How do you make a declaration of love so stirring that it shakes not only the recipient, but also all onlookers within earshot, to their very cores?
The princess had shown us how.
Such a declaration should be made boldly, confidently — even possessively!
Her words left both me and my persistent admirer dumbfounded.
Eventually I came back to my senses, and finally gave in to my heart’s clamouring demands.
I wrapped my arm around the princess and drew her close to me, then reached down with my other hand and entwined my fingers with hers.
Her fingertips were faintly cool against mine; that sensation was a joy worth dying for.
My admirer’s face turned white, then red, then white again.
He clenched and unclenched his fists a few times before finally looking heavenward and letting out a long, plaintive sigh.
He took a few steps backward and disappeared into the teeming crowd — though not before giving me a last anguished look.
Rattled by the emotion in that parting glance, I sought comfort in the princess’ physical closeness.
But just as I was about to hug her even tighter, she suddenly broke free of my embrace and took half a step backwards, staring at me.
Her face held a complicated mixture of emotions: her eyes flashed with shock, or perhaps bewilderment — or was it something else entirely? Before I could work out exactly what I’d seen, however, she was already looking down, busying herself by straightening the folds of her robes.
The only thing still clinging to me was a lingering trace of her cool fragrance.
This was awkward.
I had absolutely no idea what to do next.
My arms were encircling empty air.
After a long moment’s deliberation I finally let them drop back by my sides, and tried to cover up my discomfiture by rubbing my nose.
In all the excitement, I’d forgotten myself completely.
I’d taken the princess’ words at face value, assuming them to be a declaration of love — but what if they hadn’t been? What if they’d been a mere prevarication, intended to do nothing more than extricate me from my troublesome admirer’s clutches? If that was the case, then I’d acted a little impetuously in embracing her, to say the least.
I was in such a hurry to offer my heart to you on a silver platter that I forgot to ask if you’d be willing to give me yours in exchange — or to ask myself: what could I use to bind you to me?
All the joy that had filled my heart mere moments ago now transformed into doubt.
A wave of dejection swept over me.
The princess finally raised her head.
The complex mixture of emotions I’d glimpsed had been replaced with an expression of perfect calm.
She glanced at me and knitted her brows into a frown that somehow contrived to seem lovely.
‘Is something the matter, Zisong? Are you disconsolate, now that your paramour has been frightened off?’
She spoke impatiently, with none of the tenderness with which she’d asked, ‘But perhaps this jade pendant will suffice to bind you to me?’
Keeping company with the sovereign was indeed as perilous as living with a tiger. One should never try to guess what the princess might do or say next.
I forced myself to smile.
‘Your Highness jests.
I’m simply a little fatigued from the ordeals of the day, that’s all.’
‘Oh?’ She lifted an eyebrow; unexpectedly, there seemed to be a trace of mischief in the gesture.
‘And was embracing me one of those ordeals? Or do you mean to say that you thought you could embrace me because you had suffered through so many ordeals?’
I had no idea how to begin explaining myself, so I only tightened my grip on the jade pendant and said nothing.
‘How dare you!’ The princess’ temper finally got the better of her.
She bit her lip, which reddened rapidly under the ungentle ministrations of her incisors.
She might as well have been gnashing her teeth.
‘Wei Zisong, how dare you! You should be grateful for my generosity in overlooking what you did to me that day at your bandit stronghold — yet here you are, taking advantage of me once more! How many heads do you think you have, that you would risk losing this one so carelessly? Given what you’ve done today, do you realise I could order—’
‘The forfeiture of my family’s property and the extermination of my bloodline,’ I finished reflexively.
Perhaps it was the familiarity of her half-finished threat — which reminded me fondly of our earliest encounters — that emboldened me, or perhaps it was the simple fact that after everything we’d been through together, my head still remained firmly attached to my shoulders.
Whatever the reason, I found this rare explosion of rage on the princess’ part rather enchanting — hence my unthinking appropriation of the line she’d been about to utter.
The princess, who clearly hadn’t been anticipating this, stared at me for a moment in stunned silence.
The expression on her face — that of someone hurriedly choking back words — was positively adorable.
The sight set my heart aflutter again.
I held the jade pendant up to her.
‘You can’t possibly have me executed now, princess.
I have this token of immunity, given to me as a sign of imperial favour — look.’
She reached for it instinctively.
Nimbly, I drew my hand back and hid the pendant behind me.
