On Chun Sik Sik returning to Cheung’on and the escalating conflicts of the Li princes. Special thanks to Hannah for providing me excellent ideas that I now use in the early and latter parts of this chapter. A ‘deleted’ scene link is already here, scroll down below! Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.
Late Autumn, 625
|Art by Ibuki Satsuki|
Chun Sik Sik had only experienced two autumns in Fusu, but those two autumns had prepared her for the third autumn. She felt that she could tell whether the upcoming winter would be harsh or not based on the autumnal weather patterns. If this year's autumn continued like this, Fusu and its surrounding regions would experience another harsh winter.
Which begged another question: would Tang refugees come again to Fusu this autumn or winter? Li Sai Man's letters, faithfully written and dispatched regularly to her, described his endless fight in the Court to fix the system, but it might be years before the corrupt system was fixed. The last letter he had was almost three weeks ago, concerning a partial investigation team to address the village pilfering during last year's autumn. The lack of letter afterwards would have her worried, had a Fusu spy not informed her in front of King Yau that Li Sai Man had been busy with some court business, but he was safe and sound. Eventually, Sik Sik decided to trust Sai Man to Heaven. She couldn't afford to sleep in fear every night, that wouldn't do her good.
With these thoughts in mind, one late autumn night, after closing the veranda door that connected her private garden to her chamber in the Fusu Palace, Sik Sik changed into a white long inner garment and retired to bed. She was about to drift to sleep when she heard a rustling noise outside the veranda. She opened her eyes and stayed still but alert. The veranda was not accessible from the outside, hence anyone outside would need to jump from the roof into the garden first. At this late hour, anyone in that group would be classified as intruders. Had Sai Man's brothers tracked her whereabouts??
Quickly, Sik Sik retrieved Lok Wan's knife from under her pillow before stealthily jumping out of her bed. With as little noise as possible, she retrieved to the wall and sidestepped to the veranda door. She didn't want to sleep in fear, but that didn't mean she would be reckless. Sai Man loved her, and if anything happened to her, he'd be devastated. She saw a tall figure outside peeking through the waxed white paper that made up the veranda door. With heart beating erratically, she realised that the intruder was trying to open the door. She felt sick when she realised that the intruder easily picked the lock. Hence, when the intruder started to slide the door aside, she raised her knife high into a stance Yau tai-gor had taught her. If this person wanted to kill or harm her, she wouldn't go down without a fight.
The next things happened too fast for her to register. The intruder just slid the door halfway when she plunged outside with the knife thrusted to the intruder. The intruder exclaimed, but he caught Sik Sik's right hand just in time to prevent the knife from piercing him. Then, having no space to evade, the intruder rotated on the spot, effectively dismantling her stance and made her swirl and, by way of momentum, slammed her supine on the veranda floor. Sik Sik was shocked, but she was even more surprised when the intruder pinned her to the floor with his own body, his left hand swiftly dismantling her knife and tossed it into the garden. She was about to scream when she recognised his scent, and then his voice.
"Sik Sik! What the hell! It's me!"
She stopped fighting. She opened her eyes to see Li Sai Man, only a kiss away from her, pinning her body the way she had always missed for the good part of the year.
"Sai Man!" She couldn't believe her eyes. "Why are you here?!"
"What, you don't want me here?" Sai Man was half amused and half annoyed.
"Why on earth did you not just knock on the door and call me?! I'd wake up and open it for you!"
"Well, I missed you and wanted to surprise you. What's wrong with that?!"
"Well, I thought you were an intruder!"
She was right. He made a face. "I was trying to be romantic..."
|Art by Ibuki Satsuki|
That silenced her. A small 'oh' escaped her lips, and Li Sai Man could swear he saw her blushing. He wanted more than ever to caress her face, so he did. She sighed as she felt his touch, which made him tense. Remembering that he was here for more than just a romantic reason, he reluctantly pulled himself from his wife and helped her up. "Since when did you learn self-defence?"
"Since I realised that I need to defend myself so you're not worried about me. Yau tai-gor and his men taught me." Sai Man nodded gratefully. "Why are you here, Sai Man? Not that I'm not happy to see you..." The truth is, she felt her spine weakening as she felt his warmth and savoured his scent again. "I thought you're in Cheung'on?"
"Well, I should...but I have good news for you that I want to deliver myself..." Sai Man was keenly aware of his wife's sweet scent, hence his voice trembled when he resumed. "But I also miss you terribly..."
Sik Sik swore that she could hear her own heart beating. "I miss you too..."
