The Cold Palace
The first image to cross my mind was that of my brother as a child, weeping over the vat of boiling silkworms. All the memories of our life together come flooding across my consciousness, and there I could see us tending to the silkworms, keeping moonlit vigils in the garden, offering prayers in the ancestors’ shrine before the mortuary tablet of our mother. I could see him walking away that terrible spring day, armor-laden and helmeted, moving ponderously towards the village recruitment office. I imagined him posted at any one of those garrisons—Kucha, Karasahr, Kashgar, Khotan—looking out at the dunes of the Taklamakan Desert from atop a high rampart, only to fall into the sands below, a Tibetan arrow through his throat.
He was still alive. This I knew by the same inexplicable sense with which I read the silkworms’ messages, but he was several thousand li away, unreachable by my voice or even my letters. What other way could I possibly warn him?
I rushed from the workshops to the Institute of Letters, gathering up brush and paper and inkstone before settling at a low table to write. By then I had become proficient in my letters under the guidance of the eunuch scholars, developing a tenuous grasp of the most common characters, and my calligraphy, though unsightly, was finally what could be deemed “legible.” Poetry, however, was an altogether different matter. Though, I attended all the literary lectures and devoured the works of all the master poets, the craft itself eluded my brush wherever it hovered. It would be another ten years before I acquired the wit to match that of the other court ladies, improvising verses on a moonlit whim over a few too many cups of wine.
Still, I made a feeble attempt, hiding my warning beneath layers of image and allegory like a hair in the grass, unnoticeable upon a passing glance.. Drawing my sleeve aside, I wrote out the following words:
Four eggs gleam in the light of the setting sun,
Catching the mountain lion’s roving eye.
The dragon’s back is turned.
The phoenix has abandoned her nest.
Who will save such precious jewels from their devouring?
As soon as the ink was dry, I cut the silk from the loom and wound it on a bolt, slipping the poem between the folds of cloth. Then, I gave it to a eunuch to be delivered directly to the Empress’ chambers. Even at that moment, I knew this might be a decision I would come to later regret. I had no idea how much.
Several weeks passed before a pair of guards burst into the workshop one mild afternoon, yanking me from where I perched at my loom and dragging me away. I stumbled to keep up with them, heart hammering, tripping over my own skirts as they pulled me through the Western gate and up a series of mountainous steps towards the Eastern Palace. My feet were bruised and bleeding by the time we reached the top, undefended by the insubstantial slippers I wore, but still I tripped after them. Soon they were dragging me through the labyrinthian halls, everything a blur of gold and crimson, many a startled servant leaping from our path. By the time they threw me to my knees, out of breath and trembling, I was too disoriented to tell where I was. It wasn’t until her voice broke over me, cold and hard as glass, that I realized who else was in the room.
“Is there something you would care to explain to me, Jiaying?”
I froze, not daring to look up as the hem of her heavy brocade robes came into view. Once again, my world was reduced to the cold tiled floor as I pressed my forehead to the ground. “Her Highness’ servant will explain whatever is asked of her,” I said with exaggerated obsequiousness. There was an agonizing moment of silence, followed by the susurration of skirts, the rustling of paper. Then, her shadow eclipsed me once more.
“This,” she hissed. “Explain this.”
Tentatively, I glanced up and saw exactly what I expected to see: my poem held by a snowy, delicately boned hand. I lowered my head back down. “It’s a poem, Your Highness.”
“I can see it’s a poem,” she snapped. “Explain what was meant by it.”
“It….” My words faded before they could pass my lips. I swallowed hard, willing my voice to reemerge. “It’s about the Four Garrisons, Your Highness.”
“Obviously,” she sneered, now pacing like a restless tigress. “Your metaphors are about as clumsy as your script. Was this meant as a criticism?”
Every muscle in my body turned to ice, trapping the air in my lungs. Criticism?
“Do you dare question His Majesty’s wisdom in foreign policy?”
