Purely by Accident – Chapter 16
Leaving aside its propensity for triggering inexplicable bursts of rage in those who passed through its gates, Tengzhou wasn’t half bad, as cities went. Tidy shopfronts lined Its broad streets. In keeping with its status as the capital city, most of the buildings appeared very well-constructed; there was an air of stateliness about them.
Dangling my legs from the coachman’s seat, I scrunched up my eyes as I imagined the princess putting on her very best airs and graces before the oh-so-proper imperial court. The thought brought with it a warm glow of amusement. When I looked around at the night-shrouded city again, it too seemed to have taken on a vicarious air of friendliness.
Xiao Hei, however, still looked absolutely murderous. Every now and then I forgot myself in admiring my surroundings and accidentally glanced at him; each time, without fail, he would glare viciously back at me. If he’d truly been the wolf he so often resembled, I felt sure that his eyes would be glowing green with malevolence.
Why is he so angry with me? I wondered anxiously. Had I been a man, I would have found myself wondering whether I’d somehow contrived to steal his wife away from him. But since I was a woman — albeit one who had accidentally fallen in love with another woman — that seemed too far a stretch. Or perhaps Tengzhou reminded him of an old heartbreak, too, Perhaps the princess wasn’t the only member of the trio that had left the palace to wander the empire incognito who nursed a secret sorrow.
‘Ahem.’ I pinched the spot between my eyebrows, carefully weighing my next words. ‘Xiao Wu, no, I mean Master Wu… are you married?’
Xiao Hei cast me a glance over his shoulder. He no longer quite looked as though he wanted to slice the flesh off my bones and swallow it raw, but he still seemed rather ill at ease. His mouth twitched a few times before he finally said, ‘Not yet.’ After a pause, he added, ‘Why do you ask?’
Something was definitely going on. Inwardly, I sighed. Everyone has some secret grief buried deep in their heart, I mused, yet on the surface, we’re forced to pretend that nothing’s wrong. I offered Xiao Hei a smile that even I thought must seem particularly vapid. ‘Oh, nothing really. Just asking.’
A night breeze blew past. Xiao Hei’s regular features were fixed in an expression so solemn as to be practically wooden.
For the sake of saying something, I carried on, ‘Excellent, excellent. Marriage is a serious matter after all, and one should embark on it only after careful consideration.’ Rubbing my hands together, I added, ‘By your looks, Wu xiong, you can’t be much older than forty? Those truly are the best years of one’s life. As they say, a man of forty’s in the prime of life, so why pine thus for one unfeeling maid? Southeast flies a lone peacock, ling’ring at every fifth mile. Fret not if they say: here you cannot stay. There’s always a place, to hold you in its embrace…’
I grew more and more excited as I spoke. As I was holding forth, Xiao Hei’s complexion turned the most remarkable shade of white. A vein in his forehead throbbed visibly; he seemed to be exercising a tremendous amount of self-restraint.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked uncomprehendingly. ‘Do you need the outhouse?’
His face went from white to a sickly green. He opened his mouth and shut it again a few times. Finally he let out a long breath. ‘Twenty-four. I’m twenty-four years old.’
‘Oh.’ Having been chattering away at top speed all this while, I was unable to slam on the brakes in time. I thus found myself barreling on, ‘Twenty-four is a good age! As they say, a man of two-four’s in the prime of life, so why pine thus for one unfeeling maid? Southeast flies a lone peacock, ling’ring at every fifth mile. Fret not if they say: here you cannot stay. There’s always a place, to hold you in its embrace… er… er…’
The breeze had stopped. The sudden stillness of the air only heightened the awkwardness of the situation. Inwardly I was slapping myself repeatedly in the face. Why oh why do you talk so much? A man’s age, like the size of a woman’s bust, was not something one could simply ask about!
A veritable kaleidoscope of emotions played across Xiao Hei’s face. When his expression finally settled, he reached out to pet the tail of the closest horse. ‘What about you, Wei xiong?’ he asked with seeming nonchalance. ‘Are you married?’
