Love and the Summer Palace, Book 2 of my time travel duology will be out soon on August 31. The regular price is $3.99, but for pre-order is only $0.99. Here is the first chapter for you to preview:
I found myself lying on a desert ground. It took me a moment to register my surroundings. I was supposed to be inside the pit that functioned as the time chamber. But there wasn’t a lush forest from the eighteenth century nor was there trash from the modern time. The whole place was barren and brown. I climbed out of the pit and looked for the road, following a small path, until it took a turn and was blocked by a gate. Why a gate? I looked around me and saw what looked like a brick house on top of the hill next to the gate. It seemed like the area, including the pit and the hill, was private property now. Strangely, the gate was locked from the other side. I had two choices—either go down the slope and come back up the road, bypassing the gate, which was a long way; or climb over the gate, which was a shortcut, but daunting, especially in the cumbersome Manchu gown. I lifted the qipao over the waistline of my pants, then grasped the post of the gate and climbed, stepping on the rails as I moved up. Just as I was about to step over to the other side, I heard a shout behind me.
“Hey! Stop!” a man called in English.
Panicking, I slipped and fell to the ground.
As I struggled to stand up, a beefy, hairy arm grabbed me. It pulled me up with force and I stood to face its owner—a white man with blond hair and blue eyes. He was panting heavily—apparently the run had exhausted him.
“Who are you and what’re you doing on my property?” the man said in a perfect British accent.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just passing by.”
The man looked me up and down, his expression one of suspicion. “Are you a rebel?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I denied it right away. “I’m not a rebel.”
“Why’re you wearing a Manchu gown?”
I didn’t know the connection between a Manchu gown and a rebel, and I didn’t answer his question. “I’m not a rebel, but I’m lost. What year is it?”
He raised his eyebrows and stared at me, then his lips curled up as he said, “2015.”
“Perfect!” I couldn’t stifle my joy. “I’m home.”
“Where have you been?” he asked, looking at me as if I was nuts.
I ignored his insulting glance. “I’ve been far away. Would you be kind enough to give me a ride to Jing City, I mean, Beijing?”
My request seemed to startle him. “What audacity—trespassing on my property and demanding I chauffeur you around? You Americans never fail to surprise me!”
“I’m hardly demanding anything, sir,” I said as politely as possible. “I’m simply desperate. I’ve been away for a long time. You have no idea what I’ve been through. I just really need to get home.”
Tear welled in my eyes, and I started to cry. My tear seemed to have an effect on the man, who could be a gentleman despite his formidable look.
“All right, I’ll see what I can do. Follow me.”
He led me up the hill towards the house. The man wasn’t as strong as he looked and had trouble climbing the hill. I frequently had to slow down to wait for him. As we neared the house, I was amazed by the size of it and the property surrounding it. It had a huge, lush lawn skirted by a forest—very different from the barren land below the hill.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He pointed to a lawn chair for me to sit, where a half-drunk cup of coffee sat on a table.
I sat down and relaxed a bit, appreciating the sight of the twenty-first century and celebrating my narrow escape from a nightmare. As I marveled at the immense lawn stretching in front of me, I recalled the otherworldly scenery of the Garden of Joyful Spring. Had I really been there or was it a dream? Am I still dreaming? I glanced at the grand, two-story house painted in white, with tall windows and chiseled porch pillars in front of me—a Victorian house that reminded me of the classic architecture built during the British settlement in Shanghai. What are the Brits doing here in Beijing? I turned to look the other way, where a bit of blue showed a pool behind me and next to it stood the hourglass rock. It dawned on me that the location was where the Temple of Light and Shadow used to be. I shuddered at the fact, and when I realized the location of the lawn chair overlooked the pit, I froze.
The beefy British guy emerged from the house, followed by a small Chinese man in an expensive suit. His hair was smoothly oiled back and he wore gold-rimmed glasses. I recognized him at once. Dong Wang.
“Looong time no see, Julie!” he said and chuckled. “I’ve been waiting for you. So has Billy. He’s been watching the pit every day for two years!”
“You scoundrel!” I spat on the ground.
“I see you’ve picked up some bad habits from the ancient times.” He laughed evilly. Without warning, he reached out and grabbed my pendant. He pulled at it, but it didn’t break. He pulled it again, but I lunged forward and pushed him.
“Let go of my pendant!”
“I should’ve taken it three hundred years ago,” he said, still clutching my pendant. “Billy, bring me a knife.”
