Crossover Fan Fiction ❯ The Apothecary's Other Diary ❯ Cold Sky ( Chapter 3 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]



Cold Sky

The ghost dancing incident, and subsequent investigation was a simple case of observation and logic. Considering the history of evil in the prior emperor’s court, overlooking the charade of a woman returning to her lover, virtue intact, is a kindness this kingdom could use more of. The Lady Gyokuyou’s sad commentary about jealousy for her relationship… I wonder if she had someone she loved and left behind? Or did she want the emperor all to herself?

My relationship with the inner court’s doctor is improved after I’d made aphrodisiacs. He’d come to terms with the competition for making medicines and my official capacity under the Jade Palace did not truly infringe on him, though I do wish this man would get further training rather than be flustered by his own incompetence. Father is a far better doctor, probably the best in the nation today. He’d been trained in the West, in Europe, and was smarter than any ten doctors you could name. He’d delivered the emperor, and his brother, though some mess with the birth of the emperor’s son had resulted in his death, and the rumors on the health of the first concubine were the sort of sad thing one sees far too often.

I attend my lady at tea. The emperor had joined us. I taste the food and drink, confirming it is safe.

“You are the rumored apothecary. I have a request for you,” ordered the Emperor. I sigh on the inside. It is do or die, literally.

The Crystal Palace contains Lady Lifa. A beauty, different from Lady Gyokuyou. Her fanatical support of the emperor and loss of her son to the skin poison had broken her. She’d stopped eating, and was wasting away. It is terrible, but I have seen this before in the brothels. As women we are made to love our children. In brothels, no woman is permitted to be a mother. If she gives birth, her value is destroyed. Even mentioning a woman has given birth to a child is forbidden, and children of brothels prefer to say: “I have no mother.” It is a dark business. Losing your child, the one being who you truly possess as your own, whom you love without reservation? It destroys you.

Lady Lifa is in a bad way. She isn’t eating, she barely drinks more than water. And her attendants keep kicking me out when I bring food. They complain it is too plain, too unsightly for a concubine. That I am ugly and make the food taste bad. They kick me out and insult me, and I think about my head coming off for failing the orders of the emperor. Two days of this, and her health worsening at each missed meal. Finally, Jinshi leads the way, clearing off the attendants and letting me do my job, waving the reminder that I’m following the command of the emperor. They withdraw a critical few feet and I try a spoonful of rice water gruel for the lady. She tries to eat. So she hasn’t given up, then? She coughs it up, and I wipe away the spillage from her chin, revealing pink skin.

“A moment, my lady,” I apologize and wipe my finger down her cheek, feeling white face powder.

I admit here I became somewhat angry.

I lost my temper. I am pretty sure I struck her head maid, dragged her over to stare at the woman she’d been poisoning, dumped the contents of the banned lead oxide on her head and shoved some in her mouth, cursing her arrogant head for trying to murder her charge with the same poison that killed the baby. Everyone was taken aback. I haven’t been this angry in… quite some time.

The following hours spent removing the poison, changing her clothes and bedding, dusting all traces from the room and floors, and preparing and spoon feeding the fragile woman until she could sit up and her breathing and color returned bit by bit over the course of several days efforts. I am not getting enough to eat. I am not sleeping enough. It is touch and go, and my head will only remain on my body if I succeed.

Jinshi authorizes the construction of a sweat lodge and I supervise Lady Lifa’s use of it to get rid of more of the metal poison, along with frequent cups of tea, to urinate it out.

Mostly recovered, the lady asked me if I thought she could get pregnant after this.

“You may as well try,” I answered.

“But the emperor has lost all love for me,” she stated.

“The emperor is the one who ordered me to cure you,” I countered. She was surprised at this.

“But his affections?” she asked, nervous.

“Who is to say which flower is more beautiful? You are different than Lady Gyokuyou, certainly,” I answered, gesturing to several peony in a vase on her bedside. “You have a certain advantage. Might I have your ear a moment?”

