Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 3 Part 1)
Chapter 3: Pointlessly Missing Another Chance
Part 1 – Floral Headpiece (花冠)Technically this could be translated as ‘flower crown’, but they use it to describe multiple arrangements of hair ornaments, so I left it more general. Check out the video in this post at 1:18 to see how this might have looked.
Translation assistant: Petrified
English proofreaders: 247Reader & Nyamachi
Ouyang Xiu “plundering his niece,” as the affair was known, was regarded as a tantalizing scandal. Gradually it spread throughout the Forbidden City, becoming the subject discussed between numerous women living in the palace over tea to pass the time.
Zhao’rong Miao had also once brought this up to the Emperor, her eyes sparkling with interest, asking him whether he would let Wang Zhaoming investigate the case.
To her surprise, the Emperor’s expression suddenly changed. His smile disappeared and he turned cold and silent. Thereupon Zhao’rong Miao didn’t dare to ask again.
I carefully observed their [interaction] but I didn’t hear any more news about this afterwards. I suppose the Emperor was still deliberating.
As the Double Seven Festival neared, 七夕节 (Qīxī jié) is known as the Double Seven Festival or Chinese Valentine’s Day is one of the traditional Chinese festivals held on the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar. It’s centred around the romantic legend of the cowherd and weaver girl. Here is a great article in English about the festival that includes a video showing the legend. It’s been a helpful resource while translating. everyone recommended to the Emperor that the ladies from the Style Bureau should pay closer attention to the arrangements and style choices of headpieces and hair ornaments.
All the women in the current dynasty loved to wear floral headpieces. Normally they would wear their hair in a simple style but balance this out by wearing dazzling hair ornaments, and this was especially the case during festivals – ever-crowded arrangements of floral hairpins, complicated golden filigree snowflakes, and willow leaf-patterned decorations made of pearl and jade covered their heads, each ornament fighting for attention.
One day, right after Qiuhe helped Zhao’rong Miao dress and do her makeup, Jie’yu Yu happened to come by.
Jie’yu Yu measured Zhao’rong Miao’s appearance and smiled, saying: “Elder Sister, please allow me to speak bluntly. Although the hairstyle Qiuhe styled is undoubtedly well done, the headpiece that she selected is a little bit too plain. It won’t capture anyone’s attention.”
Zhao’rong Miao also examined Jie’yu Yu’s hair ornaments, sighing: “I was also worried about this. I don’t know what kind of precious stones and jewellery I should use for my hair ornaments. I see that the pearls on your headpiece are not bad, but if that personage from Soaring Phoenix Pavilion wears the foreign merchants’ pearls bestowed to her by the Emperor, I’m afraid that she will inevitably steal the limelight.”
Jie’yu Yu said: “Say no more. Ever since His Majesty conferred the pearls to her, all of the imperial concubines in the palace have been entrusting the eunuchs of the Interior Department to go buy them outside. After the nobles in the capital saw this, they joined in the fervor, falling over each other in their eagerness to snap up the goods. As a result, within one month the price of pearls has doubled tenfold – just the few pearls on my head are actually worth eight hundred strings of coins!” The unit used here is 缗 (mín) whereas previously 貫 (guàn) was used. Both mean ‘string’ or ‘cord’. 1 string of coins = 1000 copper coins according to ChinaKnowledge.de. So… the pearls were worth 800k…
Zhao’rong Miao covered her mouth with a white silk fan in amazement as she said in shock: “Eight hundred strings of coins?! Could it be that everyone has gone crazy?!”
“Nowadays, this is indeed the price.” Jie’yu Yu curled her lip as she continued: “It would be fine if you could buy high-quality pearls with eight hundred strings of coins. Unfortunately, even if you pay such a high price, in the end, the quality of the pearls available for purchase is inferior to what that personage owns. When the Double Seven Festival comes around, what can we use to compete with her?”
Zhao’rong Miao lowered her head and muttered to herself.
In a flash, she replied to Jie’yu Yu: “If we were to compete using pearls, then I’m afraid that we won’t be able to win against her. Why don’t we look for something else, like jadeite, tortoiseshell, or ivory, secretly ask the eunuchs from the Interior Department to search for ones with outstanding quality, and purchase them? We can have them made into headpieces and wear them out. When the time comes, we may not necessarily lose to her pearl crown.”
