“WHOA,” Vaedo said under his breath. “The emperor’s new concubine is beautiful.”
“You’re joking.” Lioqi’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “And I’d always assumed that women who became royal concubines were chosen for their great beauty.”
“True.” Vaedo took another peek over the garden wall. “But this one isn’t a woman.”
“Really?” Lioqi showed more interest. “The emperor hasn’t taken a boy into the harem since….” His voice trailed off as he tried to remember.
“Not since we were promoted to palace guards anyway, and this one’s no more a boy than you are,” Vaedo said. “Ugh, I’m so grateful to be out of the regular army.”
“Yes, you don’t get nearly as much dust on your uniform in the palace,” Lioqi teased his friend. “And the bath house isn’t nearly so crowded.”
“Exactly.” Vaedo didn’t detect the other man’s gentle mockery. “The food is a lot better too.”
“And you get to grovel before a much better class of people.”
This time Vaedo caught the mild sarcasm. “Laugh all you want, I’d rather be doing sentry duty without the mud, thank you.” He paused and spoke again. “Besides, it’s a compliment to our skills as warriors to be chosen.”
Lioqi snorted. “It’s a compliment to how good we look in the ceremonial armor.”
“I’m surprised at you.” Vaedo teased back. “I didn’t know you were so conceited.”
“Enough people have told me they find me handsome for me to believe it.”
Vaedo glanced aside at his tall comrade, admiring Lioqi’s sharply cut, wolfish features: the smoky amber eyes, bronzed skin, and glossy chestnut hair. No point in denying it; Lioqi was handsome and looked very good in his black uniform, but Vaedo was self-aware enough to know he was just as handsome and felt no envy of his friend on this score.
They had met six years ago at an induction ceremony for imperial army recruits. Both were fourteen at the time, though Lioqi was nearly a year older, he having been born at the beginning of the year and Vaedo near the end. Having placed first and second in the army competition designed to reveal a novice’s abilities and aptitudes, they were posted with ten others to a special squad. Despite having similar leadership traits, they got along well, and for the past five years, they advanced together through the ranks until they were noticed by a palace chamberlain. Vaedo reflected that Lioqi was probably right about their qualifications for guarding the royal quarters, but did Lioqi really have to state it so bluntly?
“Your tongue will get you into trouble one day, Li,” Vaedo said.
“I’m only speaking the truth.”
“Exactly. Thank you for making my point.”
“It’s your eyes that will get you into trouble,” Lioqi said. “Stop looking into the garden.”
Vaedo started guiltily. “I wasn’t,” he lied. “But you should have at least one look at this flower.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Why not? He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“What good does his beauty do me?”
“Can’t you simply appreciate it… like a painting or a statue?”
“If it will stop you chattering about it, I’ll look.” Lioqi automatically put a hand on his sword to keep it from swinging around as he turned. Peering through the deeply carved wooden lattice atop the wall, he focused on the single occupant of the small garden. Seated on the grass, the concubine stretched out a hand, fingers dabbling in the fish pond to attract the brightly colored koi. The loose robe of dragon-red silk could not disguise the well-formed limbs of a young man in superb physical condition, and Lioqi was moved to admiration in spite of himself. When the concubine lifted his head and the veiling curtains of shiny black hair slid back, Lioqi caught his breath. Vaedo was right. This courtesan was a petal of one of heaven’s blossoms fallen to earth.
As if hearing Lioqi’s small gasp, the concubine turned his head, and Lioqi was transfixed by large eyes that held a wealth of stars in their stormy depths. When he could tear his gaze away, he saw that the beauty was smiling, and he was struck with an almost overwhelming desire to kiss those petal-perfect lips. Quickly, he turned away, bumping Vaedo’s hip with his scabbard.
“I was right, wasn’t I?” Vaedo said.
Lioqi frowned at Vaedo’s smug smile. “He’s beautiful, as you said, and his beauty is no use to me, as I said. He belongs to the emperor.”
“So you can’t appreciate his beauty for its own sake?” Vaedo asked, not a bit intimidated by his companion’s scowl. Other men might back down before that black look, but Vaedo had shared too much with Lioqi to fear him. Besides, there was little to choose between them for strength of arm or fighting skills. “Must you possess him?”
