On rescuing Chun Sik Sik, which almost took a village…of sort. I've made a label for this fan fiction series here. This is not the last instalment, but I hope the next chapter will be.
|Seems perfect for a protective Li Sai Man and the pregnant Sik Sik (source)|
Li Sai Man never thought of killing his brothers. That is, until one of them appeared unannounced in his estate the morning after Chun Sik Sik was kidnapped, and said brother didn't even bother to hide the indications that he was involved in the kidnapping.
Well, of course Li Yuen Gat didn't admit his involvement, but the way he asked where Li Sai Man's wife was (with the pretext to pay his respect to his pregnant sister-in-law) was very suspicious. Despite him boiling inside, Sai Man decided to follow the game and told Yuen Gat that Sik Sik was under the weather, hence she couldn't come out and greet him. The Third Prince smirked, fanned himself, and said,
"Oh, how unfortunate. I hope she's getting better soon. We wouldn't want you to miss the Court meeting tomorrow afternoon because your wife is... indisposed."
With that, he flamboyantly took his leave. Li Sai Man clenched his jaws to prevent himself from interrogating his third brother, for he was certain Li Yuen Gat knew where Sik Sik was. An anonymous letter was sent earlier this morning to Sai Man, warning him not to attend the Court meeting tomorrow afternoon, lest he wouldn't see his wife again. That was basically the same message with Li Yuan Gat's flaunting comment just now.
"He has my sister, I'm sure of it." Cheung-seun Mokei flared as he entered the meeting hall, just moments after Li Yuen Gat left. Knowing how Mokei would find it difficult not to punch the Third Prince, Li Ching had told him to stay inside when Yuen Gat arrived.
"We all know that, Nephew," Gou Gim, who had been reigning the fuming Mokei inside, commented. "But we have no evidence, hence we can't bring this to the Emperor's attention."
"Not that he would care," Li Ching commented. He immediately added when Mokei protested. "We know Princess of Chun is now a favourite of His Majesty. But kidnapping is a serious business; even with enough evidence, His Highness might think that someone just ambushed the Third Prince instead."
"True. And we don't know where she is..." Li Sai Man whispered. Dark circles could be seen under his eyes. He didn't sleep last night, too worried about Sik Sik. It was a cloudy moonless night last night, so even Cheung'on streets were darker than usual. He had dispatched a search team immediately after Nanny Hung informed him; he even searched until well after midnight, but they came home empty handed. A search party was again sent in the morning to comb the vicinity, but the kidnapper was good at hiding his trails.
"Shall we ask Madame Li," Gou Gim was referring to Cheung Cheut Chan, "to ask your friend Miss Tao? She might have just been wanting to reach us anyway."
"Good idea. I shall ask my wife to find a way to contact Tao Chiu Yi," Li Ching responded, just as a guard entered the room and announced the arrival of Kong Fung. Li Ching and Li Sai Man exchanged glances before the latter ordered Kong Fung to be brought in immediately. The said guest didn't bother with formalities as he entered the meeting hall.
"I won't ask you how you let Sik Sik got kidnapped, given that you're trying to do good things with the tax reform," the Hao Tien Mun leader started, clearly indicating that he hadn't forgiven Li Sai Man yet. "But I want to know what you've done to retrieve her back."
Despite the raised eyebrows around him, Li Sai Man methodically explained what his team had done since last night. Kong Fung nodded several times and asked some clarifications. He also asked to speak to Nanny Hung to collect additional information about the kidnapper. Sai Man granted all his wishes.
"I don't know this person who kidnapped Sik Sik, but I wasn't expecting it anyway," Kong Fung said by the end of the short session with Nanny Hung. "If you have assigned a capable guard outside Sik Sik's chamber -" his tones indicated that he still despised Sai Man, "at least the guard would be able to tell me how the kidnapper acted."
"Kind of too late for a blame game, isn't it?!" Mokei was irked that his brother-in-law was cornered by a guy who dumped his sister first. "Do you have any suggestions to help us or not?"
"Of course I do," Kong Fung replied immediately. He turned to face Sai Man and resumed, "I will just search for her inside your brothers' estates."
