When Lishu answered the summons, she gave Jinshi a smile as pleasant as springtime, while on Maomao she bestowed only a look of total contempt. Who is this?, she seemed to want to know. She restlessly rubbed her left hand with her right. She was quite young, but she was still that creature called a woman.

They tried going to the medical office, but because all the puff-brained important types felt they had to be there, there was an impossible crowd, and Jinshi, Maomao, and Lishu were forced to go to an unused administrative office instead. It gave Maomao a chance to appreciate how the architecture differed between the rear palace and the outside. The room was unadorned but vast.

Consort Lishu wore something of a pout. Maomao requested Gaoshun to usher away most of Lishu’s attendants, who had followed them in a gaggle, so that only one was left with the consort.

Maomao took an antitoxin to help cool her head. She would have been perfectly safe without it, but she felt like being sure, and anyway, she was intrigued to see how someone else had gone about making the drug. In this case, it caused her to vomit powerfully enough to bring up the entire contents of her stomach, a delightful emetic. Unlike the quack in the rear palace, the doctor of the main court was eminently competent. Jinshi watched Maomao grin the entire time she retched as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. She thought it was rather rude of him, though, to stare at a young lady while she was vomiting.

Now looking quite refreshed, Maomao bowed to Lishu. The consort regarded her with a squint.

“Pardon me,” Maomao said, approaching Lishu. The consort reacted with astonishment when Maomao took her left hand, rolling back the long sleeve to reveal a pale arm. “I knew it,” Maomao said. She saw exactly what she had expected: a red rash stippling the normally smooth, unblemished skin. “There was something in that fish that you shouldn’t have been eating.”

Lishu refused to look at Maomao.

“What precisely do you mean by that?” Jinshi said, his arms crossed. The nymph-like demeanor had quietly returned, but he still wasn’t smiling.

“Some people simply can’t eat certain things. Not just fish. Some can’t stomach eggs, or wheat, or dairy products. I myself have to avoid buckwheat.” Jinshi and Gaoshun both looked amazed. This from the girl who casually ingested poison!

Leave me alone, Maomao implored them silently. She had tried to accustom herself to buckwheat, but it caused her bronchial tubes to contract and threatened her breathing. It also made her break out in a rash, but only once it was absorbed by her stomach, so it was hard to judge an appropriate portion, and the effects took a long time to subside. Eventually, she had given up trying to inure herself to the stuff. She still harbored hopes of making another attempt at it someday, but she wasn’t going to do it here in the rear palace, where her only hope if something went wrong would lie with the quack doctor.

“How did you know?” Lishu asked tremblingly.

“First, let me ask you a question. How is your stomach? You don’t appear to have any nausea or cramps.” Maomao then offered to prepare a purgative, but Consort Lishu shook her head vigorously. It was too humiliating to contemplate, right here in front of the one aristocrat with whom everyone seemed obsessed. It was Maomao’s little way of getting back at Lishu for her contempt.

“In that case, please be seated.” Gaoshun, more solicitous than he first appeared, pulled out a chair. Lishu sat down.

“The problem is that your meal was switched with Lady Gyokuyou’s. The lady isn’t picky about her food, so she largely eats the same things as His Majesty,” Maomao said. But in this case, one or two the ingredients had differed between their meals. “Mackerel and abalone—that’s what you can’t eat, isn’t it?”

The consort nodded. The look of astonishment on the face of the lady attending Lishu wasn’t lost on Maomao.

“Those who don’t labor under such dietary restrictions don’t always understand that this goes beyond preference,” Maomao said. “In this case, the consequences seem to have been no worse than a rash, but sometimes such foods can cause difficulty breathing or even heart problems. I would go so far as to say that if someone were to knowingly give you food you can’t eat, it would be tantamount to serving you poison.” That word got an immediate reaction from the rest of the room. “I understand that under the circumstances you may have found it difficult to object, Consort, but you put yourself in tremendous danger.” Maomao’s gaze drifted between the lady and her attendant. “I urge you not to forget this lesson in the future.” She was talking to both of them. After a beat, she added to Jinshi, “Please be sure her usual chef is aware as well.”

