“Get out of my sight!”
Liu Che, the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom, hurled a goblet of wine at the huddle of court musicians. They whimpered in dismay, scuffling backward on hands and knees, dragging their instruments with them. None of them dared look up; all wore expressions of consternation and terror. They folded themselves over their instruments and shook, the rustling of their silks like a soft breeze flowing around the audience chamber.
The sound amused and aggravated Liu Che in equal parts. He sighed, turning his head so sharply the red and gold beads suspended from his headdress clattered and tangled together. The beads danced and slowed, then fell into graceful silence. A smile of self-mockery curled his mouth as he became aware of the extent of his jaded cynicism. Things must be bad when he found the beads on his headdress more interesting than his court entertainers.
With a gesture, he summoned his chief eunuch. When the elderly, soft-bellied creature bowed low before him, Liu Che leaned back in his gilded throne and flicked his fingers toward the musicians. “Get rid of them.”
The chief eunuch bowed even lower. “Permanently, Your Majesty?”
Liu Che scowled. “I am not that much of a monster. Send them away until they can play in tune. Send them to Minyue.”
A wail more musical than the tunes they’d been playing erupted from the cowering musicians. Liu Che let his smile return briefly. Minyue was at the far south of the empire, a kingdom so distant very few travelers ever returned from its damp heat. Those who did were racked with strange malaises and told tales of monstrous beasts stalking through dank, hot jungles. It sounded like hell on earth.
He waited until the musicians were separated from their instruments and removed from the room, protesting and pleading. His expression hardened. Liu Che despised those who begged for his clemency when they had done nothing to deserve it. He believed a man should use the gifts he’d been given and never apologize for them, but neither should he squander those gifts in meaningless repetition.
The court musicians had been told once already to play something new. An emperor should not need to repeat his commands.
The double doors of the receiving hall closed, cutting off the musicians’ cries. Liu Che curled his hands around the armrests of his throne and stared at the dark wood of the doors, admiring for a moment the intricate bronze decoration of two dragons entwined amongst clouds. His decision to use two dragons rather than a dragon and a phoenix had provided endless fodder for gossip. Everyone knew of his preference for male flesh, but it was something that went unacknowledged. The denials had irritated him so much that he’d had the doors made as a permanent, daily reminder to his courtiers of his nature.
Now the doors seemed to taunt him. Two dragons sporting together, their long, sleek shapes undulating in bliss, their lashing tails entangled to bring their bodies ever closer… and yet for all the valiant generals he took to his bed, Liu Che had never found that moment of sweet, perfect unity his dragons symbolized.
The reminder made his mood turn sour. He stood abruptly, the beads in his headdress clashing again. Looking out over the assembled courtiers, he pinned them collectively with his gaze, watching them wilt beneath the weight of his anger.
“I am sick of hearing the same songs, the same music,” he began. He lifted his arms, the heavy folded silk of his sleeves sliding over his wrists in a sensual rub. “You give me tiresome variations on tunes popular when my great-great-grandfather was emperor. I have extended the boundaries of the empire further than any ruler before me, so why must I listen to the lackluster twiddlings of inadequate musicians? I want new music, new influences. I want to hear the songs of the south and the far west. I want to hear tunes from the north. I want something new! Is there anyone here capable of that?”
In the wake of his speech, silence rang around the room. It stretched out, becoming first uncomfortable and then unbearable. Everyone, it seemed, kept their eyes trained on the floor.
Except for one. As Liu Che scanned the room, his gaze met that of a young man half hidden behind more senior members of the Guild of Music. When Liu Che stared at him, the young man answered his challenge. “I can give you something new. I am capable of entertaining Your Majesty.”
The young man’s voice was soft and husky, scarcely more than a murmur, and yet his words carried around the room.
“You.” Liu Che beckoned him. “What is your name?”
The musicians around him parted as the young man prostrated himself. “Your Majesty, this humble person is Li Yan Nian.”
“Let me see you.”
