What could I do? One does not say “no” to an invitation to speak with the Empress, not if one valued her own life. The option was to leave my home or die. I chose the former, knowing there as still much more I could do living than I could do otherwise. Therefore, after instructing my father as to where I kept the dried meat and pickled vegetables, we departed on our way.
The eunuch did not speak to me the entire two-day journey to the capital. He hardly even looked at me. Though I tentatively ventured a few questions regarding the reason behind the Empress’ request, he would not answer. Just sharing his carriage with me seemed a humiliation so degrading, he refused to acknowledge it. On occasions, he would hold a pouch of potpourri under his nose to insinuate that even my smell was offensive. I felt almost inclined to suggest that I go out and pull the carriage with the horses if my presence was so unwelcome, but I restrained myself, half-expecting that he would take me up on the offer.
However, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t just my smell that bothered him. As we traveled through the mist-veiled foothills, lush and terraced like jade stairways leading heavenwards, we saw corpses lining the road, rotten, bloated, writhing with maggots, not just men but women, children, beasts. The sickly, sweet odor of decay so filled our throats and noses that even I fought the urge to retch. Out in the distance, where the Yellow river cut between the hills like inlaid amber, one could see towering pyres, billowing with black smoke, lacing the air with the stench of burning flesh and hair. It struck me then, that for all our efforts to bend nature to our will, we were forever teetering at the edge of her mercy.
We stopped at an inn about a hundred li outside the capital, and much to my surprise, my silent traveling companion generously paid for my own room instead of forcing me to sleep outside in stables. He was also so kind as to buy me dinner, the first full meal I had eaten in months: a soup of noodles, pork, ginger, onions, radishes. All of it I devoured ravenously, a decision I l regretted later that night when most of it came back up.
We passed through the Yellow River plain the next day, its banks pushed so far beyond their usual boundaries that every wheat field and persimmon grove was swallowed by its flow. Of the farms we passed, most were left abandoned and half-drowned, their former inhabitants hobbling along the road, dirty, bedraggled, and emaciated. We arrived in Chang’an at sunset, the lush landscape giving way to myriad formations of rammed-earth walls, dark-shingled roofs, and upturned eaves, just before the drumbeats signaled the closing of the gates. Its crimson doors parting like an open maw, we entered the eastern gates, swallowed whole and penetrating through the vital viscera of the city.
Never before had I seen so many people in such an enclosed space. The thoroughfares, though broad, were clogged with carts and camels, palanquins and pedestrians, people of greater splendor and variety than I had ever imagined. Women glided in and out of shops, their hair elaborately adorned, their ruqun colorful and cut in the latest fashion. Men pushed their carts of produce towards the gate, hurrying home before the final drumbeat locked them within. Barbarian merchants—from Persia, from Samarkand—led camels through towards the inns and wineshops, wherever drink and pretty girls might be found. However, at our approach, the river of people parted, many bowing low to who ever required an entourage of palace guards. It was only here, swallowed up within the walls of the capital, that my escort deigned to address me.
“We will be arriving at the palace soon.” His voice, after two days of silence, struck my ears with a startling abruptness. “When Her Highness, Empress Xue, is ready to receive you, she will summon you for an audience.” He paused, awaiting confirmation of my attentiveness.
Once recovered from the shock of hearing his voice, I responded. “Yes, Your Excellency.”
“You are to wait outside the chamber until you are told to enter. Then, you are to kowtow three times and remain bowed until told otherwise. You will not speak unless spoken to. You will not look her in the eye. You will not leave until dismissed, and you will not turn your back when you leave. Is that understood?”
He leaned back in his seat, appraising me. With a smirk, he added. “Though Her Highness is uncommonly gracious towards girls of your…. standing, you would be wise not to try her magnanimity. Girls have been known to go missing from the Palace.”
My skin turned cold at the insinuation. He was doing me a courtesy, of course, preparing me for whatever lions’ den I was about to enter. Even as a peasant, even being so far removed from the Palace as a fish from the sky, I still heard the rumors, if not from this Dynasty, from those that came prior. Tales of intrigue and murder, abuse and scandal, cruel concubines and excessive emperors. For all the splendor that such a life may offer, there was all the more danger to fear.
