ssion 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.[3] 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?’

Splash! 

With a kick, she sent me flying.
The cold, yet not wholly unforgiving,[4] 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.[5]

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?’[6]

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,[7] 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!’ 

***

Footnotes:

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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