Purely by Accident – Chapter 8

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On closer inspection, the princess’ injury proved to be only a flesh wound. She firmly rejected our suggestion of pressing ahead through the night to the next town, where we might be able to find a physician. Instead she and Silly Girl returned to the coach and, after a flurry of activity, she re-emerged with a bandage wrapped around her injured arm.

Xiao Hei and I were roasting a wild pheasant over the fire we had just built. When I looked up I saw that the princess’ arms were swinging easily by her sides as she moved. Her expression was animated, and she seemed completely unaffected by her injury. In the firelight, she looked as lovely as a flower. The ends of her bandage had been tied into a little bow: this made her seem a touch less aloof, and gave her more than a hint of girlish charm.

I gulped, then called out to Xiao Hei, ‘Stop staring, will you? You’re burning the pheasant.’

Xiao Hei, of course, had no idea what I was on about. ‘Who’s staring?’ he asked, deeply aggrieved. ‘Staring at who?’

‘Just don’t stare at anyone! And watch the pheasant!’

I spied the princess coming our way and sprang up to offer her the rock I’d been sitting on. ‘Please have a seat, my lady. The food will be ready soon.’

The princess sat down without demurring. She seemed to be in high spirits.

The trees around us swayed in the breeze. The fire crackled; the pheasant glistened over the flames. In the midst of this sat the princess, looking every inch the royal. Her appearance contrasted sharply with her rustic surroundings, yet I thought there was a certain odd harmony to the scene.

I soon changed my mind, however, as I watched the princess nibbling delicately at her pheasant. The longer I looked at her, the more out of place she seemed. She should be tucked away in the comfort of her own boudoir, dining on delicate morsels from golden bowls with servants attending to her every whim. Why had she chosen to subject herself to the trials of the wilderness?

Ah, that’s right. Because of her broken heart.

The name ‘Zhao Yishu’ rose up in my mind again. I ripped off a large piece of pheasant with my teeth and chewed it ferociously. Silly Girl glanced over at me, a look of comprehension dawning on her face. ‘No wonder you get indigestion so often, Young Master Wei!’

I had nothing to say to that either.

For all the princess’ talk about ‘letting the sky be our blanket and the ground our bed’, she and Silly Girl slipped back inside the coach once supper was over, leaving Xiao Hei and me to sleep out in the open. As I lay beside the dying embers of the fire, I felt very hard done by. Was I not a maiden of noble birth as well? A carefully cosseted, delicately nurtured maiden? Why oh why were our fates so different?

I slept very poorly that night, though not due to any lack in my wilderness survival skills. I was kept awake instead by the distant grunts and hisses of whatever beasts lurked in the darkness and — much closer at hand — the rising and falling cadences of Xiao Hei’s snoring. The two combined to form a most glorious symphony: how could I bear to shut my ears to it?

Predictably, I was exhausted the next day. Our journey led through a series of narrow, winding mountain passes, which didn’t help matters: the jolting motion of the coach and horses nearly put me to sleep. We travelled for quite some time before finally reaching the gates of a city, though the sun was still hanging high in the sky when we arrived. The dusty gates were neither particularly tall nor particularly impressive. But the sight of the city’s name, carved with an almost aggressive flourish into the sign that hung above the gates, did perk me up slightly: Zhezhi City.[1] Or more literally, ‘the City Where Blossoms are Plucked in their Prime.’

A fragment of poetry rose up in my mind:

Beyond jade-green railings hang embroidered drapes;
Across the scarlet screen lie broken boughs
Full of blossoms plucked in their prime.[2]

The image it conjured was that of a beautiful woman languishing alone in her boudoir, yearning for the touch of her absent lover. The blossoms painted on the screen — gathered and cherished in their bloom — recalled her own, lonelier fate: she was left neglected and untended to, despite blooming just as beautifully as those branches. With its allusion to the poem, the name of the city was perhaps a little too suggestive.

With yesterday’s sleepless night weighing heavily on my mind, I brought the coach to a complete halt outside the first inn we passed and flatly refused to budge. This put Xiao Hei in a bind. He glanced up at the sky, which showed no sign of darkening, but said nothing (perhaps feeling that there was no honour in winning an argument with an opponent who was clearly delirious from lack of sleep). He dismounted and went around to the side of the coach to ask the princess for her instructions.

I took advantage of the opportunity to slip down from the coachman’s seat, lean back against the flank of the nearest horse and shut my eyes. When I eventually heard the princess command, ‘Let’s stop at this inn for the night,’ I felt it was the sweetest sound in the world.

