Chapter 17: The Garden Party (Part Two)

The party took place at a banquet area set up in the central gardens. Red carpets were rolled out through large open-air pavilions, and two long tables were placed end to end with the seats of honor at either end. The Emperor himself occupied the central seat of honor, with the Empress Dowager and the Imperial younger brother seated to either side of him. On the east side of the table were seated the Precious Consort and the Virtuous Consort, while on the west side were the Wise Consort and the Pure Consort. To Maomao, the seating arrangement looked deliberately designed to provoke dispute. It could only possibly fan the flames of hostility among His Majesty’s “four ladies.”

With the young prince deceased, the Emperor’s younger brother was now first in line for the succession. Although the Imperial younger brother was, like the ruler himself, the son of the Empress Dowager, it seemed he rarely saw the light of day. A seat of honor had been provided for the prince, but in fact it was empty. He was frequently ill, rarely leaving his room and performing no official duties.

Everyone had a different explanation for this: that the Emperor was quite fond of his substantially younger sibling and wanted to keep him calm for the sake of his health; that he wanted to keep the prince isolated and out of sight; or that the Empress Mother was overprotective and refused to allow the young man outside.

At any rate, none of it had anything to do with Maomao.

The food wouldn’t be served until after noon; at the moment, the guests were enjoying musical performances and dances. Consort Gyokuyou was attended only by Hongniang; unless they had some particular business, her other ladies held station behind a curtain and awaited any instructions.

The Empress Dowager was currently rocking the princess in her arms. The woman exuded a class and unfading beauty that could not be ignored even with the four esteemed consorts around her. She appeared so young that, seated beside the Emperor, she could easily have been taken for His Majesty’s queen.

And indeed, the Empress Dowager was relatively young. When Yinghua had told Maomao exactly how young—and when Maomao had done a little figuring from the current Emperor’s age to determine how old his mother must have been when she bore him—it was enough to make her profoundly suspicious toward the previous sovereign. There were those possessed of a special deviancy by which they favored very young girls—but how should one react when one’s own ruler had possessed such a proclivity? In any event, the Empress Mother had held strong and given birth to the child, and for that at least Maomao respected her.

As Maomao was having these thoughts, a gust of wind sprang up. She felt herself shiver. They couldn’t even bother to set up a tent for us? she thought. The curtain she stood behind was only just enough to keep the attendants out of sight; it did little to block the wind. And if Maomao and the other ladies-in-waiting with their warm stones were feeling cold, how much worse must it be for the ladies of the other consorts? She could see them shivering furiously, and a few were turning pigeon-toed. She didn’t think there would be any particular problem with going to use the toilet at that moment, but maybe there were certain pretenses that just had to be kept up with the other ladies watching.

It was a problem, the way these ladies-in-waiting felt compelled to play out proxy battles on behalf of their mistresses. And the head ladies-in-waiting, who might have been able to whip them into line, were busy attending the consorts. There was no one to stop the subordinate women.

At the moment, they were almost like two paintings, one of which could be entitled Consort Gyokuyou’s Forces Confront Those of Consort Lihua, and the other of which could be called The Forces of the Pure Consort Confront Those of the Virtuous Consort. And let it be noted that “Gyokuyou’s forces” consisted of just four women, less than half of those they were ranged against. The numbers were against them, but Yinghua was striving to make up the difference.

“What’s that? Plain? What are you, dumb? Ladies-in-waiting exist for one reason—to serve their mistress. What good would it do them, preening and posturing?”

Apparently there was an argument over their outfits. The ladies across from Maomao and Yinghua served Consort Lihua, and as such their ensembles were based on the color blue. The outfits were frilly and heavily accessorized, making them rather more conspicuous than Gyokuyou’s retinue.

“You’re the one who’s dumb. If a lady doesn’t look good, it reflects badly on her mistress. But what else would you expect from someone who’d hire such a clumsy oaf?” The girls from the Crystal Pavilion all set up a giggle.

Oop, I think I’m being made fun of. Maomao had the thought almost as if it were about someone else. No doubt she was the oaf in question. She was just as aware as anyone that she was hardly above average in any way by the standards of the rear palace.

