Is the mastermind behind that poisoning attempt really here? Maomao wondered. The ladies-in-waiting at the Jade Pavilion were extremely hard workers, but even by that standard, Maomao had to admit that the women at the Garnet Pavilion were no slouches, either. All of them adored Consort Ah-Duo and wanted to do their best work for her.
This was as true of their leader, Fengming, as it was of anyone. She never let herself be constrained by her station; if she saw a speck of dust, she would grab a cloth and wipe it away herself. She hardly seemed like the chief lady-in-waiting to a highly ranked consort. Even the industrious Hongniang would leave such tasks to the other women.
I wish those proud peacocks at the Crystal Pavilion could see this.
Consort Lihua, it seemed, simply wasn’t lucky in serving women. Maybe the reason she had so many of them was because each one did so little work. They were excellent talkers, but nothing more, and therein lay the problem. Then again, taking such problems in hand was one of the challenges of holding a high rank.
Powerful loyalty, though, could bring its own troubles. It could motivate someone to attempt poisoning, for example. Some high official was trying to get his own daughter into the rear palace, leading to the prospective disenfranchisement of one of the four foremost consorts. If anyone was apt to be demoted, it was Ah-Duo—but what if one of the other consorts’ places were suddenly vacant?
Gyokuyou and Lihua were more or less secure, but presumably the Emperor didn’t visit Consort Lishu. Maomao suspected that was one of the reasons her ladies-in-waiting took her so lightly. His Majesty doesn’t like them so… scrawny. Maybe it was a reaction against his father’s preference for extremely young girls: the current ruler was only aroused if a woman had enough meat on her bones. Every consort he visited, not least Gyokuyou and Lihua, possessed a certain voluptuousness.
As such, Lishu had yet to fulfill her duty as a consort. Maybe that was just as well for someone so young. She was technically of marriageable age, yes, but a pregnancy at fourteen could put considerable strain on her body come childbirth. Even back at the Verdigris House, girls didn’t graduate from apprenticeship until fifteen. And until then, they didn’t take customers. It ultimately made them better courtesans who lasted longer.
Maomao preferred not to think too hard about the former Emperor’s predilections. If one did a little math involving the respective ages of the current Emperor and his mother, one arrived at a most unsettling number.
In any event, if someone wanted to get one of the four ladies out of the picture, Consort Lishu would be a logical choice.
Maomao let her thoughts wander as she organized a kitchen shelf, upon which was a line of small jars. A sweet aroma tickled her nose. “What should we do with these?” Maomao, picking up one of the jars, said to a lady-in-waiting who was cleaning the kitchen with her. The two serving girls who had accompanied Maomao the day before were cleaning the bath and the living area, respectively.
“Oh, those. Dust the shelf and then put them back the way they were.”
“Are these all honey?”
“Mmhmm. Lady Fengming’s family are beekeepers.”
Honey was a luxury item. A person would be lucky to have even one variety, let alone a whole shelf full—but that explained it. Maomao peeked into several of the jars and saw honeys of different colors: amber, dark red, and even brown. They came from different flowers, and had different flavors. Come to think of it, she’d thought the candles they’d used for illumination the night before had a sweet scent. They must have been beeswax.
Hmm… Something nagged at her, something to do with honey. The subject had come up recently, she was sure.
“When you’re done there, would you dust the second-floor railing? It always gets missed when we’re cleaning.”
“Of course.” Maomao put the honey back in its place and went up to the second floor with her rag. Honey. Honey… As she carefully dusted each post of the railing, she turned the word over in her mind, trying to remember what it represented.
Well, now. From the second floor, she could see outside clearly. Including some figures among the shadows of the trees. They evidently thought they were hidden, but they were obviously observing the Garnet Pavilion.
Is that Consort Lishu? The young consort was there, with only one attendant, her food taster. None of this was making sense to Maomao. Her memory went back to the tea party, and Lishu’s unaccountable aversion to honey.
She just couldn’t let the thought go.
Maomao appropriated the Jade Pavilion’s reception area to report to Jinshi about what had transpired at the Garnet Pavilion.
