The Concubine

Requirements for being a royal consort:1) Exemplify purity. 2) Pass all demanding tests. 3) Gracefully withstand petty backstabbing. 4) Be chaste. Very chaste. Check to all! Chen Ji Yue is on her way to empress superstardom in nineteenth-century China. She only has to vanquish 300 rivals to bring her family great honor.Oh, and she may not find the deliciously sexy Sun Bo Tao—the emperor's best friend—at all delicious. Or sexy. Damn. Ji Yue is in big trouble. Because Bo Tao is definitely very sexy. . . . And Ji Yue is about to discover that chastity is overrated. . . .
Содержание:

The Concubine

   

“You must undress,” he said

   Ji Yue recoiled in shock, her heart beating triple time. It was one thing to be the woman caressing Bo Tao, bringing him to a place where he had no control over his body. It was quite another to remove her own attire.

   “If you wish to know how to seduce a man,” Bo Tao said softly. “It begins with your body. And your body is very beautiful to me, Ji Yue.” She saw honesty in his eyes, and her heart broke. How had she come to this?

   But if her future was in a harem—many women to one man—she would take whatever memories she could. So she put her hands on her buttons and began to pull off her clothes.

   “No. Not like you are at a dressmaker’s,” he said. “Slowly, shyly. But with a hunger in your eyes.”

   As a virgin, she should not know what he meant, but she felt a longing and a building excitement in what she did. And in what they risked together. She looked at him, letting him see her desire, her fears and her desperate wish….

   “My heaven…” he murmured. And if she doubted the desire in his voice, all she had to do was look down. His jade stem was making an appearance….

   Dear Reader,

   Imagine my surprise when I discovered that network television did not invent contests for finding a mate. I mean, sure, there was Cinderella, but that was just a fairy tale. Who knew that in 1851 the Emperor of China truly did advertise for all the eligible young women in the land to apply to become his new empress? Of course, he wasn’t looking for just one wife. One lucky winner would become his empress, four became primary concubines and then he had two levels of harems below that for when he got bored. Lucky him! And lucky me, too, because I got to explore all the drama, the fear and the excitement vicariously through my heroine.

   Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I had to change certain historical facts to make it more dramatic. If you’re curious, I’ve put a brief article up on my Web site about the changes I’ve made. Check it out at www.jadeleeauthor.com. But don’t let reality spoil your fun!

   Step now into the sensuous, exotic world of China’s Forbidden City, where the women are beautiful, the men are usually cut and the emperor rules over everything with absolute power. Then see if you can pick the winner in a game of power and love!

   Enjoy!

   Jade Lee

   www.jadeleeauthor.com

Jade Lee THE CONCUBINE


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

   Children of mixed races have their own set of rules. As the daughter of a Shanghai native and a staunch Indiana Hoosier, USA TODAY bestselling author Jade Lee struggled to find her own identity somewhere between the U.S.A. and China. In the end, she found her answers in writing fiction about the amazing power of love.

Books by Jade Lee

   HARLEQUIN BLAZE

   374—THE TAO OF SEX

   Thank you, Brenda, editor extraordinaire, for inviting me to explore the sexuality of China.

   I had so much fun with this, I feel like I won something way better than the title of Empress!

Contents

   Prologue

   Chapter 1

   Chapter 2

   Chapter 3

   Chapter 4

   Chapter 5

   Chapter 6

   Chapter 7

   Chapter 8

   Chapter 9

   Chapter 10

   Chapter 11

   Chapter 12

   Chapter 13

   Chapter 14

   Chapter 15

   Chapter 16

   Chapter 17

   Chapter 18

   Chapter 19

   Chapter 20

   Chapter 21

   Epilogue

Prologue

   1851—Imperial China

   A LAND OF SENSUOUS DELIGHTS and grinding poverty. A land of silk and jade, of tiny feet and dark, exotic eyes. The ruler of this vast and opulent land is the newly appointed Emperor Xian Feng, the Son of Heaven. Only nineteen years old, he has inherited a corrupt bureaucracy, the rebellious Taiping of the northwest, and a country slowly losing its mind to opium. The eunuchs who serve him grow more corrupt. The white devils constantly bang on his doors demanding trade for goods he does not want. And yet in all this his first duty is to sire an heir. In fact, he will not receive his full imperial salary until he has the required twenty-eight wives.

