Read a full summary of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao. This page is full of spoilers, so beware! If you are wondering what happened in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, the first book in this series, then you are in the right place!
Julie C. Dao
Rise of the Empress series
#1 Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
#2 Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****
What happened in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns?
Eighteen year old Xifeng has been raised by her Aunt Guma after her mother committed suicide because of her pregnancy out of wedlock. She doesn’t know who her father is. Her aunt is cruel to her but knows Xifeng’s beautiful face will get her somewhere in life and shows signs of caring every once in a while. Her aunt reads tarot cards. Xifeng’s continually show a sacrifice she must make and an eventual ascension to empress.
Xifeng is involved with Wei, a young man all girls love. Xifeng sees Wei fencing and notices Ning (Guma’s servant) watching him. Xifeng falls into a vision in which the girl is killed. When she wakes, Wei is by her side. He tells her he loves her. She doesn’t return his words even though she feels them. She’s afraid he’s the thing she’ll have to eventually sacrifice. He notices the marks where Guma beat her. He asks her to run away with him again. This time she agrees.
Xifeng tells Guma she’s running away with Wei. Guma says the tarot cards are finally beginning to play out. Guma wants to go with them. Xifeng refuses. They fight. Xifeng strikes Guma. Guma hits back and leaves a mark on her face.
Xifeng and Wei leave. They come upon a group of Kimatsu soldiers also traveling to the emperor and join up with them. Wei asserts his ownership of Xifeng as one man has eyes for her.
Xifeng wakes before anyone and sees her reflection in the water. She sneaks away to trap a rabbit and drink its blood as Guma taught her to quickly heal her wound.
Wei is not happy when he hears she hunted. He knows it used to bother her to kill for Guma. He wants to do that for her and is confused about her lack of emotion on the subject and about why her face is healed.
They continue their journey with the soldiers telling tales of the fiercest fighters in all the land, a troupe of fierce women who paint their lips red when they battle.
Xifeng is relieved to find that Wei has forgiven her as they ride together. She sees monks in a mirror at a stand of wares in a town they stop at. She remembers these monks from a dream at the campsite.
They are ambushed after they leave this town. Several of their number die. They are rescued by the Tengaru, animal warriors who look like horses, large cats, and humans combined. They want to take them before their queen to answer for bringing violence into their forest.
They testify before the queen. She talks of many generations of war and what it has done to the once peaceful kingdom. The queen says this has everything to do with Xifeng. She doesn’t explain any further. She allows them to stay one night in the safety of her realm.
They learn about Shiro’s family and how hard he had to work to get to his position: answering directly to the king.
Xifeng goes to the pond to wash her face while everyone else sleeps. The queen tells her she has two beings inside her, one dark and one light. She says it will be a dark path to get to empress. It’s her choice, not a foregone conclusion. It’s predicted either Xifeng or another girl will save them all.
Xifeng wants to be queen so she can make her own decisions. She would do anything to have a greater purpose. Xifeng feels the good and bad warring within her. The queen says they’re both inside her and she has to choose. It will be a bitter struggle if the serpent king has anything to say about it. Guma got something from him and still hasn’t completed her payment. The price was her, Xifeng. The queen says if you pay the price of blood too much, you’re giving up part of yourself.
They leave the next morning. They eventually arrive at the capital, a huge, beautiful, bustling city.
The scythe that cut Shiro in the battle a couple days ago was laced with poison. His wound is infected. They take him to Akira, the nearest helaer. He’s near death, but she works on him. Akira says they can lodge there, but they have to earn their keep. Akira’s father is the palace healer. Xifeng hopes this is her way into the emperor’s court.
Wei and Xifeng discuss their future. She imagines a wonderful life with children who have loyal hearts like his. But she would have to give up glory for this future. She’s not sure she wants to. Wei wants to find work in the city to support her. Xifeng wants Wei to go to the castle to become a soldier as another possible in for her.
