That night, I had a dream.
In the dream, it was my wedding night once more.
Every corner of the stronghold was festooned with string upon string of lanterns, their flames flicking and flaring by turns in the breeze.
She was standing just inside the doorway of my room in her bridal robes and headdress, with ornaments gleaming in her hair.
She was smiling tenderly at me, and her eyes were shining.
I stood just on the other side of the threshold, staring at her transfixed.
She held out a hand to me and said my name very softly.
Her voice was a low yearning murmur that reverberated over and over again in my ears.
I felt as if I were drunk on the sound of it alone.
Slowly, hesitantly, I reached out and stroked her cheek.
Her skin was exquisitely smooth to the touch; I let out a satisfied sigh at the sensation.
Her expression was as demure as before, but those brilliant red lips curved upward ever so slightly, betraying her delight.
My fingers found their way to those lips.
Gently, I traced the corner of her mouth with my thumb: a slow, leisurely caress.
The breeze sharpened; she gave a little shiver, as if unable to bear even this slight chill.
Unable to resist her nearness any longer, I drew her close to me.
She nestled, quiescent, in the crook of my arm; my palm rested against the small of her back.
My lips traced a path from her ear to her hairline and back again.
We were so closely entwined that I could hardly tell where she left off and I began. My lungs were full of the cool, delicate fragrance that was uniquely hers.
My heart was beginning to swell with an unfamiliar ache.
It swept over me with all the fury of the incoming tide.
At the same time, it was also as gentle as the softest of spring breezes, lapping lightly at my temples: once, twice, again.
Then the tide was receding, leaving me with an inexplicable hollow feeling at my very core.
Somewhere in the distance I could hear a voice clamouring.
One moment it seemed to be calling out for something; the next, demanding its annihilation.
And then I woke up.
My heart was still pounding in my chest, but when I opened my eyes the only things I saw were the inn’s dusty ceiling and the muddle-headed moth in the corner.
Involuntarily, I closed my eyes again, reliving every detail of my dream.
It had all felt so real.
That delicate fragrance seemed to linger in the air still.
Someone banged forcefully on my door.
My eyes shot open.
I was fully awake this time, and with wakefulness came shock.
I sat up abruptly, and only then did I grasp the full implications of the dream I’d just had.
It had been undeniably erotic in flavour — and what’s more, the focus of my desires had been the princess.
The princess — like me, a woman, the genuine, authentic article!
Frantically, I tried to quell the panic that had surrounded my mind and was threatening to overwhelm all my mental defences — only to discover another, very different sensation breaking through those fortifications.
I wasn’t so big a fool that I failed to recognise the emotion for what it was: tenderness.
The realisation floored me completely.
I buried my head under the blankets and thumped my forehead against the mattress a few times.
When had I begun harbouring these feelings towards the princess? Oh no — was it because I’d been spending too much time at my stronghold and had caught the fashionable habit of cut-sleevism from my band? One of these days, I thought disconsolately, I was going to have to pen a cautionary song so all the world might learn from my tale of woe, and that song would be called ‘Cut-Sleeve Fever’…
Not that there was anything wrong with being a cut-sleeve, truly.
It was just that it was highly unsuitable for someone as self-effacing and conformist as myself to be riding the wave of this latest trend.
And the object of my affections was the princess, to boot — the princess, whose moods changed faster than I could turn the pages of a book, and who quite literally held the power of life and death over me (thanks, once again, to our accursed class system).
Me, riding the wave? I was liable to be swept underwater at any moment! I’d meet my end on the ocean floor, or in the belly of a fish, and leave not so much as a scrap of bone behind.
What was I to do about all this? I needed to make up my mind — and soon.
I finally had a whole new appreciation for that famous saying: ‘She who hesitates is lost’.
I was indeed lost.
At that very moment, the door of my room flew open and Silly Girl burst in.
Behind her stood Xiao Hei, his foot still raised.
He followed her inside.
‘Ah,’ I said with a weak smile.