"Well, the good news is..." he sighed and smiled at the same time. "It's like this..." He lost his words. She shouldn't look at him like that.
"Is the good news really good?" She found it difficult to breathe.
"Very." He now realised how much he missed her.
"Then, it can wait, can it not?" She truly missed his touches.
"Well, if I delay it, we'll have to wait for quite a bit." He almost couldn't breathe.
The autumn night had become unreasonably balmy. "Well... I think we have the whole night..."
He kissed her.
No. He ravished her lips and forcefully laid her again on the veranda. Under the crescent autumn moon, the veranda later exploded in their colourful passion.
[link to the ‘deleted’ scenes is finally here!]
Much later, after their passion abated, Sai Man found his wife resting her head on his chest, her long ebony hair covering both his bare chest and her bare back. He could see stars from the edge of the veranda roof, smiling at them. He looked at Sik Sik who was looking at him with glassy eyes. Then she slowly kissed him again, which made him dizzy, for he was sucked again into the wild vortex that was only theirs.
|Art from here|
"Sik Sik.... wait..." he reluctantly stopped her from kissing him. "Wife, if I don't tell you the news now, you won't hear it till the morning."
"Does it matter...?" She was already snuggling his neck. He groaned. He missed her terribly, and he could still take more of her, but he knew she deserved to know about the news.
"It does..." he closed his eyes and, summoning his strength, he held her at bay despite her clinging onto him like a liana. "Sik Sik, I found your birth mother and brother."
That stopped her. "What?"
"Well, more like they found me." He observed her slowly disentangling herself from him, her look a mixture of confusion and hope. He got up, took his stunned wife inside the chamber and told her a miraculous story.
Twenty years ago, upon the death of her husband Cheung-seun Sing (Zhangsun Sheng), one Lady Gou (Gao) was expelled from the Cheung-seun Manor at Cheung’on by her step son Cheung-seun On-yip (Zhangsun Anye). Lady Gou and her two children were forced to take refuge in a small town just outside the Yung Prefecture with her brother, Mr Gou Gim. Lady Gou had two children with her from her marriage wih the late Minister Cheung Seun. The first child was a two years old boy named Mokei, while the second child was baby Blossom, named after the plum blossom birth mark on her left midriff.
Blossom was just a baby when her mother moved back to the village. One night, a one year old Blossom was kidnapped by her step brother's goon. The order was to kidnap both Blossom and her brother Mokei, but Mokei woke up and made a scene, hence the kidnapper had to flee only with Blossom.
"Are you okay, Sik Sik?" Sai Man looked at his wife with concern, for Sik Sik just sat on their bed hugging her knees as he told the story. It was a while before she looked up, her fingers unconsciously caressing her plum blossom mark.
“How did you, or they, found out that I was Lady Gou’s daughter? Surely I’m not the only baby with plum blossom birth mark?”
“We pierced the clues ourselves based on what they knew about the baby and what I know about you,” admitted Sai Man.
Li Sai Man only knew what Sik Sik told him about her life, including that she, as a baby, was found by a family who was traveling back to eastern Tang. The only prominent thing she had was a gold bracelet with a plum blossom stamped on it, hung on her neck with a silk string. Lady Gou informed Sai Man that she just obtained such a bracelet for baby Blossom a few days prior, but the bracelet maker thought that the bracelet was for Lady Gou. Hence it was too big for the baby. But since her baby Blossom seemed to like it, Lady Gou decided to let her have it for a few days as a toy.
By fitting the stories together, Li Sai Man, Cheung-seun Mokei and Lady Gou concluded that for some reasons the kidnapper just left Blossom somewhere. Most likely, on the doorstep of the inn where the Chun family stayed. Later when the Chun family adopted the baby they found outside the inn, they gave her the name Sik Sik (惜惜) based on the pitiful state that she was found, and also based on the fact that the Chun couple had always wanted a daughter. Thus, 'Sik Sik' was Blossom's name as she knew it. During a plague that attacked their village, Mr and Mrs Chun died when Sik Sik was 7 years old, but the little girl survived. She then lived with Mrs Chun's old aunt in another village where Kong Fung lived.
Sik Sik asked Sai Man if her birth mother ever searched for her.
"They did. They searched the area for a month, asking every inn and person they could find. We don't know how they missed the inn you were left alone that dawn, but they definitely tried to find you. They even put some posters with rewards for your return."
"Do you think my...adopted parents... saw the posters and chose to ignore them?" She whispered almost to herself. "They always wanted a daughter, that much I knew..."
