Lost In Palace

Vivi Dai November 12, 2021
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Many years ago, the Zhao Village in southern China earned fame with its magnificent ancestral hall, known as “Folk Palace”. It contained ninety-nine striking gold-plated pillars, all carved with vivid lotus patterns, and the two main beams were made of hundred-year-old oak trunks from the deep forest, so massive that two people could barely carry them. A young man named Zhao Ben was taking care of the landscape around the ancestral hall. Zhao Ben belonged to a poor branch of the Zhao family and had failed the first level of the imperial examination, so he was in a humble station and assigned to do manual work.
Although he envied his cousins who had succeeded in passing all three levels of the examination and become admirable imperial officials, Zhao Ben accepted the status quo and comforted himself by saying, “Although I am not talented in passing exams, I can be a master at landscaping. As long as I fulfill my job, I’m paying respect to my ancestors and contributing to my hometown.”
Out of devotion, Zhao Ben did his best to take care of the flowers and plants. In just a few years, the ancestral hall became shaded with flourishing pines and cypresses, fragrant with pomelo and laurel. Zinnias, hanging orchids, cyclamen, geraniums, and all kinds of flowers that symbolize respect and remembrance of the ancestors bloomed year-round. Whenever there were major events such as memorials and festivals, the leaders in the village gathered together and wandered through the sea of flowers, praising the ancestors’ merits and blessings. Of course, Zhao Ben didn’t have the opportunity to attend the ceremonies with those noble people. He could only watch far from a distance, standing on tiptoe with excitement and peering over the heads of others to observe the spectacle in awe.
One spring the village had unusual weather. It felt as warm as early summer in March, but in late April, a strong cold wind blew from the northwest and the temperature dropped below zero. Many flowers that had just sprouted were frozen solid and broke at the slightest touch. Zhao Ben was so distressed by this that he spent the entire day in the garden covering the ground with straw and even moving some delicate seedlings into his bathroom to keep them warm.
One stormy night, Zhao Ben had just gone to bed after an exhausting day when he heard someone knock on the door.
Could it be someone coming to inform me of an emergency? he thought, hurriedly getting out of bed and lighting a lamp to open the door.
To his surprise, a strange girl in a beautiful pink dress was standing outside. She was completely soaked from the rain, and messy wet hair covered her face like seaweed.
Zhao Ben looked around, but there was no one else. He asked with a wary look, “Who are you? How did you get in?”
Tossing her long hair off her forehead, the girl gently begged, “I passed by here with my family, but got lost in the storm. Please let me go inside and warm up a little bit.”
After hesitating for a moment, Zhao Ben shook his head, “Sorry, I can’t let you in. If someone sees you, both of us will get into trouble.”
As a well known family which had produced many successful officials for generations, Zhao village had always been extremely strict on traditional rules, including barring females from entering the ancestral hall. Actually, women would be punished even if they glanced at the ancestral hall, which was considered as an offense to the family honor.
Thinking of this, Zhao Ben hardened his heart and urged, “Go east out of the gate, then you’ll cross a bridge, and there you’ll see a small ranch. The people there will let you stay the night.”
The girl shivered in the cold and sobbed, “It’s too dark out there…”
Zhao Ben hastened back to the room, took out an umbrella and a lantern, and handed them to the girl, “If you walk fast, it will only take ten minutes. Don’t tell anyone you came here!” Without waiting for the girl’s answer, Zhao Ben quickly shut the door.
At first, the girl’s sob could be heard faintly outside the door, but it soon fell silent. With a sigh of relief, Zhao Ben closed his eyes to go to sleep. However, he kept tossing and turning. His heart became so heavy with remorse that he couldn’t go to sleep.
“The poor girl must have arrived in the village by now. I hope they will offer her something warm to eat,” he muttered to himself in the dark, then realized something was wrong. “Oh no, I forgot that there is another road after crossing the bridge. If she goes in the wrong direction, she will end up in the graveyard. That’ll be terrible. I must go check on her!” He kicked off the blanket, jumped up, quickly put on his clothes, and ran out of the door.
By this time, the rain had stopped and the crescent moon was peeping out from behind the scattered clouds in a sky looking like frosty indigo glass.
As he neared the garden gate, Zhao Ben saw the girl lying face down on the cobblestone path in front of a small bamboo grove, and the umbrella and lantern with its flame extinguished had dropped beside her. He rushed over and patted the girl’s shoulder, “Hey, are you okay? Wake up!”