As soon as Billy turned, I struggled to break free. I bit into Dong’s hand and he yelped as he loosened his grasp. Dong wasn’t a strong man, and I was able to use my bodyweight to knock him to the ground. Before he could stand up, I ran as fast as I could. A gunshot sounded off and I tripped over my feet and fell. The bullet missed me by mere inches.
“You idiot!” I heard Dong yell as I rolled down the hill. “You’re not supposed to shoot her! Not yet!”
Cold sweat covered my back. Guns in China? I was appalled. How could that be possible?
As I ran down the hill, I wondered why Wang wanted me alive. What was he going to do with me? Could it be that he couldn’t kill me? If I died, then history would return to what it had been, wouldn’t it? Did that mean he had to keep me alive for as long as he lived? But I had already changed history for him, so why did it matter whether I lived or died?
I didn’t have the luxury to find the answer as I searched for the road. Once I reached the road, I did not head for the gate, knowing I would have trouble crossing it, so I decided to continue going down the hill. After a confusing series of running, falling, and rolling down the slope, I found myself on the side of a highway. A tour bus was heading towards me, and I waved frantically. The bus screeched to a stop next to me. The driver, a middle-aged Chinese man, stared at me, so did the passengers inside, most of whom were Europeans.
“Please let me in,” I begged. “Someone is trying to kill me.”
The driver hesitated, but a couple of elderly women urged him on, again in British-accented English. “Let the poor thing in!”
The driver opened the door unwillingly, gesturing towards the passenger seat.
As I headed towards it, I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. My hair was disheveled, with straws and leaves clinging to the strands, and the front of my gown was hanging loose. I looked like a ghost who had escaped her grave. Even in broad daylight, it must’ve been frightening.
“Thank you,” I said to the driver before sitting down. Then I redid my hair and buttoned up the front flap of my gown.
He shook his head and spoke to me in Mandarin. “What you’re doing is useless. You’ll only get yourself killed.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Stop pretending, young woman,” he said. “You should just accept the way the world is now. Who the ruler is doesn’t matter to us commoners. Besides, the Brits aren’t that bad. National pride isn’t that important. What’s important to us is having a stable income and a secure job. Just look at you, wearing a Manchu gown and mourning for the Imperial Qing Dynasty. Don’t forget they’re the ones who handed the country to the foreigners in the first place. Do you think you’ll have enough to eat if a Manchu bastard rules the country? We’ve got more freedom and rights than we ever had in the past five thousand years. All thanks to the Brits.”
As the driver rambled on, it gradually dawned on me that China was currently ruled by the British, and moreover, the name of the country was not People’s Republic of China, but United Kingdom of Great China—kingdom included China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Korea. The fact terrified me. What else had changed? And what had remained the same? Would my family be different? Would I be able to even find my father?
My fear abated somewhat as we entered the city—the passengers on the bus called it Peking instead of Beijing. The landscape of the city looked pretty much the same as what I remembered—dominated by skyscrapers and condominiums, but more churches and Victorian architecture with clock towers and pointed tops. When the bus stopped near Tsinghua University, where my father’s condo had been, I felt like a ghost returning to life too late.
As soon as I stepped out of the tour bus, I felt the difference around me. The street signs and building names were all in two languages—large English letters and small Chinese characters. Half the people on the street were white, and the other half were Chinese and other nationalities. A few Chinese were wearing qipaos or changshans, but most people dressed in Western clothing. Most of them spoke English.
I managed to get to the street where my father used to live, not sure whether I would be able to find the same condo community. The area looked less crowded because there weren’t as many high-rises. Instead, European townhouses and condos with two or three stories lined the street. Some were gated and some weren’t. I couldn’t recognize any of the buildings. Fear seized me again as I realized I was practically homeless. Where would I go if I couldn’t find my dad? I could try YouClo—but what was the chance that it existed? I stopped at the corner of the street to decide what I would do. A middle-aged Chinese woman with a kind face was walking my way, and I approached her.
“Ahyi,” I addressed her by the term used for women approximately the same age as one’s mother.
The woman looked displeased. “I’m not that old.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Apparently, the meaning of the word had changed. I tried a different term with the same meaning that had been used in the eighteenth century. “Dashen?”
She nodded. “That’s better. How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for someone who lives here but I’m lost. Is there a residential community for Tsinghua university employees?”
The woman frowned. “Tsinghua? Never heard of it. But I believe there is a university community over there.” She pointed to a row of Queen Anne-style townhouses a block away. “See those colorful doll houses?”
I thanked her and made my way towards it.
At the gate, a security guard stopped me.
“What? I don’t have it with me. I’m looking for someone.”
“Professor Mincai Liu.”
The guard stared at me for a moment, then his stern face broke into a smile. “Adrianna? I hardly recognized you! You look very different in that gown.”
