BO TAO GRIMACED at the noise coming from the virgins' palace. Sixty girls had passed the first examination and gained entrance into the Forbidden City. Sixty virgins covered in finery and oozing hope. Sixty women who had no idea that they would traverse a twisting maze of political intrigue just to find an outhouse. The pathway to the emperor's bedchamber would be much more dangerous.
He closed his eyes, seeing in his mind the faces of the virgins one after the other. He remembered the sobbing rejected ones and the smug wealthy ones. But bit by bit, their features all blended into one face, one girl who intrigued him as no other: Chen Ji Yue of the strong legs and fierce expression.
He'd been more amused than angry after she'd unceremoniously kicked him into the muck. Who'd have thought a little thing like her could shove the great Bo Tao into the dirt? Even the porters' mocking laughter hadn't truly soured his mood.
No, that had come later. About three minutes later when he realized he would have to walk the rest of the way to the Forbidden City. And he had to do so with muddy torn clothing, a queue that was covered with leaves and grime and a bruise on his hindquarters that ached with every step. All because the vulgar daughter of a poor bannerman decided he did not belong in her palanquin.
He knew this was not a rational anger; he had caused his own difficulties. And yet, with every step toward the Forbidden City, he plotted his revenge. True, the dowager consort and her head eunuch lackey were making most of the decisions, but only because Bo Tao didn't care which of the girls were accepted and which weren't. They were all the same, anyway. And it didn't matter to the emperor who he planted his cock in, so long as she was fertile. The dowager consort was in charge of the girls' ultimate education. So what did he—as his best friend's representative—really care about these girls? Nothing.
Nothing at all, except to see the arrogant Chen Ji Yue punished for her crime. Hours later, after he'd changed his clothing and cleaned his face, after dozens of girls had been weighed and rejected, after tedious tears or joyful squeals, she had finally shown up.
He'd seen the horror on her face when she realized who he was. She'd known she was doomed from that moment, but her pert little chin had lifted in defiance. Her assets were tallied according to her ability to bribe, her ancestry was delineated, and the dowager consort was about to give her reluctant blessing. Bo Tao's moment was at hand. He would simply step up and refuse her on some ridiculous pretext. His aching feet had been waiting all day for that very moment.
And then the tally eunuch had upstaged him. There were dozens of flaws to choose from. Her large feet or her pointy chin, for example. But the damn man had to go and pick on the one thing that was not her fault.
Bo Tao had almost spoken up then. Surely the man had seen her other flaws. Her tendency to speak when she ought to remain silent, for example. The way she scrabbled in the dirt for her etched stone. There were millions of reasons she was not fit to birth an emperor.
But none of them had seen what he saw. None of them knew to criticize her fierce nature. All they saw was another girl begging to be admitted to the Forbidden City. And he could not speak out against her character without revealing that he had been the one kicked into the dust.
Which meant that he had had to defend her. It had nothing to do with her excellent strategy or his surprise that a woman could think ahead enough to plan a defense. She was clearly a clever girl, and he admired her. So he'd spoken up. Because of his efforts, she was now an imperial virgin and the emperor's property. Which meant, of course, she was completely cut off from her family and friends, beset on all sides by her competitors, and he—as master of the festival—was the only path to her goal.
Did he dare toy with his best friend's property? The temptation burned in his gut. But he was beyond such childish games, he told himself. His attention was on the larger matters of state. No woman—certainly not a mouthy virgin—could tempt him away from that. His work, however unofficial, was more important. And yet, he couldn't resist thinking about her delectable lips, the saucy sway of her hips and that last look she'd given him as she walked into the Forbidden City. It was part challenge, part interest and wholly compelling.
Did he dare? Could he resist? Especially since she now owed him for his help. Bo Tao began to grin. Tomorrow's physical exam would be his next opportunity with the delectable virgin Ji Yue.
"WHY ARE YOU SO LAZY?" bellowed a male voice much too early the next morning. "An empress must be ready at all hours of the day and night!"
Ji Yue gasped and sat bolt upright in her bed. She threw back the covers and put her feet to the floor before she realized how inappropriate that response was. Her roommate, Hua Si, of the long gold necklace that was now a choker, acted as a maiden ought; she pulled the covers up to her chin and trembled in fear at a man's presence in her room. But Ji Yue stood in her white night shift in front of…
Sun Bo Tao, the master of the festival. He stood at the doorway of their boxlike room and smirked as he stared at her bare calves and feet. Then his gaze traveled upward, and she felt the heat of his perusal slide up her legs, around her hips and then to the tips of her pointed breasts.
