Chapter 22: Homecoming

The red light district to which Maomao had been so eager to return was not, in fact, that far away. The rear palace was the size of a small city itself, but it was situated within the nation’s capital. The red light district sat on the opposite side of the metropolis from the palace complex, but if one could only get past the high walls and deep moats of the Imperial residence, it was within walking distance.

We hardly needed to go to the trouble of getting a carriage, Maomao thought. Beside her, the hulking man called Lihaku sat whistling a tune, holding the horse’s reins in his hands. His high spirits could be attributed to the fact that he now realized Maomao’s story had been true. The prospect of meeting the most famous courtesans in the land would put any man in a good mood.

Courtesans, it should be said, were not to be simply lumped together with the run of common prostitutes. Some of them sold their bodies, yes, but others sold purely their accomplishments. They didn’t take enough customers to be “popular” in the crass sense. Indeed, this helped drive up their perceived value. To share even a cup of tea with one of them could take a substantial amount of silver—let alone a night! These revered women became idols of a sort, objects of the common people’s admiration. Some city girls, taken by the idea of becoming one of these enchantresses themselves, came knocking on the gate of the red light district, though only a scant handful would ever actually achieve that exalted status.

The Verdigris House was among the most venerable of the establishments in the capital’s pleasure quarter; even the least notable of its ladies were courtesans of the middle rank. The most notable were among the most famous women in the district. And some of those were women Maomao thought of almost as sisters.

Familiar scenery came into view as the carriage clattered along. There was a street stall selling the kebabs she had longed to eat, the aroma wafting to her as they drove past. The branches of willow trees drooped over a canal, and she heard the voice of someone selling firewood. Children ran by, each carrying a pinwheel.

They passed under an ornate gate, and then a world painted in a riot of colors spread out before them. It was still midday, and there weren’t many people about; a few idle ladies of the night waved from the second floors of their establishments.

Finally the carriage stopped in front of a building whose entry was noticeably larger than that of many others. Maomao hopped out and jogged over to a slim old woman who stood smoking a pipe by the entrance. “Hey, Grams. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

Long ago she had been a lady said to possess tears of pearl, but now her tears had dried up like faded leaves. She’d refused offers to buy her out of bondage, instead remaining as the years passed, until now she was an old hand feared by all and sundry. Time was cruel indeed.

“A while, indeed, you ignorant whelp.” A shock ran through Maomao’s solar plexus. She felt the bile rise in her throat, a bitter taste welling up in her mouth. And strangely, even this she registered only as familiar, nostalgic. How many times in the past had she been induced in this way to vomit out poisons of which she had ingested too much?

Lihaku was at a loss what exactly was going on, but, being a fundamentally decent person, he rubbed Maomao gently on the back. Who the hell is this woman? his expression seemed to ask. Maomao scuffed some dust over the sodden ground with her foot. Lihaku looked at her with concern.

“Huh. So this is your so-called customer, eh?” The madam gave Lihaku an appraising look. The carriage, meanwhile, was entrusted to the establishment’s menservants. “Good, strong body. Manly features. An up-and-comer, from what I hear.”

“Grams, I don’t think you usually say that right front of the person you’re talking about.”

The madam pretended not to hear, but called for the apprentice, a prostitute-in-training, sweeping in front of the gate. “Go call Pairin. I think she’s lazing about somewhere today.”

“Pairin…” Lihaku swallowed heavily. Pairin was one of those famed courtesans; it was said her specialty was exquisite dancing. For the sake of Lihaku’s reputation, we should add that what he felt was not simple lust for a female companion, but sincere appreciation for a woman of genuine talents. To meet this idol who seemed to live above the clouds, even simply to take tea with her, was a great honor.

Pairin? I mean… Yeah, maybe… Pairin could do extremely fine work for those who were to her liking.

“Master Lihaku,” Maomao said, giving the big but currently vacant-eyed man beside her a jab. “How confident are you in your biceps?”

“Not quite sure what you mean, but I like to think I’ve honed my body as well as any man.”

“Is that so? Best of luck, then.”

Lihaku gave her a final, puzzled tilt of the head as the young apprentice led him away. As for Maomao, she was thankful to Lihaku for bringing her here, and wanted to provide him with something that would adequately express her gratitude. And a night’s dream could provide a lifetime’s memory.

“Now, Maomao.” The owner of the hoarse voice wore a terrible smile. “Not a word for ten freakin’ months?”

