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Literature / The Apothecary Diaries

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The Apothecary Diaries (Japanese title: 薬屋のひとりごと, Kusuriya no Hitorigoto) is a Web Serial Novel by Natsu Hyuuga. Originally starting in 2011 on Shousetsuka ni Narou, the novel's first volume was published by Ray Books in 2012. Two years later, it was republished as a light novel series by Hero Bunkoban with illustrations by Touko Shino. There are two manga adaptations, both of which began in 2017; the former (The Apothecary Diaries) illustrated by Nekokurage is serialized in Monthly Big Gangan, and the latter (Kusuriya no Hitorigoto: Maomao no Koukyuu Nazotoki Techou) illustrated by Minoji Kurata is serialized in Monthly Sunday Gene-X.

Taking place in a fictional Imperial Chinese-inspired land, the series follows Maomao, a cynical pharmacist who worked in the red-light district before being kidnapped and sold as a servant in the imperial court. Wanting to lead a quiet life, Maomao initially hides her capabilities until the death of the crown prince and illness of the consorts forces her hand. Though she attempted to act discreetly, she is caught by the beautiful eunuch, Jinshi. He enlists her as a food-taster and frequently consults her on herbology and mysterious deaths in the court. Despite her wish to live quietly and concoct medicines, Maomao is constantly thrown into a detective role due to the political machinations of the court.

Since November 2020 the light novel series is officially licensed and published by J-Novel Club.

The manga series drawn by Nekokurage is officially licensed by Square Enix and published since December 2020. The French translation is published by Ki-Oon.

In 2023, the series announced an animated adaptation by OLM Incorporated, which began on October 21st, dropping three episodes at once.

Here is a spreadsheet containing the Chinese and Japanese pronunciations of most character names and place names from the anime and light novel.

Contains examples of:

  • 10-Minute Retirement: Maomao is dismissed from the rear palace near the end of Volume 1. Since that greatly depresses Jinshi and Maomao never wanted to leave, Gaoshun arranges a meeting with Lihaku's help. After learning about her situation, Jinshi decides to pay off Maomao's debts and reemploy her, this time as his personal servant.
  • Abhorrent Admirer: Inverted. Jinshi, the most beautiful man in the setting, falls for Maomao, a plain maidservant. Maomao refuses to acknowledge this.
  • Abusive Parents:
    • As shown in Volume 2, Maomao has a nightmare of when her mother sliced a piece of a young Maomao's pinky while restraining her. Not exactly 'Mother of the Year' material. Thankfully, her father(s) love her and treat her well.
    • As revealed in Volume 4, Lady Shenmei apparently poured boiling water over her daughter's (Loulan's) hands when she didn't do a good enough job with massaging her.
  • Accidental Murder:
    • Subverted. In Volume 1, Maomao detects poison in the soup that is served at the garden party. The intended target was Lishu, but her own poison tester Kanan switched the food on the tray with Gyokuyou's food, because she wanted to embarrass Lishu, as she knew Lishu doesn't eat mackerel. Maomao later explains to Lishu and Kanan that Lishu is actually allergic to mackerel and abalone, so it's not like she just doesn't want to eat, she can't, and in the worst case she could die if she does so anyway. Kanan accidentally saved Lishu's life by switching the food, but now that she knows Lishu is allergic to some things, if she ever tried to make Lishu eat something she is allergic to again, it would be like she poisoned Lishu.
    • Fengming accidentally killed who she thought was Ah-Duo's child by feeding him honey, which can be poisonous to babies.
  • Accidental Pervert: Maomao finally digests what she had suspected all along—that Jinshi was never a eunuch—when she accidentally grabs his crotch. She tries to ignore what she felt and pass it off as her grabbing a passing frog, but Jinshi (already having had enough of Maomao's teasing beforehand) decides he's just going to show her what it is himself.
  • Acquired Poison Immunity: Maomao has built up a tolerance (though not total immunity) to poison through her experiments.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The Gangan version of the story cuts out a few of the light novel's mysteries to present a more streamlined version of events. They are present in the GX version, though.
  • Adaptational Dye-Job: A few:
    • Maomao's eye color is purple in the novel and purple with blue hues in the manga, but completely blue in the anime.
