Would he die tonight?
The thought flickered
in my mind as I dabbed at a brown stain on the Emperor’s chin. He did not
respond, not even to twitch his lips or blink. He lay there, his mouth open,
his gaze fixed on the ceiling. The right side of his face was a ruinous pool of
skin, and his good left eye was opaque, like a marble that the light of candles
failed to penetrate. Now and then, there seemed to be a spark in that eye, as
though his old valor was struggling to come to life, to surface, to fight the
fate that conquered him, but the light flashed like a fish in a murky pond. It
was there, swimming, but it did not come up to the surface, not even for a
breath of air.
He did not see me. He
was gone, I could tell—a once-powerful whirlwind of wrath and will, now a bag
of slackened skin, a shell of vaunting vanity.
I straightened, and an
ache shot through my back. How long had I been kneeling at the bedside,
watching him? I could not remember. All of us—the Talents, the Graces, and the
Beauties, once the bedmates of the Emperor—had been his caretakers for the past
ten months. Every day, we took turns feeding him, cleaning him—for he had long
ago lost the ability to control his fluids—and carefully we watched him,
listening to his every labored breath and every painful groan.
When the Emperor had
announced Pheasant as the heir of the kingdom last year, he had been frail, and
he had collapsed a few days later, shaken by the mysterious hand that had
tormented him all these years. Writhing, gushing white foam from his mouth, he
fell out of a stretcher on the way to his bedchamber and had not wakened since.
The water dropped in
the water clock beside me. Nine. Where were they? They must hurry…
I rose, patting the
side of my Cloudy Chignon, the elaborate hairstyle I had finally mastered. A
few strands had fallen on my shoulders, and the loose knot that should have sat
on top of my head had slumped sadly to my right ear. I wished I could make
myself look more presentable, but we were not allowed to leave the chamber. The
physicians had ordered me and the other Talents to stay with the Emperor at all
times. I had not bathed for two months, looked at myself in the bronze mirror,
or put on my white face cream. My hair, which had once been soft and fragrant,
now felt heavy and lumpy on my neck, and the green robe I wore had turned
brown, stained with splashes of herbal remedies.
The thought whispered
to me again. I peered at him. What if he died tonight? What would happen to me
and the other women who served him when he did die? I quickly smothered the
thoughts. I should not think of those questions, for it was treason to ponder
on the Emperor’s mortality…
But all the titled
women in the Inner Court must have wondered about their fate these months while
he lay there unresponsive. After all, it was the unspoken law that we, as the
Emperor’s women, should never feel the warmth of another man’s arms again after
the Emperor’s death. There must have been a plan for us. Yet no one openly
talked about it, even though the ladies gathered together in the courtyard
every morning, whispering, their eyes misty with tears.
I wished I could
listen to the Duke and the Secretary, the two highest-ranking ministers, when
they came to visit the Emperor. But they had many important matters to discuss
and did not seem to pay attention to us. And Pheasant. He was busy too, and I
had not yet had an opportunity to ask him about our fate.
But no matter what the
plan was for us, I knew one thing was for sure: after the Emperor’s death,
Pheasant—my Pheasant—would be the ruler of the kingdom. He would look after me
and my future.
And he had promised…
The empress of bright moon, he said…
My heart warm with
joy, I glanced at the doors. Pheasant and the Duke should have arrived by now.
I wondered what the delay was.
A soft drizzle fell
outside, light, persistent, carrying a pleasing rhythm that reminded me of the
sound of baby silkworms devouring mulberry leaves. It was the fifth month of
the year, a good time to have some rain. I yearned to go outside, feel the
raindrops on my face, and smell the fresh air, for the bedchamber was veiled
with the thick scent of incense, ginseng, musk, clove, dried python bile, and the
unpleasant odor of death. I had been inside for so long, I supposed I smelled
just like the chamber. I knew my fellow Talent, Daisy, did, as well as the
others who yawned in the corner. Each time one of them passed me, I could name
the herb in her hair.
Footsteps rose in the
dark corridor, and red light from many lanterns poured through the doors.
Finally, Pheasant and the Duke entered the chamber, their wet robes clinging to
their chests. The physician, Sun Simiao, followed behind.
I retreated to the corner,
giving them space, as they had asked each time they came, although I wished to
stand right beside them and listen to what the physician had to report. When he
examined the Emperor earlier, he had sighed heavily.
The men whispered in
low voices, their eyes on the Emperor. The Duke sighed and sniffed, running a
hand over his face. Pheasant, surprisingly, looked somber, although his eyes
“Crown Prince,” the
physician said, stepping aside to the screen, and Pheasant and the Duke
followed him. “We have done the best we could. But I’m afraid I must tell you
the dreadful news. The One Above All will not see the dawn’s light.”
My heart jerked. I
tried to remain motionless.
Pheasant’s voice was soft and sad, and I stole a look at him. His eyes sparkled
in the candlelight near the screen. His face was thinner, his jawline more
refined than ever, and he had grown a beard.
