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Nothing on Earth of Interest (Seeds of the Melon)

Chapter Text

Shanghai, August 1894

Huang Cuifeng arrived at the party, her new maid Ailin in tow, just past the tolling of the second dinner hour. When she was shown in to the restaurant she saw immediately that the guests were just as Xiaonong had promised, a strange mix of Chinese and foreigners with a few Manchus and Japanese thrown in. Cuifeng did not need Ailin’s presence at her elbow to remind her that she was playing a dangerous game, but the fact that Ailin could, if necessary, tell her what the foreigners were saying was a comfort.

“Maestro Cuifeng!” Chen Qubing himself greeted her, wearing a green box jacket over a deep blue archery gown. Cuifeng had heard that Chen and his fellow opera reformers were talking of staging Beijing operas with actors wearing Western clothes, but it seemed that Chinese dress was still the order of the day in his private affairs, at least. “Wonderful! We’ve just been lamenting the lack of music. You must sing something for us!”

“Mr. Chen!” she greeted him, giving him her best smile. “Of course I’ll sing—what would you like?”

Chen turned back to his guests—she saw Xiaonong among them, but could not risk more than a glance in his direction—and asked their preferences while Cuifeng walked carefully to the place prepared for her, a little away from the banqueting table, and Ailin handed her the pipa. She nearly missed the sound of Ailin’s sharp intake of breath beneath the noise of the party.

“Ailin?” Cuifeng murmured, bending her head in the guise of checking the lute’s tuning more closely. “What is it?”

“There are people here who know me,” Ailin replied quietly, keeping her hands folded and her head bent, almost like a servant girl rather than a maid.

“Will they give you away?”

“I don’t think so,” Ailin replied. “But it would be better if we don’t stay long.”

“I have another party call, and I don’t need to do much here,” Cuifeng reminded her. “We’ll only stay for a few songs.”

“Maestro?”

Cuifeng looked up, and sure enough it was Xiaonong, apparently having been chosen to bring her word of the group’s wishes. “Do you know any of the songs from Guazhong lanyin, by any chance?” he asked her, smiling, and Cuifeng allowed herself to smile back.

“No wonder you’re a reformer, Mr. Wang,” she teased him; “you’re brash enough for it! Yes, I know one of the songs from your new opera. Shall I?”

“Please,” Xiaonong told her, spreading his hands, and Cuifeng touched a few of the strings to bring the melody to mind before launching in one of the songs from the first act.

“Careful!” someone shouted as she finished; “we’ll have the police here for noise disturbances if you keep that up, Maestro!”

“Let them come,” Cuifeng retorted, smiling, “since I see Inspector Ah Quei is here! You’ll protect us, won’t you, Inspector?” she asked him, and Ah, smiling, spread his hands and gave her a partial bow.

“Are you sure you shouldn’t join the inspectorate yourself, Maestro?” he asked, the gold buttons on his blue uniform winking in the lamplight. Although “streetlights” were the talk of the International Settlement, and despite the fact that the British airship depot across the river had been electrified for years, no private residence in Shanghai yet used anything but lanterns.

“Thank you, Cuifeng, that was lovely,” Chen called from his seat at the head of the table. “Now perhaps something for the traditionalists in the room?”

“Are there any here?” Cuifeng asked, feigning surprise, but she did as he requested and sang a popular song from a familiar Yunnan opera. “Who is that woman—“ she murmured to Ailin, only to look and see that her maid had disappeared into the crowd.

It was a good thing Ailin was not really her maid, or Cuifeng would have been obliged to fly into a rage at her inattention. As it was, Inspector Ah was making his way towards her, three foreigners in tow.

“Maestro Cuifeng, may I introduce you to some new friends of mine?” he asked, and Cuifeng smiled. The inspector had never been one of her clients, which was too bad, but she had a healthy respect for his faculties all the same; everyone in the settlements did.

“Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Inspector,” she told him, and it was even true. The one good thing about foreigners was that they were never looking for a liaison with a top-class girl; if they wanted it from a Chinese, they invariably went to a flowered opium den or a game bird.

“Wonderful,” Ah told her, and gestured to the people behind him—two men and a woman, the men wearing what Cuifeng recognized as formal Western attire and the woman in the emerald uniform of the British Aery. “Captain Mary and Dr. John Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, this is Huang Cuifeng, the most famous courtesan in Shanghai.”

The two men—one tall and fair, the other shorter and dark—each gave her a nod, but the woman actually stepped forward and shook her hand in the British fashion. “A pleasure to meet you,” she said, her Beijing dialect quite good for an Englishwoman, and Cuifeng smiled despite her rising alarm. If any of these four realized what she was involved in—

“And you, Captain.”