Purely by Accident – Chapter 14

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We continued on our journey to the capital.

A long time ago, just after I’d set up my bandit stronghold in company with Xu Ziqi, Yi Chen and the rest of my band, we’d raided a train of wagons travelling from the capital to Yinzhou under the protection of an armed escort. In addition to the usual valuables — gold, silver, jewels and the like — the caravan was also carrying a chest full of books. It contained classical works of literature, history and philosophy, but also swashbuckling tales of adventure and even collections of erotic texts, all of which were like meat and drink to our youthful souls.

There had been, among these books, a geographical account of the capital, which described it thus: ‘Tengzhou is situated in the empire’s heartland, and enjoys the elevated status of being its capital. Home to emperors for hundreds of years, it has the majestic air of a roaring tiger. The streets are laid out in a well-planned grid; dwellings line them in orderly rows. Its residents live together in happiness and harmony, and the farmer and merchant classes engage in close co-operation to ensure the city’s continued prosperity.’ 

That book had made the capital sound like something out of this world, and instilled in me a wish to see it with my own eyes. Over time, that wish had become something of a yearning — not a particularly strong one, granted, but the capital had always held a peculiar fascination for me. Now that we were fast approaching it, however, I found myself becoming agitated — nervous —  at sixes and sevens.[1] I felt no joy at seeing my long-cherished wish fulfilled; instead, my primary emotion was unease.

This feeling of unease was not quite the same as the one that had hung over me when we first set out on the road. Back then, all I had done was enter into a three-year arrangement with the princess. Once those years had elapsed, all debts between us would be considered settled, and I would be free and clear of any further obligation. Even though the subject of our pact was outright audacious, the fact remained that I’d entered into it only as an unwilling accessory; it was the princess who bore all culpability for the scheme. But now… now, even if the princess had wanted to put an end to our arrangement, I would have opposed it categorically. That changed the nature of my involvement, and therefore the nature of my offence. Instead of someone who’d been coerced into deceiving the emperor, I’d become a willing and active participant in the plot. ‘How many heads do you think you have?’ the princess had asked me. Even if I did have multiple heads to lose, a single command from the emperor would be enough to send them all rolling — snick! snack! — like so many cut cabbages. The very thought of His August and Eminent Imperial Majesty, my soon-to-be father-in-law, flying into a violent rage made my scalp itch. The number of times I rubbed the back of my neck rose exponentially as we traversed the road between Heron River and the capital. By the time we reached the courier station just outside Tengzhou, I fancied that the skin at my nape had been worn smooth by repeated touching.

Luckily a letter from that good-for-nothing Xu Ziqi awaited me at the courier station, and its contents successfully distracted me from my current plight. I stood outside the station reading the letter, alongside the stretch of willow-lined imperial highway that ran past it. The letter ran as follows:

Zisong my xiong, may this letter find you well!

Since your departure, I and the rest of the band have missed you greatly. The morning songs of the magpies sound duller; the very waters of the mountain springs seem less clear. Even winning at madiao[2] has lost its savour. Do you still remember Xiao Huang, that little dog you used to have? Of late he has appeared low in spirits; every now and then he lets out a mournful whimper, as if asking me, ‘When will my master finally return?’

A-Chen told me I should make this letter heartfelt and write it in a ‘fresh and engaging’ style. That opening passage fits the bill on all counts, doesn’t it? Hahahaha. Right, for the rest of this letter, you’re just getting the real me. First, let me throw my head back and laugh long and heartily. After all these years of calling you boss, I’m finally in charge. How does it feel no longer being under someone’s thumb? One word: fantastic! Look, ever since you left, magpies have started nesting around our stronghold, the mountain springs have warmed up, and I can’t seem to stop winning at madiao. And as for Xiao Huang, there’s no need to worry about him. You used to be the only one he listened to, but ever since I bribed him with a meaty bone after making him go without food for a few days, he’s become such a good boy. He whines in a friendly way every time he sees me now. Those scenes of him snarling at me from beside you seem like memories from another life. To be quite honest, if you don’t come back soon, everyone is going to forget we ever had a chief like you.