Xiao Hei went with the stable boy to make sure the coach and horses were properly secured. The princess, Silly Girl and I went inside and sat down by a table at the window. A serving boy took our order, and our meal was soon served. The princess seemed completely undismayed by her surroundings. She did frown almost imperceptibly at the greasy tabletop as we sat down, but let it pass without comment, seemingly intending to make the best of things. Silly Girl, on the other hand, opened the window as wide as it would go, stuck her head out and gawked in all directions, looking as if she had never seen anything of the world before. 

I could sense inquisitive stares all around us. Those glinting eyes were, of course, directed at our lovely princess. Sigh. The woman is a temptress indeed. She seemed completely unconscious of the effect her looks were having on the assembled onlookers. In fact she was at that very moment sipping her tea in a leisurely fashion, her cup held at an elegant angle. This drew stares both lecherous and envious alike. Oh what a burden this placed on her travelling companions, myself included! In my typically understated fashion, I shifted my chair to block the princess from the view of the tables behind me and glared ferociously at the gawkers seated around the tables in front of me until they averted their eyes. Satisfied with my handiwork, I finally broke off my meaningful stare, only to find Silly Girl watching me with a puzzled expression. 

‘Is that a cramp in your eyelid, Young Master Wei?’ she asked.

My hand stopped halfway to my teacup, twitching involuntarily. The princess let out a low, barely audible laugh. Emboldened by this, the onlookers resumed their staring, seeming to take this as licence to do it even more brazenly than before. Their gazes stabbed through me like a hundred spears.

Instead of attempting to subdue them again, I resigned myself to the inevitable. As the travelling companion of a temptress, I would simply have to become used to meeting with lecherous gazes wherever we went. Mercifully, Xiao Hei then returned from the stables. Once he had given a brief public demonstration of his ability to drive a chopstick through a teacup with his bare hands, the gazes soon evaporated. 

I inwardly lamented our society’s veneration of violence. My attention was soon caught, however, by the conversation at the next table. 

‘Out of all the talented young men serving at court, I would rank Commander Zhao Yishu as the very best.’ The speaker was a pale, delicate-looking young man in white scholar’s robes who reminded me of Yi Chen. His enthusiasm for his chosen topic had brought a flush to his cheeks, which made his face look like a sweet potato half-buried in snow.

He threw back a large gulp of wine. ‘Commander Zhao has none of the arrogant manners or dandified airs so common among the sons of nobility,’ he went on, his brow gradually unfurrowing as he spoke. ‘He won first place in the imperial military examinations on his own merits, without relying on his family’s influence — and at such a young age, too! He’s also very handsome, or so I’ve heard.’ The speaker cast a surreptitious glance around the room and lowered his voice. ‘No wonder the Third Princess fell in love with him at first sight! Tsk tsk, the Third Princess, the most beautiful woman in the empire, tsk tsk…’

…and now the conversation had descended into vulgar gossip again. As a scholar, this man should be concerning himself with lofty matters of state! Why was he gossiping about the royal family’s private affairs in broad daylight? The way he was tsk-tsking — not to mention the glee with which he delivered his remarks — reminded me so much of my father’s steward that I found myself mentally calculating the odds of said steward’s having fathered a child out of wedlock in his misspent youth. This is truly a degenerate age, I reflected, shaking my head sorrowfully. 

Suddenly, someone kicked me under the table. I looked up indignantly and found Silly Girl glaring at me. The look in her eyes was reminiscent of Xiao Hei at his most menacing. ‘Why don’t you just move your chair over to their table, Young Master Wei? You’d be able to hear them much more clearly then!’

I blinked at her in confusion, then realised I’d leaned so far in the direction of the scholar’s table that I was, strictly speaking, not longer sitting at ours. Hastily I sat up straight, making a show of adjusting my robes, and cleared my throat. ‘Apologies. I must be too tired; that’s why I’m falling asleep in the middle of a meal.’ I reached into my bowl with my chopsticks, picked up a piece of food at random, and stuffed it into Silly Girl’s mouth. ‘Let’s eat, everyone!’

I stole a glance at the princess. For some reason the complete lack of expression on her face made me feel a twinge of guilt. I gave an exaggerated yawn and jabbed a finger at Xiao Hei. ‘I say, Xiao Hei Zi,[3] do you think you could snore a little less majestically next time? I didn’t get a single wink of sleep last night and now I’m tired to death.’

Xiao Hei looked up, all innocent consternation. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything Silly Girl let out an earth-shattering[4] yelp: ‘Do they eat lumps of raw ginger where you come from, Young Master Wei?’ She spat something out of her mouth.

