essed a hand against my racing heart and said, ‘Quiet is good, quiet is good.
I’m the sort of person who likes peace and quiet.
Although why did the princess set up a separate residence when she already has a manor of her own? Did she feel she had too much money, and nothing to spend it on?’

‘Er.’ Xiao Hei hesitated again.
‘It’s a home for servants who have been dismissed for wrongdoing but have nowhere to go,’ he said finally.
‘The princess was generous enough to give them a roof over their heads.’

What? Didn’t that make it the cold palace[6] in all but name? This was beyond endurance.
Whatever else one might think about me, I was still the chief of a sizable bandit stronghold — not someone to be trifled with! Yet here I was, consigned to the cold palace before I’d been even given a chance to establish myself in the princess’ household.
How was I supposed to put up with this?


I slammed a hand against my seat and was about to leap up in indignation when the coach came to a stop.
In front of us was a majestic building, all striking red walls and green-tiled roofs.
The eaves were adorned with carvings of soaring dragons, which added to its air of grandeur.

Xiao Hei leapt down from his seat and stood facing the coach’s curtained doorway, holding his hands respectfully by his sides.
‘Your Highness, we’ve arrived.’

So this must be the princess’ official manor — the one from which I was barred by fate.
I slipped down slowly from the coach and forlornly studied the building and its surroundings.

Silly Girl’s voice rang out excitedly behind me.
‘Your Highness, we’re finally home!’

Home, my ass! I want to go home!

Then I heard the princess say, ‘Zhongliang, have you explained the arrangements to Young Master Wei?’

Xiao Hei gave me an appraising look.
‘Yes, Your Highness.
I’ve just done so.’

‘Excellent.’ She gave me a single, brief glance before turning back to Xiao Hei.
‘I’m going inside now.
Zhongliang, please take Young Master Wei to his new home.’

You self-willed, self-important, self-centred, selfish woman! Not even a prince consort could endure this!

With a flick of my sleeve — and without saying a single word — I leapt back up onto the coach, swept the curtain aside and went in.

For a long moment, there was complete silence from outside.

I sprawled recklessly across the closest seat, closed my eyes and tried to calm the feelings of indignation that seethed in my heart.
Then I heard the curtain rustle, as if in a breeze.
A sweet, heady fragrance filled the coach.
I felt a faintly cool palm against my eyelids.

‘You’re behaving just like a child throwing a tantrum.’ The princess’ voice was tender when she spoke.

The hypocrite! Hadn’t she already relegated me to the cold palace? Why was she still here, toying with my feelings? Although the feather-light touch of her hand — so soft, so sweet-smelling, mm — was certainly delightful.

Her hand found its way to my ear, and she ran a fingertip along its rim in a slow caress.
‘Open your eyes, Zisong,’ she said, her voice seeming to come from somewhere very close.

Hah! You’re already forcing me to move into this separate residence, and now you expect me to open my eyes just because you said so? Do you think you’re all-powerful, Eldest Princess?

She sighed; her fingertip suddenly stilled.
‘Very well then, Zisong.
Sleep well.
I’m leaving now.’

I opened my eyes abruptly; reflexively, I caught hold of her hand.
She was smiling, and there was a distinct note of teasing amusement in her gaze.

Chagrinned, I flung her hand away and made to shut my eyes again — but in one deft move, she seized hold of my wrist in return.
‘Come now,’ she said in a voice so sweet it left me practically limp with pleasure.
‘Don’t be cross any longer, all right?’

‘You went back on your promise!’ I accused, pouting.

‘Mm.’ Her eyes were sparkling.

‘You lured me away from my home under false pretences!’

‘Mm.’

‘You ignored me just now!’

‘Mm.’

‘You— you—’ I repeated the word a few more times, but found myself unable to come up with any fresh accusations.
‘Do I have to stay at this other residence?’ I asked finally, plucking pathetically at her sleeve.

She patted me on the forehead and then on the cheek.
‘There’s very little I can do about it.’

‘Oh.’ Dejectedly, I let go of her sleeve.
My head drooped.
‘Then… will you come and see me?’

