BO TAO WAS IN TROUBLE. Everybody knew he had spent the afternoon with Ji Yue. And everybody was speculating on whether he'd beaten her or had sex with her. He'd tried to hide away from their speculation. He wasn't at all sure he could fake the angry contempt that would lead a man to beat a woman. Better to hide in his office and work on the things he should have been doing that afternoon.
He succeeded for a time. But when his best friend the emperor sauntered into the room around midnight, Bo Tao knew he was in trouble. If anyone could catch him in a lie, it would be Yi Zhen.
"I am not pleased with you," said the emperor.
This was bad. Yi Zhen was clearly in a mood to toy with him. Bo Tao's best bet was to play for time. So he took a very long moment to finish his last calculation, make his notation, then set aside his abacus with a sigh. The final touch? He rubbed his eyes. Only then did he look at his emperor. "What? And by the way, your eunuchs are robbing you blind."
Bo Tao cringed internally. The eunuchs were usually the best way to distract Yi Zhen. He and Bo Tao had spent many long hours debating tradition versus cruelty. At the moment, the centuries-old castration practice remained, but Yi Zhen was thinking about making some very bold changes. Unfortunately, that was not on his mind today.
"I am very displeased with you," the emperor repeated.
Bo Tao kept his face as blank as possible. "Why?"
Yi Zhen stepped fully into the room, but he didn't sit. "Did you sleep with her?"
Bo Tao's eyes never wavered. "No." He'd never confess how close he came to taking her, though. Or how many times.
"You didn't beat her. You don't even beat eunuchs."
Bo Tao considered lying, but he knew he'd never get away with it. Instead, he let his gaze slide to the slivers of broken ivory in the corner. He'd smashed the ugly statue within seconds of her departure this afternoon.
"I humiliated her," he said with absolute truth.
"You can kill a Dutch envoy without blinking, but one virgin makes you smash a carving of an Immortal."
Bo Tao frowned. "I thought it was a badly done penis."
"Hmm." The silence stretched on until Bo Tao was nearly screaming. Then Yi Zhen abruptly folded his arms across his chest and thrust out his chin. "I could have you killed for playing with one of my virgins."
"You could have me killed for pissing in a pot. You're the Son of Heaven."
"She's my virgin."
"I know that."
"You're supposed to be figuring out which one would be best as an empress."
Yi Zhen was quiet again as he stared across the desk at his friend. The man still hadn't sat down, but towered above like the near-god he was supposed to be. "She spurned you, didn't she?"
Bo Tao clenched his jaw, the truth hovering on his tongue. No, he could say. No, she wants me as much as I want her. Then maybe his best friend would relent. Maybe Yi Zhen would give up one of his precious virgins to his childhood companion. Or maybe he would kill them both. With Yi Zhen, he never knew.
"I wanted to force her."
"You've never raped before."
Bo Tao shrugged. He was doing a lot of things he'd never done before.
"I could give her to you," Yi Zhen said.
Bo Tao's head snapped up, and his eyes narrowed almost to slits. What game was his friend playing?
"Would you like that?" Yi Zhen pressed.
Yi Zhen smiled, and for a brief moment, Bo Tao allowed himself to hope. For one wonderful, amazing moment. And then his hope was crushed.
"I could, but then we would never know."
Bo Tao's hands tightened into fists on the desk. He didn't bother to hide them. "Know what, Emperor Xian Feng?" He pushed to his feet, fury radiating out of him. "What do you want to know? How else may I serve the Dragon Throne? Do you want my blood? My spirit? What more do you want from me?"
Yi Zhen's smile grew cold. He liked that he had pushed Bo Tao to a show of temper. "I want to know if she would rather have me or you."
Fury boiled through Bo Tao. He slammed his fists onto the desk and leaned forward. "She is not a toy in a child's game! Marry her, fuck her, sire a whole damned nation out of her!" he screamed. "But do not play games like this with her. She deserves better!"
Yi Zhen raised his eyebrows, obviously enjoying Bo Tao's fit of temper. It was the same damn game they'd played as boys. No matter what Bo Tao did, whether he was faster, smarter or even crueler than his friend, Yi Zhen always had the upper hand. Yi Zhen was the emperor's son, and Bo Tao was not. In the end, all was given to Yi Zhen. Always.