“What was I supposed to do? I was serving in the rear palace.” At least she’d sent a wood strip explaining the general situation.

“You owe me big. You know I never take first-time customers.”

“Believe me, I know.” Maomao pulled a pouch out of her bag. It contained half her earnings from the rear palace to date—she’d specially asked for an advance on her salary.

“Huh,” the woman sniffed, peering into the pouch. “Not nearly enough.”

“I admit I didn’t expect you to actually produce Pairin.” She’d thought the money would cover a night’s dalliance with a highly ranked courtesan. Besides, the likes of Lihaku would probably have been satisfied even to get a glimpse of the Three Princesses. “At least pretend it’ll cover a cup of tea together. Please, for me?”

“Dumbass. A muscle-brained bozo like that? Pairin’ll bite, and you know it.”

Yeah, I might have guessed. The most esteemed courtesans didn’t sell their bodies, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t fall in love. Such was the way of things. “Let’s just say it’s out of my hands…”

“Never! It’s going on your tab.”

“There’s no way I can pay that much!” Don’t think even the rest of my salary would make up the difference. No way…

Maomao was deep in thought. The woman was clearly messing with her. Not that that was anything new.

“Bah, worst comes to worst, you can pay off your debt with your body. I know His Majesty’s your only customer in that big, fancy palace of yours, but it’s the same idea. And don’t worry about all those scars. We get certain types who like that sort of thing.”

For lo these many years, the madam had persisted in trying to get Maomao to become a courtesan. Having spent her entire life in the red light district, the woman didn’t think of a courtesan’s lot as an unhappy one.

“I still have a year left on my contract.”

“Then spend it scaring me up more customers. Not old farts, either. Young bucks like your friend today that we can squeeze something out of.”

Ah ha. So she does think there’s profit to be had.

The only thing the old woman ever thought about was where the money was. Maomao had no intention of ever selling herself, so she would have to begin supplying a steady stream of “sacrifices” to the madam. Anyone who seemed feasible.

Wonder if I could get away with sending eunuchs… Jinshi’s face drifted through her mind, but Maomao dismissed the idea. The courtesans might get so serious about him that they’d bring the whole establishment to its knees. Wouldn’t want that. But then again, she would feel bad sending Gaoshun or the quack doctor. She didn’t want to be the reason they ended up wrung out by the old lady. Now Maomao was really regretting that there were so few good ways to meet men in the rear palace.

“Maomao, your old man ought to be at home. Scamper along and see him.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Think as she might, she couldn’t resolve the issue here and now. Maomao ducked down a side path beside the Verdigris House.

Just a single street further along, the red light district became a much more lonely place. Tumbledown shacks that passed for shops or houses, beggars waiting for someone to throw some small change into the broken teacups they held, and night-walkers with visible scars from syphilis.

One of these ragged buildings was Maomao’s home. It was a cramped two-room house with a dirt floor. Within, a figure knelt on a rush mat, bent over a mortar and pestle, working the device industriously. It was a man with deep wrinkles on his face and a gentle appearance; there was an almost grandmotherly aspect to him.

“Hey, Pops. I’m back.”

“Ah, took you a while,” her father said, greeting her the same way he always had, as if nothing had happened. Then he went to prepare tea with an unsteady gait. He poured it into a battered teacup, which Maomao received gratefully. Even though it was made from tired leaves, the tea was warm and relaxed her.

Maomao started to talk about all that had happened to her, one thing after another, and her father listened with only the occasional hum or huh. For dinner, they had congee thickened with herbs and potatoes, and then Maomao went straight to bed. A bath could wait until the next day, she decided, when she could borrow some nice, hot water from the Verdigris House.

She curled up on her simple bedding, a mat laid out on the dirt floor. Her father pulled a kimono over her, then stoked the fire in the oven to ensure it wouldn’t go out.

“The rear palace… That’s karma, I suppose,” her father whispered, but the words didn’t reach Maomao; she was already asleep.

Chapter 23: Wheat Stalks

Oh yeah…

The crowing of the rooster woke Maomao up, and she shuffled outside her dilapidated house. There was a small chicken coop in the back and a shed for farm implements, along with a wooden crate. From the fact that the hoe was missing, she gathered her father was in the field. He kept one in a grove just outside the red light district.

He knows that’s not good for his legs. Her father was getting on in years, and she wished he would stop with the difficult physical labor, but he showed no sign of doing so. He liked to make his medicines from herbs he had grown himself. Hence, a motley collection of strange plants sprouted around their house.

