The Court of the Silver Peony took up a long stretch of one side of the road, with a few working rooms overlooking the food carts and foot traffic crowding the street down below. Prostitutes usually worked out of cagehouses, reclining in windows with bare shoulders, eye-catching hair, and makeup; goods for sale on display. Whores that were less fortunate lingered in doorways, working out of dingy rooms, or even the alleys themselves. The Court of the Silver Peony, however, was the most high-class brothel in Fenfang City. The walls were thick and the windows covered with silk screens; the beauties here were so renowned that they didn’t even need to be seen to garner appointments for months in advance.
The madam, Li Miao, was clearly a woman who had been in the trade herself; her beauty had faded as she aged, but she was still striking. Her lips were full, stained deep red to match the makeup around her eyes and the slightly-too-heavy rouge on her cheeks. Though she’d put up her hair carefully, a few strands of gray were still visible; there was no reclaiming the glow of youth. But far from being self-conscious about her age around cultivators, the madam was suffused with a lush, full sensuality.
Not that it had any effect on Yue Fengjian. His thoughts lingered on a conversation back in Shuangwan Village.
Just for this mission. A necromancer might be useful in a town full of undead.
He’s not a necromancer, he’s a liar and a thief, Hu Baitian had said. Pretending he doesn’t know me means he’s up to something for sure. If you’re going to use him and then throw him aside, great, but be careful that he doesn’t fool you.
He doesn’t look dangerous. Why hasn’t the Wa sect dragged him back?
He may be a liability and personal embarrassment to the Wa, but he’s also a fifth-rank magician, Hu Baitian said. Do you think he would go back without making a scene and announcing their shame to the world?
Yue Fengjian nodded, deep in thought as he waited for Li Miao to ladle out another cup from the bronze vessel on the table.
Who didn’t know about Wa Yingyue’s tragic plight, or the lying, thieving coward that left her stranded without a husband? Even though the Wa sect had remained as secretive as ever, information slowly filtered out that the Wa princess might be in the market for a fiance, despite the Wa sect famously refusing to allow marriage outside the sect. If the princess were desperate enough—or the man good enough—anyone might be able to marry her. She was quite a beauty too, according to the gossip.
Yue Fengjian hadn’t expected her runaway groom to have a pretty mouth and a silver tongue that knew exactly what he wanted to hear. Far from suspecting the motives of the Yue sect member taking him under his wing, Lian Zhidiao seemed to trust him on sight, even though they should be bitter enemies. It was as if Yue Fengjian had been sitting in the woods, ready to hunt, and a doe had walked over to lay her head in his lap. Along with his somber mien, Lian Zhidiao had a thoughtful mindset, which only highlighted his sour but scholarly beauty. Which somehow made it even more cute when he’d been afraid of the empty tombs in Sancha Town.
It was so innocent, as if he’d never seen a walking corpse before.
Unlike other Wa sect members, Lian Zhidiao’s black robes were plain, completely opaque and utilitarian. He didn’t tantalize with translucent fabric that hinted at prettier things underneath. He wore his underclothes fastened shut all the way up his neck. And he seemed reluctant to show even a flash of skin at his wrists. Perhaps it was just vanity—the Wa disciples were famous for it—but Lian Zhidiao seemed to have no idea of his own eroticism. His half-dressed state from the day before swam before Yue Fengjian’s eyes. Still tying his robes shut as they clung to his damp body, his hair barely combed, like he’d spent all night with a lover and slept in late. He’d even demurely averted his eyes when Yue Fengjian began to strip for the bath.
Yue Fengjian stared at his reflection on the surface of the wine. He’s like a maiden. I want to make a mess out of him. He drank the rest of the huangjiu in one gulp.
Fifth-rank magician or not, Lian Zhidiao had no sword he could use as a spiritual weapon. The (allegedly) half-Yao cultivator Guizai was his master, so he would likely have learned the fearsome technique Swords of the Myriad Dead, but what good would it do him without a sword? He was like a defanged cobra; a bite would still hurt, but it was far less dangerous than if he were fully armed. If Lian Zhidiao in this weakened state still wanted to clutch at the hem of Yue Fengjian’s robes and look up at him with those soulful peach blossom eyes, then Yue Fengjian wasn’t going to kick him away. It helped immensely that he had a secret technique that no one else had yet developed. For now, they would put off repairing his spiritual weapon until Yue Fengjian was sure he could be trusted.
Upstairs, a long, drawn-out moan echoed down the corridor.
Yue Fengjian glanced at the ceiling, the corners of his mouth tightening.
Li Miao, nonplussed, filled their cups again and then set about packing the bowl of her pipe.
The Silver Peony was famously discreet about the parlor where a customer selected their company for the night; even groups that came in together selected their partners one-by-one. If a customer wanted to go straight up to the room, then they could take a back staircase up to the second floor and begin their night together right away. For those who wanted more of an entertainment experience, the lower floor of the Silver Peony was a common room, where the prostitutes could spend time singing, dancing, and drinking with their clients before taking them upstairs to offer them behind-closed-doors hospitality.