Foolishly, I lifted my head, aghast. Those inkwell eyes smoldered down, burning coals in an ivory brazier. Slowly, I found my voice, my head already shaking. “N-no, Your Highness. That was not at all my intent.”
“Then, what is this?” The words sliced through me from the twinned blades of her lips. I winced.
“It is a forewarning, Your Highness.” I was pleading now, desperate to make her understand. “I fear the Tibetans will attempt to reclaim the Four Garrisons,”
She wheeled on me, her beautiful, dangerous countenance nearly to level with mine. “And what would you know of that?” she snarled. “You, an ignorant peasant who cannot even defend crops against a flood? Who are you to advise your sovereign on such matters?”
The sound of my heart filled my ears, the throb of blood against my skull making me dizzy. “I… I couldn’t say how I know, but I…” My words evaporated, mind suddenly blank as paper. How could I explain? How could I tell her how I knew so much about something I shouldn’t?
Even if I found a way, she didn’t find the patience to hear me out. She swung around, dismissing me with the turn of her back. “Fifty strokes with a thin rod,” I heard her say to the guards. “Lock her in the Cold Palace when you’re through.”
I thought my life had ended right there. Just as swiftly as she said the words, I was dragged away, and the sentence carried out. Fifty blows, even with a thin rod, took a painfully long time to administer, and by the time they were through, my throat was too raw to scream, my back too welted to feel the recurring blows. Afterwards, they threw me into a dungeon somewhere near the eunuch’s quarters, bleeding, broken, and throbbing all over. I began to wonder then if I was being punished for the transgressions of some former life, cursed with the knowledge of what was to come but entirely powerless to stop any of it.
As the name implied, my prison was cold, my wounds left undressed, my blouse torn open along the center back seam. The cell in which I dwelled was dank and stank of the contents of my own infrequently changed chamber pot. Once a day, I was brought burnt millet cakes or cold, gelatinous rice porridge, or sometimes, when the guards forgot, nothing at all. This was not a particularly comforting state of affairs, as it suggested only that they wished to keep me well enough to torture if needs be.
At night, I slept fitfully, dreaming of my brother, of an arching cascade of Tibetan arrows. Upon waking, I would hallucinate the sound of women’s screams, echoing through the corridors. In my delirium, I often imagined sobs coming from the two wine barrels outside my cell. Sometimes, I thought I even saw them jostle, moved by something within. All time and sense slipped away from me, day by day, until I could only pray for release from the anticipatory terror, from the perpetual nightmare that was my waking life.
Release eventually came, but not the way I expected.
One day, the cell door swung open and a pair of guards escorted me out. I thought it had finally happened. I was to be put to torture, beaten once again, and hopefully, this time it would kill me. Prisoners were known to die under torture, and I was prepared for it, eager for it, in fact. However it came to me, I was ready to embrace death with open arms, to be reunited with my mother and all my lost brothers and sisters. But I was not to be delivered unto death.
Instead, I was delivered to a bathhouse, ornately tiled, within the walls of the Eastern Palace. There, an army of maids received me and began stripping off my filthy rags. As they lowered me into the wooden basin, I burst into tears, feeling warmth for the first time in months as the water touched my skin. Afterwards, they wrapped me once more in soft silks, combed my hair into a topknot, and led me to another luxurious chamber.
It was more extravagant than any I had seen prior. Gold-limbed trees arched overhead, glittering with silver leaves and beads of jade dangling like raindrops. Gurgling fountains sprang up from the floor, cascading into overgrown basins of lilies and water weeds. From all around came the trilling of birds, fluttering within gilded cages, filling the room with their echoing songs. There, I sank to a cushion before a table laid with pork, pheasant, duck, chestnuts, melon, lycée, bowls of soup, cups of wine, and right across from me, was the Empress herself. She wore a smile, kind, almost apologetic, her hair adorned simply, her robes plain.