"Perhaps," admitted Sai Man. "But we couldn't ask them what happened, and we couldn't ask your great aunt as well for she was also in the dark." He turned her gently to face him. "To me, the most important thing is that we found your mother and brother. Don't worry..." he added as she looked unsure. "They are very nice, decent people...and they're very excited with the prospect of meeting you."
|'Weeping Plum' by Shirley Isojima|
It was a while before she whispered, "Where are they now?"
"In an inn just outside the Fusu border. They will arrive tomorrow. We have just arrived at the inn when your mother realised that i was beside myself for I really wanted to see you again." Sai Man smiled as Sik Sik unexpectedly blushed. They weren't exactly gentle just now on the veranda. "Hence when Lady Gou told me to come to Fusu tonight, I didn't hesitate to leave her. She's safe with your brother Mokei."
"My brother..." she suddenly remembered something. "Cheung Seun Mokei...isn't he the young man who helps you these days?"
Sai Man nodded excitedly, which made Sik Sik happy. A new trustworthy ally was very important for Li Sai Man who had lost one of his most important confidants, i.e., Kong Fung. Before the incident with Sik Sik, the Second Prince had eliminated Kong Fung's Hau Tien Mun to gain the latter's support. Upon Sik Sik's suggestion, upon arriving at Cheung'on last summer, Sai Man confessed what he did to the school.
Understandably, Kong Fung flared. He hit Sai Man so many times and almost delivered a killing strike when the kungfu master realised that Sik Sik would suffer if Sai Man died on his hands. Kong Fung then left the capital, swearing that he'd never forget Sai Man's treachery. Sai Man had written to Sik Sik about Kong Fung leaving, but he spared her the fact that his ribs almost broke because he didn't dodge when Kong Fung hit him, and that it took Sai Man a week before his breathing was normal again. He deserved it anyway.
"How strange it is that your new ally turned out to be my brother..." she wondered at this turn of event.
Sai Man smiled. "I've asked Yau tai-gor to dispatch a welcoming team for Mokei and your mother. The team was dispatched just before i came to your room."
"So I'll see them tomorrow..." Sik Sik whispered, her voice a mixture of hope and fear. "What if... what if they don't like me?"
"What nonsense! They've loved you the moment i told them about you. You'll see tomorrow; they're really nice people." When she still looked doubtful, he clasped her hands with his. "Sik Sik, you’re the most wonderful person I've ever known. You'll do more than fine tomorrow. And I'll be here for you, just in case you need me."
She looked at him and, after a while, smiled.
The meeting Sik Sik dreaded went well. More than well. Lady Gou and her son arrived at the Palace just before lunch time. After a short formality, she proceeded to examine the nervous Sik Sik in her room. Sai Man was there too, for it would be awkward for Sik Sik to suddenly undress her upper garment, even for a woman who was supposed to be her birth mother. Lady Gou politely asked if she could examine Sik Sik’s midriff. Upon the young woman’s nervous nod, the Gou matriarch gently set aside a portion of Sik Sik’s upper garment. She then knelt to check the plum blossom shape on Sik Sik's left midriff. Next to her, Li Sai Man fidgeted, for he suddenly remembered that he was too passionate last night, and hence had left at least one mark on the birth mark.
Idiot, can't you think?!
Lady Gou rose, looked at Sik Sik who was visibly nervous, then at Sai Man, who suddenly blushed like a plum blossom.
"Second Prince, couldn't you avoid marking my daughter last night before I examine her? At least, not marking her on the exact spot?"
Li Sai Man stuttered his apologies before he saw the twinkling humour in Lady Gou's eyes.
"Lady Gou, you mean -"
She raised a hand to stop him. "Call me mother-in-law. It's an apt title, don't you think?"
"Mrs Gou..." Sik Sik hesitated. "Mrs Gou, are you certain that I'm your...daughter? Surely I'm not the only woman with such a birthmark?"
"Of course. But I am very familiar with the birth mark of my own daughter. I even asked the jeweler to make the plum blossom on the bracelet the exact shape of the birth mark." She took a pouch from her sleeve and opened it. "See...I asked him to make another one after i lost you... and since he still had the design and the cast, this bracelet is the exact copy of yours."
On Lady Gou's hand were two identical bracelets with plum blossom stamps on their surface. Even Sai Man gasped at the identical nature of the bracelets. Lady Gou had insisted that she kept Sik Sik's bracelet during the journey to Fusu, and he had relented, although that bracelet was a very important item for him too.
Sik Sik tentatively touched the bracelets. "I suppose mine is this one -" she touched one of them. "It looks more worn and I'm familiar with the subtle patterns of its edges."
