SUN BO TAO GROANED as his bed dropped to the street with a head-splitting thump. He cursed under his breath even as he wondered why he was dreaming about sleeping in the middle of a noisy Peking street. Then the sharp bark of command from a soldier cut through his dream and jerked him upright. Unfortunately, it didn't change his bizarre surroundings. His bed was still sitting in the middle of a Peking street. He could hear the cry of a hundred hawkers, and the smell of human waste was unmistakable.
He yawned wide enough to crack his jaw, the sound bringing enough awareness that he had to fully open his eyes. He was in a red silk bower surrounded by cushions and hidden from view by tattered silk curtains. Oh, yes, he was sitting in an imperial palanquin and not one of the better ones. He'd woken as the porters dropped the bower onto the city street. But why was he here instead of in his own carriage?
A memory teased at the corners of his mind, but he resolutely pushed it away. There was a reason he had drunk himself into a stupor last night, and he was fairly certain he didn't want to remember what it was. He did recall that he'd been on his way home—walking because he'd been too drunk to ride his horse—when he'd seen the imperial procession. Two soldiers in front of four porters carried a curtained bower through the city streets. A very small procession. It was headed somewhere in Peking—he didn't care where—then would eventually wend its way back to the Forbidden City. As that was his destination, he'd waved down the lead soldier, paid the bribe and slipped in while the porters were taking a rest break. This way he'd get a few more hours of sleep before he had to face the day.
He was just lying back down when a female wail cut through the relative peace of his secluded bower. And worse, it was quickly followed by more feminine screeching. Much as he tried to block out the sound, curiosity drew him out of sleep. Just how many women were wailing loud enough to wake their ancestors?
There was an annoying tear in the curtains. The sunlight streamed through it enough that he could peer out. But did he really want to know what was out there? Yes, apparently his curiosity was in full force today. So with a heavy sigh, he maneuvered himself to the side to look out. Roof tiles. He saw roof tiles first. Broken ones that clearly indicated he sat in a not-so-prosperous area of Peking. But he saw trees, too, and a songbird cage beside a long front wall. Not-so-poor, either, then. Middling aristocracy. He shifted up to his knees to adjust his view.
The father appeared first. Pinched face, short nose, but with a scholarly demeanor. There was refinement in his motions and a kind of tired dreaminess that confirmed Bo Tao's first thought: middling aristocracy. Probably a Manchu of the red banner tribe. Sure enough, he saw a brand-new silk banner on the archway, but that was the only new decoration. The rest of the house was falling into ruin. His gaze returned to the father, then moved lower still to a pair of silent prepubescent boys. The family would have great difficulty finding the money to educate those two.
Bo Tao yawned again and thought to lie back down. But as he shifted, he caught sight of the women. It was the mother who was making the primary racket, weeping and sobbing as only a woman could. It was all for show as she kissed her daughter goodbye. He counted ten paid wailers howling in the background, pulling at their hair and creating a solid wall of sound.
Was the palanquin for them? Were the porters supposed to pick up someone before returning to the Forbidden City? Not the mother, who was still wailing like a demon. Not the stoic father or too-young boys. Must be the girl. He narrowed his eyes, trying to get a look at the daughter. She appeared the right age for marriage, was of middling stature and certainly dressed in finery. He saw an embroidered gown and a curtain of ivory beads in front of her face. Ivory, not jade. Which meant she was not wealthy enough to become an imperial consort.
Ox piss! Now he remembered why he had drunk himself insensate yesterday. The Festival of Fertility commenced this morning. Yi Zhen, his double-damned best friend (now called Emperor Xian Feng, the pompous prick), had just finished mourning his father last night. Which meant he now began the royal process of picking wives and harems in order to beget the next Son of Heaven.
A full week would be given over to the search for beautiful and fertile women to grace Emperor Xian Feng's bed. Beauty and bribes, sex and petty backstabbing would rule the Forbidden City for at least a week, and not a single moment would be left for the practical matters of running the country. What a total waste of time!
