|Artwork by Ibuki Satsuki|
On Li Sai Man’s return to Cheung’on... without Sik Sik. Containing a link to a new ‘deleted’ (mature) scene. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. There is an artwork in this chapter that is poetic yet might also be interpreted as sensuous for some readers. Hence I have kept the link on, but I don't display it right on the chapter.
Li Sai Man felt his senses returning after his internal storm abating. He turned to see his beautiful wife lying next to him, smiling dreamily at him. He smiled back and kissed her. Heaven, she was so beautiful, gentle, kind and precious…he always felt very grateful every time they communed. He asked Sik Sik how she felt, but she didn’t reply. Instead, she rose and reclined next to him, her long ebony hair caressed his chest. She caressed his face with a saddened expression. Then, just as he registered her sadness, from the corner of his eyes he saw Sik Sik lifted her arm high; her hand holding something shiny. His brain registered everything too late, for the next thing he knew was that blood splashed on his face and body. He gasped, a wild thought occurred in a flash that his wife just killed him. Has she actually never forgiven him all these years?!
Yet, he was quick to realise that he felt no physical pain at all. Then, with a sudden emotional pain, he realised that Chun Sik Sik just stabbed herself.
“No!!!” Sai Man bolted up and held the swaying body of his wife. Blood oozed from the large wound on her chest, right where her heart was. He cupped Sik Sik’s face in panic, trying to revive her. Yet, the light in her eyes was fading away too quickly as she whispered, “Now you can return to Cheung’on… without regrets…”
Then, too soon, her beautiful head lulled backwards, lifeless. Sai Man was too shocked to respond to Sik Sik’s last words, such that it was a good few minutes before he whispered her name. When she didn’t respond, he shook her body several times until he realised she was gone. Tears welled in his eyes before they streamed down like flooding rivers.
Then he howled into the night, like a wounded animal lost in a dangerous forest, without the protection of the one he loved the most.
|Anon (this one is the last source, they might havesourced it from elsewhere too)|
“Sai Man! Sai Man! Wake up, Sai Man!”
In panic, Sik Sik shook her husband’s body several times. He didn’t wake up. He kept tossing and turning in his sleep, screaming and crying at the same time. In a desperate attempt to wake him up, she summoned all her strength and shook him again violently, until her body also shook because of the momentum.
“Sai Man! Wake up! It’s just a nightmare!!”
That woke him up. He bolted right up, opened his eyes in a flash and hyperventilated as sweat poured profusely, making his skin glisten under the moonlight that peeked through the lattice windows. Then, upon realising that Sik Sik kept calling him, he jolted, turned around to see her, and grabbed her into his embrace.
“You’re alive…? You’re alive?! Tien, thank you, thank you that you’re alive!!!” He let her go, only to trace her worried face and body, making sure that she was safe and sound. “You’re… you’re here… you didn’t commit suicide! You’re still here with me…!”
Then he hugged her again and sobbed again like a baby.
“Oh Sik Sik… why did you do that? Why did you kill yourself…? Can’t you see it destroys me…?”
It took Sik Sik a good while to calm Sai Man, before he realised that she was indeed still alive, and that he was having an awful nightmare, but it was just a nightmare nonetheless. With broken sentences, Sai Man explained what he just saw in his dream, that Sik Sik committed suicide just after they had a very beautiful communion.
“Why would you do that, Sik Sik? Why would you leave me like that?...”
“Sai Man…” Sik Sik shook her head. “It was just a dream…”
“But it was so real…” he whispered almost to himself.
Chun Sik Sik studied the shell-shocked face of her husband for a while before she said that she’d get him some tea. She caressed his face and kissed his tears before she got up and wrapped herself in her white inner garment. They indeed just made love before falling asleep undressed in each other’s arms a few hours ago. She could still feel the warmth of Sai Man’s body on her skin as she walked barefoot across their room. She reached for her winter sandals, wrapped herself in Sai Man’s winter coat and went towards the kitchen.
