THE MASTER OF THE FESTIVAL was late. Ji Yue rolled her eyes. Of course, Sun Bo Tao, playboy of the Forbidden City, would ignore his imperial duties. He was probably in an opium daze in some woman's bedroom. But why hadn't there been provisions for that man's irresponsibility? Why couldn't they continue the inspection without him? Ji Yue tried to find out, but no one had accurate information, and she dared not risk appearing unseemly by demanding answers. Virgins were supposed to be docile and graciously accepting. So she tried to be patient as she reclined in her palanquin to wait. Dozens of girls stood around in the heat, their legs aching and their makeup running into their silks. At least she got to sit, though even she felt like she waited in an oven.
Really, the nerve of the man, making the future empress of China stay out in the heat like a drying fish! She glanced outside to see if there was any movement at all. Palanquins clogged the streets while porters squatted on their heels and threw dice. The girls were visibly wilting. One in particular drew Ji Yue's eye.
She stood nearby, her dowry in trunks around her feet. If a carriage of some sort had brought her, there was no sign of it now, and so the girl stood outside on tiny raised shoes. She looked so sad just standing there. And perhaps since Ji Yue also felt a creeping loneliness, she called out to her.
"Come, come! Sit here with me."
The girl—for she was quite young—didn't at first understand. Ji Yue had to stand up and gesture her over.
"Me, mistress?" the girl said, her eyes widening until they seemed to cover her entire face.
"Yes, yes. Why do you stand there in the heat? Where is your carriage?"
"Gone," she confessed as she waved vaguely to the west. "They said they could not wait around all day on an emperor's whim."
"Treasonous dogs!" Ji Yue spat, earning a smile from the girl. "Come, sit with me. I will say that we were carried here together."
The girl shook her head and refused to move from her trunks. "I couldn't! Not in an imperial palanquin!"
"Of course you can!" But no matter how much Ji Yue waved, the girl did not move. Finally Ji Yue went to her. "What is your name?"
"Li Fei," she answered. Then she leaned forward and confided her difficulty. "Mama says I must not sit or I will crinkle the silk."
Ji Yue smiled. "I understand. But there will be a great deal of standing to come. Wouldn't it be better to risk a few creases rather than faint when the emperor at last sees you? And besides," she added in an undertone, "your mother could not have guessed that the master of the festival would be this tardy!"
That brought a giggling nod from Li Fei. "Then I shall gratefully join you."
So began Ji Yue's first friendship within the competition. Ji Yue learned that Li Fei was from an outlying province, that she had many brothers and sisters, but that she was the only daughter of an age to apply as consort. And that she was terribly, terribly nervous about life in the Forbidden City. The next hour flew by as Ji Yue relaxed for the first time since the call went out for eligible daughters. Then a gong sounded. Loud and clear, it silenced everyone who loitered outside the gate.
"Do you think it is time?" Li Fei asked.
Ji Yue nodded, her own heart beating painfully in her throat. They both stood, but it was difficult to see, harder still to hear as a eunuch cried out orders. Fortunately, the news was whispered from servant to mistress to porter and beyond. In time, all understood that the girls were to present themselves one by one to the head eunuch, the imperial dowager consort, Kang Ci, and that playboy courtier Sun Bo Tao, master of the festival. The three would decide who was allowed to enter and who would be sent home.
"But that will take hours," Li Fei murmured. Ji Yue agreed. So they returned to the palanquin to sit longer, waiting for their inspection. Both tried to talk, but their hearts were not in it, their attention turned to the sounds that came from the front gate.
At first they heard nothing but the paid criers' announcements. "Fan Mei Lin is accepted! Fan Mei Lin enters the Forbidden City. Fan Mei Lin!"
Next came the refused, the sobbing, the wretched, even a few who had fainted dead away. No crier announced them, but whispers traveled quickly. One had been rejected for a limp, another for hair on her neck. Some had breasts too shallow to nurse a babe or ill-fated ears or feet too large. The last charge struck terror in Ji Yue's heart. Manchurian women were forbidden to bind their feet; that was a characteristic of the defeated Han people. And yet, after one hundred and fifty years of dynastic rule, the Manchu men liked tiny feet. Always the men looked to see the women's shoes.
Ji Yue looked down at her shoes. Like the curtain of ivory beads that obscured her face, her feet were adorned with jade and pearl drops. They were, in fact, her most expensive attire. She and her mother had planned this, since her large feet were her most troublesome attribute. But with feet surrounded by jewels, any man would see wealth, not size. Just as any man looking at her face would see ivory beads and think beauty without judging the face beneath. Or so they hoped.