It wasn’t much longer before we arrived at the gates of the Palace, the heart and life’s blood of the Empire. Across a long expanse was the largest structure I had ever seen, one story built atop another, a long series of red-shuttered windows staring out from the colonnades like a thousand eyes. At each corner were smaller structures of the same kind, connected by arched bridges like outstretched wings. As we approached, crossing a bridge over the canal and ascending a series of steps, I was overcome by a sense of foreboding as to exactly what was happening. I was being summoned before the most powerful woman in the Empire because of silk I had woven, and I couldn’t even begin to understand what this could mean. Though I was not unskilled as a weaver, I could only imagine that the Palace already had all the best artisans at its disposal. What could it want with a nameless peasant girl from Tongzhou?
It seemed that I was not the only one with this question. After slipping in through a side entrance, we were immediately greeted by a woman in a long silk ruqun, hair gracefully coifed, sheer pibo draped across her arms. She bowed to my escort, but upon noticing me, she sidled up, speaking in harsh whispers.
“Chief Eunuch,” she said, “Is this another one? How many of these beggars does she plan on bringing into the Palace?”
The Chief Eunuch didn’t acknowledge her question, but took advantage of an opportunity to finally be rid of me. “Lady Liu. Please be so kind as to take Miss Wei Jiaying to the bathing quarters and make her presentable for Her Highness’ reception.”
And with that, I was abandoned to the mercies of Lady Liu, of which I found she had none.
“Good gracious,” she complained, scrubbing viciously at my louse-bitten flesh. “Have you ever bathed in your life?”
Any number of snide retorts rose meet my lips, but I bit them back, remembering what the eunuch had said. Until I found out why I was called here and what it would take to get out alive, I had to lay low. Better to play the dull, slow-witted peasant they expected.
Lady Liu continued her torments, seating me naked on a stool as she tore a comb through my hair and wrapped it around wooden supports, testing the strength of my scalp with each tug. Cosmetics were applied, then scents, then finally I was tied into a silk ruqun to match her own. I had never worn silk in my life—no woman of my status had any business wearing it—but the moment I felt it against my flesh, I understood why its secrets had been so covetously guarded for so many years, why its worth was such that it was traded like gold or coppers. It was so light on my skin, like spun water, like woven clouds, I might have been naked. Indeed, I never felt so naked as I did being lead to the audience chamber, where I was to meet my Empress.
Lady Liu stopped outside a rounded portal, its silk screen painted with the emblem of a Phoenix, and room aglow beyond its lattices, I could barely make out the outline of a seated figure. A wave of dizziness washed over me, leaving my legs so weak and trembling, that when the doors finally opened, it was a relief to fall to my knees.
“Wei Jiaying, Your Highness,” I heard Lady Liu say next to me. “The weaver whose presence you requested.”
The sound of pipa music met my ears, but otherwise, all was silent. The sweat on my brow felt slick against the floor, blood rushing to from my pounding heart to my head. I heard the sound of rustling, then the voice of a woman, as smooth and cool as porcelain. “You may rise.”
Rising up to a kneeling position, I lifted my gaze just enough to catch a glimpse of my Empress. To say she was beautiful would have been diminishing, insulting even. Her visage was such that only poets could find the right words to describe it, cheekbones high and prominent, brows the shape of moth’s wings, a crimson snowflake painted on her forehead. The wells of her eyes were deep and striking as ink on paper, her hair the blue-black of a moonless night. Floral ornaments of kingfisher feathers climbed the high coif of her hair like a trellis, her body likewise adorned in silver-embroidered silks, pearls, coral, jade, all of which could have fed my village for a lifetime. There had been no reason to give me any instruction; just the sight of her alone would have leveled me.
She was seated at the top of a high dais, upon a throne set into the shape of a sleeping tiger. Rows of female attendants flanked either side of her each step down the dais, some playing instruments, some holding bottles of wine, towels, bronze mirrors, each one beautiful, but plainer than sparrows by comparison. One of them handed a folded cloth to the Empress who then rose to her feet. I lowered my gaze to the floor.
Her ornaments tinkled with each movement, the susurration of skirts whispering against the floor as she descended each step. In only a few graceful strides, she was in front of me, her eyes boring into my skin like knives.
“So young…” she mused. “I would not have expected someone so young. Are you really the one who has done the weaving for your household these past ten years?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” I had to force the words past my lips. “I was six years old when my mother started me at the loom.”
“Six years old?” The Empress’ tone rang incredulous. “And your mother would send your silk to pay the summer tax?”
I swallowed hard, the fabric of my blouse now clinging to the sweat on my back. I reminded myself that my mother was already dead. No punishment could befall her should the Empress take offense. My father, however… “Yes, Highness,” I answered. “Once she found the quality of my cloth to be… adequate, she saw no reason not to send it. She knew I was fond of the work.”