I explained this one technique my sisters in Verdigris House taught me. I am not capable of this act, being flat as a board, but lady Lifa is well equipped to excel. When I finished explaining she began to blush. I smiled and left her to consider.

Eventually, after a week, the head maid returns and apologizes, taking over care once more. I am allowed to return to the Jade Palace. The girls there try to overfeed me, seeing how much weight I’ve lost. Truly, it was exhausting and I feel like I could sleep for days.


The week after this we began digging gowns out of storage, airing and repairing them as needed.

“We will be attending the annual garden party,” explained one of the attendants.

“Garden party? Isn’t it cold?” I asked. The weather wasn’t raining at the moment, but the nights were frosty, and the north wind was icy and dry.

And thus it was I spent hours making orange-ginger candies and sewing pockets in the undervest for pocket warmer stones. Then I made the critical mistake of showing others, and got saddled with sewing even more. The emperor’s tailor took notes on my design, and his personal cook learned how to make the ginger candies, so you feel warm on the inside.

Wouldn’t you know with all the politics floating around, I’d forgotten about my own gown. And then the girls removed my freckles… sigh.

“Maomao? You’re…” remarked Lady Gyokuyou. I sighed. When Jinshi arrived a bit later he came to leer and tease me as he does.

“Are you wearing makeup?” he finally asked after a frozen pause and an expression I hadn’t seen on his face before.

“No.” I answered.

“But your freckles?” he pointed out.

“I was wearing makeup. My freckles are makeup. Makeup isn’t only worn to make a woman beautiful,” I explained, as if to a child. I understand Jinshi has lead a sheltered life in the palace.

“But why?” he asked, very confused.

“I lived in the pleasure district. Not every customer left fully satisfied, and a girl on her own would be easy to drag into an alley and satiate himself upon, willing or not.” The looks of pity and horror from the girls and Jinshi were shared equally.

“Did that ever happen to you?” asked Lady Gyokuyou. I shook my head no.

“I always wore the makeup to hide myself. I think it was wearing off the day I got taken, so they kidnapped me as marginally marketable. The ones who sold me to the palace had no way to know if I was kidnapped or sold to pay a debt. Not that anyone asked.”

“Maomao,” sighed the head maid.

Jinshi froze, stricken at this, then reached up and withdrew an ornate silver hairpin and pushed it into one of my buns. The girls looked shocked by this act.

“Wear this in my name,” he ordered. I sighed. We had things to do so I went where I was meant to go, tending to a small charcoal burner that heated up the pocket warmer stones. Some of the Crystal Palace attendants were arguing with the Jade palace girls, something about being force to work with “that ugly girl”. Did they mean me? I was standing right here. Did they not… oh, the makeup. They continued their insults so I covered my mouth with my hand and grunted slightly to get their attention. The head maid met my eyes and I lifted the edge of my hand, displaying my evil grin. She froze in shock, then shrieked quietly and dragged the other three away with her.

Lady Lishu, a pouty child with a more cruel backstory than mine wearing a hot pink robe walked in front of their white robes looking angry. More insults followed as she left for her seat on the official table for the Virtuous Consort. I am still getting used to the fancy necklace of gold and pearls loaned to me by Lady Gyokuyou. Lady Lifa appeared, noticing my silver hairpin.

“We can’t have that being so lonely. Here, in gratitude for what you did for me,” Lady Lifa gifted me a hairpin with several strings of pearls dangling from it. Lady Gyokuyou made a mild exclamation about my popularity in the court.

A soldier from the guard offered me a hairpin of red coral. He had seven of the things, so I accepted it like a participation trophy, a phrase that won’t exist for another 448 years.

Eventually, after more meetings and fuss, we were seated. I sat between my lady and the curtain separating the servants bringing food. The entertainments and dancing had been nice, but the icy wind blowing from the North had made sitting still in this weather a special torture.

