JI YUE MADE IT BACK to her room. Her legs were unsteady, her makeup was streaked with tears, and her hair was askew. To anyone seeing her, she was the picture of a beaten woman. To herself, she was a woman in love.
What a disaster! She did not join the virgins at dinner. Instead, she went and bathed in solitude. She said nothing to anyone, but of course, she was never alone. Even in the bathing chamber, a eunuch watched her. And so she was not surprised when the head eunuch came to her chamber that night. He would want to know exactly what had happened to her with Bo Tao. She barely looked at him until she realized there was another person stepping into her room behind the eunuch.
"Dowager Consort!" she cried as she dropped to the floor in a hurried kowtow. Ji Yue pressed her forehead to the ground, acutely aware that her hair was askew and her clothing loose. She glanced quickly at her smirking roommate Hua Si. That's why the damned girl hadn't undressed even though it was late. She'd known the dowager consort was coming!
Meanwhile, Ji Yue spoke to the floor. "My gravest apologies. I had no idea you were coming or I would have remained presentable."
"Nonsense, nonsense," the older woman said. "You may rise."
Ji Yue did, though she moved slowly, partly out of wariness, partly because she was so very sore. The dowager consort took a seat on her bed. She sat there stiffly, watching Ji Yue with narrowed eyes. Ji Yue did not make the mistake of sitting. Instead, she rose wearily to her feet to stand like a eunuch before the older woman, head bowed and hands clasped in front.
"How may I serve you, my lady?" she asked.
"Oh, my dear, I just came to see if you were hurt. After Sun Bo Tao's display this afternoon, I have been greatly concerned about your health."
It was not hard to bring up tears at the reference to Bo Tao. She had not thought loving a man would hurt so much.
The dowager consort leaned forward. "Did he beat you very badly?"
Ji Yue glanced nervously at Hua Si, who stood beside her, and then at the head eunuch, who loitered just as near. Did the dowager really think she would confess anything with those two in the room?
The woman understood, of course. The dowager clapped her hands. "Out! Both of you! I wish to speak to Virgin Ji Yue alone!"
The two clearly didn't want to go, but they knew their place. They prostrated themselves multiple times, but then scurried backward out of the room. Probably to press their ears against the wall. It didn't really matter. Ji Yue didn't intend to tell the dowager anything that couldn't be known by the whole of China. Or that's what she thought until she heard the lady's next words.
"So many changes," the dowager murmured. "It is hard and confusing for me. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for you girls." She smiled and looked kindly at Ji Yue. "I have heard of your mother. She's very smart. Do you miss her guidance?"
To her horror, Ji Yue's eyes teared up again. She couldn't speak, so she nodded in silent misery. Everything had been so clear when her mother was around. Her course had been obvious, her duties clear. And if she'd chafed at the restraints, at least she'd had no doubt about what she was doing. But now, out from under her mother's gimlet eye? She had nothing but questions and doubts.
"Tell me about your mother. Would I enjoy her company, do you think?"
Ji Yue swallowed her emotions away and forced herself to answer as demurely as possible. "I cannot presume to suggest who you would find enjoyable, my lady. I can only say that I miss her deeply. She always sees things more clearly than I."
The dowager pursed her lips in distaste. "That was a dull answer. I thought you understood that court life requires intelligence. You certainly can't survive on your looks." She wrinkled her nose. "Your feet are horrifyingly big. Therefore, your value to me is your mind."
Ji Yue lifted her head, startled to hear her mother's words so closely echoed by the dowager consort. "What do you wish me to tell you?" she answered.
"What did Sun Bo Tao do to you today?"
She swallowed and looked away. "He beat me."
"Do you know why?"
Ji Yue nodded then gave the answer the woman expected. "Because he lusts after me but cannot have me."
"And do you return that lust?"
Now there was a tricky question. Ji Yue took a moment to reason out her response. Everyone in the Forbidden City relied on spies. So to become useful to the dowager, all Ji Yue had to do was offer to become one of her spies. "I pretend to lust for him," she answered with a sly tone.