I remembered how
grief-stricken Pheasant had been when he learned the Emperor had become ill
last year. For days, Pheasant had stood by the bedside, with us women scurrying
from the physicians’ herb chamber to the courtyard, carrying bowls of medicine.
When we fed the Emperor, Pheasant, careless of his own life, would taste the
liquid first, to ensure it had not been mixed with any pernicious ingredient by
a vicious hand. When some of us fell down in fatigue after days without sleep,
he would tell us to rest and watch the Emperor himself. He was a dutiful son,
and I was not sure the Emperor deserved him.
“If there is anything
you need, Crown Prince,” the physician said, “we’re here to serve you.”
“You have my
gratitude, Physician Sun.” Pheasant nodded solemnly. His gaze swept over me. A
swift look, but long enough to warm my heart. We had seen each other more often
recently, as he came to visit his father almost every day. Sometimes, when the
other Talents were not watching, he would brush my arm or hold my hand, and
sometimes, when he went to use the privy chamber, I would follow him. There we
would share some precious private moments, and it would be the highlight of my
The Duke bowed
The old man looked his
usual self, his face long and hard and his gaze arrogant. I wondered how the
Duke managed to stay in good health. He was the Emperor’s brother-in-law, and
they were the same age, but while the Emperor was in the throes of death, the
Duke still stood strong. For the past three years, he had been the Emperor’s
close assistant, taking direct orders from him, writing edicts for him when he
lost control of his arm. Since the Emperor had become ill the year before, the
Duke had acted on the Emperor’s behalf, giving orders to the ministers. At the
moment, he was the most powerful man in the kingdom.
“I must prepare for
the inevitable,” Pheasant said. “I would like you to arrange a meeting with the
astrologers, Uncle, and report to me the auspicious dates for burial in the
coming months. Also, summon the mausoleum’s mural painters for me, as well as
the craftsmen who will build the four divine animal statues for the burial. I
would like to examine their works and make certain all matters regarding the
funeral are taken care of.”
His voice was loud and
steady, full of command and authority. I was proud of Pheasant. During the past
months, he had shown a strength that was unknown even to himself. He had
learned the rituals of worshipping Heaven and Earth and the judicial and penal
processes, and familiarized himself with the governments of the sixteen
prefectures of the kingdom. He had gathered ministers together, charmed them,
and even won the support of the General, the commander of the ninety-nine
legions of the Gold Bird Guards, who safeguarded the palace.
“Of course, Nephew,”
the Duke said, looking hesitant, “yet I would advise you not to tell the women
of this devastating news at the moment.”
“Why?” Pheasant looked
The Duke coughed, and
when he spoke again, his voice was so low I had to strain to hear. “For the
women are most petty minded and troublesome… If they know their fate…”
father’s women shall never be seen or touched by any other men, and he has
ordered that those who have borne him children must dwell in the safe Yeting
Court for the rest of their lives.”
Pheasant frowned. “I
see. But what about the women who have not borne a child?”
“They will be sent to
the Buddhist monasteries around the kingdom, where they will pray for the
Emperor’s soul. This is for the best and a fine tradition that dynasties
I froze. Buddhist
monasteries? He was banishing us. He was demanding we become Buddhist nuns, the
ones who severed their secular ties to the world, the ones who forsook joy and
desire, the ones with only past and no future. If we were banished there,
scattered to the remote corners of the kingdom, we would hear nothing but the
sound of misery, feel nothing but sorrow, see nothing but death. Our lives
A chill swept over my
body. The Emperor’s death would be my noose.
monasteries?” Pheasant sounded shocked. “You can’t mean that.”
“Yes, it is their
duty. Our Emperor, praise him, who is most merciful, told me of this tradition
some time ago. This order shall be effective once the unfortunate moment
“But there are so many
women…hundreds. He wants all of them to spend the rest of their lives in
I could feel
Pheasant’s eyes on me, and the Duke’s too. I turned away and fumbled among a
pile of clothes I had worked on earlier. I found Pheasant’s coronation regalia,
which I had embroidered during many nights while tending to the Emperor. I had
put my heart and love into every stitch, imagining how splendid Pheasant would
look when he sat on the throne. My hands trembling, I clutched the silk fabric
The Duke’s voice rose.
“In old times, these women would have been buried alive in the mausoleum.”
Pheasant was quiet for
a moment, and then he said, “I am glad that was in the ancient time only, and
yet banishing them to the monasteries still seems to be a dated tradition. I
shall not agree to that.” His resolute voice calmed me. Of course
Pheasant would not let
such a terrible fate befall me.
“You must, Nephew,”
the Duke said sharply. “As the future Emperor of the kingdom, you have a duty
to fulfill your father’s wishes and continue carrying out the tradition.”
I did not like the way
the Duke spoke. He sounded so assertive, as though he were the Emperor himself.
Perhaps he thought he was. He was used to the power he had acquired over the
sounded calm. “I believe, as the future Emperor of the kingdom, I am also
entitled to make exceptions to the rules.”