The girl was motionless, and her body was already as cold as rainwater.
“This is all my fault!”
Feeling deeply guilty, Zhao Ben ignored the ban on physical touch between men and women, gathered the girl into his arms, and ran to the guest room. He placed her carefully on the bed, with his eyes shut he removed her dress, then covered her with a blanket. After lighting a fire pit near the bed, Zhao Ben finally returned to his room shortly after midnight and soon fell into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning, Zhao Ben got up and rushed to the guest room. The girl was still quietly lying in the tea-green blanket with printed clover patterns. When she heard footsteps, she slowly opened her eyes and said, “My name is Fenshang, thank you for saving me.”
The girl’s face was still pale, but she earnestly thanked Zhao Ben with a weak smile.
Zhao Ben fumbled for words, “It’s g-good that you’re awake. I’ll ex-excuse myself and come back later with breakfast.” Growing up, he had never been in a room alone with a young girl before, not to mention accidentally glimpsing her body last night. He fled from the room like a frightened rabbit, causing Fenshang to laugh softly from her bed.
After another day, Fenshang was able to leave her bed and walk around. Entering the greenhouse, she saw many withered leaves lying on the floor and Zhao Ben kneeling over the flowers that had yellowed.
“Are these flowers frozen?” Fenshang bent down and asked.
“The plants are not improving no matter what I do. I did not expect such a cold wave in April…”
Before finishing the words, Zhao Ben got up abruptly, “You must not allow anyone to see you. Please go back to your room right now!”
Ignoring his warning, Fenshang crouched down, took out a small emerald vial from her pocket, and removed the cap. The greenhouse was immediately filled with a delicate sweet fragrance. After carefully putting a few drops of the transparent liquid on the stem at the base of each plant, Fenshang gently stroked each stem and leaf with both hands. Within a few moments, the dying plants miraculously came back to life, their stems firm and strong, the petals of the flowers thick and tender, the shrunken leaves slowly pulsating and stretching out.
Zhao Ben bowed deeply to Fenshang in awe, “I’m sorry for being too ignorant to recognize your talents! Could you please teach me how you grow flowers?”
Grinning, Fenshang helped him rise, “You saved my life. I’m glad to show my gratitude.”
From then on Fenshang hid in the guest room. When no one visited the ancestral hall, she would sneak out to take care of the flowers together with Zhao Ben in the garden.
One evening, the two of them took a stroll, admiring the blooming purple wisterias. Fenshang’s beautiful amber-colored eyes sparkled in the sunset. As they walked, from time to time, Zhao Ben would steal a glance at Fenshang, his heart thumping wildly.
Fenshang chuckled and teasingly said, “Are you looking at me or are you looking at flowers?”
“I don’t know…” Zhao Ben murmured, scratching his head in embarrassment.
Fenshang sighed, sounding a little disappointed.
Zhao Ben couldn’t contain himself and blurted out, “I-I am looking at you… Actually, I want to look at you forever!”
The faint flush on both faces instantly became a vivid glow. They didn’t know where to look and were not even aware of having stopped. After a moment’s silence, Zhao Ben summoned up the courage to take Fenshang’s hand. She smiled shyly and clasped his hand without saying a word. The two were lost in the sweetness of the moment, holding hands and walking along the path without realizing that they had entered the main courtyard for the first time.
Suddenly Fenshang froze, statue-like, a horrified look on her face. “What is this?” She pointed at a building which looked like a gloomy giant shadow lurking in front of them.
Zhao Ben, still drowning in happiness, didn’t notice Fenshang’s trembling voice and answered lightly, “This is the ancestral hall of the Zhao family. It is majestic, isn’t it?”
Fenshang grabbed his hand, “It’s chilly here, let’s go!”
Zhao Ben, thinking she might catch a cold, walked her back, brewed a pot of Fenshang’s favorite honey tea, and brought it to her room.
“I added a little ginger. It will warm you up,” Zhao Ben said, but Fenshang put the teacup down after just a small sip. “I’m afraid you and I are not able to be together for long,” she whispered, shuddering involuntarily.
Zhao Ben was shocked, his face bewildered. “Why do you say that?”