"We are next," Li Fei whispered.
Ji Yue nodded, then gripped her new friend's hand. After a quick word to the porters to mind the luggage, the two women walked hand in hand to the front gate.
There was a row of imperial eunuchs, dressed in finery meant to impress. Each was designated inspector of a certain aspect: walk, skin, teeth, ears and yes, feet. A tally eunuch walked with each girl, adding results on an abacus. One count for acceptable aspects. Two counts for excellence. Unfortunate aspect—one count removed. Or, worst of all, an assessment of most unfortunate. Those girls were sent back to their conveyances and told never to return.
Gold and gems disappeared quickly as bribes were slipped from girl to eunuch. One girl just ahead of Ji Yue began with a heavy necklace of gold links that draped almost to her knees. By the end of the line, she wore a tiny choker of links at the top of her gown.
But Ji Yue did not have that much bribe money. She could not pay every eunuch for a favorable report. But she had known that would happen; it was part of her plan. She guessed that her father's status would gain her entry into the Forbidden City. Except for her feet, she had no obviously ugly feature. So the man judging feet received a pearl drop, and the tally eunuch was given a whole string of ivory from her headdress. Beyond that, she simply had to pray that her looks were acceptable.
She maintained hope until she entered the tent where the final tally was evaluated. Inside sat her three judges. She stepped in, making an effort to keep her steps small, her attitude reverent. But when she looked up, she saw the head eunuch, the dowager consort and the insolent eunuch from her palanquin. She stared at him, her mind working feverishly. It couldn't be possible. This couldn't be Sun Bo Tao, playboy courtier to the emperor and now master of the festival. It couldn't! And yet, as she stared at him, she knew it was.
He had changed his clothing into stunning blue silk and combed his black queue. She hadn't realized when he'd been stretched out in her palanquin how very handsome, how very tall, how very masculine he was! No wonder women whispered of his beauty. He had broad shoulders like a warrior, high cheekbones like a scholar, and his eyes arched in sensuous beauty as he perused her body from head to toe. Never had a man caressed her body with just a look, and she glared at him even as her breasts tightened and her knees grew weak.
He was Sun Bo Tao, the very man her mother had warned her against! And she had kicked him out of her palanquin! While she was struggling with the feelings he evoked in her, the tally eunuch lowered his head to the ground in the deepest kowtow. With shaking knees, Ji Yue performed her curtsey to the dowager consort. Then her total tally was announced with clear disdain.
"Average," the dowager consort said with a sigh. "Only average."
"Her lineage is above reproach," the head eunuch said. "Her horoscope shows four fortunate aspects."
"Yes, yes," returned the dowager consort. "I know the mother. Her father is a scholar who dreams only of the past, but he is honest, so that is something." She lifted the ivory stone that was etched with Ji Yue's name. "Very well—"
The tally eunuch beside her dropped one side of his abacas such that the beads slammed against each other with a loud clack. The head eunuch arched his brow. "Is there something to add? We are choosing the mother of the next emperor. No detail can be ignored. Speak!"
"Only what her porters say," the tally eunuch responded. "Apologies, dowager consort, but this girl is said to have consorted with a man while in her palanquin."
"That's not true!" Ji Yue cried, but no one was listening. The dowager consort had already gasped in horror and the head eunuch snatched up the ivory stone and threw it at her.
"We cannot abide a whore! How dare you insult us with your presence!"
"But it's not true!" Ji Yue cried, fury making her glare at Bo Tao. "I am not a whore!" Then she dropped to the ground to find her stone. Without that piece of ivory, she would be thrown outside in disgrace.
She saw it just before the tally eunuch planted his foot on top of it. "The porters say the man tumbled to the ground one li to the east. They laughed as he rolled into the dirt."
"That does not sound like a lover," said Bo Tao, his voice low and almost bored. "Why would he fall into the dirt?"
"Perhaps the excitement of their lovemaking—"
"It's not true!" Ji Yue repeated, her face heating until her cheeks burned. She glared up at the man responsible for her difficulties. "This is so unfair!" Then she forced herself to think rationally. She had to forget Bo Tao. He had caused her problem, and therefore was not likely to help her out of it. The tally eunuch—the man she'd just bribed to help her!—was her current enemy. She had to discredit him somehow. "You are a liar. You couldn't possibly know any of this."
"Shall I bring the porters here?" the tally eunuch asked.
Ji Yue lifted her chin. Virginal modesty be damned. She had to use her intelligence or she would be tossed out before the competition really began. "Very well," she said. "I will give you the truth. There was someone with me in the palanquin."