Maomao plucked a leaf here and there, checking how the plants were doing. She glanced at the discreet wooden crate. It bore a sign with characters in brushwork reading: HANDS OFF. Maomao swallowed at that. She nudged the lid back and peeked in, although it did her heart rate no favors. If she remembered correctly, the crate contained various ingredients left to stew in wine. She seemed to recall the ingredients being very lively and difficult to catch.

After a moment, Maomao put the lid back just the way it had been. It seemed people were heeding the sign. Ever the careful thinker, her father had wisely put just one thing inside the box. That was a wise choice. Several together might eat each other and become toxic.

All right, anyway… Her thoughts were interrupted by a noisy pounding at the door. Scratching her head lazily, Maomao went around the front of the house. “You’re gonna break it,” she said to the panicked-looking girl who had been slamming her fist against the unsteady door. She wasn’t from the Verdigris House. She was a servant-apprentice at another of the nearby brothels who occasionally came to Maomao’s pharmacy.

“What’s up? If you’re looking for my dad, he’s out.” Maomao was in the middle of a yawn when the girl grabbed her hand and veritably dragged her away.

The apprentice brought Maomao to a middling brothel not far from the Verdigris House. It wasn’t a big place, but it boasted decent quality. Maomao recalled there were several courtesans here, with some excellent patrons. But what did the servant girl want, bringing her here?

Maomao tried to straighten her frazzled hair and brush the wrinkles out of her clothes. She hadn’t changed into her sleepwear the night before, which was starting to seem like it might be a good thing. But here she’d been planning to get hot water from the Verdigris House…

“Sis, I brought the apothecary!” the girl called as they went through the back door of the brothel and headed for one of the rooms. There, Maomao discovered a cluster of women, wearing no makeup and looking fatigued, gathered around something she couldn’t see. When she got closer, she found a man and a woman lying on a bed, sharing a pillow, spittle dribbling out of their mouths. There appeared to be traces of vomit on the bedding.

A pipe lay on the floor nearby, and tobacco leaves were scattered around. She saw some pieces of straw on the ground as well, and a shattered glass vessel nearby. The contents had spilled, staining the pillow. The air was filled with a very distinctive aroma. Two wine bottles were likewise part of the chaos, also tipped over and spilled. The two differently colored stains on the pillow looked almost like some strange kind of art.

Confronted with this scene, Maomao’s eyes snapped open and sleep left her. She pried open the man’s and woman’s eyes, looking into them; she checked their pulses and stuck a finger in their mouths. She wasn’t the first, it seemed, as the fingers of one of the courtesans were filthy with sick.

The man wasn’t breathing; Maomao pressed on his solar plexus in an effort to disgorge the contents of his stomach. There was a hrrk, and spit came pouring out of his mouth. She grabbed at the sheets to wipe the inside of his mouth. Finally she slid him around and breathed into his mouth.

Seeing this, one of the courtesans tried to imitate what Maomao had done for the woman. Unlike the man, she was still breathing, so she was easily induced to vomit. The courtesan made to offer her some water, but Maomao shouted: “Don’t let her drink that! Charcoal—we need charcoal!” The startled courtesan spilled the water in her surprise, but then rushed off down the hallway.

Maomao repeated the process with the man several more times, pressing on his chest to induce vomiting, then breathing for him. When only stomach acid began to come up, he finally started to breathe on his own.

Maomao, exhausted by this point, took the water that was offered to her and rinsed out her mouth before spitting it out the nearby window.

First damn thing in the morning. She hadn’t even eaten breakfast, and now she felt like she wanted to go back to bed. But she shook her head to stave off the sensation and called the servant girl. “Bring my father here. He’s probably in the field by the south wall. Give this to him; he’ll know what it means.” She had a wooden writing slip brought and scrawled a few characters on it, then gave it to the girl. The child looked conflicted, but she took it and left. Maomao took another mouthful of water, drinking it down this time, and then she began powdering the charcoal that had been brought.

Stupid, annoying, troublesome thing to do, she thought, scowling at the tobacco leaves and then heaving a sigh.

About half an hour later, an elderly man with bad legs arrived, led by the servant girl. Took her long enough, Maomao thought, but she showed her father the carefully pulverized charcoal. He added dried leaves from a few different varieties of herbs, then gave the concoction to the man and woman to drink.

“I guess you did a passable job dealing with this,” he said, then picked up one of the pieces of straw from the floor and studied one end of it intently.

