In the Shape of the Emperor
The emperor has a harem of six hundred concubines. So too did each emperor before him, for all of our thousand years of history. With the exception of his favorites, those concubines will employ their skills on the emperor at most once a year, at which point they must be capable of delivering the most intense pleasures any living thing has ever known. To that end, a practice man is retained, chosen to match the emperor’s height, weight, and genital dimensions. Before me, the longest such a man ever served was six months before an emperor’s jealousy cut him down. I was chosen on the day of the emperor’s eighteenth birthday. I have served him for twenty years.
I’ve studied the stories of my predecessors to learn where they went wrong. Those that coveted one concubine or another, whether out of love or lust, saw their end the fastest. When I enter the harem for practice, I greet none of the concubines, nor refer to any of them by name. Under no circumstances do I smile at them.
Other predecessors became too active, performing sex instead of receiving it. To satisfy a moment’s indulgence, each of them lost their heads. To avoid this, I disrobe and lay down on the bed and stare at the ceiling until the concubines decide to make use of me. Only then do I move, and only at their prompting.
The most common mistake, which has sent hundreds of men to their grave, is the simple act of enjoyment. A smile on one man’s lips, pleasure in his eyes, the silk sheets gripped too tight. All of them meant death. There is no privacy in even a moment’s delight when eyes watch from every corner. My secret is a special herb blend which my brother gathers for me. It dulls my nerves to nothing but a low buzz. So no matter how great the pleasures these concubines perform upon me, I am no more agitated than I am when I look out of my window and observe ducks on the pond.
The rest is all about maintaining a healthy mindset. So many men want me to tell them what it’s like to have one or more of the empire’s hottest women writhing naked upon them. None of them want to hear the truth, that each supple curve of their body is a mortal threat, but I can’t lie and tell them what they want me to, for fear that they will carry word of my lasciviousness back to the emperor. So I say “it is what it is,” and no one walks away from the conversation satisfied.
One morning I had just such a conversation on my way to work, and by the time I arrived my spirits were low. A couple of the concubines who saw my pitiful face asked me what was wrong as I entered, but I ignored them to avoid creating the impression that we have any type of rapport. We’d never had so much as a conversation, but maybe they still felt affection for me in the way one does for the houseplant growing on the windowsill. And like when you see a yellowed leaf on that plant, they noticed it and quickly forgot when I didn’t respond to their comfort.
My first concubine of the day was a particularly skilled one. Though I’ve never felt the effects of her technique, their grace is undeniable. The way she chains a reverse leg hook into the delicacy of Devil’s Fingers, setting up a contrast with the fierce Iron Grasp 2 is nothing less than art. I come up with the names for the techniques I observe, as a way to stay interested in my job and to train my eye to recognize what I’m seeing. I wondered if Rain of Feathers wouldn’t be an even more effective middle move in that sequence, but I couldn’t bring myself to discuss it with her. If she’d been a novice, sure. My years of experience have given me an eye for technique, but a sensual artist of the highest caliber has no use for eyes. They work in skin and breath and the electricity that makes fine hairs stand on end. I have nothing of use for her but warm meat.
At home that evening, I sat at the dinner table with my brother and drank a hot cup of tea as I contemplated my duty to the emperor. Wouldn’t he be better served if I expanded my expertise? I contributed only to the aesthetics of his experience rather than its totality. “Johnathan,” I said as my brother spooned some beef stew into his mouth. “Do you think there are any dangers to my job that we’ve overlooked?”
“Maybe.” He stared into his bowl, smooth ceramic on the rough wooden table. For all its dangers, my job afforded us all we needed to survive. A two-room dwelling, the clothes on our backs, food, furniture, and a wood stove which provided heat in the winter and made cooking easy. The peasants, who had to scratch out a difficult living from nothing but dirt and will, could only dream of such comforts. “Not all of the previous harem stewards’ deaths have a known cause. So we might’ve missed something.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“But it’s been twenty years, so I wouldn’t worry about it. We’re doing something right. If we lose, at least we know we did it better than anyone else ever has.”
“It’s not your life, though.” I took a sip, then he, and wondered how we’d made it so far without any mistakes. How long could our luck go on? “What happens if the emperor has sex with the concubines who practice on me and it doesn’t feel good?”
“Huh. I’m not sure. If they’re novices, they probably get a second chance. Unless they really screw up. If they’re experienced… I don’t know. You think that’ll roll downhill to you?”
“Maybe. How do we prevent that?” I gulped my tea and let the heat sting my throat. Over the years we’d had many conversations like this, weighing action against inaction, ascertaining the best path to survival.
“We could weaken the herbs. A little.” He said, his eyes fastened to mine. When I agreed, they closed, and his face drooped into a sadness I didn’t understand.