The dowager's charcoal-painted eyebrows rose in surprise. "Very wise of you. The lust is not real?"
Ji Yue shrugged. "He is a friend to your son. I can survive a beating if it means we women have a better understanding of the influences upon the great leader of our people." There, she had just shown the dowager that she was smart enough to be a spy. Now she had to convince the woman that she was no threat. But how?
She glanced to Hua Si's side of the room, and the idea came to her. Oh, it was so easy! She just had to convince the dowager that she could be controlled. She had to show the dowager that something very simple would keep Ji Yue completely in her grip.
So she looked down at her hands, her expression vulnerable. "Can I tell you a secret, my lady?" Ji Yue whispered.
The dowager quickly leaned forward. "Of course, my dear!"
"The poets talk about love. Sun Bo Tao is consumed by lust. I fear I am an alien creature because none of those things draw me." Ji Yue bit her lip as if she were betraying a great deficit. "There is only one thing that I crave."
"Really?" The empress was at the edge of her seat. "What is it?"
Ji Yue chewed on a fingernail and tried to look guilty. "My parents don't have a lot of money. I have two brothers who want to take the exam, but tutors are very expensive. And Mama says that the boys are our future."
"Quite right, quite right," the dowager said. "So you wish money for your brothers?"
Ji Yue blinked just like an ox. "Er, yes. Of course."
The dowager smiled and patted her hand. "What a noble goal, Ji Yue, but that is not really the truth, is it?"
Ji Yue hunched her shoulders and shook her head. "Um, no. Not really."
"So what do you want?"
"Um…" She kept her voice low in case Hua Si was indeed listening through the walls. "Do you like candied leechee nuts?"
She frowned. "Candied fruit?"
"Have you ever tasted honey? I did once. My father had it." She closed her eyes in pretend rapture. "It was the most amazing thing I have ever tasted."
"You like sweets?"
Ji Yue felt a blush heat her face. It was shame because this had to be the biggest lie she had ever told. "Would you like to see?" She pulled the dowager consort over to a space behind Hua Si's trunk, then she pulled out a cache of candied sweets.
"But that is Gao Hua Si's trunk."
Ji Yue giggled. "I know. I put it there so people would think it is hers."
Meanwhile the dowager frowned as she leaned back and looked hard at Ji Yue. "You want sweets. That's it?" She didn't sound as if she believed it.
Ji Yue quickly replaced the stash after stealing a couple of pieces. Then she looked at the dowager with calm, honest eyes. "You are right that I am smart. A smart woman understands what she wants and how to get it. Do I want to carry the emperor's son? Of course. Do I know that there are spies and manipulations everywhere in the Forbidden City? Of course. And if I wished to hold the reins of influence, then someone might indeed fear me. But…" She shook her head, and her expression turned genuinely sad.
"But?" the dowager prompted.
Ji Yue thought of Bo Tao, of the things they had shared and done together. The tears that flooded her eyes were genuine.
"But I am working to manipulate one man and already it has cost me. I do not wish to do more." She abruptly leaned forward, wincing as if in great pain. "My lady, I will do whatever you ask. I will use my intelligence to watch and report whatever you want. The only thing I ask is that I become one of your pampered pets—the girls who are always at your side during meals. That I never go without food ever again!"
The dowager pursed her lips. "For a girl who is so hungry, you have missed many meals."
Ji Yue nodded. "Mama said I must. She often denied me at home because she said I would get fat."
The dowager studied Ji Yue's figure critically. "Fat women squeeze their babies."
"I know!" Ji Yue snapped. Was she really that fat that people could so easily believe this lie? "My lady, I am smart enough to know my weaknesses and my desires. I could be a great aid to you."
"Humph," was the woman's only response. She wasn't convinced, but she wasn't unconvinced, either. Ji Yue allowed her gaze to drift back to the secret cache. The candy had been delicious and she had missed dinner. Her mouth was watering for more.
"Go on," the dowager said softly. "Take another. I don't mind."