It was a calm and beautiful late winter night. The crescent moon just shyly set in the western horizon, while a faint purple hue in the east indicated that the dawn was approaching. Sik Sik boiled water and made tea absentmindedly. She knew Sai Man had been having trouble sleeping since last month, since the refugees from Tang arrived at Fusu. Despite their best efforts, the village could not support the continued stream of refugee from Fusu that came after the first wave. Li Sai Man and Mr Ho the village leader had gone to the capital to request for more assistance, which was gladly given by Yau tai-gor. Yet, something changed inside Sai Man after the night the first refugee wave arrived. He wasn’t joking around anymore. He would count their food stock, distribute them wisely amongst the refugee, and talked with them about what happened in the village. Or he’d looked at the Central Plain map, his eyebrows taut in deep concentration.
Li Sai Man had changed after that night… but not because he was a bad person. Because he was inherently a good person.
Or perhaps, he never changed at all. All these times, Sai Man was just facilitating her desire to live a peaceful, bucolic life. Perhaps, deep within, he always wanted to return to Tang.
When Sik Sik returned to their room with the tea, she found that Sai Man was already dressed in his white inner garment, sitting across the window, watching the setting crescent moon. His look was hollow. Yet when he heard her steps, he turned. He observed her serving him tea like he observed a rare painting or a treasure he couldn’t believe he had. Then, he suddenly hugged her again and sobbed into her bosom.
“Sai Man…” Sik Sik tried to no avail not to cry. “Sai Man… your tea…”
He didn’t reply to her plea for a good while. Finally, he let her go and sipped the tea. His shaking was visibly reduced by now, such that when he next spoke, it was quite intelligible.
“I never want to have that kind of nightmare anymore…” Yet, before Sik Sik responded, Sai Man suddenly added with urgency. “The knife! The knife that Lok Wan gave you before we left Cheung’on. Where is it?!”
She frowned. It had been a while since she saw the knife. “I think…I remember seeing it in the kitchen a few days ago…”
“Give it to me.”
Sik Sik’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Sik Sik –” Sai Man shook his head. “I’m not going to hurt you with that knife. I’m not ever going to hurt you anymore. Ever!” In fact, he was rather offended that his wife still thought that he was still capable of doing that.
“No… no, I don’t mean that…” Sik Sik was quick to offer an explanation. “I never once doubt you anymore, Sai Man…It’s just…” She reached for his pale face. “If you think that I’ll use that knife, or any other weapons, to kill myself, you’re wrong…”
Sai Man didn’t budge. His eyes still drilled into Sik Sik’s, such that she had to look away. He sighed and grabbed Sik Sik’s hands, gently making her facing him. “Sik Sik, look me in the eye, and tell me you never had any thoughts of killing yourself these past few weeks.” He had to call her name again when she turned away from him.
Finally, she looked at him, and slowly nodded. “Yes. I did have the thoughts of ending my life and let you return to Cheung’on to be the king who you should be.” She looked at his disappointed face. He was disappointed with himself for not being able to conceal his thoughts from her.
“But…” she rose and walked slowly to fetch a coal brazier from a corner of their bedroom, her long ebony hair poetically billowed behind her as she walked. She returned and placed the brazier on the table, all her movements steady and certain. She had thought through her words for a few days. “But I have stopped thinking about it since last week. I love you. I love life…I treasure the life we share together.” She let Sai Man took over in setting the brazier alight. She then hovered her own hands over the warm glow of the brazier. “…I don’t want to leave you because of that. Also, if I do end up killing myself so that you could return to Tang, you’d feel guilty. And I cannot let you have that horrible feeling anymore…”
“The first one was not your doing,” Sai Man commented as he also warmed his hands over the brazier.
“No, it was not. But you regretted it, and you haven’t forgiven yourself for it.” She turned to look at her husband, who just meticulously studied the warm glow of the burning coal.
“I almost ended your life, Sik Sik.” Sai Man eventually spoke again. “How can I forgive myself for that…?”
Sik Sik studied Sai Man for a few minutes before raising from her chair and went to a cabinet next to their bed. She rummaged around and returned with a piece of paper, a bottle of ink and a brush.
“Write to Counsellor Li now, please.” Upon receiving the questioning look from Sai Man, she added, “Write to him, saying that you’re going back to Tang, and you are waiting for his suggestions on what to do next.”
