Purely by Accident – Chapter 20

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I’d grown accustomed to the princess’ abrupt changes of mood, but up until now, these had only ever gone in one direction: a balmy spring day would suddenly be overtaken by a raging thunderstorm. This was the first time I’d ever seen the transformation in reverse. It was like watching flowers spring into life and bloom in the frigid depths of winter. I stared at her, too taken aback to respond.

When I recovered my composure, the princess was still gazing at me with an expression as mild and gentle as that kindly rain that knows its appointed time, and, with the wind, slips into the night unseen.[1] This, combined with the fact that she was currently incapable of moving, lent her an air of fragility. In that moment, she seemed more like an ordinary young woman than an imperious royal princess.

Unavoidably, my heart began to soften. I might be a bandit chief, but I’d never done anything as vile as force myself on an unwilling woman. This, of course, could in part be attributed to what one might call the ersatz nature of my manhood; even if I’d wanted to, I was unequipped to do any forcing. But I felt that it was also a reflection of my chivalrous attitude towards the fairer sex. Besides, the woman lying on the bed before me — looking oh-so-delicate and helpless, as she gazed up at me with those mild, guileless eyes — wasn’t just any woman. She was my beloved princess, who I cherished tenderly — who I would die a thousand terrible deaths[2] to protect.

And so I picked up the nearest chair, placed it next to the bed and sat down. I even made sure to bend down slightly, so that I could look deep into her eyes. Then, putting on my firmest expression, I declared, ‘I won’t!’

Of course there was no way I was going to treat my beloved princess as if she were just any woman, especially as I knew perfectly well that she was as wily as a fox. I sat up straight, drawing strength from the hardness of the chair against my back. As they say, there can be no victory without suffering:[3] in order to achieve victory, it is often necessary to put someone else through some suffering.

The princess smiled, her expression relaxing. Her eyes danced.

‘You won’t? Now you really do seem to have something of a bandit chief’s forcefulness about you, Zisong.’ She gazed at me steadily with those shining dark eyes, and a teasing note crept into her voice. ‘The night is young, you and I are all alone,[4] and now you’ve immobilised me and put me on this bed. Do you, perhaps, have something particular in mind?’

It was now past midnight. Moonlight filled the room with just the perfect degree of illumination, neither too dark nor overly bright. Beside the bed, a single candle had been lit. In its flickering glow, the princess’ face — as lovely as a spring blossom in full bloom — seemed more entrancing than ever.

The implications of what she’d just said were unmistakable. Involuntarily, my eyes wandered from her lips — which had quirked up in challenge — and fixed on her long, elegant throat. Its graceful lines and her fair, luminous skin reminded me of top-quality jadeware. I swallowed reflexively, clutching desperately at the arm of my chair. My heart was pounding like a battle drum in my chest. This was naked seduction!

With very great difficulty, I averted my eyes. Then I heard her say, in her sweetest, softest voice, ‘Won’t you unseal my acupoints?’

It was a good thing my chair was made of the very best pearwood. The pressure of that hard, unyielding material against my spine gave me the strength to utter a single, wobbly, ‘No.’

‘Fine then,’ said the princess, sounding resigned. Her dainty little face looked very forlorn on her pillow. ‘They’ll unseal themselves eventually anyway.[5] I just won’t be able to move in the meantime, and I’m sure my neck will get sore. Why don’t you go? Don’t worry about me — I’ll manage, somehow.’

Oh, she had me now. Ruefully, I rose from the chair and sat down on the edge of her bed. I propped her up, so that her back rested against my chest. Then I placed both hands on the nape of her neck and began massaging gently. ‘Is that better?’ I asked carefully.

She lay tractably against me, and it was some time before her languid murmur of assent reached my ears. ‘Mm.’

With that, calm settled over me. It really didn’t seem as though the princess was still upset with me. She would never have allowed me to get this close to her otherwise, no matter how consummate an actress she’d proved herself to be. And so, still careful to keep my motions slow, I leaned my chin on her shoulder and pressed my cheek against hers. ‘Princess, are you still angry with me?’

After a long moment’s silence, she finally let out a grudging, ‘Hmph.’

That meant that everything was fine. Instantly, I wrapped my arms around her and began rocking her gently back and forth, anxious to convince her of my fidelity. ‘Why did you have to get so angry over some stupid handkerchief?’ I said. ‘It was hardly worth bothering with, for someone as important as you. You know I can be a little slow sometimes. If I make a mistake, you can just shout at me—or even beat me! But don’t say things like “it’s over”.’ I tightened my arms around her, squeezing. ‘Don’t you know that as a princess, you should always keep your promises? I believed every word you said about making me your prince consort. You can’t go back on that now!’

Inadvertently, I’d let something of my sense of grievance seep into my voice. The princess let out another ‘hmph’, and said coolly, ‘Tell me where you got that handkerchief from, then.’