    • Lishu's hair color has pink highlights while the anime goes with brown. Her eye color also flip-flops between indigo and purplish blue in both medias.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance: The anime adaptation, compared to the manga adaptation by Nekokurage, includes scenes that allude to future arcs, such as Shin being shown from behind in a Freeze-Frame Bonus in Episode 1, pushing the flower that had Maomao's warning about the face powder to Lihua out of the Crystal Palace window; and the beginning of Episode 2 showing Fuyo's childhood friend in regards to how he gained the military merits to request her as a reward (he successfully stopped other soldiers from executing villagers for an attempted poisoning, when the "poisonous" effects were from the wood the soldiers were burning for their evening meal campfires).
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The light novel and both manga series start with Maomao already serving in the rear palace. The anime begins with Maomao going to the pleasure district for work and establishing the characters of her father, 'Grams' and her 'sisters', and only later shows her being kidnapped while trying to gather herbs.
    • In Episode 1, when Maomao anonymously delivers a message to Consorts Gyokuyou and Lihua, it is shown that her warning never reaches Lihua directly, as one of Lihua's ladies-in-waiting throws it away, further foreshadowing Shin's real feelings for her mistress.
    • In Episode 5, there is an additional scene of Lihua gently patting a sleeping Maomao's head.
    • Episode 12's second half is more or less a recap of the first cour to close the first cour with Volume 1 of the light novel.
    • Episode 19 has Maomao collapsing and passing out after saving Jinshi from an assassination attempt. In the light novel and manga, the scene ends with Maomao blacking out. However, rather than cutting to her waking up later or ending the episode at this point, there is a two-minute sequence with no dialogue and only background music playing with Jinshi carrying the unconscious Maomao in his arms through the palace while numerous officials bow to him, emphasizing both his authority and the relevance of his care and concern for a servant girl as her leg is bleeding profusely. We also see Lakan stunned and horrified, both by his daughter's injuries and by Jinshi having such close contact with Maomao, knowing he'll never be able to experience that himself.
  • An Aesop: Ignorance is not bliss. In a setting that's centuries in the past compared to the modern day, many problems arise from lack of understanding and misidentification as superstition. The "Harem's curse" is a textbook example.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Due to the historical nature of the setting, this attitude is commonplace. Maomao notes there are those in the pleasure district starved for sex and sexually assault women. Even Maomao, who is described as 'chicken-boned', experienced an attempted rape which upset Jinshi. Due to this, Maomao deliberately uglifies herself with fake freckles.
  • Alternate Character Reading: The names of the characters can be read very differently, as it's an Imperial Chinese-inspired work written by a Japanese person. Therefore, the reading isn't strictly kun-yomi, on-yomi; sometimes the reading is meant to be slightly different. For instance, the name 梨花 in on-yomi is リカ (Rika), but the author gives リファ (Rifa), which is why the official English translation chose the name based on Mandarin Chinese - Lihua. 玉葉 in Chinese would be Yuye, but the given furigana make it clear that it's meant to be read in on-yomi, so her name is ギョクヨウ (Gyokuyou).
  • Anachronism Stew: While it's clear that the story takes place in a country similar enough to imperial China (and neighbors), the culture and dress of Li take inspiration from several different periods like the Ming, Tang and Song dynasties.
  • Arranged Marriage: With the story being set in the court, arranged marriages are common. When Jinshi is later revealed as crown prince, a gathering full of young eligible women is thrown for potential mates. He, of course, announces his interest in the Ra daughter, Maomao.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Maomao to Jinshi, in one instance. After Jinshi forcefully comes on to Maomao, she is surprised by his hesitance after she returned his kiss in self-defense. While Maomao abhors the kiss and wants it to be over as soon as possible, Jinshi misreads her lack of reaction as scorn that he isn't capable of "triumphing over" her.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Maomao notes Jinshi's 'voice of honey' could melt any woman. Well, except her, apparently.
  • Asshole Victim :
    • Consort Jin, so much that her ladies in waiting covered up her death.
    • Gyoku-ou, half brother of consort Gyoukuyou ended up killed not long after his plot revealed, having manipulating Jinshi and others for power. Maomao only regret that his death came at a wrong time, but pondered it would be worse if he was still alive.
  • Assassination Attempt:
    • In Volume 1, during the garden party Maomao detects poison in the soup that was intended for Consort Gyokuyou. However, Maomao finds out that the actual intended target was Consort Lishu. The culprit was Ah-Duo's chief lady-in-waiting, Fengming. She was trying to save Ah-Duo from losing her position by freeing up the Diamond Pavilion for Ah-Duo's replacement.
    • Volume 2 seems full of filler cases until it revealed it was all tied together as an elaborate murder plot targetting Jinshi.
    • In Volume 3, Ka Zuigetsu, the Imperial younger brother, i.e. Jinshi, is almost gunned down by assassins.