‘What?’ It was only then that I finally allowed myself to let out a sigh of relief. Leaning back lazily against the coach, I shook my head and said, ‘No.’ Then I recalled how the princess had looked at me that day at my father’s manor when she’d said, ‘Come to the capital with me, and become my prince consort,’ and found the corners of my eyes curving upwards as I smiled. ‘But I think I will be very soon.’
Xiao Hei only went on staring into the distance, at the point where the long, straight street we were on disappeared into the gloom of night. ‘Mm,’ was all he said, a moment later. It seemed that joy was much less infectious than anger.
Thinking of the princess made me restless again. Propping myself up on one elbow, I said, ‘We’ve been riding through the city for quite some time. How far away are we from the palace?’
Xiao Hei gave me a puzzled look, ‘The palace isn’t the kind of place we can simply walk into.’
Huh? I thought this over for a while, cocking my head to one side, and concluded that it made sense. ‘Then where are we going?’ I asked. ‘An inn?’
Xiao Hei’s expression became even more puzzled. ‘Now that we’ve arrived in the capital, we’ll be returning to the princess’ own manor, of course.’ At the look of surprise that crossed my face, he added, ‘All princes and princesses who are of age have their own separate residences outside the walls of the imperial palace. Our princess is much beloved by the emperor, so of course she was granted the favour of her own manor long ago.’
Getting reincarnated into the right family truly was a skill in its own right. How much silver must just one of these residences have cost? I closed my mouth, which had fallen open in surprise, and inwardly reaffirmed my resolution to remain the princess’ consort for life. My heart bloomed with delight at the prospect of being ensconced in the princess’ own household and spending every day in her company. ‘The princess’ manor? Excellent, excellent,’ I murmured to myself. ‘I want the room next to hers.’
I was practically dancing in my seat with joy when the coach abruptly jolted, nearly flinging me off. I clutched frantically at the edge of the vehicle to steady myself. ‘What’s wrong?’ I spluttered at Xiao Hei. ‘Did your hands shake?’
Xiao Hei was busy calming the horses, but managed to spare me a quick glance. ‘When I said we were returning to the princess’ manor, I meant the three of us,’ he explained. With a grimace, he added, ‘You’re not included, Young Master Wei.’
‘What?’ The revelation left me completely stunned. Where was I supposed to go, if not the princess’ manor? Did she expect me to sleep in the streets? Had she gone to the trouble of dragging me all the way here to the capital just so that she could make me sleep in the streets?
I couldn’t believe what was happening.
Pointing an unsteady finger at Xiao Hei, I cried, ‘You— all of you— you’re being exclusionary! You lured me away from my home under false pretences! I’m— I’m going to report this to the magistrate!’ Suddenly it occurred to me that all the princess’ talk of making me her prince consort might have been in jest. A note of panic involuntarily crept into my voice. ‘You can’t treat me like this, you bullies!’
‘Don’t panic,’ said a flustered Xiao Hei. He wrapped the reins around one hand and wiped the sweat off his temple with the other. He reached out as if to give me a pat on the shoulder, but stopped, his hand hovering in mid-air. ‘I’m still not sure why the princess brought you all the way here to the capital,’ he said, his voice urgent, ‘but you’re a man, after all, and one with no official title at that. It would be a breach of propriety for you to come and go about the princess’ manor as you pleased.’
That was indisputably true. A chill crept gradually over my heart. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? And what was I supposed to do now?
‘Young Master Wei.’ Xiao Hei’s voice was unexpectedly gentle, in complete contrast with his usual rugged demeanour. ‘Apart from her official manor, the princess also maintains a separate residence in the city. She means for you to stay there for the time being. It’s quieter, and there will be fewer people around to ask awkward questions.’
Oh, was that so? All right then. As long as she wasn’t planning to abandon me completely! I pressed a hand against my racing heart and said, ‘Quiet is good, quiet is good. I’m the sort of person who likes peace and quiet. Although why did the princess set up a separate residence when she already has a manor of her own? Did she feel she had too much money, and nothing to spend it on?’