“You stay here mostly because you feel guilty towards me. Of course, you love this place too, you love being a farmer too. But you are destined for something greater… and I don’t want to stand in your way. I want to support you, in every way I could, while also cherishing the life we share together.”
Li Sai Man looked absentmindedly at the blank paper in front of him. His next sentence was a whisper. “Will you return with me to Cheung’on?”
Sik Sik shook her head. “I’m not entirely sure yet. I just know that you do need to go back to Cheung’on… the whole country awaits you.”
“Thank you. To be honest, I’m not sure I can succeed though…” Sai Man’s hand traced the paper in front of him. “I’ve left Cheung’on for more than a year… Not sure how many allies I have there now. But…” he looked up and caught Sik Sik’s concerned face. “I remember what Master Yuen Jong said to us. If we want to do something, something that we know for sure is right, and we don’t do it, we are likely to regret it one day.”
Sik Sik nodded. “I remember that very clearly. So…” she played with the ink bottle. “Why don’t we just take the baby steps towards it? Start with the most important one.”
Sai Man studied the wise countenance of his wife. He finally nodded and reached for the brush. “The letter.”
“No, not that.” She smiled and enveloped his hands. “The most important thing is… forgiving yourself.”
Li Sai Man looked at his wife again. Once again, he realised how lucky he was to have her.
How does a person face the person he almost killed, albeit by someone else?
Counsellor Li Ching tried not to think about it during his journey to Fusu. He had Cheung Cheut Chan with him to talk about other things. However, inevitably, they would almost always talk about it. Whether Sik Sik had truly forgiven him… and what he’d say when he saw her again.
Li Ching never disliked Chun Sik Sik. His motive of supporting the idea of killing Sik Sik was merely a political motive to gain more support for Li Sai Man. He honestly considered Sik Sik a lovely lady, but a dear frail lady nonetheless. She wouldn’t be able to survive the Palace politic anyway, hence perhaps killing her was actually an act of mercy. Yet, when that day Li Sai Man returned with Sik Sik, shaken yet alive, Li Ching realised that the Second Prince had decided to act against their plan. When Sai Man hastily left the Li Mansion, Li Ching thought that he’d lost a friend, a confidant and an ally for good.
Thus, when a letter from Li Sai Man unexpectedly arrived from Fusu, delivered through their spy network, Li Ching thought he had misread the letter. He had to re-read the letter several times, even asking his wife’s opinion several times, before deciding that Li Sai Man truly meant every word. Immediately Li Ching decided to go to Fusu himself after the snow melted. He needed to make that visit. Li Sai Man’s letter was simple, communicating that he had decided to return to Cheung’on with full support from Sik Sik. Yet he’d like some advice on what to do before returning to the Capital. Li Ching dispatched a reply through the network, asking the Second Prince to wait for his arrival in Fusu so that they can travel back to Tang together.
Li Ching went to Fusu with his wife and two of Li Sai Man’s old associates, the very generals who supported the idea of killing Sik Sik in the past. During his journey to Fusu, Li Ching didn’t really think about Sik Sik. He did, but he always cast it aside and thought of something else. Like, the steps to defeat the Third Prince and the Crown Prince. The steps to prove the cahoot between the Third Prince and the Treasury. And other such matters. Yet, when they approached Fusu, Li Ching couldn’t escape the Sik Sik topic anymore. He actually had no clue of what to say to the young Mrs Li, or the Second Princess. He just knew that him supporting the killing was wrong, and he had no clue how to say sorry.
Then they arrived at the house where Sai Man and Sik Sik had lived for the last 1.5 years or so. The simple house was empty, but it was clear that Sik Sik just finished cooking lunch, for she had not cleaned up the kitchen utensils. Upon Cheut Chan’s suggestion, they went to the field to check if the younger Li couple was there. And yes, there they were. Li Sai Man was checking his land this morning, the soil just woke up from a long and harsh winter and now sprouting greens, and now he was finishing his lunch break. The Second Prince was laughing at something Sik Sik said, which caused her to laugh as well. She then cleaned her face with her hand, which made her cheeks dirty. Sai Man laughed again and cleaned his wife’s face with his hands. They were happy, and free.
Li Sai Man was happy, and this simple village girl called Chun Sik Sik had given him this happiness.
