JI YUE DID NOT SEE Bo Tao that day. She searched for him discreetly. She prayed that every time she turned a corner, he would be there waiting. But she had to appear as if she didn't want, didn't yearn for even the slightest view of him. The constant pretending was giving her a terrible headache, but she consoled herself that if she were caught, she could claim to be watching for the emperor instead. After all, that's what all the other virgins were doing.
They were less than two days away from the final selection. All the remaining virgins would be brides, but what level of bride was still to be determined. The only examination left was the last verification of virginity. Excitement was mounting, now that everyone knew they would end up in one harem or another. The virgins' days were occupied with etiquette instruction. Ji Yue was taught how an imperial consort sat (beautifully), how she should eat (sparingly), how she should walk (rarely and with great beauty) and what she should say (nothing). The head eunuch was in charge of this instruction, and Ji Yue did her best to fade into the background. Unfortunately, that only increased his tight-lipped criticism of all she did. Meals, of course, were the worst. The dowager's critical eye missed nothing. And if she did, someone else was sure to tattle. Ji Yue had never met so many gossiping, backstabbing women. She certainly had never expected to live her life among them!
Worse, Ji Yue had an extra layer of deception to maintain during meals. After all, she was supposed to have a secret, near undeniable craving for food and sweets. So she had to remember to eat her food almost furtively, her hand motions a little rushed. Her anxiety needed to be clear but under the surface. Which soon created a very real problem with her food. One minute she really was starving, and the next she couldn't even face it.
And still Bo Tao stayed away. By the end of the evening meal, Ji Yue had worked herself into a state of high anxiety. She was convinced he had sent the message last night, and that she had failed him. He was now lying dead in some Peking garbage heap because she'd spurned him. The idea was completely ridiculous, but that didn't stop her imagination from running wild. If a messenger came to her tonight, nothing would keep her from going.
Fortunately, the messenger came before the final undressing. A eunuch sidled up to her as she was brushing out her hair. Though many girls kept their hair glued up for practical reasons, Ji Yue had never liked the feel of it, like a heavy brick upon her head. So she took the extra time every day and night to brush it out. Tonight, a pair of soft male hands pulled the brush away from her. She glanced up in shock at the pale-faced eunuch who immediately began stroking her with a too-gentle touch.
"What are you doing?" she said as she tried to jerk her head away.
Underneath the brush, he grabbed a hunk of her hair and held her firm. Apparently, the eunuch was a lot stronger than he looked. She glared at him in the mirror and fought the urge to grimace. First she had to know what he wanted. But she didn't have to treat him nicely to find out.
"Do you know," she drawled, "that even a clean man—" that was the euphemism for a eunuch "—will feel great pain when hit hard in the groin. I understand some even pass out."
In the mirror the eunuch's eyes widened and he softened his grip on her hair. But he did not release her. "I bring you a message," he whispered. "You are to come with me to speak with the emperor."
So, not a message from Bo Tao. Her eyes stung more from that than the pain of having this man's meaty fist wrapped around her hair. She lifted her chin. "I do not believe the emperor would send someone as brutal as you. Release my hair now or suffer as only a man can."
He relaxed his grip, and she twisted her head away from him. Then she held out her hand for the brush. He gave it to her carefully, obviously afraid that she might beat him with it.
"You may leave now," she said.
He didn't move. Instead, he gestured out her window. "It is not just you, Virgin Chen Ji Yue. Others have been asked to a private audience."
She didn't want to look; she was certain this was a trick. And yet her gaze was drawn to the window nonetheless. Was Bo Tao out there waiting in the shadows? No. But she did see three virgins being escorted somewhere. Each was accompanied by a eunuch, but the girls did not seem to be struggling. If anything, they appeared excited. Unfortunately, she couldn't see well enough to know which of the virgins had been selected.
"Who goes to this special audience?"
"Are you scared?" he taunted. Then his gaze grew sly. "There will be food there. Special treats that are the emperor's favorite."
Definitely a trick, but now she was caught in her own lies. If she were indeed desperate for sweets, this would be just the lure to get her to comply. She had to reassure the dowager consort that she could be manipulated by food. She had to keep on the dowager's good side at least for two more days, until after the final selection. Which meant…
Which meant she was just making excuses for herself. She wanted to go, if only because she might see Bo Tao. It wasn't likely, but she would have no chance if she sat here brushing her hair.
"Chen Ji Yue!" the eunuch hissed. "You must come now or not at all!"
She pushed up from her chair. "I will come." He reached out to take her arm, but she jerked it away. "I will walk on my own." It was a false reassurance. The eunuch was clearly stronger than she was, but at least this way she could run if she had to.
The eunuch bowed to her, his manner vaguely condescending. He knew more than he was saying, but she could think of no way to get the information out of him. So she simply gestured him ahead. She would follow and keep a wary eye out for problems. And for Bo Tao.
