The Peony Prince
Story by BoSt
Prickly’s travels took him far and wide. Eventually he crossed the ocean and, disembarking from the merchant vessel he had sailed on, set foot in on an island that was strangely mysterious and exciting at the same time.
By now he’d learned the art of camouflage so quickly disguising himself he, with active curiosity and quick intelligence, set upon a mission to accumulate all the pertinent data of this new land; the language, history, geography, customs and so forth, all the better to blend in with the crowds of this fantastic land. Before long he was wizened to their ways and came and went without anyone noticing him. He would sit endlessly at the tea-houses and temples and eavesdrop to the conversations around him.
Once, while milling about at a peony festival and enjoying the fantastic blooms, he came across a story teller who had attracted a large gathering. He was animatedly retelling an old legend about a Peony Prince. Prickly liked this story so much that he imprinted it in his mind so as to share it with us now.
Once upon a time at Makonwa, in the Country of Yonar, there was a grand old castle called Wataozi, surrounded by high walls and a deep moat deceptively carpeted with lotus lilies.
In this castle resided the powerful feudal King Kongzuozhi, who was an unbending, stern ruler.
He’d not always been that way; he’d changed drastically after the sudden loss of his only son and heir and the tragic demise of his bellowed wife. Sadly, that had occurred before the eventual cessation of his prolonged wars with the neighbouring states.
It was a small consolation that the truce, after years of devastating wars had left thousands dead and the land ravaged, lasted long after the treaty was signed. Upon the demise of his beloved wife, something had died in King Kongzuozhi and from then on, forsaking love, His Highness concentrated only on his administrative duties and an occasional hunt.
Unfortunately his beautiful daughter became another, unacknowledged casualty and was pretty much left to grow up on her own.
His chief Councillors, noting that King Kongzuozhi daughter, Princess Juanjing, was now eighteen and at good marriageable age collectively proposed to have her be suitably married.
After careful consideration His Majesty perceived this to be the perfect opportunity to solidify the truce with his most formidable foe, King Akono of Goakan.
It so happened that his arch nemesis had a second son that might be a suitable match and so he coolly consented to have the two royal houses allied through a binding marriage.
A meeting between The Majesties was soon arranged and an agreement reached that satisfied both fathers.
The two betrothed were then, in the company of sizeable entourage, briefly allowed to see each other and exchange pleasantries before being summarily whisked away.
The prospective groom Prince Daro could hardly contain his good fortune and returned to his quarters as if in a daze, for Princess Juanjing was the most beautiful girl he’d ever set eyes on. She not only was an enchanting beauty, but also had a lovely poised figure and appeared quite intelligent and sweet.
Ever the dutiful daughter, Princess Juanjing for her part found her intended not entirely objectionable and promised herself to be the most loving and caring wife to her prospective husband. She was also relieved to learn that she and her husband would be living in the same castle she grew up in until the Title passed to their firstborn son upon the death of her father.
One fine evening, as sleep averted her, Princess Juanjing accompanied by her maids, decided to take a long stroll in the magnificent gardens. She delighted at the cool breeze caressing her cheeks and puffing up her sleeves as she cast her eyes lovingly on the huge blooms of her favorite peonies, planted in stands hither and thither all along the path. She lingered by the pond where some water lilies were also in bloom. Absently she gazed at her reflection on the pond then watched the fireflies dancing in air as she listened to the harmonious croaks of the mating frogs.
“What’s this?” a curious image drew her attention and she bent over to see it more clearly. The slippery ground at the edge of the pond gave way, making her lose her balance and she was in imminent danger of falling into the water.
But just in time a handsome young man appeared and, gently cradled Princess Juanjing in his arms as he pulled her to safety.
He disappeared the moment her feet touched solid ground and she was out of harm’s way. But the pleasant scent of peony lingered about her.
Her maids in attendance on her had seen the slip and, as they rushed to save the Princess, they also noticed a glimmer of light about her as the Princess was returned to the safety of solid ground, but of the handsome young man they saw nothing.
Princess Juanjing’s heart was captivated from that moment on, truly smitten by this most handsome young man with fine features, and bedecked in floral patterned fineries.
He was clad in what she deemed to be a noble warrior’s court attire of the highest order. Clearly he was a Prince. For one thing the intrigue, near invisible pattern on his silk garment was that of a thousand exquisitely embroidered peonies and his sword’s scabbard was encrusted with rare jewels in the same pattern. She longed to see him again, if only, to thank him for saving her from the water.
She could not help but wonder how he’d happened to be there. Moreover, how could he have entered the private gardens without alerting the guards? More puzzling still was the fact that none of her maids had seen him. Could he have been a ghost? …A Fairy perhaps? Regardless, she cautioned all those in attendance to keep this a secret for she feared most of all that word of this would reach her father and cause a stir.