“All of which is to say, I have no idea.” What she didn’t know, she didn’t know. Maomao refused to underestimate herself, but by the same token, she wouldn’t oversell her abilities, either. She was perfectly frank with the gorgeous eunuch. She’d told him all she’d come up with after three days in the Garnet Pavilion.
Jinshi reclined on a chaise longue, looking elegant as he sipped a fragrant tea from some other land. It had a sweet aroma; the concoction involved lemons and honey.
“I see. Yes, of course.”
Maomao was just as happy that, of late, the gorgeous eunuch appeared a little less sparkly than before, but it seemed to her that his tone had grown somewhat glib. Perhaps it was that the sweetness was gone from his voice, and he gave the impression of a young man, almost a boy. Maomao didn’t know what he wanted from her, but she was always and ever nothing more than an ordinary apothecary. She had no interest in playing spy.
“Let’s try a different question, then. Hypothetically, if, by some special means, there were someone who was communicating with outside parties, who do you suppose that would be?”
Again with the roundabout interrogation. I wish he would just say what he means. Maomao didn’t like to speak without proof. She had always been taught not to work based on assumptions. Now she closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. If she couldn’t calm herself a little, she might just look at the nymph-like young man as if he were a flattened toad. Gaoshun was, as ever, silently urging restraint with his eyes.
“This is purely a possibility, but if there were such a person, I think perhaps it would be Lady Fengming, the chief lady-in-waiting.”
“You have any proof?”
“She had a bandage wrapped around her left arm. I walked in while she was changing it once, and caught a glimpse of some burns.”
Maomao had previously dealt with an incident involving writing strips impregnated with various chemicals. She’d thought at the time that if the chemicals meant anything at all, they might represent some kind of code, but she had kept that to herself. Based on the fact that the outfit holding the writing strips had been scorched, it was a short leap to imagining the person who had once worn the outfit had a burn on their arm. She was confident Jinshi had investigated the possibility. It was probably what had led him to try to make Maomao his eyes and ears.
Maomao thought, quite honestly, that the serene chief lady-in-waiting hadn’t looked like the type to try such a thing, but she had to admit this was only her subjective opinion. And one had to look objectively at things, or one would never arrive at the truth.
“Mm. Passing marks for you.” Jinshi suddenly let his eyes fall on a small jar on the table. Then he glanced at Maomao, and that nectared smile appeared. She was sure she could see something sinister just behind it. Maomao felt all her hair stand on end. She did not like where this appeared to be going, not one bit.
Jinshi picked up the jar and came toward her. “Such a smart girl deserves a reward.”
“You could. And you should!”
“I’m quite happy without a reward. Give it to someone else.” Maomao fixed Jinshi with her most withering look in an attempt to dissuade him, but he didn’t so much as flinch. Was this a little punishment for hurting his feelings the other day? Unfortunately for them both, Maomao still had no idea why Jinshi had been so upset.
The eunuch came closer. Maomao backed away a half step and found herself up against the wall. She looked to Gaoshun for help, but the reticent aide was sitting by the window, idly watching birds flying through the sky. The obviously artificial nature of the pose made him look most disagreeable.
I’ll have to sneak him a laxative later.
Jinshi, still wearing a smile that would have melted anyone else, stuck his fingers into the jar. They emerged dripping with honey. This little prank, Maomao felt, was going too far.
“Don’t you like sweet things?”
“I prefer spicy flavors.”
“But you can stomach them, can’t you?”
Jinshi showed no sign of relenting; his fingers crept toward Maomao’s mouth. This must be how he always comported himself, she thought. But beauty didn’t give you license to do whatever you wanted.
The eunuch was studying Maomao’s piercing glare with a look of rapture.
That’s right… I forgot he’s one of those types. She tried giving him a crushing look, as if he were a small, brown rat, but it was having the opposite of the effect she wanted.
Should she take this as an order and simply let him stuff the honey in her mouth? Or should she try to salvage what remained of her pride by finding some way to escape?
I could live with it if it were at least wolfsbane honey, she thought. Honey from a poisonous flower would at least have the virtue of being, well, poisonous.
