Purely by Accident – Chapter 1

TOC | Next

***

I’m a prince consort — that is to say, a professional toyboy.[1]

Of course, I wasn’t the one who came up with that shameless job description. It’s actually something that the Yan Empire’s other prince consorts have tried hard to drum into my head.

The day I received my title was a fine one, with a light breeze and just a few wisps of cloud in the sky. The faint scent of osmanthus blossoms hung in the air. I knelt in the middle of the throne room, with rank upon rank of court officials assembled to my left and right. The fluttering of their colourful robes gave me a slight headache.

I heard the Emperor of Yan proclaim, with a note of joy brightening his stately tones, that the imperial scholar Wei Zisong — having been found unimpeachable in both character and appearance, and having displayed great skill in both the scholarly and martial arts — had won the favour of the emperor. Accordingly, that same Wei Zisong was granted the title of Prince Consort, and the hand of the emperor’s eldest daughter, the Yongyan Princess.[2]

Of course, I had been expecting this. Yet amidst all the commotion of my fellow officials joining me on their knees and ceremonially chanting ‘Your Majesty is wise’ three times in unison, I couldn’t help turning pale.

It was probably because my ashen face looked frightful that after court had adjourned for the day, the other prince consorts insisted on steadying my nerves with a drink (or several). The gathering was to take place at the Second Prince Consort’s manor. Before heading over, I put some effort into working out what I should wear. There was of course no need for full court dress, but it was still a royal residence after all. If I dressed too casually, I risked polluting the Second Princess’ blue-blooded eyes.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.[3] The Second Princess was absent; she clearly had no intention of giving a personal audience to someone who had only been granted the title of Prince Consort, but was not yet formally married to her sister. I was still on my trial period, as it were.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief.

The pains I had taken over my appearance did not go wholly unnoticed, however. Ji Ruosong, the Fourth Prince Consort, clasped my hand warmly and said, ‘No wonder the Eldest Princess has taken such a fancy to you, Zisong. I’m so used to seeing you in court robes. In these informal clothes you look so elegant, yet not pretentious. It makes me realise how extraordinarily handsome you are!’

The over-familiarity of his calling me ‘Zisong’ made me break out in goosebumps. I was still gawking at him when I heard a new voice say, ‘Ruosong, when you see a handsome man, you forget all your manners. Wei xiong isn’t some male courtesan from Chunyi House; you shouldn’t be teasing him in that way.’

Embarrassed, Ji Ruosong let go of my hand. A little awkwardly, I picked up my wine cup and turned towards the owner of the voice. He was a stranger, and looked as handsome as if he had stepped out of a painting.[4]

The host of our little gathering, Wei Zhuoyang — the Second Prince Consort — broke in hurriedly. ‘We’re all brothers-in-law here, so we don’t really stand on ceremony when speaking to each other. Yishu, you’ve been absent from court since you were injured, so you two haven’t met yet. This is Wei xiong, Wei Zisong, who received the title of Eldest Prince Consort from our imperial father today.’

I raised my cup to the stranger in greeting. Still smiling enigmatically, he drained his own.

‘Yishu’. Zhao Yishu.

Although this was the first time I had met the man, the name was very familiar. Everyone in the capital had heard of the heroic exploits of Zhao Yishu, Vice-Minister Zhao Tingxuan’s eldest son. At sixteen, he had won first place in the imperial military examinations. He had later married the Third Princess, the most beautiful woman in the Yan Empire. Most recently he had been given his own military command and had personally led three hundred mounted soldiers in a raid on the Xiongnu camp, beheading their general in his own tent and forcing them into a retreat. He had returned to the capital in triumph, and the Emperor had positively smiled upon him. Not only had Zhao Yishu been showered with rewards, he had also been granted a special dispensation from attending court for the whole of the following month. In fact so great was the Emperor’s regard for his son-in-law that he had even privately instructed the Third Princess to take the best possible care of her husband.

Perhaps it was because of the sheer power of his personal brand, built up through so much word-of-mouth marketing, but when I gave Zhao Yishu a second look, I was impressed by what I saw. His gaze was sharp and clear; his manners were elegant, but bore no trace of self-consciousness. He carried himself, in short, with all the grace of a great general.

So I found myself obsequiously saying, ‘Zhao xiong, your illustrious reputation has long preceded you. But upon meeting you today, I realise that the reality puts even the rumours to shame.’

He brushed the praise off, saying, ‘All these accolades are ultimately hollow. As prince consorts, our true duty lies in satisfying our princesses’ every desire.’

For a moment, I had no idea what to say. Was he really — and almost in so many words! — encouraging me to become the best toyboy I could? To attach myself to the princess, and just bask in her reflected glory from here on out?[5]

As I was turning this over in my mind, both Ji Ruosong and Wei Zhuoyang chimed in with their fervent agreement. In that moment, I felt as though some fundamental truth was being revealed before my very eyes.

‘The Eldest Princess is much favoured by our imperial father,’ said Wei Zhuoyang. ‘As her consort, Wei xiong, you will have many opportunities to accomplish great things at court.’

‘Even leaving aside the position and wealth you will be gaining, the Eldest Princess is a very beautiful woman,’ Ji Ruosong added. ‘Though she might not be as dazzling as the Third Princess, she’s still a regal beauty, and carries herself with an air of distinction.’

I could only give a pained smile.

Things were becoming clearer. This was no boys’ night out (or in) for steadying my nerves; it was my soon-to-be in-laws putting me on notice. The message was clear: ‘As long as you stay on your best behaviour and devote yourself whole-heartedly to waiting on your princess, we’ll see to it that you have an easy time of it.’ Judging by how well co-ordinated the three prince consorts were on this point, the mastermind behind the operation must have been no less a personage than my future father-in-law himself.

I had broken into a cold sweat by this point, which I tried to laugh off.

‘Not only is it my own personal great fortune to have been given the hand of the Eldest Princess in marriage, it’s also a sign of how much Heaven has blessed my family,’ I said. ‘Rest assured that I will not be remiss in my duties. I will serve the princess most diligently, and share most faithfully in the Emperor’s burdens.’

By the time I staggered out of the Second Prince Consort’s manor, my wine-addled brain held only the words ‘professional toyboy’.

To tell the truth, becoming the Eldest Princess’ exclusive toyboy was probably the fondest dream of every man in the Yan Empire. Beauty and riches — what more could any person want?

Oh yes, this was all absolutely wonderful. There was only one problem.

You see, I’m a woman. To be more precise, I am an honest to goodness, one hundred percent guaranteed authentic, pure unadulterated maiden.

And so, what should have made me my fortune became nothing short of a tragedy.

***

TOC | Next


Footnotes:

  1. ‘Boy toy’ in US English. [return to text]
  2. The princess’ name is Chu Feichen; ‘Yongyan’ is her title. [return to text]
  3. The original text uses two chengyu to express this. The first is 杞人忧天, literally ‘the man of Qi who worried that the sky would fall’, which is used to describe a person who has groundless fears. The second is 多此一举, meaning ‘to make a superfluous or unnecessary move’. [return to text]
  4. The original text uses the chengyu 眉目如画, literally ‘brows and eyes like a drawing’, which describes the beauty of a person’s face. [return to text]
  5. The original text uses the phrase 傍上公主好乘凉, literally ‘lean on the princess and relax in her shade’, possibly a riff on the saying 大树底下好乘凉, literally ‘relax in the shade of the big tree’, meaning to rely on a powerful patron. [return to text]