Jie’yu Yu nodded and said: “What Elder Sister says is reasonable. It doesn’t matter if we spend a bit more money this time, but what we buy has to be of the best quality. We mustn’t lose to that person, or else we can only look on helplessly again as she plants a charming vixen by His Majesty’s side.”
Zhao’rong Miao deeply agreed and turned towards Qiuhe with a smile, asking: “Qiuhe, in your opinion, what would be the most flattering jewel to make into a headpiece for me? How about jadeite?”
Qiuhe didn’t answer. She lowered her head with a controlled expression before sinking to her knees in front of Zhao’rong Miao, saying: “May Your Highness reconsider this matter. By no means should Your Highness seek to purchase expensive jewels to be made into head ornaments for decoration.”
Zhao’rong Miao was surprised and asked: “Why not? Get up for the time being and explain.”
Qiuhe continued to kneel. She said: “Amongst the people living in the capital city, from the richest and most powerful families to the ordinary commoners in the streets, there are none who do not regard items sought by those in the palace as an immediate trend. As long as one hears that the women in the palace want to buy something, they would frantically follow suit and buy the same item so that prices soar.
“Lady Zhang likes to eat kumquats from Jiangxi Province. After this matter circulated amongst the people, the price of kumquats immediately rose to insane heights. This servant heard that presently the price of one catty’s worth 斤 (jīn) A catty is a traditional unit of weight of ~500g (in China) with slightly different weights in other Asian countries. of kumquats is enough to buy eight catties of mutton. If Lady Miao seeks to buy expensive jewels, whether they are jadeite, tortoiseshell, or ivory, the price of the item would certainly rise on a national scale. Not only does this run counter His Majesty’s intentions, but it also obstructs the people’s welfare. Hence this is something that absolutely should not be done. May Your Highness withdraw your order.”
Zhao’rong Miao pondered for a moment before smiling at Jie’yu Yu and saying: “What this child says sounds quite reasonable. His Majesty has always wanted us to be frugal. If he knew that we spent a fortune on our jewellery, I fear he would be displeased.”
Jie’yu Yu had no objections but frowned again, saying: “But on the day of the Double Seven Festival, Lady Zhang will undoubtedly adorn herself with the foreign merchants’ pearls. Even if we found the best hair ornaments within our means, they will inevitably be inferior in comparison to hers.”
Qiuhe agreed: “For the trial during the Double Seven Festival, it is more important to select who will style your hair, and Your Highnesses may not necessarily need to use expensive jewellery. His Majesty’s hairstyle is not the same as Your Highnesses. He does not need to wear fancy hair ornaments. Qiuhe believes that it will suffice to style Your Highness’ hair well when the time comes. As for your honoured self’s headpiece, it does not matter what is used for decoration. It would be fine at that time if you select some silk flowers or even some fresh flowers. Contrary to one’s expectations, if one uses a priceless treasure, the headpiece may become the center of attention instead of you.”
The two ladies who were listening repeatedly nodded their heads. Jie’yu Yu personally reached out to help Qiuhe up and said smilingly: “Lovely girl, it’s all thanks to your reminder. What you said also doesn’t offend me. It is clear that you’re extremely broadminded.”
Qiuhe bowed in thanks but was also quite distressed. She hesitated, not knowing how to reply. It was then that Zhao’rong Miao smiled and added from the side: “We’re all family here. No matter who is recommended to become the new Madam Combing Lady, it is all the same, so what use is it to guard against you?”
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The next day, Zhao’rong Miao let Qiuhe style her hair into a small bun without any hair ornaments. Qiuhe held the bronze petal-edged mirror and stood behind her, allowing her to look at her hair from the front and the back.
However, Zhao’rong Miao was still not at ease and called me over, saying: “You’re a boy, help me take a look. How does this hairstyle look to you?”
Her careless mention of “boy” made my heart feel warm and my nose unexpectedly became sniffly.
I carefully examined her hair before I bowed and said: “This hairstyle is quite refreshing; this servant hasn’t seen others in the Palace wear it before. His Majesty would definitely like it if his honoured self sees it.”
Zhao’rong Miao hesitated slightly before asking again: “Will His Majesty like it even if I don’t wear a headpiece?”