A salad appeared, and I smelled, checking the silver bowl for discoloration. Usually it would be fish, but this was pickled jellyfish instead. I noticed the glee of the poison taste behind Lady Lishu and cringed, wishing I hadn't seen that expression of malice. The consort looked quite shaken picking up a piece of mackerel in her chopsticks as if it were poison. My own dish was safe, tasting it and finding no problems with any stinging or numbness that several poisons caused. Next came soup. I checked the bowl, seeing nothing, and smelled it. A taste, and the stinging numbness was there. I don’t know what expression I showed, but the audience was staring at me.

“This is poison,” I announced to the silence, then stormed away behind the curtains, heading for a water jar and my purgative into my throat. I was vomiting the rainbow in seconds and Jinshi showed up suddenly, just THERE, leaning over me. He dragged me off to the infirmary and I puked for several minutes, completely empty of food and poison. If I’m any judge that was a paralytic poison.

“One of the ministers didn’t believe the girl and drank the soup anyway,” whispered one the eunuchs nearby. “This is a diplomatic incident.”

After the event calmed down Jinshi and I investigated. Sir Gaoshun, Jinshi’s elder and constant companion, possibly a bodyguard, brought me the bowl of poisoned soup. I made powder and examined the fingerprints revealed by talcum powder and a very light brush.

“The ones near the rim are from the poisoner. Common hands must never touch where noble lips will go, so I was taught,” explained, pointing. “But there’s something I need assistance to prove.”

A bit later Lady Lishu and her poison taster met in Jinshi’s office. I stepped forward and introduced myself, then lunged and revealed the sores under the sleeve of lady Lishu’s gown. One lecture on allergies and potential death later, and the increasingly pale face of the poison taster, I presented a set of documents I’d prepared for her.

“Giving her foods she cannot eat would be akin to poisoning her yourself. An attack on the imperial throne,” I said, all but threatening beheading her for her childish malice. And Lady Lishu is a child, only 15 and from a sheltered life. Finding out she was a concubine of the former emperor, at merely 10 years old, and former mother in law to Lady Ah-Duo, a woman whose features strongly resemble that of Jinshi himself, to the point he may be her son, almost certainly was her son, which means… many things I will want to think about later. The Emperor almost certainly keeps Lady Lishu here to protect her from her enemies outside the walls. He’s never visited her, preferring ripened fruit, as they say.

“I can provide a balm which will help those sores heal more quickly, Lady Lishu,” I offered, presenting a small seashell of medicine I’d crafted. Seashells are an inexpensive way to package remedies, since they are natural, plentiful, easy to clean or sterilize, and have fitting lids from the top shell. Many apothecaries use them for these reasons.


“So I was given these hairpins during the party,” I explained to Xiaolan.

“Oh, that means you can go outside the walls,” she casually mentioned.

“What?” I asked. Then I shook her. It seems that having a hairpin means you can get someone to act as your guarantor to leave the inner palace temporarily, a few days pass. I could visit father. I could drop in and see my sisters at Verdigris House. I immediately formed a plan.

A day later and a grinning Lihaku and all the money I had in the world in a sack smaller than I liked we arrived by carriage at Verdigris House.

“Hey granny! I’m back!” I called out. She stormed up and gut punched me. Puking the rainbow, just like old times.

“Where have you been? If I hadn’t gotten that letter I wouldn’t even be talking to you, abandoning everyone like that,” she complained.

“I was kidnapped. I couldn’t send out a letter. And I have to go back in a few days,” I answered.

“Get Pairin,” the old lady called to one of the girls, eyeing up the soldier, Lihaku.

“Hey, show me your muscles?” I asked him. He presented a bicep bigger than my torso was thick. This was going to cost. I handed over the sack of money to granny.

“This covers an introduction, but bring me more like him, or I’ll be selling you off myself,” she threatened. I tried wheedling on the price, but Pairin is insatiable when she meets a man she likes, and Pairin likes men with big muscles. Lihaku is her type. He wandered off with her on his arm and that would be a last I see of them both for the next few days.

