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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 morea 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 meand not one of his own consortseach 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 eyesan unusual golden amberhad 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.