Still, I shouldn’t stop you from making your fortune, right? I mean, she’s the princess! As I always say, I’ve never had the luck of a born leader or chief. I mean, I was the one who kidnapped her — then I went and handed her to you on a silver platter. Who can I blame for that, though? It’s just fate. Go forth in freedom and courage, and become an absolute menace to the royal family. Overpower the princess; conquer the imperial harem![3] I and the other lads will be right behind you, cheering you on. All we ask is that, once you’ve polished off your prime beef, remember to spare your old comrades some of the broth it was cooked in.

Oh right, I just remembered! The medicine I’m brewing for A-Chen is still boiling away on the stove. All right, talk to you later!

The letter left me completely speechless. In that moment, I wanted to transform the aggressive lines and flourishes of Xu Ziqi’s handwriting into so many ropes and whips. I’d use the former to tie my wayward deputy to the top of the flagpole at the entrance of our stronghold; then, I’d use the latter to lash him a hundred times (and another hundred, for good measure). 

It was a good thing, then, that the bottom of the letter bore a few additional lines written in tiny characters I recognised as Yi Chen’s handwriting. This final passage went some way towards ameliorating my sudden, intense desire to murder Xu Ziqi and whip his corpse repeatedly.

Ziqi being as verbose in writing as he is in speech, this letter proved too great a burden for a messenger pigeon; we were required to entrust it to a courier. At the risk of being thought long-winded, I have taken the liberty of appending a few lines of my own. The path ahead of you is uncertain; may your lady be your guide. Your journey may be plagued by chill winds and snowstorms; only love can be your cloak and shield. On your wedding day, rest assured that I shall be calling upon you to offer my congratulations in person. Till then, fare you well, and take care.

By the way: as to the passage that begins ‘I shouldn’t stop you from making your fortune’, Ziqi now understands that it was wrong of him to write thus. I pray you will not take it too much to heart!

I patted my chest, feeling the knot of pent-up rage dissipate slightly — and was scared half to death when the princess suddenly leaned in next to me.

She flicked my shoulder playfully, looking amused. ‘What is it, Zisong? You’re as skittish as a bird that’s just been startled by the twang of a bowstring.[4] Do I really look that terrifying?’

I shook my head. ‘Of course not,’ I said, putting on a placating smile. ‘It’s just that Your Highness’s beauty is so great that I’m struck by it afresh each time I lay eyes on you. Truly, such exquisiteness rightfully belongs among the glories of Heaven. On this earthly plane, it puts us mere mortals to shame and leaves us confounded with wonder.’

‘Flatterer,’ said the princess. Her expression was stern, but the accusation was distinctly half-hearted. She paused for a moment, then continued. ‘Perhaps I should let you see me more often, so you can become accustomed to the experience.’

Yes, a hundred times yes! I nodded vigorously, my head bobbing up and down as rapidly as a pair of sticks striking a war drum during a particularly heated battle.

The princess smiled. ‘What’s that in your hand?’ she asked, reaching up to stroke my ear. ‘Did you get a letter?’

The princess’ touch sent a delightful sensation down my whole body. I nodded reflexively, with a foolish grin on my face — but then abruptly realised that some of the passages were woefully unfit for the princess’ eyes. I swiftly switched to shaking my head and trying to hide the letter behind my back. ‘No, it’s not a letter, it’s — ow, that hurts, that hurts’ — I hissed momentarily at the pain — ‘Princess, have mercy on me!’

At this, the princess finally relaxed her grip. Still smiling, she held out her other hand. ‘Give it to me.’

I hesitated. ‘This is my private correspondence. It might not be appropriate for you to read it —’ Suddenly, her grip tightened around my ear again. ‘Ow… not so hard, not so hard! Fine, fine, I’ll give it to you, will that make you happy?’

The princess took the letter, grinning in a particularly evil fashion. ‘Try to resist me, will you? A valiant last-ditch effort, but about as effective as a mantis trying to stop an oncoming chariot with its forelegs.[5] And what do you mean, your private correspondence? What’s yours is mine, remember?’ She levelled a finger at my chest. ‘You’re already bound to me by that jade pendant.’

I rubbed my ear. It suddenly occurred to me that a life with the princess might prove to be truly wretched indeed.

