The Jade Bracelet

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

All Lingchuan wanted when she travels to Beijing on her own the year before college was to see the city of her childhood without being held back by her family, but fate has more in store for her. On a visit to the Forbidden City, Lingchuan ventures into a locked up area of the palace, and before she knows it, her jade bracelet has transported her back in time to the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. Magically, everyone recognizes her as the emperor's adopted daughter, and Lingchuan must play the part of a Qing princess as best as she can while trying to find her way back home. But with new friendships like she never had and the strong attraction to the prince that she feels, Lingchuan's starts to wonder if she even wants to go home again.

Yunhua had thought that the most exciting events in her life had been when her mother called her and her twin sister to her deathbed and informed them that the emperor was their father. The two girls had traveled to Beijing, where their father gives them the titles of princesses and houses them in their own little palace. Soon, Yunlu's life in the palace is as complicated as it can be when powerful women detest her existence, when her best friend loses her memory and then escapes the palace, and when, through all this time, she nurtures a love that will probably never amount to anything. Will Yunlu ever find her happiness?

Chapter 1 (v.1) - The Jade Bracelet

Submitted: October 30, 2011

Reads: 182

Comments: 1

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Submitted: October 30, 2011

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August, 2011

Beijing

Lingchuan

I hated airports. Especially Chinese airports filled with thousands and thousands of Chinese people who have somewhere to be. No one looks when they walk. Or run. I was getting bumped into on all sides. The way the people speed around the airport, with their heads down or yelling at each other over all the other voices that are also yelling would be comical, if only I wasn’t one of them.

I was shouting into my phone, trying to be heard over the rest of the noises and the bad phone service in Beijing.

“I told you, no” I yelled, “Not not in May, not now, and not in the fall. Never never never will I say yes, so you can stop calling.”

“But why not,” the voice asked, calm and smooth and enraging as ever, “What is it that I can’t give you?”

“Modesty, for one.” I retorted, “Look, I wasn’t going to tell you this, but since you’ve called me fifteen times since school let out, let’s make it clear. You’re not smart or funny. You’re a complete douche bag, you look like a rat, and you’re voice sounds like oatmeal.” That last part was made up, because his voice reminded me of caramel, but since I was on a rant about what wasn’t good about Andrew Collins, the truth didn’t seem very helpful.

“I will never ever go out with someone like you, and there is nothing you can do to change my mind. Oh, and if you call me again asking me on a date, I will call the police and put some sort of restraining order on you, don’t think I won’t.”

“Aw, c’mon Linney, don’t say that. I just want to take you out to dinner, that’s all. Just once, please.” I stopped in the middle of the swarms of people, and massaged my temples like the really important old guy does in all the crime shows. I suppose it was supposed to make you think better or something. It didn’t work.

“I specially wanted to spend the last few weeks of summer in Beijing because sometimes I can’t stand some of the people in New York, one of them being you, so if you’ll now excuse me, I would like to spend the rest August without ever hearing from you.”

“No, Linney, please, I just-”

I hang up. He would probably call back in a few minutes, once he’d thought of a new way to ask me, so I had to act fast. Dragging my Louis Vuitton suitcase behind me, I thwacked to the bathroom in my Tory Burch flip-flops, and threw myself into a stall. Inside, I pulled out a hairpin and stuck it into the hole on top of my iPhone, took out the SIM card, and flushed it down the toilet in one motion. Well, okay, two motions.

As the water swirled away the the little plastic card, I pushed the little card tray back into it’s place, stuck the pin into my waist-length hair, and marched out of the bathroom, pushing angrily through the crowd.

Damn him, that jerk. He had wanted to take me out on a date since April, and can’t seem to take a hint. Or a couple hundred obvious no’s. I guess I really shouldn’t have flushed my SIM card down the toilet, but it wasn’t like my 200 contacts from New York really needed to call me in the middle of August.

I kept walking, a little less angrily now, through the crowd to the door. My dad, who was summering in Vancouver with my mom and little brother, had sent a car to pick me up at the airport and take me to our house in Beijing. If you’re wondering, my dad is a businessman, and spends his time divided between Beijing for business and New York with his family, namely my brother and me, who are going to school, and my mom, who is looking after us.

At the door leading outside, a woman wearing a crisp blue uniform stopped me.

“You’ll have to get in line to get a taxi, Miss,” she says, gesturing towards an impossibly long line with a white-gloved hand.

“I don’t want a taxi,” I swept past her before she could say anything and walked onto the sidewalk. A black Audi was parked a ways down, and I squinted at it, wondering if it was the car my dad sent. Suddenly, the driver door opened and out popped a stout little man with a round face, dressed in a black suit and cap. Seriously? In this heat? He could have at least left the jacket off.

“Are you Miss Xiao Lingchuan?” the man called in my direction. I hurried over to the car, the suitcase skipping on the pavement behind me.

“I am,” I smiled at the plump driver, “nice to meet you.”

We both got into the car, and I took a whiff of the sandalwood perfume a little bottle hanging from the rearview mirror gave off. The smell reminded me of my room in our old-Beijing quadrangle, where I was going right now.