   To this end, the Festival of Fertility has been declared! Eligible women from throughout the land have been invited to come to the Forbidden City, Xian Feng’s home in Peking. Their virtue and their fortunes will be examined, they will be tested for lucky aspects of mind and body, and if successful, they will never leave the Forbidden City again. The winner will become the empress herself. Second place goes to four favored concubines. Then two other harems will be established for women who will likely never grace Xian Feng’s bed.

   A daunting task for any man to oversee, especially one who is simultaneously running a country. And so, in this most difficult hour, Xian Feng turns to his childhood friend and names Sun Bo Tao, former bad boy of the Forbidden City, as master of the festival. Apparently, the emperor does not hear the warnings that he is appointing a fox to run an imperial henhouse.

1

   SUN BO TAO GROANED as his bed dropped to the street with a head-splitting thump. He cursed under his breath even as he wondered why he was dreaming about sleeping in the middle of a noisy Peking street. Then the sharp bark of command from a soldier cut through his dream and jerked him upright. Unfortunately, it didn’t change his bizarre surroundings. His bed was still sitting in the middle of a Peking street. He could hear the cry of a hundred hawkers, and the smell of human waste was unmistakable.

   He yawned wide enough to crack his jaw, the sound bringing enough awareness that he had to fully open his eyes. He was in a red silk bower surrounded by cushions and hidden from view by tattered silk curtains. Oh, yes, he was sitting in an imperial palanquin and not one of the better ones. He’d woken as the porters dropped the bower onto the city street. But why was he here instead of in his own carriage?

   A memory teased at the corners of his mind, but he resolutely pushed it away. There was a reason he had drunk himself into a stupor last night, and he was fairly certain he didn’t want to remember what it was. He did recall that he’d been on his way home—walking because he’d been too drunk to ride his horse—when he’d seen the imperial procession. Two soldiers in front of four porters carried a curtained bower through the city streets. A very small procession. It was headed somewhere in Peking—he didn’t care where—then would eventually wend its way back to the Forbidden City. As that was his destination, he’d waved down the lead soldier, paid the bribe and slipped in while the porters were taking a rest break. This way he’d get a few more hours of sleep before he had to face the day.

   He was just lying back down when a female wail cut through the relative peace of his secluded bower. And worse, it was quickly followed by more feminine screeching. Much as he tried to block out the sound, curiosity drew him out of sleep. Just how many women were wailing loud enough to wake their ancestors?

   There was an annoying tear in the curtains. The sunlight streamed through it enough that he could peer out. But did he really want to know what was out there? Yes, apparently his curiosity was in full force today. So with a heavy sigh, he maneuvered himself to the side to look out. Roof tiles. He saw roof tiles first. Broken ones that clearly indicated he sat in a not-so-prosperous area of Peking. But he saw trees, too, and a songbird cage beside a long front wall. Not-so-poor, either, then. Middling aristocracy. He shifted up to his knees to adjust his view.

   The father appeared first. Pinched face, short nose, but with a scholarly demeanor. There was refinement in his motions and a kind of tired dreaminess that confirmed Bo Tao’s first thought: middling aristocracy. Probably a Manchu of the red banner tribe. Sure enough, he saw a brand-new silk banner on the archway, but that was the only new decoration. The rest of the house was falling into ruin. His gaze returned to the father, then moved lower still to a pair of silent prepubescent boys. The family would have great difficulty finding the money to educate those two.

   Bo Tao yawned again and thought to lie back down. But as he shifted, he caught sight of the women. It was the mother who was making the primary racket, weeping and sobbing as only a woman could. It was all for show as she kissed her daughter goodbye. He counted ten paid wailers howling in the background, pulling at their hair and creating a solid wall of sound.

   Was the palanquin for them? Were the porters supposed to pick up someone before returning to the Forbidden City? Not the mother, who was still wailing like a demon. Not the stoic father or too-young boys. Must be the girl. He narrowed his eyes, trying to get a look at the daughter. She appeared the right age for marriage, was of middling stature and certainly dressed in finery. He saw an embroidered gown and a curtain of ivory beads in front of her face. Ivory, not jade. Which meant she was not wealthy enough to become an imperial consort.

   Ox piss! Now he remembered why he had drunk himself insensate yesterday. The Festival of Fertility commenced this morning. Yi Zhen, his double-damned best friend (now called Emperor Xian Feng, the pompous prick), had just finished mourning his father last night. Which meant he now began the royal process of picking wives and harems in order to beget the next Son of Heaven.

