A One-Way Ticket on the Fantasy Express
“Homo-hating girls don't exist!!”
--Kanako Ohno, ‘Genshiken’
Chapter Forty Eight - A One-Way Ticket on the Fantasy Express
Lin Hua smiled. “But is 1200 gold pieces too expensive for you, young master Huang Ming?” she asked.
“Uh…” Huang Ming scratched his face in embarrassment.
“You mean to tell me that you have chased away a prospective buyer, and yet can’t afford it yourself?” Lin Hua chided.
“If you put it that way, then yes, I guess I did,” Huang Ming answered sheepishly.
“You even put me in harms way, how are you going to compensate me?” the beautiful woman snorted, yet laughter was twinkling in her eyes.
“You’re blaming me for Official Shen He falling in love with you at first sight? It’s not my fault that the young lady is such a beautiful creature,” Huang Ming smirked.
Lin Hua’s cheeks turned pink even as she glared at him. “Oh? You think someone like him would have an interest in antiquities? Official Shen He wouldn’t have seen me at all if it wasn’t for you. He was obviously led here by Nangong Xie who bears a grudge against you. I have heard the rumours, what did you do to him?”
Huang Ming grinned. “He had designs on my future sister-in-law, but I managed to foil his plans.”
Lin Hua arched a pretty eyebrow in question. “I know that your brothers are getting married. Which lady did Nangong Xie fancy?”
“Both of them!” Huang Ming chuckled.
Lin Hua was scandalized, then she daintily covered her mouth with her sleeves to laugh. It was a very feminine gesture and for the few seconds that her face was partially hidden, Huang Ming found that her eyes were charming indeed.
“I must be going, I still need to look for a gift,” he announced, taking advantage of the light-hearted moment.
“Hold it. You haven’t settled the matter with the device yet,” Lin Hua interjected. She jutted her chin enchantingly, and the pearls on her choker around her neck gleamed.
Huang Ming shook his head regretfully. “I can’t afford it!”
“What about the other items? I saw your interest in them,” the woman insisted. After offending the government official, Lin Hua was eager to make a sale and balance out the day’s events.
“I do like them, but they have no real practical purpose,” Huang Ming admitted.
“What sort of young master are you?” Lin Hua wondered aloud.
“The poor sort!” Huang Ming answered immediately. Then he gave the music box another meaningful look. “How about this… Loan the box to me and I can try to restore it. Once you are satisfied, give me something in return,” he suggested.
Lin Hua was astonished. “You can repair it?”
“I have read a lot of foreign books, I can try,” Huang Ming shrugged.
The woman’s face scrunched in thought. “What if you damaged it further?” she asked warily.
“How much worse can it get?”
Lin Hua nodded. “Fine, we have a deal.”
She made to take out the device from its display case once more, but Huang Ming interrupted her. “Send it directly to my home, I have somewhere else to go,” he said, already thinking about how he should go about in restoring the music box. From what he had seen, the item was mostly intact, but caked with grime and rust.
“I am not going out to drink with you,” Lin Hua stated, recalling the excuse Huang Ming had used earlier.
“No, I’m going to the Lichun,” Huang Ming said absent-mindedly.
“What?” Lin Hua and Sunli chimed at the same time.
‘I completely forgot about her,’ Huang Ming lamented to himself. He grimaced when he turned and saw the guardswoman’s eyes were narrowed. Sunli had stood several steps behind him all the while, quietly listening, behaving as if like a stone and minimizing her presence like any guard would.
Lin Hua’s good mood evaporated. “You’re getting a gift for a lady at the Lichun? From our establishment?” she asked frostily.
“It’s not for a lady,” Huang Ming managed to say.
Lin Hua’s eyes widened. Then she looked up and down at him in fascination. “It’s for a man? Is that your preference?”
Huang Ming was aghast. He raised a hand to interrupt. “No-”
“Did you foil Nangong Xie the Handsome Scholar’s plans because you liked him for yourself?” Lin Hua rattled on.
“Absolutely not. Please don’t even think of it… You are already thinking of it! Stop it!” Huang Ming sweated when he saw Lin Hua’s eyes take a faraway look. To his consternation, Sunli too had the same look on her face. The two women had their heads tilted as they gazed somewhere, seeing something that only they could see.
“Not you too!” Huang Ming groaned. He clapped his hands once to snap them out of it. The two women were startled, and then glanced at each other in embarrassment. Somehow, that single fleeting glance was enough to communicate volumes between them, and the two women smiled at each other. The soft look on Sunli was not a revelation for Huang Ming, he had always thought that Sunli was attractive. The people of this world would think of her style as too mannish, but he felt that the tanned, tall woman was reminiscent of a confident, modern sports athlete; as supple and lithe as a beautiful, deadly panther.
“My name is Sunli,” the guardswoman introduced herself. “I regret that I came empty-handed. I should have bought some peaches, I heard they are in season now.”
“And I am Lin Hua. It’s kind of you to think of peaches, but I have plenty at home,” the other woman concurred and mirrored her smile.
It was apparent that the two women admired each other hugely, which was surprising to Huang Ming due to their differences and brief interaction. One was a tomboyish, lowly soldier while the other was a delicate and highborn young lady. ‘What was that about peaches? Some sort of code?’ he wondered.
