Our journey north afforded me ample opportunity to spend time in the princess’ company.
I bore admiring witness to all of her moods: she was heart-stoppingly beautiful, whether in moments of unconstrained joy or quiet repose.
I had never truly known what love was before this.
Now I finally understood what it meant: there was one person in this world whom I lived for — whom I could die for — whom I could lose my soul for, and for whom I would consider doing so a privilege.[1] This was my destiny; there was no getting away from it.

I had fallen in love with a woman — with Chu Feichen, the Eldest Princess of the Yan Empire.
This was the truth of my heart, and it shone as clear as day.

This was a truth so scandalous, so shocking, so intolerable in the eyes of the world that I should have gone to every possible length to conceal it.
I ought to have smothered my love for her in ice, slit its throat, set its remains aflame and scattered its ashes to the winds.
Yet that love hung stubbornly upon my heart — so bright and perfect, as if it had every right to be there.
The more I tried to look away from it, the clearer my love for her shone; the clearer it shone, the more I wanted to cradle it in both hands — to clasp it to my chest — to cherish it as it deserved to be cherished.

And then everything fell into place.
Heaven itself had delivered this woman into my bed and into my arms.
We had already been married once; we would be married a second time, and this time all the subjects of the Yan Empire would bear witness to our union.
Our names would be linked together in the history books.
Wei Zisong and Chu Feichen: there was no match more fitting, no union more perfect.

Was it any surprise, then, that I should have fallen in love with her?

Three years, she’d said.
We had a deal for three years, and once those years were up, I would be a free woman again.
But now I felt as though innumerable vines had sprung up from my heart and wound themselves tightly around it, layer upon layer, so that I could never again be free. Chu Feichen, could I not weave these very same vines, thread by thread, into a net to capture your heart with, so that you’d be content to let those ‘three years’ stretch into ‘forever‘?

Chu Feichen, I’ll be right beside you, waiting — with as much patience and courage as it takes — for you to love me back.

Figuring all this out was the work of more than a few days.
By the time I had come to welcome — indeed, to eagerly anticipate — my impending elevation to prince consort, it was almost Duanyang,[2] and we had finally arrived at the last natural boundary on our route to the capital: Heron River.[3]

Reeds grew thickly along both banks.
They were not yet in flower, and so didn’t entirely obscure our view of the river.
A passing breeze made them ripple, and I felt for a moment as if I had stumbled accidentally into a painting: there was a unique charm to the scene.

Picking up a few pebbles from the ground, I tossed them into the reeds at random, hoping to rouse a roosting heron or two into flight.
My efforts proved to be fruitless.
The only bird I managed to flush out was a mallard.
It swam eagerly towards us, quacking comically as it came.

Silly Girl chortled.
‘Look, birds of a feather really do flock together![4] That duck looks very like you, Young Master Wei.’

Now that we’d spent so many days together on the road, I’d become used to Silly Girl’s occasional flashes of wit.
The most astonishing thing I’d discovered was that while these remarks of hers always had the effect of mocking their recipient, their utterer rarely had the intention of doing so.
At this very moment, for instance, I was inwardly thanking my lucky stars that she hadn’t gone quite as far as she might have done.
Instead of telling that I took after the duck, she’d merely chosen to imply that the duck took after me.
Therefore instead of retaliating, I merely bent my head to hunt for more pebbles.
As I searched, I muttered to myself, ‘Heron River, oh Heron River, how can you be called that if there are no herons about?’ 

Just then I heard a shout from Silly Girl.
‘Look, a heron!’

I looked up hurriedly, just in time to see a snow-white heron rising into flight right next to the princess.
Its neck was long and supple, and it moved through the air in a graceful, leisurely fashion.
The red spot at the top of its head looked especially brilliant against the rippling, pale expanse of the river.

I stared, dumbstruck with awe.

The princess turned to look at me, tossing a pebble up and down in one hand.
She tilted her head slightly, and her lip curled as if in challenge.
Her eyes were bright with undisguised glee.
The morning sun shed a dazzling layer of golden light over her face.

She looked so very lovely — so very alluring.
I wanted so very badly to lean forward and give her a kiss.

