ngyan Princess.’

Chu Feichen, the Yongyan Princess, Eldest Princess of the Yan Empire.
Even as a child, she had been known for being exceptionally intelligent; that, combined with her great beauty, had made her the emperor’s favourite child.
All her younger sisters were already married, while she alone remained unwed.
It was said that the emperor was reluctant to part from her, and wanted to keep her by his side for a few more years.

Yes, keep her there, I thought vindictively. Keep her there until she becomes an old maid. When you looked at it that way, hadn’t I actually done the princess a favour by putting an end to her sad, lonely days as a spinster? I flattered myself that I had rendered her a great service indeed.
Though now that I thought about it, I wasn’t that much younger than her.
Wasn’t I still languishing alone on my mountain, as yet unspoken for? The pot, I reflected, probably shouldn’t be calling the kettle black.[2]

Lost in my thoughts, I trailed behind the princess’ retinue as they made their leisurely way through the garden.
Suddenly, I heard the princess say, ‘You must have many official matters to attend to, Governor Wei.
There’s no need for you to idle the rest of the day away with me.
Since your son is here, he can be my escort.’

Every single defensive instinct in my body was immediately activated.
Alas, I could only watch helplessly as my father made a deep bow, took a few steps backwards and disappeared around a corner of the zigzag gallery.[3]

With a wave of her hand, the princess dismissed her guards and servants.
As I watched the man in black leave with the rest, I knew I should be feeling a sense of relief.
But for some reason, a sinister gloom seemed to have fallen over the blooming, sunlit garden.

I stole a glance at the princess.
Her expression was as unfathomable as ever.
It occurred to me that even when she had been trapped in our bandits’ lair, she had still managed to keep her composure better than I was doing at present.
Somehow, that gave me a tiny flicker of courage.
‘What are you doing here?’ I mumbled.

It was as if she had been waiting for me to ask this very question.
‘My retinue and I were set upon by bandits a few days ago,’ she said calmly.
‘I thought it would be wise to take a few days to rest and recuperate here at the governor’s manor.’ She brushed aside an overhanging willow branch with her delicate fingers, then added with a smile, ‘But isn’t that a question I should be asking you, Young Master — or should I say, my lady? Or perhaps you would prefer to be addressed as Bandit Chief Wei?’

I felt as though she had reached out with those delicate fingers and given my heart a pinch.
Like a wavering flame on a candlewick, my newborn flicker of courage was snuffed out completely.

Still, I had saved her honour back at the stronghold, and I decided to remind her of that.
‘Your Highness has an excellent memory indeed,’ I said.
‘What happened at the stronghold… please don’t take it too much to heart.
You’ve no idea how often my brothers have berated me for setting you free—’

I was about to lay it on even thicker when I realised that the princess’ expression had turned colder than a mountaintop covered in ten-thousand-year-old permafrost.

‘So you’re saying that I’m the one who owes you a debt?’ She smiled, but it was completely devoid of humour.
‘I remember all too well how disrespectful you were that day.
Tell me, why shouldn’t I have you killed before you can repeat that story to anyone else?’

Instinctively, I found myself shrinking deeper into my collar.
‘We’re both women, after all—’ I began somewhat shamefacedly.

She cut me off right there.
‘Wei Zisong,’ she said, her tone even harsher than before.
‘Your father is an official of the imperial court, yet you consort with rogues.
You are clearly a woman, yet you present yourself to me in the guise of a man.
What evil designs are you harbouring? Do you understand that I could order all your family’s property to be forfeited to the throne, and even for your whole bloodline to be exterminated as punishment for your crimes?’

My knees turned to water.

People often say that ‘keeping company with the sovereign is as perilous as living with a tiger’.[4] If that was true, then all of the emperor’s worst caprices must have rubbed off on the princess, including an ability to pass from seeming affability to outright hostility in the blink of an eye.[5] I wasn’t a coward, truly I wasn’t, but I was also fully aware of just how high above me the princess stood.[6] From the way she was talking, I probably wasn’t going to get out of this fix without a little judicious cajolery.

Putting on my meekest expression, I said, ‘Your Highness is most magnanimous: I am sure you would consider it beneath your dignity to hold a grudge against someone as insignificant as me.
Spare my unworthy life just this once, Your Highness, and I promise that I will repay your generosity by serving you as humbly as a dog!’[7]

At the time, all I could think of was getting out of my current predicament alive.
As for what would happen afterwards, once the princess was safely away — far, far away — from my father’s manor,[8] what need would she have of my rash promises of service?

As it turned out, I was wrong.
So very, very wrong.
Life is like a long-drawn-out game of cards: you never know when you’re going get a hand that throws you for a complete loop, leaving you with nowhere to turn.

I had absolutely no idea that with every word that left my mouth, I had been digging a hole for myself.
With her next utterance, the princess sent me tumbling right to the very bottom of that pit.

‘I have no need for a dog,’ she said.
‘Come to the capital with me, and become my prince consort.’

It was as if a xianbing[9] made of pure gold had fallen out of the sky.
I could look at it as much as I liked, but eating it was completely out of the question.
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

***

 

Footnotes:

In the traditional Chinese calendar, a week (旬) is ten days long.  The original text uses the saying 五十步笑百步, literally ‘the one who has retreated fifty steps laughs at the one who has retreated a hundred steps’.
It originates from a fable the philosopher Mencius (孟子) told King Hui of Wei (魏惠王, also known as 梁惠王) during the Warring States period.
In the fable, two soldiers flee from a battle.
One of them stops fifty steps away from the battle, while the other stops a hundred steps away.
The soldier who has run fifty steps then laughs at the soldier who has run a hundred steps for his cowardice.
The saying describes the hypocrisy of a person who accuses another of the very thing of which they are guilty, with any difference between them being merely a matter of degree.  In Chinese, 九曲廊.
‘Gallery’ here refers to a covered walkway.  In Chinese, 伴君如伴虎.
The saying suggests that people in positions of power are prone to unpredictable moods, and are likely to mistreat their subordinates according to their changing whims and fancies.  The original text uses the term 变脸, literally ‘change face’.  The original text uses the saying 官大一级压死人, literally ‘an official who outranks you by one level can still crush you to death’.
It means that a person in a position of authority holds absolute power over their subordinates, even if that person’s rank is only one level higher.
This is used to convey the sense of helplessness felt by subordinates.  The original text uses the chengyu 做牛做马, literally ‘to be an ox or a horse’, which means to work hard and do everything one can for another person.  The original text uses the phrase 天高公主远, literally ‘Heaven is high, the princess far away’.
This may be a riff on the saying 山高皇帝远, literally ‘the mountain is high, the emperor far away’.
The latter saying is used describe the central government’s inability to prevent or regulate lawless behaviour in far-flung regions.  In Chinese, 馅饼.
A stuffed savoury pastry with a crispy crust, sometimes described as a larger version of the potsticker (锅贴). 

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