I replied: “This servant thinks that Maid Dong’s words were reasonable. His Majesty is selecting someone who can style hair, not someone who can arrange elaborate headpieces. Thus, there is no need to waste one’s energy on headpieces; it will be enough to let Maid Dong style your honoured self’s hair properly.”
Zhao’rong Miao looked at herself in the mirror again, and shortly after she laughed and said: “Alright then, I’ll listen to you both this time. However, without a headpiece, my makeup must be done more exquisitely instead.”
I didn’t agree and spoke frankly: “His Majesty is fond of Daoist hair combing methods because this technique allows one to massage the scalp and clear the meridians, If you’ve read wuxia novels, you’re probably aware but a meridian or 经络 (jīngluò) is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) term for an energy pathway in the body. There are acupuncture points along this path and stimulating them will allow qi or energy to flow e.g. Daoist massage technique described here. Here is an article that explains it in detail. Here is also a research article that explains meridians from a scientific lens. invigorating one’s body. During the test on the Double Seven Festival, it will be impossible to evaluate a maid’s Daoist hair combing techniques by merely looking at one’s hair accessories, and therefore, for these next few days, Your Highness might as well give more attention to your meridians and rest well. On the day of the Double Seven Festival, only wear light makeup. When His Majesty sees Your Highness’ good complexion, he will naturally realize that this was due to the efficacy of Maid Dong’s Daoist hair combing techniques.”
On the day of the Double Seven Festival, the Emperor brought his family members to enjoy the Jinming District’s pond in the Jade Forest Garden.
The Jade Forest Garden was on Tianmen Main Street. It faced north, opposite Jinming Pond. Ancient pines and strange-shaped cypress trees lined the street from the main gate on both sides, hiding pomegranate orchards, cherry orchards, peach orchards and the like within. Each had its own pavilion.
In the first year of the Taiping Era, the Emperor had ordered thirty-five thousand troops to dig Jinming Pond and fill it with water from Jinshui River. 金水河 (jīnshuíhé) seems to be the moat of the Forbidden City, to the best of my knowledge.
The pond had three bridges whose railings were painted with red lacquer, with a row of wild goose pillars at each end. The center of the bridge swelled, seeming almost like a rainbow, and the sides of the bridges connected five palace halls that stood in the middle of the pond.
Every year when the flowers bloomed, this place looked like a rainbow bridge with flower petals blowing in the wind spreading their fragrance everywhere. Royal jasmine, 素馨花 (sùxīnhuā) Jasminum grandiflorum. common jasmine, 茉莉花 (mòlìhuā) Jasminum officinale – This is the kind you normally see used for jasmine tea. coral lily, 山丹 (shāndān) Lilium pumilum. port wine magnolia 含笑花 (hánxiàohuā) Magnolia figo. and all kinds of fragrant-smelling flowers were in abundance. Furthermore, southern flowers, The author used 南花 (nánhuā) here, meaning ‘southern flower’, but I wonder if she meant 兰花 (lánhuā) for orchid. This article is the only thing I can find for 南花 specifically. plum flowers, and tree peonies grew near the river bank. The wonderful scenery couldn’t be described in words.
Owing to the fact that His Majesty was concerned about governmental affairs and the Eighth Princess had fallen ill, he was not in the mood to enjoy the pond and garden during this year’s Flower Festival. 花朝节 (huāzhāojié) The Flower Festival is another traditional Chinese Festival known as the ‘Birthday of a Hundred Flowers’, ‘Flower God’s Birthday’ or ‘Vegetable Picking Festival’. It is generally held on the second day of the second lunar month.
Soon before the time of the Double Seven Festival, it was said that the staff at the Jade Forest Garden had fetched tall tree peonies from the Taiping Xingguo Temple 太平兴国寺 (tàipíng xìngguó sī) An Imperial-affiliated temple or monastery located in Henan Province in China. It’s the only temple named after an Emperor’s era name, specifically the era name of Emperor Taizong, the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty. which had blossomed. Thus, it was decided at the last minute to tour the garden to enjoy the flowers, and moreover that this was where the Emperor would choose the new Directress of Style.
His Majesty brought the Empress, Concubines, and Princess to enter the main palace hall in Jinming Pond first.