‘Good morning, everyone.
Sorry to make you kick the door down.’
Silly Girl gave me a contemptuous sideways glance.
‘So you are alive after all.
Or maybe you were dead before, and we brought you back to life when we banged on the door.
Since you’re alive, one way or the other, why didn’t you let us in?’ She thrust an accusatory finger towards me, but just as it was on the verge of poking me in the face, she suddenly reversed its trajectory.
‘Why is your face so red, Young Master Wei?’ she asked thoughtfully, rubbing her chin with the hand that had been advancing towards me menacingly just a moment ago.
‘Do you have a fever? Is that why you didn’t open the door for us, because you were too weak to get out of bed?’
Silly Girl’s nickname was certainly an apt one: she was far too naive.
How was I to explain to this child that not all red faces were caused by the heat of fever? Some of them were caused by the heat of being in heat.
There was simply no way I could spell that out for her.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that there was something untoward about the tableau in my room.
I was half-clothed and dishevelled; Silly Girl and Xiao Hei were both neatly — and fully — dressed.
Whether you thought of me as a man or a woman, it was inappropriate for me to appear before at least one of them in my current state of undress.
‘Ahhh…’ I channelled the tumult of feelings I’d woken up with into a full-throated howl that ended with a rather artful vibrato.
Then I wound the blankets around myself as tightly as they would go and pointed at Silly Girl.
‘You— you’re a young unmarried woman!’ I declared, all righteous indignation.
‘I know you’re often a bit silly, but how could you be so careless as to barge into a man’s room so early in the morning?’
Silly Girl rolled her eyes.
‘Please, Young Master Wei,’ she said disdainfully.
‘I go in and out of pretty boys’ rooms at the palace all the time.’
My eyes widened in disbelief.
I would never have thought of Silly Girl as a practised philanderer.
She glanced at me again and seemed to realise that there might be something not entirely appropriate in what she’d just said.
‘The eunuchs all look like you,’ she added.
Seemingly oblivious to how far my face had fallen at those words, she went on, ‘Though I have to say, none of them have ever gone all pale and looked like they were about to swoon the way you did when I came in.’
Eunuchs… pale… about to swoon…
Words failed me completely, yet the sense of outrage that had built up in my chest demanded expression.
I appealed to Xiao Hei, who was standing impassively to one side.
‘Heihei, no, I mean, Liangliang, she’s bullying me…’
Xiao Hei’s hitherto stoic countenance instantly became vivid with expression.
His face turned a brilliant red, and then an equally brilliant purple.
He took a few steps backwards, then promptly turned and fled the room, looking as if he had seen a ghost.
Silly Girl shook her head sorrowfully.
‘Oh, you stupid little pretty boy, you…”
I was too worn out to think of a possible riposte.
‘Silly Girl, Madam Silly, why were you beating down my door at this early hour?’
She smacked her forehead.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot! I’ve come with the princess’ orders.
She wants you to get up as soon as possible.
We need to get back on the road right after breakfast.’
I had been momentarily distracted by the sudden entrance of Silly Girl and Xiao Hei, but now my heart resumed its pounding with a vengeance.
I was afraid the sound might be loud enough for Silly Girl to overhear, so I hastily pressed one hand against my chest and used the other to wave her away.
‘Can you step outside? I’ll join you as soon as I’m dressed.’
Silly Girl complied.
Just before she shut the door, I heard her muttering to herself, ‘Why is his face so red? All that raw ginger must have overheated him…’
After a few confused moments, I finally managed to get dressed.
I set off downstairs, and caught sight of the princess as soon as I stepped onto the landing.
She was breakfasting at a table by the window, still wearing the changshan from last night.
She wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, yet the very sight of her still emblazoned itself across my vision.
Out of all the people in this world, I met you.
The princess seemed to feel my stare.
She looked up, meeting my eyes.
Then a smile rippled slowly across her face, starting from the corners of her eyes and mouth.