Sigh. I should never have set foot in that — or any other! — brothel, intentionally or not. I pressed my cheek even closer to the princess’ and set about distancing myself from the whole incident. ‘I wasn’t the one who took the handkerchief home. It was that little bastard Zheng Hao. He had nothing better to do, so he lifted it from this woman…’

Simply recounting the story was enough to set my teeth on edge. Once again, I felt like picking a fight with Zheng Hao.

‘Oh?’ said the princess. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew she must be frowning a little. ‘That woman — how do you know her?’

‘I don’t know her,’ I said, reaching round and feeling for the little furrow that must have formed between her brows so I could smooth it away. ‘It was all because you left me in that godforsaken place. I thought that if you weren’t going to come and see me there, I could at least come here to see you. But on my way here, I got distracted and took a wrong turn. I ended up at Chunyi House, and the madam dragged me inside.’ A sudden shudder went through me at the memory. ‘If I hadn’t run fast enough, I wouldn’t have escaped in one piece. The woman must have been one of the patrons there.’ Here, I lowered my voice. ‘That brothel was a very unusual place. It wasn’t just young ladies, there were male courtesans as well.’

‘A most unsavoury establishment,’[6] said the princess. Having pronounced her judgement on the brothel, she abruptly changed the subject. ‘What happened to the jade pendant I gave you?’ she asked, with more than a hint of accusation in her voice. ‘My gift seems to count for nothing, while this other woman’s handkerchief is displayed in the main hall for all to see.’

How had I ended up being accused of such a serious offence? I reached down my robes and fished out the pendant in question, which now dangled from a fine chain around my neck. ‘How could I treat it as though it were nothing? It means everything to me. I kept worrying that I was going to lose it, so I hid it under my pillow. But look! I’ve had this chain made for it. The moment it was ready, I put the pendant on it and hung it around my neck.’ I took her hand in mine. ‘Princess, princess, I’ll always wear this pendant right next to my skin so that no one can ever take it from me. What do you think?’

‘This happens every time,’ said the princess. ‘You get into trouble, then try to wheedle your way out of it with flattery and fine words. Where did you pick up this trick from, Wei Zisong? Your words are so sweet it’s as if you’ve smeared honey on your tongue — I can never tell whether or not you mean them.’

Her voice held a distinct note of coquetry. With an inward chuckle I carried on, applying a liberal coat of the aforementioned honey to my next words. ‘Of course I mean them, princess. My feelings for you are truer than gold.’[7] I put my arms around her again and went on rocking her. ‘Princess, from now on, no saying you don’t want me every time you lose your temper.’


‘And no deciding I’ve done something wrong without hearing me out.’


‘Princess… I want to kiss you.’

‘Mm. Mm? Wei Zisong, you…’

It was too late. All this while, my eyes had been drawn to the princess’ ivory-white throat; I’d been valiantly resisting its allure for some time. Now that I’d finally been granted permission to do as I wished — or what I took to be permission, at any rate — I immediately took advantage of it. With great care, I brought my lips to her neck. The intoxicating fragrance that seemed to cling to it set my heart aflutter. My tongue traced a circle on the delicate skin of her throat; the kiss became something more like a suckle.

‘Zi-Zisong…’ she said, her voice more than a little unsteady. ‘Unseal my acupoints.’

Ah, how could I have forgotten about that? My lips and tongue still busy, I felt for the acupoints in her back and reversed the effects of what I’d done earlier, returning the princess’ mobility to her.

Suddenly, I felt a sudden twist of pain. The princess had whirled around and grabbed hold of my ear; she was practically hauling me up by it. ‘Wei Zisong, what do you think you’re doing?’ she spluttered.

I hissed, hastily clapping my hands protectively over both ears. ‘It’s all because you smell so good.’

‘You—’ she stopped, and the flush on her cheeks, which had been fading slightly, flared into full brilliance again. The look in her eyes was part bashfulness and part vexation, and completely adorable.

She gazed steadily at me. A thought seemed to strike her, though I wasn’t sure what it was. She lowered her hand from my ear, and, after a few moments, let out a long sigh. Her eyes held something that looked like resignation, but which could equally have been determination. Then she opened her mouth and bit me on the shoulder.

Pain tore through me. I bit down hard on my lip, managing not to let out a single sound. Reaching out, I drew her into my lap and began patting her soothingly on the back: once, twice, again. Finally she unclenched her teeth from my shoulder. Her hand found its way there instead, and lingered gently on the marks she’d left. Her fingers trembled, ever so slightly.

‘From now on, no going to brothels whenever you please.’


‘And no taking off the jade pendant I gave you.’


‘And no accepting gifts from other women whenever you please.’


‘And no kissing me whenever you please.’

‘Mm. Mm?’