Suddenly, something came together in Maomao’s mind. She wanted to take a moment, tease out the threads of the thought, but with the pervert about to stick his hand into her mouth, she couldn’t think anything at all. Just as the fingers were about to touch her lips, she heard a voice.
“What are you doing to my attendant?” It was Consort Gyokuyou, standing there and looking very displeased. With her was Hongniang, her head in her hands.
“I grant Master Jinshi’s joke went a little too far, but it really was just a bit of mischief. Perhaps you might find it in your heart to forgive him?” Gaoshun was showing Maomao to the Diamond Pavilion, where Consort Lishu lived. His master had already been roundly excoriated at the Jade Pavilion for the incident in question.
“Very well. If you’ll lick it off in the future, Master Gaoshun, I don’t foresee any problems.”
“L-Lick it…” Gaoshun looked conflicted. His proclivities seemed to be, if you will, quite modest, and he had no inclination to lick anything off the hands of another man, not even Jinshi.
“If you take my point, then that’s enough.” Maomao, lips pursed, proceeded ahead at a brisk trot.
The man was an unrepentant pervert. Such a pretty face for such a repugnant personality. Maomao was sure he’d entrapped countless others with just the same trick. Shameless, that was the only word for it. If he hadn’t been so damned important, she would have seriously considered kicking him between the legs. She was somewhat mollified by the thought that you couldn’t kick what wasn’t there.
At length they arrived at the Diamond Pavilion, a brand-new building planted with auspicious nantian bamboo.
Consort Lishu greeted them wearing a cherry-pink outfit, her hair held back by a hairpin decorated with flower ornaments. Maomao thought the girlish ensemble suited her better than the elaborate getup from the garden party.
Once Consort Gyokuyou had gotten involved, Maomao had requested an audience with Consort Lishu, in hopes of getting closure about something that had been nagging at her.
Lishu didn’t bother to hide her disappointment when she saw Jinshi wasn’t with them. It was somewhat hard to blame her—he at least had that pretty face, after all.
“May I inquire what it is you wished to ask of me?” Lishu reclined on a chaise longue, hiding her mouth behind a folding fan made of peafowl feathers. She lacked the authority and presence of the other consorts; in fact, she almost seemed nervous. She was still so young. Yes, she was beautiful—they didn’t call her the “lovely princess” for nothing—but she had yet to come into her womanliness. Indeed, she was even flatter than Maomao, who was as scrawny as a chicken.
Two ladies-in-waiting stood apathetically behind the consort. Lishu at first regarded the unfamiliar freckled woman with annoyance, but then she looked closer and appeared to realize Maomao was one of the ladies-in-waiting who had been at the garden party. Her eyes widened and her disposition seemed to improve somewhat.
“Do you dislike honey, ma’am?” It would have been just as well for Maomao to start with some pleasantries or idle chatter, but it would have been tiresome, so she dispensed with them.
Lishu’s eyes widened further. “How did you know?”
“It was clear on your face.” Anyone with eyes could have seen it, Maomao thought. Consort Lishu appeared more and more amazed. Maomao had rarely met anyone so easy to read. She went on, “Have you ever been sick to your stomach on account of honey?” Consort Lishu appeared yet more astounded. Maomao took that as a yes. “It’s not uncommon for a person who has experienced food poisoning to become averse to the food that did it to them.”
This time, Lishu shook her head. “That’s not it. I don’t remember it. I was only a baby at the time.” As an infant, Lishu had nearly died because of some honey. She found it hard to eat now because for her entire life, her nursemaids and ladies-in-waiting had told her to avoid it.
“Listen, you little tart,” a woman said nastily. “How dare you march in here and start interrogating Lady Lishu?”
You’re one to talk, Maomao thought. The woman had been at the tea party; she was one of those who hadn’t made the slightest attempt to aid her honey-hating mistress. Don’t act like you’re her friend now.
The ladies-in-waiting seemed to have a simple con going: they treated visitors like villains, pretending to stand up for Consort Lishu. The guileless young woman came to believe there were enemies all around her. Her attendants assured her that they—and they alone—were her allies, and thus isolated her. Then the consort had no choice but to rely on her ladies. It was a vicious cycle. And so long as the consort didn’t realize that it all came out of her ladies’ malice, no one would ever figure it out. The women had simply made the mistake of getting overconfident at the garden party.