Lishu and her attendant, however, still seemed uncomprehending. Maomao explained the danger at length to the lady-in-waiting, and wrote down what to do in the event Lishu should have another reaction. The woman was pale, giving little, convulsive nods of her head.

So this is what it’s like to threaten somebody.

The lady who had stayed with Lishu was her food taster. The one who had been laughing.

After Consort Lishu had withdrawn, Maomao sensed an almost viscous atmosphere behind her, and finally felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned a cold look on the hand’s owner; it would have been better had she looked at him the way she might look at an earthworm.

“I am but base, and wish you would not touch me.” In less elegant words: Screw off.

“You’re the only one who says such things to me.”

“I suppose everyone else is too considerate.” Maomao edged away from Jinshi. She sighed as if she had heartburn and looked for Gaoshun in hopes that he might serve as her tonic, but ever loyal to his master, he looked back with an expression that said: Please, just put up with him.

“Well, I must return and report to Lady Gyokuyou,” Maomao said.

“Tell me why you asked that the consort’s food taster come here with us,” Jinshi said, suddenly springing on the heart of the matter. This was why it was so hard to deal with him.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Maomao said expressionlessly.

“You think the one who set out the meals made the mistake, then?”

“I wouldn’t know.” She was going to play dumb to the bitter end.

“Then answer me this, at least. Was the Virtuous Consort being deliberately targeted?”

“If there’s no poison in any of the other bowls…”

Then it would have to be deliberate.

Maomao left the room as Jinshi lapsed into thought. Once she was safely outside, she slumped against the wall and let out a long breath.

Chapter 20: Fingers

Upon returning to the Jade Pavilion, Maomao found herself subjected to scrupulous nursing. She was changed into fresh clothes and thrown into bed, not in the cramped room she usually occupied, but in a much larger spare room made up with a proper bed. After a bit of rest on this new silk bedding, Maomao thought of the straw mat on which she usually slept and felt like she had ascended from a bog into the clouds.

“I’ve taken medicine, and there’s nothing wrong with me physically,” she protested. By medicine she meant the emetic, but there was no need to say that.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You should have seen the minister who ate that food. I don’t care if you did get the stuff out of your system, there’s no way you’re fine and dandy,” Yinghua said, pressing a damp cloth to Maomao’s forehead with concern.

Stupid, stupid minister, Maomao thought. She wondered if he had really managed to get it all out with the first medication he was given, but her curiosity wasn’t going to win her freedom here. She resigned herself to this fact and closed her eyes.

It was an agonizingly long day.

Maomao must have been more tired than she thought, because it was almost noon when she woke up. That wasn’t good for a lady-in-waiting. She hopped out of bed and changed, then went looking for Hongniang.

No, wait. First…

Maomao went back to her own room to find the face powder she always used. Not the whitening powder everyone else was so concerned with, but the stuff that created the freckles on her face. Using a polished sheet of bronze as a mirror, she tapped the spots around her tattoos with her fingertip, paying special attention to the ones above her nose.

I’m absolutely not going out without my makeup again. It was just too much trouble to explain. It crossed Maomao’s mind that she could just pretend she had used makeup to hide her “freckles,” but the idea only embarrassed her. She would probably be expected to react like a blushing virgin every time somebody mentioned it.

Maomao’s stomach was rumbling, so she had one of the leftover mooncakes for a snack. She would have liked to wipe down her body, but she didn’t have the time. She made a beeline for where the others were working.

Hongniang was with Consort Gyokuyou, watching over Princess Lingli. She hardly looked away from the rather mobile young lady, moving her so that she stayed on the carpet, or supporting chairs so they wouldn’t fall as the princess used them to try to stand up. She seemed quite precocious.

“My sincere apologies for oversleeping,” Maomao said with a bow.