‘If you’re good, of course I’ll come and see you.’ She patted my earlobe and turned to go.

I reached out and wrapped both arms around her waist from behind, then leaned my head on her shoulder and nuzzled my face against her.
She stiffened momentarily, but then relaxed and leaned back against me.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked, covering my hands with her own.

I buried my face in her shoulder.
‘I miss you,’ I mumbled indistinctly.

‘I’m right here, aren’t I?’ she said softly.
Her voice held the trace of a smile.

I tightened my arms around her waist, then tightened them again.
‘You’ll go very soon.’ 

She patted my hand.
Once, twice.
Then she sighed, turned back around and wrapped her arms around my neck.
She leaned her forehead against mine.
We sat looking into each other’s eyes for a long, long while, saying nothing. 

My heart melted and overflowed like a river bursting its banks with the spring thaw.

Some time later, the princess pulled away a little.
‘Zhongliang is still waiting outside.’

‘Mm.’ I drew back, untangling my arms from around her, then reached up and tidied away a few loose strands of her hair.
‘You should go then.’

She slipped out of the curtained doorway.
The wheels of the coach rolled on, taking me to the silent halls of my new home.

For a number of days, I saw nothing of the princess.
I felt her absence more keenly than I could express in words.
Fortunately, a celebrated author from a previous dynasty had captured in exquisite prose the state of mind in which I now found myself.
After a few judicious alterations, I was able to make the passage in question reflect my feelings perfectly:

It’s been one day since the princess left.
I miss her…

It’s been two days since the princess left.
I miss her…

It’s been three days since the princess left.
I miss her…[7]

***

 

Footnotes:

In the original text, 大侠.
Sometimes translated as ‘hero’, ‘chevalier’ or ‘warrior’, this is a term of respect for a martially-skilled person. In the original text, 不惑, literally ‘no confusion’ or ‘no doubts’.
A person is said to have reached the age of ‘no confusion’ (or ‘no doubts’) when they are forty years old.
The term originates from the Analects (论语), a collection of sayings attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (孔子). In Chinese, 男人四十一枝花, which can be rendered more or less literally as ‘a man at forty blossoms like a flower’.
The saying suggests that a man who is in his forties is in the prime of his life, as he is (or at least is expected to be) more mature, stable and financially successful compared to his younger counterparts. In Chinese, 孔雀东南飞, 五里一徘徊.
This is a line from ‘A Peacock Flying Southeast’ (孔雀东南飞), a poem written by an anonymous poet at the end of the Han Dynasty.
The poem is written in the yuefu (乐府) style, which uses vernacular language and typically depicts the lives of commoners.
The poem tells the tragic love story of Jiao Zhongqing and his wife Liu Lanzhi, who were deeply in love but ultimately driven apart by Jiao Zhongqing’s mother.
After the breakup of their marriage, Liu Lanzhi was forced by her brother to marry another man.
Both Liu Lanzhi and Jiao Zhongqing committed suicide in protest.
The image of a lone peacock hesitating every few miles highlights the couple’s reluctance to part from each other even as they are forced to do so by their families. In Chinese, 此处不留爷, 自有留爷处.
It means that even though a person may have been turned away from a particular location or organisation, they will still be able to find a position for themselves elsewhere in the world. In Chinese, 冷宫, literally ‘cold palace’.
The place to which the emperor banishes a wife or concubine who has fallen out of favour. This is a riff on a quote from the 2001 Taiwanese drama Romance in the Rain (情深深雨濛濛), adapted from the novel Misty Rain (烟雨濛濛) by the famous Taiwanese romance novelist Chiung Yao (琼瑶, in pinyin: Qiong Yao).
Chiung Yao was also the scriptwriter for Romance in the Rain.
The original quote is spoken by female lead Lu Yiping (陆依萍) upon temporarily parting from male lead He Shuhuan (何书桓).
It reads: ‘It’s been one day since Shuhuan left.
I miss him… It’s been two days since Shuhuan left.
I miss him, I miss him… It’s been three days since Shuhuan left.
I miss him, I miss him, I miss him…’

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