As soon as the car took off, I stuck my headphones into my ears, not wanting to make small talk with the driver. The late afternoon sun hung lazily in the smoggy city sky. I stared at it and absentmindedly played with my headphone cord, quietly cursing the traffic on the Chang’an Street that had made the cars stop altogether. The driver had turned off the AC and opened the windows, and the late August air mixed with car exhaust was stifling.

I fished out my phone with the headphone line, unlocking it to text my ever-worried mother of my safe arrival when I remembered that my portable way of communication was now sitting in some drain pipe at the bottom of the airport. Whatever. I’d phone them when I got home, and then maybe use that Blackberry my dad never took out of its package for my stay in China.

The only reason I was in Beijing, on my own, in the first place was because I wanted to be alone, even if for a few weeks, so having him call me all the time just wouldn’t do. I loved New York, I really did, but for a sixteen-year-old girl, a break from the big city once in a while was a good idea. Not that Beijing wasn’t also a huge city, but it was a different kind of big. Manhattan was glamorous. It was new and shiny mixed in with old-money classy, brown stones, cold glass, and completely American.

Beijing was different. It was the city of my childhood, where our family lived until we moved to New York when I was eight. Whenever we came back here during vacations it made me feel like I belonged here. The houses, the people, the food, they were all so familiarly and comfortingly Chinese. I loved Beijing too.

And now I wanted to be back here, but alone, and maybe make some memories of my own, memories that didn’t include the members of my extended family sitting around a round table eating dumplings during Chinese New Year, or something of that sort. I wanted to go places, see the old city on my own, through my own eyes and discover things through my own efforts. I was excited. It was going to be quite the adventure.

Long lines of red taillights and exhaust pipes inching down Chang’an Street stretched in front of the car. I wouldn’t be going anywhere in traffic like this.

No, I thought to myself, I can’t take a cab everywhere. I’ll have to bike.

I knew that her parents kept a bike at the house. It was an old bike, the one my dad had used when he first started his company. It was like an old friend to him, and he wouldn’t let my brother or me use it. He said that it was too dangerous to ride around Beijing on a bike nowadays, but several hundred thousand people in the city manage it everyday, so I figured he just doesn’t trust his children enough with his most treasured antique. I pulled out the string of keys to all the rooms in our house and studied each one for anything that looked like it might unlock a bike lock. Call me anything you like, but if you’ve ever been caught in slower-than-snail traffic, you’d know that nothing was more boring than doing nothing. None of them looked like the key. Oh well, I thought to myself, I’ll just pick the lock when I need the bike.

You could never tell, but one of my most hidden talents was lock picking, which was one of the reasons I always had four or five hairpins in my hair. To pick a lock you actually have to destroy a hairpin by bending it straight, so I had to replace the pin with a new one every time. And my mom wonders whey I always keep a whole jar of hairpins with me.

I first started learning to pick locks at the age of thirteen, when my friends and I were bored on a Saturday night. Not to be obnoxious or anything, but I’d always been popular because I was so crazy and fun to be around. I’d been one of the first girls to get drunk at a party, partly because my parents let me drink regularly with them and I knew exactly what got to me fastest, and had hopped up on a table and started dancing. I was a little embarrassing, but screw that, because It is my rule that on weekdays you work your ass off at school and on weekends you repay yourself by having the best time of your life, every week.

This Saturday was no exception to my weekend rule. We decided to have a little fun at the pool of our Fifth Avenue all-girls private school, and it took me exactly three minutes to get the doorknob to turn. Not bad for a total beginner. We invited half the class, put on music, and had a party that night, and managed to clean up and slip home without being found out. The school did realize, I think, that someone had broken into the pool after-hours, but they couldn’t figure out who or when or how. Hah! From then on, I picked locks whenever the opportunity arose, and by sixteen I could proudly say that I was a master lock-pick.

The car hadn’t moved much. I was staring at the same building that I stared at before I took out the keys. Out of habit, my hands started playing with the jade bracelet that hang around my neck. The bracelet was thick and round, not like normal jade bracelets that were thinner and flat on the inside. It was my ninth birthday present from my grandparents. My mother, the anthropologist, told me it was over 300 years old and belonged to some aristocratic lady. Okay, mom. Whatever you say. All I knew was that the bracelet itself was quite pretty and definitely real jade, so I decided to wear it.

After two days, I had to take the thing off. It was really heavy, and I couldn’t type because the bracelet was round on the inside and pressed into my wrist whenever I put her hand down. I’d spent a few days wondering what to do with it, then went to Tiffany’s and bought a necklace with a long, black silk cord. I made a slip knot around the bracelet had worn it around my neck ever since.

Now, I looked down and studied the patters in the soft green jade for the millionth time. There were at least a hundred shades of green, from almost white to pine-tree iridescence, and the different shades made up an intricate and mysterious pattern on the thick jade. As I stared at the lines and fingered the smooth surface, I wondered for the millionth time what kind of person the bracelet originally belonged to. There was no doubt that it was old as they didn’t make jade bracelets as so thick and round on the inside anymore. Whenever I was bored, I would make up some story about the bracelet’s owner. Today, just as my mind was drifting off into the story of my imaginary character’s life, I felt the car make suddenly stop, then make a smooth right turn.