  • Attractiveness Discrimination: Something Maomao is all too aware of. While she is often treated as irrelevant, people bend over backwards for Jinshi just for a smile. Thankfully for her, that’s the way she likes it.
  • Awful Truth: At the end of Volume 1, Maomao, who sympathizes to a degree with the culprit, suggests to hide one of the motives for their Assassination Attempt on Lishu. Fengming had fed Ah-Duo's child honey that was safe for adults, but not for babies. Lishu knew about honey being potentially lethal for babies, so Fengming attempted to silence her. Ah-Duo's child's cause of death is a truth that neither Fengming nor Maomao want anyone to find out, so Fengming turns herself in and only says that she wanted Ah-Duo to keep her position as consort as the motive.
  • Beautiful All Along: A mild example: Maomao reveals she's been painting freckles onto her face to be less attractive to men, making her less likely to be sexually assaulted. Without her freckles, she much more closely resembles a traditional Japanese beauty, which Jinshi takes notice of.
  • Benevolent Boss: Despite his teasing and flirtations, Maomao notes that Jinshi's actually a pretty swell boss. He bought her into his service to avoid her becoming a courtesan (though to be fair, it was because he laid her off she was in that situation in the first place) and gave her a personal room. He also later upgraded it, to boot! To thank him, she attempted a smile taught to her by her sisters, which ended up with Jinshi banging his head on a column. Despite it being a When She Smiles moment, Maomao surmises that her smile was so atrocious and vows not to do it again.
  • Big Damn Heroes: In Volume 2, Maomao concludes that someone intends to kill a high-ranking official with a faulty construction. She barely arrives in time before the official, who turns out to be Jinshi, is saved in time, although in the process she cuts her leg open.
  • Bitch Slap: In Volume 3, Lihua gives one to Shin after discovering the latter tried to harm her via an abortion drug. When Jinshi suggests the slap wasn't enough of a punishment, she proceeds to try and outright punch Shin in the face.
  • Break the Haughty: Maomao does this to one of Lihua's handmaids. Maomao at first ignores the handmaid for making rude remarks about her and calling her ugly but when Maomao learns that the handmaid still used the lead makeup on Lihua despite the palace banning it after learning it's poisonous, she gets pissed with the handmaid, slaps her and calls her out for her stupidity for still using the same poison that killed Lihua's baby and is slowly killing Lihua herself. The haughty handmaid can only weakly make excuses about wanting to make her mistress beautiful and is forced to quit.
  • Butt-Monkey: Lahan's big brother, the only normal person in a clan full of talented eccentrics. Maomao never bothered to remember his name and it became Running Gag that something always happened when he was about to mention his own name. It is revealed to be Junjie.
  • Chiaroscuro: The black-and-white illustrations in the novels are drawn in this style.
  • Cruel Mercy: In Volume 3, Shin received this from Lihua. Her life was spared despite what would normally have been an executable offense, but in turn her future, name and reputation were irreparably damaged, and she was banished from the rear palace (and with it any chance of receiving the Emperor's affections).
  • Competence Porn: Much of the anime focuses on Maomao's amazing ability to solve things with her skills and knowledge.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Maomao muses that the rear palace, for all its beauty and opulence, really isn't that different from the pleasure district. The consorts and concubines can't leave at all for a certain number of years if the Emperor doesn't visit them, and even then they have to rely on the Emperor's goodwill and their families arranging a suitable marriage for them in order to be released from their position and return to the outside world, much like a courtesan having her contract bought out. Many of the women who work in the palace (who are themselves often indentured servants) can only leave under heavy restrictions. If a concubine actually wants any kind of power then she has to catch and keep the Emperor's attention and affection and hopefully give birth to a healthy son, and he can 'gift' any of his women to someone else if he feels like it. All this naturally leads to a lot of feuding and backstabbing — not so much among the four Higher Consorts themselves, as unlike other harem narratives they do seem to get on fairly well with each other, but definitely among the lesser consorts or concubines and their handmaidens; the tension and power struggles can often lead to consorts mistreating their servants, and vice versa.
  • Death Glare: Both Maomao and Jinshi are shown to have quite the scary death glares. Showdown!
  • Did Not Die That Way: Ah-Duo's child. It is revealed that Ah-Duo's child died from poison in honey, which Fengming unwittingly fed to the baby. But is that all there is to it?