They moved quickly through the Forbidden City. To her surprise, two more girls were being ushered ahead. And straight to the emperor's palace! It couldn't possibly be a real appointment with the emperor, could it? The prospect made her heart race. She would make a better impression this time. She wouldn't talk about insurgents or peasants or anything political at all. She would be sweet and beautiful and…
Oh no! Her hair was still down, flowing about her back like a washer girl's. "Wait!" she panted. "I must fix my hair."
"There isn't time," the eunuch replied. "Besides, he likes it better this way. Do you think the timing is accidental? He wants you in partial dress."
Her hands hovered about her head in indecision. She didn't know what to believe or whom to trust. If only she could see Bo Tao. If only…
But he wasn't here, and she would have to do her best without him. Remembering the way Bo Tao loved touching her hair, how he'd stroked it and buried his face in it, she decided to leave it down. Bo Tao liked her hair free, perhaps the emperor would, too. And why, oh, why couldn't her heart beat fast at the thought of seeing the emperor rather than Bo Tao?
They made it to an entrance hidden by trees and a walled garden. She looked nervously at the opening. Once she stepped through that door, she would be trapped. But they were at the emperor's palace. She couldn't afford to waste this opportunity. And maybe Bo Tao lurked in a darkened room just inside. So with a last glance about her, she nodded her head and ducked inside.
"This way, virgin," a man's voice sneered.
She glanced behind her for the eunuch who had escorted her, but he had not followed her inside. The last she saw of him was his leering grin as he closed the door.
"This way," the voice repeated from deeper inside. She looked down the hallway and saw the head eunuch half illuminated by a lantern.
"This is really a meeting with the emperor?" she breathed, hurrying forward. The head eunuch would not be here otherwise, would he?
"The emperor will be watching," the man responded. "See that you perform as instructed."
She slowed her steps and pretended to play with her hair. This was clearly a trap of some kind. The eunuchs were acting too slyly, but how did she protect herself? "Perform how? What am I to do?"
"As you are instructed," he repeated. Then he stepped fully into the shadows such that the light fell upon a recessed door. "Inside there, virgin."
She couldn't go in blindly. Anything could be on the other side! So she started to take a step back. But just at that moment, another virgin was pushed into the hallway. It was Li Fei, the girl from the country who was the closest Ji Yue had to a friend among the virgins. Her eyes were huge in her pale face and a nervous giggle betrayed her anxiety.
"Ji Yue, have you been ordered to come, too? Well, of course you have. I mean he noticed you that very first night. You know, when we were celebrating the defeat of the Taiping. Of course, you didn't do so well then, but you're here now. Your hair is down. Are you sure you don't—"
"You are late!" snapped the head eunuch. "Hurry up! Inside now!" He grabbed hold of Li Fei and dragged her forward.
Ji Yue tried to stop them, but there was no room. The head eunuch shoved Li Fei, who in turn stumbled into Ji Yue and pushed her straight into a room hazy with a dirty, bluish smoke.
Li Fei immediately started coughing. Ji Yue's eyes watered, but she was more used to the smell of men's tobacco. Her father loved to smoke after dinner. Except this smell was more than just tobacco. It included opium, spiced teas and men. A lot of men.
"We should leave," Ji Yue murmured. "Now."
To her credit, Li Fei did not argue. She had stopped coughing, but her eyes were watering enough that the black makeup around them was smudged. Ji Yue backed up and felt for the door. She couldn't find it. She spun around, but all she could see was the flat panel of a painted wall. There was a latch somewhere. There had to be!
"Hey ho! Another one!" a man's voice called out in the coarse dialect of Canton.
Male cheers responded and suddenly someone grabbed hold of her arm. Ji Yue tried to jerk free, but he was large and strong, and when she looked up into his face, she saw he was a white man like those from the Dutch envoy.
She would have screamed, but her throat had closed off in terror. Beside her, Li Fei did better. She jerked back from her captor and screamed, "White devil!"
Crack! Li Fei's head snapped back as her captor backhanded her. This time a squeak of alarm managed its way out of Ji Yue's throat, but that was all the sound she made as her own captor lifted his arm threateningly. She braced for the blow, raising her arm to block it and adjusting her body to kick the brute right between his legs. She doubted this one was a eunuch. He would feel her blow for certain.
But a voice stopped her. "Do not be afraid, virgins," the man said in a high voice. It was Duan Xu, the head eunuch's favorite assistant. "The emperor wished you brought here to entertain our guests." He sauntered forward, a pipe in his hands. "Take a breath. It will help relax your fears."
"That's opium," Ji Yue guessed.
Duan Xu smiled. "Have you always wanted a taste? Have some. The emperor's special gift to you."
"No, it's not," she snapped. She scanned the room quickly, looking for a way to escape. She saw a dozen or more men—white and Chinese—all lounging throughout the room. The opium smokers were obvious by their glazed looks. Unfortunately, there were not many. The others drank or leered at the other virgins in the room. All of the girls had a pipe pressed to their lips.
And nowhere did she see an exit.
