Purely by Accident – Chapter 7
It was dusk by the time we reached the foothills of Mount Yanluo. Xiao Hei — I’d decided to keep calling the princess’ bodyguard Xiao Hei in my head — reined in his horse and dismounted. I brought the coach to a stop as well, and petted the horses’ heads to thank them for their labours.
Xiao Hei approached the coach and cupped his hands respectfully. ‘My lady, this part of the countryside seems deserted, and it’s getting late. We might not be able to find shelter tonight.’
There was some rustling from inside the coach, then one of its curtains lifted. ‘In that case, let us sleep in the open!’ the princess called out. ‘Let the sky be our blanket, and the ground our bed.’
Well! Whatever else one thought of the princess, you could hardly accuse her of lacking spirit. She’d already been kidnapped once, yet the prospect of spending the night in the wilderness seemed to hold no terror for her.
That faint, elusive fragrance she always wore drifted over to me. It reminded me of our wedding night, and especially of the moment I’d pressed my lips to her cheek. A wave of heat rose suddenly to my face. To cover my blush, I leapt hastily from my seat — pressing a hand against my cheek as I did so — and pretended to study my surroundings.
Behind me, I could hear the princess being handed down from the coach by her maid, who assiduously brushed down her mistress’ robes and massaged her shoulders while she was at it. I couldn’t help but recall the nimble athleticism with which the princess had seized hold of my wrist and flung me onto my own bed. I doubted if she really needed to be constantly fussed over by some delicate slip of a girl.
Inwardly, I lamented the evils of our class system, all the while wondering why everything seemed to remind me of that day.
Before I could work out a satisfactory answer, the princess came to stand beside me. ‘What’s the name of this mountain?’ she asked, cocking her head.
I was suddenly recalled to my senses. ‘Mount Yanluo,’ I answered obligingly.
The princess nodded, her expression thoughtful. ‘Mount Yanluo. It looks very familiar somehow. You don’t think it could be the stronghold of some bandit chief or anything like that, do you?’
This put me in a quandary; the princess was clearly trying to provoke me. Her tone seemed ordinary enough, but her mercurial temperament meant that she could turn on me at any moment. There was no telling when she would take it into her head to summon an army, and to have my stronghold reduced to so much rubble.
‘You must be mistaken, my lady,’ I said with an obsequious smile, hoping to placate her. ‘Most mountains look the same, the whole world over. As landmarks go, Mount Yanluo has never been particularly remarkable. Though now that your gaze has chanced to fall upon it, it has gained a certain charm. Indeed, in future it may well gain renown as an area of outstanding natural beauty. As for bandits, well. There are no such miscreants within Yinzhou’s jurisdiction — and even if any did exist they would have fled far from here by now, overawed by your ladyship’s magnificence.’
The princess stared at me for a long moment, and then a smile spread slowly across her face. ‘Zisong,’ she said, ‘how many maidens’ hearts have you charmed away with that silver tongue?’ She paused, looking over her shoulder as if surveying the horizon, and added, ‘So you do agree that bandits and their like are miscreants, then. Tell me, how do you think we should deal with them?’
The evening breeze tugged gently at her robes, setting stray tendrils of her hair fluttering. This charming sight filled me with unutterable misery. The words I had spoken mere moments ago came back to haunt me with a vengeance. I felt as though I had picked up a boulder with my own hands and crushed my foot with it. People say ‘loose lips sank ships’; given how incautiously I’d been flapping mine, I’d probably said enough to scuttle a whole fleet. Now what was I supposed to tell her? If I replied ‘let the bandits be’, I would no doubt be doing the princess an injustice; on the other hand, if I replied ‘quell them with force’, I would be doing one to myself. In any other circumstance, I would have had absolutely no problem prioritising my own self-interest even at the risk of incurring the princess’ displeasure. After all, as the saying went, Heaven helps those who help themselves. Now that both my fortune and my life lay completely in the princess’ hands, however, I was faced with a conundrum. A very serious conundrum indeed.
I screwed up my face in thought, but no perfect answer came to mind. In the end, all I could do was gaze at the princess with my most pitiable expression. ‘My lady, please have mercy on your poor Zisong.’
Before the princess could respond, her maid burst out laughing. ‘Look, my lady,’ she said, all childlike glee. ‘Young Master Wei must be suffering from indigestion again!’
I clamped my mouth shut instantly. Gritting my teeth, I silently vowed that all manifestations of childlike glee would henceforth meet with nothing but implacable hostility from me.
The princess smiled as she turned to Xiao Hei. ‘Zhongliang, why don’t you have a look around and see if you can bring us back some wild game? Since we’re stopping here for the night, let’s see how well we can live off the land.’ She patted her maid on the shoulder. ‘You can stop laughing now, silly girl. Go and collect some firewood, so we can have supper soon.’
The two of them left to carry out the princess’ orders.