The happy couple looked up when they heard the Tang visitors approaching. The merry light remained in Sik Sik’s eyes as she told Sai Man what she saw. Li Sai Man himself looked excited to see his old friends. He strode towards Li Ching’s entourage to greet them. The sun glowed at the back of his head as he approached them. To Li Ching, seeing Li Sai Man again after having all hopes lost was a soothing balm for his heart. He knelt in front of the Second Prince, feeling so grateful that Tang had its second chance.
“Counsellor Li, please!” Li Sai Man hastily assisted Li Ching to get up. “Please my dear friend. I am so glad to see you, let’s get this unnecessary formality done and dusted!”
Li Ching got up and cast his first genuine smile in almost two years. “I truly miss you, my dear friend…Thank you for returning to us.”
Sai Man smiled and gestured towards Sik Sik. “As I said in the letter, my wife encouraged me to return to Cheung’on. I just hope I’m truly up to the task.”
Li Ching turned to see Sik Sik smiling next to Sai Man. The Counsellor raised his hands to salute Sik Sik with a fist greeting; the girl immediately returned his greeting in kind. The truth is, Li Ching never greeted Sik Sik like that. In the past, Sik Sik was just a peasant girl his wife accommodated into his household. Usually, it was Sik Sik who shyly greeted Li Ching with a curtsy and gently-wrapped fists. The Counsellor would then nod to acknowledge her, but he never greeted her first. Only now that Sik Sik was officially married to Li Sai Man that the relationship changed.
“Counsellor Li, how very kind of you to come all the way here to accompany Sai Man back. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.” Sik Sik first started the conversation.
“Of course, Madame Li. Your husband is a very important person for Tang; we cannot let him return to the capital alone unguarded.”
“Still, it was still very kind of you to do this. Thank you.”
Her voice sincere, no hatred in her eyes, only understanding and acceptance. Li Ching realised that he had been wrong all the time. Sik Sik might be timid and kind, but she was definitely not a weak woman. The Counsellor was about to casually reply when he realised there was nothing casual with their last encounter.
“Madame Li…” Li Ching struggled to find words. “Sik Sik, about what happened before in Cheung’on…” He lost for words, thus he could only look to the ground, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. He felt his wife touching his arm for support, but that didn’t help him at all.
Unexpectedly, Sik Sik was the one who broke the ice.
“You did what you thought you had to do for Tang. Sai Man did the same thing. Of course I wasn’t happy that I wasn’t involved in that very important decision, that my presence was merely considered a nuisance… a liability for Tang. But Sai Man regretted it. He cast away his riches and ran away with me. I have forgiven him. He had amended his mistakes, and he had forgiven himself.” Sik Sik took some steps forward. When she resumed, her voice was soothing. “I have forgiven you too. I think it’s time that you forgive yourself as well, and let go of the past.”
Cheung Cheut Chan had told Li Ching that Sik Sik had forgiven him, but the Counsellor still doubted it. Now, with Sik Sik so readily forgiving him for supporting her murder, Li Ching felt a heavy burden released from his shoulders. He looked up and saw Sik Sik’s natural charms which befitted in this natural environment. Her wisdom and kindness, coupled with her silent strength that had always supported Sai Man all these years away from Tang.
The Queen. The kind and wise Queen that any country would need.
Li Ching couldn’t understand what came over him, but at that time, he found himself kneeling down.
“Second Princess, my apologies for my past conducts that have brought you misery…”
Behind Li Ching, Li Sai Man’s two former generals also knelt down and offered their sincere apologies.
Surprised, Sik Sik stuttered for a while before hastily assisting the gentlemen to raise.
“Counsellor, Sirs, please. I am always just Sik Sik. That Princess title is beyond me, and I do not need it. Your renewed friendship is more than enough for me now.”
Li Ching looked up and smile. He now realised why Li Sai Man couldn’t bring himself to kill this woman. And now, he was also grateful for that decision.
Time flew afterwards. On the same day, Li Sai Man took Li Ching to the Fusu capital to discuss his return with Brother Yau. The entourage took a few days of rest in the Fusu palace while Sai Man, Li Ching, Yau tai-gor and the two Mme Li discussed the next plans. Well, Sik Sik was mostly listening, but she was invited to the meeting and she gladly joined. The fact that Sai Man involved her in the meetings made her happy, for it made her feel that her presence was important for him.