Looking up, I saw that the car was driving through an old Chinese gate with the words ???(Nan Chi Zi) written on the top from right to left. South Pond Avenue. That was the avenue onto which the hutong my family’s quadrangle, or courtyard house, was on opened up.

“Sir,” I said to the driver, “you can just pull over on the side. I can walk the rest of the way.” I got out her wallet to pay him, but the driver didn’t stop.

“You’re father specifically told me on the phone to drop you off right outside your house. I can’t just leave you on the sidewalk.”

“Well, my dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I protested, “My hutong has a lot of dead ends. If you go in it’ll take you a half-hour to get out again.” I was telling the truth. The hutongs opening onto Nan Chi Zi, part alley, part maze, never exceeded six paces in width and could trap someone who didn’t know the place for hours before spitting them out on a street two or three miles away from where they entered it.

“Alright, if you’re sure,” he driver’s voice trailed off and he pulled over beside the curb. I handed him two red hundred dollar bills featuring waving Chairman Mao on them, and crawled out of the car, pulling my suitcase out behind me.

“Thanks,” I shut the door, “Bye!” The black Audi drove away, and I started walking slowly towards my hutong. Turning off the main sidewalk, I dragged my suitcase along the winding narrow road, listening to the cicadas chirping in the trees and feeling the glow of the late-afternoon sun kiss my face.

Even I don’t know how I remembered where to turn and how far to walk, but eventually I came up to their family’s quadrangle without incident.

A quadrangle is a compound of four rectangular one story houses around a central courtyard. The house facing the front door could then lead to another courtyard with three more houses surrounding it, and then another one, and another one. A Chinese proverb says that the door might be small, but the inside could reach to the Southern Seas, which is just a fancy way of saying that they could get really big.

These mansions on Nan Chi Zi used to belong to Ming and Qing Dynasty government officials and the emperor’s relatives. Right next to the Forbidden City, Nan Chi Zi used to be as forbidden to common people as the palace itself. In present day, many of the quadrangles house as many as ten or twenty families if they once belonged to a high ranking official, and some still belonged to important government officials, but there are still a few single-family homes on the market, and anyone with thirty or forty million dollars on their hands can buy one of these quadrangles and renovate it to make it livable.

My family’s quadrangle used to belong to a very high ranking scholar. You could tell the rank of an official by how many hexagonal batons sticking out of the wall on top of the front door; two for normal ranking bureaucrats and commanders, and four for the ones with the highest rank. You could also tell if the occupant was a scholar or a warrior by the stone decorations on either side of the front door. The scholars had square stones, to represent books, and the warriors had round ones, just because square ones were taken.

I lifted my suitcase up three steps and took out the key to the front door to unlock it. On the inside of the door was a screen wall to block the cold winds in the winter. I turned to the left, through a doorway, and into the outside yard, where the secondary gate was. The house opposite the secondary gate used to be for servants, but this is the 21st Century, where we no longer have thirty servants serving a family of four, so it’s a storage and car garage instead. The bike is somewhere in there, I noted. I walked through the secondary gate and past the main courtyard, around which sat the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room. Past the living room was the second courtyard, where our bedrooms were. My wing was on the right, and I dragged my suitcase up the steps and into my living room.

According to tradition, as the daughter, I was supposed to live in the rooms behind our parents rooms, but you couldn’t get out unless you went through the master bedrooms. That was never going to happen to me on my watch, so I occupied the east wing and my brother the west wing, and the back house was used for entertainment and extra guest rooms.

When my dad Xiao Hang bought the quadrangle in 1995, it hadn’t been lived in since the end of the Qing Dynasty. Miraculously, it wasn’t completely demolished by many years of war and cultural revolution China had just suffered, although it was completely devoid of the riches and luxuries that used to make it fit for the Emperor to visit. He had renovated it, my dad did, not the Emperor, and decorated the rooms like he imagined they would have looked like during their peak. He’d gotten Chinese style furniture, and restored the remaining decorations on the walls. Well, of course, he still put in Italian kitchen appliances and white ceramic toilets. Can you imagine?A wooden Chinese microwave?

The huge windows had wooden patterns all over them, and curtains hung from the thin, red wooden columns, there only for decoration because, seriously, who would have curtains in the middle of the room? And there were decorations everywhere, because my mom was a Chinese historian and anthropologist, and liked to collect antique vases and such things. There was an intricate round shelf built into the wall in my room that housed five palm sized teapots carved from different coloured minerals, and a long rock cut in half to expose the purple crystals inside resting on a wooden pedestal near the double doors.

Among these old-Chinese style decorations sat TV’s, computers water dispensers, the occasional couch, my piano, and many other modern things. Really, the only one word to describe the house is weird.

I laid my suitcase down on the wooden floor, and flopped down on my bed. It was almost square and made from dark oak. There was a wooden frame above the mattress, and a curtain was draped over it, enclosing the bed with purple and pink sash when drawn. The bottom was solid, with a hidden drawer where extra mattresses were kept. I used to hide my diary in there, back when I used to keep a diary too write all my pre-teen woes, until I forgot to close it one night and fractured my arm when I tripped on it and fell the next morning. I don’t open that drawer anymore.

