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Chapter 19

THE TAINTED VIRGINS were quarantined, Bo Tao was disgraced and six eunuchs were whipped, two of them so badly that they were not expected to live. Ji Yue heard the news with the stoicism of an empty heart. The other girls in quarantine with her sobbed or had maidenly hysterics on a regular basis. During the noon meal, the head eunuch came and apologized for the grave mental illness of his subordinate who had perpetrated such a heinous crime. He told all of them that they would be allowed to return home to their families without disgrace.

No one left, of course. They all knew it was a lie. And no one dared say that it had been the head eunuch who had met them at the door to the palace and who had directed them inside. In such a way, the virgins hoped to buy favor with the evil man.

The dowager consort visited later that day. She went from room to room, a sly smile on her face as she praised their new quarters. It was to become the home for the lowest harem. She spent the most time in Ji Yue's bedroom. She complimented Ji Yue's bravery and confided that the man she had gripped was permanently maimed. Then she remarked on how wonderful it was that her son was so open-minded as to not require honor killings for them all. They would become wives despite everything!

Ji Yue did as was expected. She kissed the ground in thanks for the emperor's generosity. Then she lifted her head and pinned the dowager consort with a dark stare. She had not been able to forget Bo Tao's comment that the dowager had probably helped plan this disgrace. She didn't look away but simply stared and wondered. And the longer she looked, the darker the dowager's color became.

"I would have helped you, Dowager Consort," Ji Yue finally said. "I would have seen to your comfort out of respect for your place as his mother." She straightened up from the floor, then made it to her feet. But the dowager did not let her leave.

"And what will you do now?" The question was half taunt, half fear.

Ji Yue arched her brow and made her next words a vow. "I will see that you get the honor and respect you deserve." Then she walked away, knowing she had just declared the most powerful woman in the Forbidden City as her enemy. It was a foolish thing to do, and yet the petty vengeance felt right. Worse, all sorts of possible slights and petty revenges came easily to mind. In this way she soothed her own battered heart.

By evening she grew sick of her own thoughts. Revenges she would never enact could not distract her for long from her real pain, the ache of losing the love of her life. She could have fled the country with Bo Tao. She could even now be lying in his arms, dreaming of the sons that they would have.

If she had run, would her father really have been destroyed? Would her mother truly have committed suicide from the shame? It was a possibility, she knew, but would they have actually done it? And if she was doomed to the lowest harem anyway, would the emperor truly care if she escaped with his best friend? Would he really punish two such insignificant beings when he had all of China to oversee? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

She collapsed onto her knees before the fire, her eyes watching the dance of the flames. She felt like the burning log, on fire and slowly turning into a tiny knot of black ash. Was she withering now after one day in disgrace? How would she survive after a year in the lowest harem? Or worse, how would she live after a year of running in terror from an angry emperor?

The choices collided in her heart and her mind. One moment she thought she would run to Bo Tao and beg him on her knees to take her from here. The next would have her crying for her mother and the shame that could destroy everything at home. And in that dark moment, she heard the one voice she most hoped and feared to hear.

"Virgins!" Bo Tao called. "The emperor has brought you a present."

She spun around, her heart leaping to her throat as she looked through her doorway. His expression was hard, as if frozen into place. She detected no softness in his eyes or his demeanor, and yet she thought his gaze lingered on her face. Did he see her tears and her regrets? She ducked her head in shame. She did not want to increase his suffering with her own. Head down, she slowly stood, leaving her room to join the other virgins in the main gathering place.

He watched her come into the center of the room. She knew it because her body tingled with awareness, but when she glanced up, his face was turned to the room at large. He looked over all the girls, his expression hard but his eyes sad. And then he held up nine red ribbons with a cheap monkey charm in the center.

"Virgins," he said again. "The emperor apologizes for the insult given to you last night. He gives you this token of his esteem and bids you wear it tomorrow during the final selection of his brides."

Silence greeted his words. All understood the meaning behind the gesture. After all, the emperor could not remember which of the thirty-six remaining virgins were the ones who had been insulted by the white apes last night. But this necklace, this cheap monkey charm would identify them as clearly as a black, ugly smear across their faces.

