Palace politics are a bitch, no question about it. It seems to transcend time and place, though obviously the stakes were higher when monarchies held a lot of political power (a rarity these days). This is a double-whammy for Maomao, because as the smartest person in the room she inevitably gets drawn into these machinations at one end or the other. And in doing so she invariably draws attention to herself (even from the Emperor, which is a double-edged sword if ever one existed).
At first the concerns with the Emperor’s garden party are mundane ones – cold and boredom. For the ladies-in-waiting there’s generally not much to do, which gives them plenty of time for “proxy wars“. These hardly need much explanation, and the battle lines here seem to be Gyokuyou vs. Lihua and Lishu (the Virtuous Consort) vs. Ah-Duo (the Pure Consort). In the former case it’s more along the lines of petty sniping, with Lihua’s ladies taking potshots at Maomao (despite her having saved their mistress’ life) and not recognizing her without her freckles. Lihua clearly has a broader perspective however (she adds to Maomao’s growing hairpin collection).
The other feud, however, is much more serious. Things are complicated between the two, with Lishu being Ah-Duo’s former mother-in-law (this post may set an LiA record for hyphens) despite their being 14 and 35 respectively. Lishu (much to Maomao’s shock) was married to the deceased former emperor at the age of nine. There’s also mention here of a half-brother of the current Emperor, apparently too sickly to attend the garden party for long (he was there and left before the camera found him). And the Empress Dowager makes an appearance, a very comely and striking one at that.
Maomao receives yet another hairpin, this time from a young courtier (perhaps a soldier) named Lihaku (Akabane Kenji). He may or may not be a eunuch (I’m about 98% sure Jinshi isn’t), but either way he falls hard for Maomao after watching her reactions in her role as food taster. That role is very much at the center of events here. as shenanigans are happening on multiple fronts. Lishu gets a dish containing mackerel, which she’s allergic to (Maomao has observed the phenomenon, though she doesn’t refer to it by its modern name). And because the Emperor is watching, she can’t refuse to eat it.
As for Maomao, she gets a poisoned soup – and being the masochist and science junkie she is, has an almost orgiastic reaction to eating it. She barfs it up, immunity or no, but asks for the rest of the bowl. When Jinshi calls on her to investigate, she asks that Lishu and her taster be brought in. It soon becomes clear that there are two forms of sabotage going on here, because Lishu got the dish intended for Gyokuyou and vice-versa. This happened because Lishu’s taster switched them, apparently some sort of bullying or attack from her own servant (who ironically may have saved her life in the process). It also means that the poison Maomao intercepted was not meant for her own mistress, but for Lishu (which certainly casts suspicion on Ah-Duo or someone in her retinue).
There are many questions raised by this turn of events. Is all this connected to the secret coded messages in the wood blocks from last week’s episode (almost certainly yes)? Lihua isn’t a personable child but she seems pretty isolated and vulnerable if her own ladies are out to get her. But who is actually trying to poison her? And then there’s all those hairpins, which seem certain to cause trouble for Maomao (hooray, the freckles are back in the preview) sooner or later.