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The Bargains We Make

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Mo Fei glides down the hall, bright blue robes sweeping behind her. Many of her house sisters catch sight and move to greet her, only to stop once they get a good look at her face. Whispers ripple in her wake. She is being making a scene, but she can’t quite bring herself to care.

 

In the back corner of the lower level, near the kitchens and storage, is the madam’s office – her real one, not the lavish one where she sees guests during business hours near the front door. It is in this mostly barren room that the ledgers are kept tidy on plain shelves, contracts are held secure and bargains are struck. It is in this room that girls who belong to a family are made to belong to the madam.

 

It is to there that Mo Fei glides, wide shoulders thrown back, chin high, eyes burning.

 

“Fei-meimei.”

 

She stops at this commanding voice, turning back neatly to face a petite woman in elegant and expensive jewelry and the finest silk robes. “Chen-jiejie.” Mo Fei drops her gaze. Liu Chen is the senior sister of the house. Her patrons are many and rich and the Madam doesn’t dare suppress her. It is from Liu Chen that Mo Fei learned to be a woman and how to please a man.

 

Liu Chen sends their other sisters scattering out of ear shot with a swipe of her hand. She touches Mo Fei gently on the arm.

 

“It’s not worth it.” She says, very gently.

 

“You don’t get to decide that.” Mo Fei contradicts immediately. Liu Chen searches her face, red lips pulled tight.

 

“He’s just a man,” she tries again, urgently, “The world is full of them and they are very much the same. You’re too sensible for something like this. Don’t put yourself at odds with Madam.” She clutches at one of Mo Fei’s hands. “Can’t you let this go?”

 

“Tell me how you knew about it.” Mo Fei demands instead of answering. Liu Chen’s lips pinch harder. Her silence is telling. Mo Fei pulls her hand away. Liu Chen knows everything; there is not a single person – prostitute, servant or guest – who does not know that Liu Chen, the most popular woman at the Fragrant Bouquet, tips well for little bites of information.

 

I am not an idiot.” Mo Fei says fiercely, “And you are misunderstanding.”

 

“Really?” Liu Chen snaps.

 

“Really,” Mo Fei snaps back. “There’s nothing there. Didn’t you teach me that jiejie? Does it look like I’ve forgotten your lessons?” She hisses, eyes welling with tears. She hopes they are seen as angry tears. “That is not the point.”

 

“What is the point?” Liu Chen asks sharply.

 

Mo Fei breaths and uses the argument she had come up with the day Lan-xiansheng left for Gusu. “She is interfering in business. He’s Lan. He’s the uncle of Lan-zongzhu and is the respected teacher of many young masters and misses, the paragon of an upright gentleman. He’s rich and has never married and he stayed the night.” Liu Chen is still looking at her, unmoved.

 

Mo Fei tsks, and flutters her sleeves irritably. “How else am I supposed to convince him to pay to come back and stay longer if I don’t write to him and suggest it?” she grits out. “He won’t make the trip for a single night, but he might make the trip for a week or more. I have to convince him it’s worth it, and I can’t do that if Madam stops my letters from going out or prevents his letters from reaching me.”   

 

Liu Chen makes a sound of frustration and swings away for a moment. Mo Fei clasps her hands tightly by her waist. If she can convince Liu Chen, then-

 

“And you swear there’s nothing else?” Liu Chen swings back around and fixes her with a sharp gaze. “It’s one thing for a man to be foolish, but women can’t afford to be.”

 

“There’s nothing else.” Mo Fei lies and holds herself still under the gaze of the woman who half raised her from scrawny teen to adulthood. And who, until very recently, was still making money from the debt Mo Fei owed for her help. Liu Chen searches her face carefully, and shakes her head.

 

“When you tell Madam that,” Liu Chen says finally, “don’t look so scared.”

