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Meanwhile, Ah-Xia returned to the courtyard Mistress Li resided in, a heavy load on her mind. By coincidence, Ah-Chun was lifting the curtain to leave, catching sight of her. “Why did it take you this long to deliver snacks?” she admonished. “The Madam’s waiting for your report!”
Madam Li’s surname was Zhang. She was a full fifty years of age and had taken good care of herself — at the very least, she wasn’t as bad in comparison to the widespread early aging of her peers. Even so, there were still many hard-to-prevent wrinkles climbing out the corners of her eyes, and she stooped slightly, despite her kindly face. Noticing Ah-Xia walk in, she smiled and asked, “You delivered it?”
Ah-Xia gave a blessing-bow. “Yes. Sir Tang is pleased, and had me thank you for your trouble, Madam.”
“He’s helped us out a lot, as well. All we do is just send some food everyday, how could that be any trouble? Come here, Ah-Xia, I have something to say to you.”
Ah-Xia quickly stepped over. Seeing that Lady Zhang was watching her the whole time, she became somewhat uneasy. “What is your command, Madam?”
Lady Zhang kept her smile. “Don’t be nervous. I’ll ask you this; do you have feelings of admiration for him?”
Ah-Xia’s heart jumped. “M-Madam?” she stammered.
“Go on and be honest, I’ll never hurt you. Do you or don’t you?”
Her voice was mosquito-like. “I do…”
“That’s good, then. He acts alone as a capital official, and there’s no one considerate by his side looking out for him. You’re seventeen, now, and should have been married long ago. I know you’re interested in him, but with your status, wanting to marry him as his primary wife is undoable. As a concubine, though, there shouldn’t be any issue… still, you’re well-born, and have learned a lot from following me these years. You’d be entitled to have your slave contract returned to you so you can go marry off into a small family as its matriarch, too. I’m not sure what you think about this, which is why I called you to ask — do you want to serve him, or marry out?”
Recalling the fact that she had just been rejected, Ah-Xia flushed red. “This… this maid had no shame just now, and already took it upon myself to express my feelings to him!”
Lady Zhang suffered a fright. “Ah, girl, what’s there to be ashamed of? Men grow up and take wives, women grow up and get married off. I’ve been watching you grow up since you were young. Not only you, but also Ah-Chun, Ah-Qiu, and the rest. I’m always happy to see you all find a good home. Quick, now, what did he say?”
Ah-Xia knelt down, trying to resist the tears flowing down, and hugged Lady Zhang’s legs as she sobbed. “Madam, he doesn’t fancy me, I… I want to die!”
Lady Zhang helped her up. “Is there not even a little margin for turning that around? What exactly did he say?”
Weeping and choking up, Ah-Xia spoke of everything she had just experienced.
Hearing to the end, Lady Zhang sighed. “Seems that he truly doesn’t have that notion. With your looks and temperament, he shouldn’t have refused, but not all men in the world are lustful. There’s always outliers. It’s no matter, I’ll find you another marriage. All you need to do is pick anyone that you take a liking to in this Estate!”
“This maid will be brazen, and boldly beseech that you step forth, Madam, to help me with saying a few things before Sir Tang…” Ah-Xia said quietly.
Lady Zhang shook her head. “This really is just bad karma from a previous life, and nothing more. I heard that he’s been leaving early and returning late these couple of days, so he must be busy. Wait for this spell to pass, and I’ll have someone invite him over.”
Ah-Xia’s tears turned into a smile. “This maid thanks you much, Madam! I will remember your great kindness all my life!”
A pair of dainty feet lightly tread through the brothel corridor.
Exquisite, beautiful skirts had been densely covering them, and because of her walking, their hem swayed, occasionally revealing the embroidered shoes beneath them that lured one’s mind into wild thoughts.
It appeared like what she stepped upon was not stairs, but clouds.
She stopped before a door, raised her hand, and knocked.
“Who is it?” came a voice from inside.
“It’s me, Mama Lu,” she answered, voice gentle and soft with all the silkiness of a woman from Jiangnan’s. Even in anger, it would sound like she was being coquettish. Any ordinary man that heard it would have half his bones go limp.