I reined in my imaginings forcefully before they could run even wilder.
Subconsciously, I ran my thumb over my lips.
‘The expression “birds of a feather flock together” truly is apt here,’ I said with a smile.
‘The heron Your Highness has drawn out is a noble creature indeed.’

The laughter in the princess’ eyes deepened, and her triumphant expression seemed to take on an undercurrent of girlish delight at my praise.

Xiao Hei chose that moment to kill the mood completely.
‘My lady, will we be travelling on today? Once we cross the river, our next stop will be the capital.’

All the mirth vanished from the princess’ face, and she tossed the pebble away.
‘We won’t be going any further today,’ she said after a moment’s consideration.
‘Let’s find an inn and remain here for the Duanyang Festival.
We’ll leave after we’ve seen the dragon boat race.’

I inwardly murdered Xiao Hei ten thousand times for interrupting my lascivious admiration of the princess.
Xiao Hei hunched his shoulders around his ears as he scurried off to look for an inn — quite possibly because of my openly withering glare.

We were soon ensconced in an establishment called the Tiaozheng Inn.
After I’d settled in, I made my way to the princess’ room and loitered outside.
I leaned against a nearby railing, cool as anything, waiting for her to emerge.

After our first few days on the road, I’d discovered that the princess was in the habit of giving her attendants the slip and gallivanting off on her own.
That also solved a question I’d had at the back of my mind for some time: given Xiao Hei’s martial abilities, how in the world had that scoundrel Xu Ziqi managed to abduct the princess and bring her back to our bandit stronghold? Now I had the answer: he’d come across our little royal lamb wandering about all on her lonesome.

Ever since I’d discovered this habit of hers, I’d seen to it that the princess never got an opportunity to slip off by herself again.
Today was no exception.

Just as I’d expected, when the princess emerged from her room she was once again dressed in men’s clothing.
She cut a debonair figure in those white robes, but a look of resignation settled over her face as soon as she laid eyes on me.
‘This happens every single time… how do you do it, Wei Zisong?’

Oho, she was vexed now.
I stepped forward and took hold of a corner of her robe.
‘You look very handsome in these clothes, princess,’ I said, grinning cheekily.

She batted my hand aside.
‘Wei Zisong!’ 

‘Yes?’ I responded with alacrity.
The way she’d snapped out my full name lacked the lingering tenderness of her murmured ‘Zisong’, and yet the rebuke had a kind of chiding familiarity to it which fell on my ears like music on my — that is to say, your soon-to-be prince consort’s — ears.

The princess gave me a sideways glare, then began marching briskly towards the inn’s front door.
Hurriedly I strode after her, trying to keep up.
Just as we reached the threshold, she stopped abruptly and whirled around.
Unable to draw to a halt in time, I collided squarely with her.
Involuntarily, I wrapped one of my arms around her waist, and, for the briefest of moments, my lips brushed against her cheek.

We drew our faces apart, and found ourselves staring into each other’s eyes.

Bit by bit, a crimson flush spread over her face; bit by bit, my own heart lifted.

From outside the inn came the murmurs of gathered onlookers. 

‘Oh, where have these two handsome young gentlemen come from? And look, they’re embracing! Could they be the cut-sleeves we hear so much about?’

‘No wonder I can’t find a husband! All the beautiful young men in the world are pairing off with all the other beautiful young men! What a heartbreaking state of affairs for us women!’

‘But — I say, with that great big beard of yours, you don’t look very much like a woman.”

‘Alas, while I was born into the body of a man I have a young woman’s tender heart.
Oh cruel, cruel fate…’

The princess’ expression hardened.
‘Haven’t you held me for long enough, Wei Zisong?’ she demanded stiffly.

Very reluctantly, I let my arm fall away.
‘What a slim waist you have, princess,’ I chuckled, running a hand through my hair.

The flush on the princess’ face seemed on the verge of expanding still further.
Suddenly she reached out and hooked an arm around my waist, leaned in until her face was barely a hairsbreadth away from mine, put on her most nonchalant expression and said, ‘Your waist is exquisitely slender as well, my lady Zisong.’

Taken by surprise, I froze.

The chattering crowd became even more brazen.

‘Oh, a counter-attack! This is becoming truly intense.’