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: While the series takes place in a fictional country, the setting is still heavily inspired by Imperial China and sometimes highlights different values from that period of history:
    • The whole story begins with Maomao being kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude in the rear palace, while her wages go into the pockets of the men who abducted her. Even though what happened to her was illegal, and rather than be outraged at her situation or plot to escape, Maomao knows she can't do anything except keep her head down and wait for her time as a servant to finish, while also trying to make sure her kidnappers don't benefit too much from her labour. When Jinshi learns about her capture, he apologises for the palace not preventing it, but Maomao points out that buyers can't tell the difference between someone who's been kidnapped and someone who's been legally sold off to reduce the burden on their family, like her friend Xioalan.
    • The emperor favors buxom women, in contrast to how many present-day nations view slender women as more beautiful. This is true to history, as there were certain time periods in China's history in which curvier women were favored. There are also darker examples. For instance, one of the emperor's four main consorts at the start of the story is only fourteen, though she wasn't his personal choice and he never touches her; she was originally one of the previous emperor's consorts and came to the rear palace when she was nine. The previous emperor was terrified of mature women thanks to his overwhelmingly powerful and oppressive mother and was attracted solely to very young girls; the harem simply adapted to his preferences (albeit many people not in the know are sickened when they find out).
    • Following on from that, Consort Lishu is looked down upon and bullied by her ladies in waiting because she was the consort of the previous, late emperor and is now the consort of the current one, having not only married her 'son-in-law' (which is admittedly odd to modern viewers) but also having married again after being widowed. Never mind the fact that in both cases Lishu had no say in the matter, but still gets hate for it.
    • Maomao loves alcohol and always jumps at the chance to drink some despite being only 17 at the start of the story, due to the concept of legal drinking ages not existing yet. This is Played for Laughs when Jinshi mentions looking over a new bill that forbids anyone under the age of 20note  from consuming alcohol, which causes Maomao to get upset and beg him not to pass the bill.
  • Didn't See That Coming:
    • In Volume 1, Maomao uses the hair stick she received from Lihaku to make him accompany her back home. In return, she arranges a night for him at the Verdigris House. She baited him by claiming that she would pay for him for a weekend with one of the Verdigris House's three princesses. When they arrive at the Verdigris House the old proprietess really does produce Pairin, and since Lihaku is exactly her type, she gives him a magical night. The grams adds this all to Maomao's debt.
    • At the start of Volume 2, Jinshi and Gaoshun planned to give Maomao bigger duties. What they didn't expect was for her, who is literate, clearly intelligent, and so knowledgable about medicine, to flunk the test, which is why she is only supposed to work as a maid and clean the rooms or carry out small errands. Maomao completely loses her motivation when it's not about medicine-related topics like history or law.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: All those in the imperial harem are victim to Jinshi's looks, to his discontent. Maomao comments that's probably why he only has Suiren, Gaoshun and later her as his personal staff. He also hires En'en for an extended period of time because she's only attracted to Yao.
  • Dub-Induced Plot Hole: In Episode 3 of the English dub, Maomao calls the Court Physician of the rear palace by his name. She doesn't actually learn his name until Volume 4.
  • Erotic Eating: The infamous honey scene, where Jinshi sticks his two middle fingers in a jar of the stuff before offering Maomao a taste, complete with bedroom eyes.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: This is Lihua's response in Volume 3 once she finds out that her cousin Shin has been attempting to abort her second pregnancy.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Averted. While stereotypical scheming eunuchs do exist in this world, the majority of eunuchs are stated to be relatively gentle, easygoing types.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Multiple times, as the story is a mystery series. For instance, near the end of Volume 1, Maomao has such a moment when she suspects that the imperial babies were swapped. This would mean that the crown prince is still alive. She ditches that idea after discovering that Jinshi would be said crown prince. Because no way that pervert eunuch is the next emperor of the country, right? Hahaha...ha.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Jinshi's looks have been known to attract quite a bit of male attention.
  • Exact Words: Maomao unknowingly trolls Jinshi with this, upon returning from her three-day leave. He's annoyed she relied on Lihaku to vouch for her rather than himself, and asks what she gave him in exchange. She answers, "A night of blissful dreams" (she hooked him up with a high-class courtesan), that she worked very hard, and Lihaku was very happy with the result. Cue Jinshi going Blue with Shock.
    • In future volumes, Rikuson was found with the dead body of Gyoku-ou, half brother of consort Gyoukuyou and another corpse of a dead farmer. He tried to explain it as self-defense: "He was already killed when I came here, so I fight the attacker." He didn't say who was killed and the killer though. Lakan seemed to caught on but purposefully covered it up.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Li, the country that forms the primary setting of this story, is pretty much just imperial China with a few tweaks. Judging by the fashions Loulan wears, there are also counterparts for South Asia, Mongolia, Russia and even Renaissance Italy, plus the Western ambassadors seem to come from somewhere akin to the Balkans.
