The Lotus Palace
Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2013 Harlequin Enterprises LimitedISBN: 978-0-373-77773-0
All rights reserved.
Tang Dynasty China, 847 AD
An unseen force threw Yue-ying from her pallet. The entire building shook around her and the rafters groaned until she was certain the Lotus Palace was going to be torn apart. Too startled to move, she crouched low with her hands over her head. They were all going to die.
Suddenly the shaking stopped. With her heart thudding against her ribs, Yue-ying gradually came back to herself. It was dark and she was on the floor in her sleeping area. The walls of the pavilion creaked around her as they settled.
Before she could catch her breath, the shaking started again. A cry of alarm came from outside the chamber.
It was Mingyu. Mingyu needed her.
Yue-ying struggled onto her hands and knees, while a sea of silk tangled around her. Mingyu's entire wardrobe had been tossed onto the floor. Yue-ying shoved the material aside and stumbled to the doorway, clinging on to it for balance.
There was no door between the two compartments. A gray light filtered in through the windows of the sitting area and Mingyu was standing at the center of it, her long hair wild about her face. She was dressed in her sleeping garment and the pale cloth coupled with elegant lines made her appear otherworldly. She looked more like a ghost than a woman.
Yue-ying started to go to her, but the building lurched again and she was thrown to her knees. Mingyu fell to the ground as well and they scrambled toward one another. In an uncustomary display of emotion, Mingyu embraced her, clutching her close while the walls shuddered around them. At any moment, the roof would come crashing down to bury them.
It was an eternity before the shaking stopped. Afterward there was absolute quiet; a funereal silence as the inhabitants of the Lotus Palace held their collective breath, waiting. She and Mingyu remained on the floor, holding on to one another and too afraid to move. Then the hum of voices began.
Mingyu let go of her abruptly and straightened, smoothing her hands over her shift. Her chin lifted with a regal air and she was the elite courtesan again.
Yue-ying tried not to feel discarded. She should be accustomed to Mingyu's changing moods after serving as her personal attendant for the past four years. Mingyu could be warm and engaging, affecting a smile that lit the room brighter than any lantern. When she was not surrounded by admirers, she would often become distant, lost in some inner world of her own making.
"Heaven must be displeased," Mingyu declared.
She peered out the window with a thoughtful and disturbingly serene expression. Mingyu had perfected that look. Even Yue-ying found it difficult to read her thoughts through it.
"That's only superstition," Yue-ying replied.
The ground wavered once more, as if in argument. Yue-ying pressed a hand to the wall to steady herself, while Mingyu stood tall and still, a fixed point amid the turmoil.
Earthquakes were not uncommon in the capital city, though this was the most violent one Yue-ying had yet to experience. Everything that could fall had fallen. The dressing room where she slept was a disaster: silk robes were strewn all over the floor and the powder table had overturned, spilling pots and jars everywhere. She was lucky it hadn't fallen on top of her.
Madame Sun set the other girls to work clearing the parlors and banquet room downstairs. The Lotus Palace was one of the larger establishments in the pleasure quarter of the North Hamlet, also known as the Pingkang li. There were seven ladies, courtesans or courtesans-in-training, along with Old Auntie and Yue-ying.
The courtesans all called Madame Sun "Mother" and did whatever she told them. Even Mingyu, who was the most successful and thus most favored of the "sisters", never disobeyed her. Yue-ying had heard that Madame Sun could be a demonness with her bamboo switch, though she had yet to witness it.
Unlike the others, Yue-ying had no one to answer to but Mingyu. Also unlike the other girls, she possessed no literary or musical skills to elevate herself in status. Her fate had been decided from birth by a bright red birthmark that curved along her left cheek. The stain rendered her unsuitable for the pleasure houses, for who wished to invest time and money to train a courtesan with a ruined face? A prostitute required no such training.
She was a maidservant now, but up until four years ago she had been nothing but a warm body. The Lotus was indeed a palace compared to the brothel where she'd once lived and she no longer hid her face behind a thick layer of powder. No one cared if a servant was ugly, and no one paid any attention to her when Mingyu was present.
Yue-ying focused on setting their quarters back in order, righting the dressing table and picking the robes off the floor. She selected a light one that was suitable for the warm summer weather before shoving an armful of clothing into the wardrobe. Then she sorted through the cosmetics, salvaging what she could.
Later, as she was fixing Mingyu's hair, another tremor rocked the pavilion. The force of it was slight in comparison to that morning's quake, but she inadvertently jabbed Mingyu's scalp with the long pin she was holding.