“Just passable?” Maomao watched her father—old but by no means soft—work. He picked up a shard of the glass on the floor, and some of the tobacco leaves. Finally, he examined some of the vomit, the first stuff that had come out before Maomao had arrived.

She studied him as he went. If she had a habit of observing her surroundings closely, she had surely gotten it from him. This man—her adoptive father, a master apothecary—could discern two or three new things from just one new fact.

“What poison did you take this to be?” her father said. His tone implied he was giving her some sort of lesson. Maomao picked up one of the tobacco leaves herself and showed it to him. A wide smile crossed his wrinkled face as if to say, Yes, that’s right. “It appears you didn’t let them drink any water?”

“That’d be counterproductive, wouldn’t it?”

Her father responded with an ambiguous gesture that seemed to be both a nod and a shake of the head at the same time. “Depends. Stomach acid can help prevent the absorption of poison. In those cases, giving the patient water is counterproductive. But if the agent was dissolved in water to begin with, then diluting it is sometimes the best choice.” He explained everything slowly, carefully, as though instructing a child. Indeed, it might have been her father’s very presence that prevented Maomao from considering herself more of an apothecary in her own right. And perhaps he caused her to see the rear palace’s doctor as more of a quack than he deserved.

When Maomao observed that the vomit contained no traces of tobacco leaves, she realized the method her father was prescribing was probably the right one. It wasn’t that she might never have noticed the absence of the leaves, but it remained that she had overlooked it. Maybe she’d been sleepier than she realized.

While she tried to make herself remember this course of treatment, the apprentice girl tugged on her sleeve, saying, “This way.” Was it just Maomao’s imagination, or did the girl look sullen somehow? In any case, Maomao allowed herself to be shown to a room where tea had been prepared.

“You must pardon all the trouble,” said a woman cutting sweet potatoes. She looked like she was no longer practicing the profession; Maomao guessed she was the madam of this particular house. Clearly she didn’t share quite the same miserly streak as the madam of the Verdigris House; she would never have given tea and sweets to a mere apothecary (“Customers only!”).

“We only did our job, ma’am.” Maomao would be happy enough if they could just get paid. Her father, sitting beside her in a jovial mood, was apt to forget about that part, so Maomao had to make sure she got the money.

The woman squinted, looking into the next room. The courtesan who had been sick was asleep now, and the male customer was sleeping in another room. The woman’s face darkened noticeably.

An attempted lovers’ suicide, maybe? It wasn’t that unusual in the red light district. When a man without means met a woman with too much time left on her contract, it was always the first damn thing they thought of. They would whisper sweet nothings about meeting each other in the next life, when there was no proof such a thing even existed.

The madam offered Maomao a bit of sweet potato; she took it and chewed thoughtfully. The tea was lukewarm, with a wheat stalk lounging on one side.

You know, I saw a couple of those back in that room, Maomao reflected. Stems of wheat were hollow on the inside; this one was intended to serve as a straw. Brothels here hated for lipstick to get on the drinkware, and it was customary to use wheat stalks for drinking.

God, but a little friendship between men and women could be complicated. The man in that room had looked awfully well-to-do. Like a playboy, certainly, but he’d been wearing a robe backed with fine silk. He had a charming face, too: the sort of person an inexperienced young woman might easily be drawn in by. Maomao knew her father would scold her for letting prejudice like this into her thinking, but this just didn’t look to her like a lady of the night who took poison in despair over her lack of a future. She didn’t look like someone who felt cornered enough to want to die.

Once Maomao got an idea into her head, she couldn’t let it go until she had followed it through. It was just how she was. Once she was sure her father had gotten the money from the madam, she said, “I’m going to go check on the patient,” and left the room.

The man was in worse shape than the courtesan. When Maomao headed for his room on the far side of the building, she noticed that the door was slightly ajar. And through the small crack, she saw something very strange.

It was the servant girl, the disconsolate child who had brought her here—and she was raising a knife over her head.

“Hey! What are you doing?!” Maomao said as she hurried into the room and took the knife from the child.

“Don’t you stop me! He deserves to die!” The girl launched herself at Maomao, trying to get the knife back. Maomao was small enough herself that even a child might have overpowered her if desperate enough. Left with no other option, Maomao clouted the girl on the head, and while she was reeling from the blow, slapped her hard across the cheek. The girl fell back from the impact. She began to cry, huge, wracking sobs, her nose leaking copious amounts of snot.

