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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 China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death—and the woman who came to rule it all.
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The Moon in the Palace
By Weina Dai Randel
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Weina Dai Randel
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
When we returned home, a group of men waited in front of my house, their torches roaring in the night like flaming trees, and the black smoke stretching in the sky like the shadowy cobweb of a monstrous spider.
I recognized the magistrate, wearing my father's hat. My heart sank. He had taken Father's position. I knew the law well. No matter how much Father loved me, I was not his son, and thus I could not inherit his governorship. But there had to be another reason the magistrate was there. I stopped Mother and my two sisters, holding them close to me.
"Old woman," the magistrate said to Mother, his hands on his hips, "take your worthless girls with you and get out of here."
I could not stand this man or his utter disrespect of Mother. I stood before him. "Do not speak to my mother like this. If anyone needs to leave, it's you. This is my home."
"Not anymore." He sneered. "It's mine now. Everything belongs to me: the house, the treasure, and all the gold. Now, I order you to get out of my sight." He waved, and his men lunged toward us, pushing us to the road.
"How dare you." I struggled, trying to free myself from the arms that clamped on my shoulders. "You scoundrel!"
A sharp pain stabbed me as the magistrate drove his fist into my stomach. I was stunned. No one had ever struck me before. I dove toward him and kicked with all my might. But another blow fell on my back, and I tumbled to the ground, my vision blurred with pain. For a moment, I could hear only the echoes of loud slaps and my sisters' frightened cries. I shook my head and struggled to rise, because at that moment, I saw that Mother, her hand on her face, fell beside me and gasped. Instinctively, I leaned over and wrapped my arms around her, shielding her as more blows rained down on me.
* * *
Finally, all the kicks and commotion died off, and the gates of my home closed behind me. From inside came loud laughter and cheers.
Our servants came to us, all one hundred of them, bearing sacks on their shoulders. They helped me sit up, and then one by one, they bowed, weeping miserably. As they turned around to leave, I watched them, a lump in my throat. I had known them since I was born and called them aunts and uncles, but they had to leave. It was just as the proverb said, "When a tree falls, wretched monkeys have no choice but to scatter."
Pushing back my tears, I turned to my mother and sisters, who sobbed beside me. I held them, trying to comfort them, and I swore I would protect them and take care of them, but I knew there was nothing I could do to take back our home. I could beg the nobles who had served Father to help me, but the greedy magistrate, whose words were law, was their superior, and no one would dare to defy him.
I did not know where we could stay either. All the family members on Mother's side had died in the war, and Father had no relatives in Wenshui. I could ask to stay with neighbors, but we would be like beggars, relying on people's charity. In the end, Mother said we should go to Qing, my half brother, who lived in Chang'an, the city where Emperor Taizong's great palace was located. The eldest son from Father's previous marriage, Qing was a greedy gambler who hated me and the last person from whom I would seek help.
But I decided to listen to Mother. We would go to Chang'an, for once I got there, I would seek every opportunity to see the Emperor and beg him to return our house and belongings to us.
The night grew cold. We huddled together under a tree to keep warm. I was hungry, exhausted, and my body was sore from the beating, but I could not shut my eyes as the night's wind whipped my cold face.
At dawn, Mother sought out a traveling caravan that passed our town and paid them with my jade bangle. Together with my two sisters, I limped to the carriage and climbed in.
My chin knocking against the carriage's window frame, I watched my home fade into the distance. I had drunk Wenshui's water, walked on Wenshui's muddy road, and grown up in Wenshui's air. Now I had to leave.
* * *
Father used to say that Chang'an was the most glorious place under Heaven, and many people flocked to the Emperor's city like moths attracted to light. Everyone — merchant, poet, mercenary, and prostitute alike — went there to realize dreams of fortune and decadence. It was also the destination of the Silk Route, where merchants from as far as Persia, Kucha, Kashgar, and Samarkand brought rare perfumes and hard-to-find luxuries for trade.
But when we approached the city wall near the Jinguang Gate, the scenery before me reflected none of Father's description. The gray ramparts, looking like the jagged teeth of a demon, sprawled endlessly in the distance. Around me, many merchants, their faces netted with wrinkles and their lips parched with thirst, faltered on the road in fatigue, and the leaves of persimmon groves near a lake shriveled, looking on the verge of dying.
Once we entered the right gateway, the view of the city surprised me. White stone bridges arched in the shape of half-moons, stands of green willows edged deep ditches, vermillion-colored canoes and indigo-hued dragon boats floated on placid canals, and the enormous walled buildings — the residential wards, Mother told me — stood next to one another like fortresses.
I shielded my eyes to block the bright sunlight reflected from the canal. I did not wish to blink, unwilling to miss anything. The streets were as wide as the sky, and maples, elms, oaks, and junipers were spaced out neatly at the sides. Everything seemed organized and orderly; even the horses stopped nickering, as if awed by a silent code of obedience.
