JI YUE'S MISERY had only begun at dinner. When the banquet was over, the girls filed silently back to the virgins' palace. The moment the door was shut, they rounded on her. While the girls at her table hated her for spoiling their chances with her miserable actions, the others were angry that the emperor had spent time with "a dirty pig like her!"
Nothing about her was sacred. Her body, her hair, her smell were all fodder for insult. For one insane moment she thought the eunuchs might help keep the rancor under control, but to her dismay, they merely egged the virgins on. This was their entertainment. Plus, they had no wish for the bitterness to be turned back on them.
In the end, Ji Yue stopped defending herself. No one wished to hear her side, anyway, and she was too miserable to try to speak reasonably to anyone, much less the shrews that surrounded her. She simply wanted to go to her bed and cry herself to sleep. But she was blocked on all sides. No one would let her pass out of the main room. She had to wait it out, doing her best to ignore every hateful word.
But then someone recalled that the emperor liked her hairpin. Another screeched that the pin was hers and she ran at Ji Yue, her claws extended to regain her property. She succeeded. She ripped out the butterfly pin and took a handful of cemented hair as well.
The pain shredded the last of Ji Yue's patience. She had two brothers, she knew how to fight. So she grabbed the girl's arm with one hand and balled the other into a fist, slamming it into the girl's stomach. Her attacker crumpled to her knees, but the hairpin was still gripped tight in her fist. "That was my great-grandmother's!" Ji Yue said, and she went to pry it out of the shrew's fingers. She'd just managed to grab hold of one tiny wing when the first blow fell.
Clearly, someone else had brothers. A hard, compact fist slammed into her side. As Ji Yue began to drop, she saw a small foot in a bright red shoe fly toward her face. She twisted, taking the impact on her shoulders, but that only exposed her face on the other side. Blows began to rain down. She had no idea who attacked her, only why. Tonight she was the scapegoat for everyone's frustrations. As blow after blow fell, each more vicious than the last, Ji Yue could only curl into herself and pray. Surely it would end soon.
He saved her. Somehow she knew it would be him. Not the emperor, as she might dream, but the man who plagued her awake and asleep: Sun Bo Tao, Master of the Festival. She heard his voice, a deep, angry bellow that cut through all the high screeches.
She felt no more blows, only a dull ache from head to toe. The pain would grow worse later, but she already knew that nothing had been broken. The girls had been intent on a beating, not murder. The master was still bellowing, and she heard the noise of people withdrawing. Then she felt his hands, large but oh so gentle, on her back.
"Where are you hurt, Ji Yue? You must tell me. I cannot help otherwise."
Deep in her spirit, she wanted to answer. She'd never had a sister, and she had naively believed that some of her fellow virgins would be her friends. She was a foolish, foolish woman to have thought such a thing. She knew that now.
"Chen Ji Yue, you must answer me!" His voice held a tinge of panic, so she opened her eyes to look at him.
"Once many years ago," she said, "I was climbing to reach something I was not supposed to have." She blinked away her tears. With his help, she began to uncurl, wincing as she moved. "I don't remember what it was. A sweet perhaps or, more likely, my father's brushes. But it was too high and I was too small, so I fell and broke my arm."
"Ji Yue, where are you hurt?" He brushed his thumb across her cheek and it came away smeared with white paint and black charcoal.
"The pain was unbearable," she said, retreating to the memory of her mother's arms wrapped about her, and her father's voice, high and threaded with panic. "I screamed until my throat hurt as much as my arm, and still I did not stop."
"Ji Yue…" he murmured, clearly frustrated. He was running his hands down her body—her arms and her ribs, then her legs. There was nothing familiar in his touch, simply a quick pat everywhere to check for breaks.
She leaned forward and touched his arm before he reached her big feet. "This was a beating," she said. "Nothing more."
He froze. "I have already summoned the women's doctor."
She shook her head. She did not want to see that woman again or go into her examination room. "Send her away. I would know if something inside were broken."
He shook his head. "Not always," he said grimly as he handed her a cloth for her face. "Have you been beaten before?"
She wiped the worst of the paint from her face then pulled the now broken board from her hair. "Once by my father for practicing my brush strokes upon his fine paper. And once by my brother's tutor for doing his homework for him."
He frowned. "You did your brother's homework?"
She shrugged, then immediately stopped. Already her back was beginning to swell. "I was bored. And I didn't think the runt would claim my work as his own."
He smiled. This close, she could see the way his brow puckered when he was worried, and how his smile smoothed the furrows away. "Can you stand?"
She nodded. He gripped her hand, but there was something between their palms. He pulled back and turned her hand over. The mangled butterfly hairpin lay in her palm. She had ripped it back from the lying bitch who'd stolen it.
