I decided all this must have come about because I had cut too handsome a figure in men’s clothes, shown too much intelligence and courage in plotting the princess’ escape, and escorted her from our stronghold in too gentle and considerate a manner.
All in all, I must have unwittingly ensnared Her Highness’ fancy, causing her — in defiance of maidenly modesty — to claim me for her prince consort.

But, but, but… when all was said and done, I was still a pure-hearted maidenly little sheep underneath my wolfish male attire! 

I felt I was duty-bound, nay, honour-bound, to disabuse the princess of her fantastical delusions.
‘Your Highness must be making sport of me,’ I said with a rueful smile.
‘As Your Highness well knows, your humble servant is also a woman.’

A woman, the genuine, authentic article!

The princess was leaning lightly against the railing of the nine-turn footbridge.[1] A breeze ruffled her hair; her exquisite face was completely serene.
‘And did that fact weigh on your mind at all the day you married me? Since we’ve already made our nuptial bows to one another, I am your lawfully-wedded wife.
Would you be so fickle as to abandon me?’

That defeated me completely.
I had forgotten the princess was a consummate actor, capable of instantly mastering any role she put her mind to.
Right now, even though she hadn’t gone so far as to assume the expression of someone bravely holding back tears, she had captured the tone of a wronged wife reproaching her husband so perfectly that she made me feel like a heartless cad.
And so even though I was still firmly buoyed by the courage of my convictions, my tone was much less forceful when next I spoke.
‘It was the most expedient arrangement I could come up with at the time.
Besides, you agreed to it.’

The princess smiled, looking for all the world like a little fox that had just eaten its fill and was now pinning some luckless smaller creature under its paw for sport.
‘Well, what I want is only an equally expedient arrangement.
Let’s make a pact: you’ll be my prince consort for three years, and once they’re up, you’ll be a free woman again.
Do I have your agreement, Zisong?’

Although that last ‘Zisong’ from her mouth was captivating enough to set my heart fluttering like a dogtail blossom wagging in the breeze,[2] I wasn’t completely befuddled yet.
Three years? She had to be joking! I would have ‘evolved’ into a completely unmarriageable old maid by then!

‘That… That doesn’t seem like such a good idea…’

The princess seemed to take this quite well — or so I thought.
Smiling, she leaned over the footbridge to admire the goldfish in the pond, and then murmured, as if to herself, ‘The forfeiture of your family’s property and the extermination of your bloodline…’

Beside the pond, a tortoise which had been cautiously poking its head out shrank instantly back into its shell again.

Spinelessly, I consented to her plan.

I took my leave of the princess and retreated to my rooms, still shaken from the encounter.
I couldn’t help feeling that there was something very odd about all this.
If the princess had been an ordinary young woman, I could have explained the situation to myself easily enough: she might have been coerced into marriage by some local despot, and so needed to produce a makeshift bridegroom in order to fend him off.
But the princess, of course, wasn’t just any woman.
Who could be powerful enough to force her into a marriage she didn’t want? It couldn’t be the emperor himself, could it?

By this time, my curiosity had gotten the better of me.
I summoned my father’s steward, and when he arrived, I asked him to look into the princess’ romantic history.

The steward looked as if I had set him a particularly tricky riddle.
‘That will be rather difficult,’ he said.
‘We’re on the fringes of the empire, far from the capital, and news makes its way here slowly.
In any case, such matters are the royal family’s private business.
I doubt they’d easily disclose the particulars to an outsider.’

‘Just find out as much as you can.’ I dismissed him with a wave of my hand, and then, still feeling a little unsettled, added, ‘Try not to draw too much attention to yourself.
We need to be discreet about this.
In fact, we had better give this operation a secret code name.’

The steward turned back.
‘What sort of code name?’

I pondered this for a moment, and then settled on, ‘The Secret History of Dust.’[3]

The steward nodded, looking deeply impressed, and left.

