Luckily for me, the princess — having made her joke at my expense — did not proceed to smile maliciously and walk away.[1] This offered my wounded soul some small measure of consolation.  It made me reflect that even our most treasured literary gems were wont to contain some element of exaggeration; one should not always take them at face value.

Instead of walking away, the princess merely took a few steps forward and leaned against the railing that ran along the walkway.
She said nothing.
Ahead of her stretched the vast night sky.

I wasn’t sure what to say or do.
From where I stood, I could only see her face in profile.
She was no longer smiling.
Instead her lips were slightly pursed, forming a lovely angle with the line of her chin and jaw, as precise and exquisite as the lines of a gongbi[2] painting.
As she stood framed against the backdrop of the ink-black sky, with her changshan — which hung a little loosely from her shoulders — fluttering in the wind, there was something a little otherworldly about her: almost transcendental.
For a moment, I was convinced that she was about to soar upwards to join the ranks of the celestials.[3]

I had to say something.

I cleared my throat.
“Your injury,’ I mumbled.
‘How is it?’

She touched her arm with a motion that seemed subconscious.
‘My maid changed the dressing earlier.
It’s fine now.’

‘Oh.’

I seldom found myself at a loss for words.
While I would hardly describe myself as a fount of eloquence or the source of a stream of scintillating wit, I was no tongue-tied wallflower either.
But for some unfathomable reason, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say to the princess after that irredeemably vacuous ‘oh’.
I ransacked my mind, cudgelled my brains and practically wrung my guts out — all to no avail.

The silence stretched.

There are many different kinds of silence in the world.
There’s the silence of two hearts and minds entwined as one,[4] sharing a communion deeper than mere words can convey.[5] There’s the silence that falls during the exchange of gazes alight with a thousand tender feelings, which is so eloquent that any words would be superfluous.
Then there’s the silence that descends when a conversation has taken a decidedly uncongenial turn, and the only thing both parties can agree on is that silence is preferable to any further words.
I felt absolutely sure that the awkward silence which had come over us belonged in neither the first nor the second category.

I became more and more agitated. Think, Wei Zisong, think! I exhorted, pinching myself between the eyebrows. Use that surpassingly clever brain of yours and think of something that will make the princess smile again!


Alas, even the cleverest brains are liable to the occasional glitch.
I was pinching the spot between my eyebrows so hard it was beginning to take on the shape of Mount Yanluo, but try as I might, I couldn’t think of a single topic of conversation that both followed naturally from what had come before and was wide-ranging enough for us to expound upon more or less indefinitely.

I was bitterly disappointed in myself.
Not only that, but my nerve-endings had finally caught up with me: the spot between my eyebrows was beginning to throb painfully.
Resigned, I let go of my forehead.
When I looked up, I saw that the princess was standing right in front of me — when had she moved? Her arms were folded across her chest, and she was watching me torture myself with an air of amused interest.

‘I…’ I stammered for a long time, but still couldn’t think of anything to say. Sigh.
All that pinching for nothing!

The princess seemed perfectly happy to watch me struggle.
She studied me silently for a while, then suddenly reached out and ran a finger over the sore spot between my eyebrows.

The cool touch of her fingertip and the way her elusive fragrance trailed in its wake soothed the throbbing pain.
For no reason I could name, they calmed my jangled nerves as well.
One by one, I began to collect my scattered wits.
Giving the princess my very best smile, I said, ‘The night is young, and I find myself in no mood for sleep.
My lady, would you do me the honour of joining me for a moonlit tête-à-tête?’

The princess chuckled and reached out to ruffle my hair.
‘All that raw ginger hasn’t addled your wits, has it? Why would you say something as silly as that?’

I sighed inwardly, deflating.
That smile of mine had been voted ‘Best Insta-Lady-Killer[6]-Smile’ at our annual ‘Mr Bandit Stronghold’ Awards, and the salvo I’d employed was one of Xu Ziqi’s tried-and-tested pick-up lines.
Yet all the princess had to say about it was ‘why would you say something as silly as that?’ Still, I had at least succeeded in coaxing a smile from her.
All in all, not a bad day’s work.

I smiled back at her.
‘When the princess smiles, the sun rises in the sky,’ I declaimed, bobbing my head to the rhythm of the words.
‘When the princess smiles, birds begin to sing; when the princess smiles, the wind dances, scattering the dew—’

‘Mmm,’ the princess broke in, nodding vigorously.
Her eyes were sparkling and she was clearly trying to suppress a laugh.
‘And when I crow, I’m just like the legendary rooster.’[7]

Ah.
It seemed I’d gone overboard with the flattery.
Awkwardly, I rubbed my hands together.
‘What I meant to say was… oh, you know what I mean, princess.’