As she read, the princess’ expression began to closely resemble the sky just before a summer thunderstorm. She brandished the letter at me. ‘”Overpower the princess, conquer the imperial harem”?’

She was reacting exactly as I’d expected her to. ‘I did tell you not to read it,’ I stammered. ‘And it’s such a long letter, why did you have to focus on that line?’

‘Oh, so I shouldn’t have read it?’ The princess took a menacing step closer to me. She looked ready to bite my head off. ‘If I hadn’t, how would I have found out that your band was hatching some scheme? “Once you’ve polished off your prime beef … spare your old comrades some of the broth”? Pray tell me, Wei Zisong, what exactly is it that you have designs on?’

Oh, as Heaven is my witness,[6] I was being very much wronged! You were the one who forced me to become your prince consort in the first place, princess! It was true that of late I had begun harbouring some designs upon her person, but I hadn’t been bold enough to act on them, had I? Anyway, the letter was all Xu Ziqi’s doing — why was she blaming me for his nonsense?

My head drooped; I felt very hard done by. The princess, however, was clearly unwilling to let the matter go. ‘Now that I think of it,’ she went on, clenching her jaw, ‘there was something rather practised[7] about the way your band kidnapped me.’ She glared me straight in the eye. ‘Wei Zisong, exactly how many innocent women have your band carried off?’

‘We haven’t!’ I burst out, my voice rising at this grave insult to my character. At the look of surprise that crossed the princess’ face, however, all my indignation drained away. I went on in a low mutter, ‘We’ve only ever kidnapped one, and I wound up being kidnapped in return…’

‘Oh?’ said the princess. Her tone was not entirely sceptical.

Emboldened by this, I carried on with my explanation, ‘accidentally’ selling out Xu Ziqi in the process. He’d brought it on himself, by seducing my Xiao Huang away from me!

‘Kidnapping you was Xu Ziqi’s idea. I was against it from beginning to end. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble to sneak you out of our stronghold.’ I watched her face carefully. ‘Don’t you remember?’

‘Hm.’ The princess seemed to ponder this for a moment. Then suddenly the frown was back on her face again. ‘You were against it? Wei Zisong, do I seem that hideous to you? Is that why you were in such a hurry to get rid of me?’

Wha— Really? How had she managed to bring us right back to where we’d started this conversation? I stole another look at the princess, who was glaring at me petulantly, and was suddenly reminded of how Xiao Huang used to look when his attempts at begging me for bones came to naught. I finally realised what was going on: the lovely young woman in front of me was throwing a tantrum!

‘Wei Zisong, what are you smiling at?’ Our bad-tempered young woman was becoming even more upset.

I coughed. ‘Nothing.’ I brought a hand to my mouth and tried to smooth its upturned corners down. Then, assuming a serious expression, I leaned close to the princess and whispered in her ear, ‘I didn’t find you hideous at all. Far from it, in fact — I thought you were positively adorable. I was afraid that if I didn’t get you out of our stronghold in time, I’d find myself doing some unforgivable deed, like “overpowering the princess”…’

The princess’ earlobe flushed in the most tempting way. It looked like a piece of white jade with rosy veins running through it. ‘You—’

I cleared my throat, which had suddenly and unaccountably tightened, and made myself pull just a tiny bit away from her. ‘Don’t be upset with Xu Ziqi,’ I coaxed. ‘That rascal has never known how to think before he speaks. If you think he’s wronged you, you can just order him to be flogged the next time you see him.’ I slipped the letter out of her hand, and traced a gentle finger across her palm in passing. ‘Can you overlook his indiscretions, for my sake?’

‘Hmph.’ The princess looked away from me pointedly. ‘Why should I show you that much respect?’

Like a wound-up spring, I bounced sideways so as to bring myself into her line of sight once more. ‘Indeed, indeed. I already have the privilege of your company; what need do I have for respect?’

‘You are absolutely shameless,’ said the princess. With the lofty air of someone granting a general amnesty, she finally deigned to look at me. I breathed a long sign of relief.

Suddenly, the princess reached up to caress my ear again. ‘And as for “conquering the imperial harem”,’ she said, narrowing her eyes, ‘don’t even think about it.’