The events of the day had rattled me to my very core.
My spirits were entirely depleted, and yet when I finally got into bed, I was unable to sleep.
One moment I would be dwelling on the princess’ devastatingly beautiful face and her enigmatic half-smile; the next, I found myself fretting over how long it would take the steward to get hold of the information I’d asked him to gather.
Given what he’d said, I suspected it was going to take him more than a few days.
With all this on my mind, I tossed and turned deep into the night like a pancake on a griddle.

As it turned out, I hadn’t reckoned on the power of gossip.

Just past noon the next day, I was lounging on a reclining chair in the garden, admiring the flowers and sampling a rather fine tea, when the steward hurried over to give me his report.
According to popular gossip, this was the princess’ story:

It was true that the Eldest Princess stood high in the emperor’s favour, and equally true that His Majesty was in no hurry to see her wed.
But within the last few years, the emperor had made it clear that he intended to choose a husband for her from among the ranks of noble sons of suitable age.
Out of them all, Zhao Yishu, Vice-Minister Zhao Tingyun’s eldest son, was the candidate the emperor favoured most.
Not only was this Young Master Zhao a fine specimen of a man, even more importantly, he could fight.
At the age of sixteen, he had won first place in the imperial military examinations and been appointed commander of the imperial palace guard.
Later he had been granted his own military command, which had allowed him to hone his skills even further.
In short, he had a bright future ahead of him.
The emperor, intending to make a match between the two, had entrusted Zhao Yishu with the task of training the Eldest Princess’ personal guards.
It was his hope that they might come to know each other better before they were formally betrothed.
But then came an upset that threw all His Majesty’s plans into disarray.
Without any prior warning, one day Zhao Yishu knelt before the emperor in front of the whole court and asked him for the hand of the Third Princess — the one people called the most beautiful woman in the empire.

At this point the steward broke off, sighing with the air of a man who had seen through all the vanities of this mortal plane.
The wrinkles on his face deepened, as if in pity.
‘Everyone knows that beautiful women can bring ruin,’ he said with feeling.
‘But the ruin wrought by a handsome man can be equally terrible to behold.
How easily it can turn sister against sister!’

I was in the middle of swallowing some tea, which I promptly choked on.
‘What’s this nonsense about sister turning against sister?’ I demanded, grimacing at my scalded throat.
‘The Eldest Princess is so dignified and aloof.
Do you really think she would care that much about any man?’

The steward shook his head, and declaimed, ‘I ask the world: what is love? That makes brothers quarrel, and sisters fall out?’[4]

I was once again caught between laughter and tears.

If the popular version of events was true, then the princess’ story was truly the stuff of melodrama.
Was this why the princess was travelling through the realm incognito? To nurse her broken heart? The thought of the princess pining away for a man irked me, for some reason.

Impatiently, I tossed the contents of my teacup onto the ground.
‘The way I see it, this Zhao Yishu must be a complete philistine.
With her looks, and her bearing, I don’t believe the Eldest Princess could be outshone by some so-called “most beautiful woman in the world”.
Who, by the way, is probably just a half-grown chit of a girl…’

The steward said nothing, and I wondered whether he had become lost in his plaintive musings.
I looked up, and saw no trace of him — only the princess herself, half-sitting and half-leaning against the arm of my chair, with a faint smile hovering about her lips.

‘Then in your heart, Zisong,’ she said, ‘what do you think of my looks? My bearing?’

My hand trembled, and sent my entire freshly-poured cup of tea spilling down the front of my robes.




In Chinese, 九曲桥.
A common feature of the traditional Chinese garden, such bridges have several turns (which may be angled or curved) built into it, so that one can enjoy viewing the garden from different perspectives.
Also known as a ‘zigzag bridge’. Literal translation of the Chinese term 狗尾巴花.
In English, bristle grass.  Dust, in Chinese 灰尘 (huīchén), sounds very similar to the princess’ given name Feichen, in Chinese 非宸 (feīchén).  In Chinese, 问世间, 情为何物, 直教兄弟阋墙, 姐妹反目.
This is a riff on the opening lines of a poem by (Jurchen) Jin Dynasty poet Yuan Haowen (元好问), which reads in Chinese: 问世间, 情为何物, 直教生死相许.
In English, this translates roughly to ‘I ask the world: what is love? That bonds these birds till death do them part?’ 

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