BO TAO DID NOT SEE a single virgin for the next two days. He completely ignored his duties as master of the festival and remained at his home in Peking. He focused on his reports to the emperor, on strategies to outwit rebels or invaders, on anything that would keep his mind completely away from Chen Ji Yue.
It didn't work. He found himself reading her notations on the Dutch envoy, remarking anew that she had a keen eye for detail and a clear head despite the horror she had witnessed. He read it a hundred times or more, hearing her voice in his head as he did, feeling the touch of her hand and the heat of her body. By the dawn of the third day, he was insane with want. His jade stalk felt like a heavy stone dragging his thoughts straight back to her.
It was ridiculous! She was just a woman. She could not possibly be as beautiful, as sweet, as brilliant as he remembered. He ground the heels of his hands against his eyes. He had to see her again. That much was obvious. He had to prove to himself that he'd built a fantasy in his head. So he stormed from his home, barged through the gate of the Forbidden City, and went in search of a virgin.
He could not find her. The virgins had spent the last two days practicing their talents—whatever they might be—so they could entertain the dowager consort during the artistic display exam. Some painted, others sang or danced and some wrote poetry. Each day had produced a display of some sort for the dowager consort. And each day, someone had been dismissed as unacceptable because of one trifling reason or another.
He had watched the list of unacceptable virgins closely, hoping to see Ji Yue's name. If the dowager consort dismissed her, then perhaps her family would relent. Perhaps they would accept her back, and he could court her after his appointment—whenever that came. But her name did not appear because—he now learned—she was set to dance before the dowager consort today.
And Bo Tao was set to meet with Han Du Yu, a minor dignitary of a small but wealthy province near Peking. He wanted to give the emperor gifts—bribes—so that his son would pass the civil service exam. It was a ridiculous meeting given to Bo Tao because the emperor could not waste his time on such stupidities. Neither Bo Tao nor the emperor had anything to do with who passed and who did not. But every year desperate parents tried to buy favor where there was none to give.
Bo Tao would have ducked the meeting completely, but Han Du Yu was rich. So rich that the emperor could not afford to slight him. Worse, Bo Tao had been thinking about what Ji Yue said. If peasants followed food and hope, then the emperor needed to know exactly how hungry and how hopeless his people were. Short of interviewing every man, woman and child who slopped pigs, he had to rely on the nobles who oversaw their lands. And here was a perfect opportunity to do just that.
Therefore, much as he wanted to see Ji Yue dance, he could not cancel. Which meant he had to sit and wait. And wait. Until finally the fat, pompous ass arrived carrying a huge ivory carving of one of the nine Immortals, a celestial being in Taoism.
Bo Tao stared at the ugly thing. Bribes needed to be small and secret, not ostentatiously large. And it wasn't even carved well! Forgoing diplomacy in favor of expedience, Bo Tao pushed the stupid present back to the idiot. "I have nothing to do with marking the exam, I have no influence there, and have no wish to waste your money. Please, take this back."
The man laughed heartily, thinking that Bo Tao was merely pretending to have no influence, pretending to be honest. The harder Bo Tao tried to convince him, the more entrenched the stupidity became. In the end, Bo Tao had no choice but to accept the ugly piece or they would be there dickering all day.
Then Bo Tao leaned forward, getting to the meat of what he wished to know. "Tell me, Han Du Yu, of the people you oversee. What do the peasants say? What do they want?"
Han Du Yu grinned and clapped his hands. "They sing the emperor's praises night and day."
Bo Tao grimaced. Time was passing and this idiot thought he wanted false platitudes. "When smoking tobacco, when drinking at night, what do they say? What do your peasants want?"
Bo Tao quieted. "So they are hungry?"
"Of course not! The people in Zun Hua are happy. They simply want more beer to toast to the emperor's good fortune." Han Du Yu leaned forward. "I hear the imperial virgins are most beautiful. Will I see them today, do you think?"
The thought of Han's piggy eyes looking at Ji Yue made Bo Tao's stomach turn. "They are not show girls to be paraded about."
Han sighed. "Of course, of course. Perhaps tomorrow night, then. I have a message for the head eunuch from his brother."
Bo Tao waved the comment away. He had no interest in this man's maneuvering, though this was the first he'd heard of the head eunuch having a brother. It didn't matter. "Do the peasants come to you for aid? For rulings or judgments?"
