To Light a Lantern
Father used to joke that I had the beauty of a noble lady but the ambitions of a young man.
Midway through the Emperor’s 40th birthday banquet, a timid eunuch will enter Qilin Pavilion to announce the arrival of the Empress. Music and dancing will pause, and concubines will sigh, but instead of the Empress’s elaborate phoenix hairpiece and decadent yellow robe, another eunuch will appear, bearing an unassuming box wrapped in brown parchment paper. The eunuch will declare the box to be a special present from the Empress.
Merry from sorghum wine, honey-braised bear paw, and the lively thrumming of the pipa players, the Emperor will wave the eunuch towards the dais. Another present from the Empress? An unexpected surprise, but a likely one given his beloved’s attentive and considerate nature. He’ll see the words “No Longer” written in delicate calligraphy. The parchment paper will be torn to reveal a medium-sized jewelry box, about one ruler in both width and length.
The box will open to reveal a severed head. My head. My parting gift to the Emperor.
I ducked into the shadows behind the southern palace wall as the sound of clanging metal and heavy footfall approached. I had changed into the garb of a palace maid, plain and indistinct, but it didn’t hurt to be too careful. The Emperor had earned the nickname “Ten Thousand Eyes and Ears” for a reason.
My heart pounded as I waited for the patrolling guard to pass, but I soon discovered that my caution was unwarranted. The guards reeked of strong liquor, their speech garbled and form sloppy, as they took full advantage of the banquet that had whisked their superiors to the Emperor’s personal quarters. Had the Northern lands not been vanquished in the last great war, the palace would surely have been captured by invaders tonight.
But tonight was not about invasion. It was about escape.
The red doors of the Southern gate loomed ahead, and careful to stay in the shadows, I pushed on towards freedom.
The first time I stood before those towering red gates, I was not the Empress of Han, but the ordinary daughter of an artisan family. My father was a lantern maker, and his whimsical creations had garnered him some fame in the city of Chang’an – enough to earn an invite to the palace’s annual Lantern Festival banquet.
The day before the banquet, I'd begged my father to sneak me into the palace. Ever since I could remember, I had loved watching my father craft lanterns. Each one was like a magical little being – the bamboo frame was the skeleton, the silk layer was the body, and the candle inside was the flame that gave it life. Despite his best efforts to keep me out of his workshop, I had eventually begun working alongside him, mesmerized by the process of creating life from paper and silk.
Now our dancing rabbits and roaring dragons were adorning the palace halls, and I couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing them with my own eyes. And so, I had wheedled and pleaded until my poor father gave in. We bribed one of the palace guards and slipped in through the servants’ entrance by the Royal Garden.
It was a mistake that would alter the lives of everyone I loved.
As soon as we stepped foot into the garden, the Emperor himself emerged from behind the maze-like hedges. No imperial entourage – just him and his personal servant out for an afternoon stroll.
My father used to joke that I had the beauty of a noble lady but the ambitions of a young man. I wanted to become the greatest lantern maker in Chang’an, not a child-bearing concubine confined to the Inner Palace. So as we fell to our knees in a deep bow, I lowered my head and prayed that the Emperor would not take notice.
He appeared to be deep in conversation with his eunuch, and so we supposed we were simply passed off as some noble official’s unassuming relatives. My father and I went home immediately after; all thoughts of lanterns had dissipated.
Alas, if only the story could have ended there.
The next day, my father returned home from the Lantern Festival banquet flustered and frightened. During the feast, Father had been called to the forefront of the great hall for a toast from the Emperor for his artistic contributions. The Emperor had inquired about “his lovely daughter” who looked to be of a marriageable age.
Fearing that I would be arranged with some unknown palace official, Father had replied that his daughter was already betrothed, and that an upstanding Han citizen must honor his words. The Emperor had looked amused but said no more. Father paced the courtyard anxiously as he recounted the night. What did it all mean?
It didn’t take long for us to find out. A few days later, we were visited by a palace eunuch bearing a suspicious brown box with the note “No Longer.” Inside was the head of my betrothed. The waxen countenance and drooped features reminded me of Father’s candles melting in the heat of the flame. Along with the box came an Imperial Edict – I was to enter the palace as a consort.
Life as I knew it ended that night. I embraced my mother and father farewell while the eunuch waited impatiently with the carriage. Through her tears, Mother whispered that a woman does not always get to choose who she loves, but she must learn to love anyways.
I never learned to love the Emperor, but I learned a great many other things.