   A full week would be given over to the search for beautiful and fertile women to grace Emperor Xian Feng’s bed. Beauty and bribes, sex and petty backstabbing would rule the Forbidden City for at least a week, and not a single moment would be left for the practical matters of running the country. What a total waste of time!

   Worse, a delegation of Dutch were coming to the Forbidden City this week. Bo Tao believed that the whites had to be handled with great care, that the world had many dangerous powers that were unknown in China. But Yi Zhen was overwhelmed with internal matters, with the Taiping rebellion in the northwest and China’s increasingly corrupt infrastructure. He had no time to discuss Dutch delegates and no patience for his best friend, who warned of yet more struggles on a global stage.

   Bo Tao should have left the Forbidden City as soon as his emperor showed signs of strain. He knew Yi Zhen’s moods, and yet he had not been able to resist pushing his emperor to see the larger picture. That had been his last, most stupid mistake. After all, Bo Tao had no official status. He was merely the hellion of the Forbidden City, the boy who’d run wild with the emperor, playing games throughout the city-within-a-city. If he were an official appointee, if he were a general or a scholar or something with a title, then he might have had the status to force his friend to listen. But he was simply a consultant, a friend to the emperor, a man who saw the greed in the whites’ eyes and feared it. And when he had pushed Yi Zhen to see it as well, his best friend had punished him.

   His triple-damned emperor had named Bo Tao master of the festival! He said Bo Tao had become too serious and needed a week of frivolity to lighten his mood. Ox piss! Yi Zhen was merely flexing his royal muscles! Rather than deal with the coming Dutch delegation, Yi Zhen had ignored the issue, ordered Bo Tao to take care of the festival, and then laughed at his friend’s stunned expression. It was just like when they were children! Whenever Yi Zhen had felt threatened, he would reassert his status as a royal prince. He’d usually make up some crime and have the eunuchs punish Bo Tao. That was how Bo Tao had learned the fine art of scrubbing kitchen pots or worse, cleaning chamber pots.

   This was no different. But instead of a game, Bo Tao was suddenly in charge of scores of competitive, backstabbing, gossiping virgins! Just when the Dutch delegation was due to arrive!

   He glared out the torn curtain at the girl who might very well become one of his charges by the end of the day. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to assess her prospects and understand why she was marked as special. She had to have something unique to rank an imperial palanquin, even a shabby one.

   Nothing. There was nothing distinctive about her to catch the emperor’s eye, and not enough money on this whole street to pay the bribes that would be required to pass through the minefield that was the imperial court. The girl was doomed. And yet here she was in her richly embroidered gown, kneeling before her parents while paid women wailed.

   Just as well that his presence in her palanquin would keep her from entering the competition. Once he was discovered in her conveyance, she would not be able to enter the litter. His male yang energy poisoned the virginal bower. She would have to arrange for an alternate way to reach the Forbidden City.

   But there wasn’t time even if her family had the money for another carriage. Not if she intended to make it to the gate by the appointed hour. Tardiness was not allowed in prospective royal consorts. Fortunately, he wasn’t dooming anyone who would have made it through the Forbidden City gates. At least this way, the girl was spared the long and humiliating walk home.

   All in all, he decided as he collapsed back down onto a pillow, it was better that he was here ruining her chances. And as an added bonus, he could grab another hour’s sleep before he had to begin his double-damned duties in the coming Farce of Fertility.


   CHEN JI YUE STRUGGLED to breathe. Excitement pounded in her blood, she was already dizzy with the noise, and yet she still could not draw a full breath. How blessed she was to be of the right age for a Festival of Fertility! Only a few hundred girls every few decades had such an opportunity! To catch the eye of the emperor was every girl’s dream. That she would save her family from poverty, as well, only added to her joy. But first, she had to escape all these wailing women!

   “Mama,” she murmured from behind the clattering ivory beads. “Let me go. I cannot be late.”

   “Not yet, little heart. Show respect to your father.”

   She’d already bowed to her father—early this morning for real and outside again for show. “Mama, believe in me. I can do it.”

   Mama didn’t hear her. She was busy wailing again. And worse, she would not let go of Ji Yue’s hands.

   “Mama…” Ji Yue began, but then her mother pulled her close.

   “You won’t win the emperor on beauty, Ji Yue. You must be smart. You must see what others don’t and capitalize on it.”

