Welcome to the world of the Pingkang Li.
Meet Mingyu, the most celebrated courtesan of the Lotus Palace.
Welcome to a world of refinement, of beauty. Music and tea. It is a place where the most powerful men in the Tang Dynasty come to relax in the company of stunning, sophisticated women. Lose yourself in the music of the qin. Prepare yourself for flirtation and lust. Power and politics. Jealousy and murder.
There was a body seated in the chair dressed in a brocade robe. The head was missing and there was blood everywhere, splattered over the papers and staining the floor and walls.
“He was alive when they took off his head."
The Summary: This is the second book of the Pingkang Li series. The courtesan Mingyu and Constable Wu Kaifeng are not strangers. They have a past. And boy, it was not a good first impression. In the previous book, Mingyu was suspected of having killed a man. She was thrown into jail. She was tortured by the ruthless Wu Kaifeng with bamboo sticks. Her knuckles were crushed every time she refused to answer.
Tears had flooded her eyes while her screams echoed off the walls of the barren cell.
As a courtesan, Mingyu is used to being used by men. Kaifeng is just the latest, at least he had the courtesy to stop when he realized she would reveal nothing.
. No one came to her defense. For all the compliments and praise that scholars bestowed upon her, she was still nothing more than a diversion. Admired in passing fashion like the brightness of a full moon, beautiful in one moment, easily forgotten in the next.
The life of a courtesan is only beautiful on the surface. Mingyu is nothing more than a glorified slave, owned by the Lotus Palace.
Wu Kaifeng is not a handsome man.
His face lacked any refinement. Wu Kaifeng wasn’t ugly—he was more like a puzzle that didn’t quite fit together. There was no harmony to him, no sense of balance. Wu was long in the face, broad in the nose. The eyes were black and hard and unwavering. A sharp jawline framed his hard mouth, a mouth that she had never seen smile.
Wu Kaifeng is the "demon" to Mingyu's "flesh of ice and bones of jade."
When Mingyu's long-time patron, General Deng, is brutally murdered, their fates are again intertwined. She needs help. Being caught with a dead body once is bad enough. Being suspected of murder for a second time is truly bad. To make it worse, Mingyu is found with blood on her hands.
Mingyu might not like Wu Kaifeng, but he is a just man, and he is the only one she can trust.
“I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don’t care who I am, which means you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.”
Furthermore, Mingyu has no choice.
Her chest squeezed tight. “There is no one else.”
General Deng is a powerful man, with powerful enemies. The mystery of his death needs to be solved, but it's not as simple as that. The murderer might have wanted Mingyu dead, too.
There are enemies everywhere, from political adversaries, to a jilted wife, whose kind words...
Finally, the widow’s shoulders relaxed. “Is it not awful how women are pushed to secure ourselves in this way, with our flesh and blood? I think of the stories of Empress Wu and Concubine Xiao, clawing at one another, sacrificing their own children for the attention of the Emperor.”
...are laced with poison.
“Xiao was one of Empress Wu’s rivals in the imperial court. The Empress cut off her feet and drowned her in a vat of wine.”
To Magistrate Xi Lun, an ambitious and cruel rival determined to have Mingyu.
He was well-dressed, his robe dark blue and made of a fine silk brocade. His features were square, his jaw and nose broad. Not beautiful, but a certain kind of handsome.
To Xi Lun, Mingyu represents a symbol of success. A forbidden fruit that he has always coveted and will now do everything to possess.
"There were times when I hated him.”
Her pulse jumped and once again her skin prickled in warning. “Hated?”
“Because I realized long ago that only a man like Deng Zhi could ever possess someone like you.”
A twisted suitor. Political enemies. Jealous wives. There are no ends to the list of suspects. And there are far too many enemies to be made, for both of them.
It was always dangerous dealing with powerful men, especially those whose pride was displayed so eagerly. Those were the ones who were easily offended. Those were the admirers who could turn on you in a heartbeat.
Will Wu Kaifeng be able to hold onto his position, against all the people determined to remove him from it? Will Mingyu and Wu Kaifeng be able to overcome their differences, their strange attraction? Can they trust each other enough to fall in love?
“It’s difficult to look at you because you make me want things,” he answered plainly. “Things I cannot have.”