Ji Yue winced at the unfairness of it all. But in the silence following Bo Tao's pronouncement, Ji Yue felt a spark of intelligence. Suddenly she was lifting her head and pinning the disgraced master with her stare. "We are all commanded to wear this?"

He nodded, his chin dipping with a firm, angry motion.

"But does the emperor say where we are to display the sign of his generosity?"

Bo Tao's lips curved in a slow smile. "I, too, have been punished," he said firmly, "for you virgins were in my care. I am punished for allowing such a heinous event in the first place. And so it is with great honor and humility that I wear my mark of shame here." Then to everyone's shock, he unbuttoned the top of his jacket. He pulled back the flap of his shirt so that all could see the pinned ribbon resting on the inside of his coat. Then he slowly closed his shirt. If he had not shown it to them, none would have known it was there. Which meant that the tainted virgins could do the same. They could hide their ribbons and have nearly the same chance as everyone else! After all, the Son of Heaven had only seen them during one banquet. How would he tell one virgin apart from another except by a hidden token?

"You arranged this, didn't you, Sun Bo Tao?" Ji Yue asked.

He arched his eyebrow. "The emperor commanded such tokens of shame. Is it my fault that in his fury he forgot to specify the details?"

She smiled, her first real smile of the day. "You risk much in doing this."

He shrugged. "Can I fall further from grace?"

Yes. Yes, he had a great deal further to fall, but he had done it anyway. Ji Yue was the first to step forward, lifting the ugly ornament from his hand. "Thank you, Master of the Festival," she said, her heart in her eyes.

One by one, the other virgins stepped forward, taking their ribbon and secreting it away. "Thank you, Master of the Festival," they murmured, and then disappeared from the main room, their voices raised with renewed excitement.

"You have given them hope for tomorrow," Ji Yue said when it was only the two of them left. There wasn't even a eunuch to guard them, so far had they fallen from grace.

"I would give more," he said as he crossed to stand before her. "I would give you"

She pressed her hand to his mouth. She did not want to hear his words. She did not want to allow herself to hope. "Tell me truthfully, Sun Bo Tao," she said. "For this shame, what is your punishment?"

He frowned and slowly pulled her hand from his mouth, but he did not release her fingers. "Men are never to blame," he said softly, "even when it is completely our fault." His eyes told her that he blamed himself for everything. For not knowing about the party, for seducing her when she had been all too willing, for everything that had passed. "I am commanded to wear this silly token, and another will speak in my stead at the marriage festival."

So no real punishment. "And afterward?"

He looked down at their intertwined hands. "The position of my choice. I told him I must have an official place of power in his government or I would leave."

She looked up at him, truly pleased. "That is excellent news! Then you can have your own home and take a wife and" Her voice trailed away. She did not like to think of him taking a wife other than her.

"I would still give it up for you," he said. "We can still run."

She closed her eyes, fighting the urge to rush into his arms. "How would we live?" she asked. "What would you do?" There were no jobs in China for a disgraced man. And that was assuming they were not caught and killed for their audacity.

Bo Tao shrugged. "I could learn something new. Ji Yue, it is not impossible to begin again. There is a very large world outside of China."

"But your whole life has been here. You were born to stand by the emperor's side." Before he could dismiss her objection, she rushed ahead to her next point. "Have you ever been poor?"

"My family is not wealthy, Ji Yue."

"But you grew up here, running with the future Son of Heaven. Have you ever wanted for rice in your bowl?"

"I do not care."

"You will," she returned.

"No, Ji Yue, I won't. Not if you are by my side."

She wanted to believe him. She did believe him. But he belonged in the Forbidden City helping the emperor direct China. She would not let him throw his entire life away just for her. "I care," she said. "I will not run."

He grimaced and made a sound of disgust. "You women are taught sacrifice from the cradle. You are here to serve men, to devote yourself to honor and care for us." He abruptly gripped her arms and roughly hauled her forward. His eyes burned like fire and she gasped in stunned shock. "Even you," he rasped, "with all your intelligence and your fire, you do not think that I need you, Ji Yue. That without you, I will" he swallowed "I will be hollow." Then he crushed her mouth to his, kissing her more boldly and passionately than ever before. She melted against him. How she ached for the dream that he offered!

