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
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 homeâ€”walking because he'd been too
drunk to ride his horseâ€”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 Pekingâ€”he didn't care
whereâ€”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
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 prepu-bescent 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
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!
Worse, a delegation of Dutch were coming to the Forbidden
City this week. Bo Tao believed that the whites had to be
handled with great care, that the world had many dangerous
powers that were unknown in China. But Yi Zhen was
overwhelmed with internal matters, with the Taiping
rebellion in the northwest and China's increasingly corrupt
infrastructure. He had no time to discuss Dutch delegates
and no patience for his best friend, who warned of yet more
struggles on a global stage.
Bo Tao should have left the Forbidden City as soon as his
emperor showed signs of strain. He knew Yi Zhen's moods, and
yet he had not been able to resist pushing his emperor to
see the larger picture. That had been his last, most stupid
mistake. After all, Bo Tao had no official status. He was
merely the hellion of the Forbidden City, the boy who'd run
wild with the emperor, playing games throughout the
city-within-a-city. If he were an official appointee, if he
were a general or a scholar or something with a title, then
he might have had the status to force his friend to listen.
But he was simply a consultant, a friend to the emperor, a
man who saw the greed in the whites' eyes and feared it. And
when he had pushed Yi Zhen to see it as well, his best
friend had punished him.
His triple-damned emperor had named Bo Tao master of the
festival! He said Bo Tao had become too serious and needed a
week of frivolity to lighten his mood. Ox piss! Yi Zhen was
merely flexing his royal muscles! Rather than deal with the
coming Dutch delegation, Yi Zhen had ignored the issue,
ordered Bo Tao to take care of the festival, and then
laughed at his friend's stunned expression. It was just like
when they were children! Whenever Yi Zhen had felt
threatened, he would reassert his status as a royal prince.
He'd usually make up some crime and have the eunuchs punish
Bo Tao. That was how Bo Tao had learned the fine art of
scrubbing kitchen pots or worse, cleaning chamber pots.
This was no different. But instead of a game, Bo Tao was
suddenly in charge of scores of competitive, backstabbing,
gossiping virgins! Just when the Dutch delegation was due to
He glared out the torn curtain at the girl who might very
well become one of his charges by the end of the day.
Narrowing his eyes, he tried to assess her prospects and
understand why she was marked as special. She had to have
something unique to rank an imperial palanquin, even a
Nothing. There was nothing distinctive about her to catch
the emperor's eye, and not enough money on this whole street
to pay the bribes that would be required to pass through the
minefield that was the imperial court. The girl was doomed.
And yet here she was in her richly embroidered gown,
kneeling before her parents while paid women wailed.
Just as well that his presence in her palanquin would
keep her from entering the competition. Once he was
discovered in her conveyance, she would not be able to enter
the litter. His male yang energy poisoned the virginal
bower. She would have to arrange for an alternate way to
reach the Forbidden City.
But there wasn't time even if her family had the money
for another carriage. Not if she intended to make it to the
gate by the appointed hour. Tardiness was not allowed in
prospective royal consorts. Fortunately, he wasn't dooming
anyone who would have made it through the Forbidden City
gates. At least this way, the girl was spared the long and
humiliating walk home.
All in all, he decided as he collapsed back down onto a
pillow, it was better that he was here ruining her chances.
And as an added bonus, he could grab another hour's sleep
before he had to begin his double-damned duties in the
coming Farce of Fertility.
Chen Ji Yue struggled to breathe. Excitement pounded in
her blood, she was already dizzy with the noise, and yet she
still could not draw a full breath. How blessed she was to
be of the right age for a Festival of Fertility! Only a few
hundred girls every few decades had such an opportunity! To
catch the eye of the emperor was every girl's dream. That
she would save her family from poverty, as well, only added
to her joy. But first, she had to escape all these wailing
"Mama," she murmured from behind the clattering ivory
beads. "Let me go. I cannot be late."
"Not yet, little heart. Show respect to your father."
