Chapter 84: Brothel
Jun Huang nodded. "Now that I've moved out of Prince Chen Manor, I'm finally out of Qi Chen's control. I was worried that Qi Chen might do something underhanded, though, so I had someone keep watch outside the manor. My worries turned out not to be unfounded. Qi Chen has been going to a brothel these couple of nights."
"Yes. From what I know about Qi Chen, he's never been someone who enjoyed going to brothels. There must be something more to this than meets the eye. I ask you to come with me today to investigate this matter."
Qi Yun stroked his chin contemplatively. "If that's the case, we should indeed get to the bottom of this. Second brother has always trusted you. Now, however, he's been doing something in secret. It may end up harming our cause."
Jun Huang nodded and turned to the quiet Nan Xun. Seeing that both Jun Huang and Qi Yun were looking at him, Nan Xun cleared his throat and said, "Let us go in the evening then."
After sunset, the most lively part of the city was the night market. The soft lamplight illuminating the streets painted a stunning picture. The three of them put on some disguise before making their way to the biggest brothel in the imperial city.
Their disguise was nothing more than a change of clothes. Jun Huang wore a silk robe with cloud patterns. There was a jade pendant on her waist and a sculpted fan in her hand. Her hair was half down, topped with an eye-catching jade cap.
Originally Jun Huang was going to prepare a set of green clothes for Nan Xun, but he turned her down. He was a tall and broad man. How could he possibly wear green? He changed into a blue silk robe, which transformed him into a graceful gentleman.
Qi Yun didn't change his clothes. After some discussion, they decided that if Qi Chen noticed them, Qi Yun would be the one to distract him. Everyone in the city knew Qi Yun as a romantic man. Being spotted in a brothel this one time wouldn't hurt his reputation.
"I'm not someone like that!" Qi Yun said defensively, interrupting Jun Huang and Nan Xun's conversation. It was clear from his rushed tone that he was eager to explain himself. "I've gone there with my friends once or twice, but I never did anything inappropriate."
Jun Huang looked owishly at Qi Yun. Nan Xun felt a little uneasy. He thought back to what Qi Yun had said in his drunken stupor the day Jun Huang moved into her new house. He was hit by a sudden wave of jealousy.
Seeing the confusion in Jun Huang's eyes, Qi Yun smiled awkwardly and said that he had overreacted. After some more preparation, the three of them moved out.
The city was full of life in the evening. There were many young people walking on the street. The three of them were good-looking, attracting stares from the young women who passed by.
The stilt houses next to them were decorated with red lanterns. It wasn't a holiday, but the lanterns were lit. At a distance, they looked like dragons fading into darkness.
There were many brothels in the imperial city. At night, the street was packed with people. Women of the night approached potential customers with a bashful smile, waving their silk handkerchiefs as they walked.
The three of them stood out in the crowd. It was impossible to ignore them. Soon, they had caught the attention of many women working at the brothel Peony House. The women asked the procuress to talk to the trio.
The flamboyant procuress walked up to Jun Huang and smiled with an eyebrow raised, the red dangling ornament on her head shook as she moved. The black silk robe she wore was a clear indication of how lucrative this business could be. She waved her silk handkerchief in the air. The fragrance of makeup was so strong that Jun Huang felt a little light in the head. She covered her nose and mouth and stepped back.
Noticing her discomfort, Nan Xun stepped between Jun Huang and the procuress. "What do you want?"
"What do I want?" said the procuress with a honeyed smile. "The gentlemen have come out for a good time. Why don't you have some fun at my Peony House?"
"Sorry, we have somewhere else to be," said Nan Xun.
Out came a woman with delicate makeup. She sauntered up to them. The procuress pulled her lips into a bright smile and introduced the woman like one would with a product, "This is the most famous courtesan in Peony House. If the gentlemen come inside, I will have her accompany you in drinking."
"Thank you for the offer," Jun Huang said with a faint smile once she had recovered. "Unfortunately, we have business to attend to. If we have the time, we will be sure to visit. Please excuse us." She cupped her hands at the procuress and the woman before dragging Nan Xun and Qi Yun away.
She didn't like wasting her time. If delayed here, they might miss Qi Chen. She didn't want this trip to be in vain.
They kept their eyes on their destination, lest another procuress come to give them her sales pitch. They went straight to the biggest brothel in the imperial city.
The brothel was named Phoenix House. The place was packed. A great variety of beautiful lanterns decorated the front door, illuminating the whole building. Outside the door were coaches of high level officials that had not been stowed to the back yard.