  • Finger in the Mail: When Lakan returned from his three-year-long service in the military, he came home only to find a pouch that was sent to his residence. Inside was a finger. He immediately realized that finger belonged to his beloved, Fengxian. She sent it to him in her grief that he left her, not keeping his promise to return in time. By the time he got back, there was no Fengxian for him to be found. Furthermore, when he saw Maomao near the Verdigris House, he realized that Fengxian actually sent two fingers. The second one belonged to Maomao.
  • Finger-Licking Poison: A staple in this world. Maomao off to the rescue!
  • First Love:
    • Maomao's father's first love was her mother, Fengxian. She was one of the few whose face Lakan could see. It's likely one of the reasons he's so attached to Maomao.
    • The Emperor's first love is Ah-Duo. Even after her time as consort ends, he keeps her close and he wishes for their son, Jinshi, to succeed him.
  • Flashback Nightmare: In Volume 2, Maomao has a nightmare of a madwoman pinning her to the ground and then cutting off her finger. It was not just a bad dream.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In an anime exclusive scene, Shin pushes Maomao's warning about the lead face powder out of the Crystal Pavilion so that her cousin Lihua doesn't receive it. This foreshadows how she resents Lihua and wants for her to lose her child.
    • There are various hints that Jinshi is the Imperial Brother and the current Emperor's son...which Maomao either doesn't pick up on or deliberately chooses not to assess further, since it isn't of interest to her and she doesn't want to get involved.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Jinshi, on multiple occasions. Gaoshun frequently is victim to Jinshi’s green-eyed glare. And when Maomao came back with Lihaku? He was pissed.
  • Grudging "Thank You": Maomao, to Jinshi. He becomes quite pleased with himself, to the irritation of Maomao.
  • Hair Memento: Jinshi's lady-in-waiting, Suiren, informs Maomao that sometimes people will try to slip gifts into Jinshi's drawers while he's away. One of them being clothing and underwear sewn with human hair. This manages to completely creep out even the mostly-unflappable Maomao.
  • Hate Sink: It's pretty clear that the audience isn't supposed to like Lishu's maids (or at least the ones who aren't Kanan). They constantly find ways to bully their mistress for reasons she had no say in and try to isolate her from others while painting themselves as her only allies. After Kanan stops bullying Lishu, the other maids begin harassing her as well. There is also a point in the story where they frame Lishu for betraying the Emperor.
  • He Knows Too Much: One of the reasons Consort Lishu was almost murdered in Volume 1 was that she may accidentally tip off Ah-Duo that her son died to poisonous honey that Fengming fed to him.
  • Hot Consort: Gyokuyou, Lihua and Ah-Duo respectively. Lishu is a bit too young for that.
  • How Dad Met Mom: How Maomao's parents met is detailed in Volume 2. A whole chapter is dedicated to their meeting and relationship.
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me: Inverted, as Maomao neither appreciates nor returns Jinshi's affection. Her self-deprecation is not based on a lack of self-worth, but rather, a realistic evaluation of herself as a potential mate who is not conventionally attractive.
  • Idle Rich: What Maomao thought Jinshi was, seeing as he often stopped by just to tease her. Later averted, when she starts to work for him as his maid and realises that he is actually really busy and works his ass off. Still, it doesn't answer how a eunuch can be swimming in so much gold...
  • Indignant Slap: In Volume 1/Episode 4, in one of her very rare moments, Maomao is so outraged to find that one of Consort Lihua's ladies-in-waiting hid and still regularly applies the poisonous face powder on Lihua, that she slaps her and drags her by her hair. Maomao then takes control of the situation and makes the ladies follow her orders while she attempts to help Lihua regain her health.
  • It Runs in the Family: Maomao's adoptive father says 'the rear palace, eh? I guess it's fate.' Others comment on Maomao's eccentric nature and cunning resembling her biological father, Lakan.
  • Karma Houdini: For all she had done, Suirei is getting away scot-free due to being blood-related to the imperial family. Although to be fair she is merely a pawn of her stepmother.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The majority of Lishu's handmaids enjoy bullying her for reasons she had no say in (such as her seafood allergy and her being the previous Emperor's consort), doing so almost every time they show up. After her food taster Kanan stops bullying her, the rest of the handmaids begin to harass her as well. However, when they try to frame Lishu for a crime she didn't commit, this decision ends up biting them as well as they are kicked out of the rear palace. On the flip side, Lishu eventually reconciles with Kanan and has the Emperor find a good match for her as thanks for taking care of her.