“Oversleeping? You should have taken the day off.” Gyokuyou put a hand to Maomao’s cheek, looking worried.

“Hardly, milady. If you have need of me, please call,” Maomao said—but she knew full well that she was rarely given any serious work to do and would probably be left alone.

“Your freckles…” Gyokuyou said, fixing immediately on the one thing Maomao least wanted her to notice.

“I feel much better with them. If milady doesn’t mind.”

“Yes, of course,” Gyokuyou said, letting the matter go much more readily than Maomao had expected. Maomao gave her a probing look, but Gyokuyou said: “Absolutely everyone wanted to know who that lady-in-waiting of mine was. I thought the questions would never end!”

“My apologies.”

Maomao suspected people didn’t look favorably on a serving girl who declared the presence of poison and then simply left a banquet of her own volition. Privately, she had even fretted over whether she would be punished for it, and she was relieved to discover no reprimand was forthcoming.

“At least with those freckles, people won’t recognize you right away. That might be for the best.”

Maomao had thought she’d been more subtle than that, but maybe she was wrong. Where had her mistake been?

“Oh, and something else. Gaoshun came by this morning looking for you. Will you see him? He looked like he had time on his hands, so I set him to weeding outside.”

Weeding?

True, it was the Emperor’s favorite consort dispensing the task, but then, Gaoshun was no serving girl. Or perhaps he had taken on the job voluntarily. Maomao had the impression Gaoshun ranked reasonably high in the hierarchy, but he also seemed something of a soft touch. She could see any number of ladies-in-waiting falling hard for him. She especially had the sense that Hongniang’s eyes lit up when Gaoshun was around. The chief lady-in-waiting was thirty or so, and despite her good looks, her considerable competence had the side effect of scaring off potential suitors.

“Might we borrow the sitting room?” Maomao asked.

“You may. I’ll have him summoned immediately,” Gyokuyou said, taking the princess from Hongniang, who left to go call Gaoshun. Maomao had been just about to follow her, but Gyokuyou stopped her with a hand, and directed her to the sitting room instead.

“Master Jinshi sends this, with his regards,” Gaoshun said promptly when he entered the room. He placed a cloth-wrapped package on the table. Maomao opened it to discover a silver bowl full of soup. Not the stuff Maomao had sampled, but the dish from which Consort Gyokuyou had been about to eat. He had refused her yesterday, but in the end, had been kind enough to provide it. He was being polite, but this was also, Maomao surmised, an order to investigate.

“Please don’t eat it,” Gaoshun said with a distinct look of concern.

“Perish the thought,” Maomao replied. But only because silver promotes rotting. Oxidized food was never tasty.

Gaoshun didn’t seem to realize she had her own reason for not drinking the soup. He watched her doubtfully. Maomao stared at the bowl, careful not to touch it directly. And she was staring at the bowl, not at the contents.

“Learning anything?” Gaoshun asked her.

“Did you touch this with your bare hands?”

“No. I only took out some of the contents with a spoon to ascertain whether they were in fact poisonous.”

Then he had wrapped it in a cloth to bring to Maomao, apparently leery of touching a bowl full of poison.

That caused Maomao to lick her lips in anticipation. “All right. Wait here a moment.” She left the sitting room and went to the kitchen, rifling through the shelves looking for something. Then she went back to the room in which she’d been sleeping earlier. She ducked her head toward the fancy bed, splitting the cloth at the seams and pulling out some of what was inside before going back to where Gaoshun was waiting. To his eyes, she was simply carrying some white powder in one hand and soft-looking padding in the other.

Maomao balled up the padding and dusted the powder—flour—on it. Then she tapped it gently against the silver bowl. Gaoshun peered at her curiously. “What’s this?” he asked, observing the marks that appeared on the bowl.

“Traces of human touch.”