Maomao was just registering her own disbelief when another courtesan, alerted by the noise, came into the room. “Wh—What in the world is happening here?!” She quickly seemed to grasp the answer to her own question, however, and Maomao was hustled away to another room, much to the detriment of her investigation.

The man at the center of this attempted lovers’ suicide, it transpired, was already a notoriously problematic customer. He was the third son of a wealthy merchant family, and he had a history of using his handsome looks and silver tongue to get into a courtesan’s good graces, stringing her along with vague promises of buying out her contract, before casting her aside when he tired of her. At least one woman had subsequently despaired of her life and killed herself. This wasn’t his first encounter with near-fatal resentment, either; other women, enraged by his philandering, had attempted to stab him or even poison him. As the son of his father’s favorite concubine, though, Daddy always managed to buy the boy’s way out of trouble, and it left him a rotten, spoiled child. Recently he had even prevailed upon his father to have bodyguards see him safely to the brothels.

“This girl’s older sister worked at another shop,” explained a courtesan as she stroked the child, who continued to cry. The servant girl’s sister had been one of those the man had loved and left. The last word the girl had had from her sister was a letter joyfully communicating that she was to be bought out of her contract. And the next thing the child heard of her was that she had killed herself. How must she have felt?

“She became close to one of the girls here… The one you saved from poisoning today.” The woman looked at Maomao apologetically.

Look the other wayis that what she’s asking me to do? The woman’s hope, it seemed, was to share this sorry tale in order to earn Maomao’s sympathy and keep her mouth shut. Thankfully, the commotion hadn’t reached the room where her father and the madam were. If Maomao chose not to say anything, the child would most likely go unpunished. What a pain.

Personally, she felt that if a customer was known to be that much trouble, they should have just banned him, but apparently it was the unfortunate courtesan herself who had invited him in. If it got out that there had been an attempted double suicide, this establishment would have quite a headache to deal with. Part of why everyone seemed so grateful to Maomao and her father was that as repugnant as he might be, the man in question was still the son of an important family, and she had saved him from dying.

Which, to the little servant girl, must have felt like an unbearable injustice.

Can’t say I blame her, Maomao thought. She’d happened to be at home today, but for the past many months, Maomao hadn’t been in the red light district. It was plausible to suspect that this little girl, who did the shopping and other errands for her house, would have been aware of when Maomao’s father was and wasn’t home. Besides, for an emergency like this, one would normally go to the doctor, not the apothecary.

Had the child deliberately chosen a moment when the pharmacist would be out? It implied an intimidating quickness of mind for one so young. That might also have explained why she had been so slow bringing Maomao’s father. It was a testament to how much she hated this man.

Finally Maomao said simply: “I understand,” and went back to her father.

“Quite a welcome home, this,” her father said lightly. He and Maomao were heading back to their little shack, having spent most of the morning on the incident. Maomao relieved her father of the coin purse, double-checked the contents, then gave it back to him. The amount suggested there was a bit of hush money included. The notorious customer was in stable condition, but this was probably the last time he would be allowed around here. Not just this brothel, but the entire red light district. Word traveled fast in a place like this.

When they got home, Maomao settled in a creaking chair and kicked out her legs. She never had gotten that hot water. She was lucky it wasn’t the sweating season, but thanks to all that rushing around she was perspiring anyway, and it felt icky.

Almost as uncomfortable was this business about the double suicide. Something about it nagged at her. The man in question had been such a lowlife that even the apprentice girl hated him, and from what the others had said it sounded like the person he most looked out for was himself. Would a man like that get sucked into some overheated display of love like a double suicide?

Did the courtesan poison him, then?

Maybe he hadn’t chosen to commit suicide. But Maomao quickly gave up the idea. There’d already been at least one attempt to poison the man; he wouldn’t be too quick to eat anything a courtesan offered him. Maomao crossed her arms and grunted to herself. Her father watched her as he crushed some herbs in a mortar. After a beat he said, “Don’t say anything based on an assumption.”

For him to say that suggested he already had an inkling as to the truth of the incident. Maomao looked at him ruefully, then slumped against the table. She tried to bring to mind everything that had been at the scene of the incident. Had she missed something?

There was a man and woman, collapsed. The scattered tobacco leaves, the glass vessel with its…

Now Maomao registered that unless she was remembering wrongly, there had been only one glass vessel at the scene. And the wheat stalks. Two different colors of alcohol.