   “I know. You’ve told me…” Ji Yue let her voice trail away. This close, she noticed there were real tears in her mother’s eyes, and her heart lurched with pain. What would it be like not to see her mother’s face every morning? Who would help her father with his poetry or tutor her brothers? Mama, most likely, but Mama already had plenty to do squeezing every penny so they had enough to eat.

   “That playboy Sun Bo Tao was named master of the festival,” her mother continued. “This is very bad and very dangerous. He is a hanger-on because of his friendship with the emperor. No title, no education, nothing but trouble. Avoid him, Ji Yue. Avoid him at all costs!”

   “I know, Mama. I will stay away from him. I promise!”

   “You can’t! He is master of the festival! He is in charge of all the imperial virgins. Remember what I taught you—follow the Confucian virtues, think pure thoughts, but see what the men do not. I trained you to be a political wife, and the first rule of politics is to not get caught by a man of no virtue.”

   “I know, Mama,” Ji Yue repeated. “Have faith in me. I will become the empress.” If she succeeded, then her entire family would be set for generations. They would become royalty and have all the money they needed. All she had to do was catch the emperor’s eye.

   “Go now. Go before your father unmans himself and cries.” Mama pushed her away. Ji Yue didn’t need the prompting to leave. She was anxious to begin her new life even though her fingers clung to Mama’s arm. But it was hard to see through her curtain of beads, harder still to walk on the high platform shoes. Thankfully, this, too, had been rehearsed.

   The elder of her brothers ran to her side to escort her with all dignity to the imperial palanquin. It had been an exorbitant expense to get the conveyance, but it was the only pull her father had in the Forbidden City. He had spent a year tutoring a eunuch’s nephew and in return had been promised a single favor. Papa had used it to obtain this beautiful ride to the Forbidden City. A future empress should arrive like an empress, he’d said, but that was all he could do. After this, she would have to catch the emperor’s favor on her own.

   The wailers grew louder as she and her brother neared the curtained palanquin. Her brother was to release her hand now and throw open the bower curtains so she could enter. He began to move away, but she suddenly gripped his arm, holding him still.

   It was a silly thought, she knew, but she didn’t want her brother’s last sight of her to be one of extraordinary lavishness. They had so little, and even less now that so much had been spent to outfit her. She did not want her brother to see the interior luxury of the palanquin. After she became the new empress, she would send him exquisite silks as a royal gift. He need not see them now.

   “Take care of Papa,” she murmured as a last goodbye to her brother. “Make sure he drinks his special tea.” Her brother hovered uncertainly beside her, unsure what to do now that she had changed the plan. “Go back to Papa,” she said to him. “Study hard so that you can join me in the Forbidden City.” There were jobs as advisors to the Dragon Throne, but only for scholars who passed the exam. She nudged him back even as she tottered forward to the bower. With one last smile that they couldn’t even see, she ducked inside the palanquin.

   It was dark inside, and with the beads in front of her face, she couldn’t see a thing. She went by touch, crawling inside with little dignity and much speed. The cushions moved awkwardly beneath her hands until she touched a very hard one that remained stable. She pushed down, levering her weight on it.

   The curtains slipped closed behind her, and one of the porters grunted as the palanquin lifted off the street. She slid off the heavy cushion onto something else. Goodness, silk was slippery. And the cushions were bizarre. The palanquin began to sway as it moved away from her family home. She wanted to peer out the curtain, but she didn’t dare do something so vulgar even though the tears burned in her eyes.

   She would never see her family again. Once inside the Forbidden City, no consort ever came out again. Her father might be able to arrange to visit, but such things were rare even among those more politically astute than her father. Her mother had less power, and her brothers wouldn’t be allowed unless they gave up their manhood first and became eunuchs, or passed the exam and became advisors.

   Ji Yue widened her eyes in the darkness, trying to dry the tears. She didn’t dare cry because it would ruin the white matte that covered her face. Instead, she kicked hard at the cushions that refused to move.

   “Ugh,” someone grunted. Then she felt a hand grip her ankle hard.

   Only years of training kept her from screaming. Ladies didn’t scream. By the time she was ten, she’d faced down rats, spiders and snakes without a peep. She would not scream now when riding in an imperial palanquin. She simply kicked as hard as she could to dislodge—

   “Ow! Hold still, damn it. I’m not here to rape you.”

   A man. Oh, heaven, a man! “Get out!” she ordered as she tried to scramble backward. She couldn’t go far without falling out the back end. “Get out or I will kick you again!” It was a silly threat. He had an iron grip on her ankle.

