The floral scented smoke of opium burning billowed up, filled and lingered in the air around them. The old woman puffed, inhaled on her smoking pipe and never took her scrutinizing and perceptively, shrewd sight off Lifen.
Qiao Hui smoked and listened to the skinny girl read aloud from the bordello’s detailed journal in silence. The simple girl raised on a peach farm wasn’t merely literate but she was verbally articulate. She could calculate complicated and mixed mathematics in her head without the use of an abacus. This educated country girl wasn’t even 25 years old, but possessed more knowledge than most male scholars double her age.
The owner of the Forever Blooming Hibiscus bordello, Li Qiao Hui, was illiterate very much like most women. She couldn’t read a single character or perform even basic mathematics. However, gifted was she with a phenomenal memory. She could recall every client’s name, wine, food, sexual preferences and services up to the last ten years from memory alone.
As the girl read, Qiao Hui didn’t understand the numbers but caught the other discrepancies instantly. She noted on specific dates, not every service rendered was listed. Therefore naturally the monetary amounts would be off and incorrect. The difference in payment went right into the clerk’s pockets, she assumed and from listening alone, she knew the girl spoke the truth. Her mental facts and listed data didn’t match. The clerk had been embezzling money from the house as the girl stated, and she had trusted him for over twenty years.
The brothel accountant and Qiao Hui were related. They were distant cousins. In fact, everyone who worked within the brothel was to some degree related by blood or marriage. She was born to a concubine. Both her daughters were courtesans and so were their daughters. Their daughters would also one day follow the family business and become courtesans themselves.
The Forever Blooming Hibiscus brothel was a family business but Qiao Hui was the sole matriarch. At the age of 18, she became pregnant with the town magistrate and gave birth to a son. The old magistrate and wife were a childless couple and purchased her son from her. With that money, she built it up from a small single room to the now massive established brothel with 30 rooms. She owned the brothel, land and everyone within the property. She held all the ultimate power over the thriving business.
Qiao Hui watched the girl close the book, wipe her forehead with the backside of her hand and directed in her raspy voice, “Give this skinny girl one of the smallest bedrooms close to the kitchen. Feed her and get her different clothes to wear that’s more suitable for her role. Make sure she bathes properly and doesn’t have lice.”
Lifen heard the woman’s orders and immediately plummeted to her knees and sobbed full of distress, “Please have mercy. I beg you! I’m a married woman. I’ll do anything and everything else but permit another to touch my body.”
Swiftly she rubbed her palms together repeatedly and begged in desperation, “I’m capable of doing anything. I can do all the dirty laundry and clean. I have incredibly nimble fast hands. I’m able to do all the alterations and sewing for you!”
Lifen dropped her head, kowtowed towards the ground and her soft mewing cries echoed in the room. The old woman watched her emotional display somewhat amused because this was a familiar scene, she’d witnessed hundreds of times before with the countless other girls, who came into her establishment by force. However, this girl wouldn’t become an ordinary whore and was worth much more.
She responded, “Girl, pick up your dress and put it on. What makes you think a sane man would find you desirable? What about you is so fetching that a man would pay to sleep with you?”
The brothel madam tapped out the old tobacco ashes from her long wooden pipe into a brass ashtray, and firmly packed in a fresh bowl of opium mixed tobacco. Before she uttered a word, one of the other courtesans behind her automatically stepped forward and lit the pipe without being told.
Qiao Hui then turned all her attention to the young man who was still standing in the room, and said calmly without any emotions, “Wei, take a couple of the boys and bring that thief bookkeeper, Ma, here. Drag him out of his bed, put him in the ‘shed’, show him what happens to those who betray and cheat Li Qiao Hui.”
The next orders Qiao Hui gave with the same lack of emotion, “Bring his only child, his daughter, Mei, also. She just turned fourteen years old. I’ll auction her virginity and Mei can slowly repay her father’s debt by working here. As for his wife…she’s useless to me. I don’t need another servant or another mouth to feed so kill her swiftly, and make her death appear as an accident.”
She refocused her hazy concentration back to Lifen and informally explained “I’m going to allow you to earn your keep without selling yourself. You must be blessed because I happen to be in need of a new bookkeeper. You see, my old one has unfortunately met with a sad and untimely death.”
With her pipe, she pointed to Lifen and clarified, “Don’t think it’s because I find you pitiful, or find your situation particularly sad that I’m keeping you from becoming a whore, but your gifts are far more valuable than the other girls. Harlots are everywhere and plentiful, but finding a highly educated girl like you is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
More gray smoke billowed around her as the matron continued in her drone mono-toned voice, “Girl, what is your name?”
The young woman in braids sniffled, wiped her eyes and whispered, “My name is Lifen.”
“Lifen, Lifen, Lifen. Did you hear my orders for the one who cheated me? Well, he’s my cousin so imagine what I would do to a complete stranger. If you run away, I’ll find you and have you beaten to death. If you steal from me, the horrors and pain you’ll undergo will make you wish you could sell yourself.”
She repeated Lifen’s name to herself faintly and added, “You may call me Madam. Not mother, auntie or anything only Madam. Even my children call me Madam so the same rules apply to all and everyone here. I don’t display acts of favoritism.”
“Lifen, I have plenty of other servants to do the laundry, cook and clean but your immense skill will serve me in different ways. Going forward, you’ll handle all the books for the house including other tasks when necessary. Now get dressed and come closer so that I can look into your eyes.” Qiao Hui said and Lifen dressed in an instant before sitting in front of the woman.