Without a word, Maomao got up and stood in front of the water jug. She ladled up some of the contents, then put them back. Her father watched her do this several times, before he sighed and put the powdered ingredients into a container. Then he rose and shuffled over to stand in front of her. “It’s over now,” he said. “It’s done.” He mussed her hair fondly.

“I’m aware of that,” Maomao said, putting the ladle back in the jug one more time and then leaving the house.

Not suicide. Murder, Maomao thought. And it was the courtesan, she believed, who had tried to kill the man. The playboy son, the smooth talker, the lover-and-leaver of so many women. The very courtesan whom the man had been courting, the most recent subject of his amorous advances, might be the one who had attempted to kill him.

Maomao felt she could safely suppose that the philanderer had, as usual, plied this woman with promises to buy her out of her contract. Unlike Maomao, many people seemed to believe that love could change a person. And when enough people repeated an idea enough times, somewhere along the line it became the truth.

Very well. How, then, had the courtesan managed to poison the vigilant man? It was simple: just show him that there was no poison present. The courtesan would have taken a drink of the wine first, just the sort of thing Maomao did in her job. When the man saw that the woman was perfectly fine, he would drink the same stuff. That was why there had been only one container.

That, however, raised the possibility that the woman would succumb to the poison first, and the man wouldn’t drink the tainted wine. Some poisons, like the one Maomao had discovered at the banquet, were slow-acting, and there was probably one of those present, too: in this case the agent was most likely the tobacco. It had a stimulant effect when chewed, and was spat out quickly.

If the courtesan was a talented actress and could consume the poison without being discovered, well and good, but Maomao suspected she’d had help. She’d drunk the wine through a straw made from a wheat stalk. It was a perfectly normal thing to do, and wouldn’t have aroused the man’s suspicion.

How had this enabled her to avoid the poison? Maomao thought it had something to do with the wine. There had been two different types. Two colors of wine in a single, transparent glass vessel. Though they might not be as immiscible as oil and water, two types of wine would have slightly different densities. If you poured a lighter wine on top of a heavier one carefully enough, two layers would form. And how pretty that would be, a dual-colored wine in a glass container. A lovely little trick to delight a favored guest. And meanwhile, the courtesan would use her straw to drink only from the lower layer, while the man, without a straw, drank from the top.

Once the woman was sure the man had collapsed, she would drink a bit of the poisoned wine herself. Not enough to die, just enough to present a convincing illusion. The tobacco leaves scattered around would help hide the smell, and make people think that was what they had used to do the deed. If the courtesan died herself, it would all have been for naught. She had worked very hard to make sure the man succumbed and she survived. Which presumably also explained why she had chosen to do this first thing in the morning.

There was even someone to conveniently discover the situation for her.

Maomao arrived at the brothel from that morning. She went around back, to the room where the poisoned courtesan had been put to get some rest. She found the exhausted-looking woman leaning against a railing and gazing up at the sky. Apparently she was up and about. She was humming a children’s song, and an ephemeral smile floated across her face. Ephemeral and yet, Maomao thought, somehow dauntless.

“Sis, what are you doing?” a servant girl—not the child from that morning—called when she saw the courtesan leaning on the railing. She dragged the woman back into her room and closed the window.

The behavior of the first servant girl, the one who had tried to stab the man, struck Maomao as odd for someone whose beloved “sister” was at risk of dying of poison. She’d deliberately gone to the apothecary and not the doctor, in hopes of being too late to save the man. And she’d taken her time summoning Maomao’s father, too. Wasn’t she worried about the courtesan at all? Or did she not believe a second person so close to her could die as well? Was Maomao overthinking things—or did it almost seem the girl had known all along that the courtesan would make it through?

Then there was the other courtesan, who had so emotionally described the woman’s plight to Maomao. And the uncommonly generous madam. The more she thought about it, the stranger everything seemed.

No assumptions, huh?

Maomao looked slowly from the newly closed window up to the sky. She was finally back in the red light district for which she had pined all those months in the rear palace, but deep down they were the same place. Both were gardens, and cages. Everyone in them was trapped, being poisoned by the atmosphere. The courtesans absorbed the toxins around them, until they became a sweet poison themselves. With the playboy son alive, it was hard to say what would happen to his would-be killer. He might suspect an attempted poisoning. But then again, it might go the other way around: the brothel might accuse him of having ruined an important product of theirs, and squeeze something out of him that way.

I guess it doesn’t matter which, Maomao thought. It had nothing to do with her. If you felt personally involved in everything that happened in this place, you would never survive.