  • Lost in Translation: Foreshadowing is oftentimes lost in the translation, since the names are romanized.
    • Jinshi's name is written as 壬氏. The 氏 character is also present in Anshi (安氏), his official mother aka the Empress Dowager. Furthermore, in Volume 2, while being disguised as a commoner, Jinshi chooses Jinka (壬華) as his alias. Maomao notes how unusual this is, because a flower-related kanji is more common for a female name. However, it's actually a hint at his noble origins, because this kanji is only reserved for nobles. His real name is Ka Zuigetsu (華瑞月).
    • As is revealed in Volume 2, Luomen is Lakan's uncle. Luomen is written as 羅門, while Lakan is written as 羅漢. Both share the 羅 character, which can be read as either "luo" or as "la".
    • In Volume 3, Maomao meets an upbeat serving woman, Shisui. The characters for her name (子翠) are a bit unusual. As is later noted in Volume 4, Shisui is the former name of Suirei (翠苓). It was made up of the distinctive 翠 (sui) character (which is still present in Suirei) and 子 (shi), for she is actually a member of the Shi clan.
  • Love Potion: In Volume 1, Jinshi requests Maomao to concoct an aphrodisiac, which she does. Well, it turns out quite effective, as seen by the three maids being all hot and bothered. Curious, Jinshi tries it out too and ends up kissing Maomao on her neck before smoothly exiting the scene. Smoooooth.
  • Mood Whiplash: After a fairly dramatic scene where Maomao slaps one of Lihua's handmaids and calls her out on using the same poison on Lihua that killed her son, Jinshi suddenly notes that he's surprised that women could be this frightening and Maomao reacts in shock that now she's done it, turning the scene comedic.
  • My Greatest Failure: Honey may contain contaminants (such as flower toxins) that are dangerous to babies, but not adults. Fengming didn't learn this fact until years after she had killed Ah-Duo's child with it.
  • The Nicknamer: Maomao has little patience for anything that isn't poisonous, so she tends to refer to people by titles of convenience in her head. Lakan, her father, is consistently "the strategist," "the freak," or "the fox," while the kindly but incompetent chief physician of the Rear Palace is always called "the quack doctor." At one point she's surprised to learn his name, then immediately dismisses it and resolves to continue calling him a quack.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Maomao looks positively ecstatic when she works as a food taster and realizes that something she's eaten is poisoned.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Unsurprisingly, even Maomao's antics and problem solving skills receive some blowback. While she was able to correctly point out one of Lishu's would-be poisoners, the woman was eventually executed at the end of the incident. This doesn't bother Maomao too much until a bit later, when she is to be dismissed from the rear palace because her "family" (actually the kidnappers who'd sold her to the rear palace) had done business with the woman's family.
  • No Sympathy: Played for laughs, but Gyokuyou shows no sympathy for how torn up Jinshi feels after getting Maomao fired at the end of Volume 1, and she merely tells him he'll regret it. She is also upset with him for getting one of her trusted ladies-in-waiting fired.
  • Oblivious to His Own Description: At the start of Volume 3, Maomao and Hongniang discover a stray kitten in the rear palace, which they take with them to the quack to care for. After a while, Jinshi and Gaoshun come visit, and Jinshi wonders why people love little kittens so much. When Maomao begins to explain, she remarkably manages to describe cats in a way that she would fit this description too. Jinshi agrees with her and admits that he can see the appeal of cats.
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Downplayed. While both Jinshi and Maomao are intelligent, they're more sharp and perceptive than book smart.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • In Volume 1, Maomao receives several hair sticks at the garden party, which can be used to arrange a meeting with someone's suitor to leave the court temporarily. Maomao arranges a deal with Lihaku for which she has to pay dearly. However, she also received a hair stick from Jinshi. If Maomao had waited a bit longer or talked to Jinshi first, he could have gotten her out without any recompense. Although at the end of Volume 1, he does pay off her debts and makes her work for him again.
    • At the end of Volume 1, the culprit of the poisoning attempt at the garden party confesses and is punished. The punishment extends to her family and all people that have done business with said family. Maomao's kidnappers did business with the family, so Jinshi has the choice to dismiss Maomao or make any evidence that she is connected to the poisoner disappear. When Jinshi asks Maomao what she wants to do, Maomao tells him that she would do any work she is asked to do, be it menial labor or testing food for poison, indirectly saying that she does not want to leave. Jinshi completely reads her wrong and thinks she wants to go home (where Maomao knows she might be forced to sell her body) and dismisses her... with a generous severance pay. He immediately comes to regret this and later learns that Maomao in fact did not want to leave at all. Jinshi then decides to pay off her debts and reemploy her.