The proud lady making these pronouncements was one of those who had defied Maomao before. She had force of personality, but without anything to ground her; she was constantly saying, “I’m going to tell my father!” To shut her up, Maomao had found her when she was alone once and pinned her against a wall, sliding a knee between the girl’s thighs and tickling the nape of her neck with one finger. “Fine,” she had said. “Let’s just leave you too embarrassed to tell him anything.” After that, the girl had kept her distance.

Guess the red light district gave me a unique sense of humor.

At least one that didn’t work with sheltered children of the nobility. Now the young woman always kept Maomao at arm’s length, flinching away as if afraid of what might happen to her next. Too inexperienced with the ways of the world to take a joke for what it was.

“I can see she’s not here. I guess you left her behind. Good choice. It would be humiliating for the consort to have such a hideous creature around. I’m sure she wouldn’t even get a single hairpin.”

The serving woman had evidently completely missed Maomao.

That’s not very nice. After we worked together for two months, too.

It was taking the best efforts of two other women to keep Yinghua from tackling the nasty attendant, and Maomao thought maybe it was time to put this little argument to rest. She went around behind Yinghua, holding up her hand to hide her nose, and looked at the young women in blue. One of them glanced at her suspiciously, realized who she was looking at, went pale, and started whispering to the other woman. With her hand in front of her nose, they realized it was Maomao even without her freckles.

Word worked its way along the chain of serving women like a whisper game until it reached the haughty lady at the front. The finger she had been pointing imperiously started to shake, and her mouth hung open. Her eyes met Maomao’s.

Finally noticed me, huh? Maomao smiled her biggest smile, looking to Lihua’s ladies-in-waiting like a wolf who had cornered her prey.

“Ah—Ah, ahh, ahem!” Apparently the woman was so flabbergasted she could hardly think of anything to say.

“Yes? What?” Yinghua said, not knowing Maomao was standing behind her grinning. The suddenly meek-looking lady-in-waiting puzzled her.

“I-I—I think you’ve had enough for today. J-Just be glad I’m letting you off.” With that barely coherent parting shot, the lady bolted for the far end of the curtained area. There were plenty of open spaces, but she pointedly chose the one farthest away from Maomao and Gyokuyou’s other women. Maomao looked at Yinghua and the others, who were staring open-mouthed. Funny. It still hurts.

Yinghua composed herself and then saw Maomao. “Bah, I always knew she was a witch. I’m sorry you had to hear that. What a thing to say about someone so sweet.” Yinghua sounded downright apologetic.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Maomao said. “Anyway, don’t you want to change your hand warmers?”

It really didn’t bother Maomao, so it was no problem. But Yinghua wouldn’t stop frowning and offering her looks of sympathy.

“No, it’s all right. They’re still warm. Still, I can’t help wondering why that girl broke out shivering so suddenly.” The other two ladies-in-waiting seemed to be asking the same question. The three of them from the Jade Pavilion were all devoted workers, but they shared a certain tendency to daydream, and it left them oblivious to some things. But Maomao somehow liked that about them, even if it could make them a little tricky to work with.

“Who knows? Maybe she had to go pick some flowers, if you know what I mean,” Maomao said rather brazenly.

For those keeping track, Maomao’s legend was growing: she was now a girl who had been abused by her father, then sold into the rear palace, made food taster like a disposable pawn, and after all that, she’d been compelled to spend two months enduring the slings and arrows of the residents of the Crystal Pavilion. She was, so it was held, so deeply mistrustful of men that she even felt the need to blemish her own face.

Inconveniently for Maomao, in other words, Yinghua and the others were just as imaginative as any girls their age. Even Jinshi’s endless smiles were turned, in their minds, into looks of pity for the poor young thing. Maomao couldn’t understand where they were getting that idea.

But as it would have been a great deal of trouble to try to set them straight, she let the story stand.

Meanwhile, another proxy battle was still going on. Seven on seven. One group of ladies-in-waiting in white, and the other in black. The first group were the women of Lishu, the Virtuous Consort, and the second served Ah-Duo, the Pure Consort.

