Purely by Accident – Chapter 4
A few days later, a messenger pigeon brought me a letter from my father. It read: ‘Visitor of importance. Return with haste.’
Oh, another thing I forgot to mention — in addition to my day job as a bandit chief, I also had a side hustle as Wei Tiancheng’s son. My father was an official of middling rank: to be precise, he was the governor of Yinzhou, a city that lay at the foot of Mount Yanluo in the easternmost corner of the Yan Empire. As for my being a woman, not even my father was aware of the fact. The day I was first brought to his manor, nearly a decade ago, I had been dressed in boys’ clothes. When I presented myself, my father took one look at the jade pendant I wore and acknowledged me as his son. He allocated me a set of rooms for my exclusive use straightaway, and engaged teachers to see to my education. My only personal attendants were the two who had escorted me to his manor, and so my secret had remained hidden all this while. (To tell the truth, I had surprised even myself when I’d told my ‘bride’ that I was also a woman: how could I have given up the secret I had carried with me for so many years so easily, and to a stranger at that?)
Life at my father’s manor proved much too dull, so when I turned sixteen I rallied a group of like-minded brothers to my banner and set myself up as a bandit chief on Mount Yanluo. That had been three years ago.
Of course, dear old dad had absolutely no idea what I really got up to on Mount Yanluo. With a touching naivety, he’d completely bought the story I’d spun him about training with a mysterious master of the martial arts I’d had the good fortune to encounter up there. Since he treated me as a son and not a daughter, he was used to letting me run loose, and it wasn’t unusual for me to be away from home for weeks at a time. In fact, this was the first time my father had summoned me ‘with haste’.
As usual, nothing particularly noteworthy was happening at the stronghold; I had no qualms about leaving Xu Ziqi and Yi Chen in charge. Having handed over the reins, I set off to meet this ‘visitor of importance’.
I was halfway down the mountain when I realised that without really thinking about it, I’d taken exactly the same path I had led my ‘bride’ down that night. All kinds of wildflowers were blooming along the path — I hadn’t noticed them the first time, in the darkness — and the mountainside was a blaze of colour. I felt almost drunk on the beauty of this wonderful spring morning. As I made my way down the mountain, my heart was all aflutter with delight.
As a direct result of the whimsical humour I was in, when I finally arrived at my father’s manor, I decided to surprise dear old dad by leaping in over the back wall rather than walking through the front door.
How was I to know that instead of surprising him, I would end up giving him the biggest shock of his life?
Why? When I jumped over the wall, I landed right on top of someone.
Once the world stopped spinning, I realised I was lying on top of something deliciously soft and sweet-smelling — or rather, someone; a moment later, I found myself looking into a pair of astonished eyes.
I was astonished myself. Wasn’t this woman I was lying on top of the same one I had found in my bed just a few days ago?
Before I could scramble to my feet — and before she could snap that by-now familiar ‘such insolence!’ at me — two other voices rang out. A moment later, someone had picked me up by the scruff of the neck and hurled me unceremoniously to the side.
I couldn’t be sure whether the voice that had shouted ‘How dare you!’ belonged to the man in black who had flung me aside so easily — nor was I in any state to make sure, because at the moment, he was skewering me with a grim stare. He had a hand on the hilt of his sword, and looked poised to remove my head from my shoulders the instant the signal was given.
The second voice belonged to my father, and that I had heard all too clearly. The poor man had fallen to his knees. I suspected he was quivering with fear, though I couldn’t be entirely sure.
My father’s words rebounded in my ears, filling me with even greater dread than the sight of the man in black with his hand on his sword.
What he had said was, ‘Your Highness, have mercy.’
By the time I had fully digested the implications of this, I was covered in cold sweat. That wretched Xu Ziqi — he’d actually kidnapped an actual princess of the Yan Empire, and delivered her to my actual bed! And as for what I’d done… did that count as forcing the princess into marriage?
Oh my lady wife, will you please stop looking at me with that half-smile on your face? Can’t you see that your bandit chief has already been reduced to a state of abject terror?
Seeing that I was completely petrified with fear, my father turned to the princess. ‘Your Highness, your humble subject begs your forgiveness. My unruly son knows little of the ways of the world; I pray that Your Highness can show him mercy, and pardon him for the offence his youthful exuberance has caused.’ Then, looking back at me, he said, ‘Song’er, come here quickly, and make your apologies to the princess.’
