Purely by Accident – Chapter 2
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every tragedy is heralded by its own portents.
In my own case — The Tragedy of the Female Prince Consort, as it were — when I looked back over the sequence of events leading up to my betrothal, it was clear to me that it had been portended by the coming of spring.
Oh, I forgot to mention — before coming to the capital, I had a day job as a bandit chief. I disguised myself as a man and set up a stronghold on Mount Yanluo. My merry band of brothers and I had a roof over our heads and land to grow food on. We were generally content with our lives; only when we got particularly bored did we engage in a little light robbing of the rich. In short, we had it all figured out.
Winter had been particularly harsh that year. Heavy snow sealed all the mountain passes, making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave. So cut off were we from the rest of the world that my more desperate brothers had been forced to resort to the way of the cut-sleeve.
When the first breeze of spring finally wended its way into our stronghold, the whole mountain practically reverberated with the joyful howls of my brothers, whose hearts — not to mention their other organs — were stirring with what might loosely be called romance. In an effort to seem like one of the boys, I made sure to declare to all and sundry, at our springtime celebration and on other public occasions, that my heart, too, was stirring in the same way. As it turned out, I was only talking my way into trouble.
The day it all started, I was amusing myself by feeding the pigeons when Xu Ziqi, my second-in-command, came up to me. ‘Dage, go and have a look in your room,’ he whispered surreptitiously in my ear. ‘We’ve left you some good stuff.’
At the time, I assumed that my brothers had carried out another robbery in their latest fit of boredom, and had left me some antique or curio as my share. Brimming with glee, I rushed back to my room. But when I closed the door and turned around, I stopped as if I had been turned to stone.
Lying on my bed was one (1) whole woman. And a stunningly beautiful woman, at that.
Her skin was as fair as cream, and her haughty brows were perfect arches. I looked her up and down, the way I had seen my brothers do with other women: she had, as they say, curves in all the right places.
Someone had sealed this beautiful woman’s acupoints, rendering her immobile. She lay there with her eyes closed; there was a touching air of vulnerability about her.
I moved closer, gazing at those red lips whose colour owed nothing to art, and at that long white throat, shown off to even greater advantage by the slight upward tilt of her head. Oh. I had never imagined that there could be such a woman in this world — one so beautiful that just looking at her was enough to send my pulse racing, even though I was a woman myself.
Just as I was wondering how best to deal with the situation, the woman suddenly opened her eyes and stared straight into mine. There was something about those eyes — though I couldn’t have said exactly what — that lent an air of authority to her soft, delicate features.
Hastily, I took a step backwards and held up both hands to show that I meant no harm. ‘It wasn’t me! I wasn’t the one who kidnapped you! I didn’t do it!’
It was only after I disavowed all involvement in her kidnapping that I realised she was the meat and I was the chopping board; what was I even panicking for? In a fit of pique brought on by this internal humiliation, I plonked myself down on the bed and sat there studying her brazenly.
This roused her anger. ‘Such insolence!’ she exclaimed, furrowing those exquisite eyebrows. ‘Who — who are you?’
This remonstrance did not have the desired effect. Her voice was not intimidating in the least; instead, it was sweet and gentle. The contrast between her voice and her stern expression was oddly appealing. Seized by a sudden fit of mischief, I reached out and stroked her hand.
We were both women, after all. It wasn’t such a big deal for me to touch her hand, was it?
She clearly could not believe that I was behaving in such an ‘insolent’ — as she called it — fashion, but there was nothing she could do. She glared at me unblinkingly, a flush slowly suffusing her face. I strongly suspected that if I were to unseal her acupoints, the very first thing she would do would be to give me a full-armed slap across the face.
So this was how it felt to do exactly as one pleased! Having taken an inch, I decided to take a mile; I stroked her cheek as well. Mm, so beautifully soft.
We were both women, after all. It wasn’t such a big deal for me to touch her face, was it?
She looked as if she wanted nothing more than to tear me into a thousand pieces. ‘You lecher!’ she spat through clenched teeth.
Her agitation made her lips flush even redder.
As if I had been bewitched, I found myself bending down, bringing my lips closer to hers. We were both women, after all. It wasn’t such a big deal for me to give her a kiss, was it?
At least that was what I told myself. In the heat of the moment, I completely failed to realise how perilously close I was coming to behaving like a full-blown pervert.
Fortunately, the sight of her desperately clamping her lips shut brought me back to my senses. It was too late for me to draw back — I was already bending over her. So I tapped her lightly on the lips, trying to make it seem as if that was what I had intended all along. ‘There’s no need for that martyred expression,’ I told her, straightening. ‘Your looks are hardly enough to tempt me.’
And with that, I slipped quickly out of the room.
It was only after I had slammed the door behind me that I dared to relax. I took a deep breath, patting myself on the chest to calm my pounding heart. Where did Xu Ziqi manage to find such a temptress? I fumed. Just being in the same room with her was nearly enough to turn me into the female version of an out-and-out cad!
I dashed off to find Xu Ziqi. Along the way, I ran into a good number of my brothers, all of whom gave me knowing smiles. Seeing that, I swiftly forgave myself for my churlish behaviour earlier. After all, I spent so much time around these dirty-minded reprobates: it was no wonder that my own morals had been corrupted as well. The whole idea of ‘rising unsullied from the mud’ was clearly nothing more than wishful thinking!
I found Xu Ziqi laughing together with Yi Chen, our brotherhood’s strategist. When they saw me coming, their smiles became outright lewd.