“They don’t exactly get along, either,” Yinghua said. She was warming her hands over the brazier. She was also quietly roasting and eating some chestnuts Maomao had snuck in, but the women of the Crystal Pavilion were keeping their distance, and there was no one with enough of the moral high ground to chastise the two of them for it. “Lady Lishu is fourteen years old, and Lady Ah-Duo is thirty-five. Both consorts, but far enough apart in age to be mother and daughter. No wonder their girls don’t get along.”

“Yes, no wonder,” said a reserved lady-in-waiting, Guiyuan. “With the Virtuous Consort so young and the Pure Consort so old, it wouldn’t surprise me if they never see eye to eye.”

“And the Pure Consort is pretty much the mother-in-law of the Virtuous Consort,” added the lanky lady-in-waiting Ailan with a nod. Both she and Guiyuan seemed less excitable than Yinghua, but all three of them were perfectly happy to gossip, as girls their age will.

“Mother-in-law?” Maomao asked, surprised. It didn’t seem like an expression that was heard much around the rear palace.

“Oh, yes. The situation is a bit complicated…”

Lishu and Ah-Duo, Maomao was informed, had been the consorts of the former Emperor and the young prince, respectively. When the former Emperor had passed away, the Virtuous onsort had left the palace for the period of mourning. This was chiefly for show, however, and by abandoning the world—that is, becoming a nun—for a brief time, it was considered to be as if she had never served the previous Emperor, and she then married the late reagent’s son. It wasn’t precisely aboveboard, but it was the sort of thing the powerful could get away with.

The last Emperor died five years ago, Maomao reflected. At that time, the Virtuous Consort would have been nine years old. Even if the marriage was purely political, it was an unsettling thought. When she thought about how the Empress Dowager had entered the rear palace even younger, it was beyond unsettling; she felt the bile rise in her throat. It made the current Emperor seem downright benign. All right, so he had a weakness for especially plump fruit, but he didn’t share his father’s deviancies.

He may be insatiable, but at least he doesn’t go for… that. She pictured the mustached ruler. One heard the most shocking things in passing conversation.

“That can’t be true, can it? A bride at nine?” Ailan said disbelievingly. Thank goodness.

Chapter 18: The Garden Party (Part Three)

The first impression one had of Lishu, the Virtuous Consort, was that she was not very sensitive to the mood around her. The first part of the banquet had ended, and there was a break before the next part began. Maomao and Guiyuan went to see Princess Lingli. While Guiyuan was exchanging her hand warmer, which had gone cold, for a fresh one, Maomao took a quick look at the child.

Looks like she’s in decent health.

Lingli, her face as red as an apple, had a healthy chubbiness that was a far cry from when Maomao had first seen her, and both her father, the Emperor, and her grandmother, the Empress Dowager, doted on her.

Not sure she should be outside like this, though. It was especially unconscionable considering all the heads that would roll if the princess were to catch a cold on account of the elements. Just to be safe, they had engaged a craftsperson to create a crib with a sort of cover, not unlike a bird’s nest.

Eh, she’s cute. I guess that’s a good enough reason.

Ah, a fearful thing, babies: this one could tug on even Maomao’s heartstrings, and she had no special fondness for children. When Lingli began squirming to get out, Maomao packed her assiduously into her carrier and was just handing her to Hongniang when she heard a pronounced snort from behind her.

A young woman in elaborate peach-pink sleeves was looking at her. Several ladies-in-waiting were lined up behind her. She had a charmingly childish face herself, but at the moment her lips were pursed in obvious displeasure. Perhaps she was upset that Maomao had gone straight to the child without paying her respects to her.

Would this be the young bride, then?

Hongniang and Guiyuan were bowing respectfully to her, so Maomao followed suit. Consort Lishu, still looking thoroughly put out, marched off with her ladies-in-waiting in her wake.

“Was that the Virtuous Consort?”

“That was her, all right. She stands out in a crowd.”

“But it seems she can’t read one.”

Each of the Emperor’s “four ladies” was assigned a distinctive color palette of her own. Consort Gyokuyou’s was ruby and jade, Lihua’s ultramarine and crystal. To judge by the color of her attendants’ robes, Ah-Duo, the Pure Consort, must have been given the color black. She lived in the Garnet Pavilion, suggesting the garnet was the gemstone with which she was associated.