“I’m here on Master Jinshi’s orders. If you have some kind of problem with me, I’d advise you to take it up with him personally.” Maomao would borrow the menace of the tiger, so to speak, and give the women something to think about at the same time. Surely she could at least be allowed that.
The attendants’ faces were burning, and Maomao was most amused to ponder what pretext they would use to get close to the perverted eunuch.
“One more thing,” Maomao said, remaining carefully expressionless as she returned her gaze to Lishu. “Are you acquainted with the chief lady-in-waiting of the Garnet Pavilion?”
The consort’s shocked look was all the answer she needed.
“There’s something I’d like you to look for,” Maomao had said to him, and that was what led to Gaoshun’s presence in the court archives.
Maomao, a serving lady in the rear palace, was, in principle, not permitted to leave her place of service. But she seemed to have discovered something—what could it be? The depth of her thinking and her cool head didn’t seem like those of a girl only seventeen years of age. One could even feel that such an ability to think rationally and solve problems was a shameful waste in a girl child. (Though some with certain proclivities might disagree.)
Such an easy pawn to use. If only he would simply do it. She would go along with it, though perhaps with a token objection or two.
Who was “he”? Who else? Gaoshun’s master, who was not as mature as he first appeared.
“I’ve been remiss,” Gaoshun mumbled. Perhaps he should have stopped his master before that joke went so far. But what would he have done? He would have stopped Jinshi, and then… what?
When he recalled Maomao’s baleful look, he worried she might yet have something in store for him later. Gaoshun touched his hairline. He was just starting to fret about it.
Maomao sat on the bed in her room, flipping the pages of a book. The cramped space contained a brazier and a mortar and pestle for making medicine, while some dried herbs hung along the wall. Some of the tools she had wheedled from Gaoshun, others she had “borrowed” from the medical office.
“Sixteen years ago, huh…” About the same time the Emperor’s younger brother was born.
Maomao was holding a stitched bound book, the volume Gaoshun had procured for her. It chronicled events in the rear palace.
The current emperor had produced a single child when he was still heir apparent. Its mother had been the then-prince’s milk-sibling, the later Pure Consort. But the child had died before it was weaned, and the prince produced no further progeny until after his father had died and the Imperial harem had been reestablished.
He only had the one consort during his entire princedom. She found it strange. Knowing that horny old man, she would have expected him to take a whole crowd of concubines. She almost couldn’t believe he had been faithful to one woman for more than ten years. It only went to show that you couldn’t rely on rumors and hearsay. Best to check the records for yourself.
Sixteen years ago.
A child dead in infancy.
“The court doctor, Luomen, banished.” Maomao knew that name. The feeling that washed over her wasn’t surprise so much as a sense that some pieces had fallen into place. On some level, she’d suspected something like this must be the case. Maomao made frequent use of the various herbs that grew around the rear palace. They weren’t there naturally—someone, she always assumed, had planted them. She knew one person who cultivated a panoply of herbs around his house.
“I wonder what my old man is up to…” She thought of her father, who limped as he walked like an old woman. A practitioner as skilled and knowledgeable as he was wasted languishing in a pleasure district.
Indeed, Maomao’s mentor in medicaments was a former palace eunuch, missing the bone in one of his knees.
“A letter from Consort Gyokuyou?”
“Yes. I was told to deliver it personally.”
“I’m afraid Lady Ah-Duo is attending tea right now…” Fengming, Ah-Duo’s pudgy chief lady-in-waiting, regarded Maomao apologetically.
Maomao opened the small wooden box she was carrying. Normally it might have contained a slip of paper, but this one held a small jar with a single red trumpet of a flower within. A familiar, sweet aroma drifted from it. Maomao saw Fengming wince; she must have recognized the blossom.
So I was right? Maomao slid the jar aside, revealing a scrap of paper on which was written a list of specific words she suspected Fengming knew perfectly well.
“I would like to speak with you if I may, Lady Fengming,” Maomao said.
“Very well,” Fengming replied.
I like the sharp ones, Maomao thought. Makes things so much quicker.