After a half hour of laying the bed doing nothing, I pealed myself off the mattress and set about unpacking my suitcase. When I was done, it was almost eight, and my stomach was protesting against not having had food since ten in the morning. Seeing as there was probably only ice and soy sauce and salt in the kitchen, I decided to eat out that day. Yup, because cooking was just so much fun and the only reason I was eating out was for lack of ingredients. Keeping the lights on, I got my bag, locked my door, and walked out of the front gate, locking that behind me too. I wound through the hutong until I came out onto Nan Chi Zi again, and walked south to Wang Fujing, a section of which as off limits to cars.

There were people, tourists mostly, sporting Nike sneakers, backpacks, and cameras, not to mention huge shopping bags of clothing from the big department stores lining the sidewalks. I strolled down the street in my pink and gold Burberry sandal wedges that matched the Lily Pulitzer seersucker dress I had changed into, basking in the neon lights and ever-present excitement that only increased at night. Fortunately “tourist” was never my clothing style.

Finally, I came up to the entrance to a narrow street. The little street had tiny stands lining its sides, selling food and sweets. This would be just as good as any five-star restaurant. I moved forward with the crowd, buying and eating two lamb kabobs spiced with cumin, two pepper and tomato kebobs, also spiced with cumin, one bowl of tofu, no cumin, one candied grape kebob, and a bottle of water, which, all together, cost me the large fortune of fifteen Yuan. When I left half an hour later, I was stuffed and sleepy, and quickly made my way back home.

After another shower, I crawled into bed with a Chinese historical novel found on the bookshelf in my parents’ study, describing the marriage of a concubine to Qianlong emperor. Honestly, I didn’t care if they had four or five or a hundred maids attending to the bride’s makeup. As far as I cared, drifting off into Lalaland was my best option, and fell asleep after two pages.

In my dream, I was being chased by security in the Forbidden City because I had crashed the set of some crappy TV drama. I ran down the main path of the inner court, looking for a place to hide. All of the doors, each leading to a little palace, were locked, but when I ran up the steps to one of them and tried the door, the lock magically disappeared. Dreams were convenient like that. I pushed open the door and stepped into the weed-ridden courtyard, then slammed the doors behind me. There were trees planted all around the courtyard, casting a very welcomed shade with their old branches.

As I paced the courtyard, trying to figure out how I would leave the place without being attacked by the palace policemen, I was startled by a woman’s voice behind me. I’d been so caught up in escaping I hadn’t noticed her standing in the doorway, her back to me.

“Lingchuan,” the woman said softly, “you’d better leave now. You don’t belong here.” I turned to look at the woman. She was dressed in the clothing of a Qing Dynasty noblewoman, wearing a blue and white traditional qipao, with its long, layered sleeves, flared skirt, and careful embroidery. On her feet she wore what people called flowerpot shoes, normal shoes with a white pedestal on the bottom. They were a specialty of the Manchu women who weren’t allowed to bind their feet and envied the way the Han women walked with their tiny feet.

“Who are you,” I half whispered, slowly walking towards her. I could hear my heart beating, and the blood pumping through my temples. “How do you know my name?”

“You don’t belong here,” she repeated, “go back, go back, go back...” Then she turned around, and I realized that this was no woman, because as she stared at me with her crisp brown eyes, I realized that the face was mine.

I awoke with a start. Sweat soaked my nightgown, and my hair stuck to my face and neck. I rubbed my eyes, trying to get the images of the woman, no, the images of me, out of my head. What kind of dream was that, I wondered, hopping out of bed and quickly getting in the shower for, might I add, the third time in less than 12 hours. Why would I have a dream like that? Maybe it was supposed to mean something, like a sign that something was going to happen, but all I could think about was the look on the face of the other me. There was definitely a hardness in her, I mean my face, but there was a hint of fear in my eyes too.

I shook my head and let the water run through my hair. It stuck to the small of my back as I shampooed my scalp. Yeah, right, it totally meant something, because I was a dream decoder and an omen-prone freak.

After another round of shampoo then conditioner, I stepped out of the shower and got dressed. The fact that in my dream I was in a qipao standing in the doorway of a palace in the Forbidden City was too weird to forget though, so, just to prove to myself that it was absolutely nothing, I decided to go visit the palace that day. As the Forbidden City is quite a popular tourist attraction, there was always a huge crowd, and among big crowds were usually pickpockets. I decided to bring just my phone, my keys, a few hundred Yuan, and my first-aid pouch in a glitter-green plastic Fendi clutch I found in my closet. I always carried around a first-aid pouch, containing Band-aids , NeoSporin, Tylenol, and antibiotics that I’m not sure how I got my hands on because they were definitely not over-the-counter drugs. No, I don’t want to know how weird and crazy and paranoid you think I am. If the world ends in 2012 I am not sharing those Band-aids with you.

Mornings in Beijing are quite the sight to see. The people on their bikes and motorcycles hurry along the street like bees, dodging pedestrians with efficiency and accuracy, occasionally ringing a bell. I slung the metal chain of my clutch over my shoulder like a purse and kept to the inside of the sidewalk to avoid the bikes. In my haste to get to the palace, I’d forgotten to look at a clock, and only on Chang’an Street had I realized that the sun wasn’t even up yet. Turns out it was only six in the morning, so I figured I would go see the rising of the Chinese Flag in Tian’anmen Square, then wander around Beijing for a couple of hours. The Forbidden City opens every day at eight thirty, so I had a full two and a half hours to waste.