Worse, a delegation of Dutch were coming to the Forbidden City this week. Bo Tao believed that the whites had to be handled with great care, that the world had many dangerous powers that were unknown in China. But Yi Zhen was overwhelmed with internal matters, with the Taiping rebellion in the northwest and China's increasingly corrupt infrastructure. He had no time to discuss Dutch delegates and no patience for his best friend, who warned of yet more struggles on a global stage.
Bo Tao should have left the Forbidden City as soon as his emperor showed signs of strain. He knew Yi Zhen's moods, and yet he had not been able to resist pushing his emperor to see the larger picture. That had been his last, most stupid mistake. After all, Bo Tao had no official status. He was merely the hellion of the Forbidden City, the boy who'd run wild with the emperor, playing games throughout the city-within-a-city. If he were an official appointee, if he were a general or a scholar or something with a title, then he might have had the status to force his friend to listen. But he was simply a consultant, a friend to the emperor, a man who saw the greed in the whites' eyes and feared it. And when he had pushed Yi Zhen to see it as well, his best friend had punished him.
His triple-damned emperor had named Bo Tao master of the festival! He said Bo Tao had become too serious and needed a week of frivolity to lighten his mood. Ox piss! Yi Zhen was merely flexing his royal muscles! Rather than deal with the coming Dutch delegation, Yi Zhen had ignored the issue, ordered Bo Tao to take care of the festival, and then laughed at his friend's stunned expression. It was just like when they were children! Whenever Yi Zhen had felt threatened, he would reassert his status as a royal prince. He'd usually make up some crime and have the eunuchs punish Bo Tao. That was how Bo Tao had learned the fine art of scrubbing kitchen pots or worse, cleaning chamber pots.
This was no different. But instead of a game, Bo Tao was suddenly in charge of scores of competitive, backstabbing, gossiping virgins! Just when the Dutch delegation was due to arrive!
He glared out the torn curtain at the girl who might very well become one of his charges by the end of the day. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to assess her prospects and understand why she was marked as special. She had to have something unique to rank an imperial palanquin, even a shabby one.
Nothing. There was nothing distinctive about her to catch the emperor's eye, and not enough money on this whole street to pay the bribes that would be required to pass through the minefield that was the imperial court. The girl was doomed. And yet here she was in her richly embroidered gown, kneeling before her parents while paid women wailed.
Just as well that his presence in her palanquin would keep her from entering the competition. Once he was discovered in her conveyance, she would not be able to enter the litter. His male yang energy poisoned the virginal bower. She would have to arrange for an alternate way to reach the Forbidden City.
But there wasn't time even if her family had the money for another carriage. Not if she intended to make it to the gate by the appointed hour. Tardiness was not allowed in prospective royal consorts. Fortunately, he wasn't dooming anyone who would have made it through the Forbidden City gates. At least this way, the girl was spared the long and humiliating walk home.
All in all, he decided as he collapsed back down onto a pillow, it was better that he was here ruining her chances. And as an added bonus, he could grab another hour's sleep before he had to begin his double-damned duties in the coming Farce of Fertility.
CHEN JI YUE STRUGGLED to breathe. Excitement pounded in her blood, she was already dizzy with the noise, and yet she still could not draw a full breath. How blessed she was to be of the right age for a Festival of Fertility! Only a few hundred girls every few decades had such an opportunity! To catch the eye of the emperor was every girl's dream. That she would save her family from poverty, as well, only added to her joy. But first, she had to escape all these wailing women!
"Mama," she murmured from behind the clattering ivory beads. "Let me go. I cannot be late."
"Not yet, little heart. Show respect to your father."
She'd already bowed to her father—early this morning for real and outside again for show. "Mama, believe in me. I can do it."
Mama didn't hear her. She was busy wailing again. And worse, she would not let go of Ji Yue's hands.
"Mama…" Ji Yue began, but then her mother pulled her close.
"You won't win the emperor on beauty, Ji Yue. You must be smart. You must see what others don't and capitalize on it."
"I know. You've told me…" Ji Yue let her voice trail away. This close, she noticed there were real tears in her mother's eyes, and her heart lurched with pain. What would it be like not to see her mother's face every morning? Who would help her father with his poetry or tutor her brothers? Mama, most likely, but Mama already had plenty to do squeezing every penny so they had enough to eat.
