k of resignation settled over her face as soon as she laid eyes on me.
‘This happens every single time… how do you do it, Wei Zisong?’

Oho, she was vexed now.
I stepped forward and took hold of a corner of her robe.
‘You look very handsome in these clothes, princess,’ I said, grinning cheekily.

She batted my hand aside.
‘Wei Zisong!’ 

‘Yes?’ I responded with alacrity.
The way she’d snapped out my full name lacked the lingering tenderness of her murmured ‘Zisong’, and yet the rebuke had a kind of chiding familiarity to it which fell on my ears like music on my — that is to say, your soon-to-be prince consort’s — ears.

The princess gave me a sideways glare, then began marching briskly towards the inn’s front door.
Hurriedly I strode after her, trying to keep up.
Just as we reached the threshold, she stopped abruptly and whirled around.
Unable to draw to a halt in time, I collided squarely with her.
Involuntarily, I wrapped one of my arms around her waist, and, for the briefest of moments, my lips brushed against her cheek.

We drew our faces apart, and found ourselves staring into each other’s eyes.

Bit by bit, a crimson flush spread over her face; bit by bit, my own heart lifted.

From outside the inn came the murmurs of gathered onlookers. 

‘Oh, where have these two handsome young gentlemen come from? And look, they’re embracing! Could they be the cut-sleeves we hear so much about?’

‘No wonder I can’t find a husband! All the beautiful young men in the world are pairing off with all the other beautiful young men! What a heartbreaking state of affairs for us women!’

‘But — I say, with that great big beard of yours, you don’t look very much like a woman.”

‘Alas, while I was born into the body of a man I have a young woman’s tender heart.
Oh cruel, cruel fate…’

The princess’ expression hardened.
‘Haven’t you held me for long enough, Wei Zisong?’ she demanded stiffly.

Very reluctantly, I let my arm fall away.
‘What a slim waist you have, princess,’ I chuckled, running a hand through my hair.

The flush on the princess’ face seemed on the verge of expanding still further.
Suddenly she reached out and hooked an arm around my waist, leaned in until her face was barely a hairsbreadth away from mine, put on her most nonchalant expression and said, ‘Your waist is exquisitely slender as well, my lady Zisong.’

Taken by surprise, I froze.

The chattering crowd became even more brazen.

‘Oh, a counter-attack! This is becoming truly intense.’

‘Amituofo,[5] let me see no evil! Now where are my calming pills…’

‘Place your bets, everyone! It’s ten to one on the gentleman in white being the top, and two to one on the other gentleman…’

I glanced down at the princess’ white robes, utterly delighted.
The townsfolk’s proximity to the cosmopolitan capital had clearly led them to develop a discerning eye; their judgment was astute indeed.

The princess seemed to lose interest in the proceedings, quite possibly because I was enjoying myself a little too much.
She let go of me and flicked at a corner of her robe, trying to smooth away the wrinkles there.
‘Look what you’ve done,’ she chided, frowning.
‘Now how are we supposed to put an end to this spectacle?’

‘This spectacle’, as she put it, had clearly been a two-man show, yet here she was making it sound as if I were a soloist! I felt deeply wronged by the accusation.
Glaring round at the assembled onlookers, I said to her, ‘I thought you were planning to go into town.
Do you still want to?’

The princess raised an eyebrow.
‘I managed to give even Zhongliang the slip.
Why is it that I can never throw you off the scent?’

She looked so adorable as she stood there pondering this question.
I couldn’t resist another teasing comment.
‘This must be what they mean by “two hearts and minds entwined as one”.’[6]

Annoyed, the princess stamped her foot.
‘Oh, is that what it is?’ Then, with a completely straight face, she added, ‘Since you’re so good at reading my mind, Zisong, I find the prospect of having you as my consort rather terrifying.
I should make you one of my personal guards instead.
That would be a much better use of your evident abilities in surveillance.’

I’d managed to trip myself up yet again.
Become her personal guard? That wasn’t what I wanted at all! Look at that whatshisname, Zhao Yishu — he’d started out as the commander of the Eldest Princess’ personal guards, and ended up marrying the Third Princess instead! Perish the thought! The only princess I wanted to marry was the Eldest Princess herself!

As I stood there, lost in indignation, I felt a tug at my sleeve.
I looked up to see a tall, strapping man with a truly impressive beard.
He was squinting tenderly at me.

‘Young Master, am I by any chance… to your liking?’

As I tried valiantly to keep myself from throwing up, the princess let out a charming peal of laughter and sauntered airily away.
I was left to tussle miserably with my burly admirer, trying to free my sleeve from his grasp.




In Chinese, the chengyu 甘之如饴, which literally means to ‘enjoy (something bitter) as if it were malt sugar’.
It describes someone who endures hardships gladly. In Chinese, 端阳节.
Also known as the Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节), the Duanwu Festival (端午节) or the Double Fifth Festival (双五节 or 重五节), this is a holiday which occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Chinese calendar.
It is said to have initially been celebrated because people believed the fifth month was inauspicious.
To ward off misfortune and ill-health, people would hang aromatic plants such as calamus, Chinese mugwort, pomegranate blossoms or even garlic above their doors.
The festival has subsequently become associated with Qu Yuan (屈原), a poet who served as a minister of the kingdom of Chu during the Warring States period.
Qu Yuan opposed the King of Chu’s decision to enter into an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Qin, and was sent into exile for his outspoken criticisms.
Twenty-eight years later, the capital of Chu was captured by the kingdom of Qin.
In despair, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River (汨罗江).
It is said that the local villagers, who admired Qu Yuan, went out in their boats in an attempt to save him, or at least to retrieve his body.
When his body could not be found, they tried to keep evil spirits and fish away from the corpse by beating drums and agitating the water with their paddles.
This is said to be the origin of the dragon boat races associated with the festival.
The villagers also dropped balls of sticky rice into the river to tempt the fish and keep them  from eating Qu Yuan’s body.
This is said to be the origin of zongzi (粽子), a dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves. In the original text, Feliu River (飞鹭河), which literally means ‘flying heron river’. In Chinese, 物以类聚, the first part of the idiom 物以类聚, 人以群分.
Literally ‘things sort themselves by type; people divide themselves up according to group’.
In essence, it means that ‘like attracts like’.
This idiom originates from the Annals of the Warring States (战国策), which recounts the history of the Warring States period in the form of anecdotes meant to illustrate the various strategies employed by politicians and military commanders of the day. In the original text, 阿弥陀佛 (see footnote 6 to Chapter 3). In the original text, 心有灵犀 (see footnote 4 to Chapter 9).

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