‘Your Highness, your word is supposed to be as good as gold.
Since you yourself gave me this pendant, of course you would never be so ungracious as to demand its return.’
This seemed to take her aback.
Her expression became stern — but only for a moment, as if it was a facade she couldn’t keep up for long.
She ended up wrinkling her nose at me instead.
‘You scoundrel!’ she said, rolling her eyes.
There was more than a touch of coquettish petulance in her voice.
Having been given an inch, I decided to see whether I could take a mile.
I leaned over and looked right into her eyes, studying her expression at close quarters.
‘You can’t take it back, princess.
You still need it to bind your Zisong to you, remember?’
The sudden lifting of my spirits had made me doubly alert to every shift in the princess’s mood.
I could tell that the spoiled young woman in front of me was on the brink of losing her temper again, so I hastened to assure her of my undying loyalty before she could.
‘To tell the truth, princess, I was yours long before you gave me this pendant.
Ever since our first meeting, I’ve been your willing swain…’
The princess finally took pity and deigned to grant me a smile.
‘Is that so? Then there’s no need for you to keep the pendant, is there? Why don’t you return it to me?’
No! I was never going to give it up, not to anyone! I I loosened the folds of my outer robe, stuffed the pendant down the front of it, and adopted a classic defensive posture, hugging my arms around my chest as tightly as possible.
The princess chuckled, looking amused.
‘Zisong, that “death before surrender” expression truly tempts one to torment you…’
Before I could make a suitable retort, the princess changed the subject.
‘Take good care of the pendant,’ she said, giving me a meaningful sideways glance.
‘If you lose it, or’ — and here her voice took on a heavy note of warning — ‘if you give it to someone else, there will be consequences.
Just you wait and see!’
Her tone was menacing, but there was also a familiar intimacy in it.
A flush had crept over her face during our conversation.
At the sight of it, the embers of passion in my heart — still flickering despite the bucket of cold water that had been poured over them — came roaring back to life again, burning even higher and hotter than before.
I would have put my arms around her again, had my most recent attempt not been tragically rebuffed.
As it was I tried frantically to tamp down those wicked flames, and looked about for something to distract myself with.
I’d forgotten, however, that today was Duanyang, and that we were standing on the very vessel that had just won the annual dragon boat race.
Everywhere I looked, all I could see were couples lost in the throes of sweet, sweet love.
Many of them were holding hands; some even stood with their arms around each other’s waists.
The lot of them were making an obnoxious show of their affection, with nary a care for the deleterious effect such a sight might have on luckless bystanders such as myself.
‘What a degenerate society we live in!’ I exclaimed.
Furiously, I averted my gaze from the canoodling couples — only to meet the princess’ eyes as she too looked away from the same scene.
Possibly because she was unused to such wanton public displays of affection, her cheeks were burning brightly enough to rival the great fire said to have reduced Epang Palace to ashes. Her lips were curved into a little moue, and she looked even lovelier than usual.
My heart fought with my head; I was torn in two directions.
Rationally I knew I should leave well enough alone, but the urge to hold her in my arms again was too strong. Since it’s not something I’m allowed to do as and when I please, I thought, perhaps I could… ask her?
And so I found myself saying stupidly, ‘Hey princess, may I please take advantage of you?’
With a kick, she sent me flying.
The cold, yet not wholly unforgiving, waters of Heron River enveloped me.
Even as I struggled back to the surface, the image I saw behind my eyelids — and the one engraved upon my heart — was still the princess’ unforgettably beautiful face.
‘Achoo!’ I had sneezed so many times that I’d lost count, yet none of my travelling companions paid me any heed.
The coach still proceeded steadily forwards.
Not even Silly Girl — whom I was sharing it with — deigned to give me so much as a single glance.
She had taken over a corner of the coach, and was completely absorbed in repeatedly beating a little paper figure with a shoe.
Thwack! ‘That’s for sticking your nose into my business!’ Thwack! ‘That’s for having such a vicious tongue!’ Thwack! ‘That’s for coming between me and what could have been the great love of my life!’
The sight left me momentarily speechless.
Hunching my shoulders around my ears, I decided it was best not provoke her any further.
Women who were crossed in love tended to behave in somewhat baffling ways.
The very thought of being in love reminded me of the princess.
I reached into my pocket and drew out the jade pendant.
I soon found myself gazing at it, entranced — running my thumb over the characters engraved on its surface over and over again.