If they’re going by the five elements, you’d expect the last color to be white. The light-pink color worn by Consort Lishu and her retinue seemed dangerously close to duplicating the red of Consort Gyokuyou. The two ladies were seated beside each other at the banquet, creating the impression that their colors clashed.

Actually… She realized the argument among the serving women that she had inadvertently eavesdropped on had been about roughly the same subject. One group had been scolding the other for wearing colors that weren’t sufficiently distinguished from those of the mistress they accompanied.

“It makes you wish she’d grow up, doesn’t it?” The way Hongniang sighed said it all.

Maomao took the cooled hand warmer and put it on the brazier they had waiting for just this purpose. She could see several ladies-in-waiting watching from a distance, so with Gyokuyou’s blessing, she distributed a number of the warm stones. She was admittedly a little perplexed: these women were accustomed to a life of silk and gemstones, but some gently heated rocks could bring them genuine joy.

Sadly, the women of the Crystal Pavilion kept their distance from Maomao as if magnetically repelled. She could see them shivering—they should have just taken the hand warmers.

“Aren’t you just a bit of a soft touch?” Yinghua asked, exasperated.

“Now that you mention it, perhaps.” She had only expressed her feelings openly. Come to think of it…

It had become rather crowded behind the curtain since the break had started. It wasn’t just ladies-in-waiting; military and civil officials were there, too. All of them carried accessories in at least one hand. Some spoke to the serving ladies one on one, while others were surrounded by a small crowd of women. Guiyuan and Ailan were talking to a military man Maomao didn’t recognize.

“This is how they find the best girls hidden in our little garden of flowers,” Yinghua explained to her. She gave a snort as if she were somehow above it all. What had her so worked up?

“Ah.”

“They give them those accessories, as a symbol.”

“Oh.”

“Of course, it can sometimes mean something else…”

“Uh-huh.”

Yinghua crossed her arms and pouted at Maomao’s uncharacteristically uninterested responses. “I said, it can sometimes mean something else!”

“Yes, I heard you.” She didn’t seem even about to ask what that was supposed to mean.

“Fine, give me the hairpin,” Yinghua said, pointing to the ornament Maomao had received from Jinshi.

“All right, but you have to do rock-paper-scissors for it with the other two girls,” Maomao said as she flipped over the stones in the brazier. She didn’t want this to turn into a fight. Besides, if Hongniang found out she had just given away the hairpin to the first person who asked, she’d probably be in for another smack on the back of the head. The chief lady-in-waiting had a quick hand.

For Maomao, who had every intention of getting back to her home after her two years of service were up, “making it in the world” held no attraction.

Besides, if he’s going to think it gives him the right to push me around, I would rather go back to serving in the Crystal Pavilion, Maomao thought with a look like she was observing a dead cicada.

That was when she heard a gentle voice: “Take this, young lady.” An ornamental hairpin was presented to her. A small, light-pink coral declaration bobbed from it.

Maomao looked up to discover a virile-looking man giving her an ingratiating smile. He was still young, and had no beard. He looked manly enough as far as it went, but his diligent smile aroused no feelings whatsoever in Maomao, who had an uncommonly strong resistance to such things.

The man, a military officer, saw she wasn’t reacting the way he had expected, but he didn’t withdraw the proffered hairpin. He was in a half-crouch, so his ankles were starting to shake.

At length Maomao realized she was leaving this man in something of a dilemma. “Thank you.” She took the hairpin, and the man looked as pleased as a puppy who’s satisfied its master. A mongrel puppy, Maomao thought.

“Well, ta-ta, then. Nice to meet you. Name’s Lihaku, by the way.”

If I ever thought I was going to see you again, I might try to remember that.

There were still a dozen hairpins tucked in the belt of the big dog now waving to Maomao. Presumably he was passing them out to everyone so as not to embarrass any ladies-in-waiting by omission. Rather polite on his part.

I guess maybe I was unfair to him, Maomao thought, looking down at the coral ornament.

“Did you get one?” Guiyuan asked, coming over to her with the other girls. Each was clutching her loot.

“Yes… A participation prize,” Maomao replied tonelessly. Maybe he was giving them to the girls who seemed to be standing around with no one to talk to.

“What a lonely way of looking at it,” said a familiar, refined voice from behind her. Maomao turned and was confronted with that well-endowed consort, Lihua.

