The Mongolian Steppes, China
The Mongolian steppes thunder as three hundred thousand horses charge across the plains. The ground vibrates from the unison marching of the nearly one million foot soldiers that follow in the cavalry’s wake. The arid soil of the steppes cracks under the army’s weight, and opens into countless new chasms. Without warning, the air grows silent, and the multitudes part. A towering figure on horseback cloaked in vibrant yellow gallops to the front of the ranks. It is Emperor Yongle, His Imperial Majesty of China, heir to the Dragon Throne and the Son of Heaven. The emperor knows that he should not ride unprotected across the steppes. He knows that he should ride shielded from sight, as mere mortals are forbidden to look upon the Son of Heaven. But he loves the fight, and he understands this battle against the rebel Mongol leader may be his last. Yet the emperor cannot help but believe that the gods will favor him with one more victory, as they have done so often in the past. And he must triumph against the insurgent Mongol forces outside on the battlefield in order to triumph against his political adversaries, the mandarins, inside his own kingdom. For the mandarins have been whispering that the rebellion is a sign that the gods have forsaken the emperor and his grand plans. The emperor must vanquish the rebels and prove the mandarins wrong before his pliable son and chosen successor, Zhu Gaozhi, starts listening to their whispers and abandons the emperor’s projects when he ascends the DragonThrone.
The aging emperor cannot allow this to happen. He must protect his beloved monuments, the Forbidden City and Great Wall among them, which declare China’s might to the world. He must keep intact the vast empire of tribute and trade he so carefully reconstructed after centuries of neglect. Most of all, he must safeguard his beloved navy, the largest and most advanced the world has ever known, and its plans for far-reaching voyages.
The gods know that he has only ever wanted to make his people have faith in their own rule after so many years of foreign Mongol domination. He must make the Mongol rebels kowtow to him, so that his glorious legacy will not be lost to the mandarins’ self-serving schemings when Zhu Gaozhi becomes the Son of Heaven.
The battle horns cry out, and the air reverberates with their sound. The emperor places his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to fight alongside the soldiers as if he were a mere mortal. He longs for victory, but if he is to die, he will die on these steppes and not caged within the Forbidden City like some rarefied bird.
The fast clap of a horse interrupts the herald of the horns. The emperor wonders who dares to disrupt this moment, his moment. He turns to see his general dismounting and kneeling at his side.
“Your Imperial Majesty, it is not fitting that you should head the troops. I beg that you allow me to lead the charge against the rebel Mongols.”
Staring down at the general, the emperor’s legendary black eyes flash in anger. “Never forget that I am the Son of Heaven. I will ride out among the men.” He watches until the general backs away.
The emperor looks out onto the battlefield. He regrets only that his trusted adviser, Admiral Zheng He, cannot ride alongside him in what could well be his last moments. But Zheng cannot. The emperor has other plans for him.
Emperor Yongle smiles as he unsheathes his sword, spurs on his horse, and roars to the army to follow his lead. He is a dreamer and a gambler, and he will die as he has lived. He leaves it to the gods to decide his fate and his legacy to China.
Excerpted from THE MAP THIEF © Copyright 2011 by Heather Terrell. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.