, without a shadow of untoward feelings.

Consort Lihua, though, now seemed to have no place in His Majesty’s adoration.

The Emperor might have been Jinshi’s master, but he was also, in Jinshi’s estimation, terrible. He set up concubines purely based on their usefulness to him and the country, got them pregnant, and then when the children showed no aptitudes, he would cut them loose.

In the future, Jinshi surmised, the Imperial affection would continue to incline ever more toward Gyokuyou. The death of the young prince had marked the Emperor’s final visit to Lihua, who now seemed as insubstantial as a ghost. Lihua was not the only consort for whom it seemed His Majesty no longer had any need. Those women would be quietly returned to their homes at an opportune moment, or else gifted as wives to various officials.

Jinshi pulled a particular paper out of his pile. It referred to a middle consort of the Upper Fourth rank, Fuyou by name. She had just been promised in marriage to the leader of the assault on the barbarian tribe in recognition of his military valor. Truth be told, they were less appreciative of the man’s energetic destruction of the enemy than of his restraining certain short-tempered elements among his own troops. That a certain small village had been blamed and punished for something it hadn’t done was not a fact that had been made public. Such was politics.

“Now then, I wonder if it will all go well.”

If everything went just as he had calculated in his head, there would be no problems. He might have to lean on the chilly apothecary to help him out with a few things, though. She had turned out to be even more useful than he’d expected.

She wasn’t the only one who showed no special desire for him, but she was the first to regard him as though she were looking at a worm. She seemed to think she hid the feeling well, but the disdain was clear on her face.

Jinshi smiled in spite of himself. That smile, like nectar from heaven, some said, contained just a hint of something mean in it. He wasn’t a masochist as such, but he found the girl’s reaction intriguing. He felt like a child with a brand-new toy.

“Yes, where will this all lead?”

Jinshi placed the papers under a weight and decided to go to sleep. He made sure to lock his door in case he should have any uninvited visitors during the night.

⭘⬤⭘

People spoke of “cure-alls,” but in fact there was no medicine that would cure all. Her father had always insisted as much, but Maomao had admittedly gone through a phase in which she had rejected his claim. She had wanted to create a medicine that could work on anyone, for any condition. That was what had led her to inflict those ugly wounds on herself, and had indeed resulted in the creation of some new medicines, but a true panacea remained nothing more than a dream.

As much as she hated to admit it, the story Jinshi brought her was enough to pique Maomao’s interest. Since arriving in the rear palace, she’d been unable to make much more than sweet amacha tea. To her surprise, a variety of medicinal herbs did grow on the grounds of the rear palace, but she lacked the implements necessary to make proper use of them, and trying to do anything with them would have attracted undesirable attention in her crowded quarters anyway, so she forced herself to leave the plants alone.

This was what she liked best about having her own room. Now she just needed excuses to go gather ingredients—laundry was a convenient one. She suspected Hongniang would soon see to it that Maomao was entrusted with all the washing.

Now she arrived at the room she had been told was the doctor’s, ostensibly to deliver clean laundry. She entered the room to discover the lamentable quack himself along with the eunuch who so frequently accompanied Jinshi. The doctor had a mustache that made him look like a loach fish, which he stroked as he gave Maomao an appraising glance. He seemed to be wondering what this petite young woman was doing on his turf.

I’ll thank you not to stare so hard at a young lady, Maomao thought.

The eunuch, by comparison, was as polite as if Maomao were his own master, ushering her gracefully into the room. When Maomao saw the space, surrounded by medicine cabinets on three sides, she was overcome by the biggest smile she’d smiled since coming to the rear palace. Her cheeks flushed, her eyes brimmed, and her lips went from a thin, implacable line to a gentle arch.

The eunuch looked at her in surprise, but what did she care? She gazed at the labels on the drawers, doing a sort of little dance when she spotted an especially unusual pharmaceutical. The joy was simply too much to keep inside.

“Is she under some sort of spell?” Maomao had been indulging this rapture for a good half an hour, unaware that Jinshi had appeared in the room. He watched her with a mixture of curiosity and sheer bewilderment.

Maomao went row by row, collecting any ingredients she might be able to use. Each one went into a separate baggie, the name written carefully on the package. In an era when most writing was still done on rolls of wood strips, such extensive use of paper was a luxury. The loach-mustached doctor came peeking into the room, wondering who or what was in there, but the eunuch closed the door on him. The eunuch’s name, Maomao learned, was Gaoshun. He had a steady countenance and a well-built body, and if he hadn’t been here in the rear palace, she would certainly have taken him for some sort of military official. He appeared to be Jinshi’s aide, and was often seen in his company.