She’s looking a little plumper. Still, though, not as robust as she had been before. The last of the shadows on her face, though, only cast her beauty into higher relief. She wore a dark-navy skirt and a sky-blue overgarment with a blue shawl over her shoulders.

Might be a bit cold for her. So long as Maomao was a servant of Consort Gyokuyou, she couldn’t directly help Lihua. After she had left the Crystal Pavilion, even updates on the consort’s health came to her only via Jinshi’s periodic remarks. Even if she had dared to try to visit the Crystal Pavilion herself, Lihua’s ladies-in-waiting would have chased her away at the door.

Maomao bowed the way Hongniang had taught her. “It has been too long, milady.”

“Yes, too long,” Lihua said, touching Maomao’s hair as Maomao looked up at her. She pierced something through it, just as Jinshi had done. It didn’t hurt this time. It just felt like there was something stuck in a bundle of hair. “Well, take care,” Lihua said, and moved elegantly away, chiding her ladies-in-waiting for their inability to hide their astonishment.

But the women of the Jade Pavilion were equally nettled. “Huh, can’t guess what Lady Gyokuyou is going to make of that.” Yinghua flicked the protruding hairpin with a look of annoyance.

On Maomao’s head, a train of three quartz ornaments trembled.

After noon, Maomao took Hongniang’s place behind Consort Gyokuyou, for now it was time to eat. At Yinghua’s insistence, Maomao had tucked the three hairpins she’d received into her belt. The accessory Gyokuyou had given her was a necklace, so it would have been just as well for her to wear at least one hairpin, but whichever one she chose, it would have been perceived as a slight toward her other two benefactors. It was this constant need to be aware of how one’s actions would impact others that made it so much work to be a lady-in-waiting.

Now that she had the opportunity to observe the banquet from the vantage point of one of the seats of honor, Maomao realized it was really quite an impressive production. Military officers lined the west side, civil officials the east. Only about two out of every ten of them were able to be seated at the long table; the others stood in a neat line. In one respect, they had it worse than the serving women working behind the scenes: they had to stand like that for hours on end.

Gaoshun was among those seated with the military officials. Maomao realized he was perhaps a more important man than she had given him credit for, but she was also surprised to see a eunuch take his place among the officialdom with such nonchalance. The big man from earlier was there, too. He was seated lower than Gaoshun, but considering his age, perhaps it only meant that he was just now starting to make his way in the world.

Jinshi, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. One would have thought someone so dazzling would stand out in a crowd. As there was not, however, any real need to look for him, Maomao focused on the job at hand.

Some wine came first as an aperitif. It was poured delicately from glass vessels into silver drinking cups. Maomao swirled the wine in the cup, taking her time, making sure there was no cloudiness. There would be dark patches if arsenic was present.

As she let the wine swirl gently, she gave it a good sniff, then took a sip. She already knew there was no poison in it, but if she didn’t try the stuff, no one would believe she was doing her job properly. She swallowed, then rinsed her mouth out with clean water.

Hm? Maomao suddenly seemed to be the center of attention. The other food tasters hadn’t yet put the cups to their mouths. When they saw that Maomao had confirmed there was nothing dangerous, they hesitantly started taking sips.

Eh, understandable. Nobody wanted to die. And if one taster was willing to go first, it would be safest to wait for her and see what happened. And if you were going to use poison at a banquet, a fast-acting one would be the only way to go.

Maomao was probably the only one here who sometimes tried poisons for fun. She was, let us say, an exceptional personality.

If I had to go, I think I’d like it to be by blowfish toxin. The organs mixed into a nice soup…

The tingling of the tongue it caused—she couldn’t get enough of it. How many times had she vomited and purged her stomach just so she could experience it? Maomao had exposed herself to a wide variety of different poisons in order to immunize herself to them, but blowfish was something more like a personal preference. She knew, incidentally, that blowfish toxin was not one to which the body could be inured, no matter how many times it was exposed.

As these thoughts ran through her head, Maomao’s eyes met those of the lady-in-waiting who brought her the appetizer. The corners of Maomao’s lips had turned up; it probably looked like she was grinning unpleasantly at the woman. Like she was a bit demented, perhaps. Maomao slapped herself on the cheeks, forcing herself to adopt her accustomed neutral expression.