"I am sorry," he said. "It was a pretty piece."
It was mutilated beyond repair. The jade stones were broken or missing and the gold wire was twisted. She looked at the misshapen thing in her palm and something inside her broke. She began to cry, and once the tears began, they would not stop.
He tried to speak to her. She couldn't understand the words, but she heard his tone. He sounded much like her father had that day long ago when she'd broken her arm: alarmed, anxious and completely uncertain what to do. In the end, Bo Tao simply swept her legs out from under her and carried her from the virgins' palace. She didn't know where he was taking her, and frankly she didn't care. His arms were larger than her father's, his voice was deeper than her father's, but the comfort was the same. His touch was just as tender, and she wanted nothing more than to be held by him forever.
Then he stopped walking. He stood still for a moment while she listened to the steady beat of his heart. She liked the regular rise and fall of his broad chest. Then he eased down on a bench, gently resting her on his lap.
"We are alone now," he said. "You can cry as much as you like."
She smiled and wished she could rub her face against the skin on his neck, but his collar prevented it. "I am done crying," she said, her voice raw. Instead, her mind was consumed by the feel of his arms, the warmth of his body and the strength that surrounded her so completely that she thought she could never be harmed again. "Don't leave me yet."
He tightened his grip around her. "Are you sure you don't need to see the physician?" he asked. With her ear pressed to his chest, his voice was a deep, echoing rumble like the sound of thunder in the distance.
"I am fine so long as you hold me."
He didn't answer, except to lean back enough to settle her even more deeply into his arms. She smiled, happy to think of nothing beyond him. But that thought led to others. Her heart beat harder, and she remembered another time when his hands had been on her body, when his chest had been pressed tight to her back, and his hands…
"Where are we?" she asked by way of distraction. She knew they were in a bower of sorts. She could feel the breeze, but in the darkness, she could see little more than the stone bench upon which they sat.
"It is a garden near the emperor's palace."
She jerked in alarm. "But he cannot see me like this!"
His grip tightened on her, keeping her in place. "No one comes here at night but me. Certainly not Yi Zhen. And even if he did, we would hear him long before he could see us."
Reassured, she relaxed back against him, acutely aware of the way his thighs rippled as he adjusted to her. And of the burning heat pressed intimately against her. "But where is this place?"
"It is my aunt's garden. Well, not specifically hers, but she was the only one who tended it."
She frowned. "You have an aunt in the Forbidden City?"
He nodded. "She was part of Emperor Dao Guang's lowest harem. That is how I came to be friends with Yi Zhen. My mother was visiting her sister. One day I escaped them and found him."
Ji Yue smiled. "My brothers often ran away from me, as well." She straightened, intrigued by the idea of meeting one of Bo Tao's relatives. "May I meet your aunt tomorrow? I would love to talk with her. I like gardening, too, and would often help the workers when I was little."
He shook his head. "I'm sorry. My aunt was selected to be buried with the emperor."
She swallowed, understanding the harsh fate that sometimes awaited members of an imperial harem. Being buried alive with the emperor was one of the worst. Still, she spoke the words that were expected of her. "She was greatly honored."
Bo Tao grimaced. "I have never thought it much of an honor, but I know she believed it."
Ji Yue sighed, uneasy with the idea of what could very well be her own fate someday. "Did she…Was she awake in the tomb?"
"I hope not. I brought her poison sealed in a perfume bottle. She should have fallen asleep, then died quickly while at rest." He took a deep breath, and Ji Yue felt it shudder inside him. "I hope it went like that. We will never know if it did not."
"I'm sure it did. I'm sure she was very grateful."
His hands tightened on her, and she went where he silently urged her: back into his arms. She listened to the night birds and the whisper of the wind through the leaves. But mostly she felt the wildness building inside her again. Would he touch her like he had before? She shouldn't want him to, but she did. She should be aching for the emperor's caress, the emperor's hot press of body and groin, the emperor's…
"Are you feeling better?" he asked.
"Yes," she lied. In truth, she was beginning to feel an ache deep in her womb. It was shame. She was ashamed that her thoughts lingered on a very unvirginlike desire for the absolutely wrong man.
"Do you think you could walk? I have something I want to show you."
"Yes, of course." She reluctantly shifted out of his arms, standing carefully. Her clothing was torn in a dozen places and her hair constantly strayed into her eyes, but she didn't care. Despite the conflicting emotions inside her, this night had taken on a magical quality, and she did not want it to end even if she walked around in rags.
"It is not far, but it requires a little bit of climbing. I would not be able to carry you."
"I am fine," she repeated, her curiosity piqued.