I slowly walked west on Chang’an Street. Tian’anmen Square was on the south side of the street while Nan Chi Zi opened up onto the north side, and I decided I would just watch the flag ceremony on my side of the street. Generally, I avoided crossing streets, especially eight-lane streets, in China, for the ever-present fear of being hit by one of the drivers who obviously don’t see the other cars and people who they share the street with. Besides, there was always a gaggle of loud obnoxious farmers and tourists behind the ropes that blocked off the part of the square on which the flagpole stood, and let’s just say that doesn’t help with my occasional migraines.

I pushed my way through the morning rush until I was standing just behind the barricade blocking the path. The sidewalks outside the Tian’anmen Square and Gate are blocked when the flag ceremony is going on, although I don’t know anyone who would want to cause trouble during the ceremony.

I looked up towards Tian’anmen Gate and stared at the huge painting of Chairman Mao that hung above the central doorway. In school, the American textbooks taught that he was a tyrant and responsible for damaging the culture and society of China, but he was quite an amazing man as well. I mean, seriously, he was just a teacher from a little town in Hunan who happened to become the chairman of China. No big deal.

At 6:48, the fiery orange ball started to climb into the sky, and under the flag post on the square, a group of very neat soldiers marched up carrying the flag on their shoulders. They attached it to the bottom of the pole, and then the national anthem started up as the flag was raised. A soldier threw the it upward, hoping it would catch the wind and start to wave. Unfortunately, there was no wind that day, and the flag hung on the flagpole, unmoving. Fail, I smiled to myself. Well, at least they tried.

As soon as the flag was up and the last notes of the national anthem echoed and died, I turned the other way and walked along Chang’an Street and turned north onto Nanheyan Street. There were a lot of small restaurants on the sides of this street, and I stopped at one that sold pork buns and dumplings to have breakfast. The dumplings was the best Chinese food I’d had since January, no joke. The skin was chewy, and the pork and cabbage stuffing had such a classic dumpling flavor, if that makes any sense at all. I asked for two plates, which I finished in about fifteen minutes. The Chinese food in New York is disgusting, all greasy and way too sweet, and I never eat it, so the last time I had dumplings was Chinese New Year that January. I payed the bill, grabbed my bag, and left.

There was a whole hour left before the palace opened, so I walked aimlessly around the streets, trying to pretend I had a place to go. The streets were starting to fill up more, especially with children going to their summer schools, of which there were many, especially in a big city like Beijing. A late August breeze whistled through the trees, and I shivered slightly. I’d thrown on a pair of shorts tank top with a thin cardigan that morning, and hadn’t bothered to see if it too cold outside to be dressed in summer cloths. I pulled out my phone and checked the temperature for the day. 15 degrees Celsius? Really? It was a little too cold for shorts. I had fifteen minutes left, so I hurried home to change.

Ten minutes later, I left home in a pair of skinny jeans and a cardigan draped over my arm. It was light blue with green beads, like my flats. I thought it went quite well with my bracelet, which I wore outside my top. I made my way back to Tian’anmen, where a huge crowed consisting mainly of tourists had started to gather. Not that I wasn’t a tourist too, but I wasn’t Caucasian and didn’t talk with a foreign dialect, so I felt more native to Beijing than everyone else I passed.

Moving with the crowd, I moved through Tian’anmen and Duanmen, the two gates in front of the palace’s entrance, until I came to Wumen, or the Meridian Gate. This was the front gate to the Forbidden City, the entrance to the mysterious and magnificent palace. However, to pass through this gate, you had to go buy a ticket first, so I lined up at the ticket booth to my left and purchased a ticket and a map. In the square in front of Wumen were a lot of people. Like, a sea of people. As I tried to push my way past them to get to the line in front of the three doorways, I had to say no to at least ten tour-guides asking if I wanted to hire them for a tour. They all carried around antenna-like sticks with colorful stuffed animals attached to the top, so they stood out in the crowd I guess, and it was way too embarrassing to even stop and talk to them because people could see their stuffed animals, which they hung from the top of a stick so people would recognize them, from miles away.

Eventually, I made it inside. I stopped near the ribbon of a river that ran across Taihemen Square and studied my map. The Forbidden City is divided into the Outer Court, where the emperor used to hold court and discuss state matters, and the Inner Court, where the emperor and his family, namely his many wives and children, lived. The courtyard in my dream was obviously one of the twelve palaces in the Inner Court, where the emperor’s wives and concubines lived, so I didn’t bother with the gates and and halls of the Outer Court, but instead hurried past them until I got to Qianqing Gate, the door that lead to the Inner Court.

In the Inner Court, on either side of the emperor’s and empress’s palaces, were six palaces that belonged to the other consorts and concubines of the emperor. I decided that those twelve palaces would be a good place to start, because I remembered seeing the palaces when I visited the Forbidden City with my mom in eight grade, and the yard in my dream looked like they could be in one of those palaces.