Hu Baitian and Yue Yaosa had both made their selections and headed upstairs, but that was always their preference. Hu Baitian was not given to conversation with prostitutes. As Yue Shipei liked to say, he was there for the dumpling, not the soup. In contrast, Yue Yaosa frequently had to be all but pulled out of her lover’s arms by the rest of the group who were eager to get back to the inn. Once, she had even stayed the night, sheepishly rejoining the group in the morning and taking plenty of teasing for her shamelessness.
It didn’t matter, Yue Fengjian supposed. The sky is wide and the Emperor is far away; this kind of social relief won’t be noticed. If it did, it wouldn’t be commented upon. Even his mother had better things on her mind.
“My lord cultivator is preoccupied this evening.” Li Miao took a sip from her own wine, slipping into the role of entertainer.
Yue Fengjian didn’t reply, although she wasn’t wrong. His frown deepened.
“Will my lord cultivator ease his burdens with a little more wine?”
To answer her, Yue Fengjian drained dry his newly-poured cup of wine and put it carefully on the table, then he slid it towards her.
A slow smile spread across Li Miao’s face. “Everyone else in my lord cultivator’s party has selected a flower.” With a graceful hand that didn’t spill a drop, she ladled more wine into his cup. “Perhaps my lord cultivator is shy?”
“No.” Yue Fengjian tilted his head to the side, regarding the full cup. He reached out to fold his hands around it. “I doubt you have what I am looking for tonight,” he said finally.
“My garden has many flowers, with enough beauty and fragrance to make your head swim in a sea of delight.” Her eyes brightened. “Perhaps you already had a favorite flower and she was taken by someone else?”
Yue Fengjian looked down at the table, rubbing his finger along the rim of his cup.
“I could suggest another, equally bewitching girl to charm your worries away.” She reached out and took a deep drink of her own wine. “Or perhaps my lord cultivator did not know that I tend more than one kind of garden?”
That stoked Yue Fengjian’s interest; he arched an eyebrow. Maybe there is a way to scratch this itch without any messy entanglements.
Li Miao smiled and put her cup down with a ringing sound. “I have a select group of chrysanthemums, if those are the flowers that my lord cultivator prefers.”
“Show me,” Yue Fengjian said, standing up. To be rid of this craving for him, I’ll try anything.
Li Miao inclined her head and rose from the table, putting her pipe back in the stand. She led Yue Fengjian back to the parlor where they first entered, and sent a young boy running into a back hallway to fetch the ‘chrysanthemums’.
A tingle of anticipation swept over Yue Fengjian’s scalp as he watched them walk into the parlor. Where there had been obvious signs of wealth among the women—filmy silks and gold hair ornaments, more indulgent fragrances—the male prostitutes were less likely to wear such ostentatious finery. There were fewer of them, and yet somehow more variety in their faces and bodies.
The two youngest did not have even the shadow of maturity on their faces, and Yue Fengjian dismissed these out of hand. There was one older man as well, and he wasn’t going to be picked either. Then there were two more that he could dismiss, because they were nearly as tall as he was, and he wanted to be able to look down at his partner. He shook his head at the ones he could reject immediately, and Li Miao’s pointed look directed them back to their rooms to wait to be called on again.
That left five prostitutes to choose from.
I thought it might be easy to just pick one to use, but… This one’s chin was too pointy. That one’s mole was in the wrong place. Two of them wore much more feminine clothing, for the ones that preferred that kind of experience. Yue Fengjian didn’t mind it; after all, the customers knew exactly what was underneath those clothes. But it was hard to imagine Lian Zhidiao wearing soft, bright women’s clothing. Lian Zhidiao wasn’t the kind of person who smiled. At least, not a lot. He’d seen it once? Twice? Each time, the sight of his normally dour face lit up plucked at Yue Fengjian’s heartstrings. What made him look like that when he was usually so gloomy? Just last night he’d been favored with a smile that had made his heart stumble. It had made him want to just spend the evening drinking Lian Zhidiao’s inhibitions loose enough to leave them on the floor of the pavilion.
Yue Fengjian wasn’t the only one that noticed the way Lian Zhidiao came alive when he smiled, either. Zhou Xianzhi certainly had his eye on him, if he hadn’t already bedded him before. Given the glances he’d slid Yue Fengjian while they were both peeling lychees for Lian Zhidiao, he knew. Drunken Lian Zhidiao hadn’t been able to pick up on it until Zhou Xianzhi’s boldness demanded more direct action from Yue Fengjian. At the time, Yue Fengjian hadn’t decided what he’d wanted to do with Lian Zhidiao, if anything. The hesitation wasn’t like him. The overthinking wasn’t, either. But he wasn’t going to let Zhou Xianzhi swoop in and carry Lian Zhidiao off when he himself hadn’t decided what to do yet.
“Has my lord cultivator chosen?”
Yue Fengjian blinked. He’d drifted off in thought while standing before one of the effeminate prostitutes, who had unfolded a fan with a coquettish look up at him.