He let me in right away, clearly mistaking me for someone else.
I stood in front of a row of townhouses, not sure which one to head for. I turned back to the guard. “I’m sorry. You see, I had a cup too much to drink last night. Where does Professor Liu live again?”
The guard’s eyes widened in bewilderment. “Are you all right, Adrianna? You forgot where your dad lives? Unit C!”
How did he know me? But wait, my name wasn’t Adrianna. What was going on? I decided not to clear the confusion to avoid rousing any suspicion. “Oh, that’s right!” I murmured an apology and hurried to the unit the guard had pointed out.
I stopped in front of a yellow two-story house with a balcony on each floor and an attic on the top, then I went up the stairs to the porch. I smoothed my hair and my gown before ringing the bell, then waited nervously at the door. So, my name was Adrianna? And had I become a completely different person? From the way the guard had responded earlier, my dad was still Professor Liu, which was a good thing.
After ringing the bell one more time and waiting for about five minutes, the door finally opened. A haggard woman in her fifties with red hair and a cigarette in her mouth stood in front of me. She didn’t look like Aunt Lan to me—she was definitely not Chinese.
“What do you want?” The woman looked at me with droopy eyes through thick lenses for a second, then she gasped. “Adrianna!”
I hesitated for a second and responded uncertainly, “Mom?”
My mother looked very different from what I remembered. Isabel was supposed to be graceful and cheerful, but this woman in front of me was not. Her red hair was messy instead of glamourous, her round chin had sharpened, and her plump cheeks were hollowed out. She wore bifocal lenses that made it hard to gauge the size of her eyes. Dark circles ringed her eyes and she looked bitter.
My mom held me for at least a minute before releasing me. “I thought you were dead! I was about to book a flight to go look for you!”
“They couldn’t find you. Your roommate emailed me, saying you went hiking three days ago and never returned. The police have been looking for you,” she said as she closed the door behind us.
“My roommate?” The last time I’d had a roommate was back in college, more than ten years ago. “When was this?”
“Just last night.”
Since I had no idea what was going on, all I could say was, “Oh, it must’ve been a practical joke.”
Mom frowned. “How could anyone make a joke like that? I was worried sick!”
“And why didn’t you write and tell us you were coming home? I could’ve gone to the airport to pick you up. Where is your luggage?”
My mouth opened but I wasn’t able to produce any answer.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “I’ll explain later.”
“Later?” She was still frowning. “Why not now?”
“Because I’m tired and hungry,” I said, dropping into a couch.
My mom didn’t insist, but went into the kitchen to boil water for tea and get me something to eat. The interior of the apartment was faintly recognizable since it more or less resembled my mom’s house in North California, where I had lived until college. Mom had loved Oriental art, especially Japanese Geisha dolls, which pretty much took over her glass cabinet, and Chinese watercolor paintings covered every wall in the living room.
After the whistle of the kettle and the beep of the microwave, Mom came back with a tray in hand. While I grabbed the plate with the pizza, she asked, “Where did you get that silly outfit? You’re not part of the Independence Movement, are you? Take it off before you get yourself in trouble!”
“What’re you talking about?” I asked after swallowing a mouthful. “What’s this Independence Movement?”
“Oh, so you don’t know about it? Good. There have been protests and strikes in front of Tiananmen Square. These college students want the Brits out of China and give them back their country.”
“How long has China been under the control of the Brits?” I knew my asking would sound suspicious, but I had to find out.
Sure enough, my mom looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Jeez, Adrianna, you’re not on drugs, are you?”
“I’m sorry, Mom. There was a little, uh, accident during my . . . hike. I fell and hit my head. I have a concussion,” I lied as best I could.
Mom’s mouth fell open and I added quickly, “Don’t worry, though, I’m fine. I probably forgot some stuff, but it should be temporary, I promise. Why are you here in China, and where are Dad and his—”
The worried look on Mom’s face dissipated at the mention of Dad, a scowl instantly replacing it. “His new love?” She snorted. “I see you haven’t forgotten that part.”
My mother lit another cigarette and sucked deeply on it, still scowling. I coughed from the acrid smell. What had happened? Mom had never smoked before.
She blew out a thick cloud of smoke along with a heavy sigh. “He wants to divorce me and move in with that slut! Can you believe that?”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mom. But it might be for the best.”
“For the best?” Her shriek startled me. “I gave him everything. Without me, he couldn’t possibly have gotten so high up the ladder. Do you think they would have hired a Chinese with no experience to teach in a British university? Now he’s the chair of the department and decides he no longer loves me.”