I still wasn’t sure what I would do one I actually found the courtyard. Would I just stand there and stare at where the Qing Dynasty me was supposed to be and expect the answer to come to me? Worse, I wasn’t even sure if the courtyard in my dream was an actual courtyard in the Forbidden City. It was highly likely that it wasn’t, and then I would be wasting my time. I sighed. It’s okay, I thought to myself, it wasn’t like I needed to do anything important in Beijing anyway. I could waste as much time as I wanted.

The Inner Court was quite maze-like, I realized, as I tried to follow path without getting lost. I visited the Six West Palaces first, starting with Yongshou Palace and ending with Chuxiu Palace. Nothing. Just the places where the emperor’s concubines and wives used to live. There wasn’t anything that looked vaguely similar to that courtyard in my dream. Disappointed, I crossed the Imperial Garden, where only the emperor and his family was allowed, and started looking inside the Six East Palaces with Zhongcui Palace. Nope, too big. Jingyang Palace? Nope, definitely not attached to a study. Chengqian Palace? Yonghe Palace? Jingren Palace? No, no, and no. They were all too big, there were no weeds, and there weren’t very many trees.The last of the Six East Palaces, Yanxi Palaces, was even more of a no. There was an unfinished...thing...in the middle of the courtyard, which, according to a plaque near the base, was supposed to be a palace covered in glass. I guess that didn’t turn out so well.

The unfinished palace stood there in the sun, and strangely, it reminded me of a fifth grade project gone deliciously wrong. We were supposed to build a monumental skyscraper out of marshmallows, licorice, toothpicks, and edible sugar paper. I don’t know what the teachers were thinking, giving candy to a bunch of ten-year-olds and expecting us to not put them in our mouths. On the first day, Rachel Meyers ate the licorice, but we all said it was okay, because we had toothpicks. Then, the next day, Maddie Hall and Jenna Santoro ate almost all the sugar paper.

“You three can’t just eat the materials,” I remember scolding them, “we have to build the Twin Towers with those!”

“But Linney,” Maddie had whined, “it’s way too tempting, and telling us we can’t eat candy when it’s right in front of us is torture.” At school, everyone called me Linney, because in lower school, no one could pronounce Lingchuan properly, and I became annoyed very often, so I started introducing myself as Linney.

Eventually, I saved the marshmallows from the same fate as the other food materials by telling them that I was sure that marshmallows were made from bone marrow, but then ended up having to build almost all of the Twin Towers myself because none of them would touch it. The way I looked at the unfinished glass palace now must have been how my teacher had looked at our building, although she never let it show.

Dejected, I studied my map carefully. There weren’t any other palaces that were open, but there were a couple of smaller houses to the east of the six I’d just visited. They closely resembled our quadrangle, I noticed, and the map had drawn trees in the courtyards of these two sets of houses. Maybe one of those courtyards might be the one in my dream! I squinted at the map even more. In tiny writing on the yellow rectangles that represented the roofs of these houses were the words “silk storage” and “tea storage”. I frowned and studied the formation of the houses. No way could they have been storages. They were way to big and way too palace-like, I decided. I was going to go see them no matter what.

As I left Yinxi Palace and walked East on the path, I realized I had a problem. The doors of the gate that was supposed to lead to the entrance of the two storage houses was shut, and there was a huge padlock on the door. I looked down at the map, and realized that this area was not open to the public. Suddenly, I became very angry at the people in charge of maintaining the Forbidden City. Why don’t they just open up all the houses and palaces and halls to the public, I thought, one hand on my waste and the other gripping the corner of the map tightly. Don’t they know that some people really need to see the places they’ve closed off?

I looked around. There were really very few people around here. It was still early, and most people were still touring the Outer Court. Then I stared at the lock on the door. It was big, but very old and rusty. Maybe, just maybe...

No, I thought to myself, how could you even think that? If you get caught you’ll be in so much trouble!

But then again, even if I were caught, what could they do to me, really? Throw me out? They couldn’t put me in jail, and even if they arrest me, my dad would bail me out, no problem. I was an sixteen-year-old girl with an American passport. It’s not like they can charge me with anything more than trespassing. I looked around again. No one had payed any attention to me, or were even looking in my direction. Slowly, I pulled a hairpin out of my long hair and inched towards the door, trying to look as casual as possible.

At the door, I lifted the lock so the keyhole was facing me, and stuck the hairpin in. I closed my eyes, pretending that I lived inside the lock and could see every little detail, and turned the hairpin slowly until finally, I head a click and the lock popped open. Piece of cake. I slowly cracked opened the door, hoping to minimize the creaking, and slipped through the cracked, closing the big red door all the way behind me. I walked down the alleyway until I came up to a gate on the left. The plaque on top of the doors was too faded to read, but I assumed that this was the entrance to the so-called storages on the map. I looked down at the doors. There was no lock. I dropped the ruined hairpin into my bag, pushed open the doors, and stepped inside. Then I gasped. From the decorations on the awnings and doors and windows to the weeds growing from the cracks between the bricks on the ground, this courtyard was exactly the same as the one in my dream.

