w less severe.
‘I’ll admit it, I was wrong.
As the princess is my witness, I swear never to bully you again…’ Then, feeling that this was going a little too far, I added, ‘…over your intelligence.’

Silly Girl’s eyes darted around the coach in bewilderment, and I took advantage of her momentary confusion to change the subject.
‘Princess, princess, what are you doing here inside the coach?’ I asked the lovely vision beside me.

It must be because you missed me and wanted to see me.
Say it’s because you wanted to see me!

Alas, beautiful women can often be surprisingly unromantic; the princess seemed completely oblivious to the broad hint I’d just dropped.
‘The capital city is very different from the road,’ she said.
‘As the Eldest Princess, I’m expected to behave in a much more circumspect manner than I did while we were travelling.
Most of the tiresome old men who hold positions at court can probably recognise me on sight.
If we’re unlucky enough to encounter one of them while I’m making an exhibition of myself in public, as they’d no doubt put it, they’ll create a scene.’ She gazed off into the distance, lost in thought, and slowly slipped her hand out of mine.
‘So much must have changed at court in the months since I was last here.’

She must be experiencing some sort of delayed homesickness, I reasoned.
‘The empire is enjoying a period of peace[7] and bounty,’[8] I said, reaching for words I thought would give her some measure of reassurance.
‘If there have been any changes at court to speak of, I’m sure they’ll only be due to imperial consorts squabbling over the emperor’s favour.’ Then, recalling some of the gossip we’d heard on our way to the capital, I added, ‘Although there’s been talk of late about the Xiongnu armies attacking our southwestern border.
I wonder which of the generals has been tasked with commanding our defence?’ 

The princess glanced at me.
The corner of her mouth twitched, but she said nothing.

This time, Silly Girl was remarkably swift to respond.
‘The Third Prince Consort, of course! Who else?’

The princess’ gaze swung towards her.
‘You’ve been away from court for only a few months, yet you appear to have forgotten all the rules of etiquette.
Is it your place to speculate on matters of state?’

The rebuke was mild enough, but for some reason I had the distinct sense that Silly Girl’s remark had touched a nerve.
Silly Girl herself looked rather aggrieved.
She seemed on the verge of protesting, but then appeared to think better of it.
Suddenly it came to me: wasn’t the Third Prince Consort Zhao Yishu?

The mere thought of his name affected me much more than I had imagined it would.
The princess, however, looked as though nothing out of the ordinary had been said.
She clearly had no intention of discussing the matter any further, and so I was forced to let it drop.
My throat felt suddenly dry.
Clumsily, I reached out and poured myself a cup of tea.
At that very moment the coach jolted.
My hand shook, and tea sloshed out over the rim of the cup.

I stared at the offending droplet of liquid clinging to the side of the cup.
To wipe or not to wipe it off: that was the question.

‘What’s wrong, Young Master Wei?’ asked Silly Girl in a careful tone.
‘Why do you look so dreadful all of a sudden?’

‘Huh?’ I looked up from the teacup and forced myself to smile.
‘Oh, nothing, nothing.
I just found myself worrying about the attacks on our border, that’s all.’ I stole another look at the princess and went on, ‘But I’m sure there’s no cause for concern.
With the Third Prince Consort in command, our armies will doubtless cut a swathe through the enemy forces and swiftly triumph.’ I laughed awkwardly.

Silly Girl laughed along with me for a few moments, then abruptly stopped and wrapped her arms tightly around her shoulders.
‘Please stop laughing, Young Master Wei.
Every time you do, I feel a chill wind whistling past.
It’s making my hair stand on end.’

‘Cut a swathe through the enemy…’ the princess repeated, seeming lost in thought.
‘It’s seldom a good thing when a man’s accomplishments cause him to outshine his sovereign.’

Now there really was absolutely nothing I could say.

I idly tapped my cup against the tabletop.
Suddenly, the princess spoke again.
‘The whole journey here you’ve been going on and on about how much you were looking forward to witnessing the splendour of the capital with your own eyes.
Now that we’ve finally arrived, why are you hiding inside the coach?’

