Jang had known it was coming. He just didn't fully know what "it" was. His parents, no his whole village, had been honored when, as a particularly small and well-formed and fair-of-face child, he had been selected to train for the emperor's Cut Sleeve troupe, a very special troupe of actors who only performed for a very select group at the Imperial Court in the Forbidden City. He had been taken from his parents at the age of twelve and had trained for many years in playing the female parts in the troupe's highly refined and specialized dramas shown only in the Forbidden City and only at the pleasure and invitation of the Emperor.
He had now learned all there was to know of the dress and of the walk and of the positioning of hands—and of the facial expressions that went with each of the traditional symbols of the traditional stage scenarios. He learned to smile demurely and look away in embarrassment, he learned to slit his eyes and wet his lips with his tongue, and he learned to open his mouth wide and lift his eyes to the heaven—and even how to swoon in this, the wu, or fifth, movement of the basic play form he was being taught. He practiced the sounds the female characters made—the sigh, and the little giggle, and the long moan. And he learned to dress. The special kimono of heavy brocade, cinched with the tight, breath-taking obi. The two-sectioned white sock slippers and the wooden platform sandals that gave the Chinese imperial female her peculiar gait. He at first had thought it strange there were no foundation garments, but he was told that the brocade was so heavy that to wear too much during a performance would cause his white pancake makeup to run.
He was taught all of the expressions and movements and sounds he was to make in the female role in Cut Sleeve productions. But he only learned these in theory and in solitary practice with his tutors. He had never practiced with any of the other actors of the troupe—indeed he never had met any of them. He himself was not privileged to watch a Cut Sleeve performance. They were so special that they were meant for the eyes of only a few.
He had begged Hsiang, the troupe master, to declare him ready to perform—he had perfected everything.
"And have you perfected the knowledge that you represent your parents, your very ancestors, and your village in this role and that how you deport yourself, how well you stay within your role, no matter what, will determine either the reward or punishment of everyone you know down two generations?"
"Yes, yes, Shenshen," Jang answered, using the revered words for master for the one man who controlled not only his destiny but that of his entire village and extended family.
"Then I will look for a time when you can perform your first play. You must perform that well, with no deviation from role, and you must fully satisfy your audience, or you will have failed. And you understand what failure means, don't you?"
"Yes, Shenshen." He knew this was a serious point, as Master Hsiang kept returning to it. Of course he would do well; he had trained for this female role in the imperial dramas for years. "And what play will I be performing, Shenshen? I must practice that one especially hard."
"Always the first Cut Sleeve troupe play for the female role is 'Bitten Peach.' I presume you know that one well."
"Yes, yes, of course," Jang said. He knew the play, but it was one of the sadder ones. It was a play where two actors are playing opposite the female role on the platform outside a pavilion in the jade garden at night, while the breeze whispers through the maple trees surrounding the koi pond and singsong girls play on the lute and sing sad songs behind the diaphanous curtains of the pavilion. One man tells the female a sad story of a fallen family, shown in the images on a scroll he shows her while weaving his story. She is sitting very close to him and feels overheated by the warm night air and by the sadness of the images depicted as the chronology of the scroll unwinds. She moans her sadness and her faintness from the close air, and the two men console her.
It was a mournful tale, and the older, long-past retired female role actor who had taught the role to Jang had told it with emotion and trembling hands.
At last it was the day of the performance. Jang was primped and trimmed throughout the day—bathed thrice in highly scented baths, and all of his bodily hair except that on his head plucked away. He was told that nothing could impede the smooth rustling of the brocade on his body as he went through his highly stylized movements. Two hours before the performance he was given a potion in strong wine. This was to make him slightly faint to aid in the realism of playing out this highly important, crucially significant first performance. This too he had practiced for this play before, so it came as no surprise to him.