"Of course, of course! They love my rulings." He grinned. "They love me."
"And what are their petitions?"
"Oh, the usual peasant thing. One man stole another's ox. This boy killed that one's chicken. The round of complaints is endless."
And completely ignored, no doubt. Well, he now knew how Han Du Yu became so wealthy. A man this casual about administering his province would be easily swayed by bribes.
Bo Tao pushed to his feet. "Thank you for your time and your lovely gift," he said, though the words nearly choked him. "I will go directly to the emperor with this…thoughtful present." He hefted the huge item, wishing he could use it to clobber the man. Then Bo Tao left, not even bothering with any of the formalities. He had no time for ridiculousness and now he was walking around with an ugly ivory statue.
On sudden impulse, he changed his direction. He knew exactly where the emperor would be at this moment, and fortunately, it was not in a public place. He stomped his way to Yi Zhen's palace and pushed past the eunuchs there. Longtime friendship counted for something, even with an emperor, so Bo Tao was soon admitted.
"Well, hello, my friend!" the emperor said with a grin. "You look like you just ate something sour. And I hear that you are neglecting the virgins, as well." He gestured to a tray with sweet dumplings on it. "Please, avail yourself—"
"This is for you. Han Du Yu is an idiot, and I'll be damned if I listen to yet another virgin spat even for you."
Yi Zhen's brows drew together in anger. He was not used to such disrespect, even from his best friend. With a wave, he sent his eunuchs scurrying away, then he glared at the carving. "That thing is hideous."
"It is a bribe so you can fix the civil service exam."
"For which son?"
Bo Tao frowned. He'd forgotten that Han Du Yu had three sons. "He didn't even say."
"He is an idiot."
Bo Tao leaned forward, trying to impress his emperor with the importance of his next words. "He is a corrupt official and an idiot."
Yi Zhen threw up his hands and drawled, "Because that is so rare in China."
"Three hours from Peking on a fast horse. So close to you and filled with such corruption."
"His is an unimportant piece of land for all that it so close. And none there would dare rebel. We would hear of it too easily."
Bo Tao growled in his frustration. "You do not understand! If you countenance such blatant idiocy so close to you, then what is it like where you have fewer eyes? No wonder the Taiping caught us unaware. If you cannot control those close to home, then how can you imagine to rule the far reaches of your empire?"
It was a valid point, and he could see the message filter into his friend's mind. In the end, Yi Zhen sighed. "How much of an idiot?"
Bo Tao hefted the ugly carving. "This was his bribe."
"It looks like a badly made stone phallus."
Bo Tao twisted it around, his brows contracting as he saw what his emperor had. "No doubt that was the appeal."
Yi Zhen waved it away. "Go and see to your duties with the virgins."
For all that he wished to do just that, Bo Tao hesitated. "I cannot continue this way, Yi Zhen," he finally said. "I value what I do for you and for China, but I am a grown man. It is time I saw to my family name."
"You wish your appointment." It was not a question. "So you can have a wife."
Bo Tao nodded, though he did not miss the hard tone in Yi Zhen's voice.
"Very well. Complete your duties as master of the festival with honor, and I will see to your appointment."
Bo Tao nearly groaned. Another promise to be fulfilled after another delay. How many times had he heard these same words? Just one more task, and he would get an official title. Just one more month, one more something, and all his wishes would be fulfilled. Bo Tao no longer believed in his best friend's promises.
"Yi Zhen," he began. "What title do you offer—"
"Idiot!" Yi Zhen roared and abruptly pushed up from the table. "Do you see what I look at?" He gestured at the maps and the military reports strewn on the table before him. "Do you think the Taiping are finished? Why do you press me now? Get out! Get out!"
Bo Tao bowed, his life tasting like ashes in his mouth. But what were his options? His life was subject to his emperor's whim.
"And take that disgusting thing with you!" the emperor snapped, indicating the carving. "It's my gift to you in thanks for your great service!" Then he laughed with cruel humor as Bo Tao grabbed the thing and departed.
There was no time left. The dowager consort's entertainment was set to begin within moments. Still carrying the statue, he rushed through the twisting pathways of the Forbidden City to the dowager's main garden. He made it there barely in time. The servants were just now clearing away the meal. Immediately afterward, Ji Yue would dance.
