Volume 2: Imperial Court 1
“Is that true?”
Jinshi said, speaking politely but aside from that not that putting enough respect in his manners. The sovereign in his prime, sporting a beautiful beard, nodded slowly.
They were at a certain palace in the Imperial Court. Though it was a small structure, it provided an open view of its surroundings – so open that not even a single mouse can sneak in.
The sovereign poured himself a glass of grape wine and slowly reclined on his couch that was decorated with ivory. Jinshi, who sat in the same seat as this country’s most revered person, had been remarkably relaxed. Up until now.
The emperor stroked his beautiful beard as he grinned widely. Cunning. Associating him with that word would be impolite, but it fit him so well. He is a person who will never lose.
“So what will you do? Aren’t you the gardener who maintains my(As with all Chinese emperors, this guy refers to himself with the original (historically speaking) first-person pronoun: 朕 “chin/zhen4”.) flower garden?”
At the choice of words surely to provoke him, Jinshi wanted to smile bitterly. And yet, his smile was the celestial maiden’s smile that is said to enchant anyone. Though it was strange even if he said it himself, Jinshi only had confidence in his own looks. It was cynical; he is unable to get his hands on the things he truly wanted. That’s right, no matter how superior he can be, he couldn’t become excellent. Even though he was only a little better than the average person. Only his outward appearance was superior to everyone else.
It was something he now understood, though he couldn’t stomach it in the past. If he hasn’t left the limits of superior in intellect or military arts, then he would make use of other excellence he had. As a result, Jinshi existed as the beautiful inner palace administrator. Why not just make use of that fine face, sweet voice, things that are excessive for a man, to his heart’s content?
“By your will.” Jinshi, his smile graceful yet determined, bowed to the emperor.
If there are things you can do, then try to do it. The emperor smiled with a mouth full of grape wine.
I get it. Jinshi was, after all, no more than a child. Thus, he could only flounder on the palm of the emperor’s large hands.
You can do whatever you want.
Jinshi needed to grant the emperor’s unreasonable request. This was Jinshi’s job, and at the time same, his bet with the emperor.
He had to win the bet. That was the sole method that Jinshi chose himself. There might be other methods, but that did not occur to Jinshi, the mediocre person.
Therefore, he chose today’s path.
Jinshi raised the cup to his lips and moistened his throat with sweet fruit cider.
On his face was the beautiful smile of a celestial maiden.
“Okay sure, this one, this one too. Ah, and bring this one too.”
It was Meimei, the courtesan, who was throwing rouge, face powder and clothes at her. Maomao had come here as a little girl in Meimei’s room in the Rokushoukan.
“I don’t need this much, Neechan(小姐, literally means Miss, but Maomao means older sister.).”
Maomao picked up the rouge and face powder her sister threw and returned them to the shelf in the room.
Meimei criticised her actions with a shocked face. “It’s not I don’t need this much. There are those people who use better things over there. Shape up a little bit, why don’t you.”
“It’s such a courtesan thing to dress nicely when you go to work.”
I want to compound the herbs I picked up yesterday, Maomao said with a side glance, just as a wooden slip came hurtling her way. It was something Meimei, who was good at taking care of people but had a slightly short fuse, had thrown. Maomao clutched her head and crouched down.
“Did you think that just because you got a good job you can become that kind of people? There are people who can’t help but envy your position in this world. You have to live in gratefulness, otherwise, your honoured guest will escape you.”
The Rokushoukan’s teaching was slightly rough for both the madam and Meimei. However, Meimei’s words were persuasive. Maomao awkwardly went to pick up the wooden slip. It was blackened with whittled marks from being written on countless times. There was poetry written in graceful characters on it. Meimei, as a courtesan, was already at the age to think about retirement, but she had the intelligence to know that her popularity had yet to decline even now. She entertained her guest by writing poetry and playing Go(囲碁 “igo”, A strategy board game invented in Ancient China. You play with black and white stones, and the aim is to take over your opponent’s territory by surrounding them with your colour pieces.) and Shogi(将棋 “shougi”, Japanese board game. Also known as the General’s Game, it’s something close to Chess. You capture your opponent’s pieces.). A courtesan who sells her art instead of sensuality.
Meimei was one of the Three Princesses of the Rokushoukan. Maomao didn’t know how much effort was needed to rise to become a top-class courtesan of a well-established brothel. But, Meimei’s current position was thanks to her Elder Sister(大姐) who taught her the knowledge to do so. The Elder Sister, as it was called in the brothels, wasn’t a blood-related older sister, but rather a courtesan she herself worked for when she was a kamuro.
Currently, the three courtesans called the Three Princesses were all working as Elder Sisters.
“You’re already working in such a nice place. Work properly.”
Standing there was the gentle, helpful older sister, not the violent one who threw the wooden slip until then. She slowly stroked Maomao’s cheeks with fingers painted with nail polish and swept her messy side hair behind her ears.
Meimei smiled gracefully at Maomao’s meek answer.
“But then, you’ll even find a good husband. The place may be what it is, there should be a lot of hopeful stock. Ah, I’ll be happy if you bring in honoured guests for me while you’re at it.”
Her smile was little different from the gentle one she had just then. There was a bit of black-belliness mixed into it.