Human fingers easily left prints on metal. Particularly silver. When she was young, Maomao’s father had daubed dyes on vessels she wasn’t supposed to touch, to stop her from getting into mischief. Her little trick with the flour just now was a stroke of inspiration born of that old memory, and even she was surprised how well it had worked. If the flour had been a little finer, the prints might even have been easier to make out.

“Silver vessels are always wiped down before use. They would be worthless if they were cloudy, after all.”

Several different sets of prints were evident on the bowl. From their position and size, it was possible to guess how the bowl had been held.

Even if the exact patterns of the prints aren’t quite visible.

“This bowl has been touched…” Maomao said, but then she stopped.

Gaoshun was too perceptive to miss the way she came up short. “Yes? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” There was no point clumsily trying to keep secrets from Gaoshun. Even if it would render her little charade of the day before meaningless. Maomao let out a small sigh. “This bowl has been touched by four people in all, I would guess.” She pointed to the differing patterns in the white dust, careful not to touch the surface herself. “One doesn’t touch the bowl while polishing it, so we can presume the prints belong to the person who doled out the soup, the one who served it, the Virtuous Consort’s food taster, and one more unidentified person.”

Gaoshun turned an intense look upon her. “Why the food taster?”

Maomao wanted this to end quietly, but it would all depend on how this taciturn man reacted. “It’s simple. Because I suspect the food taster deliberately switched the bowls.” She knew perfectly well what her mistress could and could not eat, and had changed the bowls on purpose. With malice aforethought. Maomao set the bowl down, an unpleasant look flashing across her face. “It’s a form of bullying.”

“Bullying,” Gaoshun repeated as if he couldn’t quite believe it. And who could blame him? For a lady-in-waiting to do such a thing to a high-ranking consort was unthinkable. Impossible.

“I see you aren’t certain,” Maomao said. If Gaoshun didn’t appear to wish to know, Maomao had no inclination to tell him. She didn’t like to speak from assumptions, after all. But she might have to, if she was to explain why the fingerprints of the lady-in-waiting were on this bowl. Maomao decided it would be better to give her honest opinion than to make any half-baked attempts to throw Gaoshun off the scent.

“Would you let me in on what you’re thinking?” Gaoshun asked, his arms crossed as he studied her.

“Very well, sir. Please understand that this is ultimately just speculation on my part.”

“That’s fine.”

To begin with, consider the unusual situation of Consort Lishu. She had become the concubine of the previous Emperor while still very young, and soon found herself becoming a nun when he died. Many women, especially the rich ones, were taught that it was their wifely duty to commit themselves totally, body and spirit, to their husbands. Though she may have understood the political reasoning, Lishu must have found it appallingly unvirtuous to be married to the son of her former spouse.

“Did you see what Consort Lishu was wearing at the garden party?” Maomao asked. The Virtuous Consort had been attired in a gaudy pink dress that seemed well above her station.

Gaoshun said nothing, suggesting her reputation was poor in the circles he ran in.

“It was… somewhat gauche, shall we say?” Maomao offered. But Consort Lishu’s attendants, for their part, had all been wearing clothes that were mostly white. “In any normal situation, the ladies-in-waiting would have collectively convinced their mistress to wear something more prudent, or else they would have coordinated their outfits with hers. Instead, what they did made Consort Lishu look like a clown.”

A lady-in-waiting was there to support her mistress. This was something Hongniang had drilled into Consort Gyokuyou’s other women. Yinghua had said something similar during the banquet. Something about wearing subdued clothing to make their mistress stand out all the more. With that in mind, the argument with Consort Lishu’s ladies-in-waiting about clothing took on a new aspect.

The Pure Consort’s ladies-in-waiting were reprimanding them for their unconscionable behavior.

The callow Lishu was at the mercy of her serving women, who must have flattered her and insisted the pink dress would look good on her. There was no doubt in Maomao’s mind. In the rear palace, all around were enemies; the only people one could trust were one’s ladies-in-waiting. And these had betrayed that trust to humiliate their mistress.

“And you believe they further switched the food purely in order to make Consort Lishu’s life more difficult?” Gaoshun said tentatively.