If he was for real, this infringement of security, however innocent, and the resulting trespassing charge, would place his life in direst jeopardy. Harbouring a certain fondness in her heart for him already, she could not bear to see him decapitated.
Unfortunately, during the subsequent days and nights she was kept busy, hardly a moment to spare. Having no mother, she was herself charged with the responsibilities of overseeing certain preparations of her trousseau and the impending nuptials. And so, even though she longed to visit the pond on the slight chance of encountering the young man again, she could never seem to get away. That is not to say she did not think of him every minute, every second of her wakeful moments.
Her seemingly unending duties and obligations created unmanageable stress and this, coupled with her secret obsession with the mysterious young man, eventually took its toll and the Princess soon fell ill. She could not eat or sleep and her pallor grew ghostly pale. She grew thinner and thinner… The Princess was wasting away regardless of any treatment. The attending physicians were baffled for they could not pinpoint the reason for her progressing ailment.
Naturally the day of Princess Juanjing’s marriage with the young Prince Daro had to be postponed, if not, in the event of her demise, altogether aborted.
The King Akono of Goakan did not take this change of plan too kindly. Deeming it a personal affront, or at best a ruse, the relationships between the two countries became further strained.
King Kongzuozhi , her father, was both infuriated and deeply grieved by this turn of events. He set up a commission to investigate this matter further and to resolve this dreadful predicament. The thorough search finally uncovered certain facts and brought to light the peculiar events of the specific night that was at the start of Princess Juanjing’s personal crisis. Princess’s confident and friend maid, Nieju, was detained, severely and repeatedly interrogated. In the end she broke down and, through her confession, the Lord was able to uncover the source of his daughter’s infirmity.
King Kongzuozhi ’s first reaction was one of extreme fury. He was not a superstitious King, so he expected the source to be an intruder. The guards on duty that night were all rounded up and severely punished. Those on duty in the garden lost their lives. His Majesty’s fury not spent however, he next wanted to have the gardens, specifically the peony beds that had once been his deceased wife’s personal project destroyed. The pond would not be spared either, nor would be any of the living creatures about. His closest advisors braved his wrath to in the end talk some moderation into King Kongzuozhi and so the decimation was averted in the nick of time.
They insisted that Princess Juanjing was sick and her malady was one of the heart. She had fallen deeply in love, a serious infatuation perhaps with the phantom, by then dubbed “The Peony Prince”, that she’d seen for so brief a span. He could be a fox spirit or other fey. They feared that Princess Juanjing would soon meet her untimely demise if something drastic was not done.
Unfortunately there was no account in the books of legend that matched the description of such a being.
King Kongzuozhi‘s ancestors had exercised domain over these lands for many generations yet the books did not speak of any tragedy or untimely demise of such a warrior Prince in this castle. Clearly this was a matter for the priests, for only they could exorcise this evil spirit that must have snuck into the garden in order to take possession of a pure soul like Princess Juanjing. If nothing was done soon, they warned His Majesty, Princess’s life would be forfeited.
King Kongzuozhi , with some scepticism, reluctantly agreed with this and so the Priests were called in to perform their exorcism at her sleeping quarters, in the garden and around the pond.
Princess Juanjing seemed a bit better after this though she remained downcast and listless in spirit. It was another full moon then and her vigilant attendants seizing this opportunity to enliven her spirit a little obtained the King’s permission to engage the services of Meing Sheju, a celebrated player on the Tazuo, that evening. The weather was particularly hot and in the absence of any breeze, they arranged seating on the gallery to enjoy the performance of musicians as they played “Dannoura”. Suddenly, to the amazement of all, that same handsome Prince manifested from the bed of peonies. He was unmistakably visible to all this time, right down to the elaborate peonies embroidered on his fine garments.
“There he is! There he is! I see him!” Many cried out and pointed, at which time he suddenly vanished. Princess Juanjing, seemed to have regained her zeal, she was up and smiling, with a tint of colour gracing her cheeks.
When the word of this reached His Majesty, her father he was infuriated and puzzled at the same time. “I knew those priests are all useless!” He scoffed; but he could not at the same time deny the sudden change that had come over his daughter.
The following night, while Mei played the flute and Sujikoa played the Koto for their mistresses the figure of the Peony Prince manifested again, though briefly. A thorough search of the garden, the peony beds and the pond continued into the subsequent day and produced no results, with not even the shallowest of footprints or even a bent blade of grass.
King Kongzuozhi’s fury knew no bounds. Eventually his ire dissipated and he agreed to engage a renowned mage of great strength and ability, Tao Yonume, to capture the phantom Peony Prince.
It was decided that, since music seemed to hold a special fascination for the apparition, it would be used to trap the phantom warrior Prince. Well before the music began playing, however, Tao Yonume all dressed in black, found a good spot to hide and evoked a spell to conceal his person.