And now the emperor relaxed. His smile remained as cold as ever, but now he dropped onto the couch. It was the very couch that Ji Yue had laid her clothing upon, the very couch where she had sprawled naked. And now it was the emperor there, sitting with a triumphant look in his eyes.
Bo Tao groaned, his spirit squirming in torment. "Yi Zhen, what do you want from me?"
"If she is a virgin on our wedding night, then you will get whatever appointment you desire. Name your position. Name your salary."
Bo Tao nearly sobbed. "How many times have you promised me that?"
The emperor shrugged. "This time it is true. I have written it down." He tossed a sealed scroll onto Bo Tao's desk. "Whatever you want, you shall have it at whatever salary you require. But only if she is a virgin on our wedding night."
Bo Tao's mouth went dry. His hands shook as he opened the scroll and saw his friend did not lie. "You intend to make her your empress?"
"Is she the best?"
He had to nod. It was the truth.
"Just make sure she screams my name when I fuck her." And with that, he pushed up from the couch and left.
BO TAO DID NOT SLEEP that night. He wandered through the dark and twisting passageways of the Forbidden City. He stared up at the home of the imperial virgins and fought the need to see her, to talk to her. He forced himself to walk away, then ended up in the tree platform watching another concubine "show." The very sight nauseated him, and yet he could not leave.
Was this what his future held? Staring at depraved shows, remembering stolen moments with the woman who would soon be empress? Ji Yue would never be seen through this window. She would be busy raising the next emperor and quietly helping to guide a nation.
He would have to leave. He knew he could not be anywhere near the empress without remembering, without thinking of how it felt to have her hand stroking him, her mouth surrounding him. He could not look at his couch without remembering her flushed skin as he brought her to fulfillment or how her body had writhed beneath his lips.
He would never be able to hide his thoughts from Yi Zhen. And though his emperor might be forgiving now, Yi Zhen was not known for his patience. He would not tolerate one of his closest advisors panting after his empress.
Bo Tao had to leave. He would pick a position far away from the Forbidden City, perhaps as ambassador to England or some other barbarian land. He would marry a political wife, someone who would not expect passion in her bed. Then he would sire a brood of children and think no more of Chen Ji Yue.
He dropped his head against the tree trunk and pushed the thought of her body from his mind. But that only reminded him that Ji Yue had other values. Her notes showed keen insight. If she were a man, he would hire her as his assistant and train her in the ways of politics. With the right guidance, she could become a fearsome leader and a great resource to the Dragon Throne.
But she was a woman, and her skills would make her the perfect empress. As a loyal bannerman, Bo Tao had sworn to give his life to the Dragon Throne. She was just one woman. Did his lust overrule his patriotism? Never! But what about love? Was love stronger than loyalty?
With a brutal curse, he left the concubines' display. He found himself once again staring up at the virgins' palace and praying that she would come out. Could he find a way to touch her again? Was there a way to risk a nightly dalliance? He toyed with the idea of overthrowing the entire government just so he could establish his own dynasty with her.
It was nearly dawn when he finally accepted that he was a fool. She was an empress-to-be, and he was not the emperor and never would be. If only she would come outside. He would hold her, and they could watch the dawn together. They would talk about unimportant things, and his spirit would quiet, his worries ease. If only…
He turned and left the Forbidden City. He was only torturing himself here. There was no hope for him and Ji Yue, and yet…As he walked through the gate from the Forbidden City into Peking proper, a kind of madness seized him. Looking out into the dark city, he knew that there was a world beyond the walls of the imperial city, beyond China itself. A whole world where he could carve a place for himself and Ji Yue. If only he dared. If only she dared.
But he had to be very careful. He didn't know if he was being trailed, if some spy somewhere would see him. He couldn't afford to take the risk. So with all semblance of despondency, he hailed a rickshaw to take him home. He entered as usual, climbed into bed as usual. Then, when he was sure any possible spy would believe he'd fallen asleep, he slipped out of bed, darkened his skin with dirt and donned coolie pants and hat. Though his body ached for rest, he crept from his own home and headed for the docks.