Oh no! In my haste to shut her up, I’d inadvertently stuffed a large chunk of raw ginger into her mouth. I wiped away the sheen of cold sweat that had broken out on my forehead, shifted my chair just a tiny bit further from hers, and forced the corners of my mouth into the semblance of a smile. ‘That is exactly how we eat ginger where I come from. Regional differences, eh?’

The ability to lie without batting an eyelid was turning out to be an essential survival skill: an all-in-one defence mechanism capable of countering attacks from every quarter.[5] Silly Girl sucked in a breath but said nothing, seemingly stunned into silence. Smugly I reached out with my chopsticks for the crucian carp[6] in the middle of the table, but my chopsticks were suddenly intercepted by another pair, which deposited a positively gargantuan lump of raw ginger into my bowl. 

Mystified, I looked over at the regal wielder of said chopsticks. ‘A truly useful regional peculiarity indeed,’ she said, still completely without expression. ‘From now on, Zisong, you will be solely responsible for disposing of any raw ginger in the dishes we encounter.’

I had been too clever by half — an egregious error. I should never have tried to pull any sort of verbal counter-attack in front of the princess. My intellect was as humble as a single clay brick, while the princess’ was as grand as the imperial palace itself. (I had never laid eyes on said palace, but I could easily imagine what a majestic — even dazzling — sight it must be.)

I poked gloomily at the potato-sized lump of ginger in my bowl. The princess seemed to be upset about something, but what was there for her to be upset about? Her mind had always been unfathomably deep, and she was clearly determined to extract her pound of flesh from me,[7] but her shifts in mood had never been quite so unpredictable as this. It was only when I overheard the repeated mentions of Zhao Yishu’s name from the next table — mixed with the sounds of chatter and merriment — that it finally dawned on me: she was taking her resentment of him out on me!

I was beginning to suspect that in a past life, I must have desecrated Zhao Yishu’s ancestral tomb, murdered his parents, abducted his wife and sold his children to a brothel. Why else would I keep running up against him? I’d never met the man, and he was far away in the capital, besides, yet he’d already cost me three years of freedom — not to mention the emotional torment I had to suffer (and indeed was suffering at this very moment!).

In this self-pitying mood I finished off my meal and excused myself to take a bath. By the time I flopped onto the bed in one of the inn’s guest rooms, I was still in low spirits. Due, no doubt, to my lively mind, my kind disposition and my deeply empathetic nature, my sense of my own emotional injury led me to think of the physical injury the princess had suffered at the hands of the bandits the previous day. I began to feel unaccountably restless. I spent a long time staring at a corner of the ceiling where a moth was busily imprisoning itself in a cocoon, but that did nothing to make me feel less unsettled. Eventually I succumbed to the inevitable. I got up, draped an outer robe over my shoulders, opened the door and stepped out onto the walkway that ran along the upper floor of the inn and overlooked the street.

The princess’ room was right next to mine. Light flickered uncertainly in her window; my half-raised hand wavered just as uncertainly as I hesitated over whether to knock. When I thought about it, it was ridiculous for me to be so concerned over the princess! She had Silly Girl to tend to any injuries her royal person might suffer — what need did she have for someone as clumsy and ham-fisted as myself? My time would be better spent soothing my own fragile, wounded soul.

I sighed, turned and took a hesitant step back towards my room, then stopped when I heard the squeak of a door behind me. ‘Stargazing outside my room at this late hour instead of going to bed?’ I heard the princess say in amused tones. ‘What a whimsical mood you must be in, Zisong.’

I gazed up at the ink-dark sky, feeling as if I’d been caught red-handed doing something I shouldn’t. Smiling shamefacedly I turned back, reminding myself to stay calm — I recalled all too well that moment during our wedding night, when I’d turned around and been taken unawares by the sight of her in her full glory. Despite my admonition to myself, I was still captivated by what I saw now.

For reasons known only to herself, the princess had donned men’s attire: a moon-pale changshan[8] hung gracefully from her shoulders. Faint golden lamplight spilled out of the room behind her, creating a play of shadow and light across her features. With her tall, slender figure and that nonchalant smile on her lips, she was the very picture of a young, handsome rake. Absurdly, my restless heart felt as though it had finally found safe harbour. It throbbed peacefully now, free of the anxieties that had plagued me all evening. Two lines of poetry drifted dimly across my mind:

Who’s that youth wand’ring through the fields? 
How dashing he does look![9]

I let my gaze linger on the jade pendant that hung from her waist on a red cord. It’s a good thing this Eldest Princess wasn’t born a prince, I reflected. How many palace beauties’ hearts would she have broken with that devastating smile of hers?