Or will Mingyu return to her true roots, forged from a lifetime of distrust and pain amongst the beautiful world of the Lotus Palace?
“She played you.” His face was twisted with hatred. “She plays everyone.”
The Murder Plot:
Her mere presence distracted him and he couldn’t allow that to happen. This was his duty and his calling and he needed to remain sharp to solve this puzzle, a puzzle that the courtesan was inexplicably a part.
I have to comment on this, because so rarely does a Historical Romance actually executes a murder mystery so well. I loved all the details of the investigation. I love the fact that the investigation does not take a back place to the romance, rather, it's the backbone of the plot. The entire story, the setting, the mystery, weaves together so divinely. No single element overpowers the other. We get to see how Wu Kaifeng follows clues and uses his own ingenuity to solve elements in a case in circa 800 A.D. China, where criminal forensics are nonexistent. Brilliantly done, Ms. Lin.
Some unnamable emotion flickered in his eyes, but she was unable to catch it. Mingyu was skilled at reading a man’s desires. Maybe she couldn’t read Wu Kaifeng because he had no desires. He was as dark and fathomless inside as on the outside.
I do love a complicated man.
With the torture of Mingyu, you might be wondering why Wu Kaifeng doesn't deserve a place on my "Jericho-fucking-Barrons" shelf. That's because Wi Kaifeng is not a cruel man. He does his job as an investigator and he is damned good at it. He needs to catch the bad guys. He tortures, but he stops when he sees that nothing more can be done. It is a despicable act, but it was not out of line with the method of the day. In this book, he is never unnecessarily cruel to Mingyu. He is harsh, he is stern, but Wu Kaifeng is a conscientious man. From a child criminal to a shopkeeper, he is unrelentlingly fair in his pursuit of justice.
Moral, just, and determined to do the right thing. A simple man. A common man. A man with hidden desires. Mingyu is a courtesan, from roots as low as his own, but she is refined. A prize for a higher man, a wealthier man. One such as a lowly constable can never dream of loving such a jewel.
After the kiss, Mingyu had granted him a soft, wistful smile as they parted. They both knew nothing more could become of it.
Mingyu: Mingyu is but one of many courtesans within the walls of the Lotus Palace.
She is a beauty, no fair and innocent maiden. At 28, Mingyu has been cruelly treated by life. She is not a person, she is a slave. Mingyu is a possession.
She was part of the cycle, training another girl into the life: bondage and servitude on one side, poetry and music on the other.
She has been used by men, and has been in service since she was barely a teenager. She is no virgin. Her long-time patron, General Deng, was a harsh one before he was murdered. Like most powerful men, he seeks to possess. Mingyu is but a prize possession to be shown off, like a particularly nice car you could show off to your friends. She knows powerful men, she entertains them, one could say she uses them. Wu Kaifeng confronts her on it, but as she reminds him...
If Wu was waiting for her to flinch, then he would be disappointed. “Sometimes exploiting a man’s power is the only influence a woman can wield.”
Mingyu has guts. She has a fire within her. One does not become the city's most celebrated courtesan by being a meek little fucking wallflower. She knows when to tease men, and when to appease them. She is not a shrinking violet. She has been weak before, and she will never be weak again.
“I have no manners,” he apologized, the roughness of his voice stroking over her.
“Well, Constable,” she purred. “Then I shall have to put you in your place.”
The Romance: How can you not have a romance novel set in Tang Dynasty China without the mention of fate? In Chinese legend, lovers are born with a red thread on their fingers, tying their destiny together. Soul mates exist, they are fated to meet.
The events of the past had created a connection between them that remained unresolved. It was fate. Yuán fèn.
This romance is a slow burn. It is a fire of two intensely strong personalities, I can think of no few HR characters so equally matched as these. This is forbidden love, the two are separated by the boundaries of class, of wealth. In a culture where social lines are clearly defined, it is a difficult thing to overcome.
They may be as different as day and night, but Mingyu and Wu Kaifeng burn when they're together. It takes a long time for trust to be built, for lust and attraction to grow into love. But man, it's worth seeing them til the end.
She was a courtesan trained in the art of seduction, but she knew nothing beyond that. It was harder than she’d ever imagined to open her heart to someone. She didn’t even know how to begin.
Welcome to the Pingkang Li.