There was a bright gold dragon bed made with red lacquer and screens painted with dragons flying between rivers and clouds in the hall. Ten pots of tree peonies in every colour had been taken from the Jade Forest Garden and arranged on both sides of the bed. The vibrant and flourishing blossoms resembled a work of embroidery, causing the surroundings to be lively.
A short while later, all of the Imperial Concubines’ carriages arrived. Each of the ladies entered in succession, dressed splendidly.
Among the ladies who were part of the hairstyle competition, the first to enter was Jie’yu Yu.
She wore a chaotian updo where the hair on top of the head was braided into two cylinders and pushed back forward with a large silk gauze crown looped in the center. 朝天髻 (cháotiān jì) A type of hairstyle worn by women in the Song Dynasty. This article has a great description in English with pictures. The silk gauze was looped and rolled together in the shape of flower petals with four or five loops. The edges of the petals were dark red and became lighter in a gradient towards the center, making it easy for the eye to follow. The headpiece spread about half a chi 尺 (chǐ) Chinese foot or ⅓ of a metre. and reached five to six inches high. Even though no jewels were used whatsoever, it still made one feel that it was majestic and gorgeous.
The Emperor nodded and smiled upon seeing it: “Lady Yu’s headpiece looks nice.”
Jie’yu Yu looked towards the maid behind her, and happily said: “Cai’er created it for this concubine.”
The maid, Gu Cai’er, stepped forward to pay respects to the Emperor. Her looks were average, without any stunning attributes, but she replied calmly and her words and manner were quite appropriate for the occasion.
The Emperor gave her a few more words of praise and bestowed Jie’yu Yu a seat. He calmly waited for the other two ladies to enter.
Zhao’rong Miao immediately entered the palace hall. She had accepted the suggestion from Qiuhe and myself and had arranged her hair in the style of magnolia buds.
Her fine black hair coiled around, clearly displaying its lustre. She did not wear any headpiece and had merely added a small flower ball made of pagoda tree flowers 槐树花 (huáishù huā) Sophora japonica. and leaves on one side. Her makeup was simple and unadorned, and her skin was flawlessly luminous without any flower design on her forehead. Only a bit of blush was added to her cheeks, giving them a faintly rosy appearance. She appeared pure and refined.
Seeing that she hadn’t worn a headpiece, all of the Imperial Concubines were greatly astonished. Each and every one turned towards His Majesty, waiting for him to share his opinion.
His Majesty carefully scrutinized her for a good while before finally smiling and praising: “This hairstyle was combed well. Today Zhao’rong’s complexion also looks very healthy. It almost looks as if you have returned to the time when you were a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old maiden.
Zhao’rong Miao was utterly delighted and hurriedly called Qiuhe over. The pair bowed together in thanks.
Consequently, everyone became even more curious as to what Beautiful Lady Zhang would look like. They all turned their eyes toward the entrance, waiting for her arrival.
There was a long delay before Beautiful Lady Zhang entered. When her figure appeared in the hall, everyone was stunned once again.
A pearl crown was balanced above her head, extending five inches wide. Its height was more than a chi, with dyed muslin as a base and silk gauze as leaves. Twenty to thirty layers of delicate leaves were folded within these larger leaves, and a large leaf also rose up at the top in the shape of a pavilion. Every leaf was twisted with gold thread and embellished with a snow-white foreign merchant’s pearl, the pearls increasing in size with the leaves. At the very top of the crown sat a large pearl as big as a dragon’s eye.
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However, what everyone was most surprised about wasn’t her luxurious pearl crown, but rather the deep red blossom-patterned silk dress she was wearing.
Today, the Empress wore cloud- and moon-shaped hair ornaments made out of gold filigree and had added white jade hairpins to the front and back of her hair. She wore a red dress.
Whenever the imperial concubines would gather together for a festive occasion, before leaving their residences, they would always dispatch someone to inquire about what colour the Empress would be wearing to avoid clashing with her.
Yet, today Beautiful Lady Zhang openly chose to wear an imperial red dress. This was, in fact, an act of rudely overstepping one’s boundaries. I might have mentioned this previously, but typically the colour red or red dresses etc. was reserved for the first wife – the Empress. It was taboo for the others to wear red. This was the same in commoner households, to my knowledge.
