Purely by Accident – Chapter 3
Marriage was a big deal. Marriage between two women was an even bigger deal. Marriage between two women, one of whom was not only unwilling but also completely unaware as to the imminence of said nuptials, was so preposterous, so absurd and so fantastical as to be a positively monumental deal.
Given the gravity of the situation, I decided to talk things over with the woman in my bed.
This proved to be no easy task.
I sat next to the bed, trying to cajole and intimidate her by turns. I called her ‘my lady’, I called her ‘madam’, I called her ‘meimei’, I called her ‘grandma’ — I called her every single term of address I could think of for a woman, all to no avail. She simply went on lying there with her eyes closed; it was as if I was talking to myself.
Clearly my earlier remark about her looks being ‘hardly enough to tempt me’ had emboldened her.
Completely at my wits’ end, I burst out, ‘Let’s get married!’
Just as I’d expected, that got her attention. Her eyes shot open, and a trace of panic flashed across her face too quickly for her to hide it. Her expression then froze.
This, of course, aroused all of my chivalrous instincts towards the fairer sex. ‘Just as a ruse to fool my brothers,’ I told her, gently. ‘At the first opportunity, I’ll find a way to get you off this mountain. No harm will come to your reputation, I promise.’
She snorted. ‘As if bandits like you have any honour to speak of,’ she said coldly. ‘I’d have to be more naive than a three-year-old to believe that.’
Ouch. Your dashing bandit chief felt truly maligned at having her noble intentions so badly misunderstood.
Still, if I thought about it, I could hardly blame her for being suspicious. After all, what bandit would go to the trouble of kidnapping a woman just to play house? What reasonable bandit would go to such lengths, and run such risks, if there was nothing to be gained by it? Even if she thought me uncultured, how could she possibly believe me such a simpleton?
I could see that a prolonged battle of wits lay ahead of me. The very thought of it was exhausting. I looked at her again, lying immobilised on my bed, and realised she must feel at least as exhausted. ‘Why don’t I explain the whole plan to you after I unseal your acupoints?’ I ventured. ‘But you have to promise not to try to attack me, and not to run away.’
Her eyes lit up, suddenly becoming as bright as stars. ‘I promise,’ she said.
Who was it who said, the more beautiful a woman is, the more accomplished a liar she’ll be? Having been caught in a lie on more occasions than I cared to remember myself, I’d dismissed it as nonsense — which, as we’ll see, was what led me to be taken in. I can only conclude that the statement must be true after all; I’m just not beautiful enough for it to apply to me.
And lo! The moment I unsealed her acupoints, she promptly caught hold of my arm, flung me onto the bed, snatched up the nearest quilt and threw it over my head.
By the time I freed myself from the quilt (feeling deeply wounded by her betrayal), she had disappeared from the room like a gust of wind.
I sighed. I could not understand why she was stubbornly refusing to take my advice. Sure enough, in less time than it would have taken me to recite the Great Compassion Mantra, she had been shoved unceremoniously back into the room. A moment later, someone bolted the door firmly from the outside.
Her acupoints had once again been sealed. Experimentally, I tried unsealing them again. This time, it had been done the fancy way; reversing it was beyond my skill.
She gritted her teeth, once. Twice. Then, sounding as if she could not quite believe the depths she was sinking to, said, ‘This plan of yours. Tell me about it.’
And then it was my wedding night.
Taking a wife is often likened to passing the imperial examinations. When I looked up at the sky that night, the stars did seem to shine especially bright, as if in celebration. The entrance to my room was festooned with colourful silk hangings and lanterns. Their scarlet glow seemed particularly dazzling.
We were no great sticklers for formality in the brotherhood, and so, once my troublesome ‘bride’ and I had made our rather-perfunctory wedding bows, she was whisked off into the bridal chamber and the festivities began in earnest. The plan was for me to drink every single one of my graceless brothers under the table, after which I would be able to spirit her away from our stronghold with them none the wiser.
Ziqi, however, seemed determined not to make things easy for me. ‘Why isn’t saozi coming out?’ he demanded. ‘Now that she’s the mistress of our stronghold, she should at least drink a few toasts with our brothers, and let them gaze upon her splendour!’
Many of my brothers — who were clearly deep in their cups — whooped in agreement.
Caught completely off guard, I tried to brush it off with a laugh. ‘Asking a new bride to leave the bridal chamber on her wedding night to make a toast? That doesn’t seem exactly proper. Come, brothers — let me give the toast instead, on your saozi’s behalf!’
Yi Chen lifted his wine cup, wet his lips and jeered. ‘Ha! Zisong hasn’t even consummated his marriage yet and he’s already behaving like a henpecked husband. That’s hardly the sort of example he should be setting for his brothers!’
Just as I was thinking what a pathetic bandit chief I must seem, I heard the squeak of the door behind me. I turned, and there she stood in her flame-red bridal robes, smiling within the overlapping circles of lantern-light. Next to her, the stars in the night sky suddenly seemed dimmer.
My bickering brothers fell silent. In the hush, I distinctly heard my own heart go squeak.
She seemed not to notice. Unbidden, she sat down next to me. ‘Xiongdi, you’re absolutely right,’ she said graciously. “Now that I’m married to your chief, I should acknowledge all of you as my brothers. Allow me to convey my respects with this humble cup of wine.’