“Yes. Though funnily enough, it saved her.”

Poison came in many varieties. Some were quite strong, but showed no immediate effects. In other words, had the bowls not been switched, Lishu’s food taster would still have shown no ill effects, and the consort would probably have drunk the soup, presuming all was well.

I think that’s enough speculation for today. Maomao picked up the bowl again and pointed to the rim. “I suspect these are the fingerprints of whoever put the poison in here. Perhaps they pinched the rim of the bowl while they did so.”

One must never touch the rim of a food vessel—something else Hongniang had taught them. One’s fingers must not dirty anything that might be touched by the lips of some noble person.

“That’s my view of what happened,” Maomao said.

Gaoshun rubbed his chin and gazed at the bowl. “May I ask you one thing?”

“Yes, sir?” Maomao passed the vessel, still cradled in its cloth, back to Gaoshun.

“Why did you attempt to cover for that woman?” In contrast to Maomao’s strained expression, Gaoshun appeared downright curious.

“Compared to a consort,” Maomao said, “the life of a lady-in-waiting is all too cheap.” Particularly that of a food taster.

Gaoshun nodded easily as if he understood what she was saying. “I’ll make sure Master Jinshi understands the situation.”

“My thanks.” Maomao politely watched Gaoshun leave—and then she slumped into a chair. “Right. Right. I’ll have to thank her.”

Since she was kind enough to change them, after all.

Maomao really ought to have drunk it, she thought.

⭘⬤⭘

“…Such is how matters stand, sir,” Gaoshun said, concluding his report on what he had learned at the Jade Pavilion. Jinshi, who had been too busy to go himself, ran a hand through his hair thoughtfully. Papers were piled on his desk, and his chop was in his hand. In the whole administrative office, large but barren, only he and Gaoshun were present.

“I never cease to be impressed by what a fine talker you are,” Jinshi said.

“If you say so, sir,” his ever-intense aide said curtly.

“Whatever the case, it was clearly an inside job.”

“The circumstances would seem to suggest so,” Gaoshun said, furrowing his eyebrows. He always got right to the point.

Jinshi’s head hurt. He wanted to stop thinking. Among other aggravations, he’d had no time to sleep since the day before, nor even to change his clothes. It was enough to make him want to throw a temper tantrum.

“Your, ahem, poker face is slipping, sir.”

Jinshi’s usual sweet smile was gone. He wore a sullen look that honestly looked more appropriate for a man of his youth. And Gaoshun seemed to read him like a book.

“No one else is here. Does it really matter?” His minder was always so strict.

“I am here.”

“You don’t count.”

“Yes, I do.”

Jinshi had hoped the joke would get him out of this, but Gaoshun, serious and diligent, never did have a sense of humor at the right times. What a burden it was to have someone minding your every move from the day you were born.

“You’re still wearing your hairpin,” Gaoshun said, pointing to his head.

“Oh. Crap.” Jinshi didn’t usually talk that way. “It was fairly well hidden. I doubt anyone noticed.” Jinshi pulled out the deeply buried hairpin to reveal an accessory of considerable craftsmanship. It was carved in the shape of the mythical qilin, a sort of cross between a deer and a horse. It was said to be the chief of the sacred beasts, and the right to wear its likeness was conferred only upon those of considerable rank.

“Here. Keep it somewhere safe.” Jinshi tossed the pin nonchalantly at Gaoshun.

“Be careful with that. It’s immensely important.”

“I understand.”

“You certainly don’t.”

And then, having gotten in the last word, the man who had been responsible for Jinshi for well nigh sixteen years left the office. Jinshi, still comporting himself like a child, laid down across the desk. He still had so much work to do. He needed to hurry up and make some free time for himself.

“All right, let’s get to it.” He gave a great stretch and picked up his brush. In order to have too much time on his hands, first he had to finish his work.

