After Consort Rifa, there was the Sha’ou woman who recently became a middle-ranking consort. She wasn’t using any of the three other high ranking consort palaces; like other middle-ranking consorts, she was given a building. It was situated in the central-east side of the inner palace. It didn’t seem like she was given special treatment, but the building didn’t seem like it has been used for a while; the surroundings were a little dreary. There was no place to grow a tree and the colour of the soil looked like it was freshly dug up.
The maids, who came to receive them, let them in with a smile. There were five of them—not many or little for a middle ranking consort. However, from their over-exemplary movements, there was the atmosphere where she had been provided with obedient maids.
The blonde new consort who showed up was wearing a large-sleeved dress, looking like she was unaccustomed in it. She had white skin that looked transparent, sky coloured eyes, a voluptuous body, and was also tall. She stretched out on the couch languidly and watched the maids as they prepared tea.
(The emperor’s strike zone.)
Probably, but Maomao didn’t think he would lay his hands on the consort, considering her position. His majesty was vigorous at night, but Maomao knew him to be a sharp and able person. He had two sons who were growing up quickly; he had no need to go into a panic to increase the number of children. Rather, if a woman who defected from her country were to give birth to a child, it might spark a diplomatic issue soon after.
(There are already enough sparks.)
Maomao looked at the woman who had majestically argued with Rahan in the lands of the West. She may be modestly drinking tea now, but there was no way of knowing what was going on in the woman’s mind.
The maid beside her tasted for poison, then handed the teas around.
“Have you familiarised yourself with the inner palace?” Her dad spoke slowly to the consort. Airin spoke their language fluently, but it might be easier for her to understand if she was spoken to at a slower pace.
“Yes, everyone is good to me.” Her long fingers picked up the cup. The teacup was a foreign style with a handle. There was nail rouge painted on her long fingers. The tea also had a sweet aroma, so it must be western fermented tea. Maomao wanted to try some, but they were only prepared for her dad and the quack doctor.
(It was given out at the Crystal Palace though.)
Consort Rifa must have been acting thoughtfully on that part.
Her dad asked questions about her health and took the consort’s pulse. Where her dad differed from other court physicians was probably the part where he noted down the numbers. Though not to the extent of Rahan, the numbers that clearly denoted their physical condition looked weighty.
He opened the portable stationery on the table and smoothly noted it down.
What she noticed there were words that were different than usual.
At a glance, the script looked like curvy worms. A long time ago, her dad made lists in this script when it came to medicine. Maomao had desperately tried to read it, so he changed the way he wrote.
Why is he using that again, she thought, but there were a couple of people who were studying it desperately. The quack doctor was just handing out tools as he was told without knowing anything. A maid who was steaming a fresh batch of tea was glancing over. And one other person.
En’en was looking with a cool expression.
The contents weren’t anything important. Maomao could also more or less read it. Pulse is regular, health is good—simple phrases like that.
“There are no abnormalities.”
“Is that só ?” Airin, who normally spoke fluently, would occasionally have a strange intonation at the end of her speech. She probably remembered Maomao; her gaze flickered towards her once in a while.
With nothing changed in particular, they were about to leave after their job was over, when Airin called them to a stop.
“Since you’re here, please take these sweets.”
There were baked pastries wrapped in pretty pouches. The strangely shaped cookies had a fragrant buttery aroma. Only the court ladies received it, so the quack was looking at the curious pastries with a look of envy, so she had to give some to him when they return to the medical office. Perhaps the pouches didn’t all contain the same thing; only En’en’s was patterned.
After they went around to the rest of the middle-ranking consorts, it was already evening. Maomao didn’t eat much, but she got hungry nonetheless. Am I allowed to tempt the quack doctor to drink some tea in the medical office, she wondered.
“It’s only middle ranking consorts today, but we’ll have to see the low ranking consorts and then the maids next,” her dad said in a gentle tone. Before, they should have only examined up to the middle-ranking consorts. Additionally, it was the quack doctor who was doing the examinations, so there was no knowing if it was useful or not.
Her dad had returned as a court physician and the numbers had also increased with court lady assistants. There was no way her dad could keep examining with his age, so it was planned that, eventually, the court ladies would take over as the core. By that time, the inner palace should be smaller than it is now, so it might be easier to do then.
“How about we take a break now then?” her dad said.
“It’s okay to take it more slowly,” the quack said.
“That cannot do. We still have other things to do.”
The quack doctor looked reluctant to part from them. He probably didn’t have many friends to drink tea with, besides the occasional eunuch who came. Maomao’s only friend when she was a maidservant, Shaoran, was already gone, so it must be lonely.
(I wonder how she is.)
She recalled the amicable maiden who skilfully decided to work in town. How about taking this opportunity to send a letter to her?
He looked like he wanted the pastries she received, so she took it out from her bosom, thinking, shall I share some? She took out the pouch and was going to pick one up, but Maomao suddenly realised. The strangely shaped cookies was an odd cylinder. There was something inside. She plucked it out; it had a small piece of paper inside. All the pastries contained it.