“There’s been a miracle while you were gone. Come with me,” she ordered. I raised my eyebrow but followed in my commoner’s garb.

We passed through the main house and out to the Annex. I felt dread, as I often did, visiting my mother. The windows were open. The stench of incense and rot were gone. There were flowers and song inside.

“My baby girl. My how you’ve grown, Maomao,” said the musical voice of my mother, the first time I’ve heard it since before I could walk, before the disease tore her apart. Now she was intact, healthy, glowing with vitality.

“How?” I asked, frozen in shock as mother examined me.

“You don’t eat enough. What’s this about working in the palace?” she asked.

“I am a poison taster for Lady Gyokuyou. How is this possible? I’ve been researching medicines to heal you for all my life. Nothing could come close,” I exclaim, finally looking her in the eye, seeing a nose on her face. It is a beautiful nose, very regal looking, ordinary like any nose. Not a bleeding hole in her face. A real nose.

“Have you been to see your great uncle, yet?” she asked me.

“Is he okay? Is he getting enough to eat? I’ve been worried about him,” I answered.

“He’s been to see me. His kneecap grew back. Did you know his kneecap was cut out by the last emperor? That isn’t all. I’ll let him tell you. There’s been some kind of Sage appearing near the palace and doing miracles, then vanishing again.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I answered dully, but wondering how great uncle could regrow a kneecap. Fingertip? Sure. But not a kneecap. Those don’t just grow back. Not noses or sudden cures of syphilis and all the damage it does to a human body at its end stage. This is crazy. This isn’t how the world works.

“The sage taught me a new song, in some foreign language. I’ve been creating a dance to go with it, and taught some of the girls how to play the music. Want to hear it?” mother asked. She picked up an Urdu and its bow and began to play a strange tune, one from another lifetime, 420 years in the future.

“Mina, play the drum like I showed you,” mother ordered.

Don’t stop… don’t stop the dance,” she sang in accented English. A song I knew. A song from my time. From Komachi’s life.

Mama said truth is all that matters… drifting through the world, torn and tattered… don’t stop, don’t stop the dance,” I sang along. Memory of oniisan singing this in his bedroom, playing karaoke with a toy microphone. And then I knew, it just had to be him. How, I have no idea, but only my brother could break the universe like this.

“You know this song, Maomao?” mother asked.

“Yes. There’s another one by the same singer you might appreciate.” So I taught her a different tune, with a different beat, and words that I translated for her benefit.

“The drum beat is pretty simple. More cowbell!” I called to the girl helping with percussion. For some reason I can play the Biwa like I was born to it, so I was playing the guitar part on that. Mother was dancing like she’d never been sick, like she hadn’t lost seventeen years of her life to disease and madness since I was born.

“Tell her I’ll be waiting… in the usual place… With the tired and weary… and there’s no escape… to need a woman… you’ve got to know… how the strong get weak… and the rich get poor… slave to love… slave to love…”

“You’re running with me… don’t touch the ground… we’re the restless hearted… not the chained and bound… the sky is burning… a sea of flame… though the world is changing… I will be the same… slave to love… oh oh slave to love… nan a nana na… I can’t escape… a slave to love.”

“The storm is breaking… or so it seems… we’re too young to reason… too grown up to dream… now spring is turning… your face to mine… I can hear your laughter… I see your smiles… slave to love…nnananana… And I can’t escape… slave to love.. slave to love.”

I think she really likes that song. Meimei told me often about mother and father, how they flirted for years over the go and shogi boards, her winning at go, he winning at shogi. How she sent Meimei away one day “to focus on the game” and how the room after smelled of their mating, something that created me. I am here because my parents like board games. I suppose this means I need to forgive that man. It certainly seems that mother has. If anything, she has plans for him. I might get a last name.