Xifeng, Wei, and Hideki walk around town. There’s a soldier recruitment going on. Xifeng knows Wei would do well competing among these men. Xifeng calls over the officer nearest her. He’s much younger than the other commanders, yet one of the older officers calls him ‘sir.’ The young commander questions Wei and can tell he knows a lot about swords. Wei does an impressive job fencing with the recruits.
Xifeng sees Akira and Shiro talking softly. Xifeng can tell feelings are beginning to blossom between them.
Wei practices with the recruits all week. They discover the young commander is the emperor’s oldest stepson. He grants Wei a position as a craftsman because of his swordmaking skills. Xifeng asks for Wei to be made a soldier instead. Crown Prince grants her request because of Wei’s skills. He didn’t realize this was Wei’s hope.
Wei proposes to Xifeng. She refuses. He’s furious. But he admits he knew she would refuse. Crown Prince asked her to join his court since she’s not married. Wei already told him she would.
Xifeng loves Wei, but it’s more important to her to accomplish her goal. Guma’s tarot card indicated Wei needs to be in her life. So she says they’ll always be a part of each other’s lives. She lures him to bed. He’s gone when she wakes up in the morning.
A eunuch named Kang leads Xifeng to the harem. The head eunuch questions her before she enters. She passes his test.
Xifeng finds favor with the empress because of her show of humility, her wise words, and her poetry recitation. She calls Xifeng to a private meeting. Xifeng plays on the queen’s sympathies because she’s long wanted a daughter. The empress feels Xifeng is destined to be with her ladies.
Xifeng is assigned to serve Lady Son, the emperor’s favorite concubine, and is called to her bathing chamber. Everything about the scene is to make her uncomfortable. Son gives Xifeng demeaning tasks.
Son talks of her power through the son she’s bore for the emperor. He’s fourth in line to the throne because of the empress’s three sons with her first husband. Xifeng realizes she and Son have the same goal and wonder if this is ‘the fool’ the tarot cards showed would become her greatest competition for the throne.
Kang warns Xifeng to be careful with Son. She once had him falsely accused of stealing and punished him for it because he wasn’t a suck up. Xifeng doesn’t want Son’s power to go unchecked forever.
Son has Xifeng out working in the garden alone in miserable weather. She falls through the soggy ground into one of the tunnels below the harem. She follows the path and staircase, which lead to a cavern with a hot spring. Xifeng bathes in the shallow pool. She observes her face and form in the waterfall of hot water. The monster inside her tells her she’s the fairest.
Xifeng finds a large map spread out on a table. A man comes out of the shadows to speak with her. This must be the emperor by the way he talks and holds himself. He’s different than she imagined, younger and elegant with amusement on his face. There’s a connection between them. He’s familiar even though they’ve never met, probably because they are destined to be together.
Son is furious Xifeng’s not bowing in the emperor‘s presence. Xifeng acts like she didn’t know who he was. Son attacks Xifeng, scraping the side of her face. Xifeng leaves the room as the emperor is consoling Son even though he appears exasperated.
Son accuses Xifeng of stealing a gold comb. She orders 100 lashes. After the first whip, Kang and the empress appear and rescue her. The empress pulls Xifeng from Son’s care.
The royal physician (Akira’s father) enters with a sleeping tonic for the empress. She insists he treat Xifeng first. He apologizes for being late as he was trying to get the new formula–one that’s safe during pregnancy–just right. Xifeng’s astonished. The empress tells Xifeng she’ll be assigned to her care now.
Xifeng tries to summon an image of Guma at the hot spring chamber. In the images in the incense, she sees herself about to slay Son. The voice inside tells her it’s the only way. Even the next morning she hears echoes of the monster in her mind.
Xifeng hears the legend of the moon festival among the ladies. They make fun of the newest concubine, Lady Meng, who seems unhappy. The emperor never visits her chambers. Meng favors Crown Prince instead.
Crown Prince brings a secret message from Wei. Xifeng asks if Wei will attend the soldier’s demonstration during the festival. He will. He’ll make sure Xifeng has permission from his mother to attend. Crown Prince confides much to her, including the story of his father’s death, the naming of a successor, and his own lack of want for the throne.