"You can be captured," Sai Man said. "But if you're ready for that, I think it's a good idea. I've wanted to do that since last night, but I'm bound by Court courtesy."
"Well, lucky for you, I'm not bound by anything. And try as they might, they won't be able to catch me." Kong Fung turned to leave the room. "I'll let you know what I've got by this evening."
"Wait!" Sai Man wanted to say many things to his old friend, including how much he missed their conversations. But he knew Kong Fung was still livid at him, hence he only asked, "How did you know that Sik Sik was kidnapped? I thought you were in Fusu."
"I got news that you were poisoned last winter. Then more news on how you still want to do tax reform and other things like affordable health care. I just wanted to check whether the news was correct. I arrived last week and found out that the information was valid. Then I got news from Hao Tien Mun students about Sik Sik's kidnapping this morning."
Sai Man nodded. "Thank you."
Kong Fung looked at him briefly before subtly nodded and left.
No news of Kong Fung until dinner time. Li Sai Man skipped dinner, for he couldn't swallow anything. Li Ching arrived after dinner, reporting that his wife Cheung Cheut Chan had been out and about the whole afternoon in her own mission to contact Tao Chiu Yi. Mokei and Uncle Gou Gim arrived a while later after hours of searching in vain.
"What do we do with the tax proposal if we can't find my sister by lunch time tomorrow?" Mokei asked the silent Sai Man. The Second Prince had been in conflict since last night. It would hurt him if Sik Sik was slightly injured; if she was killed, he'd kill the person who murder her and die inside with her. But he couldn't leave the poor people of Tai Tang with burgeoning nonsensical tax either...
"Knowing my niece... she'd tell you to move on with the court meeting tomorrow..." Gou Gim sighed and sat down, sipping a cup of hot tea. "But why does it have to be her..."
Sai Man suddenly moved to leave the room.
"Second Prince, where are you going?" Li Ching was alarmed at Sai Man's body language.
Sai Man looked at him with determination. "I'm going to talk to my brothers. Perhaps we can come with an agreement that... satisfy both parties."
"You can't talk to them!"
All heads turned to see Kong Fung entering the meeting hall, followed by Man Ching Ping. It was the latter who said the last sentence.
"Man Ching Ping?!" Sai Man couldn't believe his eyes. The last time he saw Man Ching Ping was during the winter dinner when he got poisoned. That night, Ching Ping just stoically sat at a distance, listening to the conversation between him and the Silla Ambassador.
"He saved me from ambush inside the Crown Prince residence," Kong Fung simply explained before he sat down and helped himself to a large gulp of tea.
"Your brothers meant business when they kidnapped your wife," Man Ching Ping said again. "There's no negotiation. Tax reform out of the window, or she dies."
"So they did kidnap my niece!" Gou Gim exclaimed while Sai Man clenched his jaws, fuming within.
"I have no evidence yet," admitted Man Ching Ping, "...but I suspect as much."
"How come this is just your deduction?" Mokei was confused. "I thought you're working for them."
Man taihap reluctantly answered, "I do...But they started to leave me out of the loop when I started to suggest that you -" he addressed a surprised Li Sai Man, " - might be correct with your tax reform, health care plan, and other plans. When they said that they could do it to once the Crown Prince was in power, I merely stated that your calculations were sound. Then they started to keep me out of their plans."
"And why did you suggest that my brothers kidnapped my wife?" Sai Man sharply asked. He couldn't afford to make mistakes now.
"They've been talking to Prince Tao a lot these days," Ching Ping sat down. "In secret. They stopped when I walked into the room. Then they assigned me some stupid tasks just to make me leave."
"But Royal Uncle Tao is a clear supporter of Tai Wong-Hing," Sai Man was referring to Li Gin Sing. "There are so many other reasons for them to talk to Uncle."
"Man tai-hap's deduction is correct," a familiar female voice was suddenly heard. Li Ching whipped his head and anxiously welcomed his wife, the Lady with the Red Sleeves who just entered the hall, looking tired but determined. Li Sai Man raised his eyebrows as he realised that Madame Li was wearing a maid’s uniform. Upon Sai Man's inquiry, she explained that she just managed to briefly talk to Tao Chiu Yi by pretending to be a maid inside the Crown Prince's residence.