‘Amituofo,[5] let me see no evil! Now where are my calming pills…’

‘Place your bets, everyone! It’s ten to one on the gentleman in white being the top, and two to one on the other gentleman…’

I glanced down at the princess’ white robes, utterly delighted.
The townsfolk’s proximity to the cosmopolitan capital had clearly led them to develop a discerning eye; their judgment was astute indeed.

The princess seemed to lose interest in the proceedings, quite possibly because I was enjoying myself a little too much.
She let go of me and flicked at a corner of her robe, trying to smooth away the wrinkles there.
‘Look what you’ve done,’ she chided, frowning.
‘Now how are we supposed to put an end to this spectacle?’

‘This spectacle’, as she put it, had clearly been a two-man show, yet here she was making it sound as if I were a soloist! I felt deeply wronged by the accusation.
Glaring round at the assembled onlookers, I said to her, ‘I thought you were planning to go into town.
Do you still want to?’

The princess raised an eyebrow.
‘I managed to give even Zhongliang the slip.
Why is it that I can never throw you off the scent?’

She looked so adorable as she stood there pondering this question.
I couldn’t resist another teasing comment.
‘This must be what they mean by “two hearts and minds entwined as one”.’[6]

Annoyed, the princess stamped her foot.
‘Oh, is that what it is?’ Then, with a completely straight face, she added, ‘Since you’re so good at reading my mind, Zisong, I find the prospect of having you as my consort rather terrifying.
I should make you one of my personal guards instead.
That would be a much better use of your evident abilities in surveillance.’

I’d managed to trip myself up yet again.
Become her personal guard? That wasn’t what I wanted at all! Look at that whatshisname, Zhao Yishu — he’d started out as the commander of the Eldest Princess’ personal guards, and ended up marrying the Third Princess instead! Perish the thought! The only princess I wanted to marry was the Eldest Princess herself!

As I stood there, lost in indignation, I felt a tug at my sleeve.
I looked up to see a tall, strapping man with a truly impressive beard.
He was squinting tenderly at me.

‘Young Master, am I by any chance… to your liking?’

As I tried valiantly to keep myself from throwing up, the princess let out a charming peal of laughter and sauntered airily away.
I was left to tussle miserably with my burly admirer, trying to free my sleeve from his grasp.




In Chinese, the chengyu 甘之如饴, which literally means to ‘enjoy (something bitter) as if it were malt sugar’.
It describes someone who endures hardships gladly. In Chinese, 端阳节.
Also known as the Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节), the Duanwu Festival (端午节) or the Double Fifth Festival (双五节 or 重五节), this is a holiday which occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Chinese calendar.
It is said to have initially been celebrated because people believed the fifth month was inauspicious.
To ward off misfortune and ill-health, people would hang aromatic plants such as calamus, Chinese mugwort, pomegranate blossoms or even garlic above their doors.
The festival has subsequently become associated with Qu Yuan (屈原), a poet who served as a minister of the kingdom of Chu during the Warring States period.
Qu Yuan opposed the King of Chu’s decision to enter into an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Qin, and was sent into exile for his outspoken criticisms.
Twenty-eight years later, the capital of Chu was captured by the kingdom of Qin.
In despair, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River (汨罗江).
It is said that the local villagers, who admired Qu Yuan, went out in their boats in an attempt to save him, or at least to retrieve his body.
When his body could not be found, they tried to keep evil spirits and fish away from the corpse by beating drums and agitating the water with their paddles.
This is said to be the origin of the dragon boat races associated with the festival.
The villagers also dropped balls of sticky rice into the river to tempt the fish and keep them  from eating Qu Yuan’s body.
This is said to be the origin of zongzi (粽子), a dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves. In the original text, Feliu River (飞鹭河), which literally means ‘flying heron river’. In Chinese, 物以类聚, the first part of the idiom 物以类聚, 人以群分.
Literally ‘things sort themselves by type; people divide themselves up according to group’.
In essence, it means that ‘like attracts like’.
This idiom originates from the Annals of the Warring States (战国策), which recounts the history of the Warring States period in the form of anecdotes meant to illustrate the various strategies employed by politicians and military commanders of the day. In the original text, 阿弥陀佛 (see footnote 6 to Chapter 3). In the original text, 心有灵犀 (see footnote 4 to Chapter 9).

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