“He’s telling the truth? He’s buying something for a man?” Lin Hua asked.
Sunli nodded. “Yes, I have met him. He has the most brilliant eyes,” she replied conspiratorially.
For some reason, Lin Hua was extremely interested. “Really? Actually, I’ve heard rumours of young master Huang Ming. You know, that group of friends he’s always with… you know that young fellow Min Guang?”
“I have seen him. Now that I think of it, the possibilities are there…” Sunli trailed off as she glanced at Huang Ming.
“Hey, I’m standing right here. What the hell are you two talking about?” Huang Ming demanded.
“Never you mind,” Sunli replied curtly and her smile vanished.
“Ahem… so why are you going to the Lichun?” Lin Hua asked.
Huang Ming sighed. “My friend is staying there. He couldn’t get any other accommodations.”
Lin Hua’s eyes widened. “That is…”
Sunli’s lips curled. “So when General Huang was angry after hearing Quan Lu’s suggestion to introduce you to a lady, it was really a prostitute? I thought General Huang was just making a slur, but she’s really a prostitute at the Lichun?”
“Something like that happened?” Lin Hua asked, to which Sunli nodded. Huang Ming was truly astounded, the two women had bonded so quickly. He did not expect Sunli to be someone who was so… gossipy.
“That’s not… Look, he was only joking. Besides, Lady Qiong Ying isn’t a prostitute,” Huang Ming said exasperatedly. ‘How did it come to this?’ he thought.
“Oh, the Lady Qiong Ying? Yes, she isn’t a prostitute. She… I guess you can call her a lady of leisure. She plays music and only performs it very, very rarely to a select few,” Lin Hua said. “Your friend must be someone really respected or just blowing hot air if he can make such a claim.”
“Who is she?” Sunli asked.
Lin Hua shook her head. “Nobody knows for sure. She took charge of the Lichun some time ago and transformed it into a respectable place with a legitimate restaurant. In fact, it’s doing so well that it may very well be a fully-fledged restaurant soon.”
“You sound like you admire her,” Sunli said.
“I do. ”
Sunli was unconvinced. “I don’t understand. It seems to me that she is just a glorified procuress.”
Lin Hua smiled and gave the guardswoman a once-over. “You are in the military?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then surely you know of pleasure women who would prowl near the barracks, making their living by getting the soldiers to spend their salaries on them.”
Sunli nodded. “Yes. I’m not so naive about such matters,” she replied gravely.
“What do you think of such women?”
Sunli did not avert her gaze from Lin Hua. “Of course, I have heard their stories and reasons of why they do what they do. But I would be lying if I say I had never sneered at them.”
Lin Hua nodded. “You are right, they have their own reasons. The reason I admire the Lady Qiong Ying is that the Lichun isn’t just a mere brothel. Yes, they earn their keep by accompanying men. But she also teaches them how to survive after they had bought out their contracts. Her ladies are not just bed-warmers. They are all competent and intelligent. They can sing, dance, play instruments, weave, cook, even read and write and do arithmetic.”
Sunli frowned. “These are all common things.”
“To people of some means, yes. But these ladies often come from very poor families. Farmers, peasants, slaves… Many are illiterate and have no opportunity of learning such things. She gives them a chance to find a new life. It’s… it’s almost like a practical school of sorts for unfortunate women. I know there is one who even became a doctor,” Lin Hua explained.
“How do you know all this?” Huang Ming asked.
“In the auction business, it is not uncommon for humans to be sold too,” Lin Hua said frankly. “Though we are proud that our hall do not conduct such business, I know there are extenuating circumstances for the existence of such dealings elsewhere. Some had to sell themselves to raise funds to bury their parents, others were languishing in debt and it was their last resort. The Lichun is one of the more humane places such unfortunate souls can end up, there they can be treated as a real person and not just… not just as playthings.”
“I understand,” Sunli nodded, and Huang Ming followed suit. Huang Ming had searched his memories, the education system in this country was similar to those in ancient China. Boys were given priority and girls were often uneducated unless they were from a well-off family who could afford to hire a home tutor. Even then, they were only taught about the leisurely arts like painting and poetry. Women were not expected to be educated beyond the aesthetics and pleasing their husbands.
It goes to show that the women Huang Ming had encountered thus far in this world were all remarkable in one way or another, from Liu Yuchun who had some blacksmithing skills to Lin Hua who ran the front business of the very hall they were in. These women had no need to do what they do, they could very well stayed at home and be waited on hand and foot. Yet, they took on responsibilities and were competent in their own right.
Huang Ming felt that he had the opportunity to come across such women in the first place was due to his relatively high status. If he had transmigrated to a person with a trashy background, there would be little chance of him meeting such peerless, jade-skinned beauties who are also intelligent and capable.
He shook his head to break his abstract focus. It was a habit of his to over-think matters.
“Well, whatever the case, I’m not going to meet her in the first place. I’m going to meet a friend who so happens is staying there,” Huang Ming declared. ‘I should have insisted Quan Lu to stay at my place, this sort of misunderstanding will be the death of me,’ he grumbled to himself.
“Then I shall not detain you further. I will send the device to your residence immediately.”
Thus they exchanged farewells. Huang Ming and Sunli then made their way to the Lichun.
It is expanding.