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Pearl of the Palace - Part 4

Published:

Serialisation of the exciting Qing China fantasy sequel to Dragon Sisters by Joyce Chng. Read chapters 8 & 9 today!

939 words 4 minute read

Other parts in this serial

Chapter Eight

Full Moon

The fifteenth day of the Spring Festival celebrations was greeted with joy in the palace. It had been a Spring Festival marred by fires, massive flooding and earthquakes. Everything, the officials noted, seemed to have gone out of alignment. Nobody wanted to say it aloud, but "bad luck" was whispered in conversations and then shushed because uttering the words gave it voice and form.

It was an odd day: the cherry blossoms were blooming in full force, turning the courtyards into swathes of white and pink. The women walked amongst the trees, admiring the beauty. They picked the fallen flowers so that they could press them in books or wrap them in silk kerchiefs. Xiao Xin gathered handfuls of the cherry blossoms, tossing them into the air.

Xiao Xiao tried to enjoy the view. The sight of the blossoms lifted her spirits. But her heart remained heavy.

As the morning turned into afternoon, servants hung up lanterns specially made for the occasion and prepared the tables for the moon-viewing and general merry-making. The women spent time donning eye-catching headdresses and putting on pearl powder on their faces.

Xiao Xiao spent time with her jian, working on her drills. She heard the cheerful laughter coming from the chambers, the ladies-in-waiting eagerly discussing about the moon parties and meeting their beau. Yuan Xiao was traditionally known to be the day where couples met one another.

"Stay focused," Xiao Xiao muttered to herself. She swung around, her jian singing.

Mother stood under the pavilion, watching her with a steady gaze.

"Mother!" Xiao Xiao curtseyed immediately.

"You are not changing into your ceremonial gown?" It was not quite a question.

Xiao Xiao inhaled softly. "Just exercising before I change. We still have some time. I... I am a little restless."

"I have noticed that, daughter," Mother said, her voice gentle. "What's wrong? You have been acting strangely throughout the Spring Festival celebration."

"The fires. The floodings. The earth shaking. I don't feel good, Mother. I feel that something bad might happen."

"Oh, child," Mother walked over and placed her hand on Xiao Xiao's shoulder. "It is right to feel fearful."

"I... want us to be safe," Xiao Xiao said. "That is all." She dared not talk about the Nian, for fear of being laughed at.

"This is Spring Festival. Perhaps, by tonight, all bad luck will go away. Perhaps..." Mother stopped herself before smiling. "Go. Change. The ceremony will be starting soon."

Xiao Xiao lowered herself in a curtsey once more. Unease was a cold lump in her heart.

The shaggy Northern Lions pranced about, a family of three, including a tiny cub. They balanced on planks and stood on their hind legs. Cymbals and gongs accompanied their cheerful dancing. They charmed the audience, making them laugh aloud at their antics.

The hilarity soon died down as the entertainers exited the courtyard. Servants passed around bowls of sweet glutinous rice balls. They oozed peanut and sesame paste.

"The moon!" Xiao Xin pointed excitedly.

Indeed it was - a large round ball of white surrounded by a faint corona. Women lit their lanterns; the courtyard turned into a field of fire flies or stars.

There was a rumble, the earth shaking. Screams erupted. Lanterns caught fire.

"Earthquake!" Mother shouted or was shouting. Xiao Xiao wasn't sure.

Xiao Xiao fell where she stood. Her lantern sputtered out.

It was when she saw the monster rise from the earth. An enormous creature roughly resembling a shaggy Northern Lion with Southern Lion bits thrown in, but with scales that clashed like cymbals and eyes that lit the courtyard like twin burning suns.

The monster roared. The solid pillars and beams of the palace shook. Cherry blossom trees shed their flowers, petals turning black before crumbling into pieces. The koi in the ornamental ponds jumped out from the water as if they too wanted to flee. Stone lion guardians broke into halves.

In their moment of terror, the maids had forgotten about Xiao Xin. The little princess sat in the middle of overturned tables and utensils, sobbing. Burnt paper lanterns surrounded her like a dark ring.

The ... Nian strutted like a tiger, stalking right up to Xiao Xin. The little girl sobbed even louder, staring at its monstrous face. Like a curious palace dog, it gave her a tentative sniff before grabbing the child with its cavernous mouth and leaping onto the main roof of the palace. Roof tiles crashed. The officials and women shouted, trying to shield themselves. Mother was screaming, physically restrained by her ladies-in-waiting. The women bodyguards stood their ground to protect their mistress. Their eyes, though, were terrified.

And the monster disappeared.

"No!" Xiao Xiao screamed. "No! Xiao Xin... No!"

She heard Mother crying and screaming in the distance. People running, shouting. Everything felt so muffled.

The shock had ripped her heart out.

Ming Zhu, where are you?

Chapter Nine

Sisters

Sister, sister,
Where are you?
I miss you.
They are looking for you.
I will look for you.
Stay strong.
I will look for you.

Sister, sister,
Where are you?
I am swimming up the river.
I miss you.
I am looking for you.
Stay where you are.
I am looking for you.

Sister, sister,
Where are you?
I am scared.
I miss you.
I am looking for you.
I am waiting.
I will looking for you.

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