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Chapter 6

JI YUE FELT LIKE DANCING! She had passed the physical exam with excellent marks, and now she was going to meet the emperor!

This was not the usual course of events. Normally, no virgin would see the emperor until the final selection day, but something marvelous had happened. The vicious Taiping rebels had been defeated and one of their leaders was dead! The emperor had declared everyone in the Forbidden City would feast in celebration. There was to be a banquet, and he would be there!

Ji Yue decided that she would do whatever it took to shine before the emperor. Unfortunately, all fifty of the remaining virgins had the exact same thought as they dressed for this important event.

Hair always took the bulk of time as it was wrapped around boards then glued into place. Jewels made to look like butterflies or flowers were intertwined with the strands and cemented in. Finally, heavy white paint would be stroked onto each girl's skin and accented with delicate red or black. An empress would have no less than five servants to assist her. The virgins, on the other hand, were given one eunuch per five girls. Though they had the whole day to prepare, no servant could possibly fill the demands of so many girls intent upon impressing an emperor.

The first arguments began in the bathing chamber around noon. One girl claimed another had passed gas and should be removed from the festivity for fouling the water. By two, someone accused another of stealing her cosmetics. The argument became so heated that Bo Tao was summoned. Upon searching the accused trunks, he found dozens of stolen items. The thief was immediately expelled, but such swift action only increased the problem.

Suddenly everyone knew of a thief or a liar who should also be tossed out of the Forbidden City. That occupied him for another two hours until he declared that one girl's accusations were completely fabricated. Ji Yue could have told him that at the beginning, but he was a man and felt he had to investigate. In the end, he came to the correct conclusion and expelled the accuser.

In truth, Ji Yue was impressed by his methodical investigation. He remained unswayed by tantrums or hysterics. Seeing that there were risks to groundless accusations, the virgins then turned their rancor on the hapless eunuchs. Even with the aid of the head eunuch, Bo Tao could not stem the tide of women who absolutely demanded satisfaction for one slight or another.

By the time Ji Yue's roommate began screaming, poor Bo Tao looked stooped with exhaustion. His clothing was stained from thrown cosmetics, his queue was distorted and his eyes blazed with fury. The man had reached his limits.

Unfortunately, Hua Si did not seem to realize her danger. Bo Tao stood in the doorway, his mouth tightening into a hard flat line while Hua Si screeched as if a monkey had bitten her rear. Ji Yue tried to shrink as far away as possible, which in their tiny boxlike room wasn't far at all. And then Bo Tao spoke, his tone harsh and cold.

"Your noise is offensive!" he bellowed. "Explain yourself!"

Hua Si blinked. Surely, thought Ji Yue, the girl would see her danger and moderate her tantrum. Apparently not, because the spoiled beauty actually stomped her foot in irritation.

"Someone spit in my paints!" she wailed.

Ji Yue rolled her eyes, not even bothering to look at the cosmetics. It could be a serious problem if the heavy white paint was too thin. The color would be blotchy when applied and wear off in streaks throughout the evening. But someone would have to spit a lot for such a problem to occur. Hua Si didn't seem to care, though, as she folded her arms, peered down her nose, and demanded new paints.

"No," answered Bo Tao.

Hua Si was stunned. "No? No!"

He smiled. "No." Then he turned and began walking down the hallway.

Hua Si stormed after him. "Don't you want to know who committed this crime? Don't you need to investigate?"

Bo Tao turned and looked not at Hua Si but at Ji Yue. There was a question in his eyes that she didn't understand. Did he think she had spat in the girl's cosmetics? Ji Yue felt her mouth open in shock and she straightened to defend herself. But Bo Tao simply shook his head and turned his attention back to Hua Si.

"Virgin Gao Hua Si, I don't care if someone pissed in your pot. Finish your dressing and be done with it!"

Hua Si gasped, the shock of his vulgar words upsetting her delicate constitution. She began to shake. "But what am I to do?" she wailed.

"I suggest you eat your poisoned makeup. Perhaps that will silence you."

Ji Yue winced at his ridiculous suggestion. Such a comment would send her roommate into a tirade that would last for hours. Bo Tao would be gone, of course. He looked like he was about to bolt, anyway. But Ji Yue would have to endure hours of the spoiled beauty's hysterics. So she pushed up from her table, acutely aware that her hair was undone, falling about her face in an unruly mass. But she'd never get the eunuch's help if Hua Si was throwing a fit.

"Eating is an excellent suggestion, Master Sun Bo Tao," she said. "Soothing tea and a small dumpling would be a great substitute for the paints. In the meantime, Hua Si, you may use my cosmetics."

"What use would I have for your pig slop?" Hua Si screeched. The sound was loud enough that Bo Tao winced.

"I have heard, master," Ji Yue continued, "that a lack of food sometimes makes women unsettled. It is our delicate constitutions, you know. And we have had nothing since morning tea. Do you not recall how excited we all were when we heard of tonight's celebration? Many of us were too excited then to eat a bite."