Walking through the courtyard tentatively. I moved closer to a tree flowering with some small white flower that smelled like jasmine and strawberries, and reached up to smooth a petal between my fingertips. Suddenly, my foot caught on a dead weed and I fell, flat on my face. Great, Lingchuan, just fantastic. When I got up, I looked down to realize that my jade necklace, the one that always hung around my neck, was glowing, and then, all of a sudden, the ground beneath me gave way and I fell through what seemed like an endless black space, until finally, I felt my body hit the ground with a thud.

The Sixth Month in Year Twenty-four of the Qianlong Emperor

Sea of Flowers

Yunlu

“Do you see that one up there,” Ling’an asked as he pointed to to the sky, “It looks like a peach, does it not?

“Yes, yes it does,” I giggled, gazing up at the cloud where his finger landed.

“One big peach for the Empress of Heaven,” he said, enticing another laugh from me.

“Yet, how sour it must taste, for it is white and not yet ripened,” I replied. It was his turn to laugh, his voice soft and deep and warm.

I sat up and supported myself with my hand on the hard earth, softened slightly by the hundreds of flower stems we must have crushed, laying and gazing up at the Heavens. I looked down at Ling’an’s face, now smiling at me. I was in my favorite place with my favorite person, doing what we love best. I silently prayed that the two of us could stay like this, in this state of reverie, forever, never having a care in the world.

We were surrounded no all sides by endless purple and pink daisies, bending gently in the lazy summer breeze. Petals swirled around me, catching in my long hair and rough clothing. A pink petal landed softly on Ling’an’s face, and I brushed it aside with my free hand. He reached out with his arm and hooked it around my neck, and I bent down, pressing my lips onto his, feeling the gush of warmness run through my body.

I loved the way kissing Ling’an made me feel, and how my body reacted to his touch with butterflies and a pounding pulse. I came up for air, breathless from the kiss, my head spinning.

“You are so beautiful, Yunlu” he whispered, caressing my cheek with his thumb, “My most beautiful fairytale.”

I lay down again, gazing up at the clouds, and must have fallen asleep in his arms. When I awoke, the sun had set, and the sky was a light blue, about to turn into night at any moment. I stood up, and turned my head at the sound of horse-hooves.

“Awake, I see,” Ling’an grinned at me. He had brought over our horses, and I mounted one as he mounted the other. I loved the freedom peasant cloths gave me, loved that I could ride with ease. We raced across the fields, and I could feel the wind streaming through my loose hair was we laughed and sped into the city. Our horses instinctively slowed to a walk, and we guided them through the many streets of the Capital until we arrived at a grand, red gate. One of the grandest ones in all of China, in face, because this was the back gate to the Forbidden Palace, home to the Chinese emperor. We dismounted, and pulled out wooden badges so the guards would know who we really were. And who, precisely, are we, you might want to know. Well, I will tell you. It all starts before my birth, in a little village among the mountains.

My mother, Liao Taoming, was the daughter of a factory owner who lived the province of Shandong. Her family was fairly wealthy, and as a result she got a decent education. After her parents died, she, being the only child, inherited the family business, an umbrella-making factory. At twenty-six, she became one of the richest woman in the town, and although many suitors came and proposed, for she was both very intelligent and beautiful, not to mention wealthy, she rejected all of them, because she didn’t love any of them. My mother was a very independent woman, something quite frowned upon, but she was very happy to be alone.

One summer day, when she was at the umbrella factory examining the new pieces, she was surprised to see that a young man had come in and was looking at the umbrellas as well. Usually, only women were interested in coming in to the factory to choose new umbrellas for themselves, so she was curious about this particular young man. He looked a few years older than she, and was very handsome, dressed in the clothing of a wealthy townsperson.

She greeted him, and the young man introduced himself as Wang Hongli, a businessman from Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian. He’d heard that her umbrella factory made the best umbrellas in all of southern China, and had come to see them for himself and buy one for his mother.

My mother offered him one of the best umbrellas for him to examine. He looked at it, then looked at my mother, and said,

“This umbrella might be the most beautiful one I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, but compared to the lady in front of me, it is as plain as white paper.” At this, my mother blushed, and said,

“If you don’t like this umbrella, sir, just say so plainly. I won’t be offended. We have many other beautiful ones here.” They both laughed, and this, my mother told me, was how she fell in love with my father. They spent the following days together, near the creek, in the fields of flowers outside the city, or even horseback riding, talking, laughing, and eventually, kissing. Everyday, they fell deeper and deeper in love.

One night, they went out to dinner at a big restaurant in the town. They both had too much to drink, and he took her back to the hotel where he was staying. She spent the night there, and in the morning, when she awoke to see Wang Hongli next to her, and remembered what had the previous night; she shook him awake and started to panic.

When he woke up, and realized what he had done, he was so overcome with shame and guilt that he told her the truth about himself. In reality, he was the Qianlong emperor, on a trip to visit southern China. On the day they’d met, he was traveling to the town incognito, and when he met her, he just had to stay. As they fell in love, many times, he’d wanted to tell her the truth and ask her to go back to the palace with him and be his consort, but he couldn’t think of a way to tell her so that she wouldn’t be angry with him for lying.