Xifeng shares she thinks Son has designs on his mother’s life. Son’s been collecting and hiding herbs in her quarters. Xifeng‘s twisting some facts for his benefit, but she hopes he’ll fill in the blanks, investigate the claims, and make a few wrong assumptions. He asks Xifeng to watch over his mother. Meng watches them talk from a garden below.
Kang finds Xifeng reading the note and guesses the author. He can arrange for them to meet secretly. Xifeng worries being caught alone with a man would jeopardize her position in court. Kang warns her the empress has treated many girls as daughters and not to read too much into it.
Xifeng finds the empress looking ill and downtrodden. She had a disturbing visit from Son and blames it on that. But she’s pale and not feeling well, just like Crown Prince. She wishes she was the only wife of a peasant and the mother of children tending her own house instead of empress. Xifeng turned that life with Wei down in favor of this one. Their relationship seems real, yet Xifeng knows the empress has to die for her to be able to assume the throne.
The empress goes away for three days to meditate and pray before the festival. She comes back looking healthier. The opening night of the feast, Xifeng sees the emperor her watching her with smiling eyes as she eats. Then she notices Shiro beside him.
Shiro comes over to talk. Xifeng’s so excited to see him. He and Akira were married just a week ago. Xifeng learns an old legend about a lord who overthrew the kingdom and possibly didn’t die. Legend has it he went below ground, slowly building an army to try to overthrow it again.
When they go out to watch the moon, the emperor appears beside Xifeng. She enjoys visiting with him and even makes him laugh once, drawing the attention of the empress and others. Son has been watching them the whole time.
A great crash occurs. Crown Prince knocked over a tray of wine headed for his mother because he thinks Son poisoned it. The emperor doesn’t like what his stepson’s indicating. He says the boy’s questioning his own integrity if he questions that of his concubine. He reprimands him and then restarts the party. But as he is leaving, the emperor quietly tells the eunuchs to search Son. Xifeng’s eyes meet Crown Prince’s before he leaves. Son notices.
Kang’s plan works, and soon Xifeng’s in Wei’s arms, hidden in the garden. They have one hour. They kiss and talk and are so excited to be back together. When Xifeng accidentally mentions Guma, they begin to fight. Wei’s afraid Guma’s words are still controlling Xifeng. They stop fighting because they want to enjoy their time together. They fill each other in on their time apart. Xifeng promises she’ll arrange another meeting soon.
Kang would like to journey into the city to enjoy the festivities, but the eunuchs won’t allow him. Xifeng will try to get permission from the empress to pay him back for helping her connect with Wei.
The emperor calls the court to witness his presentation of the empress’s birthday gift. He mentions how eloquently Xifeng put the reasoning behind the map being a suitable gift for the empress. The empress basically contains her surprise, but Xifeng can tell it bothers her. Xifeng can see the affection in the emperor’s eyes as he looks at her. She knows he thinks he could have her easily. She will only be his if she’s his equal.
Son’s jealous the emperor is giving the empress attention. She watches the scene about Xifeng unfold and watches Xifeng after she retreats back into the midst of the ladies. Kang finds Xifeng and warns her Son’s in the worst temper she’s been in in a long time.
Xifeng is summoned to Son’s room. Meng is also in the room. She accuses Xifeng of pursuing Crown Prince and witnessed him passing a love letter to her. Xifeng denies it and states that the letter was from her chaperone from her travel to the capital. Son accuses her of having a lover outside the palace. Xifeng denies it. Then Son calls Wei by name. She knows about their meeting. They will both be relieved of their positions. She already sent a letter to Wei’s commander to dismiss him from the army. She will have Xifeng dismissed as well.
Xifeng sees herself killing Son and eating her heart. When she surfaces from the vision, Son looks horrified at whatever look passed over Xifeng’s face. The monster’s voice erupts from Xifeng’s mouth. Son screams. Xifeng’s afraid letting the monster come out has ruined her chances.