“Please,” she said, gesturing to the food. “Eat.”
But I could only stare at it blankly. My mouth watered at the aroma of roast meat, a delicacy I hadn’t tasted since arriving at Court, having only vegetarian options afforded to me as a sixth ranking lady. Still, protocol dictated that the Empress eat first, and having so recently left my cell, I was none too eager to return to it.
Comprehending this, the Empress took up her chopsticks and lifted a few delicate grains of rice to her mouth. Only then did I feel safe to fall upon the feast, shoveling greedy mouthfuls from my bowl with all the grace of a barbarian.
She watched me silently for a few moments, smiling despite my appalling display. When she finally deigned to speak, it was with words certain to curb my ravenous appetite. “My ministers wanted you executed, you know.”
Jaw frozen mid-mastication, I lifted my gaze to her shoulder, avoiding her eyes, but keeping her face well within my line of sight.
“They insisted that only a Tibetan spy could have known about an attack on Four Garrisons so far in advanced.”
I swallowed, taking a few deep breaths to steady my nerves. After all, she already had ample opportunity to torture me. Whatever was happening, whatever she wanted from me now, she thought it better gotten through sweetness than severity. “Do your ministers believe our Empress so foolish as to summon a spy to Court?” A bold statement. One that could easily be turned against me even in its attempt to malign my detractors. The darkening of her gaze confirmed just as much.
“Foolishness has nothing to do with it,” the Empress said cooly. “My generosity is often met with such treachery by overly ambitious courtiers.”
Chopsticks clenched in hand, I met her eyes in a momentary lapse of restraint. “Why would I tell you if I wished to betray you?” I demanded. “My father’s life is in your hands. My brother is a soldier for the Imperial army. Do you think I care so little for my family’s welfare?” Then, remembering myself, I unclenched my fists, horrified, and lowered my eyes back down.
But my outburst was met by an unfamiliar, lilting sound. Laughter. The Empress was laughing. “I asked myself the very same questions,” she said. “Which is how I concluded that you must not be a spy. Or at least not one skilled enough to be of any threat.” She leaned forward, cupping her cheek in her hand. “However, I believe my ministers are justified in their suspicions. You knew of the attack before anyone else, and the question still remains: How?”
Her gaze overtook me, sweeping me up like the river’s swiftness so that I could not pull from its current. I met her eyes again, knowing that every moment I looked was a moment closer to drowning and yet I couldn’t look away. My will disappeared beneath the rush.
“I don’t entirely know how,” I admitted. “I don’t know how to explain it…”
“Try,” she persisted. The dark pools of her eyes swallowed me up, an undertow pulling me deeper.
“Sometimes…” I hesitated, reluctant, but the words slipped through. “Sometimes I sense messages in the patterns of my weaving. And very often, they turn out to be true.” I had never spoken it aloud before, and even to me it sounded absurd.
“Messages?” She still hadn’t looked away. Nor had she reprimanded me for my own brazen stare.
I continued. “Usually they only pertain to the seasons, things that may affect planting or harvest, but I have also received messages of a more… personal nature.”
“‘Personal’ how?” She posed the question seriously, as if she might believe me.
“Issues that affect me or those I care about. Like my mother’s pregnancy,” I explained. “And now this.” I swallowed hard, comprehending more completely the full implications of our conversation, of why we were having it. “Your Highness…” I ventured to ask a question of my own: “Is that to say that the Tibetans were successful in taking the Four Garrisons?”
She paused, lowering her gaze, breaking whatever spell she had over me. “No,” she said. “Though they did attack Kucha, my garrison commanders were able to hold them off.”
“But… my brother,” I began tentatively. “Was he—”
“Your brother, Wei Yingjie? Yes, he was there. The military courier remarked upon him explicitly,” the Empress cut in.
My heart sank into the depths of my stomach. “And is he… well?”