   “Quit fighting,” he said in a low undertone.

   “You cannot be here!” she said, and shoved as hard as she could. He lifted her leg up so that all she did was kick the air above his head. “I will scream!”

   “Would you really scream? And let everyone know that a man is riding with you to the Forbidden City?”

   She bit her lip, then promptly stopped since that would eat off the red paint. Her mother had told her to be smart. It was time she started using her brain instead of her extremely ineffective brawn. “What do you want?” she spat. “I have no money for you. Be thankful if you are not whipped for daring to touch an imperial consort.”

   He was still holding her ankle prisoner. Worse, he was putting his weight on it now as he maneuvered into a sitting position. “You’re not going to be a royal bride. I’m sorry but it’s true.” Then he yawned while horror chilled her bones.

   “You insolent pig!” She kicked again for all she was worth. He was still yawning, his head thrown back with his inhalation. Her leg slipped from his grip and caught him square in the ribs. This cut off his breath, and he doubled over with a gasp. She didn’t give him time to recover but shifted and planted both feet on his hips and began to shove him right out the side of her bower.

   He fought her, of course, but she was prepared. He didn’t grab hold of her. Instead, his fists were filled with crumpled silk. “If I fall out now, everyone will see it,” he warned. “You do not have enough ivory to silence so exciting a story—a man in a potential bride’s palanquin.”

   She paused. One last push and he would go tumbling through the curtains out into the dirt where he belonged. “They already know from the weight,” she said miserably.

   “No, they don’t. They carried me here, remember? They think it’s just a heavy litter.”

   She swallowed, torn between two miserable options. Did she kick him out and pray that people believed in her purity? Never. Or did she let him stay and hope no one was the wiser. “How did you get in here in the first place?”

   “I slipped in when they rested. I can slip out again at the gates. I do it all the time and no one notices.”

   Now that her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, she could see more of him. He was not a broad man like those carrying the palanquin, but tall like her father. His clothing was excellent, though the long queue down his back was misshapen from sleep.

   “Who are you?” she asked.

   “A lackey for the Son of Heaven,” he said with obvious bitterness.

   “Eunuch?” she asked hopefully. It was well known that some of the “cut” men were overly friendly.

   He released a sharp bark of laughter at that, and she abruptly shushed him. “No,” he said in a lower tone. “I am not so important as to be cut.”

   She frowned. “I thought all minions to the emperor were eunuchs. Who else would do the things the royals despise?”

   “Me,” he groused. “And a few others.”

   She shook her head. “I do not believe you.” It was well known that except for a few intimates of the emperor, all men in the Forbidden City were eunuchs. This man couldn’t be an imperial friend. Otherwise he would have his own conveyance and therefore no need to borrow hers. The eunuchs, on the other hand, would often escape into Peking for pleasure. They would also, therefore, need a secret way back into the city.

   She narrowed her eyes, inspecting this man more closely. “You dress too finely to be common. You speak too well to be ignorant. And your hands…” She jutted her chin at his long, elegant fingers. “They are used to a brush and ink, not labor. You must be a secretary then, someone who works as an assistant to the emperor.” She sighed in relief. “Which means you are a eunuch pretending to be whole. There is nothing exciting about an overly friendly eunuch, even if he lands in the dirt.” And with that, she shoved him out of her bower.

   He tumbled backward into the dust. She would forever remember the look of stunned shock on his face as he fell. And when she rolled over to peer after him, she heard the porters laugh. The Insolent One, as she now dubbed him, had landed in some rotting leaves. His fine dark clothing was smeared with grime. She couldn’t see his face, though, as the porters carried her on by.

   Then, with a sigh, she deftly removed two strings of ivory beads from her headdress. She would have to bribe the porters into silence. That was a good deal of money to lose before she even reached the gates, but there was no hope for it. She couldn’t risk them speaking, even about an insolent eunuch. In the end, her father’s grand gesture—like all his great gifts—had cost too much money to be worthwhile.

   Thankfully, she was about to change that. When she became an imperial bride, money would flow like water through her family’s door. And on that happy thought, she reclined alone on the silk cushions and waited for the first test.

2

   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!” JiYue 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 JiYue’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, JiYue 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.

   JiYue swallowed, now realizing that she had just crossed a line. All knew that the eunuchs were bribed, but JiYue 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.”

   JiYue 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.