He scanned the crowd of faces, not even bothering to smile. The dowager had her courtiers there plus all the remaining virgins—over three dozen at last count. Add in eunuchs and other servants, and the number of bodies crammed into the garden was daunting.
There! He spotted Ji Yue as she limped toward the center. She limped? Bo Tao stepped forward, his eyes narrowing as he searched her face. Even from this distance, he could tell her cheek was swollen beneath her paint. She likely had bruises or scratches in other places, as well. But why was she walking so oddly? Graceful one moment, then halting and jerky the next. And she was about to dance before the dowager? She would fail the artistic display and be expelled for sure!
This was exactly what he wanted! He slowed his step, knowing that all he needed to do was wait for the inevitable disaster. He could wait and watch her dreams be destroyed in a painful and humiliating display. He would stand back and watch Ji Yue be crushed and then released in the hopes that her parents would relent and accept her back into their home.
Just wait a few minutes more, he told himself. But he couldn't do it. Having just had his own hopes crushed, how could he visit such a thing on Ji Yue? He couldn't. Even if it meant that she stayed an imperial virgin and he never, ever had a chance to court her.
So he had to stop her performance, but how? She was already arranging herself in the opening position. Then she lifted her head and blinked, obviously trying to hold back tears. The sight of her face looking so brave and yet so tragic broke something deep inside him. He did not care the risk to his career if he singled her out; he had to stop this farce now!
"Chen Yi Jue!" he bellowed.
The excited chatter abruptly stopped. All looked at him in shock.
"Chen Yi Jue, you will come with me now!"
"But she was about to dance," groused one of the virgins. Bo Tao pinned the girl with his stare, while searching through his memory. It was Gao Hua Si—the spoiled roommate of the someone-spit-in-my-white-paste tantrum.
"Do you think I care for your women's entertainment? I was just interrupted from an important meeting with Han Du Yu. Why? For this?" He hefted the ugly statue. He curled his lip. "A gift from your parents, Chen Ji Yue."
Ji Yue had straightened, a look of horror on her face.
"You will come with me now. You will write a letter to your parents to tell them that the master of the festival does not accept bribes." He curled his lip at the offending item. "And certainly not ones this ugly."
It was a lie. He had, of course, been given hundreds of gifts from the virgins' families. All of them were dutifully catalogued and passed over to Yi Zhen, who wished to know the nature of the family who sired his future empress. Had Bo Tao kept even a tenth of the gifts, he would have enough money to establish a proper household and find a wife. But Bo Tao had been honest and so he had nothing. Nothing to support a wife, nothing to impress Madame Chen. Nothing, that is, except this one hideous carving.
Meanwhile, the dowager consort narrowed her eyes and stood as she addressed him. "You must be thirsty, Sun Bo Tao, please join us. Have some tea. After the performance, I am sure Chen Ji Yue will have time to do whatever you wish."
So it was a planned expulsion. The dowager could not fail to see Ji Yue's condition. If she wished to spare the girl, then she would have allowed Bo Tao to whisk Ji Yue away. But she hadn't. Which meant that the dowager wanted a public excuse to eliminate her. Anything private could be recanted. The humiliation had to be public and therefore assured. Which meant that someone even more powerful must want Ji Yue to remain.
Bo Tao nearly groaned. The only one more powerful than the dowager consort was the emperor himself. Yi Zhen had clearly taken an interest in Ji Yue, if only to torture Bo Tao. Sweet heaven, women's politics gave him a headache! He sighed and spoke from the heart.
"Great Imperial Dowager Consort Kang Ci, I do not care! I do not have time to eat nor do I wish to tarry. Chen Ji Yue will be punished for her parents' hideous effrontery to myself and the Dragon Throne. And she will be punished now."
And with that he gestured widely with the phallic statue. People cleared a pathway before him, if only to avoid being hit by the heavy thing. At the opposite end of the path stood Ji Yue, tears escaping from her eyes and streaking her makeup. An ache welled up deep inside him. He hadn't wanted to cause such anguish in her, but he'd had no choice. With a last bow to the dowager consort, Bo Tao turned away, forcing Ji Yue to limp after him.