The princess made a little moue with her lips and flashed me a sidelong glance.
‘What a smooth talker you are.
How did a nice girl like you manage to pick up so many bad habits from that disreputable band of yours?’

Oh, look.
Just like that, she was all royal imperiousness again.
I scrunched up my mouth, wondering when I would become as adept at pulling an abrupt about-face as the princess. Once I’ve learnt the trick of it, maybe those wayward subordinates of mine, Xu Ziqi and Yi Chen, will finally show their chief some proper respect! Then I thought about how I still hadn’t received a reply to the letter I’d sent the two of them by messenger pigeon, and how I had no idea when I’d be allowed to leave the capital and return to my stronghold.
I couldn’t help feeling a little downcast.

It was then that I understood for myself why people spoke of the princess being intelligent beyond compare.
Even before my despondency could register on my face, she seemed to guess exactly how I was feeling.
She looked steadily into my eyes, biting her lip.
The expression on her face was unreadable.
Finally, she gave a long sigh.
‘Zisong, do you regret going along with this scheme of mine?’

My first instinct was to deny it.
But just as I was beginning to shake my head — and before I could say anything else — the princess was speaking again.
‘To tell the truth, I do realise how much of an imposition this is on you.’ She sighed again.
‘I dragged you into this quagmire on impulse, but I know how unsuited your disposition is to the machinations of court.’

The princess frowned, and the sky seemed to grow duller somehow.
For no reason at all, I felt a sudden pang in my heart.
‘You don’t have to make me sound like a complete fool,’ I said in a very small voice.
‘I’m actually very adaptable, you know.
I know that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day, but he who is battle slain can never rise to fight again.[8] I know that it’s better to bend than to break[9] — I know how to meet with both triumph and disaster, and how to treat them both just the same.[10] I know when discretion is the better part of valour,[11] and I know that the reed that bends in the wind survives the storm…’[12]

I trailed off, becoming less and less confident with every word.
Dejectedly, I gave a kick to the nearest section of railing.
‘Your Highness, why did you come all the way to this remote province?’ I asked, before I could stop myself.
‘Why have you asked me to play the role of your prince consort? Is it… is it to do with Zhao Yishu?’

The princess’ eyes widened disbelievingly.
A series of conflicting emotions flashed across her face.
Her lips twitched soundlessly once or twice before she finally replied, ‘No.’ A long moment later, she followed that with, ‘Who told you that?’

So the popular version of events was true, then? I massaged my chest, trying to get rid of the tightness that had suddenly developed there.
‘You don’t have to hide anything from me,’ I told her.
‘It’s what they all say.’

This seemed to spark the princess’ interest.
‘Who are “they”?’ she pressed.
‘What is it that “they” all say?’

‘Common folk like myself,’ I said sulkily.
‘Everyone says you fell for Zhao Yishu, but that Zhao Yishu, that ignorant fool, fell for the Third Princess instead.
The emperor granted him her hand in marriage, and on the day of their wedding, you were utterly heartbroken.[13] Grief-stricken, you decided to leave the palace, and that’s how you ended up running into my poor, unfortunate-unto-the-eighth-generation self.
For all I know, you’re bringing me to the palace just to get back at Zhao Yishu.’

I grew more and more worked up as I spoke.
Without realising it, I’d spiced up[14] the popular account of events considerably in my retelling.
The longer I went on, the more the story sounded like the worst kind of hackneyed, overwrought melodrama.

The princess applauded.
She actually applauded! ‘What talented storytellers the common folk are,’ she said. 

She put a hand under my chin, tilted up my face and scrutinised it from all angles.
‘But I’d be a poor strategist to use you as a means of getting back at Zhao Yishu.
Your looks can be considered pleasant at best, whereas Zhao Yishu is widely recognised as one of the most beautiful[15] men in the empire.’

The most beautiful man in the empire? To hell with that! He was nothing but a pretty face! A toyboy! I inwardly called Zhao Yishu a thousand different names, but it did nothing to relieve my pent-up frustrations.
It then occurred to me that insulting the man whom the princess had fallen in love with was tantamount to insulting the princess herself.
That left me with only one safe target on which I could take out my feelings.
I turned to the closest section of railing and raked my nails across it savagely: once, twice. 

‘Oh, stop that,’ said the princess.
‘If you keep scratching, you’ll turn into a cat.’ It seemed she was still in the mood for jests.

I ignored her and went on attacking the railing. What business is it of yours what I scratch?