The one inside did not immediately come open the door like usual, grinning from ear-to-ear thereafter, but rather mumbled to herself for a good minute before she called, “Wait a second, I’m coming!”
Past the paper pasted onto the window frames, she could faintly make out the silhouette as she approached, after which she opened the door with a creak. “So it’s you, Qingzi. Come in, quick!”
“Have you fallen ill, Mama? You don’t look too good,” Qingzi inquired.
The bawd forced a smile. “It’s nothing. Come, come in and sit!”
She stuck her head out again to yell towards the outside. “Little Six, get tea!”
Qingzi stopped her. “No need to bother, Mama Lu. I have something I want to discuss with you now.”
The bawd gave a hey. “Just say it. Why are you being so serious? Do I normally never promise you what you ask? Speak, speak!”
Qingzi deliberated for a short moment, then seemed to finally make a firm decision. “I want to redeem myself.”
The other’s chrysanthemum-like smile disappeared. “What did you say?”
Qingzi sighed, but her voice became even more resolute. “I want to redeem myself.”
No longer having her previous calmness, the bawd leapt three chi in the air. “No! I won’t agree to it!”
The other gazed at her fixedly. “Mama Lu, we once discussed that if I could scrape together five thousand taels, you would let me redeem myself.” She took a bank voucher out from her lapels. “This is an authentic five thousand tael banknote, written out by Huitong Bank.”
Mama Lu eased her tone. “Ah, Qingzi, it’s not that Mama doesn’t believe you, I just don’t know what dandy you got that money from. It’s not a small amount. This coin is all undeniably for you, so take it all. Even if you’re redeemed from now on, what kind of livelihood will you be able to rely on? You may as well stay here for a few more years.
“Moreover, I’ve seen many girls before that would quickly spend their money up after leaving Jubilance. They had no choice but to return to their old profession, but when that time came, their value had dropped by a lot, and even if they hung up their sign for business, they couldn’t price as high as they used to. Ah, Qingzi, Mama Lu won’t lie to you; rather than redeem yourself, it’d be better for you to marry off as a concubine to whichever Don is so interested in you. A life like that would be decent!”
“Mama Lu,” Qingzi answered, “how many of the men coming to brothels are any good? Why do you try to coax me with these words? I’m already nineteen now, since I’ve been doing this for several years. We’ve associated for so long, having a predestined affinity without the friendship — why must you refuse to relinquish your hold on me, Mama Lu? Can’t you just let me go have a few days of a quiet life?”
Seeing how determined she was, the bawd’s expression got unsightly. Her lips opened and closed a few times as if she wanted to let loose some vicious words, but, after her eyes shifted about, she ultimately swapped it for a smiling face. “Alright, alright. Since the conversation’s come to this, I don’t have anything I can say. You’ve followed me since you were young, though, and I’m just afraid that you’ll suffer hardships outside, so I’ll only take four thousand out of the five. The other thousand is for you to keep, in case you have a time of need.”
Qingzi felt great surprise, having never expected that Mama Lu, who normally loved money as much as she did life, would speak like this. Not only was she readily willing to set her free, but she was also willing to refund some of her money, making her somewhat touched. She gave a blessing-bow to the bawd. “I have depended upon your guidance for so many years, Mama. This Qingzi can’t thank you enough, but I have no means to pay it back with. Please accept the full five thousand taels. I still have some private savings and won’t starve to death too soon.”
“Qingzi.” The bawd took her hand to pull her into a seat, lowering her voice. “Tell Mama honestly. Was this banknote given to you by Don Zheng earlier? Now that he has died, the whole matter’s apparently blown up. Won’t this coin stir up trouble?”
“Where’d that come from, Mama Lu? He wasn’t the one to give it to me. He was a reprobate. Even if he had some spending money in hand, there’s no way he would give me that much in one breath to help me redeem myself. It all came from a proper source. You don’t need to worry.”
“If you don’t allow me to understand, my heart will always be in a state of ups and downs. You have to be aware that he rested at our Jubilance the day before his death, which is an ambiguous situation to speak of. If those aristocrats want to write something up, it’d be easy for them to single us out.”