 

Her stomach drops. “Chen-jiejie, I-”

 

“I won’t interfere,” Liu Chen interrupts, “I won’t help, either. If you want to be so foolish-” she cuts herself off with a shake of her head. “I can’t stop you. You’ve always been stubborn.” She settles her gauzy sleeves and neatly clasps her hands. “Have you at least thought of a way to keep her from reading the letters?”  She’s not looking at Mo Fei.

 

Mo Fei swallows. “Yes, Chen-jiejie.”

 

Liu Chen nods and departs. The other sisters, watching from a distance, try to approach her as she strides away, but she doesn’t stop on her way to the stairs. Before they can think to try and stop her to ask what that was all about, Mo Fei turns around and continues towards Madam’s office.

 

--

 

Mo Fei closes the door and settles herself at the table. Neng Qian, Madam of Fragrant Bouquet, already has the letter on the desk alongside the ledger she is working on. Her simple brown robes with ink stains on the hems of her sleeves are in stark contrast to her elaborately made hair.

 

“Took you longer than I thought,” she remarks without looking up from her sums. Her abacus clacks loudly in small room, echoing slightly.

 

“It’s only the first letter,” Mo Fei says with a mildness she doesn’t feel. “I don’t know the timing just yet.”

 

“You plan for more letters?” Clack, clack, clack. “That seems rather foolish. I would have thought Liu Chen taught you better.”

 

“Who said she didn’t,” Mo Fei smooths the fabric over her knees and then resettles her sleeves. Neng Qian glances up at this, and smiles.

 

“You trying to tell me that,” she flicks a gold-painted finger at the letter, “is – what? Business?”

 

“Business,” Mo Fei says easily. “Does he sound in love?” She asks the question like it doesn’t matter.

 

“Something like,” Neng Qian says after a pause, “Hard to tell sometimes, with men like that.” Shrewd eyes narrow. “What are you aiming for?”

 

“Long visits,” Mo Fei says promptly, “Gusu is too far for short trips. He’d have to pay for full days if he wants me on reserve.”

 

“You think you can get a Lan man to visit you?” The question is disbelieving.

 

“He wrote me, didn’t he?” Her response is arrogant.

 

Neng Qian laughs. “That’s true enough. So, you want to keep writing?”

 

“Yes,” Mo Fei doesn’t let herself swallow, “We will exchange letters and they will not be read by anyone else.”

 

Neng Qian laughs again and waves dismissively. “Let’s talk percentages for how much goes to the house and how much you get to keep.”   

 

“Oh, I see,” Mo Fei says lightly, “So you don’t mind my speaking with the next Jin cultivator to come through?”

 

“What,” Neng Qian says sharply, “Are you threatening, exactly?”

 

“What an unfortunate move on the part of Madam Neng,” Mo Fei says, playacting the conversation. “I did tell her that I was a child of Jin-zongzhu. This unworthy one knows her place and never dreamed of approaching Jin-zongzhu.” She mimes a demure curtsey.

 

“I told her so she could keep me well away from him, no need to make things awkward. Ah, but I’m sure she didn’t intentionally send me to the room where Jin-zongzhu was being entertained. Surely, it’s a mistake. She couldn’t be thinking of anything, I’m sure. Just a thoughtless moment in assigning workers – how lucky that we all avoided the loss of face if it came out that Jin-zongzhu almost fucked his own child.” Mo Fei looks at Neng Qian’s furious expression and bats her eyes. “Just think of the scandal if rumors of that got out of hand. Good thing Madam Neng is known to be so circumspect.”

 

“You jumped up little bitch,” Neng Qian, who is actually known as a rumor-monger, and took bribes for both silence and chatter, rose to her feet and lifted a hand to strike Mo Fei.

 

Mo Fei stays seated and fixes her gaze coldly. “All you have to do,” the madam froze, hand still hovering at the apex of it swing, “is leave the letters untouched, and when I do convince him to visit, don’t interfere.”

 

Slowly, the uplifted hand lowers, and Neng Qian sits down. Cold rage gleams in her eyes. “You’ll regret this. I’ll make you regret this.”