"Forgive me," Yue-ying murmured after regaining her balance.
Mingyu remained seated calmly at the dressing table. "There is nothing to forgive."
Carefully, Yue-ying inserted the pin into a coil of dark hair to keep it in place. She worked in silence, mentally going over the ever-growing list of tasks she needed to accomplish that day.
"What if something happened to me?" Mingyu asked out of nowhere.
The phrasing of the question sounded decidedly odd. "No one was hurt. We were all very fortunate."
The courtesan was insistent. "I do not mean just this morning. What if something should happen in the future? Earthquakes often occur one after another. What if the next one brings the building down? Or if the ground opens up?"
"You were not afraid of earthquakes yesterday," Yue-ying reminded her gently.
Mingyu sniffed. "You know I am not speaking only of earthquakes."
Yue-ying could see Mingyu's eyebrows arch sharply in the bronze mirror. Even agitated, she was still beautiful.
"Nothing has happened. Nothing will happen. There is no need to go searching for tragedy."
Mingyu said nothing more while Yue-ying finished dressing her in a robe of jade- green embroidered with a floral design. The courtesan resembled the paintings of immortals with her luminous skin and eyes that were mysterious and dark. The silk swirled around her as she strode from the dressing room. Her expression was tranquil, but her movements were anything but.
Yue-ying moved with purpose once Mingyu was gone; sweeping the parlor and making it presentable, propping up the broken screen that covered the bedchamber entrance as best she could. The inner rooms she left to be sorted out later.
She was right to move quickly. It wasn't long before one of Mingyu's patrons came to call, even though it was only the middle of the morning. Apparently, the earthquake had woken up the city and everyone was eager to gossip.
Taizhu, an appointed court historian, was an occasional visitor to the Lotus, though he had been coming to speak with Mingyu quite often lately. There was a touch of gray to his beard and his face was creased with more laughter lines than frown lines. For an academic, he was an ox of a man with thick shoulders and arms. The indigo color of his robe spoke of his elevated status as a member of the Hanlin Academy.
Yue-ying went to set a clay pot onto the tea stove in the inner chamber. It took her a moment to light the charcoal inside it. When she returned, the elderly scholar was already standing beside the wall with ink brush in hand.
Taizhu wielded his brush like a swordsman, writing onto the wooden panels in black ink. Afterward, he stood back to admire his handiwork and read aloud:
"A new Son of Heaven takes the throne. Who is it now?
Hard to say, when each one seems like the last. But this time the Earth has chosen to pay homage. Should we all fall to our knees?'"
With a coy look, Mingyu took the brush from the historian's hands. She presented an elegant contrast to Taizhu's warrior pose, with one hand holding her sleeve, her brush flowing in small, graceful movements. The old scholar generously read her addition once she had finished.
'"This humble servant thanks the kind gentleman for precious words.
From a revered talent who has studied the Four
Books and Five Classics.
But the tea has not yet been poured,
Is common courtesy no longer taught in the Han- lin Academy?'"
He burst out laughing. "Lady Mingyu thinks I'm a grumbling old man."
It was a common game in the Pingkang li, the dueling of words back and forth. Yue-ying slipped past them and headed back to the inner chambers to see to the tea. She had little grasp of the sort of language the scholars enjoyed.
The water was ready. Yue-ying measured out tea leaves into two cups and set the pot beside them on the tray. Another guest arrived as she returned to the parlor and she nearly ran into him, tea and all.
Bai Huang was a well-known fixture of the entertainment district. He was a night owl, a flirt, a spendthrift and an eternal student, having failed the imperial exams three times. He was dressed in an opulent blue robe and his topknot was fixed with a silver pin.
"My lord—" She started to mumble out an apology while trying to keep from spilling the tea.
She was met with easy laughter as the young aristocrat reached out to steady the tray. His hand closed over hers and her pulse did a little leap, despite itself.
The corners of his mouth lifted, gracing her with a sly smile, before turning to the others. "Only tea?" he asked with disappointment. "Where's the wine?"
Taizhu waved him over. "Ah, the young Lord Bai is always good for a few laughs."
Bai Huang carried the tray over to the party himself, forcing Yue-ying to follow him in an attempt to retrieve it. Her ears were burning by the time she managed to wrest the tray from him, but the nobleman was oblivious.