I blinked at him, then very reluctantly forced myself to kneel before the princess. ‘Your Highness,’ I said, cupping my hands before me in a gesture of respect. ‘Your humble servant was so blind as to fail to recognise you, and inadvertently caused offence. Your humble servant trusts that you will be magnanimous enough not to punish him for this unintended transgression.’
Oh, woe is me! I hadn’t even asked her to kneel during our wedding ceremony, and yet here she was, forcing me to grovel under my very own roof. Karma was truly a capricious bitch.
Every trace of shock had vanished from our dear princess’ face. Putting on her most dignified expression, she said, half to my father and half to me, ‘Ignorant of the ways of the world? That hardly seems to be the case. I’m sure your son is fully aware of how boldly he has just addressed me.’
My father’s face turned as white as a rag that had been laundered and starched too many times.
I chuckled hollowly. ‘Your Highness, you flatter me.’
After what seemed like a very long time, the merest suggestion of a smile finally flitted across the princess’ face. She grandly waved a hand. ‘Very well. You may all rise.’
Well, her manner was certainly royal enough. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the man in black had finally taken his hand away from his sword-hilt as well. I heaved a sigh of relief as I stood, flicking the dust off my robes and giving my sore knees a quick rub in passing.
‘Song’er, how dare you behave so casually in front of the princess?’ chided my father, who was clearly still recovering from his shock. ‘This is the height of impropriety!’
I rubbed my nose, discomfited. Then I heard the princess say, ‘Since we’re not in the palace, there’s no need for strict compliance with the formalities. From what I’ve seen of Young Master Wei, he appears to be a refreshingly forthright young man — and so bright and winsome, too.’
Bright and… winsome? Oh, my princess, I know that you’re alluding to my being a woman, but that’s not how it would sound to anyone else here. Aren’t you worried that they might be silently judging you for describing a young man in such inappropriately girlish terms?
My father, looking relieved, began making introductions. ‘Your Highness, this is my unworthy son, Wei Zisong. Song’er, this is the emperor’s most beloved daughter, the Yongyan Princess.’
Chu Feichen, the Yongyan Princess, Eldest Princess of the Yan Empire. Even as a child, she had been known for being exceptionally intelligent; that, combined with her great beauty, had made her the emperor’s favourite child. All her younger sisters were already married, while she alone remained unwed. It was said that the emperor was reluctant to part from her, and wanted to keep her by his side for a few more years.
Yes, keep her there, I thought vindictively. Keep her there until she becomes an old maid. When you looked at it that way, hadn’t I actually done the princess a favour by putting an end to her sad, lonely days as a spinster? I flattered myself that I had rendered her a great service indeed. Though now that I thought about it, I wasn’t that much younger than her. Wasn’t I still languishing alone on my mountain, as yet unspoken for? The pot, I reflected, probably shouldn’t be calling the kettle black.
Lost in my thoughts, I trailed behind the princess’ retinue as they made their leisurely way through the garden. Suddenly, I heard the princess say, ‘You must have many official matters to attend to, Governor Wei. There’s no need for you to idle the rest of the day away with me. Since your son is here, he can be my escort.’
Every single defensive instinct in my body was immediately activated. Alas, I could only watch helplessly as my father made a deep bow, took a few steps backwards and disappeared around a corner of the zigzag gallery.
With a wave of her hand, the princess dismissed her guards and servants. As I watched the man in black leave with the rest, I knew I should be feeling a sense of relief. But for some reason, a sinister gloom seemed to have fallen over the blooming, sunlit garden.
I stole a glance at the princess. Her expression was as unfathomable as ever. It occurred to me that even when she had been trapped in our bandits’ lair, she had still managed to keep her composure better than I was doing at present. Somehow, that gave me a tiny flicker of courage. ‘What are you doing here?’ I mumbled.
It was as if she had been waiting for me to ask this very question. ‘My retinue and I were set upon by bandits a few days ago,’ she said calmly. ‘I thought it would be wise to take a few days to rest and recuperate here at the governor’s manor.’ She brushed aside an overhanging willow branch with her delicate fingers, then added with a smile, ‘But isn’t that a question I should be asking you, Young Master — or should I say, my lady? Or perhaps you would prefer to be addressed as Bandit Chief Wei?’
I felt as though she had reached out with those delicate fingers and given my heart a pinch. Like a wavering flame on a candlewick, my newborn flicker of courage was snuffed out completely.