Maomao gave the back of her head a tired scratch and decided to go over to the Verdigris House. She was going to get that hot water. She set off at a slow trot.

Chapter 24: A Misunderstanding

Maomao’s three days at home went by in a flash. It hurt to have to leave after becoming reacquainted with so many familiar faces, but she couldn’t just abandon her work at the rear palace. Not least because of the trouble it would cause for Lihaku, who had vouched for her. The final push came from the madam of the Verdigris House, who was even now trying to pick the perfect sadist to make Maomao’s first customer.

I’ll just pretend I had a very pleasant dream. When she saw the slick Pairin and Lihaku, who resembled a pile of melting honey, Maomao reflected that maybe she had paid too rich a reward. The next place Lihaku would visit for pleasure was set in stone. Having tasted the nectar of heaven, he could never again be satisfied with the tepid offerings of earth. Maomao felt a little bit bad for him. She was sure the madam would take him for all he was worth.

But that wasn’t Maomao’s problem.

And so she returned to the Jade Pavilion, bearing gifts, only to discover a nymph-like young man who seemed quite on edge. She could detect something toxic just the far side of his delicate smile. Why did he seem to be glaring at her?

His personality aside, he certainly was beautiful. The glare he fixed on her was a little intimidating. Maomao ducked her head, hoping to avoid the trouble of dealing with him, and tried to make a beeline for her room, but he got a solid grip on her shoulder. She felt his nails dig into her flesh.

“I’ll be waiting in the sitting area,” he said, his voice like honey in her ear. Wolfsbane honey, that was. Poisonous. Behind him, Gaoshun was urging Maomao with his eyes not to fight it. She saw Gyokuyou, too, whose eyes were sparkling even though she seemed a bit troubled. Finally, there was Hongniang, looking at Maomao with what she took to be reproach, and the other three ladies-in-waiting, looking on more with curiosity than concern. She expected to be well and truly interrogated after this was over.

Whatever this is.

Maomao set down her baggage, changed into her uniform, and went to the sitting area.

“You asked for me, sir?”

Jinshi was alone in the room. He was dressed in a simple official’s uniform, but he wore it well. He was seated in a chair with his legs crossed, resting his elbows on the table in front of him. And to Maomao’s eyes, he appeared to be in a worse mood than usual. Maybe it was just her imagination. She hoped it was just her imagination. Yes, that’s what she would go with: it was her imagination.

Jinshi’s customary sedative, Gaoshun, was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Consort Gyokuyou.

And that made the situation unbearable for Maomao.

“I see you had a little visit home,” Jinshi began.

“Yes, sir.”

“And how was it?”

“Everyone seemed in good health and good spirits. That’s what matters.”

“Oh, indeed?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jinshi said nothing further, so neither did Maomao. It was clear they weren’t going to have much of a conversation at this rate.

Finally Jinshi prodded, “This Lihaku. What kind of a man is he?”

“Sir. He vouched for me to leave the palace.”

How does Jinshi know his name? Maomao wondered.

Lihaku would yet become a regular customer. A major source of revenue. A very important person indeed.

“Do you know what it means? Do you understand?” Jinshi said, the irritation plain in his voice. There was none of his usual sweetness.

“Of course. One must be a high official of impeccable background in order to vouch for another.”

Jinshi looked absolutely taxed by this response, as if enervated by the statement of the obvious.

“Did he give you a hairpin?”

“Me and quite a few others. He was passing them out to every girl in sight—apparently he felt obliged to do so.” For all his intimidating look, Lihaku could actually be quite generous. The design of his hairpin was clean and simple, but the workmanship was solid, and it was overall a quite lovely piece. If Maomao ever lacked money, she could probably sell it for a decent price.

“You’re telling me I lost out to that? That I was bested by a bauble some hack felt obliged to give you?”

Wow, I’ve never heard him talk like that, Maomao thought, puzzled by Jinshi’s unfamiliar tone. Clearly, something was wrong.

“I gave you a hairpin, too, as I recall,” Jinshi went on, “but I didn’t see hide or damned hair of you when you needed someone to vouch for you!” He looked positively sullen. His alluring smile had been replaced by the pout of a petulant boy, and suddenly he looked hardly older than Maomao. Perhaps younger, even. Maomao marveled that a single change of facial expression could alter how a person looked so drastically.

This much she understood: Jinshi was displeased that she had leaned on Lihaku for help rather than coming to him. Maomao couldn’t say it made sense to her. Why should he want one more thing on his to-do list? Wouldn’t his life be easier without? Or was it precisely having so much time on his hands that made Jinshi so eager to get involved even in things that might mean inconvenience for him?