3

   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 JiYue 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.

   JiYue 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.

   “Again!”

   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.

4

   JI YUE SCANNED THE ROOM for a way to escape. He blocked the door, and there was nowhere else to run. “Why are you doing this?” she demanded. She didn’t think he would answer. She asked only because she was stalling as she figured out a strategy. But to her surprise, he seemed to think deeply about her question.

   “I don’t know,” he finally said. “You are different.”

   She looked away. She knew she was different. And in China, different was very bad. “I’m smart,” she countered. “And strong. I will make a good empress.”

   He touched her cheek, lifting her pointy chin with a firm stroke. “I begin to think you are right. Yi Zhen could do worse than marry you.” Then he smiled. “Don’t be afraid; I will not hurt you.”

   “Of course you will!” she shot back. “Why else would you maneuver me this way? Why else would we be alone together!”

   “I did not hurt you in the palanquin,” he said.

   “You did not have time! I kicked you out.”

   He grimaced. “Yes, I know. My ribs still hurt.”

   She stared at him in confusion. He blocked the door, but he made no move to rape her. Up until now, he had merely been a man who mentally tortured her, a man who blocked her path to the emperor’s bed. But for the first time, she actually looked closely at his face. She expected that his features would be soft and lax with the indolence of a courtier, but what she saw instead was a hardened jaw and clear eyes in an unsmiling face. This man might be many things, but he was not soft. And that thought surprised her almost as much as it excited her. “What do you want of me?” she asked.

   He smiled, and this time there was no mockery in his expression. “To test you, Chen Ji Yue. To find out what kind of woman you are. Do you wish to become empress?”

   She nodded. “You know I do.”

   “Then what will you do? As the doctor said, you will not pass this test today. You are hot-tempered. Your fertility is already dried up.”

   “You don’t know that!”

   He stepped forward. “I do. But if you like, you can check for yourself. Think of the place between your thighs. Is it wet and supple?”

   Ji Yue gasped, her thoughts going straight to that part of her body. And then she remembered what she had done to keep her private area sweet and supple. She swallowed, trying to act casual, but fear ate at her reason. “Why…why would you ask about that place?”

   His eyes narrowed. She wanted to look away, but she could not when he stared at her so intently. “You have done something,” he said. “Something that no one else knows about.” His brows drew together in anger. “Chen JiYue! Are you a virgin?”

   “Of course!” she cried. “Of course I am! I have done nothing but—” She swallowed, cursing her errant tongue. What was it about this man that made her stupid with her words?

   “But what?” he demanded.

   “It is nothing,” she whispered. “Just a cream to keep the skin moist and the petals blossoming.”

   His eyebrows shot up. “And did you apply this cream today?” he asked. “Despite my express warning against wearing cosmetics?”

   “It is not a cosmetic! It is fruit and herbs. It’s not a paint at all. More like food for…for women.” She looked at him in misery. Her face burned with shame. “Please help me,” she whispered. “The doctor is sure to notice.”

   “My, my,” he drawled. “You do have a problem.” He did not sound angry, merely pensive. She did not dare hope that he would help her for no compensation, but she was desperate.

   “Bring me a bucket with water. I…I have jewelry. I can pay.”

   He reared back in anger. “Do not seek to bribe me, girl!”

   “Then what do you want?”

   He smiled slowly, but his eyes remained grave. “I cannot bring you water. It would be noticed and even I cannot break the rules.”

   She took a step forward. “You are breaking the rules now by being alone with me. Say that someone grew ill, that you wish to clean up the mess.”

   “I would send a eunuch for that.”

   She grimaced, her ideas—and her time—running out. “What is the punishment for wearing cosmetics?”

   He sighed. “You have already seen the punishment. The eunuchs are not kind when they bathe you. And they will be especially cruel where you are most dirty.”

   She winced. “Why do you allow such men here?”

   He folded his arms. “I do not allow anything. In fact, I have counseled Yi Zhen against it, but we always meet with the same answer.”

   “What is that?”

   “That eunuchs have been a way of life in the Forbidden City long before the Manchu came and will continue long after we are gone.”

   She looked away, cursing herself for her vanity this morning and wondering if she had thrown away her chances with that one simple act. “I meant no harm. It is just a sweetening cream.” Then she swallowed and forced herself to beg. “Help me please. What should I do?”