“Don’t say such things aloud!” Lioqi hissed.
Vaedo shrugged. “No one can hear me.”
“The gods can hear you.”
Vaedo had the urge to roll his eyes, but perhaps Lioqi was right. Best not tempt the gods to send him a run of bad luck. Life was going too well to risk disaster with casual sacrilege. Vaedo lowered his voice when he spoke again. “But you’d like to spend a night between those thighs. Admit it.”
“Is it possible for you to cease chattering for five minutes?”
“Apparently not,” Vaedo said equably.
“Then is it possible you could choose less dangerous topics?”
Once again, Vaedo refrained from rolling his eyes. “No one cares if you like boys or girls.”
“I care. There’s no need for anyone except my lover to know my preferences.”
“Ha! When was the last time you sheathed your sword?”
“Is that an offer?”
Vaedo grinned. There had been many times when he and Lioqi had bedded down together for more than sleep, though not recently. There was no question of them falling in love; they were friends, and they were content with that, sensing that anything more would lead to conflict. “If I thought there was a chance you’d take me up on it, I’d say yes.”
Lioqi smiled back. Vaedo’s grin was impossible to resist. “Promise not to flip me like you did last time, and I’ll consider it.”
“You loved it. Anyway, it’s good to have some variety in your pleasures, and you don’t hear me complaining about taking that battering ram you call a cock.”
“You love it,” Lioqi echoed Vaedo’s sentiment.
“True.” Vaedo’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “What a pity that you can’t be as honest.”
“What a pity my arm isn’t longer, or you’d feel an honest slap.”
Vaedo chuckled. “Come on, you ill-tempered oaf. It’s almost time for our relief to show up. Let’s at least try and look like we’re capable of guarding something.”
There was no answer. Lioqi was no longer standing at Vaedo’s side. He had scaled the wall and dropped to the grass on the other side. Vaedo stared through the gaps in the lattice as Lioqi ran forward, drawing his sword. He watched Lioqi raise the blade and bring it down in a flashing arc. It was only then that Vaedo saw the bright colors of the little necklace snake against the green sward. Lioqi’s sword divided the deadly serpent neatly in half before it could strike at the concubine’s hand. The courtesan looked up in shock as blood sprayed over his forearm and the fine brocade of his robe. Before Lioqi could say anything, two stout harem guards arrived from their posts inside the garden gate. When they raised their weapons, Vaedo scrambled over the wall to stand with his friend, but Lioqi didn’t fight back. Offering his blade on his palms, Lioqi bowed his head and awaited his fate.
“No!” the concubine cried out when one of the harem guards brought his sword to Lioqi’s throat. “Wait!”
The eunuch’s gaze went to the courtesan and then to the other guard. As he hesitated, the captain of the harem guards hurried into the garden backed by four more plump sentries. Bowing briefly to the concubine, the captain averted his eyes as he spoke.
“What has happened here?”
The eunuch who had taken Lioqi’s sword answered. “This soldier entered the gardens and attacked the Pearl of the Heavens.”
“My name is Sanui,” the concubine said. “And this man did not attack me.”
Though the captain’s tone was deferential, it was clear that he disapproved of the concubine joining the conversation. “Please allow me to handle the problem.” He fixed his eyes on Lioqi. “You know the penalty for entering the harem precincts.”
Lioqi kept his head down as he answered. “My life is forfeit.”
The captain nodded to the eunuch who held his sword at the ready. Before the blade could fall, Sanui put himself between Lioqi and the death blow, putting the captain in a quandary. The harem guard didn’t quite dare to lay hands on one of the emperor’s favorites, but he couldn’t do his duty without moving Sanui. “Please step aside,” he said without hope that his request would be heeded.
“I will not let you kill this man.” Sanui spread his arms in a shielding gesture as Vaedo raised his voice.
“Captain, may I speak?”
“You may not. Your life is forfeit as well.” The captain stroked his wispy goatee in thought before ordering one of the eunuchs to take a message to the emperor.
When His Imperial Majesty arrived a short time later, he was shocked by the tableau that met his eyes. Two palace guards stood within the harem garden and one of his concubines stood in close proximity to them. The emperor could not understand why the pair of soldiers still had heads and demanded an explanation from the captain of the harem sentries.