Xifeng awakes from a nightmare and feels all her old facial wounds burning on her face. She sees blood on her pillow and hands and rushes to a mirror. All the wounds are open in her reflection. The lady she shares a room assures Xifeng nothing’s wrong with her face.
Xifeng rushes to the hot spring cave to contact Guma. Guma finally tells her the truth. Guma’s parents contacted a respected family and wanted her sister to marry their son. Guma was jealous of the relationship and her sister’s beauty. She made a deal with a mysterious man. He would slowly give her magical powers as he took little things from her. This the serpent king, the lord who retreated underground years ago.
With the help of the serpent king, Guma lured him to bed and got pregnant with his child. The man’s family renounced Guma’s. Soon her parents and sister passed away. The child Guma gave birth to was Xifeng. Guma was required to give the serpent king her baby. He’s been living inside of Xifeng the whole time.
He’s lured Son down to the cavern tonight so Xifeng can kill her. A hooded figure delivers Son and the letter sent to the general about Wei. Xifeng recognizes this man’s movements. She kills Son and eats her heart. Power and energy surge through her. A transformation has happened. Everyone speculates Son finally had enough and left the emperor.
Xifeng feels more radiant than ever before. She loves the power her enhanced beauty has over everyone but still has one obstacle standing in her way.
Everyone believes the emperor favors Xifeng now, yet he never comes to her. The empress finally calls Xifeng to her chambers. She talks of the child in her belly and tells her tales. One tale in particular is the story of the forest of the thousand lanterns and the two birds who are together for eternity now.
The empress mentions how Xifeng has found favor with the emperor. She asks if Xifeng’s interested in marriage. She only wants to marry a man as his equal. The empress welcomes her to stay in her employ if she truly doesn’t want to marry the emperor. The empress shocks her by pulling out a bag full of priceless gifts. The emperor has been sending them to Xifeng for weeks.
Xifeng is soon called to the emperor’s chambers. She dresses modestly but wears one of the beautiful combs he sent her. They discover they have similar humble backgrounds. Xifeng tries to sound engaging and intelligent with every response to hold his attention. She makes him laugh. There’s an attraction between them, something Xifeng hasn’t felt for anyone besides Wei. The emperor mentions the empress is his wife but not his lover.
The emperor begins calling for Xifeng every day. He involves her in political meetings, which she loves. One day, she speaks up when the men are talking about how to make more money on the silk trade. She proposes a brilliant if not a little cruel plan and impresses them all, the emperor most of all. He touches her for the first time by stroking her wrist under the table.
He takes her to every political meeting after that. She completely loses the empress’s affection. Xifeng’s roommate abruptly leaves. The eunuchs are nicer to her and include her in their parties. She always turns them down, mentioning that she’s going to spend time with Kang instead, to let them know where her loyalties lie.
Xifeng tries to tell herself Wei’s served his purpose, but her heart still hurts every morning when she thinks of him. Kang produces a scroll from Wei about another meeting. Wei doesn’t open his arms like last time. He’s headed north with the army but won’t return despite his general’s urgings. He thinks Xifeng’s been sharing a bed with the emperor and is through with her. She assures him she hasn’t and all her plans are to help him, too. It’s not enough for Wei. He believes she doesn’t have time to think of him with all her scheming. He’s done. He says she’s changed. He’s crying. Xifeng inwardly wonders what this will do to her fate since he’s been in her cards as something she would have to sacrifice for so long.
Xifeng watches the soldiers leave. Her eyes meet Wei’s only once. Shiro comes up beside her and tells her he’s going, too. Akira is pregnant but has had a rough pregnancy. Xifeng promises to have someone watch over her while he’s gone. Wei doesn’t look back as he rides away.