Yan Nian rose obediently from the serried ranks of musicians and ministers, stepped out in front of the throne, and knelt with his hands on his knees. Graceful as well as clever, was Liu Che’s first thought. He admired the way the young man had arranged the silks of his pale blue robe so they trailed around him in a delicate, artful pattern. The silk was of good quality, though the style was dated. The young man must be of good family, or else he had a lover at court that gave him last year’s castoffs.
Liu Che frowned at the direction of his thoughts. He didn’t want to imagine this young man with a lover. He stepped down from the dais at the same time as Yan Nian looked up, shy and bold, inquisitive and challenging, and Liu Che felt his heart seize before it beat again, strong and rapid. Yan Nian was beautiful.
Liu Che had never demanded beauty in his lovers, contenting himself on the battlefields and in camp with mutual satisfaction and stray lusts. Pleasure was the only currency he traded in with his intimate companions; pleasure and the easy understanding of men. In the palace it was different. Beauties were pushed upon him at every turn, eunuchs from different factions desperate to know his tastes so they could bring him the most peerless of women, the most radiant of youths, the handsomest of guardsmen. None of them had yet learned that their master’s delight lay less in outward appearance and more from a resonance of the soul.
He’d thought himself immune to beauty. He’d believed himself jaded, spoiled forever by a glut of the most beautiful men and women in the kingdom. He’d grown complacent, thinking he’d seen everything his country had to offer—and now it offered him this musician, this Li Yan Nian.
Liu Che stared, concealing his true feelings behind a mask of indifference. Yan Nian had pale skin and wide dark eyes, a full upper lip that made his smile seem upside-down, and the deceptive roundness of face and body that marked him as a northerner. He wore his long hair pinned in a simple topknot save for one tendril that hung over his chest. Braided through it were tiny silver bells. They tinkled and chimed with the slightest movement. They betrayed his nerves now, the delicate sound glittering with each anxious breath Yan Nian took.
“How long have you served me?”
Yan Nian lowered his head. The silver bells tinkled and were silenced as the tendril of hair curled on the floor. “Two years, Highness. I entered the palace with my sister, Lady Li. She is one of Your Majesty’s dancers.”
Liu Che didn’t want to hear about the sister. If she resembled her brother, doubtless she’d be lovely, but her existence meant nothing to him. “Two years. And yet you have never performed for me before.”
“Your Highness has many musicians.”
“I have many disappointing musicians.” Liu Che looked at the discarded instruments of the recent exiles. “Are you not afraid you will disappoint me, too?”
Yan Nian rose up and met Liu Che’s gaze without flinching. “No, Highness.”
Amused by the young man’s bravery, Liu Che chuckled. He returned to his throne and sat back, relaxing into the comfort of padded velvet. “Play for me, Li Yan Nian.”
“As you command, Highness.” Yan Nian tilted his head, a questioning smile on his lips. “With your permission, I will use one of the qin left behind.”
Liu Che nodded. He watched Yan Nian cross the room and crouch over a jumble of abandoned instruments. “Not one of those. You shall use the best in the palace.” He signaled to his chief eunuch. “Let the best qin be brought at once.”
Yan Nian’s fingers stilled on the neck of the qin he’d selected. To Liu Che’s eyes, it seemed like any other instrument, ordinary and dull. But Yan Nian caressed it with tender care, hesitant fingers stroking the length of the seven silken strings. He plucked a note from it, modulating it, merging it into a second note and then a chord. He smiled, closing his eyes at the sound. When he looked up again, he said, “Oh, Your Majesty, you are generosity itself. But it’s not necessary to have the best. This instrument suits my purposes.”
Intrigued, Liu Che held up his hand to stay his chief eunuch. He watched as Yan Nian made the qin sing again, an inanimate construction brought to life beneath elegant, clever fingers. Even though Yan Nian played nothing more than a handful of tuning notes, the sound rippled through the air. Liu Che felt his body tighten in response to the aching cry of the instrument.
