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Chapter 18

IT TOOK A MOMENT for Bo Tao to realize the doctor thought Ji Yue had been raped by a white devil. It was a reasonable guess. Many had seen Ji Yue on her back fighting those apes, and a surge of rage shot through him again at the memory.

"I came as quickly as I could," he said. "I spent the day in the city and didn't hear about the party until too late."

She bustled forward, coming to sit before Ji Yue, but her words remained for Bo Tao. "Nine virgins, Bo Tao. How could this happen?"

"Because the eunuchs are corrupt," he snapped. "I kill the Dutch who bring in bribes of opium, then not one day later Han Du Yu brings in a case to bribe the head eunuch. With the emperor away this night to dine with General Li, it was the perfect opportunity." How stupid he had been not to guess that something like this could happen!

"Can you prove it?" the physician asked.

He shook his head. "Not yet. I merely guess. But it does not matter, does it?" He rubbed a hand over his face, his gaze on Ji Yue. Was there a way to save her life? The punishment for the loss of virginity was death. It did not matter the cause or who was at fault, her honor was gone. She would have to commit suicide even if someone else pushed her neck into the noose that hung her.

The physician cursed under her breath. "How did you hear of it then? Duan Xu usually covers his tracks better."

Bo Tao had set a spy on Ji Yue, a eunuch he trusted to watch her every movement when he was not there. Unfortunately, the coward had been too afraid to interfere against the two most powerful eunuchs in the Forbidden City.

"It was well planned by more than just Duan Xu."

Ji Yue shifted, her words a near whisper. "The head eunuch was there. He pushed us through the secret door."

Bo Tao grimaced, his fears confirmed. "He and the dowager consort are thick as thieves. They likely chose the girls together. They picked the ones they wanted disgraced."

"Bitch," the doctor said under her breath. "There was no need to do such a thing."

Ji Yue abruptly pushed up on the pallet. Her gaze remained panicked, but at least her body seemed composed. "How are the other girls?"

"Hysterical," the doctor answered. "They all know their chances have been ruined." She glanced at Bo Tao. "And there will be much blame attached to you. You are master of the festival. He could order"

"I know." Bo Tao could be killed for failing to protect the virgins under his care. "I should have been here. I should have watched things more closely."

The doctor sighed as she pushed Ji Yue gently back onto the bed. "Come, come. Let me see"

"No," interrupted Bo Tao firmly. "You have examined her. She is like the othershigh on opium, terrified, but not damaged."

The doctor stopped with her hand on Ji Yue's knee. "And if she is bleeding inside? Would you have her die in her sleep?"

That, at least, was one worry he could put to rest. "It was not that bad," he said softly.

The doctor's eyes narrowed on Bo Tao. She had known him from his youngest days. She had been at his birth and watched him run wild with Yi Zhen throughout the Forbidden City. She knew him, perhaps, even better than his own mother.

"She might escape death," she said softly. "Perhaps a mercy marriage to someone else might be allowed."

"No!" Ji Yue breathed. "The shame would be known by all. My father. My brothers!" She swallowed and gripped the woman's hands, drawing the doctor's attention back to her. "My family isis not as wealthy as it might seem. A disgraced virgin would put an end to any work for my father as an imperial scholar." She shook her head. "My brothers' education, my mother's food, my father's livelihoodthey all depend upon our connection to the Forbidden City. If I were to disgrace myself" Her eyes shifted to Bo Tao. "There are other scholars anxious to take my father's place. Others who do not have my taint."

Her stricken expression was like a blow to Bo Tao's gut. "Ji Yue," he began, but she shook her head.

"My immorality will follow my whole family."

She wasn't referring to simply being thrown out of the Forbidden City. She was referring to his plan to run away, to escape and live with him in love.

Ji Yue looked down at her hands. "I cannot take my own happiness over the lives of my family. I simply cannot."

Her words were a death knell to his hopes and dreams. Then the doctor made it worse. "What if the emperor demands honor suicides from all of you?" she asked. "What good will that do when the eunuchs come with rope and tie your neck to a beam?"

Bo Tao saw the shudder course through Ji Yue's body. He took a step forward, wanting to soothe her fears, wanting to promise that nothing like that would happen to her. But he couldn't. In truth, the soldiers might even now be searching for him. His neck was by no means safe. After all, he was master of the festival, and he had allowed nine virgins to be ruined.

"Think, Ji Yue," he said to her. "Think of all the possibilities." He willed her to look into his eyes. He silently urged her to remember what he offereda ship ready to take them away, an escape for the two of them. To his delight, she did lift her head, she did meet his gaze, and he believed she understood what he offered.

But in the end, she turned away. "My heart goes one way, and if it were only me, I would gladly follow it. But the moment I stepped inside the Forbidden City, I chose family over my happiness. I will not dishonor my family now." Her voice was dull, but he heard the steel beneath it. She would not hurt her family, which made her more honorable than him.

"Do you know what you risk?" His voice broke on the last word. Even if she escaped this disaster, even if she was allowed to remain without committing suicide, she had clearly made an enemy of the dowager consort and the head eunuch. Her life would be a misery. And his life would be a misery watching her. Heedless of the doctor beside him, he dropped to his knees before Ji Yue. "You would do this for your family's honor?"

"I do not blame you," she said. Then she stiffened her spine. "If something happens to me, will you see that my family has work?" He understood the unspoken message. If they were to run away together, there would be no one here to see that her family did not suffer any consequences.

"Of course, but"

She looked at the doctor. "There are ways, are there not? To prevent pregnancy? And to fake virginity?"

The doctor grimaced. "It will be hard to fool the emperor. You will not be his first virgin."

She shrugged. "If it comes to that, I will already be his wife. It would shame him as much as me."

Bo Tao almost snorted. "Do not count on Yi Zhen thinking that way."

Her eyes met his. "But you will still be here to assure"

"Yes, yes," he snapped. "I will look after your father. But you, Ji Yue" He bit his lip. "Does your life mean nothing?"

She reached out and touched his cheek, the stroke so tender, so exquisite that he shuddered at the beauty of it. "A woman's life is to bring beauty and honor to her family and her husband. We have no honor or purpose beyond that. You know this as well as I do."

He knew. All the love stories in China ended with death. It was the only way to preserve honor. "You are smart, Ji Yue. Surely you can think of another way."

She shook her head. "I am an imperial virgin. Even in the lowest harem, I will bring honor and prosperity to my family. That was why I came to the Forbidden City in the first place." Her gaze sharpened on the doctor. "I am an imperial virgin, aren't I?"

The doctor sighed and glanced at Bo Tao. He gave a barely perceptible nod in confirmation. He would give the physician an excellent bribe for her part in faking Ji Yue's virginity.

"Yes," the doctor said with a crisp assurance. "But you should rest all day tomorrow to recover. As I have already examined you, you will not need to do so again with the other virgins." Then she glanced sharply at Bo Tao. "Provided, of course, that the emperor does not demand"

"He will not. The only dishonor is on the traitors who created the party in the first place." He pushed to his feet. He had to do what he could to mitigate the disaster and to be sure that the blame fell where it belonged. "I must go." He looked down with great regret at Ji Yue. "I will make sure that your honor and your family's status are not harmed." He said it as a vow and silently prayed that he could keep his promise.

Ji Yue nodded in gratitude.

"Stay and care for her, please," he said to the physician. Then he looked one last time into Ji Yue's eyes. She had made her choice, and he could not fault her for it. She had chosen honor over love, her family over herself. With a bow of greatest respect, he turned and left.

It was time to face an emperor's wrath.

Chapter 17 | The Concubine | Chapter 19