Meimei-neechan cackled evilly. She’s like the madam in some respects, Maomao thought. Those who become courtesans were people who won’t survive if they lacked determination.
And so, Maomao ended up bringing home a large wrapping cloth crammed with clothes and a complete set of makeup. On the way back, Maomao, who received all kinds of gifts from other courtesans and one-sidedly made to promise to bring in new guests for them, staggered with her heavy baggage back to her dilapidated home.
The beautiful nobleman who appeared in the pleasure district after half a month of her leaving the inner palace was fresh in her memories.
The eunuch with strange tastes swallowed what Maomao had jokingly said. To shoulder her debt, he spread out plenty of money with change before the madam’s eyes, and the caterpillar fungus(冬虫夏草 “touchuukasou/dong1 chong2 xia4 cao3“, Ophiocordyceps sinensis. An expensive fungus that grows from moth larvae. Very expensive. Used to treat pretty much everything in TCM.) seemed to be a thoughtful gift. Even though they were just affixing a seal on the contract, it didn’t even take a quarter-dual-hour(30min).
And so, Maomao will be working again in that noble place. She felt a little awkward over the fact that she was going to live-in and work again while leaving her dad, but then she saw the contract – the rules have become considerably lenient compared to before. Well, since she won’t be missing with no one having any idea where she was like before, her dad smiled gently and said, “Do as you want.” But, what was that brief frown and look he gave Maomao when he looked at the contract supposed to mean? Well, it might be because she was going to work in a place her dad, the former eunuch, had not very good memories of. She decided not to think too deeply on that. As it is common in the world for it to be eventually meaningless even if she thought deeply, just thinking was pointless.
“You received quite a bit.” Her dad, who spoke in a calm tone, said as he boiled medicinal herbs in the cauldron.
The dilapidated house with the draught coming in was still cold even with the kitchen range lit. Maomao and her dad wore many layers of clothes. She saw that her dad kept rubbing his knee and wondered if the place where he undertook physical punishment a long time ago was hurting.
“I can’t take that many things.”
Maomao looked at the baggage she already prepared. Grinder(すり鉢 “suribachi” is something like the mortar and pestle.) and mortar(薬研 “yagen” is the one with the back-and-forth crushing wheel.), a notebook that recorded the types of medicinal herbs, and the barest minimum of clothes and underwear she needed.
(I’ll absolutely need the grinder and mortar. The notebook is also a need. But decreasing the amount of underwear anymore is…)
Maomao groaned, wrinkling her brows.
Her dad set the pot down onto the range and approached Maomao.
“Maomao ah, you probably shouldn’t bring this.”
Maomao, who had her compounding tools taken out from the wrapping cloth, looked at her dad dubiously.
“If you bring this sort of thing even though you’re not a medical official, it is possible that people will even suspect you of poisoning. …Come on, don’t make such a face. You decided this. It’s no good to call it off at this point.”
“You’re joking….” Maomao slumped down onto the dirt floor.
It seemed that her dad can recognise what she wanted to say at a glance from her expression.
“Okay alright, hasten your preparations and go to sleep. If you get a little permission you can bring more things with you. It’s impolite to be absent-minded on your first day of work.”
“…I get it.”
Maomao reluctantly placed the compounding tools into the creaky shelf and put in several things she could use from the gifts she got into the wrapping cloth. Her eyes narrowed when she saw the shell with rouge inside and the face powder, but for now, she only put the compact rouge into the cloth bag.
She also put in the high-class padded garment that was among the things she received. Was she given a guest’s lost item? Its design wasn’t something a courtesan would wear.
Maomao looked at her dad who had put away the pot and was adding firewood into the range. After her dad was done with adding firewood, with a walk that was painful to look at, he went to lie down on the futon, which was a straw mat with only a thin cloth. Draped on top as a cover was yet another straw mat and piles of clothes that he wasn’t wearing.
“Come on, I’ll put out the lights when you’re done.” Her dad said, holding on the lantern that smelt of fish oil.
After Maomao was done with bundling her wrapping cloth, she was going to settle into the bed that was on the opposite side of the room. But suddenly she had a thought, and she was then trailing the straw mat over.
“What is this? It’s been a surprisingly long time since you did this. I thought you weren’t a child anymore?”
“Well, it’s cold.” Maomao’s glance shifted slightly, awkward.
She dragged the futon she brought along next to her dad’s bed. If she remembered correctly, she slept alone when she passed ten years old. Just how many years ago has it been?
Maomao draped the high-class garment she received between her dad’s and her own futon, and slowly closed her eyes. She laid down, curling her back like an embryo.
“You’ll be alone again.”
At her dad, who said it in his calm tone,
“Not really. This time I can come back any time I want.” Maomao coldly replied.
But, her back touching her dad’s arms was slightly warm.
“That’s true. Come back any time.”
He stroked Maomao’s head with his wrinkled hand. Though she called him “dad, dad”, his appearance was closer to an old woman. Thus, if you say it around his character, he’s like a mother.
Maomao didn’t have a mother. But instead, she had a gentle dad, an annoying hag, for what she is, and lots of lively older sisters.
(I can come back whenever I want.)
Even if she thought about it that way, it really was lonely. As Maomao felt the warmth of the hand that was like a withered tree branch continue to stroke her hair, she fell asleep.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.