The appetizer that was served was one of the Emperor’s favorites; it was a dish that appeared sometimes when he stayed the night. Apparently the rear palace was handling the cuisine for this banquet. This dish was quite familiar. As the other tasters were all watching Maomao intently, she quickly brought her chopsticks to bear.

The dish was raw fish and vegetables seasoned with vinegar. His Majesty might be a bit oversexed, but his preferences in food tended toward the surprisingly healthful—thought the impressed taster.

They got it a little mixed up, Maomao thought as she noticed that the ingredients were different from usual. The dish was typically served with black carp, but today it featured jellyfish.

It was inconceivable that the chefs would make a mistake in the Emperor’s favorite recipe. If there had been a mix-up, it had to be that the meal prepared for one of the other consorts had come to Consort Gyokuyou instead. The culinary service shang at the rear palace was highly capable, and would even prepare the same dish in distinct ways to please His Majesty and his various women. When Gyokuyou had been nursing, for example, they had served her an endless array of dishes that promoted good breastmilk.

When the food tasting was over and everyone was digging into their appetizers, Maomao saw something that, in her mind, strengthened her speculation that there had been a mistake in who was given what. Lishu, the oblivious consort, was gazing at her appetizer and looking a little pale.

I guess she doesn’t like whatever’s in it. But as this was the Emperor’s favorite dish, it would be unconscionable not to finish what she was served. She was bravely working her way through the food, a slice of raw carp trembling in her chopsticks. Behind her, the lady-in-waiting who served as her food taster had her eyes closed. Her lips were quivering, and appeared to be drawing themselves up into a slight arch.

She was laughing.

I sort of wish I hadn’t seen that, Maomao thought, then turned to the next course.

⭘⬤⭘

If only it had been just a banquet, Lihaku thought. He didn’t get along with these elite types who looked down on all and sundry from the lofty heights of the imperial court. Where was the fun in having a party outside in the freezing cold, with the wind clawing at you at every moment?

A nice meal, that would have been fine. They should all imitate their ancestors, having a drink and a bit of meat in a peach garden with a few close friends.

But wherever there were nobles, there might be poison. Any ingredients, no matter how fine, no matter how exquisitely prepared, would have gone cold by the time the food tasters were done with them, and with the warmth went at least half the flavor.

He didn’t blame the people who checked the food for poison, but just watching the way they had to force themselves to bring a mouthful to their lips, their faces pale the entire time, almost cost him his appetite. Today, as ever, he couldn’t help feeling it was taking an inordinately long time.

But in reality, it seemed that wasn’t what was happening. Normally, the food tasters would all glance uneasily at one another as they brought their utensils to their mouths. But today, there was a taster present who seemed downright eager. The petite lady-in-waiting who attended the Precious Consort took a mouthful of the aperitif from her silver cup without so much as glancing at the other women. She swallowed slowly, then washed her mouth out as if the entire thing was no big deal.

Lihaku thought she looked familiar—and then he remembered she was one of the women he had given a hairpin to earlier. She was not of any conspicuous beauty, neat and tidy but with no special distinctions. She was probably all but lost in the sea of serving women in the rear palace, many of whom were unmistakably gorgeous. And yet, the fixed expression on her face suggested a woman who could overpower others with a look.

His first impression was that she seemed rather detached, but no sooner had he judged her expressionless than she proved him wrong with a spontaneous, inexplicable grin—which vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Now she looked rather displeased. In spite of all of this, she continued to taste for poison with complete nonchalance. It was very strange. It was also the perfect way to pass the time, trying to guess what kind of face she would make next.

The young woman was given the soup, and took a spoonful. She examined it critically, then slowly put a few drops on her tongue. Her eyes widened a little, then suddenly a rapturous smile spread across her face. There was a flush in her cheeks and her eyes began to water. Her lips curved upward, revealing white teeth and a plump, almost alluring red tongue.

This was what made women so frightening. As she licked the last droplets off her lips, her grin was like ripe fruit, like that of the most accomplished courtesan. The food must have been truly delicious. What could be in it that it could transform a completely average girl into such an enchanting creature? Or perhaps it was the preparation, by the palace’s inestimably talented chefs?