I was still lost in my thoughts when I heard the princess call my name — and in a voice as tender as a stream and as distant as a dream,[10] at that. My heart skipped a beat, and I found myself looking right into the princess’ smiling eyes.

The corners of those eyes crinkled even more. Gazing off into the distance, she said very deliberately, ‘Although there are no stars in the sky tonight.’ She paused, and her gaze returned to rest on me again. ‘Which begs the question: what are you doing up so late, Zisong? Did you find yourself in need of a walk to aid your digestion, on account of having eaten so much raw ginger?’

My face seemed to freeze into a silent rictus. The only words strong enough to express my anguish in this mood-murdering moment were the lines of that famous boudoir lament:[11]

You hurt me
Then you smiled and walked away.[12]


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  1. In Chinese, 折枝城 literally means ‘Broken Bough City’ or ‘Broken Branch City’. This is likely a reference to the ‘Golden Dress Song’ (金缕衣), a well-known shi (诗) poem attributed to the Tang Dynasty poet Du Qiuniang (杜秋娘), which reads as follows: 劝君莫惜金缕衣,劝君惜取少年时。花开堪折直须折,莫待无花空折枝。US sinologist Victor Mairtranslates the poem thus: ‘I urge you, milord, not to cherish your robe of golden thread, / Rather, milord, I urge you to cherish the time of your youth; / When the flower is open and pluckable, you simply must pluck it, / Don’t wait till there are no flowers, vainly to break branches.’ The poem has often been interpreted as an exhortation to the listener to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of youth. In this regard, it has often been compared to 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, the opening stanza of which reads: ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today, / Tomorrow will be dying.’ [return to text]
  2. These are the first two lines from the shi poem ‘Already Cool’ (已凉) by the Tang Dynasty poet Han Wo (韩偓). In Chinese, the two lines read as follows: 碧阑干外绣帘垂,猩色屏风画折枝。The second line of the original poem contains an allusion to the ‘broken bough’ imagery from the ‘Golden Dress Song’ (see previous footnote), which has been replicated in the translation. The implied subject of the poem is a beautiful woman, and the boughs allude to all the youthful pleasures she is unable to pursue due to her lover’s absence. [return to text]
  3. In Chinese, 小黑子. ‘Zi’ literally means ‘baby’ or ‘child’. It is sometimes appended to names as a diminutive suffix, as it is here. [return to text]
  4. In Chinese, 石破天惊, a chengyu which literally means ‘to break rocks and scare the heavens’. Also used metaphorically to describe something highly original or innovative. [return to text]
  5. The original text uses the colourful phrase 遇佛杀佛遇鬼杀鬼, literally ‘meet a buddha, kill a buddha; meet a ghost, kill a ghost’. This is often used to describe a person who will stop at nothing to achieve their goal, and who has no qualms about removing any obstacles that stand in their way. [return to text]
  6. In Chinese, 鲫鱼. This is a popular food fish in Asia. [return to text]
  7. In Chinese, the chengyu 锱铢必较, which literally means ‘to quibble over the smallest amounts of money’. [return to text]
  8. In Chinese, 长衫, literally ‘long shirt’. This is a long and fairly loose one-piece outer garment. [return to text]
  9. This is a quotation from the ci (词) poem ‘Thinking of the Emperor’s Homeland’ (思帝乡) by Wei Zhuang (韦庄), a poet who lived during the late Tang Dynasty and the early Five Dynasties and Five Kingdoms period. The poem adopts the perspective of a young woman who encounters a handsome young man during a springtime countryside excursion. She expresses her wish to marry him, and declares that she will feel no shame or regret for having done so even if he someday abandons her. In Chinese, the lines quoted read as follows: 陌上谁家年少?足风流。[return to text]
  10. This is a quotation from a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet Qin Guan (秦观), set to the tune of ‘Immortal at the Magpie Bridge’ (鹊桥仙). The poem retells the popular folk tale of the Cowherd (牛郎, symbolised by the star Altair) and the Weaver Girl (织女, symbolised by the star Vega), who were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way as punishment for their forbidden love affair. They are only permitted to reunite once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies form a bridge that allows them to cross the Milky Way. In Chinese, the lines quoted read as follows: 柔情似水,佳期如梦。This can be translated as: ‘Our love as tender as a stream; / Our happy day as distant as a dream.’ [return to text]
  11. The boudoir lament (闺怨) is a subgenre of Chinese poetry in which a woman laments the absence of her husband or lover. The vast majority of these poems — or at least, those examples that have survived — were written by men. [return to text]
  12. This is a quotation from the 2002 Mandopop song ‘You Smiled and Walked Away’ (一笑而过) by the Chinese singer Na Ying (那英). [return to text]