Purely by Accident – Chapter 19

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I sat in the garden under the nominal shade of a tree. Noonday sunlight spilled thickly through the none-too-narrow gaps between its branches, dazzling me into dizziness.

Somewhere up in the tree, a cicada was chirping non-stop. ‘Zhiliao, zhiliao,’ it called. I know, I know.[1] Seized by a sudden fit of temper, I threw the fan I was holding in the direction of the noise. My makeshift missile struck its target, and the know-it-all[2] insect finally fell silent.

As it should, I thought. I’d spent the last few days racking my brains over the princess’ incomprehensible behaviour, and still hadn’t a clue as to why she’d reacted the way she had. What could a mere insect know about it?

The cool breeze that had been blowing through the garden abruptly ceased, which made me even more irritable.

Chu Feichen, that spoiled girl, had acted in a completely unreasonable fashion. She’d lost her temper for no apparent reason, and had flung that parting ‘it’s over’ at me with no further explanation. Did she really think I was going to take that lying down? Who did she think she was, to simply declare that everything between us was ‘over’? Just because she was a princess she thought she could break her promises, could go back on her word? Really, did she need me to teach her that ‘an honest person’s word is as good as their bond’?[3] When all was said and done I was still the chief of the Heiyun Brotherhood, a bandit stronghold of considerable size. How did she expect me to hold my head up in public once word got out that she’d tossed me aside without rhyme or reason, with nary a word of explanation?

Feeling absolutely murderous, I stood up and marched to the study. Laying out a brush and paper, I sat down and began enumerating the seven deadly sins of Chu Feichen.

First, she was capricious. One moment she’d gaze at me with eyes ‘as tender as a stream’,[4] as the poets put it, and the next, those very same waters would rise up and sweep me away in a violent flood.[5]

Second, she was headstrong and stubborn. I had tried to explain about the handkerchief, and she’d refused to listen. I’d tried to explain about the pendant, and again she’d refused to listen. If she was so all-knowing, why didn’t she just set up a stall in the marketplace and tell fortunes?

Third, she was high-handed and self-willed. What did she mean, ‘it’s over’? I object, I object, I object!

Fourth, she was faithless and inconstant.

Fifth, she was faithless and inconstant.

Sixth, she was faithless and inconstant.


As I sat there chewing on the end of my brush, an image of the princess smiling as she had the other day, when she’d dabbed the sweat from my forehead, came suddenly into my mind. Somehow, I found it impossible to write down that last ‘faithless and inconstant’.

Tossing the brush aside, I put my head in my hands. Gloomily, I  wondered how in the world I’d managed to fall in love with such a bad-tempered young woman.

Zheng Hao sidled carefully into the room, keeping his back firmly pressed against the wall. He looked more than a little shifty.

As the saying goes, hackles rise when enemies meet.[6] Faced with the man directly responsible for all my present woes, I was nearly overpowered by a sudden urge to strip him naked, paint a large turtle on his body,[7] drag him out of the house and parade him through the streets for all to see. I valiantly resisted this impulse. Instead, I retrieved my brush and squeezed the handle so hard I could hear it crackle.

Once more, Zheng Hao provided me with a demonstration of his unique abilities. Moving as swiftly as the wind, he darted forward and placed a thin sheet of paper in my hand. Then, just as swiftly, he retreated to a distance of some five feet away.

I looked down at the paper. It was covered with squiggles, the meaning of which eluded me. Clutching the sheet tightly, I asked from between gritted teeth, ‘What. Is. This.’

Zheng Hao shuddered and took an uneasy step backwards. ‘A… a map,’ he said. There was a note of urgency in his voice.

A map? His answer was entirely unexpected; I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Hastily, he added, ‘The… the map shows the way to… to the princess’ manor, and… and… inside.’

Oh, what a thoughtful young man Zheng Hao was! In that instant I forgave him completely for his pilfering[8] ways, which had landed a perfectly innocent bystander like myself in hot water.

It was dark and windy[9] that night — an ideal atmosphere for murder, arson, or a little light stalking.

Dressed completely in black, I lurked in the shadows just outside the princess’ manor. A veil concealed the lower half of my face. The front gates were firmly shut, and the two bright lanterns that hung on either side of them gave the whole building an air of grandeur. Armed guards prowled back and forth just outside the entrance.

I carefully calculated the odds of the guards throwing open the gates and welcoming me in with open arms. I decided to jettison my original plan of a frontal assault, feeling that the situation called for a rather more indirect approach.