‘Er.’ Xiao Hei hesitated again. ‘It’s a home for servants who have been dismissed for wrongdoing but have nowhere to go,’ he said finally. ‘The princess was generous enough to give them a roof over their heads.’
What? Didn’t that make it the cold palace in all but name? This was beyond endurance. Whatever else one might think about me, I was still the chief of a sizable bandit stronghold — not someone to be trifled with! Yet here I was, consigned to the cold palace before I’d been even given a chance to establish myself in the princess’ household. How was I supposed to put up with this?
I slammed a hand against my seat and was about to leap up in indignation when the coach came to a stop. In front of us was a majestic building, all striking red walls and green-tiled roofs. The eaves were adorned with carvings of soaring dragons, which added to its air of grandeur.
Xiao Hei leapt down from his seat and stood facing the coach’s curtained doorway, holding his hands respectfully by his sides. ‘Your Highness, we’ve arrived.’
So this must be the princess’ official manor — the one from which I was barred by fate. I slipped down slowly from the coach and forlornly studied the building and its surroundings.
Silly Girl’s voice rang out excitedly behind me. ‘Your Highness, we’re finally home!’
Home, my ass! I want to go home!
Then I heard the princess say, ‘Zhongliang, have you explained the arrangements to Young Master Wei?’
Xiao Hei gave me an appraising look. ‘Yes, Your Highness. I’ve just done so.’
‘Excellent.’ She gave me a single, brief glance before turning back to Xiao Hei. ‘I’m going inside now. Zhongliang, please take Young Master Wei to his new home.’
You self-willed, self-important, self-centred, selfish woman! Not even a prince consort could endure this!
With a flick of my sleeve — and without saying a single word — I leapt back up onto the coach, swept the curtain aside and went in.
For a long moment, there was complete silence from outside.
I sprawled recklessly across the closest seat, closed my eyes and tried to calm the feelings of indignation that seethed in my heart. Then I heard the curtain rustle, as if in a breeze. A sweet, heady fragrance filled the coach. I felt a faintly cool palm against my eyelids.
‘You’re behaving just like a child throwing a tantrum.’ The princess’ voice was tender when she spoke.
The hypocrite! Hadn’t she already relegated me to the cold palace? Why was she still here, toying with my feelings? Although the feather-light touch of her hand — so soft, so sweet-smelling, mm — was certainly delightful.
Her hand found its way to my ear, and she ran a fingertip along its rim in a slow caress. ‘Open your eyes, Zisong,’ she said, her voice seeming to come from somewhere very close.
Hah! You’re already forcing me to move into this separate residence, and now you expect me to open my eyes just because you said so? Do you think you’re all-powerful, Eldest Princess?
She sighed; her fingertip suddenly stilled. ‘Very well then, Zisong. Sleep well. I’m leaving now.’
I opened my eyes abruptly; reflexively, I caught hold of her hand. She was smiling, and there was a distinct note of teasing amusement in her gaze.
Chagrinned, I flung her hand away and made to shut my eyes again — but in one deft move, she seized hold of my wrist in return. ‘Come now,’ she said in a voice so sweet it left me practically limp with pleasure. ‘Don’t be cross any longer, all right?’
‘You went back on your promise!’ I accused, pouting.
‘Mm.’ Her eyes were sparkling.
‘You lured me away from my home under false pretences!’
‘You ignored me just now!’
‘You— you—’ I repeated the word a few more times, but found myself unable to come up with any fresh accusations. ‘Do I have to stay at this other residence?’ I asked finally, plucking pathetically at her sleeve.
She patted me on the forehead and then on the cheek. ‘There’s very little I can do about it.’
‘Oh.’ Dejectedly, I let go of her sleeve. My head drooped. ‘Then… will you come and see me?’
‘If you’re good, of course I’ll come and see you.’ She patted my earlobe and turned to go.