When he was bid to flutter out onto the stage, and to move toward the two men seated behind a low tea table on large, raised pillows, the setting was just as Jang had imagined it would be—everything was just where it was supposed to be. The table and cushions were set out on a polished-wood platform beside a koi pond and under a full moon. A slight breeze was rustling through the maple trees. Soft light filtered out to encompass the area of the tea table from a curtained pavilion. The front section of the pavilion, toward the stage, was open to the platform. Five men, in magnificent silken kimonos, with many different-colored layers of undergarments, were artfully settled on cushions in a ring around the covered pavilion section, all facing the stage area. They each had a low table beside them on which various drinks and delicacies for the pallet were positioned, and they had cushion backs they could lean back on as they watched the play. Kneeling beside each was a young, handsome youth, none much older than Jang, who were dressed only in diaphanous billowy trousers held up with a golden waist chain. Silken panels of cloth, each of a different color, were tucked into the waist chain front and back to clothe their privates.
Somewhere in the curtained-off portion of the pavilion behind where the dignitaries were lounging were the singsong girls, playing their lutes and singing their sad songs in soft, whispery tones.
The two actors Jang minced toward, in studied, slow movements, on his precariously high wooden platform sandals, were quite different from one another. And, to Jang's surprise they did not wear the white pancake makeup that had been carefully applied to his face in the forming of his countenance into the epitome of female beauty before the black stiff-haired wig was set on his head.
The one actor, who was holding the partially unrolled scroll out in front of him was fairly young and was robust looking. He was wearing a shiny black kimono of trim cut, and his arms were bare, showing heavily muscled biceps and forearms and the intricate lacing of black tattoos in the design of a spider web. He had the face of a seasoned warrior, and Jang would have guessed he was an acrobat and decided to think of him as such.
The other actor was elderly, with stark white hair and a long, wispy beard. He was heavier than the first man, but not exactly fat. But of the two, he was the one who commanded attention. His kimono was deep purple in color, which identified him to anyone in the land as imperial, not more than two removes from the sitting emperor. Jang gasped at being in the presence of someone like him. Could it possibly be that a member of the imperial family acted with the Cut Sleeve troupe? Perhaps that was why Jang had not been told of the other actors, he thought. Was he in the presence of something far greater than he had ever imagined? Even if he had not been wearing purple, Jang would have known this man was the most commanding figure anywhere in the vicinity. He was obviously a warrior of old, proven by a slashed cut on his face that went from ear to chin and that was only partially hidden by the wisps of his white beard. Indeed, Jang got the impression that the imperial elder didn't want the cut to be hidden. The slash had caught the corner of an eye too, and that eye drooped a bit, certainly more than the other one.
But those eyes caught Jang's attention. The old man was watching him intently as he minced across the platform, and a shiver ran down Jang's spine. He didn't know what the stare meant, but he felt like he was being eaten alive. And Jang continued to be confused that the imperial elder was there at all. This was the stage; this was a Cut Sleeve performance. Upon even the slight reflection he was permitted, Jang could not believe that this imperial elder was one of the actors. Why wasn't the elder watching from the pavilion?
The younger, dark actor, the acrobat, motioned for Jang to sit on the cushion between him and the older actor, and, as if on cue, the music rose in volume from behind curtain at the back of the pavilion.
Looking back over at the elder actor, Jang noticed that there was yet another youth there, like the ones kneeling near the dignitaries in the pavilion. He had been hidden behind the billowing purple robes of the elder.
As woozy as Jang was from the potion he had been given, one that made him feel loose through his body, Jang fought hard to maintain his role. The acrobat was starting his melodious recitation of the story of the scroll that now was unrolling from one side and being rolled back up from the other side immediately in front of Jang's eyes, and he immediately went into shock. The acrobat had an arm around Jang's waist on the side from which the chronology of the scroll was appearing. This was all according to the play. Jang was playing the female role. He was supposed to be emotional and to begin to tremble and give little gasps.
That Jang didn't really have to act this out but had had it drilled into him so deeply that he was naturally living the role he was trained to didn't prevent him being shocked by what he was being forced to see.
