Release date: March 1, 2014
Length: 384 pages
|The Lotus Palace #2 (Pingkang Li Mysteries)
Welcome to the infamous Pingkang Li—home of the celebrated Lotus Palace courtesans, and a place of beauty and treachery…
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“Lin returns to Tang Dynasty China (setting of The Lotus Palace) for a tale strong in emotional subtlety.” – Publishers Weekly
“Once again Lin showcases her talents for crafting a taut and original mystery set in the exotic world of the Pingkang Li.” – Romantic Times Book Reviews
“The Tang Dynasty and the shadowy world of the pleasure district of Changan come to life in a story that is sure to enchant.” – Library Journal
Read An Excerpt
This excerpt has not yet been copyedited and may contain differences from the final release
Tang Dynasty China, 848 A.D.
WU KAIFENG LOOKED over the property from the street. For years it had been abandoned, the remnants from a fire that had raged through the capital city of Changan. Parts of the damaged area had been rebuilt, but not this building. Apparently, the two-story structure had once been a tea house, but now it was nothing more than a hollow shell located just beyond the edge of the bustling East Market. Undesirable.
Yet he had passed by that same location every day for the last week. Where others saw only a ruin, Kaifeng saw something else. He saw possibilities. With his position as head constable, he was earning a humble, yet steady wage. Maybe it was time to stop wandering. The dark corners and alleyways of Changan hid so many secrets; they could hide him as well.
The market gong sounded the Hour of the Goat. The afternoon was upon him and it was time to return from his rounds. Kaifeng set a path through the East Market, but was stopped by a man charging through the crowd, his clothes stained with blood.
The stranger brandished a cleaver as he chased a lanky youth down the street. All of the surrounding market-goers stepped aside, but Kaifeng moved forward to block the street. The fellow at the front staggered to avoid crashing into him. His eyes grew wide as he stared up at Kaifeng’s considerable height, then the black cap and robe of his uniform, then at the sword in his belt.
This mixture of shock and fear wasn’t uncommon. Constable Wu needed no special effort to appear menacing. He supposed it was a gift, given his position.
“I didn’t do anything!” the youth protested.
Kaifeng flicked his gaze over to the armed man who had come to a stop. He gestured with his knife. “He’s a thief, Constable.”
The blood-stained garment was an apron. The weapon, a meat cleaver. It was the local butcher, not some mad man.
The young man, who was looking more and more like a half-starved boy, started babbling. “I was just walking in the street. He started chasing me with that knife. Of course I ran.”
“He took money from my counter.”
“I was never in your shop!”
Kaifeng let the arguments fly without responding. He could drag both the accused thief and the butcher before Magistrate Li and let him settle the matter, but the line of petitioners at the tribunal had wound around the offices like a snake earlier that day.
“Empty your pouch,” he directed.
The butcher stood by, cleaver lowered but still gripped menacingly as the boy showed the pouch at his belt and his sleeves to be empty. Kaifeng was not yet satisfied.
The youth hesitated before reaching to take of his left shoe. There were two copper coins lying inside.
“To keep from thieves,” he said sheepishly. “I earned that money unloading wagons in the market.”
“Liar,” the butcher accused through his teeth. “Those were the same coins from my shop.”
Kaifeng regarded both of them without blinking. The matter seemed a simple one. The boy was acting guilty. He protested too quickly and too loudly. He’d hidden his money. He was fidgeting as he spoke and was unable to keep his gaze steady.
If taken before the magistrate, the money would be confiscated and returned to the butcher, the boy given a beating with the light rod, and then the matter dismissed afterward. It wasn’t a constable’s duty to mete justice, but no one would fault him for resolving this dispute and sending the thief away with a public beating. It was only two copper coins after all.
But Kaifeng knew that two coins could very well mean the difference between a full belly and an empty one. A warm night or a cold one.
The supposed thief was shifting about, now with only one shoe on, the other foot bare and unwashed, looking all the more guilty-or perhaps it wasn’t guilt at all. Merely fear.
“Pick up the money,” Kaifeng instructed. “And put your shoe back on.”
The butcher started to protest, but Kaifeng told him to lead them back to his shop. The youth didn’t attempt to flee and he walked head down between the butcher and the constable as they went down the lane. Bystanders watched the parade curiously, but none came forward to offer any further insight into the incident. Typical of the imperial city. One’s business was one’s own.
The copper smell of blood met them at the far end of the lane. They passed by vendors selling live chickens and fish in baskets along the avenue. The butcher’s shop was one of the largest in this section of the market, though it was hidden away in the corner. It was a wooden shack, open in front so that the various cuts and portions could be visible from the street.
An assistant, likely the butcher’s son, was still busy at work. The shop was full of customers looking to purchase the day’s meal. The long wooden cutting block that served as counter was stained dark and scored, and there was an assortment of freshly butchered cuts on display.
“I work back there,” the butcher said. “Customers drop their payment here onto the block and I push all the money into this basket.”
So no one would have to touch hands with him. Butchery was an unsavory, yet profitable trade.
“We were busy like we are now and this thief shoved through the crowd and grabbed the coins from the counter before I could stop him.”
“I’m not a thief,” the youth protested sullenly. He looked like a convict awaiting execution. His shoulders were sunken and his face resigned. Being accused was enough to be condemned and he had both age and status against him.
Where the butcher was well-fed and a successful tradesman, the accused was thin in the face, his chin smooth and his body not yet broadened into manhood. His clothes had been carefully mended many times. He claimed to have labored in the market to earn his coins, which would have meant he had been hard at work since daybreak to earn so much so early in the day.
Kaifeng could have spent the rest of the day questioning merchants to confirm his story, but it would have been no use. In the sprawl of the East Market were too many wagons, too many merchants and too many boys just like this.
“Bring two bowls of fresh water,” Kaifeng told the butcher.
The butcher stared at him, put out by being ordered about. A constable was far from an appointed official and ranked no higher than a tradesman. Kaifeng stared back, unwavering. The butcher finally set down his cleaver and disappeared into the back of the shop. He returned a moment later with two clay bowls and set them onto the counter.
Kaifeng turned to the youth who still had his coppers clutched in his hand. “Put your coins into the first bowl.”
The boy did as he was told. The butcher as well as the other customers watched as the coins sank to the bottom. Kaifeng then instructed the butcher to take a few coins from his basket and drop them into the second bowl. As the coins fell into the water, streaks of grease and blood shimmered over the surface. The water in the first bowl remained clear.
“The coins belong to him, or rather, they never belonged to you,” Kaifeng declared, then turned to leave the shop.
“But I saw him!” the butcher protested.
“Your earnings have remnants of grease and blood from being on the butcher block. His cash is free of any such residue.”
The youth stuffed his coins into his pouch. He spared Kaifeng a nod of gratitude as he rushed from shop and scurried away.
“You saw someone,” Kaifeng said to the butcher. “But it wasn’t this boy. If I find the thief, I’ll take him to the magistrate. In the meantime, keep a closer watch on your money. Your carelessness invites thievery.”
Copyright © 2014 by Jeannie Lin
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