Still, I had saved her honour back at the stronghold, and I decided to remind her of that. ‘Your Highness has an excellent memory indeed,’ I said. ‘What happened at the stronghold… please don’t take it too much to heart. You’ve no idea how often my brothers have berated me for setting you free—’
I was about to lay it on even thicker when I realised that the princess’ expression had turned colder than a mountaintop covered in ten-thousand-year-old permafrost.
‘So you’re saying that I’m the one who owes you a debt?’ She smiled, but it was completely devoid of humour. ‘I remember all too well how disrespectful you were that day. Tell me, why shouldn’t I have you killed before you can repeat that story to anyone else?’
Instinctively, I found myself shrinking deeper into my collar. ‘We’re both women, after all—’ I began somewhat shamefacedly.
She cut me off right there. ‘Wei Zisong,’ she said, her tone even harsher than before. ‘Your father is an official of the imperial court, yet you consort with rogues. You are clearly a woman, yet you present yourself to me in the guise of a man. What evil designs are you harbouring? Do you understand that I could order all your family’s property to be forfeited to the throne, and even for your whole bloodline to be exterminated as punishment for your crimes?’
My knees turned to water.
People often say that ‘keeping company with the sovereign is as perilous as living with a tiger’. If that was true, then all of the emperor’s worst caprices must have rubbed off on the princess, including an ability to pass from seeming affability to outright hostility in the blink of an eye. I wasn’t a coward, truly I wasn’t, but I was also fully aware of just how high above me the princess stood. From the way she was talking, I probably wasn’t going to get out of this fix without a little judicious cajolery.
Putting on my meekest expression, I said, ‘Your Highness is most magnanimous: I am sure you would consider it beneath your dignity to hold a grudge against someone as insignificant as me. Spare my unworthy life just this once, Your Highness, and I promise that I will repay your generosity by serving you as humbly as a dog!’
At the time, all I could think of was getting out of my current predicament alive. As for what would happen afterwards, once the princess was safely away — far, far away — from my father’s manor, what need would she have of my rash promises of service?
As it turned out, I was wrong. So very, very wrong. Life is like a long-drawn-out game of cards: you never know when you’re going get a hand that throws you for a complete loop, leaving you with nowhere to turn.
I had absolutely no idea that with every word that left my mouth, I had been digging a hole for myself. With her next utterance, the princess sent me tumbling right to the very bottom of that pit.
‘I have no need for a dog,’ she said. ‘Come to the capital with me, and become my prince consort.’
It was as if a xianbing made of pure gold had fallen out of the sky. I could look at it as much as I liked, but eating it was completely out of the question. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
- In the traditional Chinese calendar, a week (旬) is ten days long. [return to text]
- The original text uses the saying 五十步笑百步, literally ‘the one who has retreated fifty steps laughs at the one who has retreated a hundred steps’. It originates from a fable the philosopher Mencius (孟子) told King Hui of Wei (魏惠王, also known as 梁惠王) during the Warring States period. In the fable, two soldiers flee from a battle. One of them stops fifty steps away from the battle, while the other stops a hundred steps away. The soldier who has run fifty steps then laughs at the soldier who has run a hundred steps for his cowardice. The saying describes the hypocrisy of a person who accuses another of the very thing of which they are guilty, with any difference between them being merely a matter of degree. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 九曲廊. ‘Gallery’ here refers to a covered walkway. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 伴君如伴虎. The saying suggests that people in positions of power are prone to unpredictable moods, and are likely to mistreat their subordinates according to their changing whims and fancies. [return to text]
- The original text uses the term 变脸, literally ‘change face’. [return to text]
- The original text uses the saying 官大一级压死人, literally ‘an official who outranks you by one level can still crush you to death’. It means that a person in a position of authority holds absolute power over their subordinates, even if that person’s rank is only one level higher. This is used to convey the sense of helplessness felt by subordinates. [return to text]
- The original text uses the chengyu 做牛做马, literally ‘to be an ox or a horse’, which means to work hard and do everything one can for another person. [return to text]
- The original text uses the phrase 天高公主远, literally ‘Heaven is high, the princess far away’. This may be a riff on the saying 山高皇帝远, literally ‘the mountain is high, the emperor far away’. The latter saying is used describe the central government’s inability to prevent or regulate lawless behaviour in far-flung regions. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 馅饼. A stuffed savoury pastry with a crispy crust, sometimes described as a larger version of the potsticker (锅贴). [return to text]