Almost every guest visiting Phoenix House was someone important. There were no scantily-clad women trying to attract business, only two page boys in charge of watching the entrance. One could easily see inside through the open door.
Jun Huang, Nan Xun, and Qi Yun shared a look before stepping in at the same time. Silk curtains hung from the ceiling and fluttered in the air. The three story building stood tall before them. The first floor was for music and dance performance. At a particular time of the day, customers would have the chance to see courtesans who didn't usually seek out customers, including the leading courtesan. The second floor was for officials who had a vested interest in hiding from the public. There were also rooms for famous courtesans to rest in. The lesser known ones could only live in the back building. The third floor was a special place for important figures to have a late night conversation with women they were interested in. Of course, they might do more than talking, but that was the phrase people who frequented brothels used.
It was the night for brothels to showcase their leading courtesans, which attracted a lot more customers to visit Phoenix House. These leading courtesans were handpicked from every brothel in the city. Each had her unique charm. Even great fortunes might not buy you a glimpse at these women. Tonight, however, anyone could have a good look at them and even enjoy their performances.
Preparations had been made early in the morning. The stairs were covered in red carpet with decorations on both sides. The whole place looked luxurious. Some important figures in the city even brought fine gifts with them and waited at the door, hoping to exchange a word with the leading courtesans and to catch one glimpse of them.
Seeing that people were starting to enter, the lesser known women rushed to welcome their guests. They were not unlike the sex workers that tried to attract customers on the street. They were considered to be cheap and annoying.
These women dressed themselves in vibrant clothes in order to please the gentlemen who visited. If they could make a customer smile, he might give them a handsome reward. The one thing these men did not lack was money. What they sought in exchange was some company for their drinks.
There was a reason why the Phoenix House was the biggest brothel in the city. The dancers in the other brothels were scantily dressed, arousing men by strategically revealing parts of their bodies. They also spoke like uneducated people. Phoenix House was different. There were dancers here as well, but they were women who looked just like any average women. The more beautiful ones spoke with grace and had charming smiles. They were dressed in silk robes that made them look like nobility, and they talked like them too. Important figures coming to the brothel found themselves captivated by the dreams these women weaved for them.
The music played here was different from the other places as well. On stage, young women dressed in custom made dresses danced to the music like butterflies lost in a garden. Their delicate makeup added a vibrancy to their beauty.
Men loved to drink in a classy establishment like this with beautiful women in their arms. Occasionally they would say something lecherous to the women, and the women would knock on their chests with flushed faces or throw themselves into the men's arms in feigned protest.
It was the first time Jun Huang had ever visit a brothel, and it would be her last. She detested the smell of cosmetics in the air so much she could barely stop herself from leaving. The women fawning over her did not help.
Northern Qi was a more cultured country, but in brothels, women had to do anything they could to find a good customer they were satisfied with. If they were too prideful to take the initiative, they would remain a low level prostitute, taking verbal abuse from the procuress every day.
Water flowed to the lower ground. People made their ways to a higher place. Even these women knew this was how the world operated.
Many customers came to the brothel behind their wives' back. Most of them were either shady men, or big-bellied officials. Young men like Jun Huang, Nan Xun, and Qi Yun were rare. Most of the time they would be frequent clients with expensive taste who had already set their eyes on specific women.
The courtesans could tell that the three of them were new. They rushed to introduce themselves to the three of them, trying to get their attention.
Everyone loved beautiful things. It wasn't unusual for these women to fight for attention. They elbowed their way to the three of them. Only when they had gotten close did they realized that they looked like a mess. The women took a deep breath and made themselves presentable before approaching Jun Huang, Nan Xun, and Qi Yun.
"The gentlemen are new, aren't you?" a woman dressed in green said openly. "Would you like this woman's company?"
A woman dressed in pink pushed the woman in green away and greeted them. "Let this woman serve you – "
"Don't you have any shame?" the woman in green lashed out with her hands on her hip. Her brashness was unattractive. "Look at yourself in the mirror. You dare to steal customers from me?"
The woman in pink scoffed. In front of everyone, she started to recount what the woman in green had done in order to gain the favor of important figures. She even exposed what the woman in green had done before she started working at the brothel.
The woman in green used to be the mistress of an official. The official was scared of his principal wife, and after getting beat up by his wife, he sold the woman to this brothel.
The customers were so transfixed by the story, they even forgot to drink. One of the men rudely asked the woman in green if she was feeling lonely. If she was, he wasn't opposed to taking her as a bed warmer.