The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(8)

And if any of them learned the answer to that . . . but, no, it was better not to even think of it.

Omair pressed the poultice into Nok’s hands. “Indulge an old man and be young, would you? Tell Adé to make you laugh. Talk to other people who aren’t me for a change.”

The crush of Yulan City felt denser than ever. Locals shouldered past farmers from the empire’s rural outskirts, who cried out their offerings of fresh produce. Livestock lowed and brayed. Foreigners from every distant port—dazed travelers and seasoned traders alike—edged their way to and from the docks. Wooden carts wheeled in a dizzy, creaking maelstrom, piled high with squash and turnips and crisp greens, clanging racks of metal pots and pans, piles of combs carved of bone, and blanched wicker baskets. All of it pervaded with the aroma of a hundred different spices, and the damp, brackish breath of the Milk River.

Nok cut through the Scrap-Patch Row section of the Ring, so called for the way its denizens cobbled together their homes from spare bits of brick, metal, and cloth—whatever they could find. Perhaps once upon a time, it had even been a row as its name suggested. Now it engulfed nearly a quarter of the Ring, its untidy borders spilling ever outward. The city’s population of poor folk was ever growing, and they had to live somewhere.

The crowds thinned as he entered the Silk Passage. The cacophonous shouts of merchants and grunting of livestock were replaced by gentle voices and the quiet murmur of a fountain located in the center of a wide, well-swept plaza. The pungent scent of spices gave way to refined orange blossom oil. Nok found his feet were no longer catching in wagon ruts, or open puddles of filth.

A man panting under the weight of a painted rickshaw passed him. The rickshaw bore two foreign women holding parasols to shade their pinkish faces from the sun. They stared curiously at Nok, their pale eyes moving from his long, uncombed hair down to his muddy boots. When he met their gaze, they quickly turned away.

Pink men everywhere these days. There were those who resented their foreign presence, their fancy sector of town, and the wealth with which they’d purchased that land. Nok had no feelings about them either way; they weren’t the ones he had to worry about.

Nok came to a stop in front of a two-story dress and cloth shop. A weathered wooden sign bearing a carving of a peony hung over the door. He peered into the window, past the displayed bolts of silk and damask, a jade-green robe draped elegantly over a headless mannequin.

There were two shopgirls amid the throng of patrons, dressed in identical uniforms. The smaller of the two—the one he sought—had a pretty, heart-shaped face, warm dark brown skin, and a cloud of black curls bound tightly at the base of her neck in a chignon.

As he watched, she showed a bolt of blue ribbon to a well-heeled older woman. The shopgirl pulled out a length for the woman’s inspection, smiling pleasantly, though the expression did not reach her eyes. The customer tested the ribbon between two suspicious fingers and, apparently displeased with what she felt, shook her head and departed.

Nok passed the woman on his way in. She stiffened visibly at the sight of him. Little brass bells tinkled over his head as the door closed behind him.

“Can I help you, sir?”

The shopgirl he had been watching through the window approached. She gazed down her nose at him the best she could—no easy feat, given she was a good head shorter.

“Yes, in fact,” he said, playing along. “I’ve heard your shop boasts the finest blue ribbon in the entire Ring—”

Adé burst out laughing and threw her arms around his neck. He tensed up at the touch; she was always doing things like that. He brusquely moved her to arm’s length.

“How long have you been spying on me?” she demanded.

“Just long enough to see you botch your sale—”

She swatted at him. “Oh, that lady’s horrid! Always coming in here on Market Day and asking us to pull down this bolt and that silk and hardly ever buying anything. She’s a nightmare. Acts like she’s got a sky manse when she’s some Ring-born butcher’s wife. We all want to tell her off, but of course if we did that the Ox would have our heads—”

“The Ox?”

“Oh.” Adé waved a hand as though she were chasing off a fly. “That’s what we call the shop owner when he’s not around. And he’s usually not around . . .” She glanced about quickly before leaning in to whisper, “Word is, he’s got a mistress half his age holed up in an apartment down the street.”

Nok smiled and shook his head. “Listen to you. Talking like a real shopgirl.”

“I am a real shopgirl!”

She did look the part, dressed in the Blue Peony’s uniform: muted blue robes cut in the old Hana style to invoke a sense of nostalgic luxury. Silken slippers hugged her small feet, and from her ears hung dainty white pearls.

He poked at one, sending it jiggling. “These are new.”

She yanked it off her lobe and held it up for his inspection. “Fake. See the clip? All of it’s fake. But it looks very convincing, right?” She twirled. “Can barely tell it’s not the real thing.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Adé laughed. “Good point. Me neither, I guess.” She was always so cheerful; not an easy trait to retain after a childhood like hers. Nok still found it mystifying after all this time.

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