“Isn’t that case closed? It’s said that the murderer was the Second Don of the Marquis Wu’an Estate, who colluded with the Eldest Don’s concubine to kill him. What does that have to do with us?”
The bawd forced a smile. “Despite that, I heard that people from the Northern Bastion Office are still investigating, claiming that there was still something suspicious about the case, but I don’t know what that suspicious something is. I’m in charge of your everyday expenses. How were you able to get five thousand taels in one go? I’m not going to force you to stay, but you need to give me a thorough explanation on this, lest none of us are able to escape when this money invites trouble!”
Qingzi was quiet for a short time. “I can’t share the origin of the money. To be brief, it was given by a certain gracious customer who’s interested in me and wanted to take me in. It’s merely that he has a tigress keeping watch at home, so it can’t be done.”
Mama Lu’s eyes narrowed. “Since you’ve said that, I can be at ease. I still don’t understand one thing, however, and am waiting for you to dispel my doubts.”
“There is no harm in saying what you want to say frankly, Mama.”
The bawd gave a smile. “I heard that you set up an outer residence, Qingzi. What’s that about?”
Qingzi’s face changed. “What is the meaning of this, Mama?! You sent people to investigate me?!”
The other’s face darkened. “You’re my girl. Do you have something to hide from me? What harm is there in me asking, anyway? Be honest! Where did that house come from?”
Qingzi got up at once, sneering. “Looks like there’s no point in further talk with this atmosphere. Since you refuse to straight-up say you’ll let me go, I’ll just come again another day. I hope you won’t be upset then!”
However, before she had time to fling her sleeves out, an unfamiliar man’s voice resonated within the room. “If you don’t give a clear explanation for the money and the residence, Miss Qingzi, I’m afraid you won’t be leaving today.”
Two men were seen to step out from behind the folding screen. One was tall, stern, and grasping a blade, while the other was in bamboo-green everyday robes, looking gentle and refined.
Qingzi’s expression warped drastically. When she went to flee through the door, two armymen were already blocking it, for an unknown amount of time prior.
“Who are all of you?!” she asked.
Tang Fan caught sight of her tightly-clenched fists that were half-hidden in her sleeves, which was one type of manifestation of one’s considerable inner nervousness.
“Tang Fan, of Shuntian Prefecture. There are still some questions in regards to the Marquis Estate case, and I’d like to request you to answer them.”
“Isn’t that already closed?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “It hasn’t yet been concluded, because we discovered that there’s another murderer in it. Perhaps you know of them?”
“What does this have to do with me?!”
“Zheng Cheng once had an ephemeral bond with you, and one night of being together gives a hundred nights of grace. In view of your relationship with him, why are you so unfeeling to this extent when you hear of this?”
Her expression was tense, but her back was exceptionally straight. “Listening to your undertones, Sir Tang, are you implying that I had part in his death?”
“He died due to two things: one was the thorowax illicitly added into the yang-boosting medication he took, which made him lose his natal qi until he died of shed-yang disease, and the second was the baihui acupoint on top of his head being hit several times by someone to the extent that the meridian channels on his skull were ruptured. The ones that switched out the prescription have already been caught, and I’m sure you’ve heard before that they’re Second Don Zheng Zhi and Zheng Cheng’s concubine Miss Hui. However, when we interrogated them, we discovered that they didn’t know a thing about the acupoint. Beyond that, regardless of whether it was him or her, neither met the condition of being under circumstances to repeatedly strike the point while Zheng Cheng was unconscious, because the person in question needed to have shared the bed with him for a period of time. There are three people that conform to this condition: you, Zheng Cheng’s concubine Miss Yu, and his outside concubine Lady Zhao.”
“Why didn’t you go find them then, Sir, instead of coming to find me?”
“Ever since the discovery of this point of suspicion, I’ve been dispatching people to lie low outside of Jubilance, the Marquis Estate, and Zheng Cheng’s external residence to keep watch on you three. Every time there’s a murder, there has to be a motive, and an objective. For this half month, Miss Yu and Lady Zhao have been at peace in their spots, having no dealings with any suspicious persons, nor having large discrepancies in money. There’s only you. You’re the lead role of Jubilance, but the silver given by your gracious customers has always been taken in the bawd’s hands. All of a sudden, you have the money for secretly getting a maidservant to purchase a residence, as well as the coin to redeem yourself.”