"Madame Li, that was very dangerous!" Li Sai Man couldn't help but worrying about her. "You could be caught!"
"I have some tricks up my red sleeves, Second Prince, and disguise is one of them. Besides, the Princes were having a meeting with Prince Tao this evening when a certain intruder came -" she nodded and smiled at Kong Fung, "which gave me time to sneak into Lady Tao's chamber and talked to her."
"What did my cousin say?"
"That the Princes were indeed planning a kidnap on Sik Sik. Concubine Cheung is involved. Also Prince Tao." Cheut Chan exhaled. "Chiu Yi suggested that we check her father's estate."
The group finally agreed to secretly inspect Prince Tao's residence. Man Ching Ping volunteered to go with Kong Fung. When Cheung-seun Mokei refused his help, Li Sai Man halted the rising emotions by asking Ching Ping why the latter decided to help him.
"I still want to kill your father for killing my family," Ching Ping admitted as he looked into Sai Man's eyes. "But I grow to like your plans for Tai Tang. I can forgo my revenge as long as you keep your promises once you ascend the Throne. Otherwise, I'll join forces with Kong tai-gor to eliminate you too."
"Fair enough," Li Sai Man nodded. "I suggest you two rest for a while and leave in a few hours. The guards are likely to be more complacent when dawn is approaching."
Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping rested for a few hours before leaving the Chun (秦) Residence around midnight. They returned only in the early morning, just after sunrise as Li Lok Wan attempted to make Li Sai Man eating a meager portion of breakfast porridge. Lok Wan had been staying in the Chun Residence since Sik Sik was kidnapped. She knew Sai Man wouldn’t care about his health, now that his wife was missing, but he had a Court meeting today, and he had to concentrate on that. And also on the likelihood that he wouldn’t be coming, if they received no news about Sik Sik by lunch time.
“I can always pretend that I’m sick…” Sai Man made a face at the lame excuse. “It will cause a setback on my proposals… but what can I do…”
“Let’s assume that Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping find Sik Sik soon. Let’s assume that you are going to the meeting. Which means,” Lok Wan shoved a small bowl of porridge at Sai Man, “you need to eat.”
“She’s right, Second Prince,” Cheung Cheut Chan, who was also staying overnight, filled Sai Man’s cup with some herbal tea. “You need to assume the best.” And prepare for the worst was what she wanted to say, but she didn’t have the heart to say it.
Li Sai Man half-heartedly sipped the tea and ate the porridge. He was indeed hungry, and his body needed provision, something that he denied since Sik Sik was kidnapped. He just finished his porridge when Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping arrived.
“Any news?!” Sai Man jumped from his seat. Cheut Chan and Lok Wan immediately ladled some porridge for the arriving swordsmen.
“Your Royal Uncle is indeed involved in the kidnapping,” said Kong Fung as he drank a cup of tea. “But we didn’t find Sik Sik in his house.”
“So?” Sai Man was confused.
Apparently, Prince Tao indeed organised his henchmen to kidnap Sik Sik and to have them deliver her to a shack by the Wai River (Wei River, 渭河), the largest tributary of the Yellow River, flowing eastward just outside Cheung’on. Belonging to one of his retainers, the shack has been used to store grains transported to Cheung’on via Wai River. People wouldn’t be too suspicious to see the shack guarded, for desperate peasants did have the habit of stealing grains to feed themselves. Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping had to wait until almost dawn before they saw a retainer that had been having a meeting with Prince Tao leaving the Tao Residence. The retainer’s behaviour was suspicious, hence on impulse, they followed the retainer heading out of Cheung’on. They finally saw him entering the Wai River grain storage and, upon hearing a slap and a woman’s distressed voice, Kong Fung realised that Sik Sik was inside.
“They slapped my wife?!” Blood boiling, Sai Man was beside himself. “I’m going to strangle my uncle!”
Kong Fung knew that Sik Sik loved Sai Man. But just now, watching Sai Man practically wanted to strangle an invisible Uncle Tao, Kong Fung finally saw that Li Sai Man also loved Chun Sik Sik in return. He found it hard to manage his mixed feelings, hence he was grateful that Man Ching Ping took over the story.