So Xiao Hei’s given name is ‘Zhongliang’, I mused. What could his surname be? Judging by his blind devotion to the princess, it definitely couldn’t be ‘Jia’. And as for the maid, she certainly lived up to her nickname. ‘Silly Girl!’ I shouted after her departing back. ‘Don’t wander too far, or some wild beast might carry you away!’
Silly she might be, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with her hearing. She turned and stamped her foot. ‘You’re the silly girl! Your whole family are silly girls!’
So the princess was free to address her as Silly Girl, but the name was off-limits to the likes of me: our accursed class system strikes again.
The princess was amused. ‘You’re a grown adult,’ she chided gently. ‘What’s the point of teasing a child like that?’ A thought seemed to occur to her: she tilted her head, then murmured to herself, ‘She’s probably more likely to be carried off by a bandit chief than a wild beast.’
The princess stood against a backdrop of rolling green hills, lost in thought. She reminded me of a flower swaying gracefully in the breeze: no one could possibly tear their eyes away from such a vision of otherworldly loveliness. I stared at her, mesmerised, trying to work out exactly what type of flower she brought to mind.
It was only when the princess called my name that I finally emerged from my trance. I saw a flush flit across her face, and suddenly felt awkward for no reason I could name. Xiao Hei and Silly Girl had already passed out of sight, and a preternatural hush had descended over us. The occasional chirp of an insect or trill of a bird only made the silence seem starker by comparison.
It was so quiet that I fancied I could hear the sound of the breeze brushing lightly against my robes. It was the same breeze that plucked at the princess’ bodice, grazed her temples, caressed her brow, and lingered on her full, luscious lips. I sighed. Spring was truly in the air; everywhere the breeze alighted was a site of blossoming beauty.
The silence had become so eerie that it was making me uneasy. ”Don’t worry,’ I told the princess (mostly for the sake of saying something). ‘There’s no way I’m letting you get carried off by some bandit chief again. You’re safe here with me, I personally guarantee it.’
The princess turned to look at me. Her eyes were shining. But before I could fully savour the glow of heroism that suddenly suffused my every pore, we were rudely interrupted. Just ahead of us lay a thick field of tall grass with a narrow mountain path winding through it. As we watched, several vicious-looking men, all clad in duanshan and armed with sabres, emerged from their hiding places in the grass. Their leader, who looked to be between thirty and forty years old, declaimed, ‘I conquered this mountain; I planted this tree. Pay me my toll, if you would be free!’
The chant rolled smoothly off his tongue: a real testament to the amount of practice he’d put in.
By Heaven and Earth, had I finally come face-to-face with real bandits?
To tell the truth, though I’d been a bandit chief for some time, I’d never actually had to fight anyone yet. Xu Ziqi had always insisted that a bandit chief had to look the part: just as it would be beneath the leader of the Beggars’ Guild to beg for his own supper, it was beneath a bandit chief to personally take part in a raid. Even though I’d been living in a literal bandits’ lair for the last three years, I’d never actually seen my brothers in action. This was the first time I’d met anyone else in the same line of work, so to speak, and I felt an unexpected sense of kinship with them.
Folding my arms across my chest, I studied the newcomers for a good long while. I concluded that they were nowhere as dashing or as easy on the eyes as my own band. I glanced over at the princess, who was observing the proceedings with the air of a spectator at a show. ‘You didn’t set this up, did you?’ she whispered. ‘Have you arranged for your band to kidnap me again, so that you can get out of going to the capital with me?’
I felt my character was being heavily impugned. ‘Do you really think I would allow these third-rate petty thieves to join my stronghold?’ I asked indignantly.
The princess only smiled and said nothing. The leader of the bandits, however, seemed to have reached the end of his patience. ‘Cut the chitchat, unless you want to die,’ he said, brandishing his sabre menacingly. ‘Hand over your all gold, silver and jewellery, and I might just spare your lives. Try anything funny, and you’ll lose your heads!’
Sigh. What a deeply unlovable colleague! I was debating whether I ought to give them a salutary lesson to the effect that some people chose to hide their light under a bushel when I saw one of the other bandits — a monkey-faced fellow — lean over and whisper something into his leader’s ear. Said leader’s eyes went straight to the princess; they gleamed with undisguised lust.
Just as you might expect, I flew into a rage.
I took a step forward to shield the princess from those predatory eyes. ‘Since you’re also trying to make a living on Mount Yanluo, I’m going to give you a chance to do the right thing,’ I said coldly. ‘Get out of my sight at once, or I’ll show you no mercy.’
Tragically (for him), the bandit leader seemed to have misunderstood where the balance of power lay. He stared at me for a moment, then burst into booming laughter. ‘The pretty boy talks a big game! I saw the way you two were looking at each other earlier — sneaked out here to have a little fun, did you? Such a pity I turned up and spoiled the party — for you, that is. I’m taking everything you own, and what’s more, I’m taking both of you with me. The little lady I’ll be keeping for myself. And as for you, pretty boy, I believe Number Three over there has a taste for handsome lads. How does that sound? I bet he’s going to open up a whole new world for you—’
He stopped mid-laugh. With unerring precision, a passing crow had discharged a foul-smelling projectile straight into his open mouth.