Lady Gou smiled. "Yes, it is yours." She returned he bracelet to Sik Sik, who let Sai Man slip it on her wrist. "And you are...my long lost daughter..."
What followed was tears of joy, which doubled when Cheung-seun Mokei was finally allowed to enter the chamber. Sai Man accompanied his wife for a while before excusing himself out. Sik Sik seemed comfortable with the newcomers and they could use some moments without him.
It's weird to be among one's family again after being separated since childhood or, in Sik Sik's case, since she was practically a baby. But Li Sai Man was right; if anyone can do that, it would be Chun Sik Sik. It's not that Sik Sik was never a dear to anyone, her gentle nature easily won the hearts of many. Yet, Sik Sik already lost the care of her adopted parents since she was seven. When she lived with her old great aunt, Sik Sik was more of a caretaker of her relative than a doted little girl. She grew up too quickly, becoming too mature for her age. When, as a little girl she befriended Kong Fung, she became very attached to him for he cared for her a lot. Yet, as they grew up, Kong Fung grew his ambition to be a great kungfu master, and hence he slowly detached himself from Sik Sik.
When Cheung Cheut Chan rescued Sik Sik that night from the thugs, Sik Sik was already deep in her servitude and gratitude attitude that the first thing she did in the Li Manor a few days later was to clean up the mansion. She didn't want to receive kindness for free, hence her voluntary cleaning up the mansion. Although Sik Sik eventually opened up to Cheung Cheut Chan, Li Sai Man was the only person Sik Sik allowed to pamper her, and that was quite a while after they started dating.
And now, suddenly she had Lady Gou as her confirmed birth mother and Cheung-seun Mokei as her confirmed birth brother. Although she initially felt awkward, she found it rather easy to let them in. By the first week, she already felt like siblings with the cheerful Mokei. Before the end of that week, already she leaned on her mother's shoulder as she listened to stories of her childhood. When they accompanied Li Sai Man back to Cheung'on two weeks after his arrival, Sik Sik was already feeling comfortable with her new family. Embracing the approaching winter, they traveled together back to Tang. The group split just over the border, for Sai Man, accompanied by some of King Yau’s men, was going directly to Cheung'on, whereas Lady Gou would like to see Sik Sik's old home town first. They would then travel to Mokei’s childhood house to meet Mr Gou Gim, Sik Sik's biological uncle, and also to let her see the house where she used to live in for a few months before her kidnapping.
In her childhood village, Sik Sik introduced her very old great aunt to Lady Gou, who profusely thanked her for taking care of Sik Sik. True that the great aunt was too old to properly take care of Sik Sik, but she did give her love as she could. It was also in that village that Sik Sik met Kong Fung again, who so happened to be in the village to visit Sik Sik’s old great aunt.
“I thought Li Sai Man lied about him marrying you,” Kong Fung said as they warmed their hands inside Sik Sik’s old house. A good distance away from them, Lady Gou observed them curiously. Sik Sik had told her about Kong Fung as a part of her past life, but never they thought that they’d meet him there in the village.
“No, he wasn’t lying.” Sik Sik said earnestly as she warmed her hands over the fire.
“He did lie in the past,” Kong Fung said, then added bitterly, “Many times.”
“He regrets his actions, Kong Fung…” Sik Sik turned to study Kong Fung’s face. He was still angry and resentful. She didn’t blame him. “I don’t expect you to forgive him right away… What he did to Hau Tien Mun was very wrong. But he does regret his past actions…”
It was a while before Kong Fung resumed. “You were the only reason for me not to kill him. So… if he takes care of you, I’ll try to forgive him one day. Only if he does take care of you.”
“So far, he’s been doing exactly that.” Sik Sik proceeded to tell Kong Fung the story of her unknown childhood life.
“Huh, so it was his luck that he didn’t kill you, eh??” Clearly, Kong Fung wasn’t going to let Sai Man go that easily. “Now he can get the support of the Cheung-seun clan by way of his marriage to you!”
Sik Sik didn’t know that Sai Man told Kong Fung about him almost killing her. For Sai Man to tell Kong Fung his greatest regret only meant one thing: that Sai Man truly regretted it. “He beat himself for it for so long, that I almost couldn’t take it at times. He’s getting better at forgiving himself now… I think he has forgiven himself, if not almost.”
Kong Fung looked at Sik Sik in the eye. In the past, such a gaze would weaken Sik Sik’s knees, but now she just returned it with a friendly gaze.
“He’s very lucky to have you, does he know that?”
She smiled. “He knows that.”