The Empress fell momentarily silent, and I became acutely aware that the pipa music was no longer playing. “Why is it then,” she said, voice low and cold, “that the quality of your work has so declined over the last few years?”
Another silence but for the pounding in my chest. “I… I’m not sure…” The words dried up in my mouth.
The Empress continued, “For years, your household would send silk of the most exquisite design. I expressly requested that the Minister of Revenue hold it aside for my own uses.” She began pacing in front of me, skirts grazing my knees. “Even my own weavers couldn’t replicate the patterns, and look…” She raised the skirt closer to my face so I could see, set between each pleat, my own woven jacquard sewn in long strips. “My tailors have found endless uses for it. So why,” she brought herself to tower over me once more, “has it suddenly become so plain?”
For a moment I remained frozen, speechless. It never occurred to me that my work might be of any sort of quality. After all, the patterns emerged through no skill or expertise of my own. It was the silkworms that guided my hands, the silkworms that whispered to me through that secret medium only I could discern. If the designs were beautiful, it was only because I knew how to listen to them.
Remembering myself, I fell into full kowtow once more, my head very near to her satin embroidered slippers. “Please forgive me, Your Highness,” I begged, my voice now shaking. I chose my next words carefully, knowing full well that my brother, my father, all of us could all die for whatever displeasure I brought this woman. “My mother died in childbirth a few years back. I was in mourning for her. I feared that such… extravagance in my work might be a violation of the due observances.”
I prayed that she might find this excuse acceptable. After all, law dictated that a child must give up all forms of pleasure on the occasion of a parent’s death, and I had just admitted to enjoying the work. If she was a reasonable woman, she would see the shift in my work as an act of filial piety, not negligence or malcontent. But one could not always count on royalty to be reasonable.
After another long pause, the Empress’ skirts pooled around me as she bent to my level. At the feeling of her hands cupping my face, my heart beat wildly like a caged bird against my ribs. Slowly, she raised me from my kowtow and up to my feet. I tried to keep my eyes low all the while, but her hands held my face steady, tilting it up. I focused on her petal shaped mouth so that I would not look directly in her eyes, still, just the touch of her hands, the scent of her perfume, the very nearness of her set an ache in me I could neither name nor understand.
Her eyes scanned my face, as if searching for something, then her perfect mouth curled into a smile. “You’re not much to look at,” she said, “but I think you’ll do.”
Releasing my face, she turned and ascended back up the dais. As if on cue, the pipa music resumed.
“Wei Jiaying,” she stated decisively, settling back onto her throne, “If you are truly the one responsible for such beautiful designs, I would have you remain here at the Palace to weave silk for the Imperial Court.”
Again, I was stunned into momentary dumbness before bowing once more. “You do me a great honor, Your Highness. Truly, I am humbled by such an opportunity to serve you.” That, of course, should have been the end of my statement. The Empress told me I was to weave silk for her at the Palace, which would have settled the matter for anyone else. But as my mother used to tell me, I could be willful to the point of insolence. “However… I fear for my father. Our village has been plagued by famine since the recent floods, and with my brother away at war, I am the only one able to help him.”
The pipa music faltered, many of the attendants now turning their heads. My gaze was still low, but even without looking, I knew the Empress’ eyes were fixed on me. After a long pause, she said, “The granaries have been opened to relieve the burden of the famine.” Her voice was cool, flat. “And your father will be exempt from taxes this autumn to make up for his losses.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” I said. “And my family is eternally grateful to His Majesty for such mercy and wisdom. However…” There was that word again. “My father has been in poor health since my mother died, and cannot maintain the farm on his own. I fear the worst should he be left to fend for himself.”
She would have been well within her rights to have me executed, or at the very least, beaten, thrown out, and forced to walk the two hundred li back home. I waited for the crimson curve of her lips to put such a seal on my fate. Much to my surprise and that of everyone in the room, she didn’t.
“You are a good daughter, Wei Jiaying,” said the Empress. “I will see to it that your father is cared for so long as you remain in the Palace.”
Relief flooded my veins like liquor. Finding my legs weakened once more, I fell to my knees and bowed low. “Thank you, Your Highness.” When I rose back up, I was met once more by the radiance of her smile.
“Xiaoli,” she said. The woman with the pipa stopped playing and regarded her mistress. “Show your newest sister to the Flank Court and help her get settled. I’m sure she must be weary from her travels.”