"How dare you enter my chamber!" she snapped as she quickly whipped the blanket off her bed and around her shoulders.
He arched his brows. "I am the master here," he drawled, somehow making his words suggestive. "I dare whatever I wish."
Ji Yue trembled even as her toes curled in delight at his dark words. She should not be intrigued by him, but he had tortured her already in her dreams. She had quivered beneath his gaze and trembled at his hold on her ankle. So his presence now seemed a simple continuation of his dreamtime seduction. But she could not allow him to distract her! So she lifted her chin and faced him eye to eye as a future empress.
"I am the emperor's concubine!" she responded tartly. "It is not seemly for you to see my sleeping attire."
"Ha!" he barked. "You are no concubine yet! And no one has privacy in the Forbidden City."
True enough. Eunuchs were everywhere. Even in the virgins' palace, they stood silent sentry over bathing, dressing, even peeing. "A virgin, however, requires modesty," she retorted. "As I am awake now, your task is done. You may go wake the others."
He arched a single black brow at her, the expression both menacing and…amused? Had she detected a glimmer of laughter beneath his dour expression? If she had, it was quickly erased.
"You will not be so impudent after today's physical examination, I wager," he said darkly. "No cosmetics. Today we will see you without lies." Then he sketched a mocking bow and withdrew from the room.
"You are so brave!" murmured Hua Si as she emerged from the blankets. "You must speak out at every turn. The emperor will be sure to notice your courage."
Ji Yue barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes at the ploy. If she continued to speak as she did, the emperor would notice her long enough to toss her outside onto a garbage heap. A woman's virtues included silence and compliance, not the acid tongue she had when that man looked at her.
She sighed and began to dress. "Do you know what is involved in the physical exam?" she asked. She had a guess, but maybe Hua Si had better information.
"I hope it involves food," Hua Si returned. "I'm starving."
Ji Yue didn't respond. She doubted she could eat. Not with the master's dire prediction poisoning the air. What did he mean? What was to happen that would make her less impudent? And what would she do without cosmetics to make herself prettier?
Without thinking, she pulled out her cream pot. The sweet scent was not makeup, per se. It was merely a special lotion to keep the skin supple and sweeten the body's smell. Was it cheating to put it on?
"What are you doing?" Hua Si gasped.
"Nothing," she lied as she stood there, cream on her fingertips.
"He said no makeup!"
"It is for the skin," she said as she dabbed a bit on her face.
"They will find out you are cheating," she said haughtily and spun out of the room, balancing perfectly on her tiny feet.
Ji Yue grimaced. Hua Si was going to tell. She quickly washed away the lotion from her cheeks but hesitated before leaving the room. There was one place where a woman's scent was strongest, one place where it most needed to be sweetened, and it was there that she'd been instructed to use the cream. Making a swift decision, she stroked a couple dabs below, resettled her clothing, then dashed out of the room.
There was no breakfast beyond the barest taste of tea. Ji Yue drank what she could, taking a moment to inspect her competition around the table. As a rule, they were all her age or younger. Though a few seemed composed, most showed their nerves in high tittering laughs or dark acerbic glares. A few had ignored the no-cosmetics rule while others displayed their natural beauty with pride.
And then he walked in and all other thoughts fled. She had been too flustered in the beginning to notice his attire, but now she looked closely. He was dressed in red and black court finery, but casually so. As if he wore it because he had to, not because he wished it. In that respect, he reminded her of her father. But in all other things, he was the exact opposite of her parent. Broad shoulders, commanding height and a jaw tightened in annoyance—he had a confidence that made her long to challenge him, to see if she could best him at his own game.
But then his gaze cut to hers, and her breath stopped cold in her throat. His eyes were sharp and dark, like the tip of the sharpest pin, and they pierced her straight through. Once again, she was immersed in her nighttime dream of him in her palanquin, his hand on her ankle, her knee, her thigh.
"Virgins," he said, and he seemed to sneer the word. "Virgins! You were told no cosmetics! Those who have ignored such commands will be taken out and summarily washed."
His gaze was hard on her, as if he knew what she had done. But he couldn't. Not even Hua Si knew. So she arched her own mocking brow right back. Let him find where she had placed her lotion, and then explain to the emperor how he had discovered it.
He held her gaze for a moment longer, and it was as though a lute string vibrated between them. The tone it created was too low to be heard, but she felt it deep in her womb. And the more they stared at each other, the stronger the note became.