Maomao returned the pastry that she was thinking of giving to the quack doctor back into her bosom and left the inner palace once again.
She decided to not look at the dejected quack.
Maomao took out the pastries when she finished work and returned to her lodgings. She spread out a sheet of cloth and placed the pastries on top. There were seven cookies. All of them contained paper that was the same size.
A script that was like snakes and worms. It was the same script her dad had scribbled, but the letters didn’t make words. Different from the language that Maomao used, a single letter in the western script doesn’t have meaning. A single word is formed from several letters.
However, she couldn’t read the broken up words at all. Could it mean something? Unfortunately, the pieces of paper she had now didn’t connect neatly even if she tried.
The consort really was peculiar. She was a woman who had big guts to just enter the inner palace alone.
Knowing that she tried, Maomao was irritated, but she was more vexed that she couldn’t figure it out.
Maomao lined up the pastries and paper. The number of letters written on the paper ranged between two to three. As if they have been crudely cut, they weren’t neat squares but were slanted and crooked.
“What a crude cut.”
The paper was splotched with grease from the pastry in various places. The consort had used good paper. There was no tearing.
(It’s suspicious even if it was a prank.)
What does she want to do? Maomao looked through the paper.
When she tilted her head, she heard the door knock.
She went out with the paper in hand, wondering who it could be. Yao and En’en were standing outside. The two also lived in the same lodging. Of course, they never spoke to Maomao, so there’s no problem whether they exist or not, though.
“What is it?”
At Maomao’s inquiry, the frowning Yao answered.
“You got pastries from the consort this afternoon, right? Hand that over to us.”
She had said in a commanding tone. How mysterious, even Maomao who wasn’t that attached to sweet stuff didn’t feel like giving it to this person. Of course, Maomao also understood that it wasn’t that this woman was a glutton that she wanted it.
So she decided to bully her a little.
“My apologies, I ate it for dinner. Western-style pastries have a slightly crumbly texture. Was there some wheat germ or something else inside?”
She purposely tried saying it as though there was some foreign substance in her mouth. Yao, who turned pale, drew towards Maomao.
“Spit it out! Hurry up, spit it out!”
Maomao was being shaken. It seems the woman’s cookies also had paper scraps inside them like Maomao’s.
“What about the rest? Don’t tell me you ate everything!”
“Yao-sama.” It was En’en who stopped Yao from shaking Maomao’s shoulders. “I feel that Maomao-san is smiling. It’s like an expression of contempt, so isn’t she making fun of you?”
It appeared that En’en remembered Maomao’s name. And while she was at it, she had also read Maomao’s poker face.
“Making fun of me, really?!”
(Did I get exposed?)
Maomao looked at Yao as she fixed her collar. “Certainly. it’s true that I’m playing around, but wasn’t the one who acted rude, you? I don’t know what resentment you have towards me, but if you were to suddenly come up to someone and try to snatch away their things, if you’re not a robber, I don’t know what you are.”
What Maomao said was sound. The two must think her as impertinent, but she wasn’t going to yield here. As expected, the woman didn’t react sharply against that.
Yao gave a big sigh and looked straight at Maomao. “Is there anything strange about the baked pastries you just got? If there is, I want you to hand it over. I’ll pay you back for the pastries in exchange.”
“What strange thing are you talking about?” Maomao asked.
“Strange things. Like something strange inside.”
It wasn’t bad if she got a reward, but Maomao was curious about the strange paper as well. She didn’t want to readily hand it over.
Was there also something inside their baked pastries? However, she didn’t think that they would easily speak to Maomao.
Maomao glanced at En’en. She was only a court lady who attended to Yao, but she was still looking at Maomao calmly.
(Shall I try turning them down?)
Maomao considered how she could progress with the conversation as she opened her mouth. “If you are asking if my pastries have something inside, does that mean there is something inside yours too? If you tell me, I’ll tell you.”
“….” Yao had an expression that could be said as discontent. En’en watched her master’s attitude intensely.
Maomao took out the paper scraps in her hand. “If you show me, I’ll also show the rest of this.”
There were different letters written on every paper. If there was any meaning, they’ll have to put it all together. And so, it should be fine to show them one piece.
“Where are the other pieces?”
“If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
In the end, Maomao and Yao were on the same level. Beyond taking the same exam and passing, their differences in statuses didn’t matter. There were many people who consider that wasn’t actually the case, but now, they were equals in this place and time.
At En’en’s words, Yao nodded reluctantly. “It’s just that we can’t chat in the hallway.”
“Then, in my room,” Maomao said.
“No, my room.”
Maomao was fine with either option, but she would giving power to the others if she did exactly as they said here.
“Then, how about we use the lounge? We can borrow it now.” As expected, it was En’en who avoided the stalemate. There was a lounge in the boarding house, and you can speak about work there. It would be certainly easy to have a confidential talk.
“I understand. I’ll make preparations.” Maomao agreed and returned to her room.