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Chapter 9

JI YUE WAITED IN THE GARDEN, fidgeting with her clothing. Lunch with the dowager consort had gone exactly as predicted. Fortunately Ji Yue had kept her head. No matter how the woman picked, Ji Yue had responded with her most insipid thought. It went against the grain, especially since every answer made the dowager consort even more angry. It rarely helped to make the head female upset, but Ji Yue put her faith in Bo Tao's advice and remained as stupid as a bowl of rice.

But the longer Ji Yue waited in the garden, the more she doubted her sanity. Why would she put her faith in a man who clearly disregarded every rule of proper conduct? He had climbed into her palanquin, he had taken her last night to a place that no decent woman should ever see, and the things he had done to her!

Her face heated, but not with shame. The things they had done had been incredible, and she desperately longed to do them again. Then she shivered in true fear. He was teaching her the delights of physical congress. What if she did not become the empress? What if the emperor was not a frequent visitor to her bedroom or, worse, not even remotely as skilled as Bo Tao? Would she end up like those women in the dead emperor's harem? Would she stretch herself out for all to see while she ordered someone to pleasure her?

The thought was horrifying, but it was also a real possibility. Having tasted ecstasy with Bo Tao, she wanted more. She wanted a lot more. Thankfully, she was saved from further thoughts as a young eunuch approached, bowing deeply before her.

"Chen Ji Yue? Are you ill?"

She nodded and pressed a silk handkerchief to her lips.

"Sun Bo Tao worries for your health and asks that you follow me. He has found some medicine to strengthen your health for the festival ahead."

She nodded and smiled. "I would be most grateful."

She started to move, but he pressed a cloak into her hands. "The sun might damage your skin and make you feel worse, Chen Ji Yue. Perhaps this would help."

She frowned and wrinkled her nose at the perfume stench that rose from the cheap garment. It was the kind of thing that merchant wives wore orShe swallowed. Or prostitutes. He was dressing her as a prostitute.

At her hesitation, the eunuch nodded again. "Many women come and go in these garments, and no one sees."

No one was trained to see the whores who visited, he meant. Clearly the emperor and his friends had a regular habit of entertaining such ladies. And just as clearly, she would be safer moving about the Forbidden City in one of these cloaks than as Virgin Chen Ji Yue.

With a reluctant grimace, she drew the cloak around her and covered her head. Then she followed the eunuch through what seemed to be little-used pathways behind and around buildings. She saw workerseunuchs and servants of all kindsbut no dignitaries and none of the other virgins. And though she peered from under her hood at the washer women and eunuchs, all cast their eyes discreetly away from her.

Until one woman did notice her. An older womana concubine by the looks of her gownspat and cursed the whore that polluted the emperor. Her words were loud and vicious, and an ugly reminder of what would happen to Ji Yue if she lost her virgin status.

As a disgraced virgin, she could not go home. Even if her parents wanted her, it would damage her father's honor so much that he would not get further work. Certainly nothing from the imperial court. Without that income, the entire family would starve.

So if she could not go home, she would be forced onto the street with only one way to survive. From pampered aristocrat to street whore in one fatal step. She could not do such a thing. She wouldn't! She would strip off this hateful cloak and return to the virgins' palace and pray that no one noticed her absence. She would

"Inside here, please," said the eunuch indicating a doorway.

Ji Yue frowned. "What is to happen"

"Please," the eunuch whispered, his eyes darting around. There were men talking somewhere down the hall, and from their deep voices, Ji Yue knew they were not eunuchs.

She slipped into the darkness. The door shut behind her, and she shivered at the now total lack of light. A flint sparked. Sharp and bright, it lit a single candle wick. The light grew steadily, expanding its glow until she saw Sun Bo Tao, his angled features looking like stroked gold.

She stepped forward, relief making her breath loud. His eyes widened and he quickly pressed a finger to his mouth. She abruptly stilled. With the candlelight, she was able to see more. Bo Tao stood next to a writing table on which rested brush, ink stone and paper. Then he raised the flame higher. The room was tiny, with no decoration at all, but she could hear echoing noises from the near wall. It felt as if a great room stood on the other side.

Bo Tao came close, snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her tight. Her mind trembled in fear, but her body went willingly into his arms. And then he leaned close to whisper into her ear.

"I meet with a Dutch envoy today. Can you speak their language?"

She shook her head no. "But I have seen a Dutch child's book," she whispered. "I think I can learn their language."

