Cat recced this novel to me and it’s one of those rare ones that stay with me long after I finished the last chapter. For now this stays in the 1st chapter category bebause I do want to finish MGQ 😅
Chapter 1 – Madam Baoji
“Madam Baoji is here!” someone yelled.
The listless people lying on the ground suddenly came alive. Most of them were raggedy and rancid.
The boss lit a lamp. In the dim light, a beautiful figure approached. She was about twenty years old, dressed in a blue outfit made from coarse cloth and embellished by white flowers. She wore her hair in the style of married women, her bun adorned with a stem of gardenia. A string of green bronze bells was tied to her thin waist with twines, jingling every time she took a step.
The most curious thing was that she held a large and shiny rooster in her arms. It was especially handsome with its crimson cockscomb, a golden neck, gradient green wings that shifted black, and a metallic blue tail. This was a “rainbow phoenix” as called by the locals. If people in the area of Chengzhou wanted to cure illness by marriage (1), then they must use this particular rooster in their nuptial rites.
(1) 冲喜 – the superstitious practice of getting married to cure the groom of his grave illness. In this case, they use the rooster as a substitute groom in the wedding ceremony because the real groom is too sick/bedridden.
“Mom, who’s Madam Baoji?” a thin boy fearfully clung to his mother. “Why does the boss personally hold the light for her?”
“Boy, your life will change if you’re picked by her!” an old man lying against the wall murmured. “Madam Baoji specializes in finding people for Prince Wu’s palace. Even scrubbing the toilet there is better than dying here!” He suddenly had a coughing fit. By the time he removed his hand from his mouth it was covered in blood. He then proceeded to wipe it all over the sooty wall.
The boy looked at his sallow mother and then at the baby girl in her arm. A starlight flashed in his eyes. “Then… mom, I’m gonna go beg her!”
A middle-aged man with a belly as big as a drum weakly said, “Can men stay men after they enter Prince Wu’s palace? All of them are chopped to become eunuchs. When your dad passed away he said you must pass on the ancestral lineage…”
“Does the palace need women…?” the pale mother murmured, “I can still sew and wash…” She handed the baby girl to the boy and leapt at Madam Baoji. Black fingerprints immediately smeared on her white floral skirt.
“Choose me,” said the woman, raising her head.
“Scram! When has Madam Baoji ever picked women!” The boss kicked the woman straight in the neck. “Wretched undeads!”
Her head fell to the muddy ground and rolled away, her eyes still blinking. There was no blood on her neck, only countless leeches squirming around.
Her head rolled in front of a man with no legs. He poked it away with a wooden stick, causing the person next to him to yell: “Fuck! Don’t cast it my way!”
However, the ghost market was full of people, and no matter where it was pushed, it would roll in front of someone.
Hence the head was kicked back and forth like a ball.
Only the boy was crying while the baby girl in his arms did not make a sound.
A few yards away, someone suddenly trembled.
Madam Baoji’s slender eye glanced up at the boy but she didn’t say anything.
The boss man followed her eyes to the boy, keenly asking: “Ma’am, this child is slightly thin but he’s still considered clean and doesn’t have his mother’s disease. Why don’t you take a look…”
Madam Baoji stroked the rooster’s feathers and replied, “I’m not here for Prince Wu’s palace today.” Her voice was thin and flat, and slightly hoarse, as if her vocal cord had been damaged.
“Then…” the boss man was respectful to her, bowing as he asked.
“Our Eunuch Feng said that the house is too old and should be renovated, so we want to find men who can do hard labor.”
“We have them!” the boss man excitedly said. “Please follow me, I’ll handpick each of them for you.”
Chapter 2 – Dawn arrives when the first husband crows
At the end of the Wei Dynasty, the empire was in chaos, war was rampant, and refugees consumed children.
The land to the south of the Yangtze River and to the east of Jiangling was, at the moment, occupied by Prince Wu, Xiao Zi’an. In order to survive, the refugees sell themselves at night in the Jiankang ghost market.
The boss man was essentially the ghost market’s broker. His job was to recommend the right person to his clients and earn commission from the sales.
But Madam Baoji seemed to be particularly picky tonight.
He shouted names and let the men stand up for her to choose, yet after many yards she still did not stop to look at anyone.
He grew anxious, but also knowing that Eunuch Feng was a difficult person to serve, he followed Madam Baoji and didn’t make a peep. Only, he was rather fretful about the lamp oil cost.
They saw a lamp light ahead, held by a household servant for another woman.
She was dressed much more vibrantly compared to Madam Baoji. Draped in a coat of dark blue feathers, she rather looked like the rooster in Madam Baoji’s arms.
Another servant carrying a wooden bucket came over and poured water over someone’s head.
The Qinhuai River was full of dead corpses, and water from there was as putrid as it was cold.
The young man trembled from the cold splash.
He was sitting next to a dead body that was covered under a torn bamboo mat. The corpse was still intact and looked like it hadn’t died too long ago.
Madam Baoji suddenly stopped to stare at the young man.
The boss man quickly said, “Ma’am, this guy won’t do, look at his hands and feet…” He lifted the lamp.