During one of the meetings, Sai Man decided against bringing Sik Sik back to Tang. He didn’t want to bring her into a dangerous situation. Because his return signalled his willingness to take the throne, his enemies would not remain silent. Thus, he couldn’t guarantee Sik Sik’s safety. Anyone from the Crown Prince to his Royal Uncle Tao could take Sik Sik hostage as a leverage, and he couldn’t let that happen. Sik Sik would stay in the Fusu Palace, well-protected by Yau tai-gor.
Nevertheless, the night before Li Sai Man returned to Cheung'on, he and Sik Sik purposely stayed on their old house in the village. Sik Sik brushed Thunder for one last time, for the faithful horse would accompany Sai Man back to Cheung’on. Then Sik Sik made her husband dinner, which he finished in no time.
[click an optional artwork here, the source is from Pinterest]
Then in their favourite backyard, under the full moon after a wine drinking session, Li Sai Man made love with his wife. It began slowly as he patiently explored her alabaster body, trying to remember every inch of her body for he wouldn't see her for months afterwards. Perhaps it was his gentle touches, perhaps it was because he was leaving the next day, perhaps it was the wine they drank, that night Sik Sik experienced multiple explosions. Li Sai Man served his wife faithfully, shifting gear after the first courtship into a passionate lovemaking that pierced the night sky with the echoed of their screams. Sik Sik burst her final supernova in such a glory before collapsing in tears. Tears of happiness of their union and sadness of him leaving. After his own combustion abated, Sai Man shushed her and, gently kissing her, promised that he'd return soon, safely, for her. And he intended to keep that promise.
[ed: read the M version here]
|Artwork by Ibuki Satsuki|
Cheung’on, Tang, six months later
“But, Fu-wong, those people are our people as well! They are your children!”
“So, as children, they need to respect the elders. They need to respect you, Fu-wong, and stop complaining about this and that, and start paying taxes to support you! As children do!”
Li Sai Man looked at his step-brother the Third Prince with disbelief. Oftentimes, he wondered how they were actually brothers. Then he looked at his own father, the Emperor of Tang, who was surrounded by three young girls, younger than Sik Sik’s age, slithering their hands on the Emperor’s old body. Li Sai Man turned away in disgust, and refocused his attention on the discussion.
“Sam-gor, of course they need to support Fu-wong and the Great Tang. We all need to support each other. But if even their basic needs such as food security or free health care for the poor who cannot even afford to go to the doctors are denied, how can they be of support?”
This time, the Crown Prince chipped in. “But Fu-wong is the Son of Heaven. When these people provide for him, Heaven will reward them for that!”
“And how would Heaven reward them, exactly?”
The Crown Prince’s smug, know-it-all answer was, “There is always the way for Heaven to perform miracles...”
“Miracles to about a million people who live under our so-called care? You mean those people who have to work hard every day to pay taxes so that we can live in luxury here, while they barely have enough to eat?”
“Ah, Yi-gor...” Third Prince waved his well-manicured hands, “Where do you get all these dramatic report, eh? That they barely have enough to eat? As I have been instructed by Fu-wong –” Third Prince saluted his father in an exaggerated manner, “I have sent people to inspect on the living conditions of these people. And they live happily in their respective villages. No signs of distress at all.”
In a flash, Li Sai Man remembered Li Ching’s intelligence report; that the Third Prince and the Treasury had been colluding for a few years on taxes and fund disbursement. This recollection, coupled with the haunting image of the old man who died in Fusu, flared him, such that his voice raised an octave when he responded. “And how do we know that your people did not lie about their investigation? As far as I know, we had no independent inspection body to accompany your estate.”
“It wasn’t my estate alone; we had the Treasury investigators in the team!”
“And yet my question remains: how do we know the veracity of their report?”
“Are you questioning the integrity of the team?”
Sai Man looked at his sam-gor in the eye. “Yes, I do. I do question why, on such important matters, the team members were secretly selected without personal background checks. I wonder why the team was dispatched without the Court’s knowledge, and we haven’t even received a detailed report on their mission.”