It wasn't just the story of one family's tragedies. It wasn't a Chinese scroll at all. It was a scroll of a Japanese art Jang had only heard about in passing, behind twittering fingers, spoken in the dark of night and only between young friends who were taking risks and practicing coming of age far earlier than custom dictated. These were Shunga images, the pillow images of the Japanese underworld. And not just any Shunga images. These were images of men in exotic sex positions with each other.
Jang felt like he might swoon. Which was very interesting, because this was exactly where he was supposed to half swoon in the play script. He was also supposed to let out a little moan, which he did on cue.
And then on cue, the younger, dark actor set the scroll down on the table and lifted Jang onto his lap. He enfolded Jang inside his arms and picked up the scroll and began to roll through the increasingly suggestive images again. The images of the sexual positions were becoming more and more explicit. Less and less clothing was in view. The sexual act was progressing further, the takers in the images becoming bolder, more insistent.
Jang groaned and looked away from the scroll, just as he was trained to do at this point. And the acrobat encasing him lifted a hand, took hold of Jang's chin, and forced his eyes back on the scroll. The scroll had reached a point where a smaller man, completely naked, was being held to the front of a larger, heavily muscled, fully tattooed man's middle, as the larger man paraded around in a circle. Jang could see what was transpiring, as a half-buried phallus of the larger man could be seen up the hole of the younger one.
Jang gasped, just as he was supposed to at this point. His gasp was involuntary, though, because he suddenly could feel the strength of the other actor's manhood beneath him through the one layer of brocade he worn. This wasn't in the script, but the partial faint that followed it was. And, as in the script, Jang came around shortly with the strong scent of a reviving potion under his nose, being held by the acrobat. The actor's other hand, however, had entered the folds of Jang's kimono and found and encircled his member.
Jang gasped again and moaned and groaned, just as he had been taught to do at this point in the play. He was no longer being forced to look at the scroll, because the actor's two hands were now engaged in other activities. The one was teasing Jang's cock to erection and the other had slipped in above the obi and as pinching at one of Jang's nipples. Jang was also being moved around in languid circles on the actor's lap, and the actor's member was much more evident and much more in play between the crease that separated Jang's slim moons.
Jang looked around wildly for escape or help. Strangely enough this action fell right into play with the script of the "Bitten Peach," and Jang was beginning to more fully understand what he had learned—and why.
The elder was still sitting there close to him, his eyes boring into Jang, drinking in each violation Jang was experiencing. But now there was a bobbing head in his lap. The young attendant who had once been behind him now had lowered his face and both of his hands into the imperial elder's lap, the kimono spread just enough to give the attendant entrance. Jang could see the pink skin of a long phallus that was largely flaccid but that was showing some signs of hardening. The elder was breathing heavily, and he had a heavily ringed hand on the back of the young attendant's head, but his eyes were still drinking in Jang, savoring every awakening of Jang's senses and realization.
Jang looked wildly out to the audience of five for some sign of succor and reason, but each of the five now was already in some stage of being sucked by his personal attendant or in full-blown servicing, having easily pulled away the colorful loin cloths and gained quick entry to their attendant's privates. The attendants were in various forms of compliance. The two attending the dignitaries in the middle had begun riding the cocks of their assigned master already, both barely started in taking in the poles they were riding, and were leaning in toward each other and kissing and running hands along hard, aroused flesh. Two others were still giving suck. The fifth was being ravished, almost as if against his will. He was crying out loudly, which could have something to do with his very small size and the very large cock that was pushing into him as he was half kneeling in the cushions and having his face pushed down by a large hand while his tormenter crouched behind him.
All but this fifth dignitary were still watching Jang, though, interested in following the first bite into that peach. And except for the one who had lost control, the impression was given that they were gauging themselves to the rise and release of the imperial elder.