Beautiful Lady Zhang remained unflustered under everyone’s gaze and continued her leisurely entrance into the hall. She lightly swept her gaze at the Empress for a moment before paying her respects, not looking the least ashamed.
The Empress showed no indignant expression and sat upright as she received her bow. Afterwards, she faintly smiled and asked: “Lady Zhang’s headpiece is truly exquisite. What is its name?”
Beautiful Lady Zhang proudly replied: “It’s called the ‘Crown of Beauty’.” Saying this, her large glittering eyes turned towards the Emperor, seemingly waiting quietly for his praise.
Yet the Emperor looked at her with no change in his expression.
A moment later, he gently raised his hand and covered his face with his sleeve, and said: “Your entire head is covered in white, and moreover you’re not even avoiding taboo.” According to Chinese custom, one is not supposed to wear white on their head – hair accessories included – unless they’re at a funeral. The colour white is associated with death and mourning.
It was clear that nobody had anticipated this response. Beautiful Lady Zhang was momentarily dazed. She was the center of attention, yet the Emperor didn’t care for her. She couldn’t help but lower her head as her cheeks flushed red. It was as if the red colour of her dress had extended towards her face.
“Please forgive me, Your Majesty…” she said softly. “Please allow this concubine to be excused, to head towards the side chamber to change headpieces.”
“Go on then.” The Emperor nodded, but then added further: “Change your outfit while you’re at it… The colour you’re wearing today does not contrast well with your complexion at all.”
Beautiful Lady Zhang agreed and retreated a few steps before turning around and quickly leaving the main hall.
The maid who had styled her hair, Xu Jingnu, who had been following closely behind her, subsequently kowtowed. Her expression had originally been filled with self-confidence, seemingly wanting to wait for Beautiful Lady Zhang’s introduction before thanking His Majesty for his imperial grace. Who would have imagined that there would be this kind of unforeseen event?
Jingnu’s features were pretty, but His Majesty only cast her a quick glance and completely lacked any intention to speak to her. This caused her to be at a loss for what to do. Not knowing whether to withdraw or to stay, she awkwardly knelt alone for a short while. Finally, she was unable to endure. She scrambled up and then anxiously ran out to chase after Beautiful Lady Zhang.
Zhao’rong Miao and Jie’yu Yu looked at each other from afar, sharing a happy expression out of the corner of their eyes.
Amongst the concubines, there were some who hid their faces with their fans, while others turned their heads to look outside the hall, and some coughed softly. All of these small actions were to hide the smiling expressions that they were unable to suppress.
The Emperor chatted with the Empress and the rest of the concubines, and they discussed subjects related to scattering peony flowers and the like. After a long time, they finally saw Beautiful Lady Zhang’s figure come back inside.
This time she wore a purple dress. She had removed her pearl crown and only pulled her hair into a simple panfu hairstyle. 盘福髻 (pánfújì) Literally, ‘coiling fortune’ hairstyle. It probably refers to the concentric bun hairstyle shown here. Perhaps it was because she felt somewhat annoyed, but she hadn’t added any hair jewellery and looked displeased. She didn’t say a word after she paid her respects.
The Emperor smiled: “Beautiful Lady Zhang’s hairstyle looks good. It would look even better if you added a flower hairpin.” Shortly after, he walked over to a blooming pot of purple peonies, “Purple-Underside Leaves,” personally plucked a flower, and stuck it into Beautiful Lady Zhang’s hair. The purple peony here is probably 紫牡丹 (zǐmúdān). The only thing I can find for “叶底紫” is a herb related to wild peony flowers called Peonyaceae broccoli. Google gives no results, but you can check out the Baidu page for it. There’s a picture.
The Imperial Concubines saw this, and everyone praised that it looked very beautiful. Only then did Beautiful Lady Zhang’s expression clear up.
Seeing that the atmosphere had improved, Jie’yu Yu also dared to joke: “See how His Majesty plays favourites! It was just as expected. He’ll give all the pretty flowers to Beautiful Lady Zhang!”
His Majesty chuckled and said: “You’re wearing such a large headpiece; if I gave you a flower, where would you even put it?”
Hearing this, Jie’yu Yu unexpectedly removed her headpiece in two quick movements and tossed it to Gu Cai’er, after which she extended her hand and said: “Now I’m not wearing a headpiece.”