Right as he finished speaking, two bailiffs came in from outside. “Sir, we found something in her room!”
Tang Fan nodded. “Let me see. Where did you find it?”
“Under the mattress. She hid it in the corner between it and the frame.”
Seeing the sachet that the other held, Qingzi’s gradually-calmed expression got panicked again.
Tang Fan untied the sachet, smelled it, then passed it to Sui Zhou, after which he spoke to Qingzi. “I’m guessing that what’s in here is the key ingredient that could knock Zheng Cheng out, allowing you to act? There’s very little powder in it. You must have dumped it out long ago, but didn’t clean it, because there’s still some residue left. Why didn’t you just throw the whole sachet away, or even burn it? That would leave even fewer clues.”
“You’re an unromantic person at first glance, Sir Tang,” she replied coldly. “Sachets that a woman embroiders herself are either for the one in her heart, or left for her own closest relatives. How could it simply be thrown away?”
He recalled that pouch of Ah-Xia’s that he had rejected, and touched his nose. “Since you say that, are you admitting to being the murderer, Miss Qingzi?”
“Yes. I did indeed strike his acupoint after knocking him out. About a month or so of that, and anyone would die without leaving any evidence behind. I’ve long known that someone else wanted him dead, so I wouldn’t need to do it myself.”
“Why did you want to do such a thing?”
“What do you mean, why? Aren’t you nabbing the murderer so that you can get credit for it, Sir Tang? Do you really have to get to the very roots? Zheng Cheng was a loathsome man, always fond of thinking up new kinks in bed. I’d been unbearably tortured by him for a long time. If I could both scam money out of him as well as make him completely go away, why wouldn’t I do so?”
She turned her gaze around to look at the bawd. “This cruel wench has never acknowledged how much she’s harmed me, from my youth to my adulthood,” she said, hateful. “I had wanted to kill her before I left, but I didn’t expect that you all would soil such a great event!”
The bawd had been scared stupid by her confession a while ago. Seeing her stare at her, she couldn’t help but dodge behind Tang Fan.
The outcome of that, however, was Sui Zhou’s sleeve swinging out from the side right as she grabbed Tang Fan’s own, and she was automatically pushed away, knocking into and overturning a chair as she tumbled to the ground while yelping out ows.
Sui Zhou was not interested in listening to her go on, naturally. “Bring her back for further interrogation,” he ordered coldly.
Those at his left and right immediately stepped forth and detained her.
He conveyed ample disgust at the dense stench of cosmetics that flooded his nose, but still followed Tang Fan himself into Qingzi’s room for a search around. After seizing a couple dubious items, they left Jubilance.
Tang Fan sighed. “When Miss Hui was discovered at the beginning, I believed that we had already found the real killer. I hadn’t anticipated that there would actually be two groups of people that coincidentally wanted Zheng Cheng dead. He really had no chance!”
“Apart from the maid that went out to buy a house for her, is there anyone else that woman had contact with?”
Tang Fan shook her head. “No, she… wait!”
He halted in his tracks all of a sudden.
Sui Zhou also stopped, looking at him with some uncertainty as to why he did so.
Tang Fan didn’t care to say more to him. “We need to hurry and bring Qingzi back here. We’ve just let one question slip by!”
Sui Zhou asked no more, either. His silhouette shot forwards, figure rapidly becoming unseen.
By the time Tang Fan dashed to the Prefecture’s jail, out of breath, he saw Qingzi lying on the ground, already no longer breathing, with Sui Zhou standing to the side and questioning several bailiffs.
The bailiffs said that when they were escorting her, on account of her being both cooperative and a frail woman (as they saw it), they hadn’t searched her. Unexpectedly, at that moment, she suddenly took out a small dagger from somewhere on her, directly stabbed herself in the chest, and was dying in the blink of an eye.
Carrying a sliver of hope, Tang Fan crouched down to press against her pulse, only to find that there was no coming back from this.
 A ‘curtsy’ equivalent, but not really. Read about it and other China-specific gestures of greeting here.