There was a sharp
intake of breath from the Duke, as though he could not believe Pheasant’s open
This was not the first
time Pheasant and the Duke had disagreed. Last night, I had heard them arguing about
who should conduct the Emperor’s burial rite when the moment came. The Duke
insisted on Taoist priests, as he claimed the Emperor would have wished, while
Pheasant favored Buddhist monks.
“I shall consent only
if they express their wish to live in the monastery, Uncle. Otherwise, I would
rather my father’s women spend the rest of their lives with their families.
They have lived away from them long enough,” Pheasant said.
That would be
marvelous. And merciful. The ladies would be overjoyed. Some must have been
separated from their families for more than twenty years. As for me, however, I
had no home. My father, a wealthy governor who had believed I would grow up to
be a ruler and bring my family glory, had died protecting me. After his death,
I had lost my family’s enormous fortune, my ancestral house, and even my
sisters. Now my mother, a cousin of a late empress, was destitute and homeless,
a nun living in a dilapidated Buddhist monastery far away from the palace.
Would the Duke send me
to the same monastery where Mother lived? That would never happen, I realized.
The Duke wanted us to die in loneliness, not to rejoice in family reunion. He
would certainly send us to monasteries far away from Chang’an if he had his
“Living with their
families? And have them seen and touched by other base men? This is most
unconventional and outrageous! Your father would not agree to this. None of the
ministers will agree to this!”
“If you wish, Uncle,
we shall discuss the matter with the Secretary.” Secretary Fang, I knew, was on
Pheasant’s side, and he would defend him against the Duke. “Come. They are
waiting outside.” Pheasant waved and headed toward the bedchamber’s door. The
Duke followed reluctantly.
I put down the robe,
went to the door, and peered out. In the dark corridor, a group of ministers
waited. Rain showered their long robes, and their faces were painted red by the
light of lanterns hung from the eaves. Secretary Fang was speaking with Sun
Simiao. He straightened as Pheasant approached. When Pheasant spoke to him, he
glanced at the bedchamber and nodded. The Duke threw up his hands.
Daisy came to me.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” I
said, hesitant to tell her too much. “The Duke wants to banish us to
Daisy’s eyes widened. “Why?”
A wave of voices burst
forth as the other Talents gathered around me.
“We will have to
“Did our Crown Prince
They buried their
faces in their hands and sobbed.
Oh, women. What else
could we do but sob when our fate was in other people’s hands? But I would not
cry. Not ever. “Our Crown Prince will not banish us.”
Pheasant was still
talking to the Duke and the Secretary. The Duke gestured vehemently, shaking
his head. Pheasant held up his hand and walked toward the entrance to the
courtyard. The Duke looked frustrated. He opened his mouth again and turned
toward the entrance, where a large figure loomed near the gate. The Duke froze.
Even though it was too
dark for me to see the man’s eyes and the purple birthmark on his face, the way
he held his sword was unmistakable. The man near the gate was the General.
He had long ago been
promoted to command the ninety-nine legions of the Gold Bird Guards and all the
cavalry in the kingdom. He had been the Emperor’s loyal servant, and after the
Emperor’s death, he would serve Pheasant.
Pheasant greeted the
General. The Secretary followed after him, and together they walked to the end
of the corridor, where they tipped their heads together and spoke quietly,
sheets of rain falling on their shoulders.
The Duke stood
stiffly, and the ministers around him left to join Pheasant and the Secretary
as well. The Duke was alone, standing under the eaves, the lantern light
casting a long shadow near his feet. For the first time since the Emperor had
fallen ill, I could see that the powerful Duke, the Emperor’s assistant for
more than three years, was losing his influence.
It was for the best.
Since the Emperor was about to die, the Duke had to go too. I had never liked
him. He was cruel—like the Emperor, devious, and also a man lusting for power.
I liked Pheasant’s
merciful plan for his father’s concubines. People would be overjoyed once it
was announced. But what about me? I had no home to return to. Since I came to
the palace at the age of thirteen, I had been living here for almost eleven
years. The palace was my home now.
I went to the
Emperor’s bedside. He looked the same, his mouth open, his gaze fixed on the
ceiling. A sound, half gurgle, half groan, rose from his throat, as though he
was having trouble breathing, then ceased. Was he dead? My heart stopped. But
then his chest rose again.
The Duke appeared on
the other side of the bed. “Ungrateful son, ungrateful, ungrateful!” He gritted
his teeth and cursed, his hawkish nose shining in the candlelight like a honed
blade. There was something ferocious and calculated in his eyes. Something
furtive and disturbing. He caught me watching him and gave me a cold stare. I lowered
When I dared to look
up again, he had disappeared.
A hot wave of unease
rushed through me. The Duke must not be ignored. I had to warn Pheasant. He was
not crowned yet, and he had to be cautious, for the death of his father could
create a crack in the ladder of power, and if he did not watch it carefully,
the crack could expand, the rungs could split, and the entire ladder could
From Sourcebooks Landmark, published April 5, 2016
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