For no reason, Silly Girl’s head suddenly whipped up towards me.
‘Young Master Wei!’ she called, in what seemed to me an overly-excitable tone.
‘Huh?’ I turned to look at her, uncomprehending.
‘I’ve called your name a few times already, but you didn’t seem to hear,’ she grumbled.
‘And you’re grinning like a pervert, too.’ Suddenly, her gaze fell on the pendant in my hand, and her expression became positively feral.
She flung herself across the coach, practically pouncing on me.
‘The princess always carries that pendant with her,’ she said, grabbing me by the front of my robes.
‘Why do you have it?’
Without waiting for me to respond, she turned round and gave the little paper figure a particularly forceful thwack.
‘That’s for being a sticky-fingered little thief…’
I cast a helpless glance heavenwards before carefully putting the pendant away.
‘You should watch what you say,’ I told Silly Girl calmly.
‘Your precious princess practically forced this on me, of her own accord.’
Silly Girl looked as if she’d seen a ghost.
Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open.
I took it upon myself to give her some kindly words of advice.
‘Now now, there’s no need to open your eyes so wide.
It doesn’t make them look that much bigger, anyway.
And why’s your mouth hanging open like that? Are you trying to catch flies?’
Silly Girl abruptly turned back to the little paper figure, and resumed beating it with extreme ferocity. Thwack! ‘That’s for not knowing your place…’
After about ten or so blows, she paused, seeming to flag.
Then she brought her face right up to mine and scrutinised my features minutely.
‘It makes no sense,’ she muttered to herself.
‘These eyes, that nose… they all look completely ordinary.’ She sat up suddenly, looking as if she’d made up her mind about something.
‘It doesn’t make any sense.
I’m going to get the princess to take that pendant back!’
Taking advantage of a brief lull in the motion of the coach, she lifted the curtain that hung over its doorway and scrambled out, leaving me with only the much-battered paper figure for company.
Without hesitation, I raised my fist and brought it down hard on the paper doll.
Thwack! ‘That’s for sticking your nose into my business!’ Thwack! ‘That’s for having such a vicious tongue!’ Thwack! ‘That’s for coming between me and the love of my life!’
In the original text, 伴君如伴虎 (see footnote 4 to Chapter 4). In Chinese, 免死玉牌, literally ‘death exemption jade token’ (the last word can also be translated as ‘disc’, ‘medal’ or ‘plate’).
This is a play on 免死金牌, literally ‘death exemption gold token’.
This was a token historically bestowed by the emperor as a sign of great favour, which exempted its recipient from the death penalty. The Epang Palace (阿房宫) was a palace complex whose construction was begun under the reign of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), the first emperor of China and founder of the Qin Dynasty.
It is said to have been burned to the ground by the anti-Qin rebel and warlord Xiang Yu (项羽).
Xiang Yu was a noble of the former Chu kingdom (楚国), which had been eradicated in Qin’s wars of unification at the end of the Warring States period. In the original, 看似无情却有情, literally ‘appears unfeeling yet is not unfeeling’.
This may be a reference to the last line of the first shi poem in ‘Two Songs of Bamboo Twigs’ (竹枝词二首) by the Tang poet Liu Yuxi (刘禹锡): 道是无晴却有晴.
This line from the poem translates literally to something like, ‘I thought it was not sunny, yet there is sunshine’.
The word translated as ‘sunny’ and ‘sunshine’ (晴) in the poem is a homophone of the word 情, which means ‘feeling’ or ‘love’.
The poem is written from the perspective of a young woman in love with a young man, who is anxious about whether he returns her feelings.
On its face, the last line appears to be a comment about the weather.
Due to the homophonic pun, it also has a double meaning: the woman wonders whether she has correctly detected a trace of affection in her love interest’s manner. Silly Girl is engaging in a practice called ‘villain hitting’ or ‘petty person beating’ (打小人).
This is a folk ritual primarily associated with Cantonese culture.
The formal aim of the ritual is to place a curse on its target.
In contemporary times, however, people who engage in it often do so simply to vent their anger and frustrations.
It involves hitting a paper figure (which represents the target of the practitioner’s anger) repeatedly with a shoe or slipper. In the original text, 等着吃什么, literally ‘what are you waiting to eat?’ I’ve chosen to render this as the closest English equivalent. This was not in the original text, but I felt the need to add it as it would have been physically impossible for Silly Girl to step out of a moving coach without injury.
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