Fenshang’s face was pale with fear, “When we just approached the ancestral hall, I had a strange feeling that someone was glaring at me viciously. It was horrifying. I don’t think I can stay here any longer.”
Zhao Ben finally realized what the problem was. He lowered his head and frowned, “I should have thought of this earlier. More than three hundred memorial tablets of our ancestors are displayed inside the ancestral hall. It is said that their spirits are still protecting the village. They must be warning us that you shouldn’t stay here… This is all my fault. I should have been more careful.”
Fenshang looked at him in despair, “What shall we do now?”
Zhao Ben pursed his lips, pondered for a moment, and then comforted Fenshang gently, “Don’t be afraid. No one has seen you so far, so it will be OK if you move out as soon as possible. ” He paused for a second, “Would you be willing to stay with my parents? They would really enjoy having you.”
Fenshang nodded with a smile, but her eyes slowly welled with tears. “May I ask you for one thing?” she squeezed her fingers hard.
“Let’s leave here together.”
Astounded, Zhao Ben said, “Do I have to leave too?”
“Women are not allowed to come in here, so we will only be able to see each other when you have the chance to go home for a visit, and that will be once a month. I don’t want to be separated from you that long!” Fenshang grabbed Zhao Ben’s hands, “After we leave here, we can buy a farm, grow any flowers we like, and use them to decorate our own house. We can also make a living by selling flowers, which will turn the village into a huge garden. We will have a happy life together!”
Fenshang’s words coming from deep within her heart moved Zhao Ben; he was immersed in thought. Since he started working for the ancestral hall as a landscaper from the time he was fifteen years old, he had considered this place his second home. He had poured his heart and soul into it, never thinking that one day he would leave. After all, this job had not only provided him with a stable life but had also brought great honor to his family. Whenever a grand ceremony was held at the ancestral hall, relatives and friends who had no chance to attend would flock to his home to inquire about the details, which was a rare moment of glory for his parents.
Should he pursue love, or should he preserve his reputation? Zhao Ben was torn and fell in long silence. Fenshang waited quietly, hands clenched on the edge of the blanket.
Finally Zhao Ben made up his mind, and raising his head, “Okay, let’s leave together.”
Delighted yet at the same time uncertain, Fenshang asked, “Have you thought it through?”
Zhao Ben looked straight into her eyes, “Yes, I have thought it through. What I love the most is growing flowers. As long as I can do that, there is no difference whether it’s in the ancestral hall or somewhere else. And the most important thing is that I need you… I can’t lose you.”
Overjoyed, Fenshang jumped off the bed, took Zhao Ben’s hand, and walked towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
Fenshang turned around, cheering like a songbird, “We’re leaving now!”
Zhao Ben stopped her in amusement, “Don’t be so hasty, I have to ask the head of the village and get his approval first.”
Instantly Fenshang‘s face clouded over, “Will he permit you?”
Zhao Ben nodded with confidence, “The head has always been nice to me. I’m sure he will understand. I’ll go to see him tomorrow.”
Fenshang was still upset, but she didn’t want to worry Zhao Ben, so she forced a weak smile, “Ok, please come back soon. I’m afraid of staying here alone.”
“Don’t worry, I will go early and return early.”
The next morning, Zhao Ben went to see the head of the village to report his plan to start a family and recommend another young but competent landscaper to replace him. Although he usually was quite amiable, the head unexpectedly gave Zhao Ben a flat refusal despite his pleading.
“Serving our ancestors is a noble job, especially when we give you this opportunity in spite of your lowly status. It would be extremely disappointing if you quit just for some personal matters. If your future wife is sensible, I’m sure she will understand this and be happy to support your work. Besides, others may follow your example. If we let you quit, then how could we run our management in the future? People would come and go as they wished. The whole village would fall into disorder. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be responsible for that, and neither would your parents. You should take them into consideration when you make decisions.”
In desperation, Zhao Ben went to visit the head’s secretary, offering money he had been saving for years and begging him to intercede on his behalf. The secretary had received help from Zhao Ben’s father before, so he accepted the money, and using his influence, easily persuaded the head to let Zhao Ben go.
When he received the good news, Zhao Ben was filled with joy and hurried back to the ancestral hall. As soon as he entered the door, he called out, “I’m back!”