I reached out and wrapped both arms around her waist from behind, then leaned my head on her shoulder and nuzzled my face against her. She stiffened momentarily, but then relaxed and leaned back against me. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked, covering my hands with her own.
I buried my face in her shoulder. ‘I miss you,’ I mumbled indistinctly.
‘I’m right here, aren’t I?’ she said softly. Her voice held the trace of a smile.
I tightened my arms around her waist, then tightened them again. ‘You’ll go very soon.’
She patted my hand. Once, twice. Then she sighed, turned back around and wrapped her arms around my neck. She leaned her forehead against mine. We sat looking into each other’s eyes for a long, long while, saying nothing.
My heart melted and overflowed like a river bursting its banks with the spring thaw.
Some time later, the princess pulled away a little. ‘Zhongliang is still waiting outside.’
‘Mm.’ I drew back, untangling my arms from around her, then reached up and tidied away a few loose strands of her hair. ‘You should go then.’
She slipped out of the curtained doorway. The wheels of the coach rolled on, taking me to the silent halls of my new home.
For a number of days, I saw nothing of the princess. I felt her absence more keenly than I could express in words. Fortunately, a celebrated author from a previous dynasty had captured in exquisite prose the state of mind in which I now found myself. After a few judicious alterations, I was able to make the passage in question reflect my feelings perfectly:
It’s been one day since the princess left. I miss her…
It’s been two days since the princess left. I miss her…
It’s been three days since the princess left. I miss her…
- In the original text, 大侠. Sometimes translated as ‘hero’, ‘chevalier’ or ‘warrior’, this is a term of respect for a martially-skilled person.[return to text]
- In the original text, 不惑, literally ‘no confusion’ or ‘no doubts’. A person is said to have reached the age of ‘no confusion’ (or ‘no doubts’) when they are forty years old. The term originates from the Analects (论语), a collection of sayings attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (孔子).[return to text]
- In Chinese, 男人四十一枝花, which can be rendered more or less literally as ‘a man at forty blossoms like a flower’. The saying suggests that a man who is in his forties is in the prime of his life, as he is (or at least is expected to be) more mature, stable and financially successful compared to his younger counterparts.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 孔雀东南飞, 五里一徘徊. This is a line from ‘A Peacock Flying Southeast’ (孔雀东南飞), a poem written by an anonymous poet at the end of the Han Dynasty. The poem is written in the yuefu (乐府) style, which uses vernacular language and typically depicts the lives of commoners. The poem tells the tragic love story of Jiao Zhongqing and his wife Liu Lanzhi, who were deeply in love but ultimately driven apart by Jiao Zhongqing’s mother. After the breakup of their marriage, Liu Lanzhi was forced by her brother to marry another man. Both Liu Lanzhi and Jiao Zhongqing committed suicide in protest. The image of a lone peacock hesitating every few miles highlights the couple’s reluctance to part from each other even as they are forced to do so by their families.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 此处不留爷, 自有留爷处. It means that even though a person may have been turned away from a particular location or organisation, they will still be able to find a position for themselves elsewhere in the world.[return to text]
- In Chinese, 冷宫, literally ‘cold palace’. The place to which the emperor banishes a wife or concubine who has fallen out of favour.[return to text]
- This is a riff on a quote from the 2001 Taiwanese drama Romance in the Rain (情深深雨濛濛), adapted from the novel Misty Rain (烟雨濛濛) by the famous Taiwanese romance novelist Chiung Yao (琼瑶, in pinyin: Qiong Yao). Chiung Yao was also the scriptwriter for Romance in the Rain. The original quote is spoken by female lead Lu Yiping (陆依萍) upon temporarily parting from male lead He Shuhuan (何书桓). It reads: ‘It’s been one day since Shuhuan left. I miss him… It’s been two days since Shuhuan left. I miss him, I miss him… It’s been three days since Shuhuan left. I miss him, I miss him, I miss him…’[return to text]