The bustling crowd finally dispersed at noon. Hu Mei'r found a refuge of sorts in that place, and by nightfall still had not gone home. She had in fact been seized by a mad compulsion to enter the inner expanses of the imperial compound and see for herself the wealth and splendor of its three palaces and six courtyards. Now, dear reader, can you guess how she might have developed this wild obsession ? Well, for one her physical and mental balance had been upset by the "original truth" passed down through that fairy's painting. And another cause lay in those three characters for "Queen of the House of Wang" that were now going round and round compulsively inside of her! Hearing that story about Daji gave rise to an itching in her heart that simply could not be satisfied, and so under cover of night she wandered into the Imperial Precinct. Of course being a manifestation of a sorceress fox she could come and go without a trace. But the Imperial compound, apart from civil society, was no place for playing. Seeing how severe the guards appeared she couldn't help but feel terror at heart and so she didn't dare go dashing in in. But just as she turned back toward the Councilors' Gate she took notice of some craftsmen, just finishing their labors in the imperial gardens. A eunuch was discussing something with their boss, under the light of two Chinese lantern stands and a couple of torches that rendered the scene as bright as day. Taking advantage of the noise and bustle, Hu Mei'r wandered forth into the palace garden, but after traveling on for quite awhile she was confronted with the sight of those high walls and earthworks of the palace itself, pretty difficult to leap over. So again she sat killing time in cold silence, until she suddenly remembered that the Emperor lived in the eastern hall; alas her blood's qi was still unsettled. Why, she thought, if they could only but meet once it would surely mean tender love at first sight! What was more, having heard that he was a rebirth of the Great Fairy Barefoot, certainly not made of mortal stuff, she knew that if she could have ultimate relations with him she would be gaining quite a bit in the bargain. And so around to the east she whirled striding off on a winding course. Crossing the bridge over the Palace moat she thought of wading in and following that narrow waterway right inside, but fear of its possible depth and that very inconvenient copper sluicgate made her continue straight ahead. Then with the Imperial water clock sounding the fall of night, perhaps seven o'clock, and the moon yet to rise, she caught sight of a number of lights in the distance. Scrambling up for a closer look she could discern five lesser eunuchs carrying Chinese lanterns, going to the toilet in a group. "If they came out of a door there's nothing to worry about," she thought. "Where there's a way out, there's a way in!" And taking advantage a quick peek towards some light she did indeed spot an open side door! Mei'r pushed on through. Leaping over an outhouse she ran on along the tops of a few halls until she heard the sound of someone reciting texts down below. Mei'r didn't come down, but dug through the layer of rooftiles and pushed aside a beam for a look below.
Now, this was what they called the Zishantang, the place where the future Emperor read his books. And although it was already late, so innately clever and fond of study was this Prince that he sat and studied by candlelight. A few eunuchs were slumping over the tables or lying around the room. "I'd better grab this chance while I can," thought Mei'r, and so she invisibly flew down through that hole in the roof for a better look. In the hall behind the seminar some old women were gathered round the stove making tea. On the table were arranged some carved laquered cups, silver teapots and golden spoons. Mei'r removed her scarf, erased her face and mouth with a wipe of her hand and changed herself into a beautiful and charming young Palace maid. Then she suddenly took a cup and teapot and spit into them. Next she blew into them, and her saliva changed magically into fragrant hot tea! Now, fox spittle is a fine agent for bewitching folks, and one who drinks it will surely swoon. No matter whether the most morally cultivated of men or the purest of women, it's hard to say they wouldn't fall for the fox's lure! Hu Mei'r slipped into the study hall in the most bewitchingly beautiful way imaginable, holding the teacup with both hands and approaching the Crown Prince as if to offer it to him when suddenly what should appear in a flash from behind but the figure of a revered diety! As for its appearance, here is a xijiangyue poem:
Now just who was this revered diety but the Righteous Brave Peacemaker and Defender of the Throne, the spirit of General Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms! The Son of Heaven always has a hundred dieties to protect him, and today it was this god's turn to stand guard in the sky and as fate would have it to see Hu Mei'r brazenly transform herself by sorcery. He reported this to the Jade Emperor who was outraged, sending this holy relation of his down to the Palace to remove the crescent steel sword from its green dragon scabbord and slice her head like a melon in one stroke! HuMei'r gave a cry, dropped the cup and fell over backwards. Hearing the yelp of a fox filled the Crown Prince with terror, and the eunuchs awoke in fright, crowding around for a look with lanterns in hand illuminating the scene. All that they found was a dead vixen on the floor with its brain bursting out; its clothes were tossed aside and looked just like the discarded skin of a cicada. All present ran wildly out with lanterns to search for any possibly remaining foxes in the Palace, searching everywhere and finding none, and all were at a loss as to where it had come from. Later in the night they carried the fox's corpse out behind the hall.