Yan Nian moved the qin to sit in front of him, and then he began to play. At first came the melody, followed by a variation, before finally Yan Nian started to sing:
In the north lives a beauty beyond compare;
One look will cause the fall of a city,
Another, the fall of a state.
Who knows how far the charms of the beauty may reach?
Yan Nian’s singing voice was pure and clear, the huskiness almost a tangible caress. Liu Che shivered. The tune was simple, catchy enough that he could hum along, but the flourishes around it were complex, delighting the ear.
When it ended and Yan Nian’s fingers rested, Liu Che felt a shock akin to pain. The song had been haunting, captivating. He shook himself free of its spell and sat forward. “I like it.”
He saw Yan Nian’s exhalation of relief, heard the murmured comment and scattered applause around the room. Liu Che paid no attention. “Play it again,” he commanded. “Again, Yan Nian.”
Bowing his head in acknowledgement, Yan Nian bent once more over the qin and coaxed out the opening chords of his song. Liu Che listened closely, his fingers tapping in unconscious rhythm as the melody wove its magic. This time he could distinguish different elements in the music. It seemed simple, yet just when he thought he understood it, the melody changed and began again.
He hid his smile of delight. Yan Nian was a rare find, both a beauty and a talent. Liu Che rose from his throne, taking with him the stiff leather crop he usually carried tucked into his waist sash. He used it on his warhorses and his lovers in equal measure, to urge them on and to punish them, though he preferred using the crop to bring pleasure. Over the years he’d learned how to wield it with exquisite mastery. He knew how to inflict ecstasy with its kiss, but also knew how hard to strike to lay open a man’s flesh to the bone. The crop was desired and feared almost as an entity in itself, rather than as an extension of his will, but Liu Che liked it that way.
He stepped from the dais and approached Yan Nian, holding the crop down. The loop pulled tight across his knuckles, and he allowed the leather-wrapped shaft to be alternately hidden and revealed by the movement of his robes as he walked. Liu Che wondered how Yan Nian would react to it. He drew nearer the beautiful musician and flicked the crop a little, as if in time to the beat of the song.
Yan Nian glanced up and fixed his gaze on the crop. His eyes widened, but neither his voice nor his hands faltered in their task. Liu Che smiled inwardly. He walked a slow circle around his prey, edging closer each time until the trailing silks of his outer robes caught on Yan Nian’s clothes.
Still Yan Nian didn’t flinch. His voice remained clear, his fingers sure as they plucked a shimmering cadence of notes from the qin.
Liu Che purred a little at the back of his throat. It had been too long since he’d enjoyed teasing a man like this. His generals were cultured men who could discuss the classics with as much ease as they could pen a charming poem, but they lacked a certain delicacy. His generals were straightforward and bluff, and now Liu Che realized he longed for shyness and sincerity.
He wanted to touch a lover and see raw emotion on his face. Not just lust—he wanted to see the wonder of lovemaking reflected in his partner’s expression; wanted to hear sweet, husky moans of pleasure rather than the savage grunts of rutting.
The images in his mind tormented him. His body responded, a kick of desire heavy in his belly and his cock stirring. Liu Che gave a sharp tug on his trailing skirts, swishing them behind him. He continued to walk, stepping now upon the pale blue silk of Yan Nian’s spread robe.
At last, he saw Yan Nian’s fingers tremble on the strings of the qin. The musician reacted on instinct, blurring the sound and building the tremulousness into the tune. Liu Che almost laughed in admiration. He paused behind Yan Nian, watching the adept movements of his hands. Liu Che was close enough to breathe in the spice-sweet scent of the musician’s hair and skin and to hear the delicate chime of the silver bells as counterpoint to the melody… and then he realized Yan Nian was afraid, his whole body quivering finely.