The room was in semi-darkness, the furniture was neat and clean, two fresh wisteria vines arranged in a bud vase filled the room with fragrance, and a cup of honey tea was on the table half empty. Everything looked as usual. However, the dead silence like a cold lifeless pond alarmed Zhao Ben. He rushed to the kitchen and then the garden, but couldn’t find Fenshang. He became anxious, looking for his lover everywhere around the ancestral hall, but like a melting snowflake, Fenshang had disappeared.
Ever since that moment, Zhao Ben became a broken soul. He continued When he wasn’t hopelessly searching the village, he leaned against the door, staring blankly. Everyone could see him wasting away, and rumors started to spread that he had been haunted by evil spirits.
A few days later, at twilight, as he staggered through the main courtyard, mumbling his lover’s name, he caught sight of a young girl with long hair like a waterfall standing not far ahead under the dimly glowing sun.
In wild excitement, Zhao Ben rushed over and couldn’t help shouting, “Fenshang, you’re back!”
The girl swiftly turned around. Gazing at Zhao Ben with bright eyes, she asked with a strange tone, “You know my little sister?”
Zhao Ben came to an abrupt halt and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, noticing that the girl was not wearing a dainty pink dress, but a blue dress like the night sky. Although she was almost identical to his lover at first glance, her facial features were lucid and cool instead of delicate and sweet, and there was a hint of heroic spirit imposed between her dark brows.
Extremely disappointed, Zhao Ben barely managed to pull himself together to whisper, “Fenshang is missing…”
“I know,” the girl nodded slightly. “My name is Lanshang. Two months ago we were scattered by a storm on our way to the north. I have been searching for her everywhere.”
“Do you know where she is?” Zhao Ben’s voice trembled, with a gleam of hope.
Looking at the ancestral hall in the gathering gloom, Lanshang answered gravely, “I’ve just sensed her, though it’s faint, I’m sure she is in that building.”
Zhao Ben shook his head, “It’s impossible. I’ve searched there many times.”
“I trust my feelings,” Lanshang said. “Now I’ll go inside to find my sister, I hope it’s not too late.”
Zhao Ben stepped forward, “Then I’ll go with you!”
“Please guard the entrance. If anything runs out, no matter how strange, try to catch it.”
After saying that, Lanshang took off her belt, which turned out to be two thin silver swords, glittering in the moonlight.
While Zhao Ben was in shock, Lanshang had dashed into the ancestral hall, her slender figure disappearing in the darkness like a willow branch dipped into deep water.
For a moment, the ancestral hall was deadly silent, the air frozen. Anxiously, Zhao Ben stood by the door, occasionally popping his head inside. A sudden gust of stinking wind blew against his face, almost making him vomit, followed by sharp rustling sounds like thousands of bamboo branches swaying and crying. Through the grayish white fog rolling and whirling in the hall, Zhao Ben could barely make out a blue figure, sometimes drifting, sometimes darting rapidly. The two silver swords shone like lightning bolts, constantly splitting the smelly thick fog.
Suddenly Lanshang shouted, “It’s coming towards you!”
Zhao Ben caught sight of a flat round figure, the size of two palms, crookedly crawling out, leaving traces of dark blue blood on the floor. In the blink of an eye, it bumped onto the threshold, with several broken legs twitching wildly on both sides of its body. Having no time to take a closer look, Zhao Ben grabbed the empty flower pot at his feet, and with all his strength brought it down over the figure, trapping it inside.
“I got it!”
He shouted. As he rushed into the ancestral hall, what he saw there dumbfounded him. The entire hall, the floor, the pillars, the beams, were covered with slimy white threads, which he had to constantly wipe off his face. It struck him that the day Fenshang had disappeared, some similar threads had been stuck on the corners of the table.
A loud noise of things breaking came from the back of the room. Zhao Ben ran towards it and saw that Lanshang was wielding two swords, cutting the huge wooden altar, which was covered by a crimson satin tablecloth, into pieces. Hundreds of gold-plated tablets fell to the ground, scattering in all directions.
“Stop! Those are ancestral tablets!” Zhao Ben cried out in terror.
Before his voice had died away, Lanshang stopped moving, her face pale and grey, tears trickling down her cheeks.
Following Lanshang’s gaze, Zhao Ben collapsed to the ground, weeping inconsolably.
In the dusty corner behind the altar, there was a thick cobweb. There entangled in the web were the broken wings of a beautiful pink butterfly.

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