spot on my cheek.
‘Does it hurt?’ she asked softly.

How should I describe the feeling that came over me? It was as if a feather had been drawn oh-so-lightly over the deepest recesses of my heart, and sent a shiver rushing from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head.
My heart filled with an almost unbearable ache.
My face seemed to grow hotter where she was touching me — so hot that I found myself grimacing helplessly, unsure what to do.

Anxiously, she applied a little more pressure to my cheek.
‘Why is your face so red? Does it really hurt that much?’

Oh, what a sweet, silly girl.
I sighed, drew her hand away from my face, and placed it against my chest.
With my free hand, I reached out and gently smoothed away the frown lines that had formed between her brows.
‘It doesn’t hurt exactly, but it aches.’ I pressed her hand even more tightly against my heart.
‘Right here.
It aches.’

Her face flushed so brilliantly that it looked as if rouge had been applied liberally to both cheeks.
Her long eyelashes fluttered; I felt as if they were brushing right against my heart with each movement.
‘Whatever shall we do?’ she asked in the earnest tones of someone seeking a solution, and pouted ever so slightly.

I gazed at her long and deep.
The ache deep in my heart had suddenly become an overwhelming itch.
Unable to resist, I reached out and tilted up her chin with one trembling hand.
Her lips were an even brighter shade of red than usual.
They reminded me of plum blossoms in the snow — their very presence was a silent invitation to reach out and claim them for one’s own.

I covered her eyes with one hand, then leaned forward until my forehead was pressing against hers.
‘Be a good girl,’ I murmured.
‘Close your eyes.’

Her eyelashes fluttered against my palm.
Unable to hold myself back any longer, I wrapped my other arm around her waist, brought my face another half-inch closer to hers, and met her lips with mine.
Her mouth was warm, soft, sweet — absolutely delicious.

Her back went completely stiff against my hand.

I gave a tiny sigh.
Then, not daring to push things any further, I pulled back a little.
The lovely young woman in my arms still had her eyes screwed tightly shut.
Her eyelashes trembled; her cheeks were scarlet.
She looked appealingly vulnerable.

I stroked the corner of her mouth, and whispered gently into her ear, ‘Princess, wake up.’

Her eyes sprang open suddenly.
‘Such insolence,’ she chided, sounding as if all her bashfulness a moment ago had been transmuted into annoyance.
Yet the tenderness in her eyes robbed the rebuke of much of its power.

I laughed softly and drew her close to me again, stroking her back soothingly.
‘Princess, princess, you’re the only one I’ll ever be insolent to.’

After a while she began to relax in my embrace, though her head still burrowed restlessly into my shoulder.
‘I give you an inch and you take a mile,’ she mumbled.
Her voice was a little indistinct, but the coquetry in her tone was unmistakable.

‘Mm.’ I held her even tighter, rocking her gently back and forth.

The princess played ostrich for a good long while, with her head buried in the crook of my shoulder.
When she finally roused herself, she started to put her arms around my neck, but suddenly stopped as her eyes fell on something close by.
And then—

‘Wei Zisong, what is this?’ Abruptly she pushed me away, pointing at something red that lay wadded up on the table beside us.
Her eyes were filled with disbelief.[6]

My arms were suddenly cold and empty; in that moment, I felt unutterably lonely.
I slowly let my arms fall back to my sides, made a show of rearranging my robes, and only then leaned forward to take a closer look at the offending item.
It was the red handkerchief that Zheng Hao had filched the day before.
What was it doing here in the main hall?

I tugged at the princess’ sleeve and shook my head, my expression all innocence.
‘What about it?’

‘Wei Zisong!’ Her voice rose.
She snatched up the handkerchief and shoved it right in my face.
‘Stop looking at me with those puppy dog eyes.
Answer me now: what is this?‘

‘A… a handkerchief.’

‘A handkerchief?’ She spread out the item in question.
Her eyes darted to the feather embroidered in one corner and lingered there.
I couldn’t read her expression at all.
‘Where did you get this from? Don’t tell me it belongs to you!’

I felt greatly wronged.
It wasn’t as if I’d wanted the handkerchief in the first place; I hadn’t set out to meet its owner at all.
But how was I to explain to the princess that the handkerchief had come from a mystery woman I’d encountered at a brothel called Chunyi House?

‘I…’ I stole a quick glance at her expression from the corner of my eye, and mumbled, ‘I found it.’

‘Found it?’ Suspicion was written all over her face, but at least she was no longer speaking quite so loudly.

‘Yes!’ I put on my sincerest expression, nodding vigorously.

She looked down, her eyes half-closed as if in thought.
I hardly dared to breathe.
It was just a handkerchief, after all — what was the princess playing at?

A sudden thought seemed to strike her, and she looked back up at me.
‘What about the jade pendant I gave you? Do you have it on you?’

‘Of course I do!’ I reached into my pocket and found exactly nothing.
Disbelievingly, I withdrew my hand.
A single pigeon’s feather drifted out along with it, and began a slow, leisurely descent towards the floor.

Belatedly, I recalled that I’d been so startled by Zheng Hao’s display of his pickpocketing abilities the previous day that I’d become concerned for the safety of my jade pendant if I continued to carry it around with me.
I’d ended up hiding it away under my pillow.

The princess stared at the feather as it made its way downwards, unimpeded.
Her expression was as cold as frost.


Desperately I reached for her, but she flung my hand aside so violently that it sent me stumbling backwards.
She smiled — actually smiled! — but her voice sounded immeasurably bitter to my ears.
‘History is repeating itself.

The look on her face smote me to my very core.
Hastily, I opened my mouth to give an explanation.
‘Princess, that pendant—’

She placed a finger against my lips, and I had no choice but to choke back the rest of that sentence.

The princess looked at me quietly, ran her finger warningly over my lips and then let it drop.
A look of sorrow came into her eyes.
She bit her own lip, then said, ‘Wei Zisong, you needn’t worry about serving as my prince consort.
Our agreement — and whatever else might be between us — is over.’

I couldn’t believe my ears.
All I could do was stare in stunned silence as she brushed past me, sweeping out of the room.
I heard her call out to her entourage, ‘We’re leaving!’

Can someone tell me what I did wrong?


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In the original text, this character was given a nickname that is now often used as a derogatory term for people of South Asian origin.
I have chosen to rename him, and have adjusted the wording of the passages in which he is introduced to make them consistent with the renaming.
My thanks to my South Asian friend who wishes to be known as Caroline Crale for helping me with the renaming. [return to text] See footnote 2 to Chapter 14. [return to text] See footnote 3 to Chapter 4. [return to text] In the original text, the division of the princess’ expression into thirds is rendered as 春色三分, which can be loosely translated as ‘spring’s beauty can be divided into three parts’.
This line may thus be a reference to a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (苏轼) which is set to the tune of ‘Water Dragon Chant’ (水龙吟). [return to text] In the original text, 欲说还休, 欲说还休, which can be translated more or less literally as ‘I wish to speak, yet refrain; I wish to speak, yet refrain’.
The phrase is derived from a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet and general Xin Qiji (辛弃疾), which is set to the tune of ‘The Ugly Servant’ (丑奴儿). [return to text] There is language in the original text which suggests Zisong initially had the handkerchief tucked into the neck of her robes, which the princess then discovered, pulled out and threw onto the table.
The subsequent chapters, however, make it clear that the handkerchief was already lying on the table to begin with.
I have amended the text to ensure consistency between this passage and the later chapters. [return to text]

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