‘You rise even later than the most pampered young lady, Zisong.’
Beside her, Xiao Hei twitched visibly.
Silly Girl, who was just sitting down at the table, curled her lip.
‘These pretty boys are all the same.
They need to spend hours in front of the mirror painting their faces.’
This shattered any resolutions I might have formed about not picking fights with a mere child.
For a moment, all the wild tumult — and faint sadness — in my heart vanished, to be replaced by a single emotion: regret that Silly Girl was sitting too far away and that my arms were too short for me to reach over, lightning-quick, and clap a hand over her mouth.
Luckily, my powers of expression were strong enough for me to give voice to my feelings.
‘You’re the one who spends all day painting her face!’ I said, and declaimed:
‘There once was a girl who wished to marry,
Over her trousseau she did not tarry.
To her matchmaker’s joy,
She wed a pretty boy,
Now they paint each other’s faces daily.’
‘You—’ Silly Girl began, but seemed to find herself at a loss for words.
Huffily, she turned away from me and began stuffing food into her mouth.
Peace descended upon the earth; my heart blossomed with joy.
I went over to the table, sat down and poured myself a cup of water.
I had just taken a long drink when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the princess gazing steadily at me.
Mouth still full of water, I turned and gave her a questioning look.
She nodded at me, her expression completely serious.
‘Mm,’ she said, drawing out the syllable.
Then, in the tones of someone reaching a conclusion after a period of deep and prolonged reflection, she added, ‘The face-painting seems to have yielded results.
You look quite handsome today, Zisong.’
I promptly choked on my mouthful of water.
Desperately I thumped my chest a few times, and realised that my heart was pounding erratically.
I knew perfectly well that it was only a bit of casual banter on the princess’ part, but I still couldn’t help feeling a secret spark of delight at the praise.
True, she had spoken mostly in jest, but might there not be a kernel of sincerity somewhere in the middle? Oh, the pains of being a secret admirer!
And then we were off.
I soon discovered why the princess had chosen to wear men’s clothing: so that she could ride through town on horseback rather than being sequestered away from public view in the coach, as befitted a noblewoman of her station.
Instead I was the one consigned to a seat on the coach, my own wishes going completely unheeded.
Opposite me sat Silly Girl; there wasn’t much for us to do but stare at each other. The coach’s thin curtains did absolutely nothing to block out the besotted cries of the women outside.
‘Look at that young gentleman! When people say someone is as handsome as Pan An reborn, this must be exactly what they mean!’
‘Pfft, what’s Pan An compared to him? I think this young gentleman looks like a celestial come down from Heaven.’
‘Oh, did you see that? He just smiled at me! Oh, he’s making me blush! Young Master, I live just by the crooked willow tree on East Street.
My father won’t be home tonight…’
‘You shameless hussy! Young Master… my name is Huang, Huang with an H…’
I scraped my nails along the coach’s window lattice, all the while muttering silently to myself: How shameless! How vulgar! How indecent! How completely debauched! …Princess, my name is Wei, Wei Zisong…
Unable to help myself, I finally lifted one of the curtains and peered out — just in time to see the homely-faced Very Horny Huang with an H tossing a red silk handkerchief up at the princess.
The princess was riding just a little way ahead of the coach, her hands resting easily on the reins of her horse.
All I could see of her was her back, but there was something indescribably debonair about even that.
The sun was rising just overhead.
It illuminated those three characters carved into the sign above the city gates: Zhezhi City.
Three blood-red characters spelling out a most evocative name.
There must be something in the air of this city, I decided.
Something that enthralled the senses and held one spellbound.
Why else would I find myself gazing at the princess’ back like a woman possessed? And why else would I want nothing more but to gaze at her like this forever, until the end of time?
In Chinese, 凤冠霞帔.
Literally ‘phoenix crown (or coronet) and cape the colour of a sunrise or sunset’. The original text uses the chengyu 耳鬓厮磨, literally ‘one person’s ear rubbing against the hair at the other person’s temple’.