Fengming, her face taut, ushered Maomao into the Garnet Pavilion.
Fengming’s personal chambers were laid out on much the same plan as Hongniang’s, but everything she owned was crammed into one corner. It seemed she was all packed.
Yep. That tallies. Maomao and Fengming sat facing each other across a round table. Fengming served warming ginger tea, and a caddy on the table contained hard buns of bread. Fruit honeys were slathered all over them.
“Now, whatever is the matter?” Fengming asked. “We’re quite finished cleaning, if that’s what you’re here for.” Her voice was gentle, but it had a searching quality. She knew why Maomao had come, but she wasn’t going to be the one to start the conversation.
“When will you be moving, if I may ask?” Maomao said, indicating the belongings in the corner.
“You’re very perceptive.” Fengming’s voice immediately turned cold.
The “spring cleaning” had been only a pretext. In order that a new consort might be in place by the time people made their formal new year’s greetings, Ah-Duo was going to have to leave the Garnet Pavilion. Consorts who would not or could not bear children had no place in the rear palace. Not even if they had been the Emperor’s companion for many years. All the more so if they lacked any powerful backer at court to secure their status, as Ah-Duo did.
To this point, the fact that Ah-Duo was the monarch’s milk-sibling, a bond closer than that with one’s own biological parents, had protected her. Perhaps if at least the prince she’d borne had lived, she might have been able to hold her head up.
I have a guess about her. Consort Ah-Duo had the handsome beauty of a young man; there was hardly a hint of womanliness about her. If a woman could become a eunuch, she might look something like Ah-Duo. Maomao hated to say anything based on an assumption—but when it was an obvious fact, sometimes that was all you could do.
“Consort Ah-Duo is no longer able to bear children, is she?”
Fengming said nothing, but her silence was as good as confirmation. Her face grew harder and harder.
“Something happened during the delivery, didn’t it?” Maomao prodded.
“That has nothing to do with you.” The middle-aged lady-in-waiting narrowed her eyes. They held no hint of the tender, considerate woman Maomao had met before, but burned with a deep hostility.
“In fact, it does. For the attending physician at the birth was my adoptive father.” Maomao delivered this fact dispassionately. Fengming got to her feet.
The medical staff at the rear palace was continually shorthanded, so much so that even the quack who filled the position at the moment could hold onto his job. The reason was simple: a man who possessed that unique skill—well-developed medical knowledge—had no need to become a eunuch. It had probably been easy enough to foist the job on her socially inept old man.
“Consort Ah-Duo’s misfortune was that the birth of her child coincided with that of the Imperial younger brother. Weigh the two in the scales of this court, and your lady’s delivery was clearly deemed the less important.”
The baby survived the difficult delivery, but Ah-Duo lost her womb. Then the child died young. Some speculated that Ah-Duo’s infant had been lost to the same toxic makeup that had killed Consort Lihua’s prince, but Maomao thought differently. The mother of a young prince, like Ah-Duo, would never have been allowed the deadly face powder on her father’s watch.
“Do you feel at all responsible for what happened, Lady Fengming? When Consort Ah-Duo was indisposed after the birth, I believe it was you who cared for the infant in her place…”
“Well,” Fengming said slowly. “You’ve got it all figured out, haven’t you? Even though you’re the daughter of the worthless quack who couldn’t help Lady Ah-Duo.”
“Yes. Even so.” Blame in medicine couldn’t be dismissed with a helpless shrug: something else her father had said. He would have readily accepted abuse like “quack.” “You know that quack prevented your mistress from using face powder with white lead in it. And you were too smart to have given the child something so deadly.” Maomao opened the small jar in the letter case. Honey glistened inside. Maomao put the red flower from the jar into her mouth.
It carried the sweetness of the honey. She plucked off the blossom, playing with it in her fingers. “There are many varieties of poisonous plants. Wolfsbane and azalea, for example. And the toxins carry over to honey made from them, as well.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“I should think so.” A family of beekeepers could certainly be expected to understand such things. And if a toxin would cause serious poisoning in an adult, think what it would do to a child. “But you didn’t realize that honey could contain poison that only affected children.”
