Title: The Cold Palace
Author: Melissa Addey
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Letterpress Publishing
18th Century China. In a devastating breach of etiquette, the Empress of China cuts off her hair and is exiled by a furious Emperor to ‘the cold palace’. Historians still do not know what caused her to take this step.
Ula Nara is a happy sixteen-year-old, in love and betrothed. But before she can be married, she must attend the Imperial Daughters’ Draft. When she is chosen as a bride to the heir to the throne, her beloved vows to become a monk, while Ula Nara must face a lifetime of regret. Determined to make her pain worth something, she aims for the pinnacle of success: to become Empress. But perhaps being an Empress is not worth as much as she thought, and happiness may lie in the simpler things. The final book in The Forbidden City series, this is a chance to understand Ula Nara, a terrifying and powerful rival to the other ladies of the court.
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The woman shakes her head. “Malodorous,” she snaps.
The rejected girl’s face flushes crimson in shame as she is led
away, back to her family. Apparently, the smell from her armpits
would have been offensive to an Imperial nose. Beijing at the end of
the sixth month is unbearably hot, I’m surprised all of the girls here
have not been rejected for this reason.
The sturdy woman approaches and gestures impatiently for me to
raise my arm. I, like all the other girls here, have already had to shed
my fine outer robes, made of the best silk my family could afford. I
asked my mother to send me in something plainer, still afraid of being
chosen, but she refused.
“I won’t be shamed,” she said huffily. “I know you don’t want to
be chosen, Ula Nara, but you will be examined by the Palace officials.
They will see your father’s name and our Banner on the paperwork
beside your own name. I won’t have them look down their noses at us
just because you wouldn’t wear the best we can provide.”
And so I arrived this morning at an administrative hall in Beijing,
just outside the Forbidden City itself. It seems we will not be allowed
into its hallowed precincts until we have been selected as the most
superior candidates. I am dressed in a beautiful robe, the best I have
ever owned. It is a delicate blue like a spring sky, covered with intricate
embroidery featuring fluttering magpies and trees heavy with golden
peaches, all symbols for love and happiness, for longevity, prosperity
and future sons, highly auspicious and appropriate for today. It was
removed in moments. Eunuchs gathered around each girl in turn to
disrobe us and leave us in nothing but our under-robes. The room
we are in is large and stifling, full of girls disrobing and re-robing
as they are inspected by stout older women elaborately dressed to
show off their status as senior ladies-in-waiting, perhaps wives to
important court officials. Eunuchs bustle about: some assisting with
the undressing and dressing, some noting down comments made by
the ladies on each girl and reminding them of every candidate’s status
and family. Perhaps a smelly girl will be reassessed if her family is very
important, perhaps a lowly girl from an out-of-favour family will be
marked down as malodorous as a good way of removing her from the
possibility of being chosen.
I lift my arm as instructed and the sturdy woman assigned to my
row puts her face against my armpit and inhales loudly. I look away
in embarrassment and when I look back she is nodding briskly to the
eunuch at her side, who makes a note against my name. It seems I do
not stink. I look hopefully about for my robe to be given back to me,
but instead the woman kneels in front of me and lifts up my underskirts.
I step backwards.
“Keep still, you stupid girl,” she says. I stop moving and gaze
down at her in horror as she sticks her face under the skirts, close to
my private parts and I hear her inhale again. She emerges and nods
to the eunuch, ignoring my now scarlet face. Apparently, every part
of me must be found to be acceptable to the sensitivities of a possible
By the time I have regained my composure and my robe, my
hair is being checked for lice and my teeth scrutinised. The Court
Physician takes my twelve pulses and examines my tongue before he
pronounces me to be of a cold and damp disposition, something the
Imperial kitchens will take into account when cooking for me, should
I end up residing here.
“Bound feet? You have bound feet?!”
Heads turn. A girl has been found with bound feet, despite being
Manchu. She looks terrified. We all crane our heads to see under her
skirts, catch a glimpse of tiny pointed stubs encased in embroidered
slippers and then quickly look away again. The head eunuch is
“Bound feet are forbidden! As you and your family are well
aware. What were they thinking, a noble Manchu family copying the
disgusting habits of the common Han Chinese? Your family will be
fined and you and all your sisters will be rejected for any possible
union with the Imperial Family.”
The weeping girl is led away while we try not to stare. I wonder
whether bound feet are worth having to avoid marriage to the Imperial
Family but it’s too late now, they would have had to have been bound
when I was a toddler and my family would never have done such a
More and more girls are dismissed. I start to worry, thinking
there are not, after all, hundreds of us to choose from, before recalling
that today is merely one of multiple preliminary rounds, when any
small reason will have us sent home again. I hope to be sent home for
something trivial, perhaps poor posture or an inelegant kowtow but as
the day progresses I am still not dismissed. I am from a good family
and a military background, any minor faults I have are perhaps being
overlooked or minimised, allowed to slip through. They can’t get rid
of too many girls, they want a good showing when we are selected,
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I mainly write historical fiction: my first novel, The Fragrant Concubine, was Editor’s Choice at the Historical Novel Society, my latest, The Cold Palace, won the 2019 Novel London award. I was the Leverhulme Trust Writer in Residence at the British Library and now run regular workshops there. I am just completing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. I live in London with my husband and two young children who help me with research trips and exploring new eras.
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