With a nod, he gestured her out of the bower. They walked together in silence. He kept a hand on her back and another on her arm, leading her through the dark maze that was the Forbidden City. They ended at a ladder that led up a massive tree.
"It is up there," he whispered into her ear, "but I must empty it out first. Wait here in the shadows and don't make a sound."
She nodded her agreement. Within moments he disappeared up the ladder. Then to her shock, four eunuchs descended in rapid order. They went in the other direction, grumbling and laughing among themselves. Bo Tao descended a moment later.
"They are gone now," he said.
"What did you do?"
"I bribed them to leave. Now no one will know that you are here."
She stepped forward, looking up into the blackness above. "What if someone else comes?"
"They won't," he said as he placed her hands on the ladder. "There is a way to bar entrance to anyone else. Besides, the show is not that interesting tonight."
"Show?" she asked.
She did as he bid, though it was hard going. Her skirt was already ripped, so there was no difficulty there. But he placed his hands on either side of hers, and he mounted each rung directly behind her. When he bumped against her bottom or leaned close enough to heat her shoulders with his chest, she gasped at the contact and thought inappropriate things. What if she had not hit him in the examination room? What would have happened? With his body around hers and his hand exploring her, what would have happened? What would she have felt?
By the time she made it up to a platform at the very top, her mouth was dry and her breasts heavy. "What is it that you want me to see?" she asked, her voice thready in the darkness.
He didn't answer in words. Instead, he crawled beside her and gently twisted her shoulders around until she looked through an opening in the branches. From there she saw into a room in a palace. There were people inside—women—but what were they doing?
Bo Tao was still holding her to direct her attention. Now he leaned closer to whisper into her ear. "We are looking at the surviving harem of Dao Guang. This is a room in their palace."
"But what are they doing?"
"Can you not guess? Do you not understand?"
She did understand, but she had never thought to see three women in the throes of sexual congress.
"Do you know that women establish a hierarchy in a harem? That one is the head female and the others must follow her rules?"
She nodded. That was why the fighting was so vicious in the virgins' quarters. The hierarchy had yet to be established.
"That woman lying out on the floor is Tai Lai, the head of this harem. She has ordered the others to pleasure her."
Ji Yue blinked, leaning forward on her knees to see better. The woman on the ground seemed to be the oldest there. She lay on her back as one girl suckled her left breast and used her other hand to manipulate the nipple of the right. The second girl crouched at the groin, using her mouth to lick and stroke there. All three were naked.
"With no men to please them, the members of the harem delight themselves. Sometimes it is this way, with each other or with willing eunuchs. Sometimes it is in ways more cruel and bloody."
The moment of ecstasy was building inside Tai Lai. Her moans were growing louder and she began to thrash her head. The younger two intensified their efforts, holding her down when her movements became too vigorous. And then she arched her back, screaming out in her passion. Meanwhile, the other two leaned back, breathing hard themselves from their exertions.
"How long has this platform existed?" Ji Yue whispered. "She should know she is being observed."
"She knows," he said. "She is the one who commanded that it be built. It intensifies her pleasure to know that eunuchs watch her and mourn for what they have lost."
Ji Yue wanted to turn away, she wanted to look at Bo Tao's face to judge if he lied. But she could not tear her eyes from the tableau before her. Tai Lai's recovery came quickly. Her breath returned to normal and she reached out to fondle the breasts of the nearest girl, pinching and pulling despite the younger one's winces. Except, of course, the girl did not seem to be in great pain. Her face became flushed and her hand slipped between her thighs to touch herself.
"But that must hurt!" Ji Yue said.
"It does. But in this place, pain and sex can become twisted together."
The girl was beginning to moan as her hand worked between her thighs. The other one—still crouched between Tai Lai's legs—began to stand, but Tai Lai shot her an angry look.
"Again!" she commanded. "Slower this time."
The other one nodded and bent to her work. And then there were two women moaning and thrashing while one made noisy slurps that carried through the night air.
"And this is how they entertain themselves at this hour?" Ji Yue asked. "While others watch?"
"At night and during the day sometimes. How else can they occupy their time with no children to care for and no man to ease their suffering."
"But surely when Dao Guang was alive—"
"This is the lowest harem. He never called for any of them. All of them are still virgins, all imprisoned in the Forbidden City, unable to leave even to visit their own families. Most are not told when their parents die. Their life is reduced to this palace and these spectacles."
She shuddered at the thought. "Surely not all do this."
"No. Only a few. Others spend their time in petty rivalries and cruel revenges. Many have turned to religion, a few to music and poetry. But I have seen as many as a dozen in that room, including eunuchs."
"And how many watched from here?" she asked, at last able to turn away from the sight.
His teeth flashed white as he grinned. "I feared for the tree that night, so many were perched here or had climbed into the branches."