My brothers’ approving howls rang out across the valley.
I searched her face carefully, finding no trace of yesterday’s obstinacy. Instead, her every glance spoke of nothing but tenderness; her every smile held nothing but affection.
Amituofo, I muttered to myself. Her acting skills were truly something out of this world. Feeling a little apologetic, I leaned closer to her and softly asked, ‘What are you doing out here?’
She didn’t miss a trick: she turned towards me, and used that very same movement to discreetly spit out her mouthful of wine onto my shoulder. ‘Now that both of us are here plying them with wine,’ she said. ‘We should be able to get your brothers drunk all the faster.’
The fragrance of the wine, mixed with a very different sort of fragrance entirely, went straight to my head. For a moment, I felt as if I were becoming intoxicated myself.
Yi Chen, who always delighted in stirring the pot, quipped, ‘Look, Zisong and saozi are making eyes at each other. Why so restrained? Just kiss already!’
His words wound up my other brothers’ excitement to fever pitch. I stared at him, taken completely aback. When I looked at the woman beside me, I could see indecision clearly written all over her face.
Before I could stop myself, I had already reached out and squeezed her hand. ‘Don’t panic,’ I whispered reassuringly. ‘To tell you the truth, I’m a woman myself.’
Her head whipped towards me, astonishment and doubt mingling in her eyes. I took advantage of the moment to wrap my arms lightly around her, and pressed a kiss to her cheek.
She, of course, did not remain idle. While her hands might have appeared to be resting lightly on my chest, she was in fact giving me a thorough groping, as if to verify the truth of what I had just said.
Really, I had to be the most pitiful bandit chief in existence. Wasn’t I the one who had seized her as my bride? Yet here I was, being thoroughly taken advantage of!
This finally seemed to satisfy Yi Chen. With his ‘saozi’ urging cup after cup of wine upon him, he soon passed out. Xu Ziqi staggered over to help him up. The two of them stumbled away from the gathering with their arms around each other.
Following my subtle hints — and then my increasingly pointed hints — the rest of my brothers soon dispersed. In the blink of an eye, only the two of us were left in a place that had been bustling with noise and merriment just mere moments ago.
She rose to leave. Deftly, I reached out and caught hold of her hand.
This seemed to vex her somewhat. ‘Is there something else?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow.
I held up both hands to show that I meant no harm. ‘Since I’ve promised to help you, I’ll see it through till the very end. Do you even know the way off this mountain?’
And so I escorted her out of our stronghold, and then further still, choosing a path that skirted around the brotherhood’s various sentry posts. Four hours later, we arrived at the outer boundary of the brotherhood’s territory. The lights of a village glimmered not too far away.
I turned to her, and cupped my hands in a gesture of farewell. ‘My thoughtless brothers must have greatly offended you, these last two days,’ I said. ‘I can only ask for your forgiveness. Please be careful in all your future travels.’
‘Farewell,’ she said, looking visibly relieved.
I gazed after her graceful, receding back. Then, feeling suddenly unsatisfied, I called out, ‘I still don’t know your name, my lady.
She turned, an enigmatic half-smile on her lips. ‘It’s enough that I know your name, my lady — Zisong.’
‘Wei Zisong,’ I mumbled. When I looked up again, she was already a long way down the path. But that smile of hers lingered in my mind for a very long time.
Later, I was to become all too familiar with that smile, and to learn that it boded nothing good. I came to regret my actions time and again. If I had known she was a princess of the Yan Empire, I would have escorted her from our stronghold immediately. I would never have taken the liberty of touching her hand, much less her face; even if I had done, I would have let her recoup it with interest by groping me back as much as she pleased. Most of all, I would never have agreed to any of that wedding business.
But as Heaven is my witness, even though I had no idea that she was a princess, I still hadn’t overstepped the bounds of propriety by too much, had I? Why, then, did the situation soon spiral out of my control, leading me ever-closer to my personal tragedy?
- In Chinese, 妹妹, meaning ‘little sister’. In addition to being a familial term, it is also used as an affectionate term of address for a non-blood-related younger woman of the same generation. [return to text]
- Known as the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāranī in Sanskrit and the 大悲咒 in Chinese, this is a popular mantra often used for protection and purification. [return to text]
- Historically, marriage was sometimes referred to as 小登科, the ‘minor version of passing the imperial examinations’, possibly due to the visual similarity between the groom’s elaborate wedding robes and the court robes worn by officials (who had to pass the imperial examinations in order to be appointed). [return to text]
- In Chinese, 嫂子, meaning older brother’s wife. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 兄弟, meaning ‘brother’. Often used as a term of address for non-blood-related men (especially male friends) of the same generation. [return to text]
- 阿弥陀佛, the Mandarin pronunciation for the Sanskrit name of the Amitāba Buddha. It is used in a wide range of contexts, including as a greeting, a blessing, a prayer, and as an expression of gratitude. [return to text]
- The original text uses the saying 送佛送到西, literally ‘send Buddha all the way to the west’. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 拱手. A salute that involves clasping one hand over a closed fist. [return to text]
- The original text uses the chengyu 似笑非笑, literally ‘like a smile yet not like a smile’. [return to text]
- The original text uses the chengyu 天地良心, literally ‘Heaven, Earth and my conscience’, meaning to have a clear conscience. [return to text]