"When I was awoken this morning by the earthquake, my immediate thoughts went to you, Lady Mingyu," he said. "I worried for your safety and could not be consoled until I saw with my own eyes that you were unharmed."
Taizhu snorted. "Your poor suffering heart."
Mingyu placed a warning hand on Taizhu's sleeve, but Bai Huang merely accepted the remark with a chuckle. He remained deaf and blind to insult, like a contented frog in a well.
Lord Bai had taken to openly courting Mingyu over the past few months, composing effusive poetry about his loneliness, his sorrow, his aches and his pains, which he would publicly dedicate to Mingyu, reciting verses whenever present company allowed.
If he never had to speak, then Bai Huang and Mingyu would have been perfectly suited. He was the picture of masculine beauty with prominent cheekbones and a strong, chiseled jawline. His eyes were black and always able to catch the light, highlighting the perpetual quirk of amusement on his lips. He bore the high forehead that was considered a sign of cleverness, but anyone who had come across Bai Huang knew better.
Yue-ying made her own effort to keep the peace by pouring hot water over the leaves and setting out the cups. There was no better reminder to be civil than tea. She had to fetch another cup for Lord Bai. After preparing his drink, she glanced up to catch him watching her. The look was there for only a moment before he took his tea.
"Up so early, you scoundrel?" the old scholar taunted. "After last night, I thought you would still be pickled in rice wine at this hour."
"Your concern touches me deeply, Lord Bai," Mingyu interrupted in a soothing tone.
He looked obliviously pleased. Taizhu shook his head, fingers pinched to the bridge of his nose. Yue-ying went downstairs to fetch a plate of red bean cakes from the kitchen as it seemed the men would stay awhile. When she returned, the old historian had turned the conversation back to the imperial court.
"This is an opportunity to advise the Emperor that he must change course. Heaven has given us a sign. Earthquakes and floods have been known to topple dynasties," the historian pointed out sagely.
Bai Huang was already shaking his head. "A sign of what? It sounds more like superstitious doomsaying," he said with a bored look.
"What does it matter if it's superstition or not? If such a disaster gains the Emperor's attention, then it can be used as a means to an end," Taizhu argued.
"This morning's disaster serves as a better excuse for a couple of friends to complain over tea," Bai Huang contended, lifting his cup. He attempted to drink, then frowned and peered into it, finding it empty.
As Yue-ying bent to fill the empty cup, Bai Huang startled her once again, halting her movement.
"What do you think, Little Moon?" he asked.
Mingyu's mouth pressed tight at the casual endearment. Yue-ying glanced at Bai Huang. Dark eyebrows framed his face, giving him a serious expression that was contrary to his usual carefree manner. The nobleman had never spoken directly to her in such company before.
"Has the earthquake provided you with any signs?" he persisted.
The room fell silent. Old Taizhu affected a shallow cough and sipped his tea in silence. Bai Huang was the only one unperturbed. He continued to look at her, smiling crookedly as he waited for an answer. His gaze on her was insistent, but not unkind. Yue-ying looked nervously to Mingyu before answering.
"I was frightened at first," Yue-ying admitted. "But sometimes rain falls and sometimes the earth moves. That was all it seemed to me."
"Yue-ying." The courtesan's command was soft, yet somehow sharp. "There is no need for you to remain here. You are free to continue with your other duties."
Yue-ying immediately set the pot down without refilling Lord Bai's cup and retreated toward the door.
Mingyu regained control of the conversation quickly. "Old Taizhu, have you considered that the earthquake might have been a warning to those bickering factions in court rather than our gracious Emperor?"
Bai Huang would find himself cut out of the conversation for the next hour, perhaps for the whole afternoon if Mingyu decided he deserved it. They continued on to more pleasant topics: the upcoming festival on the double fifth and the number of candidates who had passed the exams that spring.
Was Lord Bai deliberately trying to provoke Mingyu? Or had he simply forgotten that the courtesan was very strict about anyone being so familiar with her attendant?
As Yue-ying reached the door she turned to see Lord Bai staring at his still- empty cup. After an expectant pause, he reached over to pour for himself since Mingyu wasn't being amenable. As he sat back, the young nobleman directed his gaze across the room and caught her watching him. He raised the cup to her in salute, eyebrows lifted.
Her heartbeat quickened and she swallowed past the dryness in her throat. Yue- ying might have been unaffected by his beauty, but she wasn't completely indifferent. Any other woman would have been flattered by his show of interest, but she merely turned, head held high, and exited the parlor.
Lord Bai knew exactly what he was doing.