Purely by Accident – Chapter 18
I received word of the princess’ arrival early the next morning, soon after I’d finished breakfast. The news came while I was playing with the pigeons in the rear courtyard. The rays of the newly-risen sun were still gentle on my skin, nowhere near as harsh as they would become later in the day. A light breeze flowed through the house and into the courtyard, freshening the air. The pigeon I was holding cooed with pleasure.
Zheng Hao stood in a corner, waiting on me. I reflected that my new home was truly a dull and lifeless place. Even its steward had nothing better to do than keep me company.
Zheng Hao tended to be silent and subdued around me (perhaps because speech was not his strong suit). This morning, however, those big, guileless eyes of his were unusually animated; they were fixed on the pigeon in my hands.
‘Xiao Hao,’ I called.
He gave me a startled glance, then ducked his head and lowered his eyes, all, of course, without saying a single word.
I rubbed my brow, wondering whether I really seemed that terrifying. The pigeon I was holding began to squirm, wriggling its chubby neck about in a bid to break free of my grasp. I had a sudden thought.
‘Just how quick are you, Xiao Hao?’
Zheng Hao looked up with a degree of pride in his expression. ‘V-very,’ he replied, tracing a graceful arc through the air with one finger.
‘Oh, really?’ I lifted an eyebrow. ”If I let this pigeon go, could you catch it again immediately?’ I asked, holding up the plump bird in question.
A look of obvious interest came into his eyes. Clasping his hands respectfully before him, he said, ‘I-I can try.’
At that moment, Rahul rushed into the courtyard.
When I’d gathered all the servants in the main hall the day before, I hadn’t really troubled to take note of their names. Instead, I’d simply referred to them as, ‘You, you, and you’. They all knew who I was, of course. Whenever I ran into them in the corridors or the gardens, they would respectfully address me as ‘young master’. But to me, their faces were like so many scrambled madiao tiles: how was I to remember who was who? Rahul, with his unusual looks, was the only exception. He had brown skin and deep-set eyes, which were framed by double eyelids so sharply creased you could’ve cut yourself on them. All this had left a deep impression on me. How important it is to have a unique appearance, I’d reflected. Something that singles you out from your fellow wanderers upon this earth.
Right now, Rahul was glaring at me from under those impressive eyelids. ‘We’re in trouble, young master. The princess is here!’
I had no time to consider what he might mean by ‘trouble’. At those last four words I flinched involuntarily, as if my hands had been singed. They trembled slightly, and the pigeon managed to wrest itself free. It spread its wings and took flight.
Somehow Zheng Hao’s clean, shapely hands were already there, waiting. The pigeon flew straight into his grasp.
I didn’t stop to cheer. Hoisting my robes above my ankles, I made a beeline for the main hall.
Rahul followed in my wake. ‘Please slow down, young master,’ he said, panting. ‘The princess has never come here before, but now she’s suddenly made an appearance. I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad.’
Of course it’s good news! I thought, speeding along the zigzag gallery that ran through the garden. As I rounded a corner, I ran face-first into a tangle of willow branches that drooped from a tree just beside the path. Heedlessly, I yanked them aside and continued on my joyful headlong charge.
I stopped abruptly when I reached the entrance to the main hall. The princess was sitting in state at the other end of the room. Before her knelt almost all of the servants, crowded closely together. She lifted a hand, parted her red lips, and said benevolently, ‘You may all rise.’
She spoke with a natural, unfeigned air of refinement that made her seem impossibly regal. I slipped slowly into the room, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious. Everyone else in the room was stealing furtive glances at her, while she — who was she looking at?
Her eyes swept towards me; something seemed to ripple in their depths. ‘I heard this residence had latterly acquired a new master. As I happened to be free today, I hurried here so that I could meet him. The gentleman in question, however, seems bent on skulking in the shadows. Is he not fit to be seen?’
Rolling my eyes in resignation, I shuffled slowly through the crowd until I was right in front of the princess. On either side of her stood Silly Girl and Xiao Hei. The former looked animated, the latter stoic.
‘Your Highness,’ I greeted her, cupping my hands together respectfully.
The princess gazed steadily at me. Her face softened, and the corners of her mouth curved upward ever so slightly. ‘Zisong.’
I stared foolishly at her, my heart thumping joyously in my chest.
That instant seemed to stretch on into eternity. In reality, though, in only a few moments I had recovered the power of speech. ‘Princess, did you rush all the way here because you missed your Zisong?’ I asked, grinning broadly at her.
Beside the princess, Silly Girl shut her eyes as if goaded beyond the limits of her endurance. Xiao Hei, meanwhile, shuddered and gripped his sword-hilt even more tightly. I could sense the inquisitive, probing gazes of the servants behind me, practically stabbing into my back. Scratching my head, I began to reflect on whether I had behaved just a little too shamelessly.