Ji Yue didn't dare look into his face when she asked her next question. So she let her gaze drop to his corded neck while her fingers toyed with a rough tear in her skirt. "Have you ever joined the…the revelry in there?"
He shook his head. "I am a whole man. I would be killed were I to enter."
She looked up to see his face. There was a kind of mischief in his eyes and she knew the truth. "You have joined them there!" she accused.
He shook his head. "Never. I swear."
"But you have done something. You have the same look my brothers have when they have stolen tarts."
He grinned, his teeth flashing in the darkness. "I have been on this platform with women who are not protected virgins." He leaned forward and touched her face. His hand slipped down her cheek and then brushed across her nipple so that tingles shot through her body. Before she could do more than gasp, she felt his other hand glide up her thigh. The rips in her skirt gave him many places to touch, many places to burrow. She felt his hand curve around the top of her thigh to stroke against her curls.
"Have you ever experienced what those women do? Have you ever felt the tremors rack your body as you cry out in joy?"
She shook her head. Never had she done such things.
"You were so creamy before," he said as his hand slid deeper between her legs. "Has seeing this made it so again? Do you even understand what I am asking?"
"No," she breathed, though she gave no power to the word because, of course, she did understand in part. Her thighs were wet, and her womb quivered in desire. And she had thought so much of these things, even before entering the Forbidden City. She had seen dogs in copulation, heard the moans from her parents' bedroom and even watched as servants met in secret in the back garden. So she did know some, and she wondered. She most especially wondered what it would be like to experience such a thing with him.
Behind them, the concubines' cries were reaching fever pitch. And in the darkness of their tree bower, Ji Yue let her legs spread the tiniest bit. Then a bit further as his fingers delved deeper.
It was the knuckle of his index finger, she believed, that pushed against her first. She gasped in shock and had to grip his shoulders to steady herself. But that lifted her higher up, which gave him more room as he stroked between her petals.
"Yes," he said, "I believe you have been using your cream again."
Blood roared in her ears, her entire body was on fire, but her attention was centered on the place where his long finger stroked, rolling ever so slowly from front to back. Every knuckle made her shiver, and she released a high keening sigh.
"No man has ever touched you like this?" he asked. "You have never done this to yourself?"
"Never," she gasped. If only she'd known what it felt like before. Her skin seemed to pulse and her body throbbed where he touched.
"Good," he said as he turned his hand over so that he cupped her fully. His hand was large and intimate, and she felt as if he held the whole of her in his palm. "Then you will remember me always," he said as he pushed a finger inside her.
She cried out in alarm. No man had ever penetrated her like that before. But it felt good. Wicked, but good. Then he withdrew, rolling his knuckles forward across a place she'd only discovered with him earlier that day.
"Move as you will," he murmured as he leaned forward to support her upper body better. "Make whatever sounds you like. They are common here."
She didn't want to act so wantonly. She knew this was not the behavior of a virgin, and yet how could she stop when his hand and body urged her to move? Her thighs tightened and she rose higher on her knees. Without her willing it so, her back began to arch, and her hips thrust forward and back, forward and back over his hand.
"So hot," he whispered. "So wet. I cannot believe you are a virgin."
"I've never—" she gasped, her mind splintering.
His fingers moved without pattern. Or perhaps she could not understand the pattern, for her mind was completely absorbed in the feel of his fingers on her body, the sweet thunder of her heart and the wildness he drew from her so effortlessly. She was shaking, her buttocks lifting and lowering her as he spoke encouragement. Chest to chest, he held her while he pressed his finger inside again, then pulled it out, pressed it in and pulled it out.
"Kiss me," he said against her ear. "Kiss me so you do not scream."
She had no strength to do anything, but he had power enough for them both. He pressed his mouth to hers and thrust his tongue inside. He explored every part of her mouth while still touching her rhythmically below. And then it happened.
She cried out, her mouth fused to his. She clenched her muscles, then contracted them. A bliss radiated through every inch of her, every pore. He held her as the contractions roared through her blood. He kept his mouth on hers, his hand cupping her and his finger deep inside, still thrusting into her. She felt him there as her body tightened around him and her mind splintered from the wonder of it all.
And when the shudders eased, when the breath returned to her body and her thighs relaxed downward, he still held her tight, supporting her as she fell back onto her heels. He pressed tiny kisses to her cheek, then down her neck. His hand remained cupped against her body, his one finger still pressed deep inside her. She did not move to close her legs. She did not have the strength.
"That was wonderful," she whispered.
"There is more," he said.
She blinked. She could not imagine more. Then he lifted his head, his eyes twinkling in the darkness.
"Did you not hear Tai Lai?" he asked. "She said, 'Again. This time slower.'"