“The lady inside seemed to be fine. A window was slightly open, so we could see from our vantage point that she seemed to be unharmed.” Man Ching Ping added hastily, “Other than the slap, I mean.”
“Why didn’t you rescue her?!” Sai Man just barely managed to make his tone non-accusing.
“Too many people guarding the shack. We could defeat them, but we also knew that at least three people were inside the shack, very close to Sik Sik,” explained Kong Fung. “I have no doubt they’d hurt her should we try to enter by force.”
Li Sai Man saw the merit of that argument. Still, it didn’t stop him from slamming his fist to the breakfast table, causing the porridge and tea to spill from bowls and cups. Cheung Cheut Chan studied the worried face of the Second Prince. She realised that this situation had to be resolved with brain, not brawl. Then it suddenly hit her.
“Second Prince, gentlemen…” she started, struggling to control her voice. “I think we can’t resolve this situation with violence. At least, not until Sik Sik was safe with Kong Fung or Man Ching Ping.”
Some people in the room absentmindedly nodded to acknowledge her.
“I do think we can salvage this situation in another way…”
That got their attention. Soon, Cheung Cheut Chan explained her plan, including to Li Ching, Cheung-seun Mokei and Uncle Gou Gim who just entered the dining room.
Chun Sik Sik shifted her seating position, for it was very uncomfortable for her to sit chained with her condition. Since she arrived unconscious at the shack two nights ago, she had to go to the privy several times due to her pregnancy. The guards let her do that, but they guarded the privy door like it contained gold and banged at her door several times. 'Rude' didn't even describe it. After finding a better position, Sik Sik watched the shadow of the lattice windows falling on the floor. It's well after lunch now. She wouldn't be able to tell it just from her hunger, for she was often hungry these days with her large belly. But the spring had given way to summer, and the last few days had been very hot for early summer, which was bad for her thirst, but good to create shadows to discern time.
She was thirsty again, so she asked for more water. Grudgingly, one of the five guards inside the shack gave her some sips of water. The other guys ignored her. One of them was the guy who slapped her this morning for asking for water. She answered back, received another slap that made her lips bleed, but before the third slap arrived, the other guard intervened, saying that the Princes did allow some water. No food, just water.
"We'll feed her if her husband skips the meeting today. If not, she'll die anyway, so not much of a point in feeding her." Then they grinned. Sik Sik felt sick looking at those people. Sik Sik knew that they'd taint her honour if she wasn't pregnant. They reminded her of the thugs who attacked her before Cheung Cheut Chan saved her years ago in Gong Nan.
"Wonder when they'll tell us what to do with her. I'm bored sitting here doing nothing."
"Do you think they'll allow us to have her before killing her?" Grinned the other. "Imagine boasting around that you've bedded Li Sai Man's wife before she dies!"
They really made her sick...and also regretful that she didn't progress far with her self-defence lessons. She wanted to say something nasty (at least to her standard), but they might hit her again, and it might injure the baby this time. Hence she remained silent.
Her baby inside the belly suddenly kicked, as if to tell her that they'd be fine, that Sai Man was now trying his best to rescue them. Tears rolled down Sik Sik's cheeks as she imagined the beautiful scenes where Li Sai Man carried their child around, with her caressing her belly, for she was pregnant again by then. She might not have such a luxury...
Just moments later, horse steps were heard approaching the grain storage. Greetings were exchanged. Everyone in the shack, including Sik Sik, became alert. The person who just arrived was the bearer of her fate, hence all inside the shack wanted to know what happened.
"Concubine Cheung!" Sik Sik heard one of the guards outside greeting the visitor. "I didn't know you were coming today!"
Li Yuen Gat couldn't believe his eyes. And his ears, actually. When Li Sai Man and Li Ching appeared at the Court meeting just before the meeting started and Emperor Li Yuen was announced, the Third Prince thought that his second brother came to withdraw the tax proposal. When the Second Prince started to reiterate the merits of reducing or eliminating tax for the poor and creating tax for the richest, including the royalties, Li Yuen Gat exchanged glances with the Crown Prince and Prince Tao. Surely Li Sai Man knew that they meant business when Sik Sik was kidnapped, so why risking her life at all?