Gaoshun politely fetched any medicines that were in drawers too high for Maomao to reach. His superior, meanwhile, did nothing. Maomao maintained a neutral expression but privately wished that if he wasn’t going to make himself useful, he would go away.

Maomao spotted a familiar name on one of the topmost drawers and craned her neck for a better look. Gaoshun passed the stuff to her, and she looked at it in wonder. Several small seeds rested in the palm of her hand. They were exactly what she needed, but there weren’t enough of them.

“I need more of these.”

“Then we shall simply get them,” the indolent eunuch said with an indulgent smile. As if it were so easy.

“They’re from all the way in the west, then farther west, then south.”

“Trade’s the thing. We’ll check the goods that come in, and I suspect we’ll find some.” Jinshi took one of the seeds between his fingers. It resembled the seed of an apricot, but had a unique aroma. “What is it called?”

“Cacao,” Maomao replied.

Chapter 9: Cacao

“At least I grasp its effectiveness now,” Jinshi said with an annoyed glance at Maomao.

“As do I,” Maomao said.

Jinshi looked almost overcome by the catastrophic scene in front of him. “Ugh,” he said, and there was no hint of his usual detached smile. There was only fatigue on his face. “How did this happen?”

To answer that question, we’ll have to go back in time a few hours.

The cacao they were sent was no longer in seed form, but had been powdered. All the other ingredients Maomao had requested had already arrived at the kitchen of the Jade Pavilion. Three of the ladies-in-waiting were busy trying to look on, but a word from Hongniang sent them scurrying back to their work.

Milk, butter, sugar, honey, distilled spirits and dried fruits, and some oils derived from aromatic herbs to give everything a pleasant odor. All nutritious—and expensive—ingredients, and all useful in a stamina concoction.

Maomao had tasted cacao only once. It had been in a hardened, sweetened form called chocolate, and she had received it from one of the prostitutes. It had been a piece hardly the size of the tip of her finger, but on eating it, she felt she had drunk an entire cup of some especially sharp liquor. It made her oddly giddy.

The chocolate was, the woman had explained, a gift from an especially nasty customer who had hoped to buy the affections of a girl who had been sold into prostitution, by offering her a rare treat. When the girl noticed Maomao’s altered state, however, she was deeply angry, and the madam of the brothel forbade the customer from coming back. It came to light later that a trading concern had started to sell the stuff as an aphrodisiac. Maomao had managed to obtain a handful of seeds since then, but she had never used them as medicine. No one in the red light district came to the apothecary seeking something so extravagant for a simple medicament.

Even now, Maomao remembered the chocolate for the way it had been hardened with oil and fat. Her wide experience with an eclectic collection of medicines and poisons in all their various flavors and aromas naturally also gave her an excellent memory for ingredients.

It was still the hot season, and she suspected butter wouldn’t set well, so she decided to cover some fruit instead. A bit of ice would be perfect, but that was of course impossible and didn’t make the ingredients list. Instead she asked for a large, unglazed water jug to be prepared. It was filled half full with water. As the water evaporated, the inside of the jug would become cooler than the outside air, cool enough to help harden the fats.

Maomao dipped a spoon into the mixture and tasted a bit of it. It was bitter and sweet at the same time, and her knowledgeable tongue likewise detected elements that would improve the mood. She was far more resistant to things like alcohol and toxins now than she had been when she’d had that first taste of chocolate, and it didn’t affect her nearly as much. But she could still tell it was powerful stuff.

Maybe I should make the portions a bit smaller.

She chopped the fruit in half with a simple cleaver, then dipped them in the brownish liquid. She put them on a plate, then placed them in the jug. She put a lid on the jug, then covered it with a straw mat to hide it. The only thing left was to wait for the chocolate to harden. Jinshi would come by to collect it that evening; that should be plenty of time.

Guess I’ve got a little extra…

She hadn’t used all of the brownish liquid. The ingredients were extremely expensive, and it was quite nutritious. Aphrodisiac or not, it had a minimal effect on Maomao, so she decided to eat it herself later. She chopped some bread into cubes and soaked them in the stuff; this way she wouldn’t have to worry about any cooling process, either.

She put a lid on the jar of cacao liquid and set it on the shelf. The rest of the ingredients she put in her own room, then headed for the washing area to clean the utensils. She should have put the dipped bread in her room, too, but she was already thinking about other things. Maybe her taste testing had left her a little inebriated.