Lihaku swallowed heavily, and just then the young woman did something unbelievable. She took a handkerchief out of a pouch, put it to her lips, and spat out what she had just eaten.

“This is poisoned,” the lady-in-waiting said, the flat expression once more on her face. Her voice held all the urgency of a bureaucrat reporting on some mundane matter, and then she vanished behind the ladies’ curtain.

The banquet ended in utter chaos.

Chapter 19: After the Festivities

“A very energetic food taster you are.”

Maomao had just washed her mouth out and was staring vacantly into the middle distance when a most unexpected, and altogether underemployed, eunuch appeared. She couldn’t believe he had found her so far away from the banquet.

Not long before, Maomao had detected poison in the dish that was served just after the raw fish. She’d spat it out and retreated from the celebration.

I guess most ladies-in-waiting would be chastised for doing something like that.

She wished she could have been more discreet, but it simply wasn’t possible. This poison was the first she’d had in so long, and it was inviting and delicious. She could practically have just swallowed it. But if a food taster eagerly swallowed whatever poison she came across, she wouldn’t be able to do her job. Maomao had had to remove herself from the situation before things got out of hand.

“Good day to you, Master Jinshi.” She greeted him with her usual expressionless appearance, but she felt her cheeks weren’t quite as stiff as usual; maybe a bit of the poison was still in her system. She resented that this might make it look like she was smiling at him.

“I daresay it’s you who’s having a good day.” He grasped her by the arm. He looked, in fact, rather upset.

“May I ask what you’re doing?”

“Taking you to see the doctor, obviously. It would be absurd for you to consume poison and simply walk away.”

In actual fact, Maomao was the picture of health. As for the toxin in that dish—as long as she didn’t actually swallow it, it could hardly hurt her. But what would it have done had she swallowed it instead of spitting it out? Curiosity coursed through her.

There was a good chance she would be starting to feel a tingle by now.

I shouldn’t have spit it out. Maybe it wasn’t too late to claim some of the leftover soup. She asked Jinshi if this might be feasible.

“What are you, stupid?” he said, scandalized.

“I would prefer to say I’m always eager to improve myself.” Although she recognized that not everyone would endorse that sort of self-improvement.

In any event, Jinshi now had little of his characteristic glitter, even though he had replaced the hairpin in his hair and he was wearing the same elegant clothes as earlier. Wait—was his collar ever so slightly askew? It was! So that was it—the scoundrel! He’d no doubt claimed he was cold as a pretext to do something smarmy.

At the moment, there was no honey in his voice, and no lilting smile on his face.

Is that sparkle something he can turn on and off? Or was he simply tired after all that had happened? Maybe the reason for his absence from the banquet was because he had spent the entire time accosting—or being accosted by—ladies-in-waiting and civil officials and military men and eunuchs. Yes, that’s what Maomao would go with. Talk about a man who kept busy.

I wouldn’t want to be in his position.

Beautiful he may have been, but from where she was standing he looked much more like the young age she suspected he was. Younger, perhaps. She would have to ask Gaoshun to make certain that from now on, when Jinshi visited her, it was only after he had been up to something indecent.

“Let me tell you something. You walked out of there looking so spry that one person actually ate the damn soup wondering if there was really poison in there!”

“Who would be that stupid?” There were many different kinds of poison. Some didn’t manifest their effects for quite a while after they were consumed.

“A minister is feeling numbness. The place is in an uproar.”

Ah, so the future of the nation was potentially at stake.

“I wish I’d known—we could have used this.” She produced a cloth pouch from around her neck, something she’d hidden just under her chest padding. It contained an emetic she’d quietly concocted the previous night. “I made it so strong it’d make you cough up your stomach.”

“That sounds like a poison itself,” Jinshi said skeptically. “We have our own medical officer here. You can leave everything in his hands.”

Suddenly Maomao thought of something and stopped in her tracks.

“What is it?” Jinshi asked.

“I have a request. There’s someone I’d like to bring with us, if possible.” There was a matter Maomao was desperate to clarify. And there was only one person who could help her do it.

“Who? Give me a name,” Jinshi frowned.

“The Virtuous Consort, Lady Lishu. Would you call her?” Maomao replied, calm and confident.