Bo Tao narrowed his eyes at her in confusion. "They are hungry?" he gasped.

"Perhaps you are hungry, you ugly cow," roared Hua Si, but she did not get to rant for long as the head eunuch came bustling in from another room.

"Who is hungry? What ridiculous nonsense! Do you think we have food to spare, girl? For testy spoiled virgins who beat their servants and screech like fishwives?"

Ji Yue bowed slightly in a show of shame. "My apologies, head eunuch. I merely thought that with mouths full, the virgins would have no breath to complain."

"Truer words could not be spoken," said Bo Tao. "Head eunuch, can we not bring some sweet dumplings? Surely the kitchen will have made enough to spare."

The cut man bristled with indignation. "And who will fetch and serve this bounty? You? Her? My eunuchs are too busy for such nonsense."

Hua Si sneered. "I have told her she eats too much, but she is from the country and does not understand that life in the Forbidden City requires sacrifice."

Ji Yue ground her teeth. "I am not from the country," she said as calmly as possible.

"You see?" Hua Si put in with a roll of her eyes. "She argues about everything. So demanding." Then she turned around and went to the mirror. With a huff of disgust, she began to apply her "poisoned" paint to her face.

Meanwhile, the head eunuch sniffed disdainfully at Ji Yue. "I do not like girls who constantly complain, Chen Ji Yue." With that he spun away.

Ji Yue stared at his retreating back, the unfairness of it all making her eyes tear. Though the emperor chose his brides, the head eunuch controlled a concubine's life. He supervised servants and housing. He managed resources between the harems. And most important, he was the one who brought brides to the emperor's bed. She could not become pregnant with the next emperor if she never graced the man's bed. And she would never grace the imperial bedchamber if she made an enemy of the head eunuch.

Meanwhile, in a nearby room, another argument erupted and something fragile was smashed. In her mirror she saw Bo Tao wince at the noise.

"Can you dress your hair yourself?" he asked.

She blinked. Had he been speaking to her? "Master?"

"Your hair? Can you do it by yourself?"

She glared at him. What a ridiculous question! No woman could create the elaborate hair displays alone. But she was not in a position to argue, so she gave the answer he wanted. "I will do my humble best."

"Good," he said. Then he snapped his fingers at the eunuch assigned to help them. "You! Come with me to the kitchens." With that he left, taking her only help with him.

Trays of tea and dumplings arrived a half hour later. No one thanked her for the idea, not that she expected anyone would. But she didn't even get any of the food since she was busy struggling with her hair. Someone had to hold the board in place while the hair was wrapped and glued. Thankfully, Li Fei was able to help. Though there had been little time to further her friendship with the girl from the carriage, Li Fei was naturally kind, had quick fingers and an easy smile. Together, they dabbed glue as quickly as possible, secured the board, but only partially set the butterfly hairpin. Then they ran together to dinner.

They slipped inside with the last of the virgins, grateful that there was adequate seating. Otherwise, their tardiness would have them eating outside with the disgraced eunuchs. Flashing a grin of excitement to her friend, Ji Yue settled down at the table and tried to look like an empress. Unfortunately, among all the fine silks and beautiful girls, she very much feared that she looked more like Hua Si's impoverished cousin.

The emperor sat at a table on the opposite side of the room. From this distance, all Ji Yue could see was his exquisitely embroidered clothing and his dark black hair. Still, she felt a tingle of excitement race down her spine. She had never been this close to the emperor before, and the feeling made her belly jump and her voice high. The other virgins were equally excited, equally delighted. But of course there was no hope of attracting his attention from across the room. So after repeatedly craning her neck to look in his direction, Ji Yue settled in to enjoy her meal.

It was between the tenth and the eleventh course that the emperor stood up. The reaction at the virgins' tables was immediate. Chopsticks clattered to the table, and hair was quickly patted into place. Ji Yue was not immune to the need to primp as her butterfly pin had once again dropped down behind her ear where no one would see it.

The emperor left the festival hall. All the virginsJi Yue includedreturned to their food with a dispirited frown. Ji Yue's stomach was full, but she didn't know when she'd be able to eat again. She would take what she could now with no worry that the emperor would catch her with her mouth full. A door opened and closed behind her, but she paid no attention. Eunuchs went in and out that way all the time.

"Which is the virgin who dared hit you with a plate?"

Stunned gasps surrounded her at the man's voice. Ji Yue gasped as well, but she was eating. The result was a very unempresslike gurgle and a very undemure choking sound.

"It was an accident, Yi Zhen."

Ji Yue felt her blood run cold. She knew that voice. It was Master Sun Bo Tao, and he was speaking the childhood name of the emperor. Which meant both the master and the emperor were right behind her!

"On your temple?" the emperor responded. "Was she throwing plates around to hit you so high? Ha! Or were you on your knees before her?"