  • Puzzle Box: A famous blacksmith leaves his three sons a set of items before his passing: a fishbowl, a dresser, and a shed. But the dresser won't open with the key provided to it and is nailed to the floor, preventing anyone from moving it. The inheritance seems useless until Maomao figures out its secret: when the fishbowl is filled with water and placed on a windowsill in the shed, the light is refracted onto the lock. The resulting heat causes the lock to expand, allowing the key to open it and access the three metals inside. This doubles as a Secret Test of Character, as Maomao realizes that the blacksmith only planned to bequeath his secret techniques to the son who managed to figure out the puzzle and deduce his methods from the contents of the dresser.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Jinshi wants to avoid becoming emperor at all costs, which is why he hopes for one of the consorts to bear an heir. The issue is that he is the emperor’s oldest son, so technically he will always be first in line. In later volumes, he even goes out of his way to brand himself with the Gyoukuyou family crest, affirming his loyalty to Gyoukuyou's son, the crown prince. The emperor doesn't take it well.
  • Rejection Affection: Poor Jinshi. How has he not given up yet?
  • Resigned to the Call: Maomao is all too aware of her low status to refuse. So when the Emperor asks her to cure Lihua in Volume 1, or whenever Jinshi calls her up as a detective, she accepts with resignation.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Lady Anshi, the Empress Dowager, has been subjected to rumors that her child is not the Former Emperor's due to him being known to only be interested in young girls, leading to people thinking she slept with another man to have the Imperial Brother. It turns out she did forcefully conceive a child from him, but that child got swapped during infancy with Jinshi, who is actually the Former Emperor's grandson.
  • Royal Inbreeding: In Volume 3, Maomao helps the Emperor find the right path for the Shrine of Choosing. As she finds out, the test is easily solvable for someone who is colorblind. This is a trait that Wang Mu's descendants wanted to preserve, which is why she suspects they kept inbreeding to keep their bloodline pure. However, Maomao also suspects that the inbreeding is the reason the previous Emperor's older siblings all died early.
  • Royally Screwed Up: Specifically, the previous emperor. The previous emperor was a pedophile because he was literally afraid of adult women. This was caused by his overbearing mother, who frightened him both as a child and adult. But the current emperor had to be born somehow, meaning the Empress Dowager was a child when she gave birth. Flashbacks confirm that she was young when she conceived, but she did it by raping the previous emperor.
  • The Scapegoat: In Volume 3, Lo-en is temporarily used as one by Basen, to mislead the real assassin after the assassination attempt against Ka Zuigetsu.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Maomao. The first time Jinshi barely recognises her. He gets better.
  • Shown Their Work: The series often brings up accidental poisonings that are accurate medically and historically, and for herbs also botanically.
  • Sliding Scale of Gender Inequality: Women have relatively little power in this setting, much as they did in the historical period that inspired it. However, they can take exams to become high ranking servants, and the two Western ambassadors that come to treat with the Emperor are both women albeit they were likely chosen in part because of their beauty, with the clear intent to get at least one of them taken on by him as a consort.
  • Slipping a Mickey: One of the reasons that Jinshi needs his food tasted and tested, aside from the risk of poisoning so prevalent in the Inner Palace, is that people have tried to slip him food laced with aphrodisiac drugs in the past. It's happened so frequently it barely surprises him anymore, and he mainly reacts by making sure his doors are locked extra securely after receiving them.
  • Skewed Priorities: While Maomao is recovering from an injury she received when she saved Jinshi from an assassination attempt, she's more upset that she didn't get the ox bezoar she was promised than that her leg wound opened up again.
  • Standard Royal Court: Nobles, servants, consorts, eunuchs...The whole she-bang.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: (See also, Too Dumb to Live) It's no secret that Lishu's ladies-in-waiting (Outside of Kanan) all take advantage of her young age and naivety to bully and push her around, despite how easily they can be punished by either her or Jinshi for this. They eventually finally push their luck too far in getting Lishu framed and exiled for a crime she didn't do, all in the hopes of going to another Concubine's house. It really never hits them until after the fact that, as Lishu's ladies in waiting, they were naturally going be kicked out too.