There was yet another long silence.

I was just wondering whether the princess had been driven back into her room by my sheer obduracy when she reached out and caught hold of the hand I was using to claw at the railing.
Her touch was faintly cool; very gently, she spread out my tightly-curved fingers one by one and gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
‘Look at you,’ she said.
‘What has that railing ever done to you? Will you please stop scratching it?’

My myriad frustrations and vexations melted away under that touch.
I felt a rush of blood to my head.
Impulsively, I slipped my fingers out of her grasp, clasped her hand in mine instead and gave it a fervent squeeze.
‘Princess,’ I said, as solemnly as if I were swearing a vow, ‘whatever your reasons are, I’ll do everything I can to help you.
I will, I promise!’

The princess said nothing, but I saw the look that briefly flashed through her eyes: it was unmistakably one of tenderness.
She gently disentangled her fingers from mine and turned to look out over the railing.
Before her was the night sky in all its vastness.
The moon shone down on us, bright as frost.
A breeze was blowing; it felt as cool as water against my skin. 

Very softly, the princess said something to me.
At those words my heart suddenly felt even more open than that night sky, even brighter than that moon, and even more refreshed than that breeze could account for.

What she said was: ‘Don’t believe anything anyone else tells you about me.
Only trust what you hear from my own mouth.’

***

 

Footnotes:

This is a reference to the line ‘You hurt me/Then you smiled and walked away’ from the 2002 Mandopop song ‘You Smiled and Walked Away’ (一笑而过) by the Chinese singer Na Ying (那英), which was quoted in the previous chapter In Chinese, 工笔.
A realist technique in Chinese painting characterised by fine, precise brushwork.  In Chinese, 仙.
A concept with many different connotations depending on the specific philosophical, religious, mythological or cultural context in which it is used.
In addition to celestial beings, it can also be used to refer to beings who have ascended to immortality (or at least, who will enjoy a very, very long life) through Daoist meditation practices and qi training, to supernatural animals, or to reclusive sages.
Sometimes translated as ‘immortal’ or ‘transcendent’.  In the original text, 心有灵犀.
Taken from 心有灵犀一点通, a line from the shi poem ‘Untitled’ (无题) by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin (李商隐).  In the original text, 此时无声胜有声.
A line from the shi poem ‘Song of the Pipa’ (琵琶行, also sometimes rendered as ‘The Ballad of the Lute’) by the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi (白居易).  In the original text, 秒杀, literally ‘instakill’ or ‘instant kill’.
In videogame slang, the term means killing an opponent with a single shot or blow, regardless of how high the opponent’s health and/or defence levels are.
Equivalent terms are ‘one-shot kill’ and ‘one-hit kill’.
I’ve added ‘lady’ here, in a riff on ‘ladykiller’, to make it clear that the award was based on the (perceived) attractiveness of Zisong’s smile and not on its literal ability to end lives.  Possibly a reference to ‘Song upon a Toast’ (致酒行), a shi poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Li He (李贺).
The poem contains the line 雄鸡一声天下白, literally: ‘When the rooster crows, the sun rises over the land’.
This is used as a metaphor for the enlightening effect of some insightful advice that the poet’s alter ego in the poem has been given.  In the original text, 能进能退, literally ‘can advance can retreat’.
Has a similar meaning to 能屈能伸 (see next footnote).  In the original text, 能屈能伸, literally ‘can bend can stretch’.
A chengyu derived from the Yijing (易经, or Book of Changes), it describes a person who adapts easily to the surrounding circumstances, and is able both to endure temporary setbacks and make the most of any opportunities that present themselves.  In the original text, 拿得起放得下, literally ‘can pick something up and put it down’, meaning to be able to face gains or losses with equanimity.  In the original text, 好汉不吃眼前亏, literally ‘the good man does not eat the loss in front of him’, meaning a wise man knows not to fight when the odds are against him.  In the original text, 识时务者为俊杰, literally ‘only an outstanding talent can recognise current trends’.
A saying derived from Eastern Jin historian Pei Songzhi’s (裴松之) commentary on the historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms (三国志) by the historian Chen Shou (陈寿), who lived through the Three Kingdoms period.
It means that only those who understand how events are likely to unfold can become truly great.  In the original text, the chengyu 心如死灰, literally ‘heart like dead ashes’.  In the original text, the chengyu 加油添醋, literally ‘add oil add vinegar’.  In the original text, the chengyu 面如冠玉, literally ‘face like crown of jade’.
Derived from Records of the Grand Historian (史记), it is an expression used to denote male beauty. 

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