They parted ways as friends at the gate of the village. Kong Fung said he’d go to Fusu just to talk to Yau tai-gor (perhaps to cross-check the facts that Sik Sik told him); Sik Sik let him go. She knew that Yau tai-gor wouldn’t tell a deviated story, for what she and Sai Man had been telling Kong Fung was just the truth.
Just as the Central Plain welcomed winter, Sik Sik, Lady Gou and Cheung-seun Mokei resumed the journey to Cheung’on. The unexpectedly mild beginning of winter aided their journey. They arrived at Gou Gim’s mansion about a month after they left Fusu. Uncle Gou Gim was very happy to see his missing niece had grown into a beautiful woman, married to such an inspiring young man like Li Sai Man. Although Mr Gou Gim was not a man of high rank, he declared from now on to support Li Sai Man in his quest for the throne, for he realized that Sai Man’s quest was based on his desire to help the people of Tang.
Early December 625
Despite the cold winter night, Li Gin Sing's party was as extravagant as usual that Li Sai Man regretted confirming his attendance the moment he stepped into the Crown Prince Palace. Yet, his brother extended the invitation, and considering the recent ‘discussions’ he had in the Court with his brothers, Sai Man thought that a peace laurel must be extended for the country to prosper. Li Ching point blank voiced his objection, but since the Second Prince had decided to come, the Counsellor had no choice but to follow suit.
Li Sai Man entered the Palace garden into a throng of invitees. The early winter night was cold, but the many guests and the torches created quite a pleasant temperature for a gathering. Just behind the entrance, Third Prince Li Yuen Gat (Li Yuanji, 李元吉) flashed his flamboyant but insincere smile at Li Sai Man. The Second Prince nodded and greeted his brother back with as much courtesy as he could muster before following the Third Prince to greet the Crown Prince.
Behind the Third Prince, stood Man Ching Ping and Cheung-seun On-yip (Zhangsun Anye, the very half-brother of Sik Sik and Cheung-seun Mokei). Man Ching Ping looked stoic and distance as always, while Cheung-seun On-yip looked as if he was just swallowing a big bug. His spies must have realized that Lady Gou was visiting Sai Man recently, and that she, Cheung-seun Mokei and Li Sai Man were away for the good part of the month. It was ironic that the Cheung-seun brothers split fraction like the Li princes, with On-yip siding with the Crown Prince and Third Prince, while Mokei siding with Li Sai Man. At times, Sai Man was feeling blue about it, but he knew he couldn’t do anything to change On-yip’s mind. A person who cast away his half siblings would easily be bought by gold, and that was exactly what his royal brothers offered On-yip.
Upon learning that the Crown Prince was busy entertaining the Silla Ambassador, Li Sai Man waited for a while on the main balcony amidst the many invitees. He caught the glimpse of a very familiar face nearby, leaning on the balcony railing. A beautiful, but sad face of Tao Chiu Yi. Sai Man caught her eyes. He subtly nodded and smiled at her. He wanted to come to her and asked how she was, but he knew it would bring trouble.
After Tao Chiu Yi helped Li Sai Man escaping Cheung'on with Sik Sik, the former found herself in a very uncomfortable position. She kept herself guarded, not allowing any man, even his father the Royal Uncle Tau to talk her into lowering her guard. Chiu Yi knew what her father wanted: since she couldn't marry Li Sai Man, then Crown Prince Li Gin Sing (Li Jiancheng) would be the obvious choice. Poor Chiu Yi could only held her father's ambition at bay for so long, though. Prince Tao knew that Chiu Yi was a filial daughter, hence he drank a poison that made him sick (but not lethal) and threatened his own daughter that he'd die if she didn't yield and marry the Crown Prince. Tearfully, Chiu Yi agreed on the horrid matrimony, but she wasn't going to give up that easily. She sneaked some very sharp hair pins and almost killed herself when the Crown Prince started to bed her after the ceremony. When the Crown Prince dismantled her defence, she almost bit her own tongue to kill herself. The Crown Prince finally yielded and stopped touching his bride. Ever since, Chiu Yi became just one of his concubines who he paraded around. Chiu Yi couldn't care less. She was already grateful that she wasn't married to the Third Prince, for Li Yuen Gat wouldn't even blink if she bit her tongue. He'd just deflower her as he wished despite her bleeding to death, unable to speak.