Upon reading the distress in my features, she offered a smile. “Very well, actually,” she stated cheerfully. “He is to be honored with a promotion for defending a Buddhist monastery during the attack. He took an arrow to the leg, but is expected to make a full recovery.”
At that, well-spring of pride burst in my chest. Here I had thought that my brother’s kind and gentle nature would prove only a hindrance to his military service. Instead, it had earned him honors beyond whatever I could have imagined for him.
“That being said,” the Empress rose to her feet, gliding around the perimeter of the table, “I believe you are owed a promotion as well.”
I blinked up at her, dumbfounded. Just earlier this morning, I was waiting to be put to torture. Now my fortune was making another turn in the air. “A promotion, Your Highness?”
“Yes.” She sank down beside me, stroking a hand down the curve of my face and along my jaw. “You did well to inform me of the attack and have thus far only been rewarded with abuse and mistreatment. I wish to remedy that.”
Suddenly humbled, I felt an urge to bow, but she held my face too firmly to allow it. “Your Highness honors me too much,” I told her. “You were right to act with caution the way you did. I don’t begrudge you my time in the Cold Palace.” Every word of it was sincere. Just the slightest brush of her fingers on my skin, and I had already forgiven her everything. Her hand wandered down the nape of my neck, inducing a shiver.
“Then permit me to reward such grace with the title of Beauty: lady of the fourth degree.” She leaned in close, her heady perfume of cloves and orange blossom thick upon my every inhale. “And ask that you become one of my own personal attendants.”
Before I could give my answer, she pressed her lips against mine, and I was lost to her kiss.
Naran stroked Altan’s breast feathers where he perched upon her arm, eying her captive thoughtfully as she devoured what little was left of the marmot carcasses. The men were still at the fire, all drinking skins of kumiss now, a stupid thing to do while so far from home, but it at least kept them distracted. Watching Jiaying ravenously tear flesh from bone, she pondered her story thus far.
Being a shaman, she was already greatly familiar with some aspects of it. Reading patterns and understanding the spiritual significance of them was a major aspect of her calling. Usually this was done by reading the fissures in sheep bones after heating them upon a fire or watching the flight patterns of birds. Weaving, however, was a completely foreign art. The women of her tribe did not spin nor weave, rather, all their textiles were stolen from the backs of beasts, the backs of fallen enemies, the backs of silk-laden caravans. Still, she had no doubt that the spirits might speak through such a medium. Nor did she doubt that the spirits might choose such a woman to be their conduit. The Chinese had their own shamans, after all. She wondered only if Jiaying understood the significance of this, or better yet, if the Empress did.
“This Empress Xue…” she mused aloud. “Did she become your lover?”
Jiaying coughed, choking on her meat. “What?” Even by the meager glow of firelight, Naran could see her cheeks darkening.
“You seem particularly taken with her.” The shamaness grinned. “Do you think I’m unfamiliar with the sort of ‘mirror polishing’ women get up to when their men aren’t around?” Indeed, Naran knew better than most what happened. Drunk on kumiss, she had taken more than one giggling maiden back to her yurt on raucous summer evenings. Their families’ usually didn’t mind, hoping their daughters might be blessed by the encounter. Indeed, Naran made sure to bestow such blessings generously.
As if to punctuate her point, one of the men guffawed loudly by the fireside, startling Jaiying. She looked over at them nervously, then shifted her gaze to the ground. “I can’t say I know what you’re talking about…” she muttered.
“It would not be wise for someone in your position to lie to me.” Naran folded her arm. “I am the only one here who can speak on your behalf to the Khan.”
Jaiying eyes flickered up, then once more glanced towards the men. Lowering the loose assemblage of bones, she wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. “You must understand,” she said softly. “I thought it was only a dalliance. A curiosity. How could it be anything more? We were women. We both belonged to the Emperor. I did not think a single kiss would change anything. But as I said before, my nature often gets the better of me…”