It wasn’t an assumption. It was fact. It was rare, but some such toxins existed—agents that were only poisonous to children, with their lower levels of resistance.
“You tasted it and were fine, so you assumed he would be, too. Yet the stuff you gave to the boy to help him grow was doing exactly the opposite, and you never knew it.”
And then, Ah-Duo’s child had perished. Cause of death unknown.
Luomen—Maomao’s father and the chief physician at the time—was blamed for this tremendous failure, in addition to the trouble during the birth. For these he was banished, and he was further punished with mutilation: they removed the bones of one knee.
“The last thing you wanted was for your mistress to find out—for Consort Ah-Duo to know.” To discover that Fengming was the reason the one child her mistress would ever have was dead. “So you tried to get Consort Lishu out of the picture.”
During the reign of the prior Emperor, Lishu had apparently been quite close to Ah-Duo, and Ah-Duo, it was said, had seemingly taken a great liking to her. Was it possible Ah-Duo had been staying close to the young bride in hopes that the Emperor would not consummate their relationship?
A child separated from her parents, and a grown woman who could never give birth: a sort of symbiosis emerged between them. But one day, abruptly, Consort Ah-Duo ceased admitting Lishu. The young consort came repeatedly to visit her, but each time, Fengming chased her away. Then the former Emperor died, and Consort Lishu took vows.
“Consort Lishu told you, didn’t she? That the honey could be poisonous.” And if Lishu had continued her frequent visits, she might have eventually let the fact slip to Ah-Duo. Ah-Duo was clever enough that it might be all she needed to put the pieces together. That, Fengming was desperate to avoid.
After the Emperor’s death, however, with Lishu safely in a nunnery, Fengming had thought she would never see the girl again—until she reappeared at the rear palace, still a high consort. And now a threat to Ah-Duo. Yet the girl almost seemed to make a show of coming to visit Ah-Duo, like a child eager for her mother. So sheltered, Lishu was. So blind to the world around her. So Fengming decided to get rid of her.
Across from Maomao there was no trace of the calm, caring chief lady-in-waiting. Fengming’s gaze was as cold as ice. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” Maomao said, although she felt a tingling on the back of her neck. The knife they had used to cut the buns earlier was on the shelf behind her. It was only a simple cleaver, but it was more than enough to threaten the petite Maomao. It was easily within Fengming’s reach.
“Anything at all,” Fengming ventured, almost sweetly.
“You know perfectly well, milady, that such an offer is meaningless.”
Fengming’s lips curved vacantly at that. It didn’t even rise to the level of a polite smile, but there was something deep within the expression—what?
“Say… Do you know what matters most to the person who matters most to you?” Fengming said to Maomao, the whisper of a smile still on her face. Maomao shook her head. She was ignorant of what was most important. Be it things or people.
“Well, I took it away,” Fengming said. “Stole the child she cherished more than a jewel.” From the moment Fengming had entered Ah-Duo’s service, she had known she would serve no one else in her life. The consort had a firmness of will uncommon in a woman and could bring to bear the same look as the heir himself when she spoke, and Fengming respected her to no end. The consort struck Fengming, who had spent her whole life doing just as her parents told her, like a thunderbolt. She smiled as she told the story.
“Lady Ah-Duo said something to me, back then. She said her son had only followed the will of heaven. That it wasn’t something for us to be disturbed over.” It was impossible to know if a child would survive to the age of seven. The slightest illness could kill them seemingly on the spot. “And yet I could hear Lady Ah-Duo crying every night.” Fengming looked slowly at the ground. A sort of moan escaped her. The immovable chief lady-in-waiting was gone. In her place there was only a woman wracked with regret.
How must she have felt as she served Consort Ah-Duo these sixteen years? Devoting herself entirely to her lady, with no thought of a spouse or partner? Maomao could not imagine. Not Fengming’s emotions, not what it would feel like to cherish another person to that degree. Thus she truly didn’t know what it was she wanted.
Would Fengming accept what Maomao was about to propose? No doubt Jinshi had been informed of Maomao’s recent interest in the archives. She didn’t think she could hide anything from the eunuch who all but ran the rear palace. She had managed to keep the truth to herself in the matter of Princess Fuyou, but she didn’t think she could throw him off the trail this time.