“My sincere apologies,” Maomao said. “I couldn’t think of compensation that would be worthy of you, Master Jinshi.”

Would’ve been rude to give a eunuch an invitation to a brothel, right?

Maybe if it had been one of those innocuous places where the ladies only served tea and played music for the entertainment of the guests. But Maomao knew full well that wasn’t all that happened at the Verdigris House. She balked at the idea of inviting a man who was no longer a man to come there.

What was more, she had to consider who Jinshi was. Maomao could all too easily imagine the average courtesan falling completely under his spell. She was sure she would have caught hell from the madam for introducing him to her ladies.

“Compensation? What’s that supposed to mean? Did you pay this Lihaku?” He looked deeply disturbed; a touch of insecurity was now added to his overall ill humor.

“Yes. I offered him the pleasure of a night’s dream.”

And I don’t think he’ll be back to reality for a while, she added privately. A man like Lihaku might be a lion with his troops, but he was probably a kitten in the hands of Pairin. And folk belief held that a cat well cared for might bring its master luck… or money.

Maomao looked at Jinshi and realized the blood had drained from his face. His hand, clutching a teacup, was shaking.

Maybe he’s feeling cold. Maomao turned to heap a few more pieces of charcoal on the brazier and fanned the flames gently. “He seemed entirely pleased,” she reported. “It makes me feel all the hard work I did for him was worth it.”

And now I’ll have to work hard to find more new customers. Maomao clenched her fist to demonstrate her private determination. From behind her, she heard the sound of a teacup shattering.

“Whatever are you doing?” she asked. Bits of ceramic were scattered on the floor. Jinshi was standing there, his face absolutely pale. Tea stained his neat uniform. “Oh, I’ll grab something to wipe up with,” Maomao said, but when she opened the door, she discovered Consort Gyokuyou, clutching her stomach with laughter. Gaoshun was there, too, seeming exhausted. Finally there was Hongniang, who looked at Maomao with an expression of pure exasperation: she didn’t need to say anything more. Maomao looked at them, baffled. Without a word, Hongniang walked over to her and smacked her on the back of the head. The chief lady-in-waiting was quick on the draw. Maomao rubbed her head, still not understanding quite what was going on, but she headed for the kitchen to get a rag just the same.

⭘⬤⭘

“And how long can we expect you to sulk?” Gaoshun asked, thinking what a great deal of trouble this was going to be. Even after they got back to his office, Jinshi refused to do anything but lie slumped across his desk. Gaoshun heaved a sigh. “Must I remind you that you are supposed to be at work?” The desk, so recently and with such effort cleared off, was already piled with new papers to attend to.

“I know that.”

I hate work. This person, Jinshi, would never have actually given voice to such a childish response. He wouldn’t become too attached to his toys.

After Jinshi’s conversation with Maomao, Gaoshun had painstakingly extracted a clarification from Consort Gyokuyou. The “payment” for Maomao’s guarantor had consisted of a meeting with a “star” courtesan, she said. It had never occurred to Gaoshun that a girl like Maomao might have such connections.

So what, exactly, had his master been imagining? Ah, the terrors of youth, the withered thirty-something mused.

Jinshi had calmed down considerably since then, but his bad mood remained. He had powered through his work and rushed off to find Maomao, only to discover she’d gone back to her home with a man he didn’t know. It must have hit him like a bolt from the blue.

That was too bad, Gaoshun thought, but he couldn’t spend all his time soothing the tantrums of an overgrown child.

At length, Jinshi started putting his chop to the accumulated papers. If, at a glance, he judged a paper was one he couldn’t approve, he set it to one side on his desk. No sooner had he gone through the pile than an under-official arrived with a new armload.

Jinshi could stand to ponder some of the papers just a little longer, Gaoshun thought, watching his master work. Many of them were proposals from officials whose ideas would benefit no one but themselves. Gaoshun lamented that the young master’s workload should increase for such a sordid reason.

Before he knew it, the sun was going down, and Gaoshun lit the lamp.

“Pardon me, sirs.”

Gaoshun saw a subordinate coming and moved to intercept him. “We’re done working for the day,” he said. “Perhaps you’d be so kind as to come by tomorrow.”

“Oh, it’s not a business matter, sir,” the man said with a hurried wave of his hand. “In fact…”

And then, furrowing his brow, the messenger related a most urgent situation.