‘Coquettish’ wasn’t the look he wanted. He wanted something a little more distinguished. Yue Fengjian shook his head and moved on.
The last one was wearing dark grey, with long hair loosely held back. Yue Fengjian paused in front of him. A few strands of hair escaped the pin at the back of his head and fell forward against his face, inviting Yue Fengjian to tuck them behind his ear. He was thin, almost frail, giving him a delicate feeling, as if he might break if Yue Fengjian were too rough.
He’s close enough. Yue Fengjian reached out and tilted the young man’s face up to look at him. Similar sad eyes, with long, thick eyelashes. His skin was clear and unblemished, his lips prettily shaped. If Yue Fengjian let his eyes unfocus…
The whore, sensing his impending good fortune to be chosen by the Yue sect leader’s son, gave him an easy, relaxed smile.
Unbidden, Lian Zhidiao’s heart-stopping smile from last night appeared before him.
Yue Fengjian let out a short sigh and shook his head. “You are lovely,” he said. “But it’s not you I want.” He turned to face Li Miao. “Madam proprietor, none of these are right.”
All her finest blossoms rejected, Li Miao folded her hands in front of her, with a secret smile on her lips. “My lord cultivator must have refined tastes indeed.” With a flick of her hand, the chrysanthemums bowed and filed out of the parlor.
“The wine will be enough for me tonight,” Yue Fengjian said.
Li Miao kept his cup full, and stayed at the low table with him for another hour, only leaving when another client needed to be welcomed. Yue Fengjian drank most of a warming vessel full of wine, and was finishing a cup when Liao Kuaiyu sauntered down the stairs and made his way over to his table.
Liao Kuaiyu sat down at the table; Li Miao was almost instantly at his side, pouring him a cup of huangjiu. He sucked some down with a sigh of pleasure before looking over at Yue Fengjian. “Did you finish that fast?”
“I didn’t pick anyone,” Yue Fengjian said, his words slurring.
Liao Kuaiyu’s eyebrows flew up. “That’s not like you,” Liao Kuaiyu said after taking a drink. “None of them were pretty enough for you? I know your tastes tend toward the prettier ones.”
“Who doesn’t like pretty whores?” Yue Fengjian muttered disagreeably into his cup.
Liao Kuaiyu smiled. “Or perhaps a whore isn’t what you want?” Yue Fengjian gave Liao Kuaiyu a black look, which only prompted Liao Kuaiyu’s grin to widen. “Did I get it right?”
“Don’t talk to me about it.”
“You know he’s into men.” Liao Kuaiyu took another sip of wine.
“I know,” Yue Fengjian grumbled.
“It’s not exactly a secret why he ran away from that wedding.”
“Didi, I know.”
Hu Baitian ambled down the stairs, rubbing his shoulder as he joined them at their table. Li Miao had a cup ready for him, but Hu Baitian waved her off. “I knocked on Yue Yaosa’s door,” he said as he approached. “Maybe she won’t keep us waiting for too long.”
“Not long at all,” Yue Yaosa’s blissful voice sang out behind him. She floated down the stairs, looking supremely happy and relaxed.
“We didn’t have to come get you? I’m impressed,” Liao Kuaiyu said.
“I can tell what time it is,” Yue Yaosa replied. “There was a water clock in the room.”
“Did word of your legendary abuse of prostitutes’ good graces find its way here?” Hu Baitian asked wryly.
“It’s important to pack as much as you can into the time you have,” Yue Yaosa declared. “Grass has but one spring, you know.” As she said this, her eyes landed on Yue Fengjian, who was leaning heavily on the table. “Don’t tell me yours got you this drunk?”
“He didn’t see anyone.”
“You got like this on your own?” Her brows slanted in an expression of concern. “Dage, is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Yue Fengjian grunted.
Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu exchanged glances, and that was the last straw. Yue Fengjian stood up in a huff, motioning Li Miao over to settle the bill. With that done, he stalked out of the Silver Peony and sought refuge in the still-busy streets below, his arms folded across his chest. A few moments later, Hu Baitian joined him, followed by Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu, each of them with a half-smile they couldn’t keep hidden.
“Should we get a litter back to the palace?”
“Maybe not,” Yue Yaosa said. “Dage should probably walk this off.”
Yue Fengjian clicked his tongue, irritated. “One night drinking instead of fucking and it’s everyone else’s business.”
Liao Kuaiyu was grinning again when they heard a voice calling out.
Above them, a pretty young woman with unbound hair leaned out of an open window of the Court of the Silver Peony, waving at them.
“Yes!” Yue Yaosa called up.
A dreamy smile revealed a dimple in each of her cheeks. “Come back whenever you like! I’ll be waiting for you!”
“I’ll come see you whenever I am in town!” Yue Yaosa blew her a kiss.
Yue Fengjian closed his eyes and let out a sigh, beginning the walk back to the Lin family palace a few miles away.
The girl in the Silver Peony laid her head down on her folded hands to watch them walk down the street.