"I thought you loved your wife!" Yuen Gat hissed at Sai Man as both princes had the chance to be in close proximity when the Crown Prince was attempting a feeble counter-argument at Li Sai Man's proposal. "Or have my spies been wrong about you?!"
"Your spies are spot-on," smirked Li Sai Man.
"Then!" Yuen Gat struggled to not increase his tone. "Don't you care that she's in our hands?!"
Li Sai Man looked closely at the Third Prince. "Is she?"
Blood drained from Li Yuen Gat's face. He immediately whipped his head to nod at Prince Tao, who immediately nodded back. Li Sai Man still maintained his smirk. He knew Uncle Tao was giving a gesture to an assistant, who most likely would be running, or galloping, like crazy to the Wai River bank soon. Sai Man returned his attention to Li Gin Sing's rebuttal, which got even sillier by the minute.
Seriously, he calls that a rebuttal?!
About half an hour later, Cheung-seun Mokei kicked the dead body of one of Prince Tao's messengers. He checked the ropes that tied up the second messenger, unconscious and legs broken but still alive, to a nearby tree. Satisfied, Mokei played with an empty silk pouch on his hand. Just moments ago, the pouch still housed the Crown Prince emblem.
"You think they'll send more capable fighters than these clowns," he made a face. "So far, we haven't seen an army following them."
"When one thinks that one will win, one does tend to be complacent," commented General Waici Ging Dak (Yuchi Jingde, 尉遲恭), one of Li Sai Man's most loyal generals. "But that means that my army will fight without me for a few minutes, not that I don't trust them. It’s an easy job anyway." He got up, cleaned his trousers and fixed his sword. "Well then, let's not keep them waiting."
"Concubine Cheung," greeted one of the guards. "I understand you were sick?"
Concubine Cheung coughed and fixed her thin veil before replying. "Vermins! You wouldn't know the extent of my loyalty to the princes. A mere cold won’t keep me away from this showdown."
The guard made a face. "What news do you bring?"
"Apparently Li Sai Man loved this woman more than the poor people of Tang. He was nowhere to be seen at the Court."
"So...we release her?" The guard looked disappointed, before he remembered something. "In any case, we need the token first before releasing her."
Concubine Cheung tsk-ed impatiently as she received the token of the Crown Prince from one of two bearded bodyguards who accompanied her. Flamboyantly yet impatiently, she displayed the token. "Enough?"
The guard took some time to examine the token before he was satisfied. "Thank you. She's yours."
They released Sik Sik and rudely shoved her to Concubine Cheung, who immediately stepped aside as if to avoid a plague. Sik Sik struggled to stand clear, wondering what else would she have to suffer. She had never spoken to Concubine Cheung, but the Concubine was even more ruthless and fake than she thought.
"Careful! She might be Li Sai Man's wife, but she is still from the village! Heaven knows what germs she's carrying around!"
"Well, if you don't want her, give her to us then!" Another guard, who had been lusting on Sik Sik despite her pregnancy, dared to speak his mind, which invited some laughter from Concubine Cheung.
“I applaud you for your honesty! For me, I couldn’t care less!”
The guard flashed his teeth as he grinned. "Well, in that case, Concubine Cheung, you wouldn't mind if we use her for a while? I understand you don't like this woman anyway."
Concubine Cheung smirked. "As I said, I couldn't care less. I was hoping that Li Sai Man would attend the meeting, hence we could kill her. But seriously, we never promised to return her totally unharmed..."
"So??" The guards were practically salivating now.
"Well, let me check her outside first, make sure that she's not injured or something like that. The lighting here is bad for me. Then I'll give her to you guys, as long as you're gentle...After all, we don't want to leave marks..."
The lowly guards promised the empty promise in unison as they escorted Concubine Cheung and Sik Sik outside. The Concubine's bearded guards followed suit. Well outside the door, Concubine Cheung knelt to check Sik Sik, nodded several times, and rose again.
"She's stressed and tired, but otherwise fine. Gentlemen, you can kill them now."
