A RITA Award Winner!
A 2016 RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice Nominee for First Historical Romance!
There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor's attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. Young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei's intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient Chinawhere love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or deathand the woman who came to rule it all.
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The day my future was foretold, I was just five years old.
I was practicing calligraphy in the garden where Father hosted his gathering with the nobles, scholars, and other important men of the prefecture. It was a brilliant summer afternoon. He was not wearing his governor's hat, and the sunlight sifted through the maze of the oak branches and illuminated his gray hair like a silver crown.
A monk, whom I had never seen before, asked to read my face.
"How extraordinary!" He lowered himself to look into my eyes. "I have never seen a face with such perfection, a design so flawless and filled with inspiration. Look at his temple, the shape of his nose and eyes. This face bears the mission of Heaven."
I wanted to smile. I had fooled him. I was Father's second daughter, and his favorite. He often dressed me in a boy's tunic and treated me as the son he did not have. Mother was reluctant to go along with the game, but I considered it a great honor.
"It is a pity, however, that he is a boy," the monk said as people came to surround us.
"A pity?" Father asked, his voice carrying a rare shade of confusion. "Why is that, Tripitaka?"
I was curious too. How could a girl be more valuable than a boy?
"If the child were a girl, with this face"-the monk, Tripitaka, watched me intently-"she would eclipse the light of the sun and shine brighter than the moon. She would reign over the kingdom that governs many men. She would mother the emperors of the land but also be emperor in her own name. She would dismantle the house of lies but build the temple of the divine. She would dissolve the kingdom of ghosts but found a dynasty of souls. She would be immortal."
"A woman emperor?" Father's mouth was agape. "How could this be possible?"
"It is difficult to explain, Governor, but it is true. There would be no one before her and none after."
"But this child is not of the imperial family."
"It would be her destiny."
"I see," Father said, looking pensive. "How could a woman reign over the kingdom?" Father was asking the monk, but he stared at me, his eyes glistening with a strange light.
"She must endure."
Tripitaka did not answer; instead, he turned around to look at the reception hall through the moon-shaped garden entrance, where splendid murals and antique sandalwood screens inlaid with pearls and jade covered each wall. Leaning against the wall were shelved precious ceramic bowls and cups, a bone relic of Buddha-Mother's most valued treasure-and a rare collection of four-hundred-year-old poems. In the center of the hall stood the object all Father's guests envied-a life-size horse statue made of pure gold, a gift from Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Tang Dynasty who owed his kingdom to Father.
Tripitaka faced Father again, gazing at him like a man watching another drowning in a river yet unable to help.
"I shall take my leave now, respected Governor. May fortune forever protect you. It is my privilege to offer you my service." He pressed his hands together and bowed to leave.
What I did next I could never explain. I ran to him and tugged at his stole. I might have only meant to say farewell, but the words that slipped from my mouth were "Wo men xia ci chong feng."
We shall meet again.
Tripitaka's eyes widened in surprise. Then, as though he had just understood something, he nodded, and with a deep bow, he said, "So it shall be."
Any other child my age would have felt confused or at least awkward. Not me. I smiled, withdrew, and took Father's hand.
After that day, I was not to wear a boy's garment again, and Father began to draft letters and sent them to Emperor Taizong, Emperor Gaozu's son, who had inherited the throne and resided in a great palace in Chang'an. When I asked him the purpose of the letters, Father explained there was a custom that every year the ruler of the kingdom chose a number of maidens to serve him. The maidens must come from noble families and be older than thirteen. It was a great honor for the women, because once they were favored by the Emperor and became high-ranking ladies, they would bring their families eternal fame and glory.
Father said he would like me to go to the palace.
He devoted himself to teaching me classical poems, history, calligraphy, and mathematics, and every night, before I went to bed, he would ask me to recite Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Oftentimes I went to sleep mumbling, "All warfare is based on deception..."
Days went by, then seasons and years. When I was twelve, one year before Emperor Taizong would summon me, Father took me to our family's grave site. He looked to be in high spirits, his footsteps light and his head held high. He told me old stories of how he, the wealthiest man in Shanxi Prefecture, had funded the war of Emperor Gaozu when he decided to rebel against the Sui Dynasty, how when the Emperor was betrayed and forced to flee, Father opened the gates of our enormous home to accommodate his army, and how, after the war was won, Emperor Gaozu proposed the marriage between Father and Mother, cousin of an empress, daughter of a renowned noble faithful to the empire that had perished.
His long sleeves waving, Father showed me the undulating land that stretched to the edge of the sun-his land, my family's land. "Will you promise to safeguard our family's fortune and honor?" he asked me, his eyes glittering.
Clenching my fists, I nodded solemnly, and he laughed. His voice melted into the warm air and echoed on the tops of the distant cypresses.
The pleasure of pleasing him wrapped around me when I caught a pair of yellow bulbous eyes peering out of the bushes. The forest fell still, and all the chirping and rustling vanished. A shower of leaves, fur, and red drops poured down from the sky, and a scream pierced my ears. Perhaps it came from me, or Father, I was not sure, for everything turned black, and when I came to my senses, I was at the table with Mother and my two sisters, eating rice porridge with shredded pork.
One of our servants rushed into the reception hall, his chest heaving and his face wet with perspiration. There had been an accident, he said. Father had fallen off a cliff and died.
On the day of his funeral, a feeble sun blinked through the opaque morning haze that hovered above the mountain tracks. Slowly, I walked toward his grave. A blister broke on my toe, but I hardly felt it. In front of me, a priest wearing a square mask painted with four eyes hopped and danced, and near him, the bell ringers shook their small bells. The tinkling faded to the distant sky but lingered in my heart. Desperately, I searched my mind to find any clue that might hint at the nature of Father's death, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not remember the details of the day he had died. I knelt, my face numb and my hands cold, as the hearse bearers pushed Father into the earthen chamber, burying him.
I thought my life was over. I did not know it had just begun.
Table of Contents
Tang Dynasty, AD 631: The Fifth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Summer,
AD 639: The Thirteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Autumn,
AD 640: The Fourteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Spring,
AD 640: The Fourteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Winter,
AD 641: The Fifteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Summer,
AD 641: The Fifteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Autumn,
AD 641: The Fifteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Winter,
AD 642: The Sixteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Early Spring,
AD 642: The Sixteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Late Spring,
AD 642: The Sixteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Summer,
AD 642: The Sixteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Autumn,
AD 642: The Sixteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Winter,
AD 643: The Seventeenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Spring,
AD 643: The Seventeenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Summer,
AD 643: The Seventeenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Winter,
AD 644: The Eighteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Spring,
AD 644: The Eighteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Autumn,
AD 644: The Eighteenth Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Winter,
AD 648: The Twenty-Second Year of Emperor Taizong's Reign of Peaceful Prospect — Summer,
Reading Group Guide,
An Excerpt from The Empress of Bright Moon,
A Conversation with the Author,
About the Author,