] do you think you could snore a little less majestically next time? I didn’t get a single wink of sleep last night and now I’m tired to death.’

Xiao Hei looked up, all innocent consternation.
He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything Silly Girl let out an earth-shattering[4] yelp: ‘Do they eat lumps of raw ginger where you come from, Young Master Wei?’ She spat something out of her mouth.

Oh no! In my haste to shut her up, I’d inadvertently stuffed a large chunk of raw ginger into her mouth.
I wiped away the sheen of cold sweat that had broken out on my forehead, shifted my chair just a tiny bit further from hers, and forced the corners of my mouth into the semblance of a smile.
‘That is exactly how we eat ginger where I come from.
Regional differences, eh?’

The ability to lie without batting an eyelid was turning out to be an essential survival skill: an all-in-one defence mechanism capable of countering attacks from every quarter.[5] Silly Girl sucked in a breath but said nothing, seemingly stunned into silence.
Smugly I reached out with my chopsticks for the crucian carp[6] in the middle of the table, but my chopsticks were suddenly intercepted by another pair, which deposited a positively gargantuan lump of raw ginger into my bowl. 

Mystified, I looked over at the regal wielder of said chopsticks.
‘A truly useful regional peculiarity indeed,’ she said, still completely without expression.
‘From now on, Zisong, you will be solely responsible for disposing of any raw ginger in the dishes we encounter.’

I had been too clever by half — an egregious error.
I should never have tried to pull any sort of verbal counter-attack in front of the princess.
My intellect was as humble as a single clay brick, while the princess’ was as grand as the imperial palace itself.
(I had never laid eyes on said palace, but I could easily imagine what a majestic — even dazzling — sight it must be.)

I poked gloomily at the potato-sized lump of ginger in my bowl.
The princess seemed to be upset about something, but what was there for her to be upset about? Her mind had always been unfathomably deep, and she was clearly determined to extract her pound of flesh from me,[7] but her shifts in mood had never been quite so unpredictable as this.
It was only when I overheard the repeated mentions of Zhao Yishu’s name from the next table — mixed with the sounds of chatter and merriment — that it finally dawned on me: she was taking her resentment of him out on me!

I was beginning to suspect that in a past life, I must have desecrated Zhao Yishu’s ancestral tomb, murdered his parents, abducted his wife and sold his children to a brothel.
Why else would I keep running up against him? I’d never met the man, and he was far away in the capital, besides, yet he’d already cost me three years of freedom — not to mention the emotional torment I had to suffer (and indeed was suffering at this very moment!).

In this self-pitying mood I finished off my meal and excused myself to take a bath.
By the time I flopped onto the bed in one of the inn’s guest rooms, I was still in low spirits.
Due, no doubt, to my lively mind, my kind disposition and my deeply empathetic nature, my sense of my own emotional injury led me to think of the physical injury the princess had suffered at the hands of the bandits the previous day.
I began to feel unaccountably restless.
I spent a long time staring at a corner of the ceiling where a moth was busily imprisoning itself in a cocoon, but that did nothing to make me feel less unsettled.
Eventually I succumbed to the inevitable.
I got up, draped an outer robe over my shoulders, opened the door and stepped out onto the walkway that ran along the upper floor of the inn and overlooked the street.

The princess’ room was right next to mine.
Light flickered uncertainly in her window; my half-raised hand wavered just as uncertainly as I hesitated over whether to knock.
When I thought about it, it was ridiculous for me to be so concerned over the princess! She had Silly Girl to tend to any injuries her royal person might suffer — what need did she have for someone as clumsy and ham-fisted as myself? My time would be better spent soothing my own fragile, wounded soul.

I sighed, turned and took a hesitant step back towards my room, then stopped when I heard the squeak of a door behind me.
‘Stargazing outside my room at this late hour instead of going to bed?’ I heard the princess say in amused tones.
‘What a whimsical mood you must be in, Zisong.’

I gazed up at the ink-dark sky, feeling as if I’d been caught red-handed doing something I shouldn’t.
Smiling shamefacedly I turned back, reminding myself to stay calm — I recalled all too well that moment during our wedding night, when I’d turned around and been taken unawares by the sight of her in her full glory.
Despite my admonition to myself, I was still captivated by what I saw now.

For reasons known only to herself, the princess had donned men’s attire: a moon-pale changshan[8] hung gracefully from her shoulders.
Faint golden lamplight spilled out of the room behind her, creating a play of shadow and light across her features.
With her tall, slender figure and that nonchalant smile on her lips, she was the very picture of a young, handsome rake.
Absurdly, my restless heart felt as though it had finally found safe harbour.
It throbbed peacefully now, free of the anxieties that had plagued me all evening.
Two lines of poetry drifted dimly across my mind:

Who’s that youth wand’ring through the fields? 
How dashing he does look![9]

I let my gaze linger on the jade pendant that hung from her waist on a red cord. It’s a good thing this Eldest Princess wasn’t born a prince, I reflected. How many palace beauties’ hearts would she have broken with that devastating smile of hers?

