“How is it?”
“Still a bit hot.”
The girl’s face fell. Mei Min concealed a sigh. She’d been away long enough on the battlefield that she had forgotten the delicacies of courtly conversation.
She had also forgotten how most of the Emperor’s younger consorts worshiped her. This one, Jia Fen, had won the honor of bringing Mei Min her first proper cup of tea in eight months. She had brought the tea set over with trembling hands, set down the gilded tray with reverence usually reserved for the Emperor himself, and poured a cup of aromatic liquid. Mei Min felt herself relax simply watching it, though the hot bath she’d just had – also the first in eight months – contributed significantly.
With a low bow, the girl – the Emperor’s thirtieth consort? Thirty-first? – presented the cup of tea, which Mei Min accepted gratefully. There had been what could be loosely described as tea on the campaign, but nothing compared to a cup of tea savored on a silk couch in a beautiful room behind fortified walls.
It tasted like home.
And, like home, it was not quite comfortable.
She smiled reassuringly at the younger woman. “It warms my soul. Thank you.”
Jia Fen sat down slowly at her feet. Mei Min took another cautious sip. The tea scalded the tip of her tongue and she winced. Unfortunately, the girl noticed.
“Forgive me, Honored Lady – ”
Mei Min waved her off. “I am still sore from the ride home.” It was mostly true – she was also sore from wielding a sword, sleeping on hard ground, and taking a few more blows than she would have liked.
“You were missed here,” Jia Fen said, perking up. “Lady Linyi had her baby – a boy. And two more courtesans stole swords from the armory, claiming you’ve inspired them to fight for their Emperor.”
Mei Min choked on the tea, scalding her throat. “Two more?”
Jia Fen feigned shock. “You are not delighted about the birth of a prince?”
“More delighted than I am about two more girls putting their lives in danger!”
“They know how to fight,” Jia Fen said defensively. “They observe the training grounds daily, pretending they’re sweet on the officers. And…”
She looked around, checking to make sure no one else was in earshot. Mei Min thought about warning her that it was the Imperial Palace and someone was always listening, but she was too tired, and besides, Jia Fen caused little enough trouble that there was no need to worry.
But much could change in eight months…
“They practice,” Jia Fen whispered, smiling. “With calligraphy brushes, lampstands, anything they can find.”
“And they aren’t caught?” Mei Min’s combat prowess was discovered soon after she came to the Palace. At first, when she was only one of four, the Emperor viewed it as an amusing curiosity. Soon enough, though, she was one of sixteen and leading armies, a general in her own right. Now she was one of forty-three, and highly honored.
One warrior wife was advantageous; two, or more, could be seen as embarrassing. Or a threat.
“They have a lookout. Don’t you approve?” Jia Fen looked up at her with such childish hope that Mei Min could only sigh. Besides, how many times had she been told at that age that her talents were unfeminine at best, demonic at worst? And she had always believed that a woman with the desire and talent to fight should be allowed to do so.
“I do approve, but I wish they would speak to me about this. I may be able to protect them. Who are they? And who is their lookout?”
Jia Fen busied herself pouring her own cup of tea. Min Mei raised her eyebrows. “You?”
She took a demure sip. “Is the tea to your satisfaction, Honored Lady?”
Something else occurred to her. “And – the armory? Only the royal family have access…”
The girl dipped her head. “Your wisdom is surpassed only by your skill with the blade.”
Mei Min took a slow sip of tea. So distracted was she by the news of this small army of women forming within the palace walls that she barely even tasted it.
Jia Fen looked at her anxiously. “The tea? Is it…”
Mei Min smiled and took another sip. It was a very comfortable temperature. “I am very pleased with it. You must serve me again sometime.”
Jia Fen smiled and dipped her head again. “It would be my honor.”