JI YUE WAS DRESSED for pleasure. Against all odds, she of the lowest harem had been selected for this night. The official wedding wouldn't be for many days yet. There were rituals to observe and celestial timing to ensure the most auspicious union of man and woman, emperor and empress.
But for tonight, the emperor called for a woman. As she was of the lowest harem, the date of her actual wedding to the emperor was of little consequence. In short, tonight she was called, and tonight she would sleep with the emperor. If she was blessed, her womb would be fruitful and she would bear the emperor a son, who would then be taken from her and given to the empress to raise as her child. Such was the lot of the women in the lowest harem.
If she were truly blessed, the emperor would do his business with her and then leave without noticing her state of virginity. The doctor had inserted medicine into her womb to make it tight. But if that was not enough, Ji Yue had also hidden a small knife in the bodice of her gown. It would be easy to make a nick in her skin somewhere unseen and then smear the blood where it was needed. Assuming, of course, that the knife was at hand and the emperor did not notice what she was doing.
And so Ji Yue was dressed according to the dictates of the eunuchs. Her gown was of the lightest silk, her hair twisted and coiled, but held in place by her tigress comb. That had been explicitly ordered by someone, presumably the emperor. Then she was escorted with minimal pomp to the emperor's palace and ordered to climb into his massive bed. She was even instructed on the appropriate words to say to her new husband about how great an honor it was to serve him, how she gloried at his merest touch. On and on the list went until she thought she would scream at the repetition of it.
And then, as the time neared, the instructional eunuchs withdrew. She lay in the massive bed and worried about what to do. She knew this was a great honor and a great opportunity. If she pleased the emperor tonight, he might lift her out of the lowest harem into a more powerful position. She ought to be thinking of ways to seduce him. And yet, try as she might, she could not help but think of Bo Tao. How wonderful it would be to lie in anticipation of a night with him. How she would delight to wake in his arms tomorrow, to bear his child in the days to come. How she wished…
A noise disturbed her thoughts and she froze like a terrified rabbit. The emperor was coming! He entered the bedchamber. The soft light of the lanterns seemed to accentuate his face and his physique rather than the exquisite embroidery on the black silk of his robe. Ji Yue pushed herself upright in bed as she tamped down any comparisons between the emperor and Bo Tao. Clearly, the emperor did not practice his physical skills as much as Bo Tao. He was not as muscular nor as powerful, in a purely physical sense. But he was her husband and her emperor, and so she tried to smile invitingly at him. He paused near the bed, looking down at her. Then he abruptly burst into laughter.
"I have never seen a more reluctant woman," he boomed.
Ji Yue blanched and mentally scrambled for something clever to say. All she could come up with was one of her prescribed phrases. "I glory to share my body with your magnificence."
"Except you look like you'd rather be eating cow dung."
She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. How could she save this disaster?
"But am I not magnificent, Chen Ji Yue? Every woman's desire?" The emperor threw his arms wide and let the folds of his robe gape open over his chest. It was a pale chest, and not very wide—or at least not as wide as Bo Tao's. She tried to summon an adoring look.
"I am overcome with your glory," she said, trying to put passion into her words.
The emperor dropped his arms and huffed in disgust. "You really are in love, aren't you?"
She had no idea what to say to that. Did she lie? He hadn't believed anything she'd said so far. At her silence, he drew out the dragon comb.
"According to legend, he who holds this comb is the true mate to the woman who wears the tigress." He gestured to the carved comb still in her hair.
She swallowed and touched the tigress. "Is that the legend?" she asked, her voice trembling.
The emperor shrugged and released another laugh. "I have no idea. It's just some nonsense Bo Tao told me." Then he waggled it in front of her eyes. "But I have it, so you must therefore adore me!"
She blinked and tried to nod, but she was terribly frightened. What was she supposed to do when the emperor of China acted like a lunatic! Was he playing some devious game? She didn't understand!
"Oops!" he cried as the comb slipped from his fingers to the floor. "I have dropped it." Then he stood there with his hands on his hips, clearly waiting, but for what? Did he want her to pick it up? There was no one else in the room, so it would have to be her. She began to climb out of bed, but he threw out a hand to stop her.