“What, and the letter –” the Third Prince waved a piece of paper in front of his yi-gor, “- that was circulated earlier today before the meeting wasn’t enough for you?”
A letter was indeed circulated among the Court attendance before the meeting started. It only read: ‘We have visited the villages in question, and found no sign of distress. All people there were very honoured to have the Court visiting them. They wish for Your Highness’ health and longevity.’
“The letter that contains three sentences?” Sneering, Li Sai Man snatched the letter from his brother’s hand. “Where are the details? Eaten by the mice?”
“Are you disrespecting the Investigation Team?”
“No, I’m not. But I want details, and it seems the team is not capable of providing it.”
“Are you questioning my ability in this mission?!”
Sai Man lost it. “Yes, I do!”
The three princes and other Court members jolted in surprise when the old Emperor suddenly intervened with anger.
“Sai Man!” the Emperor descended from his seat and, raising his fingers, walked lividly towards his second son. “I’ve warned you to be respectful of your brothers. Your third brother is supporting the Crown Prince, and I have given them both my support to investigate the village plundering that you requested months ago.”
To be exact, six months ago, just one day after Li Sai Man returned to Cheung’on. Sai Man’s request for investigation was finally acted upon three weeks ago, but he received no updates until this morning, when he suddenly learned that a team had been dispatched to the village on the border of Tang and Fusu.
“Fu-wong, I meant no disrespect,” Sai Man was quick to apologise and offer his salute. “It’s just, because I’ve seen the suffering of those people myself, I truly want to know what the situation is. And I am very surprised to learn that a team had been dispatched, had returned, and with only three sentences to report.”
What Sai Man truly wanted to add was that he actually had inspected the village itself en route from Fu Su to Cheung’on, and he did find the village deserted. Scratch that. His entourage had to bury about two dozen dead bodies of the villagers before they resumed their journey. Yet, disclosing that information would make his brothers aware of where he had been for the last 1.5 years, and he couldn’t afford that. He couldn’t afford to have them sending some people to harm Sik Sik, despite her being safe and secure now with the Bearded Man.
“So these three sentences meant nothing to you?” waving the letter in front of his second son, the Emperor’s eyes narrowed in a challenge. “That they wished me well means nothing to you?”
“Of course it does, Milord,” Sai Man maintained his salute and kept his head low. “I merely wish for more details, which are not yet provided.”
“And they will NOT be provided!” the Emperor tore the letter into pieces. “This is ENOUGH! The investigators acted on my behalf, hence their words are mine. If you’re questioning their words, you are questioning mine! And if you are questioning me, you are against me!”
Sai Man looked up, trying to find a shred of care in his father’s eyes. He found none. “Fu-wong...”
“Enough! It’s late already now. Men! Prepare my departure. I need to have my nap!”
Which usually entailing him being surrounded by scantily-clad young women trying to pamper his ego.
It took Li Sai Man his whole willpower not to leave the Court house ahead of his father, for he was so disgusted at that point to see how the old man started to grope a young concubine, even before they left the meeting hall.
The pavilion pillar in front of him tantalising him to hit it, yet, Li Sai Man refrained from doing it. If he hit pillars and walls every time Court discussions stalled or went south, he’d lose his hands in no time. Plus, he’d have to fix the pillar, and he preferred to use his limited funding for other things, like village inspections and donations.
Thus, he did what he knew could sooth him. He brewed himself tea sent by Sik Sik from Fusu, then he opened the blue silk pouch Sik Sik gave him the morning he left Fusu.
The silk pouch contained a simple gold bracelet that belonged to Sik Sik. It was small enough to be unnoticed, but wide enough to have a plum flower stamped on its surface. Sik Sik had the bracelet since she was little. In fact, it was found dangling on her neck as her adopted parents found her bundled in a plain silk cloth one day, more than twenty years ago.
“The bracelet has kept me safe for years... Now I need it to keep you safe.”
He protested, for he knew the sentimental value of that bracelet to Sik Sik. Yet, upon her insistence, he took it. Now, he was glad he did, for it was a solid connection between him and Sik Sik. It reminded him of the love that waited for him at home, miles and miles southeast of Cheung’on. It reminded him of how he missed her. He missed her presence, he missed her smile, he missed her counsel.
