When the Emperor called, one went with all haste despite watery knees and trembling stomach, especially when ordered to his personal chambers. I felt these things and more—a forbidden longing for what could not be.
Although he’d dressed in informal black silks instead of imperial gold, one would never forget that he was the Emperor. Luxury surrounded him. He reclined on red cushions beside a low table laden with a variety of fruits, cakes and his favorite sweet wine. A fountain tinkled in the corner, watering a green stand of bamboo. Thousands of attendants lived to see to his every whim. They lowered the gauzy curtains and backed away, enclosing us in a dreamy tent of pretended privacy.
Most of all, though, his dark eyes declared him Emperor, whether heavy-lidded with banked sensuality or sharp with purpose. He commanded without saying a single word. Even his smallest gesture weighed with heavy authority.
My life in the palace had only begun, and already I wearied of the constant watchful gazes and whispers. The Emperor could do as he willed and none would dare object, but a woman’s actions must be discussed and dissected for days. They said I must have cursed him with my strange eyes, for why else would the Son of Heaven deign to summon me—and not one of his own consorts—each week?
That his increasingly volatile temper had improved dramatically since I’d come to the palace only added fuel to the fire. No one would believe that all we did was talk, least of all, me.
I lived my entire week simply to see him again, blissfully alone, just he and I. If I worked to enliven our conversation, he might laugh, and I would find the will to breathe another week.
As always when I saw him, the heavy constriction in my chest made it difficult for my heart to beat. Age had been kind to him. His long, sleek hair was still as dark as ink except for the silvered, neatly trimmed beard at his chin. Lines about his eyes and mouth told of the massive weight of his responsibilities.
I yearned to rub those lines of weariness from his face. He already had two grown sons, as well as his Empress and consorts. My heart insisted he was alone.
No one could possibly know him like me.
I had been made for him. From the age of eight, I had received instruction in how best to please the Emperor by someone who’d once known him as a close friend. From my teacher’s descriptions and stories, the Emperor’s image had risen in my mind each night when I closed my eyes.
But it was not to his bed that I had been called.
He smiled and my heart leapt into a frantic dance. “Come, sit, Daughter.”
As I bowed and then knelt beside him, I knew my eyes must be bright with emotion. My eyes—an unusual golden amber—had first been a curse. Light, strange eyes made me Other. People feared me. Children had thrown rocks at me until I learned to stay home.
All that changed when a former general came riding through our town and visited my father. He saw my eyes and knew the gods must have marked me for the Imperial Family. My curse became a great gift, a life of education and training far from the home I had known. I was still secluded, but I had the promise of the Emperor and the intrigue at court to fill my thoughts. I wove complex plans from the very beginning, pondering my choices and calculating the potential consequences.
I’d come to the palace to win the Emperor’s heart and give him a baby prince with golden eyes. Yet all my careful plans had crumbled to dust. I had set my eyes on the Emperor, and instead, he’d chosen to gift me to his oldest son.
“Your Majesty is too kind.”
He made a slight gesture with his right hand as though he pushed my gratitude aside. “You bring sunshine into the life of an old man, Daughter. My son has not been upset by my requests for your companionship, has he? If so, I shall speak to him.”
I ducked my head, as touched by his informal manner as his offer to intervene with my husband. No imperial distance chilled his speech when we were alone. I couldn’t help but wonder if he talked to his Empress as comfortably when he took her to his bed. “No one would dare feel upset at any of your requests, Your Majesty, let alone one so insignificant.”
His fingers settled under my chin, and my skin wanted to leap off my bones and dance for joy, despite the solemn censure in his eyes as he lifted my gaze to his. He said nothing. He didn’t have to vocalize his order to tell him the truth, no matter how ugly and painful.
“The Crown Prince has a vagrant heart, Your Majesty. As the poem says, he already seeks a new love like a new piece of jade.” My voice sounded brittle but I managed to speak without bitterness. My status in the palace depended upon how well I pleased my husband. The fact that he’d already replaced me with some eager slut from the laundry—not even a consort from a respected family—brought me lower than the poorest peasant. If I had not brought my old nurse with me into the palace, I would not have had a single servant to assist me. “He shall not miss me.”
He made a low, gruff sound of dismay that made my eyes burn with shame.
“Any lack is mine, Your Majesty.” I fell forward on my face, unable to bear his disappointment. “Please forgive this consort for failing to be a good wife to your honored son.”
He lifted me up and brought me to his embrace. Rich spice filled my lungs, and I cried harder, unable to bear the pain of all I had been denied. It had been foolish to set my eyes upon the Emperor. He had many women and no need of another, especially one so young as I. My wishes and my heart were nothing.
He tried so hard to always be patient and understanding, the benevolent and all-knowing Son of Heaven, yet he never forgot the wars that consolidated his power as a young warlord. His consorts sang his praises, declaring him a gentle and considerate lover, and though he showered them with trinkets and indulged them like children, I never saw any great passion in his eyes for any of them.
Surely I wasn’t the only one to take note of the hard gleam in his eyes and the occasional slant of cruelty on his mouth despite his best efforts to rein that darkness in. At heart, he was a conqueror. A secret part of him yearned to pillage and run his woman down on horseback instead of bribing his enemies with titles and wooing his ladies with jewels and silks.
I saw that shadowed promise of violence in his gaze and burned to loose that tightly chained beast.
His lips pressed against my temple. “I thought it best to make you first wife of the next Emperor instead of last wife to the old.”
“I would rather be bondservant than wife, Your Majesty, if only I could be yours.”
Available August 29, 2011 from Carina Press!