The next morning the herbs’ tingle across my body was weaker than usual. I followed the rest of my procedure, but the luxurious silk sent a thrill up my back. A concubine slithered up to the bed. Just a novice. Maybe afterward, one of the more experienced women would come to me for practice, and I could start to learn the dimensions of pleasure which had so long been a mystery to me. But until then, I would endure the novice’s efforts. She opened, somewhat artlessly, with Winding Embrace rather than some glancing contact to build up to it. Still, I couldn’t deny how pleasant the pressure of her arms felt against my back and neck. No wonder so many concubines used this as a preparatory step for the more intense moves; the calming effect made it an excellent platform from which to jump to powerful sensation. Already I was learning so much about these techniques that I didn’t know!
Instead of a stronger technique, she moved into Modified Western Stroke, which employed a delicate tilt in the wrist as its aesthetic calling card. A sensible move, given how early she’d used Winding Embrace and how much more momentum she needed to build before she could unify it into a satisfying experience. Let alone a transcendent one. And yet, as she completed the stroke I felt the pleasure soar through my body and pound in my groin and froze as my ejaculate escaped me. Unthinkable. Unprofessional. A man in my position is expected to master his emissions within the first month, and here I was in my twentieth year on the job with shame dripping out of my member. I apologized, and stammered something about feeling that morning. Which wasn’t a lie. At no point in my life had pleasure that intense been usual.
I committed no further errors for the rest of my session with the novice, and there seemed to be no lingering tension from my unfortunate mistake. Twenty years of flawless service bought the benefit of the doubt, and I made certain not to squander it. As if to test my resolve, the next concubine was one of the emperor’s favorites. A master of the art. She didn’t wait for me to lower my body onto the bed, instead clasping my neck with a Serpentine Art–I recognize several different moves within this set, but have difficulty telling them apart–and pushing me down. Few concubines moved in such a dominant fashion, but her reputation allowed her latitude. From there she wound into The Roughness Which Promises Salvation, Monastic Salvo, and an array of Graceful Dove Enactments. Each harsh element set off with delicacy, each fall in tension followed by a greater rise, her body moving like a dancer’s smoothly from move to move without a hint of clumsiness. Delirious with pleasure, I couldn’t foresee the obvious conclusion: Heaven’s Maw. She straddled me and took me inside her and it was too late.
Her hips stopped moving. She must have felt what happened. I opened my mouth to blurt some half-adequate apology, but she placed a finger to my lips and started moving again. Over-loud, she said, “I’m trying a new stop-and-start technique, what do you think?”
“It’s very good, you’re a genius.” I matched her volume, and focused my breathing to maintain my erection for just a minute or two longer so we could complete our play-acting. Afterward, the both of us hurried out of the chamber. She didn’t look back at me as she left. In my hurry, I briefly attracted the attention of the imperial guardsman posted outside the door. But I distracted him from my aberrant behavior by asking why he had a patchy beard instead of being clean shaven like he was supposed to be. His shame blinded him to mine, and I walked away free of suspicion.
When I told my brother what happened, he threw a pewter cup at my head. He screamed at me for jeopardizing our lives, our future, and so on. As always, his anger passed after a few minutes of yelling. We agreed that, if returning the herbs to full strength wasn’t an option, then we would need to work on my mental resolve. My brother instructed me to lay on the bed while he got something from the garden. I closed my eyes and thought about Heaven’s Maw. In my memories, divine light poured from her as she lowered herself onto me, growing brighter and brighter until none of the seams where our bodies separated were visible and we too were nothing but light.
“Are you aroused on purpose?” My brother said as he entered the room.
“Yes.” I don’t know why I thought lying would achieve anything. My brother arched an eyebrow as he crouched next to the bed.
“Go through your drills. Up five times, down five times.” I breathed in and out, calming and exciting my blood flow to alternate my hardness. Despite my recent mistakes, my technical skills remained intact. At my side, my brother hollowed out a cucumber. “Before now the herbs addressed this problem. But if we can’t use them again–”
“Then you will have to do their job. We’re going to simulate the concubine using this.” He spread an oily substance onto the halves of the cucumber, then brought them together around me. He moved it the slightest bit and I felt danger building up inside me already. “You’re going to learn to resist. To push the fever down and control it, like everything else. Use your breathing.”
My techniques couldn’t reduce the pressure entirely. All I could do was construct a flimsy damn, which barely held the flood at bay as my brother lightly moved the cucumber up and down.
“Now picture the concubines.”
“You must. Imagine the Spider’s Nest. Devil’s Fingers.” The concubines in my daydream danced across my body. Each touch with perfect grace, each sending ripples of pleasure across my body. But I endured. “Now, Heaven’s Maw.”
It was too much, and I could hold it no longer. That beautiful light overwhelmed me, and when I returned to myself I was panting and spent. My brother leapt to his feet and hurled the cucumber to the ground, splattering the oil and other contents on the floor.
“Our lives are in your hands. And this is the best you can do.” We drilled for the next three days, during which my endurance grew tremendously. I avoided any further errors over the course of the month, despite the endless pleasures I received in the course of my work. My stoicism was once again a safe haven.