The young man’s clothes were clean and tidy, so he was obviously a neat person. The problem was that his hands and feet had rotted. White bones stuck out from the decaying flesh and blood like dry branches in the dead of winter.
The servant forced his head up to wipe his face clean.
“Madam, you have great eyes! This one is very good looking!”
“Aiya…” the woman took the lamp from her servant’s hand and went up to the young man, sliding the back of her hand over his cheeks. She sighingly praised, “Very handsome, what a prize… I can still use him after his hands and feet are chopped off.”
The young man stiffly turned away, coming face to face with Madam Baoji.
His eyes were out of focus although they appeared to be in good condition.
“Boss,” Madam Baoji suddenly called, “how much is this blind one?”
“He sells himself to bury his brother. His hands and feet are rotted, his eyes are blind, he’s worth a single coin at most.”
“A single coin…” Madam Baoji slowly recited these three words, producing a mocking smile at the corner of her mouth.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
“Well, isn’t it Zhang Cui’e.” The woman draped in feathers adopted a condescending smile when she saw Madam Baoji, .
“Mrs. Yu,” Zhang Cui’e returned her greetings. The rooster in her arms suddenly made a crow.
Mrs. Yu covered her mouth and howled with laughter, “Is this your dead ex-husband?”
Everyone in the ghost market knew that Zhang Cui’e got married in Chengzhou in a healing ceremony for her groom. But her husband passed away soon after she entered nuptials with the rooster. Subsequently she lost her in-laws in the war. She took the rooster and ended up in the land of Prince Wu where she married Eunuch Feng. Every time she came to the ghost market on Eunuch Feng’s charge she always brought along this rooster, thus people called her Madam Baoji (2).
(2) Baoji lit. means holding a chicken
“Yes, this is my first husband.”
Mrs. Yu shook with laughter: “Shameless minx.”
Zhang Cui’e fanned her rooster’s wing at Mrs. Yu and said, “My husband says hello. He says your outfit looks pretty nice. Maybe because it’s plucked from his brother’s butt, it looks very familiar and intimate to him.”
“Vulgar wench!” Mrs. Yu was red with anger. As she was about to slap Zhang Cui’e her servants hurriedly stopped her. The boss man also came in between the two women.
“Don’t be angry, Mrs. Yu,” he whispered in her ear to remind her, “Eunuch Feng is a bigshot at Prince Wu’s palace. Even if you have more money you can’t afford him anymore.”
Zhang Cui’e still hadn’t changed her expression. She politely curtsied to Mrs. Yu: “If you’ll excuse me, ma’am,” and went past her.
At this moment, the young man got up from the ground with a surprising strength and clung to Zhang Cui’e with his rotting hands.
“Please buy me, ma’am.”
Everyone was in shock.
Zhang Cui’e chuckled and threw a glance at Mrs. Yu. “My, my…this…”
Mrs. Yu screeched, “I’ll buy you! Why are you asking her? I can pay two coins!”
Zhang Cui’e smiled down at the young man, “Go with Mrs. Yu, she’s paying two coins.”
The young man looked up, decidedly shaking his head. “I only ask that you buy me.” He shakily raised a bony claw to his neck and said, “If you won’t buy me, I would rather stab my throat and die.”
Mrs. Yu visibly blanched. Zhang Cui’e faintly smiled. “You see Mrs. Yu, it’s not that I want to buy him; he’s the one pestering me.”
She looked down again with a cold expression and a vicious tone: “Buy you? You’re not worth a penny!”
The young man trembled and lowered his head but refused to let go.
Zhang Cui’e straightened her posture and offered, “But it would be a pity to let you die.” She paused for a moment. “Come with me if you insist. I won’t give you any money, but I can give you firewood to cremate your brother and let him go to heaven.”
“Thank you, ma’am!”
Zhang Cui’e scolded, “Then what are you still doing! Do you want me to carry you and your brother? I don’t have servants to serve you!”
In front of the crowd, the young man crawled to his brother using his festering hands and feet. He painfully convulsed every time his flesh scraped against the ground. He picked up his brother’s body and struggled to strap him to his back. The weight of the corpse made his forehead perspire as his flesh and blood smeared all over the ground.
Zhang Cui’e indifferently looked at him and impatiently ordered, “Hurry up, it’s break of day now that my first husband has crowed.”
He continued to crawl on the ground using his good elbows, following her voice.
Mrs. Yu stared after Zhang Cui-e’s departing figure and the lizard like crawler. One could fit an egg in her gaping mouth.
The boss man woke up from his shock and chased after them: “Madam, you really won’t… pay?”
If she didn’t pay he would lose his commission.
“You know that our Eunuch Feng is a stingy man. He told me to buy a servant for the house but he didn’t give me a penny for it.” Madam Baoji answered in her thin, flat voice and tossed him a piece of copper, “for the lamp oil.”
Two humans, a rooster, and a corpse left the ghost market as the crowd stared after them. Someone whispered, “Why does this guy rather let Madam Baoji insult and torture him than to go with Mrs. Yu?”
“Ha, don’t you know Mrs. Yu’s husband? He’s a demon… how long can the handsome lad live if he go with Mrs. Yu? Actually, he might be better off dead.”
Madam Baoji had a pair of pointed ears. She heard these whispers and merely smirked.