Then he released her. The separation was as abrupt as the kiss, and she swayed on her feet. She wished he would steady her. She wanted to be in his arms again. But he held himself apart, and she was forced to balance herself while his attitude shifted to one of bitter cold.

"Bo Tao"

"Take these, Ji Yue," he said.

She looked down and saw that he held out two carved jade combs. The one was a dragon coiling in exquisite majesty. The other was a tigress, regal and fierce. Male dragon, female tigresssymbols as old as Chinaand he was giving them to her. "Why?"

"They were my aunt's. She wore them when she was selected by the last emperor, so she believed them to be lucky. According to her, when the two are separate like this, then the wearer still searches for her true heart. If a man were to steal the dragon from you" He plucked the dragon comb away from her fingers. "Then he has taken your heart and you belong to him."

Her eyes watered at the sight of him holding the dragon comb tucked against his chest.

"But if you wear them linked like this," he continued, "then you have already found your heart." He reached out and carefully joined the two combs. The mechanism was subtle and intricate, but when he was done, she saw a dragon and tigress locked together in

She smiled. "That is not an appropriate comb for a virgin."

He shrugged, but his eyes remained serious. "Tomorrow morning the virgins will assemble. They will be placed throughout the gardens and the walkways of the Forbidden City."

"I know."

"The emperor will walk among you and choose one to be his empress, four more to be his primary wives, and the rest will be separated into the middle and lower harems."

She nodded. "Yes, I know."

He pressed the linked combs into her hands. "Wear this comb like this, and the emperor will know your heart is given to another." He took a breath as he carefully separated the two pieces. "Wear them apart and"

She lifted her head. "And what?"

"And I believe he will select you as his empress."

"What?" she gasped. The shock of his statement set her heart to clamoring in her throat.

His lips twisted into a rueful grimace. "Do you not understand why I was made master of the festival? Do you not know my strengths even now?"

She knew his intelligence and his compassion. She knew his fierce passion for his country and his virility as a man. "Which strength?" she laughed. "There are so many."

He flashed a smile at her, but then it disappeared. "Yi Zhen set me the task of finding the most perfect of the virgins, the smartest and the most wholesome." He released a short breath. "He wanted me to find the best woman to be empress. And I found her."

"Me?" she breathed.

"You."

She shook her head, the whole conversation overwhelming. "But will he listen to you? He would pick me as his empress?"

"I believe so, yes. If you leave the combs apart, he will know that you offer yourself to him and to China."

She swallowed. It was an awesome destiny and the very dream she had set for herself when she'd first learned of the festival. "And if I link the combs, Bo Tao, what then? What is to happen to me then?" She searched his face for the truth, but saw only uncertainty.

"I cannot say, Ji Yue. I have asked for a boon. I have pleaded for my wishes, but" He paused as he looked down at their joined hands.

"Was he terribly angry with you?" she whispered.

He released a short laugh. "It is a terrible thing to steal a woman from your best friend."

"Especially if that man is the emperor of China."

"Exactly so."

There was a noise in the hallway. Two girls chattering with an excitement that had not been present in the palace since the tainted virgins arrived. Bo Tao sent her a desperate look, then stepped away from her. She was left holding the two combsone in each hand.

"I cannot promise anything, Ji Yue. I can only hope."

She would have said something then, except she did not know how to respond. And then their time together was lost. The girls came around the corner, gasping in surprise when they saw the disgraced master still standing there.

Bo Tao arched his brow at them, silently daring them to question his presence. They flushed bright red, then scurried away. Bo Tao looked at her, but she shook her head. He could not risk speaking plainly again. Where one virgin lurked, whispering and giggling in gossip, a dozen more were sure to follow.

He understood her message and knew it to be true. So he gave her the deepest bow she had ever received, then turned and walked away.


Chapter 18 | The Concubine | Chapter 20