"Not you!" he snapped. Then he abruptly clapped his hands. "Come in here, you fool! I have dropped my comb!"
Did he address someone else in the room? She thought they were alone. And yet, people were always close in the Forbidden City. Within moments, a eunuch came scurrying in to retrieve the fallen comb. Except this eunuch did not move like any that she had seen so far. In fact, Ji Yue thought as she narrowed her eyes, this eunuch looked extraordinarily familiar.
Bo Tao! She gasped and scrambled onto her knees. It was all she dared with the emperor looming over her.
"You called?" her love said, but the emperor cut him off.
"I have dropped my comb. Pick it up for me, Bo Tao."
Her love clenched his jaw, and his gaze darted between the emperor and Ji Yue. She wanted to say something to him. She wanted to tell him that the leader of China was an extremely bizarre man. She needed to tell him that she had never willingly given the emperor the comb. He had stolen it and her heart belonged to Bo Tao. But she couldn't say those things, and so she watched in miserable silence as Bo Tao slowly bent down and retrieved the dragon comb. Then he straightened, his face an emotionless mask as he held it out to the emperor.
But Yi Zhen didn't take it. Instead, he snatched the tigress comb out of her hair. She squeaked in alarm. After all, he had grabbed a few strands of hair, too. While both she and Bo Tao watched in confusion, the emperor quickly linked the two pieces together and turned to her.
"Do you think, Chen Ji Yue, that the emperor of China is a god who can rule men's hearts?"
She swallowed, wondering what he could possibly mean. "I believe that you are a man who leads China and so gains the love of the people you rule."
The emperor huffed. "So, not a god, then? But I am the Son of Heaven!"
She dipped her head. "You live in our hearts, nonetheless."
"Your friend Li Fei said I was a god. She said she worshiped me."
Ji Yue grimaced. That sounded exactly like something Li Fei would say.
"You are right," the emperor finally said. "I like her better. Which means," he said with a flourish, "that I have no use for you." He turned to Bo Tao. "Which means I can gift her to you. By my hand and—" he passed the linked combs to Bo Tao "—this silly trinket, I declare you two wed." Then his gaze softened. "Enjoy her, my friend. As for me, I prefer to be a god to the women I bed." And with that, he laughed heartily at Bo Tao's stunned expression.
"Yi Zhen," he began, his voice choked.
"Yes, yes, I know. You worship me. You think I am a god. You forget that you are supposed to call me Emperor Xian Feng."
"Hss! Come to me in the morning and we will discuss your exact appointment."
"B-but—" Bo Tao stammered again.
"Fine, fine. The afternoon then."
"Oh, and you!" The emperor spun around and pinned her with a cold stare. "If ever he falters in his devotion to me, then I will send for you. I will recall you to my harem, and it will not go well for you."
Ji Yue nodded, her mind reeling. Could it be possible? Could she now be wed to Bo Tao?
"So take her!" the emperor ordered as he clapped his friend on the back.
Bo Tao dropped to the floor in a kowtow. Ji Yue scrambled to do the same, her shock and her gratitude overwhelming her. They both pressed their foreheads to the ground four times. Five times. But by the sixth, they raised themselves up and discovered they were alone. Together.
Ji Yue looked into Bo Tao's eyes. She saw so many emotions there, so many conflicting thoughts. She understood because she felt the same.
"The emperor is very odd," she whispered, though that was not at all what she wanted to say.
"It is hard to rule a country. He takes his pleasure however he can."
"I did not give him the comb, Bo Tao. I held them linked together but he broke them apart. He took it from me."
Bo Tao's eyes lighted in surprise and hope. "You chose me? Over being an empress?"
She nodded. "I love you. I could not—" She didn't get any more words out. He kissed her. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her as she had dreamed. He kissed her and he did not stop for a long, incredible time.
It wasn't until she welcomed him joyfully into her body that he spoke again. "I love you," he said. "I will not be separated from you ever again."
"Never," she echoed as she wrapped her legs around him and another dance began.
Hours later, they watched the dawn together. They lay intertwined and whispered secrets to each other. They made plans and spoke of love. And so began a most glorious union in the bed of the emperor of China.