Then a girl screamed, and he looked away. Only then did Ji Yue breathe. And once air returned to her lungs, she had the wits to look around her and see what was happening. Eunuchs were moving through the crowd of girls. They inspected faces and lifted hair to sniff at the neck beneath. Any hint of charcoal or paint and the girl was dragged away. The one who had screamed was so young—too young to be here—and the eunuch was handling her roughly. He had a bruising grip on her arm and another hand dug deep into the girl's hair as he jerked her away from the table.
Ji Yue straightened in her seat. Did they not see that the girl was terrified? Away from her family for the first time in her life, surrounded by snakes of every kind, and now manhandled by a eunuch—it was no wonder that the girl was screaming. Worse, her struggles made the eunuch more vicious as he hauled her head back and twisted her arm. And what was this girl's crime? She'd put a little red paint on her lips! That was all!
Ji Yue stood, instinctively moving to stop the eunuch's cruelty. It was a stupid move. She could not afford to bring more unpleasant attention to herself. Besides, one less girl would lessen the competition. But she feared for the girl's sanity, so she pushed forward.
"Stop that!" bellowed the master.
The sound was so commanding that everyone froze. Ji Yue was stuck in a half crouch as she maneuvered her legs and tight skirt over the bench seat. Her legs trembled as she watched the master stomp across the room to the girl, who was—thankfully—no longer screaming. But one look at her face told Ji Yue that she wasn't breathing, either. Her mouth was locked open, her eyes huge, and her skin had become paler than death.
The master stomped directly in front of the girl's view. "Breathe!" he ordered.
The girl gasped on command.
She did so again.
Then with a grimace, the master snapped at the eunuch. "Release her hair. What cause have you to be so cruel to these children?"
The eunuch curled his lip. "She wears paint."
"And she will be washed. But not by you." At his gesture, two new guards appeared. The master turned his attention back to the girl. At least she was breathing on her own now. "Do not fight me," he ordered, his voice low but no less powerful.
She nodded slowly.
He glanced at the eunuch. "Go wash the chamber pots, and do not show your face to me again." Then he gently took hold of the girl's arm and passed her to another eunuch, one who had kinder eyes and a softer face. "Do not disobey my orders again," he said to her.
She swallowed but was able to produce a quivering nod. Then she was led away along with nearly two dozen other girls who had applied paint of some kind. Meanwhile, Ji Yue slowly eased herself back into her seat. He saw her, of course. He seemed to be the kind of man who saw everything. As she settled back upon the hard bench, he raised his eyebrows at her.
She knew what he meant. He was asking her what exactly she had thought she could do for that girl against an army of eunuchs? She had no answer because, of course, she hadn't thought that far in advance. And what right did he have to question her, anyway, even from across the room?
So she did what her mother had taught her. She smiled sweetly with as vacant an expression as possible. If you do not wish to answer, Mama had said, then let them believe you a blank piece of art—beauty without mind—and they will forget you ever disquieted them. That was her plan and it had worked thousands of times before. Until now.
The master's lips curled in disdain. He did not hide his disgust as he turned to address the whole room. "You who remain will be taken for inspection. You will stand naked before the doctor. You will allow the physician to touch and measure and poke in whatever manner is required. You will endure this in silence, for in such a way we ensure that you are indeed a virgin."
Gasps of horror greeted these words. Most of the girls had never seen a physician before. But Mama had foreseen this particular trial and prepared Ji Yue. In fact, Ji Yue had already seen a doctor and had the process completely explained to her. Though repugnant, it would not cause her agony.
"And," continued the master with a sardonic sneer, "this examination will be repeated regularly. I suggest you guard your virginity well."
Ji Yue frowned. How could she—or any of these girls—lose their virginity here where they were surrounded at every turn? And even if there were opportunities for dalliance, who would do something so stupid?
She wasn't given time to wonder as the remaining virgins were divided into groups. Ten in each with Ji Yue as the last in her line. The first girl was taken immediately by a eunuch into a tiny room while the others sat outside and waited. And waited. And waited. An hour later, the girl reappeared, her clothing askew and muffled sobs coming from behind her curtain of black hair.
"What happened?" they all asked. "Why are you crying?"
The girl did not answer, but merely dashed away, escorted by the same eunuch who had led them here. Then it was the next girl's turn. She entered the chamber with only a soft mewl of distress, then came out wailing less than twenty minutes later.
"What happened?" she asked the eunuch.
He curled his lip in disgust. "Southern girls. Too hairy!"
"She is sent home?" asked another.
The eunuch nodded.