Tao Chiu Yi related all these to Li Sai Man through a secret letter she sneaked into Cheung Cheut Chan's hand during a very brief visit of the palace ladies to the Empress' Estate. Sai Man's blood boiled when he read the letter, but he could not reply at all. He did have some opportunities to catch a glimpse of Chiu Yi during some court visits. He would nod and smile at her. She knew that he had received her letter, she knew that he was sorry for her trouble. Chiu Yi didn't ask Li Sai Man to rescue her to marry her later. She was finally happy that Sai Man was happily married to Chun Sik Sik. No...Chiu Yi asked for the rescue for she couldn't live like this. She'd rather die. She was actually considering some ways of committing suicide when she heard of Li Sai Man's return to Cheung'on. Ever since, Chiu Yi stopped trying to die. Instead, she became alert and observed her husband's behaviours secretly. The Crown Prince would make a mistake one day, and she'd report that mistake to Sai Man.
Chiu Yi caught Sai Man's concerned look. She smiled. She had composed some pointers about the Crown Prince, written in codes so that no one but her knew about it. She'd sneak the notes to Sai Man as soon as she could. But not tonight. Tonight, she was just an uninterested concubine. She heard the familiar giggles of her fellow concubines and realised that the Crown Prince was approaching he balcony. True, a moment later, the Crown Prince greeted his Yi-gor. Sai Man politely replied, forcing himself to look detached although the stoned-faced Tao Chiu Yi was being groped around by the Crown Prince in front of him.
And so the party continued. Li Sai Man, Li Ching and other eminent guests were escorted into the main dining hall. Forcing himself to smile at lame jokes, Sai Man counted the number of wine cups he had to swallow before it was polite to excuse himself. He was grateful when the food arrived, for he was concerned that he'd blurt out his honest opinion about his royal brothers during the party. After all, in vino veritas...
A silver tray of exquisite dishes was presented before him. Sai Man wasn't hungry, but he'd rather eat than drown himself in wine. He absentmindedly glanced at the dishes when he unexpectedly smiled. Among the dishes was a braised deer and eggplant dish. Someone must have tipped his royal brothers of his favourite dish, though the deer was an improvised part. He immediately filled his bowl with rice and the braised dish and ate it. The dish was delicious, but the one Sik Sik made was better.
Sik Sik...He received her last letter she sent secretly a week ago, informing him that his wife and in-laws should arrive in the next few days. The winter weather had been unexpectedly fine, hence they were likely to meet that target. Despite his original concerns that his wife and in-laws were embracing the early winter weather to reach Cheung'on, Li Sai Man actually wished for them to arrive quickly. He longed to hug his wife again. He wanted to tell her of all the court struggles, including his latest attempt to make the riches pay for taxes (so far the Court had been so relaxed about the tax for the riches, yet so severely punishing the poor who couldn't even eat properly, let alone pay tax). She'd listen attentively, she'd know what to say to soothe him from all the Court woes.
Coincidentally (or not?), it was the exact topic that his sam-gor suddenly introduced during the dinner. Sai Man exchanged glances with Li Ching. Was the Third Prince serious in discussing the tax reform proposal during dinner, in front of the Silla Ambassador? Sai Man considered his words carefully when he replied to the Ambassador's questions. He was about to explain his in-depth calculation of how pro-poor tax strategy would benefit Tang when one of his men approached Li Ching and whispered something to the Counsellor. Li Ching in return swiftly informed Li Sai Man happy news: that Chun Sik Sik just reached the Chin Manor.
Sai Man's heart missed a beat when he realised his wife was already in the Capital. He made a lame excuse about his mother-in-law being ill, hence in need of his attention, before immediately left the Crown Prince's Manor. He failed to see the Crown and Third Princes exchanging conspiratory glances, but Li Ching and Tao Chiu Yi saw it from two different perspectives.
"Sik Sik!" Sai Man ran inside his house just as snow gently fell. He recognised her voice, his nostril detected her scent, and before both knew it, they were already in each other's arms. Ignoring decorum, he lifted her, spun her around, and kissed her in front of his mother-in-law (who sighed happily) and brother-in-law (who immediately studied the floor fastidiously).
"Sai Man, put her down," Lady Gou pretended to reprimand her favourite son (in-law). "She's tired from a long journey, you'll tire her more if you don't put her down!"
"Mother!" Sik Sik blushed as Sai Man laughed and put her down. "I'm fine. You're the one who needs the rest."
"Yes, Mother," Sai Man still grinned as he held his wife very close to him. "I have missed your daughter so much, surely you forgive my mishap?"
"Oh, who am I to argue with you two..." Lady Gou smiled with twinkles in her eyes. "Sai Man, this wife of yours, she couldn't take our slow pace and kept asking us to be faster! I kept telling her that she needed to slow down due to her condition, but all the more reason - she said - that she wanted to meet you as soon as possible."
