Tang Dynasty China, 850 A.D.
Song Yi wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the Pingkang li. She wasn’t the most musically gifted, nor known for being the most captivating hostess. One didn’t have to be famous to make a living in the pleasure quarter. In fact, being so well-known, so infamous could be a great disadvantage.
Such had happened to clever Li Jilan who composed poetry that received great praise until one set of lines was deemed subversive. She was sent to the executioner for treason. Captivating Mingyu had a circle of powerful admirers who ended up dragging her into their dangerous schemes.
To survive in Pingkang, one didn’t have to be most or best. One simply had to have a compelling narrative. A story that was intriguing enough. Alluring enough. Provocative enough. And possess just enough ability to not slip into obscurity.
Song Yi had never wanted to attract a crowd of admirers. She had no need for dashing young men to fight over her, to die for her, to declare their never-ending love for her. She just needed a few steady and dependable patrons who liked her enough.
Steady and dependable was what they called Magistrate Li Chen. For a time, Song Yi had fancied that he liked her enough. But then he had disappeared, his favor collapsing like the waves, as they say.
She hadn’t seen or heard from Li Chen for months until this very night at Director Guan’s banquet, when she learned that an undemanding patron carried his own kind of curse.
The banquet was in its second hour and the half-moon had hidden behind a blanket of clouds. The only trace of it was a ghostly light behind the gray. With no moon visible to gaze upon, it should have been acceptable to close the doors so the three of them weren’t freezing, but no one paid musicians so much thought. They were merely hired entertainers. Not bonded or enslaved, but not much higher in status.
Song Yi’s fingers were stiff from the cold, but she plucked out a dancing melody on the strings of the guzheng nevertheless. Her courtesan-sister Pearl accompanied her with a softly penetrating counter-melody on the flute while Little Sparrow struggled to keep up on the erhu. Every time the girl tried to draw her bow smoothly over the strings, her shivering would interrupt the flow of the sound, creating a warble that Song Yi hoped the scholars in attendance would overlook.
The fashionable silk robes they wore to perform only made matters worse. The bureaucrats gathered warmly beside lit braziers and glowing lanterns within the banquet room while Song Yi felt the evening breeze through every thin layer of her robe.
Their three melodies wove around one another in a final circling dance before fading at the song’s end. A voice cut into the silence. Their host, the illustrious Director Guan, was making a formal welcome and announcement.
“Oh good, poetry recitation,” Pearl whispered with glee. “We can get a break.”
Little Sparrow sprang to her feet. “I’m going to see if we can get tea!”
“Make it wine instead,” Pearl suggested, grabbing the discarded erhu out of the way so Sparrow’s robe wouldn’t become entangled in it. The girl had already flitted off.
“Try not to make a face every time she plays a wrong note,” Song Yi said gently. “Sparrow is trying to practice.”
“Not nearly enough,” Pearl said beneath her breath.
As the big sister of their courtesan house, it was Song Yi’s responsibility to keep the peace as well as make sure Sparrow kept up with her training. Unfortunately the girl was easily distracted. She had pulled one of the director’s retainers aside to speak to him with eyes wide and hands fluttering.
They were between the mid-autumn and winter festivals, but the cold weather seemed to be coming in early to Changan that year. Song Yi attempted to rub some feeling back into her hands. Warmed wine sounded wonderful.
“Oh look,” Pearl whispered, excited. “It’s your noble gentleman.”
Song Yi’s pulse skipped. Her heart pounded erratically, but she did not look. Instead, she fiddled with the wooden bridges that held the strings of her instrument. She knew exactly who the noble gentleman was.
She’d suspected Li Chen would be here tonight. Director Guan was well-known as the magistrate’s benefactor.
“He’s in uniform. So disciplined and authoritative,” Pearl cooed.
Song Yi twisted at a tuning peg, which she really shouldn’t do in the middle of a performance. So she twisted it back, tightening and untightening aimlessly. She was a fool for not preparing a better way to occupy herself.
The gathering wasn’t large enough to hide. And why should she hide? Li Chen was just someone she’d poured wine for over polite conversation. He wasn’t even that highly ranked of an official. He hadn’t so much as touched her hand.
Miraculously, she was no longer shivering. She was actually burning up. Or rather, her cheeks were burning. If she asked Pearl whether Li Chen was looking her way, Pearl would tease her mercilessly. Instead, Song Yi risked just a single glance, lifting her gaze then lowering it.
There was the dark-eyed and serious look she was so familiar with. Jaw squared, brow furrowed, shoulders straight. Li Chen’s uniform, a forest green robe, draped over him in crisp, orderly lines. His hair was hidden beneath a black cap that tied beneath his chin.