"Excellent," he breathed, truly sounding pleased, "but of no help today. There will be a translator, in any event. I wish you to listen to our conversation and record it as best you can. But you must do so without candlelight."

She smiled. "My memory is excellent. It is how I have learned so much from helping my father."

His grip on her waist tightened in approval. Then he guided her to the wall, lifting her hand until she touched a latch over a bamboo shutter. "Extinguish the light, then open this shutter," he said. "There are peepholes in the tapestry. Listen and look, but do not make the tapestry move!"

"My mother does this behind the women's screen for my father."

He grinned as he turned back to her. "Your father was most wise in his choice of bride."

She smiled, flushing in pleasure. Most men would roundly damn her father for allowing a woman into men's affairs. That he understood her mother's value made her blood flush hot. Then all thoughts of her parents fled as Bo Tao tightened his hold on her.

"If you are discovered, I cannot help you. It would go worse for you if I claimed knowledge of your presence here."

She swallowed, beginning to understand what she risked in this. But she had never seen a white man before and was most anxious to view her first. Plus, when Bo Tao held her like this, when she felt the strength in his arms around her, she could think of nothing but staying close to him no matter what the cost.

"I will not disappoint you," she whispered.

"I know," he said as he dropped his forehead against hers. She could feel the tension grow in his body. This tight against her, she could feel his dragon organ push into her belly while her woman's petals grew moist. Never before had she felt so much, so fast.

He groaned, low in his throat. She heard the sound and echoed it as she lifted her mouth to his. His kiss was deep and possessive, but she had learned much last night. She knew how to toy with his tongue, to suck it deeper into her mouth, and to nip whenever possible at his lips.

His hands slipped to her bottom, cupping her there as he pulled her roughly against his groin. His thickness was hot and hard, but there were too many layers of clothing between them. Then his hands slid upward, over her breasts, pinching through the fabric. She rubbed her hands over his chest, slipping them beneath his court coat, but he had a tunic on below. No flesh, no access, only layers of silk over hardened muscle.

"No," he gasped as he abruptly broke away. "The emperor has noticed. He is watching me. And you," he added. "He watches you, as well. It is why the dowager consort hates you. She knows his interest is piqued."

Ji Yue froze and pulled slowly back, thoughts tumbling through her head like heavy stones. The dowager consort hated her? And the emperor watched her? The very idea was incredible. But if they saw her, if Emperor Xian Feng watched her, then being here was madness! She should leave immediately! And yet she did not stir from Bo Tao's arms. Why did she not leave?

She had no explanation except for lust. She wanted Bo Tao's lips on hers. She wanted his hand inside her body. And she wonderedoh, how she wonderedwhat it would be like to have his jade stalk planted deeply inside her.

"Do you want me to take you back to the virgins' palace right now?" he whispered. "We can stop this madness here."

"No," she whispered. "No, I want to" She couldn't finish. No virgin could admit those things aloud. So she waved to the inkstone and brushes. "I want to be of help to you. I was raised to be a political wife, helping my husband in this manner."

He nodded. "Then so be it." He stepped away, moving quickly to the door. But then he paused, his expression earnest. "I am not a hanger-on, Ji Yue. I understand these foreigners as no other in China. One day, the emperor will make my position official. I will be the advisor on foreign affairs, perhaps an ambassador, but he likes having someone unofficial to meet with these people. Someone smart who can arrange things unofficially."

She smiled. "I am a woman. I understand how things can be arranged without the men officially knowing anything at all."

"Soon things will change for me. Perhaps very soon, but"

"But not just yet," she said. "I understand."

Then their time was up. At his gesture, she extinguished the candle. He waited in the darkness a moment longer, and in that time she heard his breath exhale with such longing that tears sprang to her eyes. Except that it could not be true. She could not hear longing in a man's breath. Perhaps it was her own need that she felt, her own anguish.

He had not even left the room, and yet she ached for the loss of him. Her body felt cold without him beside her. And her womb cried at its emptiness. She took a step forward to sayshe didn't know what. But before she could form a word, he was gone. He slipped out of the room, leaving her alone.

It was just as well. Her thoughts were impure, her virginity in danger. She knew better than to think of anything but becoming an empress. Her mother had said she was not beautiful, so she needed to be smart. A smart woman would tuck her feelings away, put aside her memories as well as her wishes. She did it with a firmness that would please her ancestors.

Then she went to the shutter and pulled open the latch. Very soon, she would see a white man for the first time in her life. Would he look like a monkey, as she had heard? Would he truly have a stench like a pigpen in August? She could not wait to see.