"What condition?" Sai Man was suddenly gripped with fear such that he felt sick. Fighting a sudden urge to throw up, he grabbed Sik Sik's arms and urgently asked her again. "What condition?! Are you okay, Sik Sik?!" He dragged her towards the nearby brazier. "Come, come here by the fire! I've told you not to over exert yourself!"
Sik Sik smiled. She gently grabbed Sai Man's hand and directed him to her stomach. "I'm fine, Sai Man. Mother is just worried because I'm-"
She never got to finish her sentence because her husband suddenly turned green and collapsed in her arms, foams formed in his mouth, his body convulsed as if he was experiencing seizures. Sik Sik screamed and caught him before he hit the floor. As Li Sai Man's consciousness drifted out, he realised one thing:
I'm going to die. And my wife is pregnant...and my child will be fatherless...
Turned out, Li Sai Man didn't die that night. His house doctor immediately administered a general poison antidote. The Second Prince was unconscious for a few hours, during which Sik Sik and Li Lok Wan (summoned from her own manor) accompanied him with trepidation. An occasion that was supposed to be a happy one, for Lok Wan hadn't seen Sik Sik for years, turned sombre due to the unexpected incident.
Past midnight, a sweat-drenched Sai Man woke up and threw up his dinner, lunch and breakfast at Sik Sik who wouldn't leave his side except for a privy break. Sik Sik cleaned his discharge and force-fed him water to replace his lost liquid. The amount of discharge Sai Man threw up was alarming; his face was as pale as sheet, his lips a hue of blue-green, his skin so cold. Sik Sik force-fed him another dose of general antidote; she didn’t sleep at all that night.
Later, Sai Man fainted for three days. Since Sik Sik was adamant to stay with Sai Man despite her pregnancy, Li Lok Wan, Lady Gou and Cheung Cheut Chan took turns to assist her. Li Ching and Cheung-seun Mokei reassigned themselves to fetching doctors to rescue Sai Man. An unexpected help came from Tao Chiu Yi who bribed the Crown Prince house doctor. From the doctor, she found out that the Crown and Third Princes indeed used a particular poison to contaminate Li Sai Man's meals. Sik Sik's arrival prevented Sai Man from finishing his meal, hence he didn't digest the whole poison. This information enabled Sai Man's personal doctor to concoct a specific antidote. Just an hour after it was administered, the Prince of Chin woke up. He had survived the poisoning, but he was definitely bed-ridden for the whole fortnight. Sik Sik, Lady Gou and Cheung Cheut Chan were the only people handling Sai Man's food preparation until he was getting better.
If anything good came out of the poisoning incident, it was that Emperor Li Yuen unexpectedly showed his concerns and remorse of the incident. Li Sai Man and his aides couldn't truly tell whether the Emperor knew that the Crown and Third Princes poisoned the Second Prince. However, the fact that the Emperor himself sent his main Eunuch to see Sai Man during his recuperation and that Sai Man was summoned to the Palace for a gentle chat once the Second Prince was able to leave his house were enough evidence of the Emperor's change of heart. Perhaps the old Emperor finally realised that he’d been raising a wrong heir, an heir cruel enough to poison his own brother to succeed the Throne.
Chun Sik Sik, or as some would call her the Princess of Chin these days, were quite instrumental in maintaining the Emperor's growing favour to Li Sai Man. She didn't plan it, but perhaps it was once again her natural charm that won the hidden fatherly heart of Emperor Li Yuen. During Li Sai Man’s unexpected friendly audience with his father, Sik Sik was waiting for him outside the meeting hall when the Emperor saw her. Some normal pleasantries were exchanged in a short time, but it was apparent that the Emperor had grown to appreciate Sik Sik. Understanding his father's nature, Li Sai Man was naturally worried that the Emperor would take an unnatural fancy at Sik Sik. Thus, upon receiving an unexpected dinner invitation from the Emperor, with trepidation Sai Man accompanied his pregnant wife to his father's Palace. To his immense relief, the Emperor displayed an unprecedented fatherly attitude towards Sik Sik the whole night. He sincerely asked about her health and the health of the baby she was carrying, and he advised Li Sai Man to take care of his precious petite wife, such that Sai Man and Lok Wan (who was also invited) exchanged surreptitious surprise glances. A week later, the Emperor caught cold. Sik Sik had an initiative to send some of her herb stocks, which somehow aided in helping the Emperor getting better. Ever since, Sik Sik was the Emperor's favourite daughter-in-law.