In a flash, chaos ensued. One of Concubine Cheung's bodyguards immediately positioned himself between the women and Sik Sik's kidnappers while the other one swirled his sword around to slash the five surprised guards, killing them on the spot. Surprised, the other guards ran towards their dead friends to assist, but some armed warriors emerged from behind the trees, eradicating most of them in minutes.
"I know we need witnesses for trial, but I almost wish we could slay all of them," Cheung Cheut Chan removed her veil after almost all Sik Sik's kidnappers died. "I particularly wanted to kill the five guards myself!"
"Sorry, the honour goes to me," Kong Fung removed his beard and cleaned his blood-stained sword. "If I could, I want to resurrect them to kill them again for what they said about you, Sik Sik!" He looked at Man Ching Ping who just finished slaying a guard. "Well, it seems Man-hing also took his chance..."
"Kong Fung!" Sik Sik exclaimed happily. "How nice to see you again! And, Sister! I was almost fooled to think it was indeed Concubine Cheung, you almost had me there!"
The Lady in the Red Sleeves shrugged. "That nasty concubine liked to put so much make up and use falsetto voice, and her height and build are similar to mine. Plus, she has indeed been having a cold. Imitating her wasn't difficult."
"What happens to the real Concubine Cheung?" Sik Sik wondered. "What did you guys do to her?!"
"Oh, she's fine," Cheut Chan waved a dismissal. "She's just under the weather, the usual cold. She's playing chess with Princess Lok Wan right now, probably winning."
Inside Concubine Cheung's residence in Cheung’on, Princess Li Lok Wan groaned as her chess piece was eaten again by the mistress of the house.
"Concubine Cheung!" Lok Wan placed another string of pearls on the table. "I'll be broke for sure if you keep playing like this!"
Concubine Cheung laughed. "I've told you that you'd lose, Princess, yet you didn't believe me!" She sneezed then moved another piece as she adjusted her cough veil. "I suggest you give up."
"Not a chance!" Lok Wan grinned. "After all, I've always admired your chess prowess, but I also want to beat you!"
"And where is my husband?" Sik Sik asked again in between eating her first meal of two days, two plain buns Cheut Chan shoved into her pocket at the last moment before leaving the Chun Residence. "I hope he doesn't give up the proposal for me?!"
Cheut Chan smiled as she gave her surrogate sister a flask of water. "He doesn't give up on you or the people. I bet he's winning at the Court now. But no matter what, he's waiting for you soon at home."
General Waici and Cheung-seun Mokei strode towards them. The General properly greeted them. "My Princess, Madame Li, I've ordered my men to buy more sustenance for Princess. They will come back soon. Come, let’s help you find a better place to rest while we wait."
Sik Sik smiled and let her brother assisted her. "I've missed you all so much..."
"You have no idea how much Brother-in-Law misses you...He was beside himself the whole time you were gone!"
Li Sai Man won the Court argument that day. Though it would take more time for implementation, the tax reform proposal was basically accepted. Yet, his most important victory was at the end of the day, as he arrived home and found his friends, family and supporters greeting him in the dining room. Lok Wan cheerfully exclaimed that she lost five pearl necklaces to Concubine Cheung, and that Brother Sai Man should reimburse her. Chuckling, Sai Man promised just that. After thanking his friends, particularly Kong Fung, Man Ching Ping and Cheung Cheut Chan, he retreated to his quarters. There, he found his wife, already bathed and fed, sleeping inside their chamber. He didn't mean to wake her up, but she did when he caressed her face. She caressed him back. That night, despite Sik Sik's large stomach, they gently made love under the dim candle light. Later, they slept in each other's arms and didn't wake up until well after sunrise.