   He waited while she twisted her fingers together in anxiety. His look was pensive, but his eyes seemed to burn. “There is a way, you know, to drown out the scent of your…your fruit and herbs. A way that the doctor will never notice and will boost your attractiveness as an imperial consort.”

   She bit her lower lip, barely daring to hope. Could he truly wish to help her? Of course not, and yet what choice did she have? “More creams?” she asked.

   He smiled, and she was momentarily struck silent by the beauty in his face. Normally he scowled at the women who plagued him, but for this moment he looked different. Not gentle so much as less fierce. More…seductive. And again she was startled by how appealing that made him.

   “I will not surrender my virginity!” she stated fiercely. “I will fight you if you try!”

   “Of that I have no doubt,” he said dryly. “No, I refer to the stages before surrender.”

   She frowned, extraordinarily suspicious but also a little intrigued. Though her mother had explained lust in great detail, most especially what it could drive a man to do, she had never spoken about the steps of love or of the act itself. “What stages?”

   “You wish to know?” he asked.

   “I wish to become an empress,” she snapped.

   “Then allow me to touch you and your fertility will never be in question.”

   “No touching!” she cried as she backed away.

   “I cannot do it any other way,” he responded. “You need only unbutton your blouse. I will touch your breasts.”

   She shook her head, her heart beating so loud it seemed to echo in her mind.

   “You will show me your breasts, anyway, as part of the examination.”

   “But I will lose my virginity!”

   He stared hard at her. “Do you truly not know how it is done?”

   She flushed so hot her ears burned. “I have seen dogs. I…I know the essence, but a touch one place will lead to more. And you are stronger than I.”

   “Then take this.” He handed her his empty plate. “If I touch more than you wish, then you may break it on my head. Do it hard enough and I will not be touching anything again for a very long time.”

   She hesitated a moment, then grabbed the plate from him. Whatever she decided, she would feel better with a weapon in her hand.

   “Decide quickly. The doctor will be back soon.”

   That brought a return of her fears and a swift decision. With a deep breath, she began unbuttoning the clasps at her neck and then down along her side. All too soon, her blouse was pushed away, the silk dropping uselessly to the floor. Below it, her diamond-shaped undergarment of soft cotton was already stained from perspiration. The ties pulled at her neck and back, but her entire front remained covered by the too-thin fabric.

   “Take it all off,” he said, his voice low and thick.

   She lifted her chin and stared at him. She had to do this, she reminded herself. And truthfully, a kind of madness had gripped her. She wanted to do this. She wanted to see his face when her flesh was bared to his eyes. So while one hand still gripped the plate, the other resolutely untied her undergarment. And inside her, the blood seemed to beat faster, wilder, with a daring she found as exciting as the man who stood before her.

   “Not flat plates, after all,” he murmured. His face was no longer pinched, but his eyes still held that intensity she both feared and enjoyed. “Your breasts are bells arching outward.” He spoke as if to himself while one hand lifted to touch her. “They say that women with bells mature young and have very high desires.” His hand stopped, and his gaze leaped to hers. “I am going to touch you now. Do not be afraid.”

   She wasn’t. Looking in his eyes, she didn’t see anger or vengeance. She wondered for a moment if this was the look of lust, but he did not have the signs that her mother had told her of. His eyes did not pinch nor did his mouth pull back like a dog in heat. If anything, he had the look of reverence.

   “Your skin is flawless,” he said. “It would glow in candlelight.”

   He touched her. With his long elegant fingers, he stroked the side of one breast and fire trailed in his wake. She gasped at the feel, and he smiled. Then he curved his hand around the outside before brushing his thumb across her peaked nipple.

   She trembled. It started in her belly, but it traveled outward, making her breath stutter and her heart race. He moved closer, his hand still caressing her breast.

   “What…what are you doing?” she gasped, though the answer was perfectly obvious.

   “You are safe. Keep the plate handy.”

   She had forgotten it. With shaking hands, she gripped the fine porcelain tight, but she didn’t do anything with it. He moved around behind her, his one hand still stroking. Her breast felt hot and large in his hand, and her back tingled with awareness of him. And then, every so often, he would pinch the nipple and she would shudder at the flash of sensation that burst through her thoughts. Her whole body now beat with a wildness and a hunger she’d never felt before.

   His free hand slipped around her rib cage to lift her other breast. He leaned against her back, pressing her forward so that her legs pushed against the physician’s table. She was pinned between him and the table while his breath brushed hot across her cheek. She felt surrounded by him, completely and totally within his power.

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