Early next morning the Crown Prince reported the affair at court to his Holiness the Emperor, who ordered the Minister of Heaven to look into it and determine what for better or worse it augored. He later reported as follows:
"Fox-sorcerers posing as humans are are nothing new. But how could one have penetrated the Emperor's inner precincts? This must have been a truly extraordinary witch vixen! As for what it all means, we were visited yesterday by a flametailed fox that died and left its strange spirits around and so we should be vigilant against the outbreak of fires around the Palace. As the fox was slain by a god, the Crown Prince should be blessed with a thousand years of happiness and not be troubled by any misfortune." As it came to pass that there were no fires, and the Emperor didn't pursue the matter further, But later folks have a poem:
Now to digress in our story, let's go back to Grand Eunuch Lei, just returning home from the Board of Rites and calling out for his bride to join him for a bit of drink. "That little wife of yours has been locked in her room since morning," reported one of the eunuchs. "The door hasn't budged all day and she wouldn't answer us. What could be wrong?"
Eunuch Lei knocked a few times and then tried calling out, but all was silent inside. In anger he ordered the door broken open but not a trace of her was found anywhere. "She couldn't feel any tenderness toward me," thought Lei darkly, "so perhaps she's run off. But there's no ladder in here; how could she have gone over the walls with those tiny feet of hers?" He then hesitated for a moment. "Well, she's indeed gone," he announced; "and the only place she can be is at her uncle's. One of you, go on over for a look and then we'll know for sure."
The servant acknowledged Zhang's words and went back directly. That night, Zhang Ying's heart was full of worry and doubt. Locking the door he wrote and recited charms, hoping to snatch up his niece's soul and find out what had happened. This had always summoned spirits but now failed to work. "What a weird affair!" shouted Zhang, frustrated and puzzled. Then, facing that portrait of Mei'r's original spirit, he once more concentrated his thoughts on the ever-gathering swarm of ghosts. And sure enough a blast of cold wind came through and the painting seemed to emit some bitter sounding chirps. Then sudenly the spirit and soul of Hu Mei'r came out and manifested itself, tugging at Zhang Ying's sleeves and weeping bitterly. Zhang consoled her and asked what had happened.
I don't dare hide it any longer," she proclaimed; "I'm really a fox-spirit from the foot of Goosegate Mountain. Following my mother Holy Auntie on a journey through the clouds in search of Dao we met a squall that picked me up and cast me here, where you have so kindly sheltered and fed me. Then it happened that I was forcibly married to Eunuch Lei and then neglected. Two nights ago I awoke mumbling to myself in my sleep and felt as though my strength was leaving me. But come morning I heard about the selection of a queen, so I sneaked over for a look. Thinking my beauty to be uniquely irresistable, I burrowed into the Palace intent upon seduction, but alas I met with the anger of Spirit General Guan, who took me to Hades at swordpoint. I cried out bitterly, protesting my innocence over and over until General Guan reexamined the records of my case and pronounced me fated to go forth to a human rebirth, to someday make good at a place called Beizhou where I'm fated to become a queen in a harem. Within the month I'm to go to Squire Hu's home here in Kaifeng. It was just after my release that I encountered all of those ghosts and charms and followed them back here to you, sir, and I realize that the broken part of my soul, my lost hun essence, is here in this painting. Now I can finally reintegrate my spirit and be reborn, just as soon as you carry the painting over to Squire Hu's. And what's more sir, you too are destined to play a role in this coming event at Beizhou. When you meet my mother she'll tell you everything." And so having spoken she climbed into the painting and was gone.
Zhang Ying remembered that little poem she had told him of hearing when she was first swept away on the wind:
Now, he could understand her rebirth to Squire Hu's family, as she was surnamed Hu. But as for those three characters "the Empress Wang"...well, that would surely be no daughter-in-law of the present Emperor's Zhao family! He didn't know anything about this Beizhou business and began to worry about what would happen there. During his travels across the land he'd heard of Holy Auntie and her miraculous talents but nobody knew her current whereabouts. Perhaps, he thought, he would naturally understand eveything upon finally meeting her. All that night he wracked his brains, until at daybreak Grand Eunuch Lei came over to talk to him personally before any of his servants could do so. Zhang Ying didn't tell what had happened but only offered some small talk and pleasantries on which they could agree, exhorting the eunuch to search harder for the girl. Now, a story was just making the rounds of the capital about the fox that had died overnight in the East Palace's Zishantang and had been discarded out of the Councilors' Gate earlier that morning. Zhang Ying knew in his gut what had really happened and darkly declared it a strange miracle. Eunuch Lei tried everything to recover his lost bride, eventually despatching public officials and private servants and even local drifters and rascals to search all over, paying a thousand strings of cash in rewards for information. This was good business for those involved and they made the best of the opportunity, chasing ghosts and spirits and running all over in a wild goose chase for whatever information they could hear and follow up on. It was like this:
And that was the end of that.
To get back to the story, Zhang Ying had breakfast and then dressed up ever so fastidiously. Doffing a Daoist's fishtailed iron crown and a black bordered flame-patterned gown he then took down that portrait of Hu Mei'r's original soul and rolled it up ever so neatly, placing it in a basket of thorns. Then holding the basket raised high in his left hand and grasping a tortoise shell fan in his right he set off on his way; having heard that Squire Hu lived in Ping An Street he went there directly. It's like this:
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