  • Switched at Birth: Jinshi and the imperial brother. Meaning, it was the imperial brother who died from the poisoning, not the crown prince...and Jinshi doesn't know this. When he inevitably discovers that his father is his grandfather, his mother is his grandmother, his brother is his father, and his former sister-in-law is his mother...well, it'll be a very awkward family dinner.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink:
    • When Consort Gyokuyou was pregnant with her first child, she escaped two poisoning attempts on her, though this led to her dismissing more than half of her staff. She employs Maomao at the start of the story, as thanks for saving Lingli's life from the poisonous face powder.
    • During the spring garden party in Volume 1, Maomao tests the soup intended for Gyokuyou and discovers poison. The actual intended recipient was Consort Lishu, though. Lishu's poison tester switched Lishu's food with Gyokuyou's to embarrass her mistress, which ends up saving her life.
    • Because of his illness, Kounen did not notice the copious amount of salt poured into his drink and subsequently died.
    • After Maomao temporarily returns to the pleasure district in Volume 1, a courtesan and her guest seemingly are involved in a double-suicide. However, Maomao discovers that the courtesan tried to murder her guest by making him drink wine with tobacco.
    • In Volume 2, Maomao challenges Lakan to a game of shogi. The loser has to drink a cup of sake, but three of the cups have something mixed in, with Maomao noting that drinking too much is poison. In truth, she mixed salt and sugar in the cups to make the alcohol kick in earlier. Since she knew Lakan Can't Hold His Liquor, she only had to make him drink one cup to make him go out drunk and forfeit the match. Lakan likely knew what she intended though and let her do as she pleased.
  • Treachery Cover Up: In Volume 3, Lihua merely dismisses her chief lady-in-waiting Shin and bans her from the rear palace on the grounds of being disrespecting, for which she slaps Shin. The consequences would have been far more dire if Shin had been arrested for trying to make Lihua abort, for both Shin and her immediate family.
  • Unishment: In Volume 3, Maomao is given the storage shed as her room in the Jade Pavilion as punishment for her recent behavior. Except Maomao is ecstatic because her room is usually too small to conduct experiments. She was asking for a storage shed in the previous volume already.
  • Unreliable Narrator: As the story mostly follows Maomao's Point of View, most of descriptions of other characters' backstories and circumstances are from her subjective conjectures. That, and with only occasional third-person POVs in side stories, the readers will have to piece the clues themselves to see the full picture, and even so each one has their own interpretation of the truth.
  • Unequal Pairing: What Maomao and Jinshi are eventually teased as, to Jinshi's frustration. Him being a noble, let alone the crown prince makes whatever relationship he wants to have with Maomao infinitely more difficult, and Maomao's all too happy to point this out. She does say later on that she would accept a proposal from him, but just as easily admits that she knows how to handle herself so he won't have any royal complications—when all he wants with her is a baby.
  • Vague Age: While the novel gives the ages of the characters, how old they really are is not known due to the aging system. For instance, while it's said that Maomao is 17 years old at the start of the story, her actual age is 15-16.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Other women seethe in jealousy and are bewildered by Jinshi's attraction to Maomao. Maomao doesn't get it either.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: When Jinshi wants to go into the pleasure district in disguise, he turns (as usual) to Maomao for her skills. While she kits him out in suitably smelly clothes, she also uses her apothecary knowledge to make his silken hair rough and coarse, adds blemishes to his skin with makeup, brews him a drink that irritates his mouth and throat in order to alter his voice, hides his impressive musculature with padding under his clothes and changes the shape of his face by stuffing wads of cloth in his mouth. By the time she's done, he looks remarkably different even to the viewer.
  • World of Technicolor Hair: The novels' illustrations show that several characters have unusual hair colors, such as Maomao's dark green hair and Jinshi's purple hair, and no one ever comments on them (though the darker hair colors could be stylized shades of black). The only character whose hair color is considered unusual is Gyokuyou, whose red hair and green eyes mark her foreign ancestry.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Kusuriya No Hitorigoto


Maomao VS Lihua's Handmaid

In episode 4, Maomao is called in to figure out why the concubine Lihua is sick. In the process, Maomao learns that one of Lihua's handmaids used lead makeup powder on her despite the palace banning it after it was revealed it's poisonous. She gets pissed with the handmaid, slaps her and calls her out for her stupidity for still using the same poison that killed Lihua's baby and is slowly killing Lihua herself. The haughty handmaid makes excuses about wanting to make her mistress beautiful, but Maomao doesn't buy into her bullshit.

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5 (3 votes)

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Main / BreakTheHaughty

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