The princess couldn’t help a chuckle. She gave my hand a squeeze from behind.
The bandit leader flushed with both anger and embarrassment. ‘Pah!’ he spat onto the ground, and gestured with his weapon for his men to attack.
Ordinarily, I would have been completely confident in my ability to despatch such undisciplined rabble with ease — but now I had the princess to worry about. The bandits outnumbered us, after all. If we did come to blows, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to protect her while simultaneously looking out for myself. There was only one thing I could do: stall the bandits until Xiao Hei returned.
I held up both hands. ‘Let’s not be too hasty. There’s honour among thieves, as people say. If all you’re after is our money, we’re more than willing to hand it over — just don’t hurt either of us!’
Veins stood out on the bandit leader’s forehead, made all the more evident by his thinning hair. ‘It’s too late for that!’ he snarled, and swung his sabre directly at me.
I sidestepped the blow easily enough. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that another of the bandits — clearly emboldened by lust — had grabbed hold of the princess’ shoulder. I sent him flying with a swift kick, then caught the princess’ hand in mine and drew her against my chest. She was warm and soft and sweet-smelling; her closeness was enough to set my heart aflutter again.
Belatedly, I realised that the princess had already been swerving in my direction in an attempt to evade the bandit’s clutches. By pulling her towards me, I’d swept her completely off-balance.
The bandit leader was already aiming a second blow at me, and the princess was now squarely in the path of his blade. My breath caught. Desperately, I threw us both away from him — but I had moved just a little too late. The edge of the bandit leader’s blade grazed the princess’ arm, and a line of blood bloomed across her snow-white sleeve.
In that moment, I felt as if I had stopped breathing. That blood-red thread seemed to have wound itself taut around the tenderest part of my heart: the slightest tug was agony.
I kicked the bandit leader’s sabre out of his hand. Clutching the princess even more closely to me, I peered into her face. She was still smiling, but her lovely brows were ever-so-slightly furrowed, lending her expression a somewhat harrowing quality.
My heart was suddenly too full of an emotion I could neither name nor vent. There was room for only one thought in my mind: Kill them all! Kill every single one of these benighted thugs!
And then— ‘My lady!’ I heard Silly Girl gasp. The next moment, a black-clad figure swept across my field of vision. The bandits collapsed soundlessly in its wake, like performers rehearsing a dumb-show.
Xiao Hei fell to his knees before the princess, who was still in my arms. ‘My lady, your humble servant begs forgiveness for his tardiness in coming to your aid. Please impose whatever punishment you deem fit!’
Silly Girl ran up to us, stumbling as she came. She drew the princess away from me and glared at me through tear-filled eyes. ‘My lady, you’re hurt!’ she exclaimed, her voice shrill.
The princess waved a hand. ‘I’m fine.’ She glanced at me again. Then, as if to comfort me, she added, ‘Zisong, you promised you wouldn’t let me be carried off by a bandit chief again. Just as I expected, you didn’t let me down.’
Sigh. The princess really was quite unsuited to the role of such an understanding and compassionate woman. For no reason at all, I found my eyes prickling at those words. The sight of that blood-red line across the princess’s sleeve rankled me even more than it had a moment ago. Quickly I turned my back on her, pressing a hand to my chest in a bid to relieve some of my pent-up emotions.
It was only our first day on the road, and already I had added ‘recklessly causing the princess to suffer an injury’ to my list of offences against her. It seemed as though I’d never be able to repay my mounting debt to the princess. Truly, I could see no way out of this predicament.
- In Chinese, 言多必失, meaning the more one speaks, the more mistakes one makes. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 人不为己天诛地灭, literally ‘if a person does not look after their interests, both Heaven and Earth will turn against them’. [return to text]
- ‘Zhongliang’, or 忠良 in Chinese, means ‘loyal and virtuous’. The surname ‘Jia’, or 贾, is a homonym for 假, meaning ‘false’. If Zhongliang had the common surname ‘Jia’, his full name, Jia Zhongliang, would sound exactly the same as ‘false loyalty’, which would be completely at odds with his devotion to the princess. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 短衫, literally ‘short shirt’. This is a short upper garment with narrow sleeves. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 刀. This is a single-edged sword primarily used for slashing and chopping. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 此山为我开, 此树为我栽, 要想从此过, 留下买路财. This is a well-known ‘bandit’ chant from the historical novel Romance of the Tang and Sui Dynasties (隋唐演义) by the Qing Dynasty author Chu Renhuo (褚人获). [return to text]
- In Chinese, the chengyu 韬光养晦, literally ‘hide light and nurture obscurity’. [return to text]
- In Chinese, 尖嘴猴腮, literally ‘pointed mouth and monkey cheeks’. [return to text]
- The Chinese phrase used here is 开荤. In its most literal sense, the phrase means to end a vegetarian diet (i.e. to begin or resume eating meat as part of one’s diet). It can also mean ‘experiencing something new’. It is also slang for having sex after a long hiatus. [return to text]