Yi Chen scurried up to me, looking closely into my face. ‘I hear Ziqi found you a woman,’ he said, grinning broadly. ‘I was wondering why I hadn’t seen you all morning. From the look on your face, you must have been completely satisfied with that little lady.’
I gave him a kick. ‘Just because you’re in heat, you think everyone else is too! When have you ever seen your chief behave in the same disgusting way as the rest of you?’
‘That is true,’ said Yi Chen, frowning. ‘Zisong, you’re… you’re not a cut-sleeve, are you?’ Suddenly panic-stricken, he took a few steps backwards, putting his hands protectively over his chest.
I stared at him, completely speechless. Even if I was, I wouldn’t cut it for you! Though when I thought about it, given how I’d treated that woman earlier, wasn’t I already teetering on the brink of becoming a cut-sleeve? (Hang on, were women called cut-sleeves too?)
Xu Ziqi guffawed. ‘That’s where you’re wrong, A-Chen. I must admit, I was worried about that myself, but then dage spent such a long time alone in his room with the little lady… let’s put it this way: you don’t think they were just having a heart-to-heart talk, do you?’
I smiled ruefully. Oh, woe is me. The way things were going, I was in danger of digging myself in deeper. So I assumed my most chieflike manner, cleared my throat, and said, ‘Since the founding of the Heiyun Brotherhood, we’ve never been in the business of carrying off unwilling women. Keeping a woman locked up here against her will — that doesn’t seem right.’
Yi Chen gave me a suggestive wink. ‘That shouldn’t be a problem. You’re such a smooth operator, Zisong. I’m sure that little lady must have fallen head over heels for you by now, and is practically gagging to stay. If that’s the case, we’d hardly be keeping her here against her will, would we?’
Xu Ziqi was nodding vigorously.
Feeling increasingly desperate, I resorted to moralising. ‘If such a woman were to become an emperor’s consort, she would bewitch the emperor so thoroughly as to bring ruin to the empire. If we let her stay, her presence alone would sow division within our band. To be quite honest, my brothers, she’s too rich for my blood.’
Ziqi blinked at me. ‘From what you’re saying, it seems as if you’ve truly hardened your heart against this woman, dage. Never mind, then. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.’ Then he added, with a slightly affected air of coyness, ‘If you don’t want her, I’m sure I can put aside my scruples just this once and take her in myself.’
I heard a sharp intake of breath from Yi Chen, and realised that my own heart was in my throat. Having no other choice, I burned all my boats. ‘Fine, fine. If she’s to bring ruin to anyone, better me than you. I’m in need of a bed-warmer, anyway. I might as well keep her.’
As Ziqi and Yi Chen high-fived each other in glee, a deep sense of helplessness came over me. I didn’t want to stay there, but I couldn’t go back to my room, either. The stronghold was a massive place, but in that moment I felt as though I had nowhere to go.
Ziqi was already striding out of the room, his head high. ‘Spread the word,’ I heard him say. ‘We’ll be having a big feast tomorrow, to celebrate dage’s wedding to the new mistress of our stronghold!’
As the stronghold shook with cheers, I turned tail and fled.
- A euphemism for male homosexuality. It refers to the ‘passion of the cut sleeve’ between Emperor Ai of Han (汉哀帝) and his official Dong Xian (董贤). The story goes that one afternoon, the emperor woke up from a nap to find Dong Xian sleeping with one of the emperor’s sleeves under his head. Rather than waking his lover, he cut off his sleeve to allow Dong Xian to carry on sleeping. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 大哥, literally ‘big brother’. In addition to being a familial term, it is also used as a polite term of address for a non-blood-related older (or higher status) man of the same generation. [return to text]
- The original text uses the phrase 眉如远黛, meaning ‘brows like distant mountains’. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 穴道. Also known as ‘acupuncture points’. In traditional Chinese medicine, these are sites in the body which can be stimulated to correct imbalances or blockages in the flow of life-energy, or qi (气). In wuxia and wuxia-adjacent genres, martial artists can target an opponent’s acupoints in order to kill, disable or immobilise the opponent. [return to text]
- The original text uses the phrase 人为鱼肉, 我为刀俎, an adaptation of the idiom 人为刀俎, 我为鱼肉, meaning ‘to be the meat on someone’s chopping board’, which denotes being completely at someone’s mercy. This originates from the Records of the Grand Historian (史记), a foundational historical text begun by the Western Han historian-astrologer Sima Tan (司马谈) and completed by his son, the historian Sima Qian (司马迁). [return to text]
- In Chinese, 出淤泥而不染, which describes a person remaining principled and free from corruption despite their background or surroundings. The phrase is also used less metaphorically to describe lotus flowers, which grow in mud. Originates from the poem ‘On the Love of the Lotus’ (爱莲说) by the Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi (周敦颐). [return to text]
- The original text uses the idiom 强扭的瓜不甜, literally ‘a melon that has to be twisted forcefully from the vine will not taste sweet’, which is a reference to the way the vines of ripening melons will dry out and wither at the point where they connect to the melon. This makes fully-ripened melons very easy to pluck. The phrase suggests that forcing someone to do something they are reluctant to do will not produce a positive result. [return to text]
- The original text uses the chengyu 破釜沉舟, which literally means ‘to break the cauldrons and sink the boats’. This reference to an event in Qin dynasty military history describes someone committing themselves to a particular course of action by rendering an alternative course impossible. [return to text]