A small flash of triumph went through Liu Che, followed by a stronger sense of admiration as Yan Nian sang his verse again, his voice pure and unwavering. Yan Nian was afraid, yes, but he didn’t allow his emotion to interfere with the song. He’d put his emperor’s pleasure before his own feelings.
Liu Che made a contented sound and moved around to stand in front of his musician. He raised the crop and touched its tip to Yan Nian’s face in the lightest, briefest caress. With a flick, Liu Che set ringing the silver bells twined through Yan Nian’s hair. He saw the heat rise to Yan Nian’s face and traced the blush with the crop.
Yan Nian’s lips parted. He seemed to struggle to breathe. Liu Che stroked the tip of the crop over the soft pout. He saw rather than heard the startled gasp, saw Yan Nian jerk backward slightly, but the song continued, smooth and steady.
Liu Che smiled. He trailed the crop down Yan Nian’s throat and hooked it into the neck of his robes. The pretty, pale blue silk lay over an under-robe of purest white. Against it, Yan Nian’s skin seemed to take on the color of warm honey. The black leather crop made an intriguing contrast. Liu Che imagined stripping Yan Nian naked and decorating his fair skin with sharp strokes of the crop, or leaving the dark imprint of his hand on Yan Nian’s smooth, rounded buttocks.
His breath hissed between his teeth at the sudden surge of excitement that beat through him. He willed Yan Nian to lift his head and see the reaction his music, his very presence, had wrought, but the musician resisted and played on, hesitant and shy.
Determined to make him react, Liu Che leaned forward and arrowed the crop down over Yan Nian’s chest and into his lap. Yan Nian kept his gaze lowered, but neither his voice nor his body could lie. His song grew huskier, richer, as he responded. His movements as he played became more languorous, the notes holding longer, hanging in the air and quivering.
When he finished singing, he threw back his head, the silver bells in his hair chiming. His mouth looked ripe, inviting kisses, and though his eyes were veiled by his lashes, Liu Che saw the gleam of arousal hidden there. When he glanced lower, he saw the extent of Yan Nian’s response. Liu Che narrowed his eyes, gauging the size of the musician’s cock from the bulge in Yan Nian’s lap. His calculations pleased him, and Liu Che made a soft sound of anticipatory pleasure.
He withdrew the crop and tucked it into his waist sash before he crouched beside Yan Nian. The musician flashed him a confused look, then dropped his gaze, but he didn’t stop playing. The tune went into a series of variations, each more complicated than the last, until a different piece of music was born from it.
Liu Che watched his fingers fly over the qin’s twisted silk strings. “Your song is exquisite and your fingers so very elegant,” he murmured so only Yan Nian could hear. “Tell me, do you play every instrument with as much talent?”
A deep blush crept over Yan Nian’s cheeks. Without stilling his fingers or breaking the music, he replied, “Please, Highness. You asked me to play my song for you. Your word is an imperial edict. I cannot allow myself to be distracted, not even by you, or I will risk your punishment.”
Liu Che remained beside him, savoring the moment of amused shock. Without another word, he stood and returned to his throne. He sat, rearranging his silks around him, and made a signal to his chief eunuch. The old man shuffled across the floor to Yan Nian, who glanced at him and then at the throne before finally ceasing his playing.
He bowed and lifted the qin into his arms. The chief eunuch’s high-pitched order stopped him. “Leave the qin. You may go now.”
Yan Nian shot another glance at Liu Che before he got to his feet and backed away, keeping his head low. At the chief eunuch’s sign, the rest of the musicians and courtiers rose and filed out of the audience room. Yan Nian was lost amongst them, and soon the room was empty.
Liu Che felt the glow of anticipation fan itself into a flame of desire. Easy conquests bored him. His concubines and even his generals allowed him every privilege and denied him nothing; and yet Li Yan Nian, a lowly musician, had the temerity to turn his own words against him in chastisement.
How refreshing! Liu Che leaned back in his throne and smiled. He would seduce Yan Nian and punish him with pleasure. His beautiful musician would learn his lesson well—and he would begin that very night.