After a session with yet another novice–though a talented one, given her genius in chaining Rightward Weight Toward the Sky with Grass Bladed Tickle and Throat of God– the concubine who had received my mistake slunk toward me. We hadn’t seen each other since that event, and I wished I could express my gratitude toward her. But the terror in her eyes stopped my words in my throat. As I sat stiff upright, she lowered her lips to my ear and said.
“I’m pregnant. It’s yours. There’s nothing I can do.”
My disciplined breathing, my neutral mask, my sheathed mind all fell to pieces. I looked up at her, my vision shaky, and instead of an undifferentiated concubine finally saw her face. A beauty, consumed with her own fears and sorrows. I couldn’t do anything about those. She mouthed “run”.
I hoped my brother could tell me what to do. But when I explained my difficulties as I gathered as many of my belongings as I could, he offered no help. He beat upon my back with his fists as he said, “You imbecile! You fool! Twenty years I protected you, and, oaf that you are, you threw it all away.”
“It was an accident.”
“An accident. Both of our lives are forfeit, in exchange for the pleasure of a thimbleful of jism.” He stole the bag from my hands and scattered my things across the floor, and filled his arms with half of my valuables. “These are mine. All of this is mine. I kept you alive. I saved you from your idiot nature, and I deserve the spoils.”
I didn’t fight him for what he’d taken, instead packing what remained back in my bag. “I need these to make my way.”
“Your way is to the grave. I’m leaving.” My brother jogged off to his room. “You’ll be dead by nightfall, and I need to be far away when they catch up to you.”
“Please. Help me.” I grabbed his shirt to stop him from running further from me. He struggled to free himself.
“No. Not anymore. I have carried you on my back for all this time and I am finished.” I looked into my brother’s eyes and let go of him. I could see that no appeal for my life would move him. As far as he was concerned, I was already dead.
My brother and I went our separate ways. He could vanish into the peasantry out in distant villages, and his skills would make him a valued apothecary. The danger was his proximity to me, and with that solved he was safe. My first week in flight, I would awake and expect him there, ready to propose a solution to my problems. But he was gone, and the only solution to my plight was distance.
I travelled from inn to inn, trading what little gold I’d accrued over my career for discretion. I didn’t know how long I could outrun the emperor’s grasp, but I would soon find out. One day, while I tried to pass through a village and buy a little food for my travels, a member of the imperial guard entered town. I hid as soon as I recognized his patchy beard. That one knew my face as surely as I knew his. As he began his search, I traded a ring to the innkeeper in exchange to hide in the basement. It was no use.
He found me, cowering behind some potatoes. He had a month’s worth of beard, suggesting he’d been searching for some time. I saw myself through his eyes, the object which his mind had revolved around for far too long. When he grabbed my wrist, his powerful grip immediately bruising me and causing me to flinch, I could see how the gentle arc of my movement excited him. Now I was the observed.
I took my opportunity, rubbing Silken Palm against his neck. The tendons were tense, and only relaxed the slightest bit under my touch. The concubines would often follow this up with a larger embrace or thrust, but his armor presented a challenge. So instead I rose into Ram’s Greeting and with my eyes right across from his, I felt his anger soften into desire. His armor fell to the ground with an application of various Shedding Moves, which I had so long seen as simply utilitarian, artless tasks. But now I felt their purpose. The tension built and built with each garment falling to the floor until I could feel the taut strings pulling us into each other.
With my hand pressed on his chest, his chest hairs prickling against my palm, I lowered him onto the dirt floor. I put together a chain of techniques, each of which I’d seen hundreds of times before, but never together. A Serpentine Art, followed by Spider’s Nest, Devil’s Fingers. The slow, slow build. I didn’t know how they felt to the guard, one after the other, but my instincts, honed after decades of observation, told me that this was the right chain for the moment. And now after drawing out the buildup, I snapped into Winding Embrace, with Conventional Northern Stroke following shortly after.
I realized too late that the move I’d been building to was Heaven’s Maw, once again seduced by its blinding light. But I didn’t have the anatomy to perform it. So I pushed my weight back off of him, Throat of God would have to do, even though most of the technique had always been invisible to me. I’d felt it once, and had to recreate it as well as I could.
My first attempt at practicing the sexual arts was a success, and my mouth filled with victory. The guardsman cradled my head in his hands, and told me he could never turn me in, after what I’d just done for him. The two of us left together and walked the long path away from the imperial capital.
Now I sleep next to him, and I practice the art whenever he desires–which is often. His pay as in the imperial guard is more than enough to keep us fed and clothed comfortably, though I have not felt the luxury of silk against my skin in quite some time. He promised me that I’ll be safe with him forever, and I believe him. Even though I’m often stuck hiding and looking out the window whenever other members of the imperial guard come through town, I am no longer any mere observer. I have been given the chance to practice and master the greatest art the empire has ever known, and as long as I have that, I will never live in fear.