 

“No, I won’t,” Mo Fei says with confidence. “And you won’t make me, either. I’m going to get Gusu gold here, and when he starts seeing me, you’ll let it spread just enough that the kind of men who like it will come to pay top coin to see the whore who seduced a Lan cultivator. And when I’m not available, you’ll have several convenient alternatives just waiting to make his night and keep that coin for the house.” Her stomach clenched – it had to be worth it, it had to be for her to endure-

 

Dry laughter. “I’m impressed,” Neng Qian thumbs through several books stacked beside her table and pulls out one that is worn with age, and less than half full. “You did learn a thing or two from Liu Chen.” She flips to a blank page and writes ‘Mo Fei’ in the first column. Then she turns her shrewd eyes on Mo Fei herself. “Let’s find out how much.”

 

Mo Fei nods, stomach in knots, and says, “Yes, Madam Neng, let’s.”

 

--

 

With the letter tucked safely into the top of her robe, Mo Fei leaves the office on knees that threaten to give. Carefully, she makes her way back to her room, ignoring the looks from her house sisters. Liu Chen passes her going down as Mo Fei ascends the stairs. Their eyes don’t meet, but Mo Fei sees her shoulders relax out of the corner of her eye. Something must be showing on her face. She hurries to her room and resists the impulse to slam the door behind her.

 

Sinking to her knees right there on the floor, she pulls out the letter with shaking fingers and opens it.

 

I hope this finds you well.

 

To answer your questions – the disciplines of the Lan are many and varied. They are the foundation of not only our cultivation but of how to live an upright and honest life. Our Sect was founded by a monk named Lan An…

 

Mo Fei smiles with relief at the dry recitation of information that is already commonly known about Gusu Lan. It goes on for several pages, and then the letter ends with a small anecdote about a sparrow in the tree outside his office window discovering that it’s usual perch had been taken by a squirrel.

 

She holds the letter close to her chest, unspeakably grateful that she had thought to write him first and warn him that the first several of their correspondence was likely to be read by others in the brothel. She had pleaded that their first letters be filled with nothing that anyone might find useful as gossip or leverage so that whoever did inevitably open them would find the task tedious, useless and eventually stop.

 

For all that Neng Qian has signed an agreement between the two of them to not interfere, nor knowingly allow others to interfere - whether by direct command, implication or omission – with the letters, she knew that the letters would still be tampered with in secret before being delivered. It would be, by her estimate, nearly half a year before they could write to one another freely.

 

She hoped to convince Lan Qiren to come see her before then. It was a narrow line she had to walk – keeping their blossoming affection hidden from others while still encouraging it between them. If she could keep him writing for three or four months, and convince him to come see her – or send for her to come to Gusu – she has a chance. If she can get in the same room with him again, get him back into her bed where she can make him senseless and undone, then maybe she can -

 

She throws the letter down and covers her face. Liu Chen has really taught her well. How much is real? How much is the calculating illusion of desire so strong she’s only fooling herself? It’s what the more senior sisters always warn their new sisters about – you have to really feel it, to sell it. But you can’t let yourself think it’s really real. Once you do there’s only misery waiting.

 

Mo Fei trembles, frightened of the fluttering in her heart. She’s not sure which will be worse – if it’s real or if it’s illusion. Her gorge rises at the thought of Lan Qiren finding out what she’s really like and abandoning whatever this thing is between them. She doesn’t know if it’s because her feelings are real and the rejection would hurt, or if it’s because of the bad position it would put her in with Madam.

 

For good or ill, she’s committed to this. Mo Fei sniffs and wipes her eyes and nose. She’s made her play, and either she will make or break on this trembling thing between her and Lan Qiren. She thinks, deep in her heart of hearts, that there’s a chance she could be happy with him. She can’t not chase it. Taking a breath, she forces herself to stand, picking up the letter from the floor, and sits at her table. She pulls out paper, ink, stone and brush.

 

I’m so happy to hear from you, Lan-xiansheng.

 

Thank you for telling me all about Lan An and the many disciplines you follow – it was very interesting and I will keep your letter so I do not forget.

 

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