I made my way around the side of the wall that surrounded the manor and its grounds. I then leapt up, landing atop the wall on my hands and knees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dog barked furiously. I panicked, momentarily lost my grip, and tumbled headfirst from my perch.

I stood up, rubbing my sore bottom, and surveyed my surroundings with great satisfaction: I’d fallen inside the manor grounds. When one tumbles from a wall, one has an equal chance of ending up on the wrong side of it as the right. Tonight the odds had worked out in my favour. This was a good day, I decided. Even Heaven was helping me!

All my senses on high alert, I managed to find my way to the princess’ rooms. Dim yellow light shone through the windows, and I fancied I could hear someone moving around inside. Then the door creaked open, and a figure stepped out. The deathly pale light of the moon bounced off the roof of a nearby pavilion, forced its way through the shadows of the surrounding trees and fell on the figure’s face, making it seem like an apparition. It was Silly Girl herself!

The sight of her filled me with such a sense of warm familiarity that I became convinced I’d given myself a concussion when I’d fallen off that wall. So moved was I that I took a step forward, passing from the shadows into the shimmering, ghostly light of the moon.

Silly Girl shrieked. The high-pitched sound, combined with her ghastly pale face and the way her mouth twisted into a rictus of fear, were exactly like something out of a horror story.

The princess hurried out. ‘What’s wrong, Sizhen?’

Resignedly, I unveiled my face.

‘An assassin—’ Silly Girl stopped, still pointing at me. Her mouth fell open. ‘What? Young Master Wei?’

The corner of my mouth twitched awkwardly. ‘Good evening, Silly Girl,’ I said, giving her an insincere smile.

The princess stood watching us, her face completely devoid of expression. 

Silly Girl scratched her head in puzzlement, then peered at me again. ‘It’s very late at night, Young Master Wei. What are you doing here? Are you walking in your sleep? Or’ — and here she glanced helplessly at the princess — ‘am I the one who’s sleepwalking?’

The princess said coolly, ‘Why don’t you go and give Young Master Wei a pinch? Then you’ll find out.’

I reached out just in time to block Silly Girl’s questing hand. ‘Your Highness jests,’ I said, giving the princess a placating smile. ‘To tell the truth, your humble servant has taken the liberty of calling on you at this hour because he was struck by the beauty of the moon tonight. Might I have the honour of admiring it with you, Your Highness?’

‘Oh?’ The princess lifted a brow. Despite all her cool aloofness, she looked ridiculously lovely. ‘But the moon seems something of an eyesore to me tonight.’

A wind sent dark clouds scudding across the moon, plunging us into shadow. I could barely make out the princess’ expression. Then, through the darkness, I heard her call out, ‘Guards! There’s an assassin!’

Innumerable guards appeared out of nowhere. Before I could so much as react, the cold blade of a sword was already lying across my throat. The man gripping the hilt was unmistakeably Xiao Hei.

The clouds dispersed and the moon re-emerged from the gloom, allowing me to see the shock on Xiao Hei’s face with perfect clarity. The princess’ expression, however, was one of absolute calm.

Ah. So I was the ‘assassin’.

Silly Girl looked at me, then at the princess, then at XIao Hei. She shook her head, and a smile of the purest, most childlike innocence spread across her face. ‘I really am walking in my sleep,’ she said. And with that, she closed her eyes and wandered off.

I gave a small, rueful laugh. She really thought it was all a dream — but how could any dream be as ludicrous as this?

Xiao Hei’s blade still lay against my throat, as immovable as a rock, but the wielder himself had turned to look at the princess. ‘Your Highness, what—’

The princess waved that aside. Staring me right in the eye, she said, ‘This person has broken into the manor under the cover of darkness, and we cannot be sure what his intentions are. For now, lock him up in the woodshed. We’ll deal with him in the morning.’

Truly,  the female of the species is infinitely more deadly than the male.[10]

Moments later, I found myself lying on a pile of straw in the manor’s woodshed and feeling very sorry for myself. Chu Feichen, you heartless woman, how could you do this to me? There isn’t even a bed in this wretched woodshed! I flopped around listlessly, kicking my legs. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me: I was still inside the manor’s grounds, wasn’t I? So what was I railing against fate for? Now that I was inside the tiger’s den, there was no reason I shouldn’t be able to capture its cub![11]

I recalled the cold anger in Chu Feichen’s eyes as she’d glared at me. Yes, there was a definite resemblance to a tigress[12] there! The thought made me chuckle. I pumped my fist lightly to cheer myself on. Burn your cosmos, oh great bandit leader![13]

Of course I still had the princess’ paragon of blind devotion to contend with — the noble warrior himself, Wu Zhongliang. He was keeping a close watch on me from the corner.