"Do you…do you want one?" she asked.
"No, no, dear. You go on."
Ji Yue flashed a grateful smile then dashed over to the candy. With her one stolen taste of food, her stomach was cramping in hunger. It was all she could do not to finish Hua Si's entire hoard.
"Careful," the dowager admonished. "There will be nothing left for tomorrow."
Ji Yue reluctantly put back what she had in her hand, then returned the whole cache to its hiding place. "Oh. Of course."
The dowager nodded then pushed to her feet. "Good night, Ji Yue."
Ji Yue had her mouth full and could only scramble to her feet. She didn't dare speak. With a distracted air, the dowager consort waved casually and glided out. Ji Yue barely had time to scramble back to her bed before Hua Si came bursting in.
"What happened? What did she say?"
Ji Yue shrugged, too tired to play games anymore this day. All the deception, all the court politics were giving her a bad headache. So she simply twisted her hair into her sleeping braid and climbed into bed. Behind her, Hua Si huffed in disgust and began to undress. Ji Yue closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but her thoughts would not stop whirling in her mind.
Was this what her life would be like from now on? Would she spend her days pandering to the dowager consort and her nights praying that a child took root in her belly? She winced at the idea of letting the emperor touch her as Bo Tao had. But what would happen to her if he did not choose her? Would she really end up like the concubines in the window? Of course not, she realized. She didn't lust after another woman's touch or even the emperor's caress. She wanted Bo Tao. No one else would do for her now.
How could she have been so stupid? How could she have fallen in love? And with the emperor's best friend? She curled onto her side and cried for real.
SHE WAS WOKEN hours later by a soft finger poking insistently into her side.
"Virgin!" It was a man's high voice. "Virgin Chen Ji Yue, you must wake."
She blinked, then groaned as she rolled over. How could an afternoon of such pleasure create so many aches now?
"Virgin Chen Ji Yue is called."
She blinked in the darkness and finally made out the moon face of a eunuch she'd never met before. "Called where? By whom?"
The man lowered his voice to a dark whisper. "The master of the festival calls you." Then when she didn't answer, he frowned at her. "Sun Bo Tao."
"I know who the master is," she snapped, irritated not by the interruption but by the sudden tightening in her throat, the leap of her heart in her chest and the rapid moistening in her womb. How would she ever be the emperor's wife if the mere mention of another man's name set her entire body tingling?
"You must come now!" he ordered.
It took everything in her to resist the eunuch's command. She didn't know if Bo Tao had truly sent the summons. It seemed an extremely risky way to call her, though he had used eunuchs before. If this was a fake summons, then she was being led into a trap. No virgin could be caught sneaking out at night to meet a man, even if he was the master of the festival. Especially if he was the master of the festival, since he was the one whole man in all of the Forbidden City.
But what if the summons were real? What if Bo Tao needed her? It didn't seem likely, but the fear in her heart burned like truth.
"No," she rasped, though the word hurt like a knife. "No, I cannot be beaten again." She rolled back onto her side and clutched her knees tight to her chest. It was the only way she could keep herself from changing her mind.
"He will be very angry!"
"Then he will beat me again tomorrow. Not tonight."
She waited in tense silence, wondering if the eunuch would bodily drag her from her bed. She half prayed that he would. But after a hundred heartbeats, she heard him sigh and shuffle away. That left Ji Yue to spend the rest of the night in anxious fear. Who had sent the eunuch? Could it truly have been Bo Tao? What would he think? And if it wasn't Bo Tao, then who was testing her?
The questions didn't ease until dawn began to lighten the sky. By then her mind was so exhausted that it sputtered into silent fantasies. As she watched the dawn lightening the sky, she pretended Bo Tao lay beside her, tucking her safely in his arms. She imagined the heat of his body, the brush of his breath in her hair and his organ thick and hard inside her. What would she have to give up to have that for real? she wondered. What could she do to make her fantasies come true?
Nothing, she decided. Nothing could make them come true no matter how much she prayed.