Above us, the willow trees nodded in the early summer breeze. Sunlight — now faint, now bright — filtered through the branches, illuminating her lovely face. I knew without even thinking about it that this image would be stored in my memory forever — that I would find myself replaying it over and over, and that I would see it in my dreams for many nights to come.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if she were the daughter of some ordinary family? Even if they’d been poor, even if she’d been less good-looking than she was now, I wouldn’t have minded; I’d have made her the mistress of my stronghold without a second thought. We’d have listened to the magpies singing every morning; I’d have taken her bathing in the mountain springs. And when there was nothing much to do, we might make up a game of madiao with Xu Ziqi and Yi Chen. Or perhaps we’d roam the world together, looking for some idyllic spot far away from everything. We’d find a little plot of farmland and settle down there. Every morning, I’d roll up my sleeves and till the fields; every evening, I’d wash my hands and make her favourite soup.[8]

But alas, she was a princess — and the Yan Emperor’s most favoured daughter, at that. Fate had placed her on a lofty pedestal, and at the centre of public attention. Was there anywhere she could go to seclude herself from the world?

I shook my head, inwardly scoffing at myself for letting my imagination run away with me. Then I felt the princess run a gentle thumb along my ear. ‘What are you thinking about?’ she asked, her voice very close. She sounded unusually soft and gentle.

‘Nothing much,’ I said, with a sudden hitch in my voice. I paused for a moment to let the swell of emotions subside, then lifted my head and looked right into her eyes. ‘Princess, I’m willing to be — no, I want to be your prince consort.’  

Her eyes were deep pools of tenderness; ripples of emotion rose and fell within their depths.

She took my hand and said softly, ‘I know.’

***

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Footnotes:

  1. In the original text, 七上八下, literally ‘seven up eight down’. A chengyu used to describe an unsettled state of mind.[return to text]
  2. In Chinese, 马吊, literally ‘horse hang’. This is a card game for four players, said to date back to the Yuan Dynasty.[return to text]
  3. In Chinese, 后宫, literally ‘rear palace’. It refers to those parts of the palace where the emperor’s consorts, concubines and female attendants live, and can also function as a metaphor for its residents. In scholarly texts, this is usually translated as ‘inner palace’ or ‘rear palace’. For present purposes, I have chosen to render it as ‘imperial harem’ — despite the unfortunate exotifying effect — in order to focus the reader’s attention on the palace ladies who occupy it. This is in keeping with Xu Ziqi’s obvious intent.[return to text] 
  4. In Chinese, 惊弓之鸟, literally ‘bird of the surprised bow’. A chengyu which describes a person who is easily frightened due to a previous negative experience. It originates from Strategies of the Warring States, also known as Annals of the Warring States (战国策), which contains accounts of political manipulation and warfare during the titular period.[return to text]
  5. In Chinese, 螳臂当车. This is a chengyu that literally describes a mantis holding up its forelegs to stop a chariot from moving forward; it is a metaphor for trying to do something that is clearly well beyond one’s strength. It originates from The Zhuangzi (庄子), a text from the Warring States period, traditionally attributed to the philosopher Zhuang Zhou (庄周), commonly known as Zhuangzi, for whom it is also named. It collects together anecdotes and parables that exemplify the nature of the ideal Daoist sage, and is one of the foundational texts of Daoism.[return to text]
  6. In the original text, 天地良心 (see footnote 10 to Chapter 3).[return to text]
  7. In the original text, the chengyu 轻车熟路, literally ‘to drive a light carriage along a familiar road’. It refers to someone doing something they’re familiar with and can manage easily.[return to text]
  8. In Chinese, 洗好手来做羹汤. This is probably a reference to a folk tale about the romance between Zhuo Wenjun (卓文君) and Sima Xiangru (司马相如), both of whom were poets during the Western Han Dynasty. Against her wealthy family’s wishes, Zhuo Wenjun eloped with Sima Xiangru, who was relatively poor. She is said to have told him, ‘For you I’ll wash my hands and prepare soup.’ (为君洗手做羹汤). The saying is used to describe a person giving up a comfortable and materially privileged life for the sake of love.[return to text]