Why do you think? I wondered. It’s because you came in here, and I’d rather look at you than the scenery. But I simply couldn’t get the words out; the atmosphere surrounding us was far too oppressive. I need to get some fresh air, I thought.
Without another word, I lifted the curtain over the coach’s doorway and climbed out to join Xiao Hei on the coachman’s seat.

Just as I let the curtain drop I heard Silly Girl saying in startled tones, ‘What’s wrong with him? Oh, right, it must be early-onset menopause…’

I sat down heavily next to Xiao Hei.
The very soul of unflappability, he didn’t bat an eyelid at my sudden appearance, and simply carried on steering the coach as before.

I prodded him with my foot.
‘Xiao Hei.’

This summons seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The sun had almost sunk beneath the horizon, and dusk was gradually shifting towards full night.
The streets were sparsely populated.
Outside a nearby tavern, a solitary yellow banner shivered in the cool evening wind.[9] The horses’ hooves clopped dully against the flagstones of the street.
It was a scene that filled one with a deep and profound sense of loneliness.

I poked Xiao Hei in the arm.
‘Hey, Da Hei!’[10]

To my shock, he suddenly turned and glared at me, ‘Zhongliang!’ he snapped, sounding fairly exasperated.

‘What?’ I asked uncomprehendingly, patting my chest to soothe my startled nerves.

‘Zhongliang!’ He cracked the whip he was holding.
‘My name is Zhongliang!’

What was with his attitude? Did he and Silly Girl both feel entitled to snap at me now that they were back on their home turf? Feeling aggrieved, I held up my hands to protest my innocence.
Then, looking carefully into his face, I asked another question.
‘What’s your surname?’

A suspicious flush spread over his dark complexion.
He muttered something in a very low voice.

‘Huh?’ Unable to hear what he’d just said, I leaned closer and asked, ‘What?’

‘My surname is Wu!’[11]

The horses, startled by his exclamation, quickened their stride; their hooves were soon clicking merrily as they trotted down the street.
The corner of my mouth twitched.
I smoothed it down, thinking to myself, Wu? Doesn’t that mean ‘black’, just the same as ‘Hei’? What’s he so irritable about, then? Tengzhou, oh Tengzhou, there must be something about you that triggers early-onset menopause amongst the unwary…

***

 

Footnotes:

In Chinese, 轻轻地, 我来了; 正如想像中千百次的来, 我挥一挥衣袖,偷走一位公主.
This is a riff on the first and last lines of the poem ‘On Leaving Cambridge Again’ (再别康桥) by the early twentieth century Romantic poet Xu Zhimo (徐志摩).
The original lines read: 轻轻地我走了, 正如我轻轻地来 … 我挥一挥衣袖, 不带走一片云彩.
In English, this translates to: ‘Lightly now I leave, just as lightly as I came … With a wave of my sleeve, I steal away not a single cloud’ In Chinese, 人见人爱, literally ‘people see people love’.
The phrase describes someone who has universal appeal. In Chinese, 色即是空, 空即是色.
This is taken from the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya in Sanskrit; 般若心经 or 心经 in Chinese), possibly the most recited and most frequently used text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
The line is more often translated as ‘form is emptiness; emptiness is form’.
色, the word used to denote ‘form’ in the Chinese translation, also has connotations of the sexual and carnal. In Chinese, 人山人海, literally ‘people mountain people sea’.
The chengyu denotes a very large crowd of people. In Chinese, 人来人往, literally ‘people come people go’.
The chengyu describes a continual stream of passersby or visitors. In Chinese, 尚方宝剑.
A sword which formed part of the imperial regalia from the Han to Qing dynasties.
It symbolised the power of the emperor to use the might of the state against his enemies. In Chinese, 国泰民安, literally ‘country peaceful people settled’. In Chinese, 风调雨顺, literally, ‘the wind and rain come in the right time and in the right amounts’.
In its more literal sense, this chengyu denotes favourable weather for crops.
It also functions as a metaphor for prosperity. The yellow banner is a ‘wine banner’ (in Chinese, 酒旗) used by taverns to advertise their wares. In Chinese, 大黑.
‘Da’ means ‘big’, and can be appended to a name to create a nickname in much the same way as ‘Xiao’ (see footnote 8 to Chapter 6). In Chinese, 乌.
The word means ‘black’, ‘dark’, ‘crow’ and occasionally ‘nothing’.

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