(Photo Courtesy of Sina Weibo)
Thousands of flame red rose petals of the jade pool swirl in quiet contemplation, the air filled with incense and quiet whispers of bustling royal serving women. They waited anxiously as they prepared the large jade bath, their shapes slightly distorted by chiffon drapes.
“Let me go! Unhand me!” A child’s voice roared, seemingly able to shake the very foundations of the palace itself.
“Battle stations.” The Head Maid in charge of royal cleanliness ordered. The women bowed and grabbed their weapons of choice, heading into their thankless and daily battle with the only child of the emperor.
“Princess.” Hua Er said sweetly as she frog marched the little girl in, “Please stop climbing onto the roofs. The captain of the royal guard is threatening to have a heart attack and die rather than have to chase after you again..”
“He seems pretty healthy” The littler girl muttered, “You should see him run, he chased me across three gardens and five rooftops.”
“I can’t believe you hung his grandson by his underwear on a tree and left him there for a day. They said the boy is so sunburned he’s the color of plum.” Hua Er gestured at some maids, they approached cautiously, hardly believing the child covered in mud was their revered princess.
“He beats his servants.” The girl argued, “I was carrying out justice.”
Hua Er smiled and shook her head, she turned to the maids “What are you waiting for? If she escapes this time, we’ll have to track her by smell.”
The maids’ eyes shone with the steely look and pounced. They’ve been stranded on rooftops, lost in garden mazes, or tied to trees while trying to capture the princess for bathing nights. Tonight they would be merciless.
Two guards outside heard the screaming and splashing, their normally cheerful if not extremely mischievious princess had lost. One guard tossed bronze coin to the other, “You said Hua Er would catch her within the hour.”
A few hours later, a clean figure emerged like a phoenix from the ashes, wearing creamy white robes adorned with a silver imprint of the dragon. The little princess left a trail of muddy, exhausted maids in her wake.
She sighed to Hua Er, “I need to work harder if I want to be better at Kung Fu than you.” Hua Er laughed and bowed, “If you, Princess Yu Zhu start studying harder, I’m sure it would be an easy feat.” They strode through the little Pavilion of a Thousand Wishes, enjoying the warm summer air.
Yu Zhu shook her head dramatically, “It’ll take forever!” The gold and silver pins popped out of her shiny black coils like raindrops. Purple robed maids flew around her to try and catch the precious ornaments.
A poignant melody drifts through the gardens. Yu Zhu tilted her head, listening intently. It was the sorrowful notes that she had heard in her dreams, ever since she was a little girl.
It was the song about a forlorn brook deep in the verdant stone forest and the lonely boy who sits by it, waiting for the girl who promised to come back.
Yu Zhu started toward the sound, running through the vast corridors and resplendant pavillions, searching for the melancholy tune. Her wide sleeves billowed around her as she stepped into her own pavillion, her pale face turned towards the starless sky
A retinue of maids in green and silver poured out of the magnificiant rooms, bowing and waiting her for their princess to go inside.
“Leave me.” Yu Zhu said as she looked around, it felt as if the song was fading. Hua Er had followed with ease and nodded to them. Here in under the fragrance of the Yu Lan tree, surrounded by the fiery bloom of the camellias, the faint strain of music awaken the shadows of Yu Zhu’s past, reminding her that she had forgotten something very, very importnat.
“Princess,” Hua Er quietly walks up to my side, “What are you searching for?” The music was gone now, only echoes of the melody reverberated in the silver crickets’ chirps.
“I thought I heard something…a song.” Yu Zhu hummed the little bit she could remember
Hua Er looks shocked and softly hum the rest of it. “This was a song your honored mother, the Empress used to lull you and your brother to sleep. When I was a girl, I use to sneak into her pavilion just to listen for a few moments.”
Hua Er quickly wiped the tears from her eyes, “It’s a song the Emperor had forbidden in the palace, how do you know of it?”
“Is it because of what happened ten years ago?” Yu Zhu whispered.
Hua Er nods and she too stare off into the distance, looking lost. After a long while, she asks hesitantly “Back then, Lord Lu Jun and Lord Luo led the coup against your father. The King was out, leading the battle on the border when Lord Luo led his army into the capital. He had burned half the palace, killing all of the King’s children and wives. The only ones he couldn’t find were your mother, your brother the crown prince, and you.”
Yu Zhu closed her eyes, to her, those memories were half remembered, like looking at a painting through a silk screen. “I only remember running a lot.”
Hua Er looks at her sadly, “Yes. Your mother had gotten word about the attack and she helped your brother flee the palace with you on the backs of the strongest blood sweat horse captured in Xi Yu. Your brother was so handsome, even at eight, a pale gold lion ridding a midnight steed. Everyone was screaming and dying, the fires were roaring like wild tigers in the palace. He saw me, just a little palace maid in training no older than him, frozen by terror in the midst of chaos. When he passed me, he crouched on his horse and scooped me up.”
This was more than anything Hua Er had ever said about the events of almost a decade ago.
“Hua Er, why won’t anyone tell me about what happened to my brother? Sometimes I catch my father staring at me like he was looking at someone else.” Yu Zhu may asked carefully.
In that moment, Hua Er looked as if she was standing on the abyss that separated the living and the dead, looking for specters long gone.
The twinkling light of her eyes diminished as they take on a look of profound sorrow. She held out a hand to the girl, “Come inside, the night is growing cold.”