The princess merely waved a hand at the assembled crowd. ‘You may leave,’ she said. Then she turned to Silly Girl and Xiao Hei. ‘Zhongliang, Sizhen, you two step outside as well.’ Turning back to me, she lowered her voice. ‘I have something to discuss with Young Master Wei.’
The hall emptied rapidly. I took a step forward, grinning foolishly at her.
‘You silly goose,’ she said, giving me a sidelong glance. I thought I saw a flush spread across her face. Then she looked down and began toying with a corner of her robe. ‘What are you grinning like that for?’ she murmured, as if to herself.
My heart swelled with elation. I took another step forward, which brought me close enough to reach out and wrap an arm around her waist. ‘Princess, I’m… I’m so happy.’
Slowly, she lifted her head. Her eyes shone like stars, and their light made the smile that hung about the corners of her mouth seem even more dazzling.
I’d never seen her smile like this before. Her expression was one-third maidenly shyness, one-third affection, and then lastly a sweet hesitation to give voice to the tender words that were clearly on her lips.
My heart melted completely.
She stood up, reached out and dabbed at the sweat on my brow. ‘Why are you sweating so much this early in the morning?’
‘Ah.’ I took advantage of the opportunity to wrap my hand around hers. ‘I was in a hurry to get here, so I ran part of the way.’
‘That’s no proper way for a girl to behave,’ she said. She lightly traced one finger over my heart.
The sensation was remarkably soothing, and so I drew her hand even closer, pressing it to my face, and rubbed my cheek gently against her palm. When next I spoke, my voice held a depth of emotion that not even I had anticipated. ‘I was running to see you.’
For a few moments she said nothing, only letting her fingertips wander slowly across my face. They paused at one spot, and she frowned. ‘Why is there a red mark here? Did you scrape yourself on something?’
‘Huh?’ I’d been standing with my eyes half-closed, savouring the sensation of that faintly cool touch against my skin, and had to rack my brains for a good while before I finally recalled the answer she was looking for. ‘Oh, I got scratched by some willow branches on my way here. It’s fine.’ I reached out, took her other hand in mine, and began playing with her fingers.
Her free hand lingered on the tender spot on my cheek. ‘Does it hurt?’ she asked softly.
How should I describe the feeling that came over me? It was as if a feather had been drawn oh-so-lightly over the deepest recesses of my heart, and sent a shiver rushing from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head. My heart filled with an almost unbearable ache. My face seemed to grow hotter where she was touching me — so hot that I found myself grimacing helplessly, unsure what to do.
Anxiously, she applied a little more pressure to my cheek. ‘Why is your face so red? Does it really hurt that much?’
Oh, what a sweet, silly girl. I sighed, drew her hand away from my face, and placed it against my chest. With my free hand, I reached out and gently smoothed away the frown lines that had formed between her brows. ‘It doesn’t hurt exactly, but it aches.’ I pressed her hand even more tightly against my heart. ‘Right here. It aches.’
Her face flushed so brilliantly that it looked as if rouge had been applied liberally to both cheeks. Her long eyelashes fluttered; I felt as if they were brushing right against my heart with each movement. ‘Whatever shall we do?’ she asked in the earnest tones of someone seeking a solution, and pouted ever so slightly.
I gazed at her long and deep. The ache deep in my heart had suddenly become an overwhelming itch. Unable to resist, I reached out and tilted up her chin with one trembling hand. Her lips were an even brighter shade of red than usual. They reminded me of plum blossoms in the snow — their very presence was a silent invitation to reach out and claim them for one’s own.
I covered her eyes with one hand, then leaned forward until my forehead was pressing against hers. ‘Be a good girl,’ I murmured. ‘Close your eyes.’
Her eyelashes fluttered against my palm. Unable to hold myself back any longer, I wrapped my other arm around her waist, brought my face another half-inch closer to hers, and met her lips with mine. Her mouth was warm, soft, sweet — absolutely delicious.
Her back went completely stiff against my hand.
I gave a tiny sigh. Then, not daring to push things any further, I pulled back a little. The lovely young woman in my arms still had her eyes screwed tightly shut. Her eyelashes trembled; her cheeks were scarlet. She looked appealingly vulnerable.
I stroked the corner of her mouth, and whispered gently into her ear, ‘Princess, wake up.’
Her eyes sprang open suddenly. ‘Such insolence,’ she chided, sounding as if all her bashfulness a moment ago had been transmuted into annoyance. Yet the tenderness in her eyes robbed the rebuke of much of its power.
I laughed softly and drew her close to me again, stroking her back soothingly. ‘Princess, princess, you’re the only one I’ll ever be insolent to.’
After a while she began to relax in my embrace, though her head still burrowed restlessly into my shoulder. ‘I give you an inch and you take a mile,’ she mumbled. Her voice was a little indistinct, but the coquetry in her tone was unmistakable.