Chapter 21: Lihaku

The attempted poisoning, it seemed, was a much bigger deal than Maomao had given it credit for. Xiaolan hounded her about it relentlessly. A spot behind the laundry shed had become the serving girls’ favorite spot to gossip; now Maomao and Xiaolan sat there on wooden boxes, eating skewers of candied hawthorn berries, a treat Xiaolan seemed to especially love.

She would never believe I was right in the middle of it all.

Xiaolan looked younger than her years as she wolfed down the sweets, kicking her dangling legs. She was another one who had been sold into the rear palace, but this poor farmer’s daughter seemed to be enjoying her new life. Cheerful and talkative, she seemed less despondent that her parents had sold her into servitude than she was glad to have enough to eat.

“The one who ate the poison—it was one of the ladies-in-waiting where you work, wasn’t it, Maomao?”

“Yes, it was,” she said. She wasn’t lying. She just wasn’t quite telling the truth.

“I don’t know much about it. You think she’s okay?”

“I think she’s fine.” Maomao wasn’t sure exactly what kind of “okay” Xiaolan had in mind, but an affirmative answer seemed in order. Awfully uncomfortable with the conversation, Maomao dodged a few more questions before Xiaolan pursed her lips and gave up. She sat there holding a skewer with just one berry left on it. To Maomao, it looked like a hairpin of blood-red coral.

“Fine. Did you get any hairpins?” Xiaolan ventured.

“I guess.” Four, in fact, including the one given out of obligation. And counting the necklace from Consort Gyokuyou. (Why not?)

“Huh! So you can get out of here, then.” Xiaolan gave a carefree smile.

Hm? This piqued Maomao’s interest. “What did you say?”

“What do you mean, what did I say? You aren’t leaving?”

Yinghua had been emphatic about the same thing. Maomao had all but ignored her. Now she realized she’d made a mistake. She held her head in her hands and fell into self-recrimination.

“Whazza matter?” Xiaolan asked, looking at Maomao with concern.

“Tell me more about that.”

Realizing that Maomao suddenly, and finally, seemed interested in something she was saying, Xiaolan puffed out her chest. “You got it!” And then the voluble young woman told Maomao everything she knew about how the hairpins were used.

⭘⬤⭘

The summons came for Lihaku just as he finished training. Mopping away sweat, he tossed his sword, the blade cracked, to a nearby subordinate. The practice grounds smelled of sweat and carried the warmth of exertion in the air.

A spindly military officer handed Lihaku a wooden writing strip and a woman’s hairpin. The accessory, decorated with pink coral, was just one of several he’d passed out recently. He’d assumed the women would understand he was giving them the ornaments out of obligation, not in seriousness, but apparently at least one of them hadn’t. He wouldn’t want to embarrass her, but it could be problematic for him if she were really in earnest. But then again, if she was beautiful, it would be a shame not to at least meet her. Idly mulling over how he would let her down gently, Lihaku looked at the writing strip. It said: Jade Pavilion—Maomao.

He’d given a hairpin to only one of the women from the Jade Pavilion, that cold-eyed lady-in-waiting. Lihaku stroked his chin thoughtfully and went to change his clothes.

Men were typically forbidden from entering the rear palace. That of course applied to Lihaku, who still had all his various parts. He didn’t expect to serve in the rear palace; indeed, he was quite concerned what it would mean if he did so.

Terrifying though the place could be, however, with special permission women could be called from the rear palace. The means—one of several possible—was a hairpin like this. Lihaku waited in the guardhouse by the central gate for the young woman to be brought to him. In the somewhat cramped space were chairs and desks for two people, and eunuchs standing, one before the door on either side.

Through the door from the rear palace side appeared a petite young woman. Freckles surrounded her nose. Hers was the rare plain face in a place populated by exquisite beauties.

“And who are you?” Lihaku growled.

“I’m often asked that,” the girl replied indifferently, hiding her nose behind the palm of her hand. Suddenly he recognized her. It was the very woman who had called him here.

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

“Often.” The young woman didn’t appear put off by this remark, but candidly acknowledged the fact.