My mother wasn’t angry when she heard the truth. She wasn’t all that surprised either. He’d had a way about him, she later told me, that told her he couldn’t just be some commoner. My mother still loved him dearly, because nothing could break the love that they had, but when he asked her to move back to the palace with him, she refused.

“I love you, but I can’t bare to share you with other women,” she’d said to him, “Leave me, go back to the palace and forget about me. Let us both live, as sweet dreams, in each other’s hearts.”

The emperor, seeing that she was set on not leaving with him, had no choice but to return to the palace and continue his imperial duties. However, before he left, he presented her with two presents: a magnificent fan onto which he wrote a love poem that they had composed together, and a beautiful flute. He also gave her a letter, signed with the imperial stamp, in which he wrote that the lady who had possession of the letter as well as the fan and flute was to be allowed in to the Forbidden Palace and take directly to see him if she should arrive at the gates. If she should change her mind, he’d said when he gave her the three things, she could always go to Beijing and find him.

They said a tearful goodbye. A month later, my mother found out that she was pregnant. Immediately, she regretted her decision to let my father go back without her, but ever since the emperor left, my mother had been too sick to travel. After eight long months, my mother gave birth to two girl twins. She named me Yunlu, and my sister Yunhua, and made sure that we received the best education a girl could receive.

I was a diligent student, as I was shy and timid, and did everything my mother told me to do. Yunhua, on the other hand, was a born troublemaker. She became very interested in martial arts, and would always sneak out of the house to watch the street performers when we were supposed to be reading or playing the flute, until finally my mother struck a deal with her that if she would just learn the bare minimum our tutor was teaching us, she would find her a teacher to teach her kung fu.

This story that I now tell had been kept a secret from Yunhua and me until our sixteenth birthday. My mother, who had been very sick with a cough and a fever, called us over to her bed. She recounted the story of how she met our father and how we came to be.

“We had a great love that few people will ever know,” she told us, “Daughters, I was so wrong to have let him go. If you ever find someone for whom you have a love that takes over your whole life, don’t let him get away. If you miss your chance, you will regret it all your life.”

Then, she gave us a key and told us where the three gifts from the emperor were kept, and asked Yunhua for paper and a brush. With her last bit of strength, she wrote a letter to the emperor, sealed it, and handed it to us.

“Go find your father,” she told us, “and give him this letter. Even if he doesn’t believe that you are his daughters, he will believe that this letter is from me.”

“Yes, mother,” I promised through tears, “Yunhua and I will go as soon as possible.” She nodded, smiled, and closed her eyes. With her last breath, she recited the love poem written on the fan.

After my mother’s funeral, Yunhua and I sold the umbrella factory, and started out for Beijing. We reached the city in the tenth month, and went directly to the palace. My mother had told me about the emperor’s letter, so I walked right up to one of the guards standing outside Shenwu Gate, the northern gate of the Forbidden City, and showed it to him. He read it through, and laughed in my face.

“Do you think a couple of common girls could fool me,” he spat, “I could forge a better stamp.”

“No,” Yunhua cried, stepping forward, “this is no fake. Our mother gave this to us...”

“Leave here,” the guard cut her off, “leave here before I have the two of you arrested for trying to sneak into the Forbidden City.” He shoved Yunhua back, and I had to hold her down to prevent her from running up and slapping the guard across the face.

“Yunhua,” I’d scolded as I dragged her away from the gate, “this is the capital city now. We have to watch what we say or do, or we’ll end up being thrown in prison!”

That night, we stayed at a little inn in Beijing, and the next morning we started to the marketplace to find our how we could find the emperor. The market place in Beijing was nothing like our marketplace back home. The smells of roasting yam and lamb kabobs sprinkled with cumin drifted lazily through the air, and everywhere stall keepers were shouting out what they had to offer. Every corner seemed to be buzzing with life and excitement.

“Come buy your watermelons,” I remember a shopkeeper saying to us, “I tell you, these watermelons are fit for the emperor!”

I’d mostly ignored the shopkeepers’ yells, and focused my ears on smalltalk among the buyers, listening very closely for the words “emperor” or “royal”. Yunhua, however, ran in front of me, looking at every stall and touching everything.

I caught up with her, and was just about to scold her again, when I heard horse hooves behind me. Yunhua pushed me out of the way, but she didn’t get away fast enough, and the horse knocked her down and kicked her in the chest.

This horse belonged to a high-ranking army commander named Fuheng. His son, Fu Ling’an, had tied up the horse outside a teashop, but some street children had untied him and hit him with a whip, causing the horse to run down the streets of the marketplace. When Ling’an found the horse, a nearby storekeeper was holding it down while I tried to stop her chest from bleeding. Ling’an, horrified at what his horse had done, had brought us both to his family mansion and summoned their family doctor to treat Yunhua’s wounds.

Throughout her recovery, Ling’an brought the medicine to the guest bedchamber door every day, for men are not allowed in a girl’s bedroom. In the meantime, he and I often had long talks in the reception hall of the guest chambers. I explained to him our situation, and he’d promised that, once Yunhua healed, he would bring us to the emperor. In turn I found that he was a commander like his father, and was called back to Beijing last year from the boarders after a great victory against an invading army. He was now serving as the emperor and his family’s secondary guard.

I


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