‘Mm.’ I held her even tighter, rocking her gently back and forth.
The princess played ostrich for a good long while, with her head buried in the crook of my shoulder. When she finally roused herself, she started to put her arms around my neck, but suddenly stopped as her eyes fell on something close by. And then—
‘Wei Zisong, what is this?’ Abruptly she pushed me away, pointing at something red that lay wadded up on the table beside us. Her eyes were filled with disbelief.
My arms were suddenly cold and empty; in that moment, I felt unutterably lonely. I slowly let my arms fall back to my sides, made a show of rearranging my robes, and only then leaned forward to take a closer look at the offending item. It was the red handkerchief that Zheng Hao had filched the day before. What was it doing here in the main hall?
I tugged at the princess’ sleeve and shook my head, my expression all innocence. ‘What about it?’
‘Wei Zisong!’ Her voice rose. She snatched up the handkerchief and shoved it right in my face. ‘Stop looking at me with those puppy dog eyes. Answer me now: what is this?‘
‘A… a handkerchief.’
‘A handkerchief?’ She spread out the item in question. Her eyes darted to the feather embroidered in one corner and lingered there. I couldn’t read her expression at all. ‘Where did you get this from? Don’t tell me it belongs to you!’
I felt greatly wronged. It wasn’t as if I’d wanted the handkerchief in the first place; I hadn’t set out to meet its owner at all. But how was I to explain to the princess that the handkerchief had come from a mystery woman I’d encountered at a brothel called Chunyi House?
‘I…’ I stole a quick glance at her expression from the corner of my eye, and mumbled, ‘I found it.’
‘Found it?’ Suspicion was written all over her face, but at least she was no longer speaking quite so loudly.
‘Yes!’ I put on my sincerest expression, nodding vigorously.
She looked down, her eyes half-closed as if in thought. I hardly dared to breathe. It was just a handkerchief, after all — what was the princess playing at?
A sudden thought seemed to strike her, and she looked back up at me. ‘What about the jade pendant I gave you? Do you have it on you?’
‘Of course I do!’ I reached into my pocket and found exactly nothing. Disbelievingly, I withdrew my hand. A single pigeon’s feather drifted out along with it, and began a slow, leisurely descent towards the floor.
Belatedly, I recalled that I’d been so startled by Zheng Hao’s display of his pickpocketing abilities the previous day that I’d become concerned for the safety of my jade pendant if I continued to carry it around with me. I’d ended up hiding it away under my pillow.
The princess stared at the feather as it made its way downwards, unimpeded. Her expression was as cold as frost.
Desperately I reached for her, but she flung my hand aside so violently that it sent me stumbling backwards. She smiled — actually smiled! — but her voice sounded immeasurably bitter to my ears. ‘History is repeating itself. Excellent.”
The look on her face smote me to my very core. Hastily, I opened my mouth to give an explanation. ‘Princess, that pendant—’
She placed a finger against my lips, and I had no choice but to choke back the rest of that sentence.
The princess looked at me quietly, ran her finger warningly over my lips and then let it drop. A look of sorrow came into her eyes. She bit her own lip, then said, ‘Wei Zisong, you needn’t worry about serving as my prince consort. Our agreement — and whatever else might be between us — is over.’
I couldn’t believe my ears. All I could do was stare in stunned silence as she brushed past me, sweeping out of the room. I heard her call out to her entourage, ‘We’re leaving!’
Can someone tell me what I did wrong?
- In the original text, this character was given a nickname that is now often used as a derogatory term for people of South Asian origin. I have chosen to rename him, and have adjusted the wording of the passages in which he is introduced to make them consistent with the renaming. My thanks to my South Asian friend who wishes to be known as Caroline Crale for helping me with the renaming. [return to text]
- See footnote 2 to Chapter 14. [return to text]
- See footnote 3 to Chapter 4. [return to text]
- In the original text, the division of the princess’ expression into thirds is rendered as 春色三分, which can be loosely translated as ‘spring’s beauty can be divided into three parts’. This line may thus be a reference to a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (苏轼) which is set to the tune of ‘Water Dragon Chant’ (水龙吟). [return to text]
- In the original text, 欲说还休, 欲说还休, which can be translated more or less literally as ‘I wish to speak, yet refrain; I wish to speak, yet refrain’. The phrase is derived from a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet and general Xin Qiji (辛弃疾), which is set to the tune of ‘The Ugly Servant’ (丑奴儿). [return to text]
- There is language in the original text which suggests Zisong initially had the handkerchief tucked into the neck of her robes, which the princess then discovered, pulled out and threw onto the table. The subsequent chapters, however, make it clear that the handkerchief was already lying on the table to begin with. I have amended the text to ensure consistency between this passage and the later chapters. [return to text]