"That playboy Sun Bo Tao was named master of the festival," her mother continued. "This is very bad and very dangerous. He is a hanger-on because of his friendship with the emperor. No title, no education, nothing but trouble. Avoid him, Ji Yue. Avoid him at all costs!"
"I know, Mama. I will stay away from him. I promise!"
"You can't! He is master of the festival! He is in charge of all the imperial virgins. Remember what I taught you—follow the Confucian virtues, think pure thoughts, but see what the men do not. I trained you to be a political wife, and the first rule of politics is to not get caught by a man of no virtue."
"I know, Mama," Ji Yue repeated. "Have faith in me. I will become the empress." If she succeeded, then her entire family would be set for generations. They would become royalty and have all the money they needed. All she had to do was catch the emperor's eye.
"Go now. Go before your father unmans himself and cries." Mama pushed her away. Ji Yue didn't need the prompting to leave. She was anxious to begin her new life even though her fingers clung to Mama's arm. But it was hard to see through her curtain of beads, harder still to walk on the high platform shoes. Thankfully, this, too, had been rehearsed.
The elder of her brothers ran to her side to escort her with all dignity to the imperial palanquin. It had been an exorbitant expense to get the conveyance, but it was the only pull her father had in the Forbidden City. He had spent a year tutoring a eunuch's nephew and in return had been promised a single favor. Papa had used it to obtain this beautiful ride to the Forbidden City. A future empress should arrive like an empress, he'd said, but that was all he could do. After this, she would have to catch the emperor's favor on her own.
The wailers grew louder as she and her brother neared the curtained palanquin. Her brother was to release her hand now and throw open the bower curtains so she could enter. He began to move away, but she suddenly gripped his arm, holding him still.
It was a silly thought, she knew, but she didn't want her brother's last sight of her to be one of extraordinary lavishness. They had so little, and even less now that so much had been spent to outfit her. She did not want her brother to see the interior luxury of the palanquin. After she became the new empress, she would send him exquisite silks as a royal gift. He need not see them now.
"Take care of Papa," she murmured as a last goodbye to her brother. "Make sure he drinks his special tea." Her brother hovered uncertainly beside her, unsure what to do now that she had changed the plan. "Go back to Papa," she said to him. "Study hard so that you can join me in the Forbidden City." There were jobs as advisors to the Dragon Throne, but only for scholars who passed the exam. She nudged him back even as she tottered forward to the bower. With one last smile that they couldn't even see, she ducked inside the palanquin.
It was dark inside, and with the beads in front of her face, she couldn't see a thing. She went by touch, crawling inside with little dignity and much speed. The cushions moved awkwardly beneath her hands until she touched a very hard one that remained stable. She pushed down, levering her weight on it.
The curtains slipped closed behind her, and one of the porters grunted as the palanquin lifted off the street. She slid off the heavy cushion onto something else. Goodness, silk was slippery. And the cushions were bizarre. The palanquin began to sway as it moved away from her family home. She wanted to peer out the curtain, but she didn't dare do something so vulgar even though the tears burned in her eyes.
She would never see her family again. Once inside the Forbidden City, no consort ever came out again. Her father might be able to arrange to visit, but such things were rare even among those more politically astute than her father. Her mother had less power, and her brothers wouldn't be allowed unless they gave up their manhood first and became eunuchs, or passed the exam and became advisors.
Ji Yue widened her eyes in the darkness, trying to dry the tears. She didn't dare cry because it would ruin the white matte that covered her face. Instead, she kicked hard at the cushions that refused to move.
"Ugh," someone grunted. Then she felt a hand grip her ankle hard.
Only years of training kept her from screaming. Ladies didn't scream. By the time she was ten, she'd faced down rats, spiders and snakes without a peep. She would not scream now when riding in an imperial palanquin. She simply kicked as hard as she could to dislodge—
"Ow! Hold still, damn it. I'm not here to rape you."