Nor did she want to.
When he heard what Maomao had to say, Jinshi would have Fengming arrested. She would certainly not escape the ultimate punishment, no matter what else happened or who appealed on her behalf. The truth would come to light after sixteen years. Things had been set in motion, and even if Maomao were to vanish here and now, sooner or later, Fengming would be found out. The chief lady-in-waiting was too smart not to realize that.
There was only one thing Maomao could do for her. Fengming couldn’t hope for a reduction in her punishment, nor for the intercession of Consort Ah-Duo. But her two motives could be reduced to one. She could continue to hide her motivation from Consort Ah-Duo.
Maomao knew what a terrible thing she was saying. That it amounted to asking another woman to die. But it was the only thing she could think of. The only thing a young woman with no particular influence or authority could offer.
“The outcome will be the same. But if you can accept that…”
If Fengming could accept that, she would do as Maomao urged her.
Maomao returned to her chamber at the Jade Pavilion and collapsed onto her hard bed. Her clothes were soaked with sweat, sweat that had poured off of her at the moment of highest tension, reeking of fear. She wanted a bath.
Thinking she could at least change, she pulled off her outer garments, revealing a large cloth wrapped from her chest all the way down to her stomach. It held several layers of oil paper in place.
“Glad I didn’t need it,” she said to herself. Getting stabbed still would have hurt.
Maomao stripped off the oil paper and found herself a fresh outfit.
Jinshi could only contemplate the fact in amazement. Who would have imagined that the attempted poisoning of Consort Lishu would end with the culprit’s suicide?
Jinshi was in the sitting area of the Jade Pavilion, describing this outcome to a reticent lady-in-waiting. He had already informed Consort Gyokuyou.
“And so Fengming is dead, by her own hand,” he said.
“How lucky for all of us,” the lady-in-waiting replied with no special show of emotion.
Jinshi rested his elbows on the table. Gaoshun looked like he wanted to object, but Jinshi ignored him. Manners be damned. “Are you sure you don’t know anything about this?” he said. He sometimes had an inescapable feeling that this young lady was up to something.
“I can tell you what I don’t know—what you’re talking about.”
“I’m given to understand you kept Gaoshun quite busy gathering books.”
“Yes. All for nothing, I’m afraid.”
She sounded so nonchalant he almost thought she was making fun of him. Then again, what else was new? It was possible she was carrying a bit of a grudge from his joke the other day—he had gone a bit overboard. But for the most part, this seemed normal. She was giving him her standard looking-at-filth glare. It went beyond rudeness to achieve a purity all its own.
“The motive, as you guessed, was to help Consort Ah-Duo retain her seat among the four ladies.”
“Is that so?” Maomao looked at him with total disinterest.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that Consort Ah-Duo will indeed be demoted from her place as a high consort. She’s to leave the rear palace and live at the South Palace.”
“Retribution for the attempted poisoning?” Maomao asked. Ah, the cat had finally started to take an interest in the ball of string.
“No, the move was already settled. His Majesty’s decision.” The Emperor’s long affection for Ah-Duo must have been what allowed her to remain in an imperial residence, rather than being sent back to her home and family.
Maomao’s uncharacteristic show of interest promptly led Jinshi to get carried away. He stood and took a step forward, whereupon she tensed and took a half step back. So he was right; she hadn’t quite gotten over his little japes. Naturally, Gaoshun watched them both with exasperation.
It would do Jinshi no good if Maomao got too tense. He sat back down. The petite serving woman bowed her head and made to leave the room, but then she stopped. A branch of red, trumpet-shaped flowers decorated the room.
“Hongniang put them there earlier,” Jinshi informed her.
“Indeed,” Maomao said. “What a great burst of blooms.” She took one of the blossoms, broke off the stem, and put it in her mouth. Jinshi, perplexed, approached slowly and did the same. “It’s sweet.”
“Yes. And poisonous.”
Jinshi spat out the stem and covered his mouth as Gaoshun rushed to get water.
“Don’t worry,” Maomao said. “It won’t kill you.”
Then the strange girl licked her lips, which carried the hint of a sweet smile of her own.