Well, it was too late now.

It happened after that, while Maomao was out running errands for Hongniang, stopping off along the way to pick some medicinal herbs for herself. The bread, and the fact that it should have gone on the shelf, were chased clear out of Maomao’s mind. She returned with a laundry basket full of herbs, thoroughly pleased with herself, only to be greeted by Hongniang and Consort Gyokuyou, looking deathly pale and rather disturbed, respectively. Gaoshun was there too, which implied Jinshi was somewhere about.

Hongniang could only put a hand to her forehead and point to the kitchen, so Maomao pressed her laundry basket into Gaoshun’s arms and headed over.

She discovered Jinshi, looking annoyed. The delicate way to put it would be to say that a great medley of peach and light-red colors spread before her. Which is to say, more plainly, that three ladies-in-waiting were all leaning against each other, sound asleep. Their clothes were in disarray, their disheveled skirts revealing lascivious glimpses of thigh.

“What happened here?” Hongniang demanded of Maomao.

“I’m afraid I’m not best placed to answer that question,” she replied. She went over to the three young women and crouched down, flipping down their skirts and examining them. “It’s all right, this attempt failed to—”

Hongniang, blushing furiously, smacked Maomao on the back of the head.

Sitting on the table was the brown-colored bread. Three pieces were missing.

The girls had mistaken it for an afternoon snack.

The fatigue caught up with her after they had put each of the girls to bed in her own room. In the sitting room, Gyokuyou and Jinshi were looking at the chocolate bread with some wonder.

“Is this your aphrodisiac?” Gyokuyou inquired.

“No, ma’am, this is.” Maomao gave her the chocolate-covered fruit. Approximately thirty pieces, each the size of a thumbnail.

“What is this, then?” Jinshi asked.

“It was supposed to be my bedtime snack.” Everyone seemed to recoil a little at that. Had she said something wrong? Gaoshun and Hongniang both looked like they could hardly believe their eyes. “I’m very accustomed to spirits and stimulants, so I don’t feel them much.”

Maomao had once, in the name of science, pickled a venomous snake in alcohol and drunk it, so she could safely be called an experienced drinker. She considered alcohol to be a kind of medicine. The more susceptible one was to new forms of stimulation, the better medicine worked on one. Take this bread, for instance: here in the Jade Pavilion, it passed for an aphrodisiac, but she had to think that in the land where the ingredients had come from, it would be substantially less effective.

Jinshi picked up one of the pieces of bread and looked at it doubtfully. “I wonder if I might safely try a piece, then,” he said.

No, sir, don’t!” Hongniang and Gaoshun cried almost in unison. Maomao thought this was the first time she had heard Gaoshun speak.

Jinshi put the bread back, remarking that he had only been joking. It would, of course, have been improper for him to consume a known aphrodisiac in the presence of the Emperor’s own favorite consort, but perhaps even more to the point, hardly anyone could have resisted him had he come to her with that nymph-like smile and a flush in his cheeks. His face, if nothing else, Maomao reflected, did him credit.

“Perhaps I should have some made for His Majesty,” Gyokuyou said with amusement. “It might keep him from his usual ways.”

“It would most likely work about three times better than a typical stamina medication,” Maomao informed her.

At this, Gyokuyou’s face took on a cast that was hard to read. “Three times…” She mumbled something about whether she could endure so long, but those present affected not to have heard her. It seemed it wasn’t easy being a concubine.

Maomao put the aphrodisiacs in a covered jar and handed it to Jinshi. “They’re quite potent, so I recommend taking just one at a time. Taking too many could overstimulate the blood flow and produce a nosebleed. Also, consumption should be limited to when the patient is alone with their partner.”

With these instructions duly conveyed, Jinshi stood up. Gaoshun and Hongniang left the room to prepare for his departure. Consort Gyokuyou likewise nodded to him, then left with the sleeping princess in a carrier.

As Maomao went to clean up the plate of bread, she smelled a sweet aroma from behind her.

“Thank you. I put you to quite a bit of trouble.” The voice was sweet, too, like honey. Maomao felt her hair being lifted up, and something cold was pressed against her neck. She turned in time to see Jinshi waving at her as he left the room.

“I get it.” When she looked at the plate, she discovered one of the pieces of bread was missing. She had an idea where it was. “I just hope no one gets hurt,” Maomao muttered, but she didn’t seem to think it had much to do with her.

The night was still young.