The gateway to the Forbidden City let her slip through as if she belonged there. At sixteen, she was ripe for plucking and back home was betrothed to her princely cousin as they were both descendants of the Celestial Emperor. The gateway, however, took away her noble status, as well as her flat shoes and peony scented topknot. She landed, rather heavily, outside the rear gates, as a nobody. An unaccompanied teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood ready to be brought before an earth-born emperor. She did not know the deceased emperor's son had secretly bequeathed his ancestral duties to his mother, or that her arrival had not gone unnoticed.
From one of the palace's windows, the Empress herself had seen this young girl loitering. She studied the girl as she walked to and fro in bare feet, muttering, and felt intrigued by this stranger. What could she want? There had been no new come-of-age daughters inspected and chosen as concubines, and besides it was not Spring time, it was Autumn. She ordered her eunuchs to bring this girl immediately to her.
Unusually, the Daughter of Jade did as she was bidden and entered the Forbidden City. She obediently followed the eunuchs through the outer and inner courts and into the vast palace, until she was stood before the Empress. She prostrated and returned to her majestic stature, despite her dusty brocade robe and missing headdress. After all, as the Daughter of Jade, she was distinguished, and the Enlightened City, invisibly towering above with its Celestial Emperor, was obviously greater. Surely this Empress would know that, but then why wasn't she prostrating too?
The Empress approached the trespassing girl with steely eyes. She noted the girl's direct, unabashed gaze, her beautiful face with its creamy skin, her upright posture, and her crushed lavender-mauve robe with its butterflies. Could she be a usurper? No, the Empress dismissed the thought, the girl was too graceful and fearless. She's just like me when I was sixteen, not yet tamed. The girl tried to speak, but the Empress waved her hand and refused to listen. She must have got lost and wandered here – I'll keep her as my maid!
The eunuchs took the Daughter of Jade away to be washed and clothed in new robes, and heavily scented with jasmine. The courts hummed with her coming: The Empress has a new pet! The Daughter of Jade didn't understand as the dialect they spoke was slightly different – she thought she was being revered, not trapped into providing entertaining company and eventual death. And when she did, she did not struggle or sob. She plotted... One day the Daughter of Jade informed the Empress she had entered an awakened state where she had seen 'jade palaces in the skies, misty plains and fields of light.' Could she borrow a rope ladder to show her this magnificent celestial sight?
On the next full moon, a hemp ladder was flung up to the skies, where on the third attempt it caught on a tree that only the Daughter of Jade could see. She hastily climbed and when concealed by the mountainous fog at the top, she wobbled the rungs so that the Empress, who was then suspended between heaven and earth, plunged feet-first into the land of the Hungry Ghosts.
*Inspired by Shan Sa's Empress