He was not looking at her. Just as she was not looking at him. Their gazes slid just past one another.
Director Guan snatched Li Chen up and hovered over his protege with a protective air. As Guan made introductions, Chen nodded from one man to the next.
Li Chen wasn’t unsmiling. He was merely focused. Song Yi had said as much to the others to defend him when they’d complained he was stiff.
She had seen what Li Chen looked like when that rigid expression softened and those eyes warmed. It had taken some time to get past his well-mannered reserve, but then he had stopped coming by. All of her efforts were wasted.
Song Yi returned her attention to her instrument, but not fast enough.
“Why so cold, Elder Sister?” Pearl asked.
Pearl only called Song Yi that when she wanted to taunt her.
“The magistrate will think you indifferent,” her younger courtesan-sister went on.
“I am indifferent,” Song Yi replied, running her fingertip lightly over a taut string. It hummed beneath her touch.
“It looks like we’ll have no tea or wine,” Song Yi mused, looking to Sparrow who had become lost in a conversation with the young man. He was dressed in blue and gray scholar’s robes. Sparrow was only sixteen and showed the boldness if not the refinement of a courtesan ten years her senior. Her quarry looked as if he were searching for a means of escape.
Song Yi used the excuse to spy on Li Chen again who was most certainly not acknowledging her. Furtive and meaningful glances were an entire language at gatherings like these. As were sweeping glances. Searching glances. Li Chen employed none of those. It was impossible not to look her way. The viewing portal which framed the uncooperative moon was right behind her.
So that was the way of it.
Some courtesans could play the abandoned lover to great effect, but Song Yi was never one for such scenes, and neither was Li Chen. They’d had only a short string of late-night conversations. He’d finally relaxed enough to recline on the seat in her parlor. They’d laughed together with heads bowed close, but never, ever touching.
She was pulling her strings too tight again. Pearl’s all-knowing look faded.
“What a know-nothing bureaucrat,” Pearl huffed with disdain as if that had been her intention all along.
“Maybe you should go rescue that poor scholar from Sparrow,” Song Yi suggested.
Pearl immediately set her flute down to obey. Song Yi didn’t have any sisters by blood, but she loved the two fate had given her.
After a few poems had been recited, they would be expected to play again. She stood as well to stretch out her legs and wander over to one of the braziers for warmth. Li Chen wandered to the opposite side of the room. Could she get him to do that all evening? Swim about the chamber in circles like a carp to avoid her.
Such games were unbecoming of her. She was Song Yi of the House of Heavenly Peaches. Subtle, graceful, uncomplicated.
She had first met Li Chen at another banquet thrown by Director Guan He a year ago. Before that, she had only known the magistrate by reputation. He’d been appointed to the capital several years earlier. He was young for the post. Talented. Honest.
Song Yi had been playing another stringed instrument, the pipa, that night. It was simpler and required less focus than the guzheng. She had glanced up mid-song to find him watching, but not with the serious, penetrating gaze which he employed presently. His gaze had seemed far away, as if he were daydreaming. His eyes had widened with surprise when they met hers, and she’d smiled without meaning to.
She’d looked quickly away. The smile wasn’t meant to be an invitation. It wasn’t meant to be anything other than a smile, unrehearsed. Li Chen was supposed to be an exacting and relentless lawman, but in that moment, he had looked so…guileless. Like someone who hadn’t seen enough of the world rather than too much of it.
He showed up at their doorstep two weeks later, asking about her. It turned out he was from Yu prefecture and had heard she was from there also. That first night they had spoken for hours until dawn. The sitting fees had cost him a month’s wages. Even Mother had felt bad for him.
Old Auntie had cackled. “Radish boy! Probably thought he was going to get something if he just stayed longer.”
Li Chen admitted later he hadn’t meant to linger so long. He limited his next visits to exactly one hour. Pearl thought him uptight. Song Yi had thought Li Chen sweet. He was homesick.
Yet now he couldn’t meet her eyes. Perhaps he was embarrassed by how much undue attention he’d paid her. He was the county magistrate with responsibilities and duties to attend to. Or he might have simply lost interest. Some scholars came to Pingkang to spend every last coin, while for others, the pleasures of the district were just a novelty that quickly faded.
Pearl returned to where they had left their instruments with a subdued Sparrow following behind her, eyes cast downward. Apparently, Pearl had scolded the younger Sparrow for something. Song Yi left the warmth of the inner chamber to go to them. It would be time to play again soon.
Li Chen was directly in her path now, deep in conversation with Director Guan. Song Yi didn’t veer as far away as she could have. She passed by, close enough to detect the minute tightening of his jaw before she drew away.