“Son of Heaven,” the captain said as he bowed low. “These men trespassed in the royal garden. When I ordered their execution, this concubine defied me.”
The emperor focused his attention on Sanui. “Sanui, how is it that you did not absent yourself when these men intruded?”
“My lord,” Sanui said as he gestured to Lioqi. “This man saved my life.”
“He only entered the garden to kill a snake.” Sanui stooped and snatched up half the dead serpent. Holding out the limp body, he gave the emperor an imploring look.
Though not a lover of men or boys, the emperor admired his new concubine’s beauty and charm. However, he was not blinded by it. “That is a necklace snake. If you had been bitten, you would have died in moments.”
Sanui shuddered as he dropped the carcass to the grass. Before he could speak, the emperor addressed the captain.
“This soldier has done me a great service. I should not like to lose this pearl who is a sublime ornament to my harem. However, the penalty for trespass is death, as I’m sure he knew when he entered the garden.” The emperor paused. “You may speak, soldier.”
Lioqi bowed deeply. “What would I say, My Emperor? I broke your sacred law and my life is forfeit.”
“You have no objections?”
“I wish to live, Imperial Majesty, but the law should not be a thing that twists to suit circumstance.”
“Well said.” The emperor turned to Vaedo. “And did you know your life was forfeit when you followed him over the wall?”
Vaedo nodded. “But what else could I do? Lioqi is my shield-brother.”
“Well,” the emperor said. “It seems we are training very loyal soldiers in my army.” He sighed. “I wish I could spare your lives, but I cannot be seen as a ruler who changes the law at whim.”
Lioqi bowed again. “May I speak?”
“Now you have something to say?” The emperor’s lips twitched as he suppressed an inappropriate smile. “You have my leave to speak.”
“I beg you to spare this man’s life,” Lioqi said, glancing at Vaedo. “He followed me out of love and does not deserve to die.”
“I am sorry,” the emperor said. “Captain, I do not wish this garden watered with the blood of two such honorable men. Take them and confine them until a day of execution is set.”
Lioqi and Vaedo’s hands were bound, and they were led away. When the garden was empty except for the emperor and the concubine, the emperor spoke again.
“I have never seen you behave in such a forward manner.”
Sanui bowed his head as he sank to his knees on the grass. “Forgive me, Imperial Majesty. I have brought shame on you and on those who trained me.”
The emperor put his hand on Sanui’s glossy waist-length hair. “You have my forgiveness if you wish it, but I was not angry. When I beheld you shielding that soldier with your body and your eyes flashing with fire, I was near to feeling desire for you.”
“I am yours to do with as you will, Son of Heaven.”
“I know.” Gently the emperor tugged on one of the slender braids in front of Sanui’s ear. “It pleases me to see you strolling in the garden or to hear you singing in another room, but now I wonder if my harem is sheltering a hawk in the form of a nightingale.”
“I did not mean to displease you, great lord.”
“Of course not.” The emperor extended his hand in a rare gesture and Sanui took it. As they walked from the garden, the emperor spoke again. “Tell me what made you behave so boldly.”
Roses bloomed in the concubine’s pale cheeks. “It seemed a great injustice that a man should die for a good deed.”
“Is that all that was in your head?”
“Aye, Imperial Majesty. What else would I have been thinking?”
“Perhaps you thought the soldier was young, brave, and handsome.”
“I cannot deny that he possesses those qualities.”
“You have been trained from puberty to tend a man’s desires and bear his lust, but it seems to me that this would be your preference in any case. Is that not so?”
“It is so, My Emperor. Since boyhood, I knew that I would never be happy with a woman.”
“Do you feel desire for the one who saved your life?”
Sanui stared at the floor under his feet. He was so long in answering that the emperor prompted him.
“I will not be angry if you tell me that this soldier stirred you. I am merely curious.”
“I do not wish to sound disloyal.”
“Then you need not speak; I have my answer.” The emperor stopped in front of a pair of sentries. “Escort this flower back to his chamber,” he ordered one of them.
“Wait, please,” Sanui said. “Will you not change your mind about the execution?”
“Go with the guards.” The emperor turned and walked away, leaving Sanui to stare after him.
“Come with me now,” the guard said, and Sanui had no choice but to follow.