"Don't bother about those rumours," Sai Man caressed Sik Sik's gentle but sad face after she sat on the swing one fine spring afternoon. "I know your heart. We all know your golden heart." He gently caressed Sik Sik's bulging stomach. "Stressing out isn't good for you. Concubine Cheung was just jealous that Fu-wong liked you like his own daughter, thus she spread the gossips." Concubine Cheung was one particularly jealous concubine of the Emperor. Sai Man never liked her, but now he definitely despised her for spreading gossips about Sik Sik.
"As long as you trust me...I'll be fine..." Sik Sik finally smiled. Later, she laughed when Sai Man started to swing her.
Yet, Li Sai Man would later learn the danger of gossips, despite it being far from truth. As the Court started in Spring 626, he pushed forward his tax reform campaign with the goal to have the riches, including the royalties, pay taxes (with a much larger percentage than what the peasants currently paid) and the poor exempted from paying tax. Contrary to the previous year, the Emperor was somehow more willing to listen to his suggestions. This unexpected development encouraged Sai Man's camp, yet at the same time, it set the alarm on the Crown Prince camp. The Third Prince actually had an unrequited passion with Concubine Cheung, thus the Concubine regularly fed him news in the hope that she'd be in his favour when the Throne changed hands. By early summer 626, Concubine Cheung was deep in delusion that she herself believed her own rumours that Sik Sik had become the Emperor's favourite through immoral means. She also believed that Sik Sik was instrumental in making Emperor Yuen opening up to Li Sai Man's tax reform, although in reality, Sik Sik only occasionally discussed the tax reform proposal with Sai Man and his aides. These streams of gossips finally made the Crown and Third Princes believed that the Princess of Chin was crucial in stopping the tax reform proposal.
One fine early summer evening, Li Sai Man was having a dinner meeting at Li Ching's place, attended also by Cheung-seun Mokei and other aides. The Court would hold its final hearing session in two days about the tax reform proposal, and so far Sai Man was confident that his proposal would be accepted. Suddenly, urgent footsteps were heard outside the dining hall. Heads turned to the door as an old woman hastily ran into the dining hall, her hair in disarray, bruises on her face. Upon seeing her, Sai Man's heart missed a beat.
"Nanny Hung! What happened? Why are you here?!"
Nanny Hung was Li Sai Man's nanny when he was little. Always doting on Sai Man, she did not hesitate to join his household once he invited her last winter to watch over Sik Sik. Yet, this time, the nanny didn't come as a happy news bearer.
"Second Prince, Milord! Please forgive me! A masked man entered Princess Sik Sik's chamber while she was resting just now. I came just as he disactivated her, but he hit me effortlessly!"
Blood drained from Sai Man's face. "Where is my wife now?"
"Taken away, Milord! Taken away!" Nanny Hung crumbled into tears. "He took the Princess away! Oh, and her belly is so large now! What will become of her?!"
Li Sai Man had to hold onto the table, for he suddenly felt as if the Earth was swallowing him. His blood boiled as he observed Nanny Hung's bruises. Whoever kidnapped Sik Sik must pay for this, by blood if necessary.
I did warn you about how long it could take for me to correct Sai Man’s course of action, right? Even if he didn’t kill Sik Sik that day, the couple would still have to go through a long process before I can naturally merge their story with history.
In order to satisfy my desire (and also the desire of many fans) that LSM and CSS were finally together, to me I needed to link the fictional Sik Sik to an existing historical figure. History (or her-story?) helped me through Empress Zhangsun (長孫皇后). According to Wikipedia (of which sources are, e.g., Peterson 2000’s ‘Notable women of China: Shang dynasty to the early twentieth century’), Empress Zhangsun, the consort of the real Li Sai Man (Li Shi Min) was known as the “Civil, Virtuous, Serene and Holy Empress” and was “frugal and humble, taking only the supplies that she needed without living luxuriously”. On a request to add utensils in the Eastern Palace where her son lived, Empress Zhangsun’s said, “For the crown prince, what counts is his morality and his good name. There is no need to worry about insufficient utensils.” (Peterson, 2000).
To me, these attributes scream “Chun Sik Sik” out loud. Hence, I have no qualm in ‘using’ the noble Empress as a persona for Chun Sik Sik.
The next chapter is hopefully the final one, which will cover the Xuanwu (Yuen Mou) Gate Incident (2 July 626). Bingham 1950 (“Li Shih-min’s Coup in A.D. 626. I: The Climax of Princely Rivalry”) stated that Li Sai Man was likely poisoned more than five months before the Xuanwu Gate Incident. Thus I made the poisoning of LSM (and also Sik Sik’s arrival) in late 625.