It was evening when we finally arrived at the gates of Tengzhou, the capital city.
Through the window of the coach I could see the rays of the setting sun falling across the city’s high, weathered walls, giving them an air of austere solemnity.
A troop of guards, all fully armed and armoured, stood watch before the gates.
Their proud military bearing made them look the very epitome of valour.

Rousing myself from my admiring little reverie, I reached for the curtain and lowered it over this magnificent sight.
This brief glimpse had brought my all youthful yearnings for the capital to life.
Emotion stirred within my breast, and, unable to help myself, I surrendered to the urge to break into verse:

‘Ah, Tengzhou!
Lightly now I come,
just as lightly as in my thousand past imaginings.
With a gentle wave of my sleeve,
I steal away a single princess.’[1]

With a loud bang, Silly Girl slammed her teacup onto the little table bolted to a corner of the coach.
‘How insolent!’ she exclaimed, her eyebrows bristling.

She’d managed to capture her mistress’ tone perfectly.
And no wonder: she’d been the princess’ personal attendant for a long time.
What a pity that her expression held none of the princess’ authority or forcefulness.
The overall effect was distinctly lacklustre.
Silly Girl’s plain and unremarkable face contrasted woefully with imperious exclamations.
My considered assessment was this: Silly Girl might sound like a noblewoman, but alas, she was very firmly destined to remain a maidservant.

I wiped away the tea that had spilled onto the tabletop and addressed her in tones of perfect sincerity, ‘I say, Silly Girl, you really should take some time off to go and see a doctor.’

‘Why?’ she asked, surprised.
She gazed anxiously at me as I picked up my own cup and took a leisurely sip of tea, savouring to the full the pleasure of keeping one’s audience in suspense.
I then went on, ‘Irritability and depression are both symptoms of an imbalance of yin and yang.
I’m very concerned that you might be experiencing early onset menopause.
That would be such a shame, considering how young you are, and still unmarried besides…’

With another bang, Silly Girl smashed her cup to smithereens right under my sorrowful gaze.
The ferocious expression on her face suggested that she was more than capable of disfiguring me with the porcelain shard she was holding.
I stealthily inched a little closer to the doorway of the coach, ready to leap out and run for my life at the first sign of trouble.

The coach suddenly stopped.
A few moments later Xiao Hei lifted the curtain that hung over the doorway and the princess stepped inside, bending as she crossed the threshold. 

I had taken up most of the seat immediately next to the doorway, so she was somewhat pressed for space.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked with a frown.
‘You’re sitting too close to the door.
Be careful, or you’ll be jolted out.’

I tugged at the princess’ sleeve and pointed a trembling finger at Silly Girl.
‘She just destroyed imperial property!’ I proclaimed.
Then my finger shifted to the fragment of teacup Silly Girl was still holding.
‘And she was even plotting to disfigure my face!’ I patted my cheek with the air of someone who’d just had a narrow escape.
‘My handsome face, beloved by all who behold it…’[2]

The princess put on her most proper expression, but she was clearly suppressing a smile.
It hovered tantalisingly close to the corners of her mouth, threatening to burst into full bloom at any moment.
Gripping my chin between her finger and thumb, she turned my face towards her and scrutinised me minutely.
‘Destroying imperial property, you say?’ Suddenly she leaned in, bringing her lips very close to my ear, and said in a low voice, ‘This face of yours is most certainly imperial property.’


Instantly, my face flushed crimson. Oh, you succubus, you temptress! This was pure seduction, in its most naked, most primal form. May Buddha preserve me, I thought, taking refuge in a familiar sutra. All that is sensual is illusory, that which is illusory is the sensual…[3] But then again, what real woman could be left unmoved by the princess’ beauty?

Before my internal struggle could resolve itself — and certainly before I could act on the outcome of my deliberations — the princess had drawn away.
Her expression was as sunny as before, but her grip on my chin tightened.
‘Beloved by all who see it? Who exactly are all these people, hm?’

I chuckled and drew the princess down to sit beside me.
‘No one, really — it was just an exaggeration.
You know, like when you say “there’s an entire sea of people out there”,[4] or “everyone is coming and going”.[5] It’s the same kind of thing.’

‘Oh.’ The princess nodded, looking as if some sudden understanding had dawned upon her.
‘In that case, your face must be beloved by many.
Not only do you have a veritable sea of admirers, they’re constantly coming and going as well.’

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
Just as well: the more I spoke, the more liable I was to dig myself into a hole.
I firmly, resolutely, decided to keep my mouth shut.
At that crucial juncture, however, Silly Girl — who had been watching us silently from her corner — proved herself to be one of those stalwart youths who delight in rushing to the aid of the beleaguered in their hour of need.
She gazed at the princess with the air of a lost child who’d finally been reunited with her family.
‘Your Highness,’ she said, her eyes glistening with tears, ‘Young Master Wei has been… has been bullying me!’

Having thrown out this preposterous accusation she covered her face with both hands, looking oh-so-touchingly forlorn.

Inwardly I rolled my eyes. You should watch what you say, Silly Girl.
Be careful what you call ‘bullying’.
A street thug harassing passing women? That’s bullying.
What I dream of doing to the princess every day? Some might also call that bullying! What interest would I have in bullying you?

Under cover of the wide sleeve of my robe, I took the princess’ hand.
After a brief moment’s hesitation she went along with it, allowing me to do as I pleased.
Her hand was warm and soft in mine; that little hesitation, born of maidenly bashfulness, only inflamed my ardour. How beautiful life is, I thought. How endlessly beautiful.

The princess cleared her throat and turned to look at Silly Girl.
‘What happened?’ she asked in a benevolent tone.
‘How did he… ahem… bully you? You can tell me.
Take your time; there’s no need to be afraid.’

I cast a helpless glance heavenward.
What was going on here? ‘There’s no need to be afraid?’ Did she really take me for some kind of thug? Under my sleeve, I traced slow circles around the princess’ palm, over and over — until she, unable to bear the distraction, stilled my movements by wrapping her hand firmly around my fingers.

Silly Girl puffed out her chest importantly, looking as self-righteous as if she’d just been handed the emperor’s Great Sword of State.[6] ‘He told me I was suffering from an imbalance of yin and yang, and falsely accused me of wanting to mutilate his pretty little face!’

Pretty boy, pretty little face… Silly Girl clearly had yet to tire of these epithets.

The princess glanced at me reproachfully, then turned back to Silly Girl.
‘Don’t stoop to his level,’ she cajoled.
‘You know there’s no point arguing with the likes of him.’

Oh? Oh? What was this? The princess had nothing but rebukes for me, but when it came to Silly Girl, she was all kind words and sweet smiles? Exactly who was the future prince consort here? Sullenly, resentfully, I made to tug my hand free of hers.


At that very moment, however, the princess gave my hand a comforting squeeze.
Under my sleeve, she intertwined her fingers with mine and turned her head infinitesimally toward me.
‘You’re so petty,’ she whispered, in a voice so low it was barely perceptible.

Her full red lips pouted slightly, and that captivating sight turned my heart into a puddle of mush.
In that moment, I felt as though that hand which lay entwined with mine symbolised every good and beautiful thing in this world — majestic rivers and grand mountains, delicate spring blossoms and bright autumn moons.

My petty little soul instantly filled up with magnaminty, and my attitude towards Silly Girl softened accordingly.
‘All right, all right,’ I told her, my expression now 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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