Then he crouched among the peonies and waited. On cue, Meing Sheju and Osono started their concert, while all in attendance pinned their eager gaze on the peony beds. Princess Juanjing was concerned about the welfare of the apparition, but her longing to see him soon overcame her trepidation. As the music played “Sofuren” sure enough there materialized from the peony bed the figure of the Prince dressed splendidly in his fine embroidered garments. The attendants were puzzled as to why Tao Yonume did not jump up at this juncture to capture the apparition.
If the truth be known, Tao Yonume was so entranced by the noble bearing of the phantom Prince that at first he’d remained reluctant to capture him. His sense of duty overcame his hesitation however. He stealthily approached the apparition from behind and seized the Peony Prince round the waist, holding on with all his prodigious strength. After the phantom Prince was in his grasp, still clinging tightly to the apparition, Tao Yonume felt a strange wet vapour falling on his face. This by degrees made him fall in a swoon to the ground. Determined to hang on and still grasping the apparition, Tao Yonume forced himself to remain conscious and shouted, “I caught him… I caught him!”
But when he looked at what was in his grasp he saw only a large peony.
By then everyone had witnessed this struggle and armed guards hastened to the spot to apprehend the culprit. In their trail King Kongzuozhi also ran to the spot where Tao Yonume lay, followed by the Princess Juanjing and her maids.
The metamorphosis of a phantom Prince into a Peony astounded and mystified all except King Kongzuozhi who grumbled: “Ah, it is as I figured. This is no fox fairy or ghost. It is the noble sprit of the peony flower who has taken the form of a Noble warrior.” Then turning to his daughter he said, “I knew the security could not be breached. This is no ordinary apparition.” Tao Yonume nodded in agreement. “By your leave my Liege, may I add that this should be regarded as a high compliment from the Heavens.” King Kongzuozhi after a thoughtful silence concurred. “This is high praise indeed! You must all pay great respect to all the peonies, and show this one caught by Tao Yonume particular respect by taking good care of it.”
The King’s last words were directed at Princess Juanjing who immediately took charge and carried the peony flower back to her room. Her close attendants at once fetched her favorite vase and filled it with fresh water. She carefully placed the peony in the vase and placed it on a table near her bed. As nothing else happened that night, soon all retired to their quarters to get a good night sleep.
At one point after midnight Princess Juanjing was suddenly woke, having received a gentle kiss on the lips. Rubbing her eyes she sat up and looked about her. All was as it had been when she had dozed off, nothing stirred, yet there was an intoxicating perfume that permeated the air. She smiled looking at the peony in the vase and reached out and gently run her fingers over the petals.
When she reclined and closed her eyes a strange sensation took hold of her. She felt as though her beloved peony spirit was beside her. He held her tight in his caress and showered her face with gentle kisses.
She drifted at once to a deep sleep, to awaken next morning refreshed and full of vigour.
Day by day she got better and better. Soon she was her vigorous, radiant self again. Each day she tended the peony with meticulous care, and though a cut flower, the peony seemed to never wither but instead a perfect bloom grew more brilliant in colour and still more fragrant with her ministrations.
The news of her recovery had of course reached King Akono of Goakan. He sent his emissaries with word, that now Princess Juanjing was well, in keeping with their previous arrangement he expected the wedding to go on.
King Kongzuozhi saw no reason to put off the wedding any further and so picked the time for the ceremony. No one consulted Princess Juanjing’s wishes and she being a dutiful daughter expressed no objection to the already arranged marriage.
Princess Juanjing’s closest friend and confident patiently listened to her reservations and then reasoned with Princess that it was not possible for any human to live with an apparition or fairy forever. Meanwhile Princess Juanjing was reminded that she had her duty to fulfill and certain obligations were expected of her. She could not, and must not, renege on her filial duty to her father and ancestors. Lasting peace was ensured with this arrangement and all would prosper. The prospective groom was handsome in his own right and had other attractive attributes, so how bad could it be?
A month later the King Akono of Goakan and his family with much fanfare and rich gifts for the bride arrived at the Castle. On the appointed date, Prince Daro was married off to Princess Juanjing in an elaborate ceremony and festivities that lasted for weeks.
But a curious thing happened on the wedding night; an occurrence that quickly became a closely guarded secret between Princess Juanjing and her attendants. In preparation for the wedding Princess Juanjing insisted the peony and the vase be removed from her quarters that would henceforth serve as the matrimonial chamber and be placed in the adjoining room. In all the fanfare few had paid attention to the flower after this.
The morning after the marriage was consummated; the peony was found still in its vase, dead and withered. Princess Juanjing shed quiet tears upon seeing this but, of course, Prince Daro was never told. Later that afternoon, when she could get away, she visited the peony garden and, squatting by the side of the pond, unfolded her silk handkerchief, removed the dead peony and gently placed it in the water as she said her silent farewells.
She watched it sink deep under the lily pads until it was hidden from view. Then, wiping her tears, she turned to begin the new chapter in her life.