As I walked through the unguarded Southern gate, I paused momentarily to look back at the palace. The gilded roof of Qilin Pavilion was visible even at night, and I imagined the Emperor sitting on his throne, the seat beside him empty.
I turned my back to the wall and continued walking.
It was almost funny to think that I was now the farthest away I’d ever been from the Emperor, when all these years, I had sought to draw as close to him as possible. To gain his trust. To make myself indispensable.
When I first entered the palace, I was a frightened girl filled with rage and bitterness. I believed vengeance meant murdering the Emperor, even if it meant death or imprisonment for myself. I had opportunities – poisoned wine, a dagger in the middle of the night, the usual methods – but it never seemed right. His suffering would be quickly over in death while mine would continue.
No – I wanted him to feel the prolonged and torturous pain of entrapment, the same things that I daily felt. I decided that real vengeance would require a deeper understanding of the Emperor.
I spent two decades in the palace, studying the man that our nation revered as a god. Learning, studying – his habits, his fears, and his shortcomings. And almost unintentionally, I began to rise the ranks of the Inner Palace.
I learned that the Emperor was a paranoid man. He suspected everyone and everything, particularly the ingratiating behavior of concubines and officials. In his eyes, they wanted favor to gain influence, influence to gain power, and – worst of all – power to gain the throne.
I was different. I did not seek his attention or affection as others did, and somehow, that made him trust me more. Or rather, it made me the only one he ever trusted. The night I came to this realization was the night I found the poison, the dagger, that I had been looking for.
The Emperor had just banished his previous Empress to the Cold Palace, for “treasonous intent.” I suspected it had something to do with her father, a general in the Imperial Army. Already, there was talk amongst the other consorts on who would be chosen as the next Empress.
The Emperor was in a foul mood when he entered my chambers, ranting about Consort Liu, Lady Meng, and their doleful whining.
“Have they no respect? The Empress is hardly deposed and they are already trying to climb on top of each others’ head,” he had fumed.
“Sit, I’ve made tea,” I said as I handed him a porcelain cup. “The Emperor does not expend his health and vigor on the petty affairs of the Inner Palace. Let them fight. Ultimately, you will pick based on your heart.”
“And their fathers! Those scholar-officials think they can tell me how to run the Inner Palace? They’re trying to climb on top of my head!”
He had studied me then. “But not you… Your family has no power, no status. You don’t care for the throne – you’ve probably never even considered becoming the Empress.”
“I care only that Your Highness trusts and loves me.”
“My love, you are the only one I trust! The only one I can trust!” He had declared. “I will name you the next Empress, and you will be seated beside me for life.”
He looked at me again. “I hope you don’t begrudge me for my, ah, my methods of bringing you to the palace.”
I reached for his hand and squeezed. “No, Your Highness, never. You changed my life from the moment we met in the garden.”
He had smiled, clearly pleased. “I knew a woman of your beauty could not settle for a mediocre life with a lowly merchant. I’ll take that as acceptance of my offer then, Empress.”
I learned that the Emperor was a paranoid man, yet a prideful man. He suspected everything and everyone, but he never doubted himself. Once he made up his mind about someone, he was too stubborn to change it. As for me, he was right – a mediocre life I did not want. But a free life I did.
He may have had ten thousand eyes and ears, but alas, only one mind.
A ceiling of stars followed me through the quiet streets of Chang’an. I stopped outside a decrepit family manor. A wooden banner hung lopsided above the swinging doors. The Fang Residence.
I had come to pay my final respects to my betrothed. My mother had written to me that the rest of his family was murdered shortly after for spreading “false rumors.” His body, minus the head, was buried with his family.
There was an unmarked mound in the center of the courtyard. Tears flowed freely as I knelt into a deep bow. I’m sorry it took so long... but the man who did this… he will suffer. Not in death, but for life. Let your spirits rest.
By now, the Emperor should have received his surprise birthday present. He would have opened the box to reveal a perfect wax replica of my head. Cheeks, bloodless; eyes, lifeless. It had taken me months to create a realistic enough figure, months to persuade the Emperor’s personal eunuch to present the box, and months to plan my final escape.
From the night that the Emperor made me Empress, I knew that the most excruciating pain would come in the form of betrayal. Not betrayal from someone he anticipated, but betrayal from the one person he trusted and loved.
I reached into my sleeve and brought out a small knife. My long braid came off in one clean stroke. I laid the hair beside the mound and bowed one last time. Mother was wrong – I chose who I loved, and nothing could change my heart.
The sky outside the palace wall was endless. I took a deep breath and stepped back onto the road with the rising sun.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
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