He didn’t register that call. The other person had to make another call before Li Sai Man returned to the present. He looked up to see Cheung Seun Mokei approaching the pavilion. Unexpectedly, Li Sai Man smiled. The young and energetic Master Cheung Seun always managed to keep him upbeat these days, despite the doom and gloom in the Capital.
“Mokei,” Sai Man acknowledged the young man as he gestured to the vacant seat in front of him. “Some tea?”
Cheung Seun Mokei (Zhangsun Wuji, 長孫無忌)was a new addition to Li Sai Man’s small team. Hailing from a small town just outside the Yung Prefecture, the young man had actually entered the Palace before Sai Man knew Sik Sik, but both men didn’t have enough interactions despite Mokei’s admiration to Sai Man. Later when Cheung Seun Mokei heard that the Second Prince had returned to Cheung’on, he enlisted himself as his aid. Sai Man had enough intelligence from Li Ching and his other aids to trust Mokei. Yet, it was Mokei’s eyes that made Sai Man decided to trust the young man. It was the eyes of a kind, trust-worthy man, a man of integrity who was raised by parents who valued honour. Somehow, Mokei’s eyes also reminded Sai Man of Sik Sik, perhaps because Sik Sik was also inherently a kind and trust- worthy person. It only took them a month before Sai Man decided that Mokei did not need his permission prior to entering his mansion. Hence, Mokei’s sudden appearance today, after a heated Court discussion.
“Thank you,” Cheung Seun Mokei politely sat down and took a cup of freshly brewed tea. They enjoyed the fresh tea together for a moment before the younger man asked where Counsellor Li Ching was.
“I told him to go home for dinner, for Madame Li would have waited for him. God knows I also miss my wife and her cooking...”
Mokei nodded. “It was a very tough discussion today...” The young man was there too, in the meeting hall. Mokei saw everything, he saw how Sai Man practically suppressed his steams as he argued with his royal brothers. “I don’t know how you still kept your manners intact...”
It was a while before Sai Man replied. “If I don’t...blood will spill.” He took another gulp of tea as if it was wine. “And... it will give my brothers more excuse to track down where my wife is... and harm her.”
Mokei studied Sai Man for a while. “You love Second Princess so much, don’t you?” A smile was the answer. “Ah, what’s her name? Lady Sik Sik?”
Sai Man shook his head. “She just wants to be called Sik Sik. She said that has been her name all along... so having people call her Lady Sik Sik or Second Princess sounds weird.” He poured himself another cup of tea and proceeded to boil a new batch.
“Sik Sik is a nice name...” Mokei commented as he received a new helping of tea.
“Well, it wasn’t always her name...because she was adopted. But that’s always been her name as she knows it.” Sai Man sipped his tea as he caressed Sik Sik’s gold bracelet. “For all its worth though, I’m glad she’s not here to observe the madness. You see, I long for the day I ride back home to bring her back here as my rightful wife. But now... I’m not sure I’ll live to see that day...”
The silence that followed made Li Sai Man looked up, wondering if Mokei had left the pavilion. He found the young man looking too attentively at the gold bracelet.
“Second Prince...” Mokei stuttered as Sai Man asked him what happened. “Your bracelet...”
Sai Man lifted his eyebrow. “Yes?”
“May I see the bracelet?”
Although he found Mokei’s reaction odd, Sai Man just showed him the bracelet. After a moment of hesitance, Mokei took the bracelet and examined it. Then he looked up, acted like a gold fish out of water, and asked again, his voice trembling.
“Second Prince... does your wife happen to have a plum blossom birth mark? Say...” he hesitated, “... on her... eh... arm?”
An alarm rang inside Sai Man’s head. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if Mokei was another young man in Sik Sik’s life before she arrived in Cheung’on. Then he realised that, had that been the case, Sik Sik would have told him. Then, ashamed of doubting his wife for the second time, Sai Man replied calmly.
“No... she does not have a birth mark... on her arm.”