“That’s horrible.” I felt sorry for my mother. “Dad said that?”
My parents had always had a friendly relationship even after they had divorced. But from Mom’s rambling complaints, I gleaned some facts pertaining to the current reality. Mom had lived in China for the past forty years, ever since she had taken her first teaching post here. She met Dad, who was still a grad student then, and they got married—this part resembled the truth in my previous life, but the rest was all different. Mom and Dad had a long-lasting, but unhappy marriage. Apparently, divorce was a much-condemned behavior in the British-ruled China.
I couldn’t wait to soak in the spacious ceramic bathtub, a modern luxury that I had missed during my time in the Qing Dynasty. The emperor and some high-ranking consorts had their own private bathtubs, but the rest of us had to use a public bath. I could never soak in a spa in public, not to mention bath, so I never visited it. That is not to say I hadn’t bathed for a year. I had converted a large wine barrel into a bathtub in my unit when I stayed with Lady Uya, although I could only squat in it. And since the water was carried bucket by bucket by the eunuchs from a well with great effort, and hot water was a luxury, I didn’t get to enjoy it often.
I rested my head on a bath pillow and extended my legs. I let out a satisfying sigh, closed my eyes, and relaxed. But I didn’t relax for long. Jeng’s face popped into my mind as I was reminded of the time I showed him how to turn on the bathtub faucet. “Father Emperor would love it!” he had said. He had had little doubt he would be able to return in time and change history—and so did I. We had both been naïve! Tears flowed down my cheeks, my shoulders, and merged into the bathwater. I had no idea I would do next, only that I was exhausted and wanted to forget what had happened.
But it was impossible. As I lay in the bathtub, I not only couldn’t forget what had happened to me in two different time phases, but also remembered things I had apparently forgotten until that moment—namely, fragments of facts of Adrianna’s life.
Adrianna’s life had been quite different from mine. She had been born in China, and lived here for the majority of her life. At eighteen, she went to Paris as an exchange student, fell in love with the city and a Frenchman, and had stayed there ever since. It didn’t mean, however, that she had stayed with the same guy. In fact, that relationship had lasted for only two years. She’d had different boyfriends after that, but they were all transient. She’d dropped out of college in her senior year, and had been working odd jobs to support herself. Adrianna had been a waitress, a language interpreter, and guess what? A magician’s assistant. Apparently, she enjoyed hiking in the countryside in France and would hike at least once a month. Her last hike had taken place just a few days ago in Fontainebleau Forest near Paris, where she’d lost her footing going down a boulder.
I distinctly remembered Adrianna driving on highway A6 towards her destination, where she took the Fontainebleau exit, and headed towards Barbizon; walking on the endless, arid trial effortlessly first, then laboriously; resting on a boulder at a vantage point, having her sandwich and snapping photos of the breathtaking pine forests; then came the moment where she’d lost her footing on a slippery rock, rolling down the track, and hitting her head on another rock. But after that, she became me, standing next to the highway in Beijing, waving at the tour bus. It seemed like my two lives converged at the point of falling.
After blow-drying my hair and putting on my mom’s clothes, I sat down in front of Mom’s laptop to browse the internet. Thank goodness my time-traveling hadn’t prevented the invention of the internet. Not surprisingly, Google was the main browser being used, not the Chinese search engine Baidu.
As I had expected, Prince Four had died in March 1723, just three months after the death of his father. Prince Fourteen had been sent to live in his father’s graveyard, a fate that wasn’t different from the previous version, only this time, he’d died in the graveyard at the age of sixty. The wiki actually showed a picture of Jeng, an old man with sunken cheeks, not at all resembling the handsome man I had met. And what about Hongli? I typed in his name and saw the portrait of a middle-aged man dressed in Qing Dynasty clothing on the screen, definitely not an emperor’s Dragon Gown. There was a single paragraph about him on Wikipedia.
Aisin Gioro Hongli lived with his mother’s family on a farm north of Peking, after his father, the fourth son of Emperor Kangxi, was executed. Despite his political talents and academic excellence, Hongli was neglected by the court until the reign of his cousin Hongxi. He was awarded the title Hanlin Master, and was in charge of Hanlinyuan, the imperial academy of the elite scholars. A prolific poet, he composed more than forty thousand poems. Hongli’s major contribution to the Qing Empire was the Complete Work in Four Classes, a project he oversaw and participated in compiling and editing. The collection was the largest series, containing thirty thousand books and including all Chinese classical literature in every scholarly subject. Hongli, however, lost favor soon afterwards, mainly because of his ongoing opposition to the empire’s unrestricted trading and liberal diplomacy with the West. Depleted of rank, he was exiled, and supported himself by composing poems and selling paintings. His poems invariably expressed his discontent with the government. He died at the age of fifty-two as a result of grief and disappointment.