But as her eyes scanned the receiving hall on the other side of the hidden room, she looked not for the white envoy but Sun Bo Tao. What would he say to the foreign devils? How would he treat their insolence? She held her breath in anticipation.

She didn't have to wait long. The Dutch group was ushered insidesix men in all. She took careful note of their attire. She knew that distinctions in color and insignia were important in China, so they could be equally vital to these foreigners. As they grumbled and argued in their strange tongue, she had time to make rough sketches of their faces and attitudes.

One was obviously their leader. His gestures were more refined, and he had a habit of stroking his beard or his coat lapels when he spoke. The others fawned upon him in subtle ways. They maintained their arrogance as all men must, but they kept their chins just a bit less pronounced and their eyes shifted left and right more often.

Then Bo Tao appeared. He was magnificent. From his gestures to his sneering lip, he moved to impress. He brought his own retinue of underlingsdouble the Dutch envoysand all bowed and scraped as Bo Tao sat in the throne chair. It was not the Dragon Throne, of course. This was a lesser hall, but Bo Tao wore the auspices of power with a majesty that must match the emperor himself. The sight of him stole her breath away.

The preliminaries had begun. A Dutch underling offered a gift: a metal timepiece, she thought, but it was hard to see. Bo Tao accepted it with casual neglect, waving it aside as merely his due. Tea and dumplings were served and the Dutch ate. Bo Tao did not. After a polite interval, the Dutch turned and began the true purpose of their meeting.

But then the oddest thing happened. The one who she thought led stepped back as if unimportant. The one who stepped forward was the man she thought most apelike with his dark curling hair and his wide nose. Surely this was a subordinate, but he spoke in their bizarre tongue, and a ship's captain translated his words into guttural, dockside Cantonese.

Bo Tao, of course, did not speak such dialect. It would be far beneath his dignity, but Ji Yue did. Her old nurse had been raised in Canton and used to sing songs in that tongue. While another translator changed the Cantonese words into Mandarin, Ji Yue wrote down both what was said in Cantonese and what was passed on to Bo Tao.

And so it went with negotiations back and forth until Ji Yue thought her hand would break from the strain. The Dutch wished for more treaty portscities on the ocean where they could sell their wares. Bo Tao refused. China had no interest in Dutch goods, he said. The envoys brought more delightful presentsstrange fabrics of string woven in interesting patterns, crockery and machinery of bizarre colors and shapes. How Ji Yue wanted to inspect them all, but from her angle, she could only see tiny sections.

Bo Tao yawned. Then with a sigh he glanced at the window and promised to discuss their proposal with the emperor, but he made no move to leave. At first Ji Yue did not understand why, but then his craftiness became obvious. The real gift had not yet been offered.

The ape-man came forward, and his eyes took on a gleam of arrogance. Ji Yue did not like his manner even though he obviously thought he was acting refined. At his gesture, two men came forward with a mediumsize chest. It was placed in the center of the room. Then the ape man crossed to it and with thick fingers he pulled open the lid.

Ji Yue craned her neck forward to see, then gasped in shock. She might be a cloistered virgin, but even she knew the brown powder called opium. It was a deadly drug that had been declared illegal in China nearly a hundred years ago. But even with the emperor's edict against it, the white were more and more overt in their attempts to addict the entire population to its evil. Her father knew of dozens of court officials who either smoked the drug themselves or profited from its illegal sales. Clearly the Dutch believed Bo Tao equally corrupt. Or they hoped that the new emperor would reverse his great-grandfather's edict. They were about to learn otherwise.

Bo Tao's reaction was immediate. He bellowed with rage, and every man in his retinue drew a sword. Ji Yue was hard put not to scream as the Dutch responded in kind. But they were too slow, and obviously Bo Tao had planned for this. Within seconds every foreigner had a blade at his throat.

Bo Tao's nearest assistant stepped out from his position beside the throne. While Bo Tao sat with regal disdain, his man stomped over to the chest and spat in it. He spoke not a word, but his meaning was clear. Opium was not wanted in China.

Two blades trapped the ape-man, one on either side of his neck. Already a trickle of blood oozed down his throat. The ape-man was purple with rage, but he didn't dare move. The assistant walked directly in front of the man and raised a long dagger, setting it carefullypoint upwardjust beneath the bearded chin. A slight push, and the ape-man would be dead.