The white man grabbed the pipe and brought it to her face. He was saying something and smiling as if his doglike voice would reassure her. She fought him. She kicked and punched, but he was much too large and she was backed up against a wall with him on one side and a eunuch on the other. They pinned her head and pushed the pipe to her lips.
"Don't waste it!" he growled.
She couldn't move her head. Fortunately that helped her keep her lips sealed. She would not put that foul thing in her mouth! She would not!
Pain lanced through her belly. The eunuch had punched her! She gasped in shock, her knees crumpling beneath her. But the white man was there holding her up by her head. And sweet hot smoke filled her lungs.
No! But it was too late. She had breathed, and the sweet feel of it was…like duck feathers…soft down in her head and blood.
Then it was gone. She frowned as she took more deep breaths. She didn't want the opium smoke, and yet part of her already mourned its loss. Glancing to the side, she saw Li Fei in a similar state. Her skin was pale except for the angry red mark on her cheek. Her body was still held by her captor, but she was not fighting. In fact, her gaze followed the opium pipe as it was pulled away.
"No," Ji Yue said, trying to force an authority into her voice. "This is wrong. We are imperial virgins."
Someone responded, but she didn't understand his words. The other men did, though, and their laughter boomed in the room. Then she saw something that brought true fear to her heart. It was hard to see clearly through the smoke and the press of men. The eunuch dragged her forward, pulling her relentlessly, though she still tried to struggle. She was moving to a line of men. Were they pulling off their pants?
They were! All in a line, Chinese and white, their pants at their feet as they stood with organs proudly displayed. And like all boys, they laughed and mocked one another while each of the girls was dragged forward.
"What are you doing?" gasped one of the virgins. "I should not see this!"
At least Ji Yue was not the only girl who tried to protest. But not one of them was able to fight. All too soon, she and Li Fei joined the others in a line facing the men and their naked organs. She was pushed to her knees. Right before her eyes was a man—a white man with hairy legs and a terrible smell. His organ stuck out in front of her like a skinny, red slug. Compared with Bo Tao's penis, the man's seemed like a thin writing brush.
She fought the urge to vomit, but she was held fast by her hair. Damn her hair! She should never have left it loose.
"This is wrong!" she said again, appealing to the eunuch Duan Xu. "Why would you shame us so?"
If he heard her, he didn't acknowledge it. He was having too great a time laughing at the women. Ji Yue did not understand all the words, but she caught the meaning. They were judging the girls' bodies in the most crude manner.
"I will not—" she began, but was rapidly silenced by a hard jerk on her hair.
"She needs more opium!" her eunuch captor called in guttural Cantonese.
"No!" she snapped. "No, I won't!"
"Much more!" laughed a man with a pipe. Except he did not release his grip on it.
The white man leaned forward. "Do as you're told, virgin. Or we will choose another way to find our pleasure. And you won't be called a virgin any longer."
Ji Yue trembled. She did not doubt him for a second. They would rape her if she did not comply. But she also feared they would rape her even if she did agree. Her only hope was to delay as long as possible until the men passed out from their drink and smoke.
"I am going to vomit!" she cried.
She was rewarded with a another yank on her hair. "Do so and you will lie in it as I spread your legs. Do you understand?"
She nodded as she blinked back her tears. Meanwhile, the eunuch Duan Xu took his place at the end of the double line. "Virgins!" he called. "Listen, virgins! You are here because the emperor has assigned you a special test to verify your skill as a wife."
Ji Yue did not want to look at the man. She already knew what was coming. She had no wish to see the bastard's gloating face as he spouted lies.
"Do you know what a wife does, virgins? I will tell you. A wife brings satisfaction to her husband." One of the girls began to cry. Within seconds, the opium pipe was put to her lips. "Before you is a man's organ," continued Duan Xu. "The emperor wishes to see who can bring that man satisfaction first. The winner will gain a special prize! Begin."
No one moved. No one except the men who surrounded them. The eunuch used his grip on Ji Yue's hair to move her face forward. The man in front of her thrust his hips at her, pushing his wet tip into her nose. She reared back, but there was nowhere to go. She could tell from the sounds that the other virgins were being treated with equal brutality. So she did the only thing she could.
She reached up with both hands. She took hold of the horrible thing with all her strength, and she squeezed. She even used her nails.
The white man screamed and hit her about the head. She saw it coming and avoided the first of his wild blows, but the eunuch behind her still had a firm grip on her hair. The second blow caught her on the top of her head. That threw her far enough away that the white man was able to scramble backward, pulling his organ from her grip. But she had not released him and she felt her nails cut long scrapes off the narrow thing.
Meanwhile, she slammed her elbow backward into her captor. She connected with his upper thigh, and he grunted in pain but he did not release her. He threw her to the ground. Her shoulder and head landed painfully hard, but at least she was free. She tried to scramble away then, but she was too slow.
Someone grabbed her leg, twisting her painfully so that she landed on her back. She screamed and kicked, but someone else dropped hard onto her chest, pinning her to the ground. Rough hands grabbed her head and legs. And then another pipe was pressed to her lips.