His avoidance could also be fueled by shame, Song Yi realized with a pang in her chest. Visits to a courtesan house were a frivolous indulgence to someone like him. It didn’t matter the reason, truly. She was experienced enough to know how to smooth over such cracks to allow him to save face. She didn’t need for admirers to declare their undying love or to remember her in poems and laments.
If Song Yi had to describe her approach, she would say that it was practical. Her patrons served a purpose for the moment. Li Chen’s evening visits, lovely as they were, had kept their house running and her sisters fed.
Song Yi had managed to hold a talented and honorable magistrate’s interest for a brief period of time. It had to be enough.
It was probably better for Li Chen and for her that they didn’t have to maintain the illusion for too long.
Fog settled thick over the streets of Changan. It wove through the falling darkness of the evening, transforming the lanes and alleyways of the capital city into a maze of spectral shapes. It hid Li Chen as he waited outside the courtesan house, gathering his courage.
The more he thought of it, the more he was convinced he had managed the banquet last night poorly. He knew how he was meant to conduct himself in the tribunal court and his administrative offices. He knew how he was supposed to conduct himself in courtesan houses like the House of Heavenly Peaches. Banquets where he was to mingle with bureaucrats and ranking officials on one side and interact with courtesans on the other created an undefined area of contention. Unfortunately, the code books didn’t have any guidance on this.
He was saved from having to go up to the door when the person he’d come to meet appeared at the front of the house.
“Miss Song Yi.”
She turned abruptly, searching through the fog.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, drawing closer.
“Magistrate Li,” she greeted, letting out a breath.
They stood before one another, edges blurred by the surrounding mist. She wore a pale robe that made her seem to blend into the fog. Blue, he thought, or maybe gray.
Song Yi usually avoided the butterfly-bright colors favored by the other entertainers in Pingkang. The night before, she’d been clothed in the deepening blue of an evening sky, of twilight fading into dusk.
She had immediately drawn his attention. Song Yi didn’t need flashy colors or flirtatious glances to do so. It was always her presence that pulled at him. She had a calming, soothing aura about her with darkly luminous eyes that were searching and thoughtful.
Chen’s gaze strayed to the heavy cloak lined with fox fur about her shoulders. “You’re going somewhere.”
She pulled at the edges the garment. “I have an engagement tonight.”
“Of course.” He hadn’t thought of that.
“It’s good to see the magistrate…after so long.”
Song Yi was looking up at him, her expression inquisitive. She was being kind. They’d spent several hours the night before in a banquet hall while he painfully tried to figure out the proper way to engage with her.
In many ways, the last months had been plagued by the same indecision.
They stared at one another, the silence stretching long between them.
Li Chen broke the silence first. “I could escort you. To wherever you’re going.”
She hesitated. “It’s far away. Outside of Pingkang.”
“I’ll hail a carriage.”
He turned to the street and raised his arm to wave down a passing transport, grateful to at least be of use. It wasn’t long before a carriage came to a stop before them. Li Chen turned and offered his arm to help her up. She took hold of him only briefly as she stepped past him. The time apart had made them awkward around one another.
Song Yi turned once she was seated to look down at him. This wasn’t going at all to plan—most likely because he hadn’t made a plan.
“It was good to see you last night,” he said, at last admitting it.
“Out of the corner of your eye?” she asked with a tilt of her head that wrecked him.
“Yes.” The little laugh he gave was meant for himself.
“Even the most stuffy of bureaucrats could at least manage a sly glance,” she chided.
He drew closer, his chest warming. “You looked well.”
It wasn’t what he’d meant to say. Pretty seemed too terse. You looked like the only thing I ever wanted to see, was inappropriate after their last parting had ended abruptly, without farewell.
“Where to?” the carriage driver asked impatiently.
“Chongren li,” she replied.
“May I ride with you for a bit?” he asked in a rush.
The carriage had started forward before lurching to a halt.
Song Yi hesitated, her teeth worrying over her bottom lip, before she replied, “Of course, Magistrate.”
She moved aside to allow him room on the seat. As the carriage started forward, they fell into silence once more. The fog hung all around them.
“I didn’t forget you,” he said, going immediately to the heart of the matter.
“Admirers come and go,” she replied lightly.
“I know exactly how long it has been since we last spoke.”
Her expression softened. When she looked at him like that, he couldn’t remember why he’d ever tried to stay away.
He had been investigating the Incident at the Yanxi Gate, a high-profile assassination that led to threats to public officials and a series of murders in the city. Song Yi herself had received a warning that he was certain was meant for him. The danger was so imminent he’d used his authority as county magistrate to lock down the wards and put the city on curfew.
“I feared being seen with me would put you in danger, ...