She'd already bowed to her fatherâ€”early this morning for
real and outside again for show. "Mama, believe in me. I can
Mama didn't hear her. She was busy wailing again. And
worse, she would not let go of Ji Yue's hands.
"Mamaâ€¦" JiYue began, but then her mother pulled her
"You won't win the emperor on beauty, Ji Yue. You must be
smart. You must see what others don't and capitalize on it."
"I know. You've told meâ€¦" Ji Yue let her voice trail
away. This close, she noticed there were real tears in her
mother's eyes, and her heart lurched with pain. What would
it be like not to see her mother's face every morning? Who
would help her father with his poetry or tutor her brothers?
Mama, most likely, but Mama already had plenty to do
squeezing every penny so they had enough to eat.
"That playboy Sun Bo Tao was named master of the
festival," her mother continued. "This is very bad and very
dangerous. He is a hanger-on because of his friendship with
the emperor. No title, no education, nothing but trouble.
Avoid him, Ji Yue. Avoid him at all costs!"
"I know, Mama. I will stay away from him. I promise!"
"You can't! He is master of the festival! He is in charge
of all the imperial virgins. Remember what I taught
youâ€”follow the Confucian virtues, think pure thoughts, but
see what the men do not. I trained you to be a political
wife, and the first rule of politics is to not get caught by
a man of no virtue."
"I know, Mama," Ji Yue repeated. "Have faith in me. I
will become the empress." If she succeeded, then her entire
family would be set for generations. They would become
royalty and have all the money they needed. All she had to
do was catch the emperor's eye.
"Go now. Go before your father unmans himself and cries."
Mama pushed her away. Ji Yue didn't need the prompting to
leave. She was anxious to begin her new life even though her
fingers clung to Mama's arm. But it was hard to see through
her curtain of beads, harder still to walk on the high
platform shoes. Thankfully, this, too, had been rehearsed.
The elder of her brothers ran to her side to escort her
with all dignity to the imperial palanquin. It had been an
exorbitant expense to get the conveyance, but it was the
only pull her father had in the Forbidden City. He had spent
a year tutoring a eunuch's nephew and in return had been
promised a single favor. Papa had used it to obtain this
beautiful ride to the Forbidden City. A future empress
should arrive like an empress, he'd said, but that was all
he could do. After this, she would have to catch the
emperor's favor on her own.
The wailers grew louder as she and her brother neared the
curtained palanquin. Her brother was to release her hand now
and throw open the bower curtains so she could enter. He
began to move away, but she suddenly gripped his arm,
holding him still.
It was a silly thought, she knew, but she didn't want her
brother's last sight of her to be one of extraordinary
lavishness. They had so little, and even less now that so
much had been spent to outfit her. She did not want her
brother to see the interior luxury of the palanquin. After
she became the new empress, she would send him exquisite
silks as a royal gift. He need not see them now.
"Take care of Papa," she murmured as a last goodbye to
her brother. "Make sure he drinks his special tea." Her
brother hovered uncertainly beside her, unsure what to do
now that she had changed the plan. "Go back to Papa," she
said to him. "Study hard so that you can join me in the
Forbidden City." There were jobs as advisors to the Dragon
Throne, but only for scholars who passed the exam. She
nudged him back even as she tottered forward to the bower.
With one last smile that they couldn't even see, she ducked
inside the palanquin.
It was dark inside, and with the beads in front of her
face, she couldn't see a thing. She went by touch, crawling
inside with little dignity and much speed. The cushions
moved awkwardly beneath her hands until she touched a very
hard one that remained stable. She pushed down, levering her
weight on it.
The curtains slipped closed behind her, and one of the
porters grunted as the palanquin lifted off the street. She
slid off the heavy cushion onto something else. Goodness,
silk was slippery. And the cushions were bizarre. The
palanquin began to sway as it moved away from her family
home. She wanted to peer out the curtain, but she didn't
dare do something so vulgar even though the tears burned in