His Majesty shook his head smiling and went to pick a “Halo Sandalwood” peony and placed it in her hair: “This flower is uncommonly dark, yet it’s pale towards the calyx, and a rich sandalwood red towards the center. Isn’t it similar to your headpiece?” It probably refers to this flower – a rose-type peony. 倒晕 (dàoyūn) is a style of eyebrow makeup from the Tang and Song dynasties. When describing flowers, it means that the petals are generally darker near the calyx and lighter towards the end. This gradient effect literally means, “so beautiful one faints.” 檀心 (tánxīn) refers to the flower design makeup on a woman’s forehead but for flowers, it describes light red stamens. The flower’s full name here is 倒晕檀心.
Soon after he plucked a “Qianxi Fei” peony 潜溪绯 (qiánxīfēi) is described as the reddest peony. It is silver-red when it first blossoms and changes to a fiery red as it blooms. Its other name is “Golden Core Peony”/”火炼金丹”. and exchanged it for the pagoda tree flower ball on Zhao’rong Miao’s head, saying: “This flower makes your complexion shine even more.”
Seeing this, the rest of the Imperial Concubines begged him to bestow a flower to them too, and His Majesty agreed one after another and plucked a flower for everyone.
Finally, arriving at the most luxuriously blooming Wei peony 魏花 (wèi huā) A variety of peony named after Wei Renbo’s family in Luoyang, Song Dynasty. The flower was mentioned in Ouyang Xiu’s poem “Luoyang Peony Records: The Name of Flowers”. he carefully selected one and walked back to his Imperial seat, placing it into the crown of the Empress, who had remained seated as a smiling spectator.
The Princess was very delighted upon seeing this. She also tugged on her father’s sleeve, asking him to give her a flower too. The Emperor then led her along outside and plucked a “Yao Huang” peony. 姚黄 (yáohuáng) Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Yao Huang’ The Princess still wore a young girl’s hairstyle, and a large flower couldn’t be placed in her hair, so she accepted the flower and fiddled with it in her hand instead.
The palace hall showed a perfectly harmonious scene where everyone was happy and got along.
Thereupon, the Empress asked the Emperor who would head the Style Bureau: “Has your Majesty decided upon the new Directress of Style?”
Once these words were spoken, the cheerful laughter from just a moment ago dissipated in a flash. Everyone held their breath with rapt attention and waited quietly for the Emperor’s response.
“I’ve decided,” the Emperor said, as his gaze circled between Dong Qiuhe, Gu Cai’er, and Xu Jingnu, who was timidly hiding behind Beautiful Lady Zhang.
“From today onwards, the new Directress of Style in the Imperial Wardrobe Service will be….” The Emperor’s gaze stopped at Qiuhe but eventually looked away towards someone else, “Maid Gu, who will also be in charge of styling Zhen’s hair.”
After this public announcement, more than half of the people in the hall were stunned speechless. Even Gu Cai’er was in a daze and didn’t react.
From the sound of His Majesty’s earlier evaluation of the ladies’ headpieces, it would have been more reasonable for Qiuhe to have been selected, and, moreover, Qiuhe’s looks were greatly superior to Cai’er’s.
However, Qiuhe’s expression, which had been visibly anxious at first, relaxed at this moment. Contrary to expectations, she let out a sigh as if a weight had been lifted from her.
In this awed atmosphere, eventually, someone praised the decision and congratulated Gu Cai’er. Only then did Cai’er react and thank the Emperor with a salute.
The Empress asked His Majesty why he chose Maid Gu as the winner of the contest, but he simply replied: “The material that Cai’er used to create the headpiece was thrifty and simple but didn’t lose the noble air of the imperial family. The hairstyle was also well done.”
Hello dear readers,
It seems to be a sleepless night for this cat, so the cure to insomnia is translating. If you spot any typos, please let me know in the comments.
Onto chapter 3! Yay! You can thank [redacted] for the beautiful translation of the chapter title: 无端又被东风误.
Thank you so much for your incredible patience as I slowly translate this novel. I hope you enjoyed the chapter! I feel like a botanist, haha. Feel free to click the links for the flowers – there are usually pictures.
Until next time,