From chapter 1:


Some say the newborn’s first cry was so loud it summoned the Lord the Dead and his demons from the Netherworld. Others say it called the ancient Starlord Hung Wu down from Heaven to help the kingdom of Han in its hour of need. From the moment Prince Zong first announced his arrival, the moon rocked in the sky and nothing was ever the same in the province of Shandong.

The Prince’s howl floated up from the Emperor’s private chambers, echoing through the palace halls until it reached the Tower of the Water Clock. There it set off a blare of trumpets, a beating of valves, a shimmering of bells, and a precipitous spinning of gears. The clock’s twelve animal automata began to move all at once, and the sapphire eyes in the head of the monkey rolled from left to right three times.

In his eagerness to view the baby boy, the Emperor signaled his circle of twelve worried counselors to clear the servants from the birthing room. The stubborn nurse would not relinquish her charge for the traditional viewing. She glared daggers at the guards, and insisted that the infant’s first meal was more important than his first meeting with his father. In the headlong rush of events, no one had time to reprimand her.

Clasped firmly in his nurse’s arms, Emperor Han’s firstborn, only minutes old, drank his fill before calmly studying his father with bright eyes. Han saw that the boy was handsome, with a thick cloud of black hair that framed his well-shaped head. He breathed a sigh of relief and felt his fatigue creep back. The long sleepless vigil had taken its toll. His ceremonial robes weighed heavily upon his shoulders and his tasseled cap pressed into his skull, giving him a headache. He signaled his desire to withdraw and turned away but something in the nurse’s protective stance as she cradled the infant set off an alarm bell in his mind and he turned back to take one last look.

At that moment, the cooing of an amorous pair of turtle doves rose in the garden and the infant turned his head. Emperor Han fell back, pale as a ghost. Emblazoned on the Prince’s left cheek was a tiny ink-black birthmark, an exact replica of the sign of the Qin. It looked as if it had been burned into the baby’s face like the brands on condemned criminals in Han’s prisons below. The outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh, the gang most defiant of the Emperor’s authority, identified themselves with this symbol. The Emperor’s own flesh and blood had been born with the mark of the outlaw!

Beside himself with shame, the Emperor roared an order for Silver Lotus, the child’s mother, to be brought before him. Torn from her bed, where she had been resting after the labor of childbirth, she was forced to kneel in the courtyard like a common thief. The Emperor sentenced her to be stripped of all her worldly possessions and banished. By sunrise, she would be gone from his sight forever, or be executed.

The lady’s attendants wailed, tearing their hair and ripping their clothes, mourning the fate of their mistress. Their cries incited the servants and workers. Many in the gathered mob of cooks and kitchen helpers, sweepers and smiths, gardeners and artisans had withstood severe beatings and worse in this very courtyard. The gentle Silver Lotus, the one they called Sacred Mother, had brought them all comfort and charity.

The crowd pushed forward toward the guards. “Sacred Mother,” they intoned, and ironically, “Fortunate Mother.” Some gave her the title that would now never be bestowed upon her: “Venerable Mother.” Silver Lotus ignored the moaning and the lamentations. She rose and with steady hands removed her outer robes, letting them drop to the cold flagstones.

A shocked hush fell over the spectators. The Emperor watched her. For a moment time froze as their eyes locked. Her maidservants rushed to her aid, but she waved them aside, asking in a clear voice for the simple clothes she had worn when she first came to the Forbidden City. Still the Emperor watched as the First Consort, mother of his only child, removed the red-and-gold garments of rank, layer by layer, and let them blow away in the icy winter wind like burnt paper cutouts at the Festival of the Dead.

Silver Lotus stood shivering in her yellow slip. She put on the dress she had brought from home four long years before, lovingly stitched by her own mother’s hand, a poor farmer’s attempt to simulate the splendor of the court. She stood there erect and proud, refusing to bow her head or lower her eyes. At last, it was Emperor Han who lowered his, disappearing into a circle of soldiers who ushered him rapidly out of sight.

The youngest of the palace maids stepped forward and offered Silver Lotus her arm. The new mother smiled gratefully and allowed herself to lean upon it. She called for her dulcimer. With great care, she wrapped the instrument in its silken sack and slung it across her back.

In the last year she had grown to hate the Emperor with a passion as strong as the love she bore her new son. To be free of her nightly visits to his bed was a blessing she had prayed to deserve but the granting of her wish seemed to carry with it a death sentence. Her own father had long ago abandoned her and what remained of her family had been dispersed by flood and famine. Without a home, she had no faith she would survive in the world outside the Forbidden City.

The Prince wailed inconsolably in his nurse’s arms. Pulling away from the guards, Silver Lotus ran to him and leaning down, touched her lips to his birthmark, covering with a kiss the sign of the Qin. Her last piece of jewelry, a heavy locket stamped with the sign of the imperial phoenix dangled before the child’s eyes. He reached up to play with it. His mother took the necklace from around her neck and slipped it over the prince’s head so that the phoenix rested on his chest, over his heart where it shone like a golden shield. 

“Remember that I love you,” she whispered. “One day, you will rule and truth and justice will reign supreme. Good-bye my little Starlord.”

Go back to the book