I patted the straw beside me. ‘Come and sit down, Xiao Wuwu.’

The corner of his mouth spasmed briefly, but he said nothing.

‘Come on, Xiao Wuwu,’ I wheedled.

He remained unmoved.

‘Xiao Heihei, Xiao Zhongzhong, Xiao Liangliang…’

He closed his eyes, and a shudder spread over his whole body.

I began to sing to the tune of a well-known children’s song. ‘Liangliang’s the best in the whole wide world, his fighting skills are the greatest of all time…’[14]

Driven beyond endurance, Xiao Hei dropped to his hands and knees in the corner and was heartily sick.

I slipped out of the woodshed as silently as a puff of smoke.

I soon found myself back at the spot where I’d been captured. The princess was sitting on a stone bench just outside her rooms. She was looking skywards, though I wasn’t sure what at. I couldn’t quite make out the expression on her face, but the sight of her sitting by herself on this cool night made my heart ache. All I wanted to do was sweep her into my arms and soothe her with gentle caresses — to lavish all my affection on her.

As I stood there, lost in thought, I heard her say, ‘Come on out.’

Giving my head a quick shake to clear it, I walked over to stand before her. I opened and shut my mouth a few times, not knowing what to say.

She looked up. ‘You escaped. Impressive. Zhongliang must have been remiss in his duties.’

Hastily, I held up both hands. ‘It’s nothing to do with him — it was all me. I tricked him and snuck out.’

The princess gave a cold little chuckle. ‘You’re worried for him? Don’t you realise that if I call for the guards now, I can make sure you never leave here alive?’

‘If you wanted me dead, you’d have seen to it long ago,’ I mumbled, looking down.

‘Wei Zisong!’ There was frustration in the princess’ voice. ‘What are you doing here tonight? I thought I made myself very clear.’

‘What do you mean, “clear”? You weren’t clear at all! What did I do to make you—’

‘Very well.’ The princess regarded me silently for a long moment, then suddenly rose and looked me straight in the eye. ‘Then I’ll make myself as clear as I can. From tonight onwards, Wei Zisong, all bonds between us are broken. If we ever meet it again it will be as sovereign and subject, and nothing more.’

Her voice was low but her words reverberated over and over again in the darkness, bringing me dangerously close to tears.

But I was still a bandit — an outlaw. If someone I trusted had wronged me, I was sure to retaliate. The woman standing in front of me had tormented me, and there was no way I could let it go. I scrubbed my sleeve savagely across my brimming eyes, then reached out and struck the major acupoints in her back, sealing them with my qi and rendering her immobile.

She clearly hadn’t anticipated this move. Her face froze in an expression of shock, as if it too had been paralysed. I caught hold of her just as she was crumpling to the ground, then hauled her up and slung her across my shoulders. Heedless of all else, I began marching towards her rooms.

Her voice drifted to my ears. ‘Put me down, Wei Zisong! Do you hear me? Wei Zisong, if you don’t stop, I’m going to scream!’ The indignation in her tone was mixed with just a trace of panic.

I reached her bedchamber, shut the door behind me and bolted it. I then bent and lowered her onto the bed.

Her face was flushed completely scarlet, and rage rendered her eyes even brighter than usual. ‘Wei Zisong! This is sheer insolence!’

‘Mm.’ I sat down and poured myself a cup of water. ‘So? It’s hardly the first time, is it?’

A thought seemed to occur to her, and she fell silent. After a long while, she finally sighed. ‘Wei Zisong, exactly what is it that you want?’

What did I want? A moment ago, all I’d been able to think of was how much I wanted her to take back the hurtful words she’d uttered. That overwhelming emotion had gone straight to my head. But now that I’d carried her off and brought her here, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen next.

She gave another long, slow sigh. ‘Zisong, unseal my acupoints.’

‘No!’ I responded instantly. Unseal her acupoints? What, so she could drive me away again?

‘Wei Zisong!’ Her voice rose, and she glared at me.

I glared right back at her — ferociously, desperately.

She looked away then, her gaze meeting everything except mine. ‘There’s no need for this, is there? Let me go and we’ll be free of each other forever. You can go anywhere you want — you can even go back to being a bandit chief! You’d be free to kidnap whoever you like. Wouldn’t that make you happy?’

Those words made me see red. ‘Chu Feichen!’ I roared.

‘Your Highness, is something the matter?’ someone called from outside.

The interruption seemed to take her aback, and it was several moments before she recovered herself enough to respond. But all she said was, ‘Nothing’s wrong. You can all stand down.’