That silenced them all for a moment, most especially the insolent Bo Tao. He stared at her, one brow arched in surprise. Did he fear she would accuse him? Not likely. His reputation with women was well known. Any association with him would immediately label her a whore. So with a sniff of disdain, she walked to the door of the tent and pulled Li Fei inside.
"Tell them!" she ordered. "Tell them that you sat with me in the palanquin. That we spoke about your family. She is of the Tatala clan and is the daughter of Jia Hai. She likes to sing and has brothers who used to pull her hair."
The dowager consort pulled out Li Fei's carved stone. "Is this true?"
"Yes, dowager consort."
The tally eunuch stepped forward. "It is not true!" he exclaimed. "It was a man who fell from your palanquin!"
Ji Yue spun around to glare at the horrible man. "You are simply lying to get back at me," she snapped. "One of my ivory strings fell. He saw it and took it. And when I asked for it back, he refused. He knows I will accuse him of stealing, and so has created these lies to discredit me."
"Truly?" drawled Bo Tao. Ji Yue looked back at him and saw a spark of humor in the man's eyes. He was having fun? Did he think this a game? Anger built in her heart.
"Yes, truly!" she snapped. "Check his pockets. You will find my ivory beads."
The tally eunuch screamed his objection, supported by the head eunuch. Fortunately, the dowager consort agreed to the search. The tally eunuch was dragged forward by guards who had entered with Li Fei. They methodically searched his pockets, dropping gold ingots and jade bracelets onto the table. There, amid all the rich finery, sat her paltry string of ivory beads. No wonder the tally eunuch had turned on her. He likely thought she was insulting him with so wretched a bribe! But it was too late for him now with the damning evidence right before them.
The dowager consort sat back with a grunt of disgust. "Have him whipped," she muttered. The eunuch began sobbing and babbling, but no one listened as he was led away by soldiers. Meanwhile, the dowager consort poked through the pile of bribes, lifting up what she liked and gesturing to the head eunuch to take the rest. Ji Yue's lone string of ivory remained on the table. "Take it!" the dowager consort ordered. "We do not wish to be accused of thievery by the daughter of a red bannerman." She sneered the word red since it was the lowest level of aristocracy in China.
Ji Yue swallowed, now realizing that she had just crossed a line. All knew that the eunuchs were bribed, but Ji Yue had just exposed the reality of their corruption. A good virgin was supposed to be quiet and accepting—even of unfair practices. Especially of unfair practices. But what else could she have done?
With slow steps she came close enough to lift her ivory beads off the table. She replaced the string with her name stone, praying that the three judges would find it in their hearts to forgive her display of emotion. "My deepest apologies," she whispered.
Meanwhile, the cause of the problem in the first place sauntered forward. Bo Tao picked up both her stone and Li Fei's, turning to the dowager consort. "We cannot simply accept the rich ones," he drawled. "It is unfair and will sow dissension among the bannermen. They have been promised that all their daughters will have the opportunity to entice the emperor."
Ji Yue waited with breath held. Would she pass through the doors? Would she be allowed the chance to compete to become empress?
Yes! The other two grunted their acceptance. The dowager consort grabbed the two name stones and tossed them unceremoniously into a golden bowl. "Very well. But it will be on your head if they cause more disasters in the future."
Ji Yue knew better than to shout her glee, but her eyes watered with gratitude. She and Li Fei would be allowed into the Forbidden City! She kowtowed her thanks while tears streaked her white face mask. At her side, Li Fei did the same. And then more eunuchs came to escort them into the Forbidden City.
Ji Yue walked quickly, part of her afraid that the judges would change their minds if she dawdled. But even so, she couldn't resist one last glance backward. She knew Bo Tao would be watching. She'd felt the chill of his gaze on her back all through her kowtows. And now, as she met his eyes for one brief moment, she felt fear slip into her blood.
There was a price to pay for his assistance, she realized. She could see it in his eyes—that cold calculating stare that promised…something bad. And yet she felt an undercurrent of sexuality, as well. It made her breath catch and her body hum in an extremely unvirginal way. He was master of the festival and in charge of all the virgins. Did he intend to seduce her and then discredit her? That's certainly what his reputation suggested. She would have to think of a way to avoid him, to outsmart his devious plans.
But when? And how? She would be at his mercy for a week through the physical exam, the family history exam, and the artistic display. Only after those three were completed would she ever meet the emperor and have her chance to become empress. How could she avoid the master of the festival for a full week?
She didn't know, but she had to find a way. She would not let one arrogant playboy destroy her chance in this competition. She simply had to become empress. Her family's financial future depended on it.