Lihaku understood, intellectually, that this was her, the lady-in-waiting, the food taster. But in his mind, he just couldn’t connect the freckled face with the alluring courtesan’s smile. It was the strangest thing.

“Listen, you understand what it means to call me out here like this, don’t you?” Lihaku crossed his arms, then crossed his legs for good measure. Not the least bit intimidated by this display from the bulky army officer, however, the petite young woman said, “I wish to go back to my family.” She sounded completely emotionless as she said it.

Lihaku scratched his head. “And you think I’m going to help?”

“Yes. I’ve heard that if you’ll vouch for me, I might be able to procure a temporary leave of absence.”

This girl said the darndest things. He wondered if she actually understood what the hairpins were really for. But as it happened, the girl, Maomao, evidently wanted to use him to get back to her home. She wasn’t just fishing for a nice officer for herself. Was she bold, or reckless?

Lihaku rested his chin on his hands and snorted. He didn’t care if she thought it was rude. This was how he was going to be. “So, what? I should just play along with you?” Lihaku was known for his decency and goodness of heart, but when he glared he could still manage to look suitably intimidating. When he gave lazy subordinates a dressing-down, even those who’d had nothing to do with it felt compelled to apologize. And yet this Maomao didn’t so much as furrow an eyebrow. She simply looked at him without emotion.

“Not exactly. I believe I have a way of showing my gratitude.” She placed a bundle of writing strips on the desk. It appeared to be a letter of introduction.

“Meimei, Pairin, Joka.” They were women’s names. In fact, Lihaku had heard of them. Many men had.

“Perhaps a flower-viewing excursion at the Verdigris House.”

They were names of courtesans of the highest class, women with whom one could spend a year’s wages in silver in a single night. The women named in the letter were collectively known as the Three Princesses, and they were the most popular ladies of all.

“If you have any concerns, you need only show them this,” Maomao said, and the slightest of smiles played across her lips.

“This has to be a joke.”

“I assure you, it’s quite serious.”

Lihaku could hardly believe it. For a mere lady-in-waiting to have connections with courtesans even the most highly ranked officers had trouble gaining an audience with was almost unthinkable. What was going on here? Lihaku tugged at his own hair, completely at a loss, and the young woman sighed and stood up.

“What?” Lihaku asked.

“I can see you don’t believe me. My apologies for wasting your time.” Maomao quietly withdrew something from the neck of her uniform. Two things, in fact. Hairpins: one in quartz, the other, silver. The implication was clear: she had other options. “Again, I’m sorry. I’ll ask someone else.”

“N-Now hold on just a second.” Lihaku slapped his hand down over the bundle of wood strips before Maomao could take it off the table.

She gazed at him, expressionless. “Is something the matter?” She looked him straight in the eye, meeting the gaze that could overpower experienced men of war. And Lihaku had to admit she’d bested him.

⭘⬤⭘

“Are you sure about this, Lady Gyokuyou?” Hongniang watched Maomao through a crack in the door. Her color seemed healthier than usual; she appeared almost cheerful as she packed up her things. The strange thing was, Maomao herself seemed to think she looked perfectly normal.

“It’s only three days,” the consort replied.

“Yes, ma’am, but…” Hongniang picked up the little princess, who was clasping at her skirts to be held. “I’m certain she doesn’t actually understand.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right.”

The other ladies-in-waiting had showered Maomao with congratulations, but she didn’t seem to grasp exactly why. She’d just blithely promised to bring them souvenirs.

Gyokuyou stood at the window, gazing out. “Really, the one I feel most sorry for of all is… well.” She let out a long breath, but then a mischievous smile appeared on her face. “It is very amusing, though.” She spoke in a whisper, but the words didn’t escape Hongniang.

The head lady-in-waiting worried: it seemed to her that there would be another argument.

Having finally finished his work and become a man of leisure again, Jinshi at last visited the Jade Pavilion, only to discover that he had missed Maomao by a single day.