It is used to denote physical and emotional intimacy between two people, and is often (though not exclusively) used in the romantic sense. In the original text, this is 断袖情流感菌, which translates more literally to ‘cut-sleeve flu virus’.
However, as I wanted to avoid any hint of the ‘queerness as disease’ trope, I chose to go with a less literal translation instead. In the original text, 弄潮儿.
In its literal sense, the term denotes someone who is frolicking in the water or engaging in water sports.
In internet slang, it means something like ‘trend-setter’ or ‘influencer’. In Chinese, 当断不断,反受其乱.
The phrase exhorts the listener to take decisive action, as failure to do so will only lead to future trouble.
It originates from the Records of the Grand Historian (see footnote 5 to Chapter 2). In Chinese, the chengyu 花容失色, literally ‘flower countenance loses colour’.
It describes a (usually beautiful) woman turning pale due to shock or fear. ‘Doubling’ a syllable of another person’s name, as Zisong is doing here, is a method of creating an intimate nickname.
Such a nickname would typically be used only by a parent to a child, an elder sibling to a younger sibling, between lovers or between very close friends.
Here, Zisong starts out by calling him ‘Heihei’, which is derived from ‘Xiao Hei’, the nickname she made up for him, before remembering that his real name is ‘Zhongliang’ and switching hastily to ‘Liangliang’. Traditional Chinese medicine classifies food items as ‘heating’, ‘cooling’ or ‘neutral’.
This is based not on the temperature at which the food is consumed, but by its effects (or perceived effects) on a person after consumption.
The consumption of too much ‘heating’ food is said to lead to ailments such as fever, throat irritation, acne, and mouth ulcers.
The consumption of too much ‘cooling’ food, meanwhile, is believed to give rise to chills, sore muscles and joints, and fatigue.
Ginger is considered to be a ‘heating’ food. In the original text, 对镜贴黄花, literally ‘facing the mirror while sticking on a yellow flower’.
The ‘yellow flower’ belongs to a category of facial adornments known as huadian (花钿), which are either painted on or made out of materials such as paper, foil or fish scales and affixed to the wearer’s forehead.
Huadian are typically red in colour, but may also be yellow or green.
The yellow version is strongly associated with unmarried women. In the original text, the doggerel Zisong makes up on the spot runs as follows: 你才对镜贴黄花, 贴好黄花栽衣裳, 栽完衣裳办嫁妆, 办妥嫁妆找婆家, 嫁于一位小白脸, 全家一起贴黄花.
This translates fairly literally to: ‘You’re the one that sticks yellow flowers on your face before the mirror / After sticking on the flowers, you get your wedding clothes made / After getting the clothes made, you get your dowry ready / Once your dowry is ready, you start looking for a husband / You end up marrying a pretty boy / Your whole family sticks yellow flowers on your faces before the mirror’.
I’ve chosen to render this as a looser translation in the form of a limerick to reflect Zisong’s spontaneous spinning of nonsense verse. In the original text, 大眼瞪小眼, literally ‘big eye staring at small eye’.
This describes two people staring at each other, either in consternation or puzzlement, or for want of anything else to do. In Chinese, 潘安.
A poet who lived during the Western Jin dynasty, famous for his good looks.
His name has become a byword for male beauty. In the original text, the speaker describes her surname Huang (黄) as 草头黄, literally ‘grass top Huang’.
This is because the top part of the character for Huang is made up of the radical 艹, which is in turn derived from the character for ‘grass’ (草). In the original text, Zisong uncharitably describes this woman as 很黄的草头黄, literally ‘the very lecherous grass top Huang’ (on ‘grass top Huang’, see the previous footnote).
The character for ‘lecherous’ in this context is exactly the same as that for ‘Huang’, so I decided to allude to this through alliteration. In Chinese, the chengyu 天荒地老, literally ‘Heaven is desolate and the earth is old’.
Used to denote a very, very long time.
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