About the time that Jang thought that the actor manhandling him was going to sweep the thin layers of brocade between them away and bite the peach himself, the attendant servicing the imperial elder lifted his head in triumph to reveal a long, strong cock rising out of the folds of his master's kimono.
The attendant drew away as the actor holding Jang stood, bringing Jang with him, and took two steps toward the imperial elder and lowered Jang's moons into his lap. The attendant held the root of the old man's cock straight up and made sure his bulb aligned with Jang's hole. Then the acrobat actor and the younger attendant each was holding one of Jang's thighs out wide and had laced their other arms around Jang's back and were pressing him down onto the imperial elder's phallus with hands on his shoulders.
Jang was beyond the script now and wailing his pain and taking for all to hear. The music had stopped. All of the fucking stopped in the pavilion except for from the dignitary who had lost complete control of himself, and he was quickly swept out of the scene by two burly soldiers, probably never to be invited to a special Cut Sleeve performance again, possibly never even to be seen anywhere again.
For several minutes the attendant and the acrobat slowly pumped Jang up and down on the imperial elder's member as it dug deeper inside the virginal territory. The imperial elder hummed and grunted in appreciation, and Jang, remembering at last that this was a performance being assessed against the every existence of his family and village, subsided into sobs interlaced as he was able with sighs and moans of enjoyment and admiration for the imperial elder to benefit from.
Jang had lost his wig when the acrobat had raised him off of the cushions, and now he was being stripped of his kimono as well. The imperial elder having gained purchase deep inside him, the attendant let loose of Jang and knelt in front of him and gave him suck until Jang jerked and released his seed. The other actor took possession of Jang's lips. Both of these attendants were doing what they could to help Jang make the best impression he could on the old man. Proving that he hadn't lost his strength, the elder was holding the diminutive Jang by the waist with two gnarled but strong hands and was now pulling the young actor up and down on his gloriously rejuvenated, if only for a short time, member.
With a cry of victory, the imperial elder came inside the virginal offering in two weak, but not-to-be-taken-for-granted flows. The four remaining dignitaries also gave a restrained cheer of approval and returned to their fucking. Now they were free to ejaculate as well. And now the attendants were groaning under the fully self-centered rutting of the aroused dignitaries.
The elder waved his hand and the young actor shed his black kimono, revealing his body to be that of the magnificent acrobat Jang had thought he might be. He was covered nearly shoulder to ankle in intricate black-ink tattoo lacing, and he had a magnificently thick and long—and fully engorged—cock.
As the elder's attendant moved in close so that the elder could wrap an arm around his waist and undo his loin cloth and begin to suck the young man's cock while pulling hopefully on his own now-diminished member, the acrobat picked a swooning Jang up, turned him to face the dignitaries crouched his knees slightly, and slammed the newly bitten peach down hard onto his cock. Jang flung his appendages out wide and cried to the full moon at the rough slide of the cock, much longer and thicker than the one that had taken the first bite, and he just flopped around like a rag doll, skewered solidly to the acrobat's pelvis as the actor marched around the platform and jostled his newfound friend up and down on his virile member.
Jang recalled in horror that this was precisely the last image he had seen on the forbidden scroll. He was only reminded of this though, because in his last pass by the low table, the acrobat took up the scroll and tossed it to the dignitaries, all of whom were now finished with their first taking and ready for more entertainment from the platform.
The four dignitaries huddled over the scroll and sang out sexual taking positions they were interested in seeing, and the muscled acrobat, the real center and star of the Cut Sleeve troupe, showed that he could perform each position with the now completely limp and compliant Jang.
Later, much later, when Hsiang and the troupe's attendants were sponging of Jang's bruised body and the young man had come around to the smell of vinegar under his nose, he asked if he had satisfied and where his acting career went from here.
"Yes, you were very satisfactory," Hsiang whispered in a lulling tone. "Your family and village will be richly rewarded. It is increasingly difficult to satisfy the emperor's brother. He was well satisfied with what you drew out of him."