A man. Oh, heaven, a man! "Get out!" she ordered as she tried to scramble backward. She couldn't go far without falling out the back end. "Get out or I will kick you again!" It was a silly threat. He had an iron grip on her ankle.
"Quit fighting," he said in a low undertone.
"You cannot be here!" she said, and shoved as hard as she could. He lifted her leg up so that all she did was kick the air above his head. "I will scream!"
"Would you really scream? And let everyone know that a man is riding with you to the Forbidden City?"
She bit her lip, then promptly stopped since that would eat off the red paint. Her mother had told her to be smart. It was time she started using her brain instead of her extremely ineffective brawn. "What do you want?" she spat. "I have no money for you. Be thankful if you are not whipped for daring to touch an imperial consort."
He was still holding her ankle prisoner. Worse, he was putting his weight on it now as he maneuvered into a sitting position. "You're not going to be a royal bride. I'm sorry but it's true." Then he yawned while horror chilled her bones.
"You insolent pig!" She kicked again for all she was worth. He was still yawning, his head thrown back with his inhalation. Her leg slipped from his grip and caught him square in the ribs. This cut off his breath, and he doubled over with a gasp. She didn't give him time to recover but shifted and planted both feet on his hips and began to shove him right out the side of her bower.
He fought her, of course, but she was prepared. He didn't grab hold of her. Instead, his fists were filled with crumpled silk. "If I fall out now, everyone will see it," he warned. "You do not have enough ivory to silence so exciting a story—a man in a potential bride's palanquin."
She paused. One last push and he would go tumbling through the curtains out into the dirt where he belonged. "They already know from the weight," she said miserably.
"No, they don't. They carried me here, remember? They think it's just a heavy litter."
She swallowed, torn between two miserable options. Did she kick him out and pray that people believed in her purity? Never. Or did she let him stay and hope no one was the wiser. "How did you get in here in the first place?"
"I slipped in when they rested. I can slip out again at the gates. I do it all the time and no one notices."
Now that her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, she could see more of him. He was not a broad man like those carrying the palanquin, but tall like her father. His clothing was excellent, though the long queue down his back was misshapen from sleep.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"A lackey for the Son of Heaven," he said with obvious bitterness.
"Eunuch?" she asked hopefully. It was well known that some of the "cut" men were overly friendly.
He released a sharp bark of laughter at that, and she abruptly shushed him. "No," he said in a lower tone. "I am not so important as to be cut."
She frowned. "I thought all minions to the emperor were eunuchs. Who else would do the things the royals despise?"
"Me," he groused. "And a few others."
She shook her head. "I do not believe you." It was well known that except for a few intimates of the emperor, all men in the Forbidden City were eunuchs. This man couldn't be an imperial friend. Otherwise he would have his own conveyance and therefore no need to borrow hers. The eunuchs, on the other hand, would often escape into Peking for pleasure. They would also, therefore, need a secret way back into the city.
She narrowed her eyes, inspecting this man more closely. "You dress too finely to be common. You speak too well to be ignorant. And your hands…" She jutted her chin at his long, elegant fingers. "They are used to a brush and ink, not labor. You must be a secretary then, someone who works as an assistant to the emperor." She sighed in relief. "Which means you are a eunuch pretending to be whole. There is nothing exciting about an overly friendly eunuch, even if he lands in the dirt." And with that, she shoved him out of her bower.
He tumbled backward into the dust. She would forever remember the look of stunned shock on his face as he fell. And when she rolled over to peer after him, she heard the porters laugh. The Insolent One, as she now dubbed him, had landed in some rotting leaves. His fine dark clothing was smeared with grime. She couldn't see his face, though, as the porters carried her on by.
Then, with a sigh, she deftly removed two strings of ivory beads from her headdress. She would have to bribe the porters into silence. That was a good deal of money to lose before she even reached the gates, but there was no hope for it. She couldn't risk them speaking, even about an insolent eunuch. In the end, her father's grand gesture—like all his great gifts—had cost too much money to be worthwhile.
Thankfully, she was about to change that. When she became an imperial bride, money would flow like water through her family's door. And on that happy thought, she reclined alone on the silk cushions and waited for the first test.