y years old, declaimed, ‘I conquered this mountain; I planted this tree.
Pay me my toll, if you would be free!’[6] 

The chant rolled smoothly off his tongue: a real testament to the amount of practice he’d put in.

By Heaven and Earth, had I finally come face-to-face with real bandits?

To tell the truth, though I’d been a bandit chief for some time, I’d never actually had to fight anyone yet.
Xu Ziqi had always insisted that a bandit chief had to look the part: just as it would be beneath the leader of the Beggars’ Guild to beg for his own supper, it was beneath a bandit chief to personally take part in a raid.  Even though I’d been living in a literal bandits’ lair for the last three years, I’d never actually seen my brothers in action.
This was the first time I’d met anyone else in the same line of work, so to speak, and I felt an unexpected sense of kinship with them.

Folding my arms across my chest, I studied the newcomers for a good long while.
I concluded that they were nowhere as dashing or as easy on the eyes as my own band.
I glanced over at the princess, who was observing the proceedings with the air of a spectator at a show.
‘You didn’t set this up, did you?’ she whispered.
‘Have you arranged for your band to kidnap me again, so that you can get out of going to the capital with me?’

I felt my character was being heavily impugned.
‘Do you really think I would allow these third-rate petty thieves to join my stronghold?’ I asked indignantly.

The princess only smiled and said nothing.
The leader of the bandits, however, seemed to have reached the end of his patience.
‘Cut the chitchat, unless you want to die,’ he said, brandishing his sabre menacingly.
‘Hand over your all gold, silver and jewellery, and I might just spare your lives.
Try anything funny, and you’ll lose your heads!’

Sigh.
What a deeply unlovable colleague! I was debating whether I ought to give them a salutary lesson to the effect that some people chose to hide their light under a bushel[7] when I saw one of the other bandits — a monkey-faced[8] fellow — lean over and whisper something into his leader’s ear.
Said leader’s eyes went straight to the princess; they gleamed with undisguised lust.

Just as you might expect, I flew into a rage.

I took a step forward to shield the princess from those predatory eyes.
‘Since you’re also trying to make a living on Mount Yanluo, I’m going to give you a chance to do the right thing,’ I said coldly.
‘Get out of my sight at once, or I’ll show you no mercy.’

Tragically (for him), the bandit leader seemed to have misunderstood where the balance of power lay.
He stared at me for a moment, then burst into booming laughter.
‘The pretty boy talks a big game! I saw the way you two were looking at each other earlier — sneaked out here to have a little fun, did you? Such a pity I turned up and spoiled the party — for you, that is.
I’m taking everything you own, and what’s more, I’m taking both of you with me.
The little lady I’ll be keeping for myself.
And as for you, pretty boy, I believe Number Three over there has a taste for handsome lads.
How does that sound? I bet he’s going to open up a whole new world for you—’[9]

He stopped mid-laugh.
With unerring precision, a passing crow had discharged a foul-smelling projectile straight into his open mouth.

The princess couldn’t help a chuckle.
She gave my hand a squeeze from behind.

The bandit leader flushed with both anger and embarrassment.
‘Pah!’ he spat onto the ground, and gestured with his weapon for his men to attack.

Ordinarily, I would have been completely confident in my ability to despatch such undisciplined rabble with ease — but now I had the princess to worry about.
The bandits outnumbered us, after all.
If we did come to blows, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to protect her while simultaneously looking out for myself.
There was only one thing I could do: stall the bandits until Xiao Hei returned.

I held up both hands.
‘Let’s not be too hasty.
There’s honour among thieves, as people say.
If all you’re after is our money, we’re more than willing to hand it over — just don’t hurt either of us!’

Veins stood out on the bandit leader’s forehead, made all the more evident by his thinning hair.
‘It’s too late for that!’ he snarled, and swung his sabre directly at me.

I sidestepped the blow easily enough.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that another of the bandits — clearly emboldened by lust — had grabbed hold of the princess’ shoulder.
I sent him flying with a swift kick, then caught the princess’ hand in mine and drew her against my chest.
She was warm and soft and sweet-smelling; her closeness was enough to set my heart aflutter again.

