Jade Lee

Thank you, Brenda, editor extraordinaire, for inviting me to explore the sexuality of China.

I had so much fun with this, I feel like I won something way better than the title of Empress!

Dear Reader,

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that network television did not invent contests for finding a mate. I mean, sure, there was Cinderella, but that was just a fairy tale. Who knew that in 1851 the Emperor of China truly did advertise for all the eligible young women in the land to apply to become his new empress? Of course, he wasn't looking for just one wife. One lucky winner would become his empress, four became primary concubines and then he had two levels of harems below that for when he got bored. Lucky him! And lucky me, too, because I got to explore all the drama, the fear and the excitement vicariously through my heroine.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I had to change certain historical facts to make it more dramatic. If you're curious, I've put a brief article up on my Web site about the changes I've made. Check it out at But don't let reality spoil your fun!

Step now into the sensuous, exotic world of China's Forbidden City, where the women are beautiful, the men are usually cut and the emperor rules over everything with absolute power. Then see if you can pick the winner in a game of power and love!


Jade Lee


1851—Imperial China

A LAND OF SENSUOUS DELIGHTS and grinding poverty. A land of silk and jade, of tiny feet and dark, exotic eyes. The ruler of this vast and opulent land is the newly appointed Emperor Xian Feng, the Son of Heaven. Only nineteen years old, he has inherited a corrupt bureaucracy, the rebellious Taiping of the northwest, and a country slowly losing its mind to opium. The eunuchs who serve him grow more corrupt. The white devils constantly bang on his doors demanding trade for goods he does not want. And yet in all this his first duty is to sire an heir. In fact, he will not receive his full imperial salary until he has the required twenty-eight wives.

To this end, the Festival of Fertility has been declared! Eligible women from throughout the land have been invited to come to the Forbidden City, Xian Feng's home in Peking. Their virtue and their fortunes will be examined, they will be tested for lucky aspects of mind and body, and if successful, they will never leave the Forbidden City again. The winner will become the empress herself. Second place goes to four favored concubines. Then two other harems will be established for women who will likely never grace Xian Feng's bed.

A daunting task for any man to oversee, especially one who is simultaneously running a country. And so, in this most difficult hour, Xian Feng turns to his childhood friend and names Sun Bo Tao, former bad boy of the Forbidden City, as master of the festival. Apparently, the emperor does not hear the warnings that he is appointing a fox to run an imperial henhouse.

Chapter 1

SUN BO TAO GROANED as his bed dropped to the street with a head-splitting thump. He cursed under his breath even as he wondered why he was dreaming about sleeping in the middle of a noisy Peking street. Then the sharp bark of command from a soldier cut through his dream and jerked him upright. Unfortunately, it didn't change his bizarre surroundings. His bed was still sitting in the middle of a Peking street. He could hear the cry of a hundred hawkers, and the smell of human waste was unmistakable.

He yawned wide enough to crack his jaw, the sound bringing enough awareness that he had to fully open his eyes. He was in a red silk bower surrounded by cushions and hidden from view by tattered silk curtains. Oh, yes, he was sitting in an imperial palanquin and not one of the better ones. He'd woken as the porters dropped the bower onto the city street. But why was he here instead of in his own carriage?

A memory teased at the corners of his mind, but he resolutely pushed it away. There was a reason he had drunk himself into a stupor last night, and he was fairly certain he didn't want to remember what it was. He did recall that he'd been on his way home—walking because he'd been too drunk to ride his horse—when he'd seen the imperial procession. Two soldiers in front of four porters carried a curtained bower through the city streets. A very small procession. It was headed somewhere in Peking—he didn't care where—then would eventually wend its way back to the Forbidden City. As that was his destination, he'd waved down the lead soldier, paid the bribe and slipped in while the porters were taking a rest break. This way he'd get a few more hours of sleep before he had to face the day.

He was just lying back down when a female wail cut through the relative peace of his secluded bower. And worse, it was quickly followed by more feminine screeching. Much as he tried to block out the sound, curiosity drew him out of sleep. Just how many women were wailing loud enough to wake their ancestors?

There was an annoying tear in the curtains. The sunlight streamed through it enough that he could peer out. But did he really want to know what was out there? Yes, apparently his curiosity was in full force today. So with a heavy sigh, he maneuvered himself to the side to look out. Roof tiles. He saw roof tiles first. Broken ones that clearly indicated he sat in a not-so-prosperous area of Peking. But he saw trees, too, and a songbird cage beside a long front wall. Not-so-poor, either, then. Middling aristocracy. He shifted up to his knees to adjust his view.

The father appeared first. Pinched face, short nose, but with a scholarly demeanor. There was refinement in his motions and a kind of tired dreaminess that confirmed Bo Tao's first thought: middling aristocracy. Probably a Manchu of the red banner tribe. Sure enough, he saw a brand-new silk banner on the archway, but that was the only new decoration. The rest of the house was falling into ruin. His gaze returned to the father, then moved lower still to a pair of silent prepubescent boys. The family would have great difficulty finding the money to educate those two.

Bo Tao yawned again and thought to lie back down. But as he shifted, he caught sight of the women. It was the mother who was making the primary racket, weeping and sobbing as only a woman could. It was all for show as she kissed her daughter goodbye. He counted ten paid wailers howling in the background, pulling at their hair and creating a solid wall of sound.

Was the palanquin for them? Were the porters supposed to pick up someone before returning to the Forbidden City? Not the mother, who was still wailing like a demon. Not the stoic father or too-young boys. Must be the girl. He narrowed his eyes, trying to get a look at the daughter. She appeared the right age for marriage, was of middling stature and certainly dressed in finery. He saw an embroidered gown and a curtain of ivory beads in front of her face. Ivory, not jade. Which meant she was not wealthy enough to become an imperial consort.

Ox piss! Now he remembered why he had drunk himself insensate yesterday. The Festival of Fertility commenced this morning. Yi Zhen, his double-damned best friend (now called Emperor Xian Feng, the pompous prick), had just finished mourning his father last night. Which meant he now began the royal process of picking wives and harems in order to beget the next Son of Heaven.

A full week would be given over to the search for beautiful and fertile women to grace Emperor Xian Feng's bed. Beauty and bribes, sex and petty backstabbing would rule the Forbidden City for at least a week, and not a single moment would be left for the practical matters of running the country. What a total waste of time!

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