‘Zisong…’

I was still lost in my thoughts when I heard the princess call my name — and in a voice as tender as a stream and as distant as a dream,[10] at that.
My heart skipped a beat, and I found myself looking right into the princess’ smiling eyes.

The corners of those eyes crinkled even more.
Gazing off into the distance, she said very deliberately, ‘Although there are no stars in the sky tonight.’ She paused, and her gaze returned to rest on me again.
‘Which begs the question: what are you doing up so late, Zisong? Did you find yourself in need of a walk to aid your digestion, on account of having eaten so much raw ginger?’

My face seemed to freeze into a silent rictus.
The only words strong enough to express my anguish in this mood-murdering moment were the lines of that famous boudoir lament:[11]

You hurt me
Then you smiled and walked away.[12]

***

 

Footnotes:

In Chinese, 折枝城 literally means ‘Broken Bough City’ or ‘Broken Branch City’.
This is likely a reference to the ‘Golden Dress Song’ (金缕衣), a well-known shi (诗) poem attributed to the Tang Dynasty poet Du Qiuniang (杜秋娘), which reads as follows: 劝君莫惜金缕衣,劝君惜取少年时。花开堪折直须折,莫待无花空折枝。US sinologist Victor Mairtranslates the poem thus: ‘I urge you, milord, not to cherish your robe of golden thread, / Rather, milord, I urge you to cherish the time of your youth; / When the flower is open and pluckable, you simply must pluck it, / Don’t wait till there are no flowers, vainly to break branches.’ The poem has often been interpreted as an exhortation to the listener to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of youth.
In this regard, it has often been compared to 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, the opening stanza of which reads: ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today, / Tomorrow will be dying.’  These are the first two lines from the shi poem ‘Already Cool’ (已凉) by the Tang Dynasty poet Han Wo (韩偓).
In Chinese, the two lines read as follows: 碧阑干外绣帘垂,猩色屏风画折枝。The second line of the original poem contains an allusion to the ‘broken bough’ imagery from the ‘Golden Dress Song’ (see previous footnote), which has been replicated in the translation.
The implied subject of the poem is a beautiful woman, and the boughs allude to all the youthful pleasures she is unable to pursue due to her lover’s absence.  In Chinese, 小黑子.
‘Zi’ literally means ‘baby’ or ‘child’.
It is sometimes appended to names as a diminutive suffix, as it is here.  In Chinese, 石破天惊, a chengyu which literally means ‘to break rocks and scare the heavens’.
Also used metaphorically to describe something highly original or innovative.  The original text uses the colourful phrase 遇佛杀佛遇鬼杀鬼, literally ‘meet a buddha, kill a buddha; meet a ghost, kill a ghost’.
This is often used to describe a person who will stop at nothing to achieve their goal, and who has no qualms about removing any obstacles that stand in their way.  In Chinese, 鲫鱼.
This is a popular food fish in Asia.  In Chinese, the chengyu 锱铢必较, which literally means ‘to quibble over the smallest amounts of money’.  In Chinese, 长衫, literally ‘long shirt’.
This is a long and fairly loose one-piece outer garment.  This is a quotation from the ci (词) poem ‘Thinking of the Emperor’s Homeland’ (思帝乡) by Wei Zhuang (韦庄), a poet who lived during the late Tang Dynasty and the early Five Dynasties and Five Kingdoms period.
The poem adopts the perspective of a young woman who encounters a handsome young man during a springtime countryside excursion.
She expresses her wish to marry him, and declares that she will feel no shame or regret for having done so even if he someday abandons her.
In Chinese, the lines quoted read as follows: 陌上谁家年少?足风流。 This is a quotation from a ci poem by the Song Dynasty poet Qin Guan (秦观), set to the tune of ‘Immortal at the Magpie Bridge’ (鹊桥仙).
The poem retells the popular folk tale of the Cowherd (牛郎, symbolised by the star Altair) and the Weaver Girl (织女, symbolised by the star Vega), who were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way as punishment for their forbidden love affair.
They are only permitted to reunite once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies form a bridge that allows them to cross the Milky Way.
In Chinese, the lines quoted read as follows: 柔情似水,佳期如梦。This can be translated as: ‘Our love as tender as a stream; / Our happy day as distant as a dream.’  The boudoir lament (闺怨) is a subgenre of Chinese poetry in which a woman laments the absence of her husband or lover.
The vast majority of these poems — or at least, those examples that have survived — were written by men.  This is a quotation from the 2002 Mandopop song ‘You Smiled and Walked Away’ (一笑而过) by the Chinese singer Na Ying (那英). 

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