Belatedly, I realised that the princess had already been swerving in my direction in an attempt to evade the bandit’s clutches.
By pulling her towards me, I’d swept her completely off-balance.

The bandit leader was already aiming a second blow at me, and the princess was now squarely in the path of his blade.
My breath caught.
Desperately, I threw us both away from him — but I had moved just a little too late.
The edge of the bandit leader’s blade grazed the princess’ arm, and a line of blood bloomed across her snow-white sleeve.

In that moment, I felt as if I had stopped breathing.
That blood-red thread seemed to have wound itself taut around the tenderest part of my heart: the slightest tug was agony.

I kicked the bandit leader’s sabre out of his hand.
Clutching the princess even more closely to me, I peered into her face.
She was still smiling, but her lovely brows were ever-so-slightly furrowed, lending her expression a somewhat harrowing quality.

My heart was suddenly too full of an emotion I could neither name nor vent.
There was room for only one thought in my mind: Kill them all! Kill every single one of these benighted thugs!

And then— ‘My lady!’ I heard Silly Girl gasp.
The next moment, a black-clad figure swept across my field of vision.
The bandits collapsed soundlessly in its wake, like performers rehearsing a dumb-show.

Xiao Hei fell to his knees before the princess, who was still in my arms.
‘My lady, your humble servant begs forgiveness for his tardiness in coming to your aid.
Please impose whatever punishment you deem fit!’

Silly Girl ran up to us, stumbling as she came.
She drew the princess away from me and glared at me through tear-filled eyes.
‘My lady, you’re hurt!’ she exclaimed, her voice shrill.

The princess waved a hand.
‘I’m fine.’ She glanced at me again.
Then, as if to comfort me, she added, ‘Zisong, you promised you wouldn’t let me be carried off by a bandit chief again.
Just as I expected, you didn’t let me down.’

Sigh.
The princess really was quite unsuited to the role of such an understanding and compassionate woman.
For no reason at all, I found my eyes prickling at those words.
The sight of that blood-red line across the princess’s sleeve rankled me even more than it had a moment ago.
Quickly I turned my back on her, pressing a hand to my chest in a bid to relieve some of my pent-up emotions.

It was only our first day on the road, and already I had added ‘recklessly causing the princess to suffer an injury’ to my list of offences against her.
It seemed as though I’d never be able to repay my mounting debt to the princess.
Truly, I could see no way out of this predicament.

***

 

Footnotes:

In Chinese, 言多必失, meaning the more one speaks, the more mistakes one makes.  In Chinese, 人不为己天诛地灭, literally ‘if a person does not look after their interests, both Heaven and Earth will turn against them’.  ‘Zhongliang’, or 忠良 in Chinese, means ‘loyal and virtuous’.
The surname ‘Jia’, or 贾, is a homonym for 假, meaning ‘false’.
If Zhongliang had the common surname ‘Jia’, his full name, Jia Zhongliang, would sound exactly the same as ‘false loyalty’, which would be completely at odds with his devotion to the princess.  In Chinese, 短衫, literally ‘short shirt’.
This is a short upper garment with narrow sleeves.  In Chinese, 刀.
This is a single-edged sword primarily used for slashing and chopping.  In Chinese, 此山为我开, 此树为我栽, 要想从此过, 留下买路财.
This is a well-known ‘bandit’ chant from the historical novel Romance of the Tang and Sui Dynasties (隋唐演义) by the Qing Dynasty author Chu Renhuo (褚人获).  In Chinese, the chengyu 韬光养晦, literally ‘hide light and nurture obscurity’.  In Chinese, 尖嘴猴腮, literally ‘pointed mouth and monkey cheeks’.  The Chinese phrase used here is 开荤.
In its most literal sense, the phrase means to end a vegetarian diet (i.e.
to begin or resume eating meat as part of one’s diet).
It can also mean ‘experiencing something new’.
It is also slang for having sex after a long hiatus. 

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