Two streets ran parallel to my left. On the far side, people ambled to exit the city, while the middle lane was unoccupied. Soon, a group of horsemen in hats and boots trotted along that street. At first I thought they were the Emperor's guards, but when they drew closer, I realized they were noblemen. They were better dressed than anyone in my hometown, their hats thick with stripes of fur, their silk sleeves dropping low to their boots. In Wenshui, everyone greeted me on the street, but these people passed us as if we did not exist.
"Where is the palace?" I asked Mother.
"Look over there. See that red wall? That's the palace wall," Mother said, her arms around my sisters. Big Sister was sleeping, but Little Sister, who was born with a weak heart, moaned deliriously. She had fallen sick during the journey.
I stroked her shoulder to soothe her, and when she calmed down, I moved closer to the window. The vermilion gates, studded with bronze balls, were tall and wide, but I was not impressed. They looked similar to our own front gates, but as the carriage moved along, I realized how enormous the palace entrance really was, and it did not have just one, but three entrances — left, middle, and right. The middle one, reserved only for the Emperor and the late Empress — I remembered what Father had told me — was the grandest. It had one arched bridge in the front; two prancing stone kylins, the mythical unicorns; and two watchtowers standing on the top of the wall like pavilions floating in the air.
Father had said that the palace contained 9,999 rooms, an auspicious number to suggest the longevity of the kingdom. Each room was covered with marble, and each pillar was carved with dragons and inlaid with jade and ruby. Day and night, the chambers were filled with the sound of lutes and zithers, and the palace women often sauntered about in rainbow-colored gauze robes adorned with perfumed girdles.
And Emperor Taizong, for whom all the melodies were sung, for whom all the buildings were built ... I wondered if he had received Father's petitions. Would he summon me? If he wanted, he could find me easily, since the city kept strict records of who entered the ward and who lived with their kin.
We finally arrived at Qing's house, a small building of packed mud with a thatched roof. The moment he saw us, he asked for Mother's coin pouch and our jewelry. That, I knew, was the only reason he was allowing us to stay.
That night, we shared a bamboo mat in a small room with Qing's two concubines and eight children. I hardly slept. Before dawn, a tattoo of drumbeats rose, the opening signal of the neighboring Western Market. I dressed and left Qing's house quietly. I wanted to see the palace. I would not be able to enter, but perhaps by some luck I would see Emperor Taizong, and with Father's contribution to Emperor Gaozu and the dynasty, surely Emperor Taizong would grant my wish and return our house to us.
Outside Qing's ward, the noise from the market echoed through the thick morning fog like thunder. I paused, shocked to see so many people around me. Vendors chased customers with flaccid quail, rabbits, and pit vipers flapping against their shoulders. Merchants dug their feet into the packed earth and pushed carts laden with bolts of silk. The fortune-tellers paced around, bamboo cards in hands and clouds of coppery dirt at their heels.
I pushed through the crowd and arrived at the Heavenly Street that extended all the way to the palace's front gates. An army of palace guards stood there, checking a throng of ministers holding emblems of a fish: the palace's admission token. Only those bearing the token were permitted to enter the palace. There was no sign of the Emperor.
Disappointed, I turned around and walked back to Qing's house.
* * *
Living in Chang'an, I heard rumors about the palace all the time. People said the Emperor would summon fifteen maidens, the Selects, to serve him in the Inner Court that year, and the priority would be given to the high-ranking nobles' daughters. My father, a governor, had been of high rank.
I hoped the Emperor would summon me; it was the only way to meet him. And life in Qing's household was miserable. He was poorer than any of my father's servants. Many days went by without food, and if I was lucky, I ate the burned rice crisp scraped from the bottom of the pot. Big Sister was forced to marry a low merchant in the south so she would not burden us, and Little Sister grew sicker. I made some pickled cabbages and sold them at the market to get her medicine money.
Excerpted from The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel. Copyright © 2016 Weina Dai Randel. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I could not put this book down! I loved every word of it!
Exceptional book. Although it is dark in some places, I believe it depicts the harsh reality of the that life and time. Could not put it down and will now buy Book 2
It is important that I review these two books together as the full story of Empress Wu cannot be told without them being read one after the other. There is no other way to describe these two books, but to say they are sensational. Truly, I cannot stop raving about them. In Book 1, The Moon in the Palace, we are introduced to a young, intelligent young woman named Mei from humble beginnings who is swept into the emperor's court as a concubine. There she must weave her way through a a maze of treachery by other concubines who are equally struggling to claw their way to the top. There is danger, betrayal, enduring love, and plenty of intrigue and unusual circumstances around every corner, on every page. Book 1 hooked me with a powerful grip at the start and kept me engrossed until the fabulous ending. The best part is that I was thrilled that the story continued in Book 2, The Empress of Bright Moon. Beautifully described surroundings, fashions, and every day items add to the enchantment, bringing to vibrant life the Chinese court of the Tang Dynasty. These two books have become some of my very favourite books, along with the author. I will be eagerly awaiting future releases. These are definitely 5 star reads! Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for visiting my blog, http://greathistoricals.blogspot.ca, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit http://www.historyandwomen.com.
History, drama, suspense, love. You can't help but be charmed from beginning to end.