“Does she have it on...uh, I don’t know... her leg for instance?” Now Cheung Seun Mokei rose and shifted his body uncomfortably. “Or... her nape? Or...”
Then he snapped out of his nervousness. “Pardon me, Second Prince. I need to go.”
Before his host granted his leave, Mokei already strode out of the pavilion, leaving Li Sai Man baffled.
Cheung Seun Mokei’s weird behaviour baffled Li Sai Man for about an hour, before he decided to disassociate Sik Sik with Mokei’s questions. Mokei might have indeed met and fell in love with a girl with a birth mark resembling a plum blossom, but Sai Man knew for the fact that Chun Sik Sik was a virgin before she came into Cheung’on. Without an intimate relationship, any man would not be able to guess that Sik Sik indeed had a plum blossom birth mark on her left midriff – unless said man was a medicine man. Hence, worst case scenario would be that Mokei had fallen in love with a girl with a plum blossom birth mark, and that the birth mark was located in an easily detectable location (such as the palm) or another non-erotic location (such as the upper part of the arm). Thus, Li Sai Man decided to ignore that weird incident. He took a ride with the faithful Thunder and arrived back at his mansion after dark. He had a simple dinner then prepared to retire for the day. He was in his bed chamber, about to dismantle his outer robe, when he heard a knock on his door.
“A Fuk?” Sai Man wondered what the old A Fuk, his main butler, would say in this ungodly hour.
“Second Prince, it’s me, Mokei. May I have an audience with you?”
The only reason Sai Man could think of for such a late audience would be of Court cases. He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose, and went out of his bed chamber, passed the sitting area, and opened the door.
He found Cheung Seun Mokei, his face very pale under the lantern, accompanied by an elderly yet charming lady. Li Sai Man recognised the lady as Lady Gou (Gao, 高), the birth mother of Cheung Seun Mokei. He knew that Lady Gou often visited Mokei in the Capital, and that Mokei had once introduced Sai Man to Lady Gou. But why would this old lady visit him in the middle of the night?
Does she know something about Sam-gor and the Treasury?
With a renewed hope, Sai Man ushered his unexpected visitors into his sitting area. He realised that Lady Gou was shivering, for that autumn night was rather chilli indeed. He was about to offer them some tea when Lady Gou spoke nervously.
“Second Prince, my apologies for disturbing your sleeping time. However, what Mokei informed me this afternoon was of such a nature that I cannot possibly wait until morning.”
“Lady Gou ..” Sai Man tried to contain his hope. “Thank you for visiting. Do you... have anything to say about the Treasury?”
The old lady blinked. “What treasury?” She looked at her son Mokei to check if she had missed anything, but since Mokei also looked confused, she returned to address Li Sai Man. “No, Second Prince... I am not here to talk about the...Treasury. I’m here to talk about my daughter.”
That took Sai Man by surprise such that he was silent for almost one minute before regaining himself.
“Madame... I’m terribly sorry. I am not aware that Mokei has a sister. But if you are here about a marriage arrangement between me and your daughter, I’m afraid I have to decline. I have a wife already, and I love her.”
Now the Gou matriarch was exchanging glances with Cheung Seun Mokei before exhaling and took a step towards Sai Man.
“And for that, I thank you, Second Prince.” Unexpectedly, she took Sai Man’s hands and patted them.
“Thank you... for marrying my long-lost daughter, and for taking care of her.”
Li Sai Man had to do a double-take before he realised that Lady Gou was not joking.
I wrote the opening scene based on Sandy’s idea. It wasn’t exactly what she suggested; Sandy was suggesting that the Foundation 1984 could have been improved (at least I wouldn’t be so morose about it) if Sik Sik was the one who took the decision to kill herself, instead of Sai Man being the perpetrator of her demise. I think it could have been a better angle, but since I want a happy ending, I used this idea for the dream sequence instead. Thank you all the same to Sandy for the idea.
The plum blossom birth mark on Sik Sik’s midriff was addressed in the mature version of Maiden Phoenix Rising and the associated mature version of Sai Man’s last communion with Sik Sik before he left for Cheung’on (which can be read here).
The heated Court discussion was ‘inspired’ by the crazy political surprise that happened last week in the United States (I wrote the Court part the day after the surprise happened...).