Qiao Hui’s once dark brown eyes now had a bluish tinge due to her advanced old age. She intently studied Lifen silently before sending the girl away. As the girl left her room, Qiao Hui examined Lifen’s petite slumped backside in surprise and wonderment. Never had she expected a simple country farm girl to be educated, and know advanced mathematics known exclusively by men alone. Life was undoubtedly a mystery to send such a creature her way.
In Qiao Hui’s 78 years of existence, she’d met many; the young, old, rich, poor, weak and powerful but there was something, or someone behind Lifen’s perceptive eyes that didn’t match her youthful face or age. She didn’t believe in God, deities or such fairy tales but in the young woman’s gaze, Qiao Hui didn’t see a person’s reflection but instead she saw a snow white fox staring back at her.
Lifen’s day started and ended the same for almost six months. Her only free time was between 6 to 10 am. During these times, she wrote Mo Yuan letters and stood in wait for him at the front of the pavilion.
She waited under the sun and pouring rain. Regardless of the weather, Lifen endured in the very same place. The choice of her location because it was at the first focal point of eyesight after entering the brothel. She believed in her heart that Mo Yuan would come for her any day and her hope, faith never wavered.
Initially, the girls at the brothel laughed at Lifen’s sincere devotion but after a while, many took turns standing beside her and kept her company. They all hoped her husband would appear and take her away. Every woman there wished they had even the dream. The glimmer of hope someone out there was waiting and longing for them.
At 10 am when the house madam awoke for the day, she called out the previous night’s clients by name, sexual services, alcohol, food and fee’s collected. Lifen was responsible for writing all the details, and reread the items for verbal approval before recounting funds to be hidden in Qiao Hui’s safe. Nobody knew the location of her money but her because she trusted no one. Not even her daughters.
Immediately after their daily meetings; the madam enjoyed her breakfast, smoked her opium and took naps as usual. Lifen became the new middleman between the store proprietors, shopkeepers, suppliers and brothel since she was the only one capable of reading, and often caught the store owner’s errors. She knew some were honest mistakes but she also knew many had cheated Qiao Hui over the years. Lifen knew what occurred to the previous Booker, and politely asked the store owner to correct their discrepancy for their sake.
When she wasn’t working for Qiao Hui, Lifen ran errands for the courtesans, brushed their hair, cleaned their rooms and did things without being asked. She was quick witted, intelligent and had a kind soul. In Lifen they saw the genuine innocence they once had but lost over time, her sweet nature won their hearts over and she quickly became everyone’s little sister.
Bookkeeping for Qiao Hui wasn’t Lifen’s only task at the brothel. She also performed the most dangerous act of recording treacherous private talks. For hours in silence, she sat behind a hidden silk wall and wrote down the entire conversation she overheard.
The private discussions were between men of great importance, power and social positions. They spoke of politics, plans, activities between the different factions. The words Lifen wrote were often ones that lead to life and death of those involved.
They exchanged serious talks regarding committed acts of treason, coup d’état, murders and assassinations. Qiao Hui not only sold women but she also marketed valuable information for the right price.
Lifen began to understand she was playing an active role in deception, deaths and other terrible acts. She refused to write down any more conversation so Qiao Hui had Lifen beaten, and thrown into the ‘shed’ for three days.
The shed was on the far end of the brothel. It was a small room built entirely of stones. Most who entered that room never came out alive. It was where Qiao Hui doled out her most severe punishment. Death.
However, even after the third day, Lifen refused to play a part of Qiao Hui’s devious plans, so the smart old madam promised to mail all the letters written by Lifen to her husband, and swore if her husband appeared she would allow her to leave debt free.
Lifen stepped out of the shed and did as she was told. She never gave up hope, she wrote a letter to Mo Yuan daily for five months straight, and Qiao Hui promised to mail the messages in exchange for doing her tasks. Little did Lifen know, the letters never left the brothel. They never moved from Qiao Hui’s room.
For Qiao Hui, Lifen was a golden egg laying goose and she knew it. At the end of the fifth month, the brothel madam returned every letter written by Lifen to Mo Yuan and lied. She told her the recipient returned them to sender without bothering to open the sealed messages.
Strangely Lifen held the bundle of letters in her hand staring at them blankly but didn’t cry. Not a single tear. After that day she stopped waiting for her husband and took off her jade wedding ring.
In the six months since Lifen came to the brothel, Qiao Hui profited more selling the valuable information gathered than what the prostitutes brought in. She planned to marry Lifen to her handsome grandson, Wei. The young man had feelings for her but said nothing due to her persistent waiting of her husband.
In the midst of planning a love match between Lifen and Wei, a mysterious buyer came to acquire her. He asked for her by name. The lawyer was a middleman handling the transaction, and claimed to know nothing about the purchasing party. Initially, Qiao Hui declined the offer but the agent asked her to set a price for the girl.
The brothel madam called out an outrageous monetary amount believing the attorney would laugh in her face, but to her confusion, the agent agreed readily to the tremendous price without a second’s hesitation.
The exorbitant price for Lifen was more of a joke. In jest, Qiao Hui demanded the girl’s body weight in solid gold and precious gemstones. The thought alone was ridiculous and unheard of, but never would she have guessed the representative would return the following day with the excessive payment in full. Not only did he have the pay in whole but also a bonus.
It was the most money Qiao Hui had ever seen in her entire life, and she couldn’t find it in herself to refuse such an offer. Within the hour an upscale sedan came to retrieve Lifen. Qiao Hui expected the girl would cry but to her surprise, the skinny girl kowtowed to her and thanked her for her kindness before disappearing.
In her long life, from their first meeting to their very end, Lifen was one of the most mysterious people Qiao Hui had ever set her sights on. And never in a million years did she think Lifen’s long-awaited husband, Mo Yuan, would finally appear in a fury searching for his lost wife but unfortunately missed her by just two short days.
To be continued…..