It is the final days of the Chinese empire. Trade in opium with Europe is slowly corroding the power of the Ch'ing Dynasty. Orchid, a beautiful seventeen-year-old from an aristocratic but impoverished family, is pushed into the maelstrom when she finds herself unexpectedly chosen to become a lower-ranking concubine of the Emperor.
To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor's wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate fa ade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor's son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.