Following the paragraph was a poem Hongli had written.
Crows caw, pigeons coo, the poet can only sigh. Wolves howl, dogs bark, the scholar can only snort.
I drew in a deep breath as I looked up from the screen. Hongli was supposed to live to his eighties and become the longest-living emperor in history.
I searched for Priest Wang’s ancestor Prince Yinreng, the son of Kangxi and later the third emperor of Qing Dynasty. Yinreng had been the favorite son of Kangxi not only because he was the son of Kangxi’s first empress, but also because the empress had died giving birth to him. The emperor had decided right after his birth to make the baby his successor, and afterwards indulged him with love. He frequently praised Yinreng for his literary talents and martial skills, thus spoiling the prince, who grew into a vainglorious young man. Because he was the crown prince, many flattered him, which further inflated his ego. He soon felt superior over not only his siblings but also the emperor. Although he was under one person and above all others, Yinreng became dissatisfied. Impatient for what was rightfully his, he started plotting to seize the throne from his own father. When Kangxi found out about the crown prince’s disloyalty, he was deeply hurt. But it was after many years’ hesitation that he finally disowned him. Even after that, he forgave his son and crowned him the second time, however, his benevolence only further convinced the prince of his power over the emperor. So, Yinreng did it again, attempting to strengthen his support and planned for his future insurgence. Sure enough, the emperor disowned him for a second time. Historians were baffled over the fact that after all that trouble, at the end Kangxi had named Yinreng his successor in his will.
I slammed the cover of the laptop down and covered my face in my hands as I wept. If not for my meddling, Yinreng would’ve remained incarcerated and Hongli would’ve become the next good emperor after his father, bringing decades of stability and prosperity to the country, not to mention eventual independence in the future generations. What I had done was simply unforgivable. I wished I hadn’t gone back in time. I wished I hadn’t met Jeng or Dong Wang. The thought of Dong intensified my anguish. I wished he had killed me and spared me the grief of the moment. Why hadn’t he killed me? If my death would result in history changing back, then what was I waiting for? I went into my mom’s bathroom, searching for sleeping pills. But I didn’t recognize any of the brand names. Then I heard the doorbell ring.
An old man stood at the door. He resembled my father, except his hair was thinner and he had a lot more wrinkles. Did I have an uncle? I removed the door chain and opened the door.
“Adrianna,” the man said, smiling. His voice was definitely familiar.
“Good to see you, sweetheart.” He hugged me, then looked at me again. “Your mom texted me. I didn’t think it was true but came by anyway.”
When he settled down on the sofa, I asked timidly, “So, how’s your family?”
“I don’t have another family. It’s just an affair.” A bitter smile spread over his lips. “I’m sorry, Adrianna.”
“It’s fine with me,” I said. “How’s Aunt Lan?”
My dad seemed taken aback at that. “She’s fine. Your mom told you everything already?”
I shrugged. “What about Yanlu and Peng?”
“Who are they?”
“Uh, your kids with Aunt Lan,” I said, but the look of confusion told me I had made a blunder. “Oh, I didn’t get their names right then.”
“What’re you talking about? I don’t have any kids with her. Does your mom think—”
“No.” I stopped him. “I must’ve misunderstood. She said you had a family.”
“I see.” He sighed. “We’re not really a family. Lan and I were college classmates. We were about to get married when your mother came along, and I just . . . I couldn’t resist the opportunity. It’s all my fault. I’m sorry, Adrianna.”
“No, it’s not a fault at all. If you and Mom hadn’t met, I wouldn’t have existed.”
“I know, I know. But I could’ve done it differently. I don’t know. I screwed it up. I couldn’t find an academic job, not in my own country. My only alternative was to go to the United States. But I wanted to stay here, even though it was a colony.”
A colony! I shivered at the term.
“I’m sorry, Dad.” I squeezed his hand.
He smiled. “Why? It’s not your fault.”
It is! I wanted to cry, but instead I sighed. “It’s fine with me if you guys divorced. I’m not a child anymore, you know?”
“Thank you, sweetheart, but that’s not going to happen. Your mom won’t agree to that.”
“Why? Does she love you so much?”
Dad sighed. “I don’t know. It could be that she hates me.”
“Oh, Dad.” I couldn’t bear the fact that my parents were making each other miserable.
Dad inhaled deeply and forced a smile. “Anyway, don’t worry about us. I’m glad to see you. We should go out to dinner.”