At dawn the next day, I tiptoed out of the princess’ rooms into the garden and shut the door carefully behind me. It suddenly occurred to me that I was behaving exactly like someone who’d just engaged in some clandestine tryst, and the corner of my mouth lifted in a smile. Then I turned around and saw Silly Girl standing some six feet away with a copper washbasin and a pile of towels in her hands. Her mouth hung open, and she looked as if she’d seen a ghost.

Oh no. I’d been exposed! Even though my skin was roughly as thick as a city wall, I couldn’t help feeling a little sheepish.

Silly Girl pointed at me, then at the entrance to the princess’ rooms. ‘Young Master Wei, you… you… what were you doing in the princess’ rooms so early in the morning?’

What was I doing, indeed. A truly complicated question.

I managed to force a hollow chuckle out through my frozen expression. I had absolutely no idea what to say.

The confusion in Silly Girl’s eyes deepened. ‘I had a dream last night,’ she said. ‘I dreamt that the princess had Zhongliang seize you because they thought you were an assassin.’ She scratched her head, seeming at a complete loss. ‘Don’t tell me I’m still dreaming?’

‘Mm, mm.’ I nodded vigorously, eager to encourage this line of thought.

‘Oh.’ Enlightenment spread across her face, but the next moment, she turned fretful again. ‘It’s rare for a dream to feel so real. And why am I wasting it dreaming about a pretty boy like you? Oh Heaven, grant me one of those big, strong, ruggedly handsome men…’

With that, she wandered off, looking disconsolate.

Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I was just about to breathe a long sigh of relief when I spotted another figure standing by the railings at the turn of the garden path. It was none other than Master Wu, the great warrior himself. His face was dark with some unnameable emotion.

The hand with which I’d just wiped my forehead froze in mid-air. All of a sudden, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Not all the waters of the Yellow River can wash me clean of suspicion now,[8] I thought. Xiao Hei had been guarding the woodshed last night, so he knew perfectly well that I hadn’t returned to it since I made my escape. And now here I was, walking out of the princess’ rooms at an extremely early hour of the morning. Anyone with a modicum of logic would be able to put two and two together, and conclude without much difficulty that I’d spent last night dallying with the princess.

I let my hand drop, and racked my brains for the right thing to say. ‘Xiao Hei, I…’

His face held a complicated mixture of emotions, though the distance between us meant that I couldn’t make them out very clearly. I was just about to step forward when he took a few paces backwards instead. Then he abruptly turned, made a few great leaps forward, and was soon out of sight.

I was left rooted to the spot, feeling deeply perturbed.

Today, I recalled, was the third day of the sixth month: no doubt an inauspicious day for trysts.[9]


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  1. In Chinese, 好雨知时节, 随风潜入夜. These are the first and third lines from the shi poem ‘Happy Rain on a Spring Night’ (春夜喜雨) by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (杜甫). It describes a pleasant, welcome rain falling over the southwestern city of Chengdu on a spring night, providing much-needed moisture to the crops. [return to text]
  2. In the original text, 粉身碎骨, literally ‘shattered body and broken bones’. [return to text]
  3. In the original text, 不经一番寒彻骨, 怎得梅花扑鼻香. This can be rendered more or less literally as ‘without the bone-piercing chill of winter, how will one gain the fragrance of plum blossoms?’. It is a quotation from the shi poem ‘Ode on Religious Instruction’ (上堂开示颂) by Huangbo Xiyun (黄檗希运), a monk and influential teacher of Buddhism who lived during the Tang Dynasty. The Chinese plum typically blossoms in mid-winter, and has become a cultural symbol of resilience and strength. The poem uses this imagery to explain that enlightenment can only be reached through doubt and struggle. [return to text]
  4. In the original text, 孤女寡女, literally ‘a lone woman, a solitary woman’. This is a riff on the chengyu 孤男寡女, literally ‘a lone man, a solitary woman’. The chengyu describes a man and a woman being alone together, usually in a secluded setting, with connotations of romance and/or sex. [return to text]
  5. In Chinese genre fiction, it is generally accepted that sealed acupoints will eventually unseal themselves if left alone, due to the body’s natural circulation of qi. [return to text]
  6. In Chinese, the chengyu 乌烟瘴气, literally ‘black smoke and swamp miasma’. This may be used literally to refer to foul and unpleasant air, or metaphorically to societal disorder. [return to text]
  7. In the original text, 比珍珠还真, literally ‘truer than pearls’. The first syllable in ‘pearl’ (珍) is a homonym for ‘true’ (真). [return to text]
  8. In Chinese, 跳进黄河也洗不清. A common saying which means it is impossible for one to clear one’s name. [return to text]
  9. Traditional Chinese almanacks contain information on auspicious and inauspicious days for various activities, ranging from important events like weddings, funerals and official business opening ceremonies to smaller happenings like hosting or visiting friends and travelling. [return to text]