It took Ji Yue two breaths before she realized exactly what he meant by too much hair. Then she began to panic. How stupid had she been! Of course a check for virginity would inspect the lower body regions! Her mother had already consulted fortune tellers to learn exactly how much hair was too much or too little. Ji Yue was safe on that count. But she had put on her cream, and that certainly would be discovered!
The other girls were beginning to panic, too, and they thought about ripping out their hair before the inspection. One went so far as to try to leave. She was stopped by a pair of eunuchs guarding the exit. When she returned, tears were trembling on her lashes.
"He won't let me go back to my room."
"It won't do any good, anyway," Ji Yue inserted. "They will notice swelling if you do anything now." Just as they would notice her sweet-smelling cream.
Never mind, she consoled herself. The worst that could happen to her was that she would be bathed along with the other girls. It would be embarrassing but not fatal. Except, just then the young girl—the one who had screamed in the main room—was dragged past. Her hair was in wet clumps, her face was scrubbed raw, and her arms showed ugly welts where she had been pinched. She was sobbing again, only this time it was the miserable heartsore sobs of a woman with no hope.
Ji Yue was on her feet in a second. "Stop!" she ordered the guard. "Stop!" She went to the girl, her expression tender as she pushed the wet, stringy strands of hair out her eyes. "Surely it is not so bad as all that," she said softly.
"I am to be sent home!" the girl wailed.
Ji Yue froze, her gaze leaping to the stone-faced eunuch. "But why?"
"She was brought before the dowager consort, who declared her too ugly."
"But of course she is…is…unattractive like this! With dark bruises and raw patches."
The eunuch did not seem to care. "She was too young, anyway." And with that, he dragged her away.
Ji Yue had no choice but to sink down on her seat in fear. At her age, she did not dare appear before the dowager consort soaking wet, her hair askew, and her skin blotchy. And yet, without access to a bathing chamber, how could she wash away her cream?
No answer presented itself no matter how much she thought. And one by one, the girls disappeared into the room. Another girl was dismissed for being knock-kneed. The others came out tearful, even distraught, but they were allowed to dress for the next task: lunch with the dowager consort.
Then it was Ji Yue's turn. She stepped into the room, exhaling in relief when she saw the physician: a woman, thank heaven. She was elderly, with crabbed hands, a thin nose and a voice that sounded sharp with anger. "You're not going to cry, are you? I've had all I can stomach this morning and I'll not tolerate any more hysterics, understand?"
Ji Yue nodded, judging it wisest to keep silent.
"You're older than the other girls."
She shook her head. "No, no. I was born in the year of the rooster," she lied. "At night, too, which is an excellent time for a girl," she added, just in case the physician didn't realize that girls born during the time of "roosting" were likely to be tame and submissive.
The doctor crinkled her nose as she peered closer. "If that's true, then you will not age well."
"She was born in the year of the horse, I'd wager," a man's voice said behind her.
Ji Yue spun around, but she already knew who was there: her personal tormentor—the master of the festival. He was hidden behind the door, which was why she hadn't noticed him earlier, and he had a casual smirk on his too-handsome face. She stiffened in shock, though inside, her heart beat triple time. "Do you accuse me of lying?" she demanded.
"Of course I do," he answered calmly. "Why would you have the word 'Ji'—grain—in your name if not for being a horse?" He smiled, his expression lazy and sensuous as he listed the attributes of a girl born late in a horse year. "Which means you are destined for a hard life, Ji Yue, one of much labor. You may be broad-minded, but you lack perseverance and are incapable of keeping secrets."
"That's ridiculous!" she snapped.
He leaned forward. "If I were you, I would have lied about my age, as well."
She turned from him, unable to look him in the eye. He had named her exact reasons for lying. Though she dismissed the thought that the year and time she was born determined anything about her, she knew that others took great store by it. Especially when predicting who would make the most fertile concubine.
"Don't worry," he drawled from behind her. "Being an empress is a difficult task. I would expect her to be a woman who labors hard."
Beside her, the physician snorted through her thin nose. "All women labor hard, no matter their age. Come, come, I'm hungry. Let us see your breasts."
Ji Yue blinked, understanding hitting with a blinding flash. She was to be measured now, stripped naked and evaluated. While he watched.
She couldn't do it. No matter what her attributes were, he would judge her harshly, and the physician would agree. That was the way of things in China: the men made the decisions and the women had to go along with whatever idiocy resulted. If he made sure she failed the physical examination, she would be sent home within the hour! Therefore, she had to find a way to oust him from the room, and that meant appealing to the doctor.