Apparently the man knew it, too, because he began to babble in Cantonese, pleading for his life and offering all sorts of gold and jewels in trade. Bo Tao's translator didn't say a word, not even bothering with a man's dying words.

Ji Yue barely remembered to keep writing. She knew her calligraphy would be hideous because she could not shift her gaze from the tableau before her.

Then the assistant moved again. With a flick of his wristfaster than she could seehe cut a mark like a dragon in the ape-man's cheek. Back on the throne, Bo Tao clapped his hands twice. The sound was so loud that Ji Yue would swear it echoed for minutes afterward.

More eunuchs came in. They poured an oil of some sort on the chest. The stench was so terrible that Ji Yue's eyes watered, and still the Dutch were held immobile by Chinese swords. In fact, all were frozen in place for a long minute.

Finally, when Ji Yue felt she would go mad from the strain, Bo Tao slowly stood up from the throne. If Ji Yue thought he was magnificent before, it was nothing to the power that radiated from him now. He walked like a furious god! He came down from the dais and moved coldly through the sea of swords. He walked straight up to the man whom Ji Yue had thought was the true leader. He stepped before that man and spoke clearly.

"Hear my words from the Dragon Throne. All who deal in that dung powder will be killed." He waited as his words went through both translators. He waited and he watched until the Dutch man dipped his head in acknowledgment.

Bo Tao did no more than blink, but suddenly, all the Chinese swords were sheathed. Every soldier stepped back while the Dutch remained awkwardly frozen in the center of the room. Ji Yue heard their shuddering breaths of relief, and yet none of them dared move beyond that. Meanwhile, the chest of opium was lifted by two eunuchs, tossed into the massive fireplace, and set on fire.

The ape-man scowled as the flames burst higher. The oily stench in the air made Ji Yue draw back, and she was pleased that a tapestry shielded her from most of the thick air.

Then the ape-man cursed. Ji Yue could not hear the words clearly for he muttered them, but it was a phrase she recognized. Her old nurse had used it when only the most vulgar of names would do. They were the last words he ever spoke.

Bo Tao whipped around and threw his dagger straight through the ape-man's thick neck. The man gurgled once, his eyes bulging in shock, then he fell forward, dead.

Ji Yue pressed a hand to her mouth to hold back her scream. The brush fell from her hand and she pulled back from her peephole. For a time, she did not think she could breathe. Even worse, she could not close her eyes because whenever she did, she saw the point of Bo Tao's dagger sticking out from the front of the ape-man's throat. She saw the blood welling and

Ji Yue bit her lip. She would not scream. She would perform her duties as a good wife should. She would think of nothing else but her task. She had to recordnothing. Nothing else was said. Bo Tao stomped out of the room, but the soldiers remained. And the foreigners meekly gathered up the corpse and filed away.

Ji Yue waited, watching, while inside she shook like a leaf in a storm. Sometime latershe didn't even know how longsomeone entered her tiny room. She didn't have the presence of mind to see who it was. But the moment his arms came around her, she turned and pressed her face into Bo Tao's coat.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I am so sorry. I did not mean for you to see that, but I could not allow such a slight from that man. Fear must be lasting and his had already faded. We are in such danger from their opium, you cannot know what I fear for our country."

"I know," she said as she lifted her mouth to his neck. "I know."

"You were very brave," he said.

She released a short laugh. "I was safely hidden. You were the man walking among swords."

"My men are very well trained. There was no danger to me."

She shook her head, easing away from him to make sure he saw her earnestness. "You are wrong, Sun Bo Tao. There is always danger with those men. They may be frightened now with your swords at their throat, but it will not last long. They will return."

Bo Tao's expression turned even more grim. "I know. China will soon be beset on all sides."

There was nothing she could say to that. He had confirmed her worst fears. But then he pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Come, come. Let me see what you have recorded."

"I have not finished," she said as she reluctantly pulled from his arms. "Mama taught me to write down my impressions after it was all done."

"Excellent advice," he said as he scanned her paper. Then his eyes suddenly lit with surprise. "You speak Cantonese?"

She nodded. "Mama was appalled, but I learned it from my nurse."

"In this, your mother and I disagree. A knowledge of the shippers' tongue is most valuable. Most valuable indeed!"

Then he sat down at the table to read her notes more directly. She hadn't noticed until then that he'd lit the candle, so she quickly shut the bamboo shutter.

"Sit, sit," he said as he gestured to the chair. "Write down your notes as your mama said, and then I have a surprise for you."

Chapter 8 | The Concubine | Chapter 10