Ji Yue barely heard the question over the roaring in her ears. She needed to cough the food out of her windpipe, yet to do such a thing before the emperor would be ghastly. But she had to breathe! She began to cough.

"So, Bo Tao, which one is she?"

"The one so frightened by your presence that she cannot breathe."

She heard footsteps behind her and hastily tried to regain some composure. At least her coughing had subsided and she could breathe. There was a touch on her shoulder, and she was forced to turn around. It was the emperor, of course, looking down at her from a vast height. She was aware that her spasms had dislodged her hair. She could feel it slipping away from the board and hiding her jade butterfly pin. She gazed up at the emperor with miserably hopeful eyes. Would he see past her disheveled appearance to the woman beneath? Of course not. For all that he was the emperor, he was also a man. He saw nothing but the superficial.

She had to do something exceptional very soon. Her mother's words rang through her thoughts. You cannot be beautiful, so be smart. The other girls were bowing to the emperor, murmuring their names along with their greetings. When it was her turn, Ji Yue did the same, her voice husky and thick from her coughing.

"Humph," the emperor said. "You do not look so bold now. Tell me, Chen Ji Yue, why did you hit my friend with a plate?"

Ji Yue glanced at Bo Tao, her mind filled with the memory of his hands on her breasts, of her heart beating so fast as he slid his fingers ever lower. She felt her face heat beneath her white paint and saw an answering panic in his eyes. Did she tell the truth? Did she say that the emperor's best friend had done things to her that no virgin allowed? And that part of her still moistened at the thought of him doing them again?

She swallowed and ducked her head. "It was an accident, great emperor," she said. "Itripped and the plate flew from my hand. I was merely clumsy."

"Humph. I suppose that could be true." He flashed Bo Tao a look filled with humor. "But I doubt it." Then he snorted as he scanned the sea of hopeful virgin faces. "A girl's virtue is always in danger even in the Forbidden City. Your clumsiness does not offend me."

Ji Yue exhaled a grateful breath in relief. She was not to be punished for hitting Bo Tao. Now she had to capitalize on her opportunity. She had to think of something clever to say, and she had to do it without looking at Bo Tao, without thinking of what they had done together and without wondering about what he was thinking and feeling right at that moment.

Fortunately, she had an easy topic at hand. "The news of the Taiping defeat is most excellent! I am breathless to see your plans for the northern lands such that no upstart can rise again."

It worked! The emperor's attention had been wandering to Li Fei, but at her words, he focused back on her. "Whatever do you mean?"

Ji Yue straightened, uncomfortable at his curt tone. "Only that when servantsor peasantsact badly, there is usually an underlying cause. Address that cause, and the meals once again appear hot and on time."

The emperor frowned at her. His face darkened, and his eyes grew cold. "Do you hear that, Bo Tao? Comparing our glorious empire to servants and meals!" He raised his voice so that all would hear. "Bad servants will be whipped. Upstart peasants who dare challenge the Dragon Throne will be killed. And that is the end of it!"

Cheers and claps greeted his rousing statement. Then he turned back to her, his humor restored. "But I like your butterfly pin," he added.

She could barely murmur a thank-you before he laughed again and strode back to his table at the front of the room. Sun Bo Tao lingered a moment longer, his gaze dark and uncertain on her. She met his lookshe couldn't help herselfbut she couldn't read his meaning. She merely felt that tension again, that low lute string that seemed to tighten between them whenever they saw each other. And then he was gone, his long strides easily catching up to the emperor.

"You have disgraced us!" someone hissed.

Ji Yue turned and was startled to see her fellow virgins glaring at her. "What?"

"He came to our table to talk with us, and you coughed all over him. It is no wonder that he rushed away. He must fear a plague from you!"

Ji Yue blinked. "What?"

"He will think we are like you! He will think we keep company with upstart women who challenge his authority!"

"I did no such thing!" she cried.

"You do it even now! Oh, we are ruined because of you!"

Ji Yue looked from face to face. She had just spent a delightful two hours at the banquet with these girls. They had laughed together and shared stories of their homes. And now each one spit into their napkins at her and turned their faces away. Even Li Fei would not look at her.

"My chances are my own," she finally said. "They will not affect yours."

"Ugly and stupid," Fan Mei Lin said. "She will bring us all down with her."

Ji Yue said nothing. Their minds could not be swayed, and worse, she feared they were right. Men's minds did not always remember details. The emperor might very well attribute her actions to one of them, but she doubted it. Especially since each girl would take pains to remind the emperor that it was Ji Yue who had insulted him so.

No one would remember that she had tried to compliment his statecraft, not insult it. He would only know that she had created discord in his home, and that was a sin that could never be forgiven, especially in the Forbidden City. In short, she had not only failed to impress the emperor but had turned every virgin against her.

Chapter 5 | The Concubine | Chapter 7