So Ji Yue smiled sweetly and dropped into as deep a curtsey as possible. "Reverend lady," she said to the physician. "I swear I will not fight you. I will neither curse nor faint. Surely, therefore, there is no need for another here? Let the master of the festival find his lunch." That last was for him. Perhaps if he was hungry, she could induce him to leave.
"I have already eaten," he drawled. Glancing behind her, she saw that there indeed was an empty plate.
"Two steamed dumplings," the doctor groused. "But does he think to bring one to the woman who works so hard?"
"Were you hungry?" the master asked with a false smile. "My apologies. Perhaps we can speed this up." Coming forward, he pulled Ji Yue around. His touch was firm, but not bruising, and his gaze raked her body without mercy. "Can you not see what the evaluation will say?"
"That I am perfect in every way!" Ji Yue retorted.
"On the contrary," the master sneered. "Your face is barely acceptable. Eagle shaped, your nose is cursed, your tongue is worse."
Ji Yue lifted her chin. "Eagle features are striking on women. Their features command respect."
"Humph," the master retorted. "Your breasts are flat like plates. One, maybe two children at most can be nurtured before your chest is empty."
"You cannot see that!"
"Then disrobe and prove me wrong," he challenged. Before she could do more than gasp, he abruptly spun her around to stare at her bottom. "Your bottom is rounded—"
"That's good," she said as she peered over her shoulder. "It means I can be passionate. A good quality in a concubine."
"But yours is too rounded. Your passions will rule you to your detriment."
"That's not true!" she snapped as she whirled back around to face him. From behind her, the physician cackled.
"Your reaction proves his point, girl. Control yourself."
It was good advice, but Ji Yue's temper was fully engaged. "He cannot know these things!" she cried. "You must examine me to be sure."
"But why bother?" continued the master. "She is hot tempered, so her labia will be dry, and her womb too short to support a child. The emperor will have no children by this girl."
Ji Yue clenched her hands in frustration. He was destroying her chances! Without even allowing her an examination, he was telling the doctor to report that she was unworthy of becoming the empress. "Why are you doing this to me?" she hissed at him. "Are you a cat who toys with his prey merely because he can?"
He arched a brow at her. "See?" he said to the physician. "Hot-tempered with an eagle's sharp beak for a mouth."
Turning her back on the master, she knelt before the physician. "Please, please, you must examine me. Do not let his words sway you. It is your duty to do your task as honestly as you can."
Her last words were a mistake. The physician drew herself up to her fullest height. "Do not seek to lecture me on my duties, girl. I know what I must do."
"Yes," interrupted the master with a lazy drawl, "but you need not do it on an empty stomach. Why not go now and find some excellent dumplings? Enjoy them while she meditates on the sharpness of her tongue."
The woman drew her brows together. "And then I am to return and examine her?"
The Master bowed. "Of course."
Ji Yue gasped. "But that would leave me alone with him!"
The doctor nodded. "At least you're not stupid."
Panic rose in her chest. She could not be alone with this man. He was a playboy, the emperor's intimate friend and master of the festival. No one would believe her if she said he raped her. "Please, please, Doctor. You must examine me now!"
But the doctor simply shook her head. "Won't do any good. You're all dried up right now." She glanced at the master. "Be smart, girl, and you might come out ahead." Her gaze steadied on Ji Yue. "Let him help the fertility flow. If you grow moist, my exam will be favorable."
Tears slipped down Ji Yue's cheeks. "He will rape me," she whispered.
"No," the doctor said with a surprisingly gentle voice. "No, he will not. I have known him since he was a little boy. Sun Bo Tao will threaten and tease, he will push well beyond the bounds of propriety, but he is an honorable man. Besides," she added with a glare at Bo Tao, "he knows that if he hurts you, I will see to it that the emperor finds out. No man can play with the virgins and be spared. Not even Bo Tao, who has no status here except for the emperor's whim."
Ji Yue looked up, feeling hope and despair clash in her heart. As much as she might pray that Bo Tao was honorable—was simply just teasing her for some sick reason of his own—she did not believe she was that lucky. Or that any man could really be so honorable. So she grabbed the woman's hands and begged, "Please, don't go."
"She has no choice," Bo Tao said, his voice cold. "I am the master of the festival. She cannot disobey me." Then he stepped around and opened the door. "Go and eat something, Doctor."
The woman slowly disentangled herself from Ji Yue. "I eat very quickly," she said. Then with a last apologetic shrug, she left. The master followed a step behind, firmly shutting the door behind her.
Ji Yue was alone with her nemesis.