Xifeng is attack and stabbed. She doesn’t know who her assailant was until she wakes up. It was Meng. Xifeng rushes down to the cavern. She see someone over Meng’s body. It’s Kang, except it isn’t him. The body she knew Kang was a human form. He’s actually demon-like, a servant of the serpent king. He’s the man she saw in her dreams and in the marketplace.
He shows her a vision of Wei and tells her he’s riding to kill Guma as they speak. Xifeng realizes Wei will be her mortal enemy when he does this even though he thinks he’s doing it to rid Xifeng of evil influences. Kang asks Xifeng to consume Meng’s heart and continue to consume hearts to retain her beauty and power and serve the serpent king. She can live out her life of security and grow old and ugly, or she can live out her life beside the serpent king as his consort. She chooses the life she’s always believed was her destiny.
Back at the palace, they hear the empress wailing from her bedroom. She’s been slowly poisoned and is finally succumbing to its effects. The empress thinks Xifeng’s the one who’s been poisoning her. It actually was Kang, but no one suspects him. He suggests Son was the one doing it and this is why she ran away. Kang says Meng was in a drunken stupor, mutilated her face, and then drowned herself.
The emperor comes to check on Xifeng. He puts his arms around her for the first time. It feels strange to have someone besides Wei doing so. He says the empress’s oldest son is dead. He told no one and even let Crown Prince go after him. He knows he will lose the empress and her youngest son soon because of their illnesses. Now the path to the crown could be open for a young empress and the children she bares him. He kisses Xifeng. She feels none of the passion she felt with Wei. But the kiss seals a promise between them. He’ll eventually marry her and elevate her to power. And her beauty and cunning will help elevate him. She’ll now have her own household and apartment.
The envoy returns after their month away. Xifeng watches their arrival, checking the crowd for Wei. He didn’t intend to return. Shiro and Hideki are back. Shiro goes to see Akira. Hideki stays back to give Xifeng two things from Wei: a beautiful moon stone he found at a monastery and Guma’s tarot cards, something she would never give up if she was alive. Hideki believes Wei is going to become a monk, something Xifeng cannot imagine.
How did Forest of a Thousand Lanterns end?
The empress’s baby girl is born. They all rush to the room to see the new baby and congratulate the empress. Even the emperor is there. The empress tells Xifeng she knows she’ll be the next empress. She doesn’t ask that Xifeng loves her daughter, but she asks that she’s kind to her. She hopes God will grant her what she requests: the right to watch over her daughter and guide her towards those who are good and away from those who are evil.
The empress lives for over two more years in seclusion with her daughter Jade and the nursemaid. The little princess is beautiful and very smart, seemingly understanding every word and story she’s told. Xifeng spends this time by the emperor’s side as his unofficial consort at meetings and celebrations. He shows little interest in his daughter. After the empress passes and the one year of mourning, Xifeng will finally get what she wants.
One evening before the summer moon banquet, the emperor comes to Xifeng. They make promises to put the other one’s happiness above all else. He wants to talk about his daughter. Xifeng’s surprised because she’s been away with the nursemaid at a monastery for a year.
The empress asked that her daughter be added to the line of succession. The emperor granted this request as he knew any of his heirs with his living empress would be the ones to assume the throne. He acts as if Crown Prince has already died. He knows they’ll produce many heirs.
A young eunuch mistakenly announces them as the emperor and empress at a banquet. Shiro approaches them after they’re seated with his young son, who’s about Jade’s age. Xifeng shares her condolences again for Akira, who’s been gone two years. Shiro asks if it’s silly he decided to give up his position and home to raise his son here where he feels closest to Akira. Xifeng says no. He asks about her heart. She said it’s finally opening up again after being closed for so long. He’s going to say something else, but his son runs back to him after vacating the emperor’s lap.
When the mourning is over, Xifeng marries the emperor and is crowned the empress. As she goes to her new husband for the first time, she looks out the window to see the forest ablaze in light. A thousand lanterns are hung high in the trees, just like in the legend. Xifeng knows this is the empress’s sign to her daughter that she’s loved and will be cared for.
There you go! That’s what happened in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, the first book in this series.
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