For a long while, there was complete silence. Then I forced myself to smile through gritted teeth. ‘Chu Feichen, you trifled with me and discarded me. I object.’

The accusation was too strong. She flushed again, still avoiding my eyes. ‘Stop talking nonsense. I did nothing of the sort.’

‘Of course you did.’ I rose and advanced upon the bed, step after deliberate step. ‘Who was the one who said she wanted to bind me to her? Who was the one who held my hand? Who was the one who… who kissed me?’

(My voice dropped lower on the last accusation, because I suddenly recalled that I had been the one to initiate the kiss.)

She said nothing, so I pressed my point home. ‘After all, it’s just some stupid handkerchief — is it really worth your losing your temper over? If you don’t like it I can just burn it, or get rid of it — you didn’t have to drive me away. You even told me “it’s over”… Chu Feichen, I remember everything you said about making me your prince consort quite clearly. You can’t pretend you never made me any promises! If I’ve done something wrong, just tell me and I’ll mend my ways. Don’t be so quick to get rid of me. I love you so much, Chu Feichen, but that doesn’t mean you can treat me this way…’

My eyes stung with tears, and my voice was choked. I trailed off, unable to continue, and sniffled.

At some point, the princess’ eyes had softened. ‘Zisong,’ she began, saying my name very gently. After a pause, she continued. ‘Be good. Unseal my acupoints.’


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  1. In Chinese, 知了. This is the fairly standard onomatopoeia for the sound made by a cricket. In English, this translates into ‘known’ or ‘already known’. [return to text]
  2. In the original text, 不懂装懂, literally ‘don’t know but pretend to know’. [return to text]
  3. In Chinese, 一诺千金, literally ‘one promise is [equivalent to] a thousand [taels] of gold’. The chengyu describes a person who always keeps their promises. The more obvious translation into English is, of course, ‘a gentleman’s word is as good as his bond’, but I decided to avoid this for gender reasons. [return to text]
  4. In Chinese, 柔情似水. See footnote 10 to Chapter 8. [return to text]
  5. In Chinese, 水能载舟亦能覆舟, literally ‘water can carry a boat along, and can also capsize it’. It means that the same force can be both beneficial and harmful. The saying originates from the Xunzi (荀子), a collection of philosophical writings named after and attributed to Xun Kuang (荀況), a Confucian philosopher who lived during the late Warring States period. [return to text]
  6. In Chinese, 仇人相见, 分外眼红, literally ‘when enemies see each other, they become unusually furious’. [return to text]
  7. In Chinese, 乌龟王八蛋, literally ‘turtle egg’. An insult with similar connotations as ‘son of a bitch’. [return to text]
  8. In Chinese, 顺手牵羊, literally ‘to lead a goat away in passing’. It refers to stealing something opportunistically. [return to text]
  9. In the original text, 月黑杀人夜, 风高放火天, literally ‘moon dark killing people night, high wind setting fire day’. A saying which describes criminals taking advantage of a dark night and a windy day to more effectively commit murder and arson, respectively. [return to text]
  10. In Chinese, 最毒妇人心, literally ‘a woman’s heart is the most poisonous’. The saying originates from the novel The Investiture of the Gods (封神演义), which was published during the Ming Dynasty. The novel combines history with elements of Chinese mythology. Its authorship is conventionally attributed to Xu Zhonglin (许仲琳). [return to text]
  11. In Chinese, 既入得虎穴, 焉不得虎子. This is a riff on the saying 不入虎穴, 焉得虎子, literally ‘if you do not enter the tiger’s den, how will you capture its cub?’ It means ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. The saying originates from the Book of the Later Han (后汉书, also known as the History of the Later Han), which covers the history of the Han dynasty from 6 to 189 CE. The book was compiled by the historian Fan Ye (范晔), who lived during the Liu Song (刘宋) dynasty of the Northern and Southern dynasties period (南北朝). [return to text]
  12. Formidable women are frequently referred to as ‘tigresses’ in Chinese colloquial speech. [return to text]
  13. In the original text, 寨主的小宇宙, 燃烧吧! This is a reference to the line often translated as ‘burn your cosmos’ (or ‘burn your cosmo’) from the manga and anime series Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac. Within the series, a ‘cosmos’ is a form of mystical energy which every living being possesses; ‘burning’ it allows one to perform supernatural feats. [return to text]
  14. This is a reference to the well-known children’s song ‘Mother is the Best in the World’ (世上只有妈妈好). The two lines sung by Zisong here follow the same rhythm scheme as the first two lines of the original song. [return to text]