[the deleted scene of this communion is here]
Li Sai Man wouldn’t let Sik Sik’s kidnapping slip just like that. He elevated the case to the Court with the help of Sik Sik and four captured guards as witnesses. However, the case was not enough for him to corner the Crown Prince and the Third Prince. The case was only enough to bring Prince Tao for a questioning session in the Court, for the grain storage belonged to one of his retainers. However, since Sik Sik never saw Prince Tao in the grain storage, Li Sai Man and his aides couldn’t prove the involvement of Prince Tao. The four captured guards who were promised safety retracted their statements a few days into the Court trial. When Li Sai Man pressed them, they said that they were told to kidnap Sik Sik, but they never knew by whom. Prince Tao’s retainer who owned the grain storage denied an involvement; he merely said he only found out that Princess of Chun was kidnapped and kept in his shack after the Magistrate summoned him for questioning. When Sik Sik stated that she saw the owner inside the shack, the owner point blank denied it. When Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping delivered their statements, witnessing the retainer exiting Prince Tao’s mansion and entering the shack, the retainer brought forth Prince Tao himself who testified that he indeed invited the retainer to stay overnight at his place, yet the retainer never left the place until after breakfast time. That night, frustrated with the trial process that was going south fast, Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping entered the Court jail to make the four captured guards speak. However, to their surprise, the four guards were already killed. Li Sai Man realising that his brothers’ men had killed the guards to silent them, yet he couldn’t do anything to prevent the Court closing the case on the basis of insufficient evidence.
However, Emperor Li Yuen made a point to say that the Princess of Chun was a dear daughter-in-law of his, hence her safety was his concern. On that front, Li Sai Man won, for from there on, not a single stranger was found to disturb Sik Sik on her regular outing in Cheung’on, let alone entering their mansion uninvited.
Li Sai Man’s victory would have been easier without the attacks of the Gokturks Kingdom. The attacks already happened since earlier that year, but Li Sai Man was still recovering from his poisoning, hence he couldn’t go to the frontier to defend Tang’s borders. At that time, two or three generals were sent to the frontiers; they had to operate under Li Yuen Gat’s army. However, as summer approached, the battles to defend the borders became more intense. Li Yuen Gat was able to ask Emperor Li Yuen to transfer more of Li Sai Man’s generals to aid the frontier battles. Sai Man couldn’t say no for he understood how capable his generals were, but it actually reduced his home front defence. Thus, he was very grateful when Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping decided to help him, at least until the generals returned to Cheung’on.
In early June 626, as Li Sai Man waited for the arrival of Chun Sik Sik’s labour, unexpectedly he received news from Fong Kiu (Fang Qiao, 房喬), one of his most trusted advisors. At the behest of Li Sai Man and Li Ching, Fong Kiu had been in contact with Li Sai Man’s generals inside the Li Yuen Gat army. One of the generals had heard of rumours that the Crown and Third Princes had lost patience with Li Sai Man and had planned to kill him as soon as an opportunity arise. Sai Man tried to ignore this piece of intelligence and chose to focus on helping preparing Sik Sik’s labour, for her health had been deteriorated as of late. Yet, just two days before Sik Sik’s labour, Sai Man received very troubling news that Li Yuen Gat had requested the dispatch of General Waici Ging Dak, one of Sai Man’s most competent generals, to the frontiers. It was rather clear for Sai Man that his brothers were behind this suggestion. To prevent Waici’s transfer, Sai Man had to request an audience with the Emperor where he elaborated reasons why Waici was much more needed at the Capital than at the frontier. Based on the suggestions from Li Ching, Fong Kiu, and Cheung-seun Mokei, Li Sai Man half-heartedly offered his advisors Fong Kiu and Fong Kiu’s colleague Dou Yue Fui (Du Ruhui, 杜如晦) to the borders in exchange of Waici’s continued presence in Cheung’on. It took Sai Man two days of negotiation before his father agreed to send Fong Kiu and Dou Yue Fui instead of General Waici. After the negotiation was completed, Li Sai Man and his brother-in-law Mokei rode quickly back to the Chun Mansion to attend to Sik Sik’s labour.
Yet, upon arriving back at the mansion as the sun set, both men had to wait for almost twelve hours for the labour to be completed. Sik Sik’s contraction had started just before Sai Man arrived home. Yet, she had a difficult progress, with very painful contractions that made her scream into the night. Finally, Li Sai Man couldn’t take it anymore. He practically begged his mother-in-law and Nanny Hung to allow him to enter the room, for he really wanted to hold Sik Sik during her ordeal. The older ladies finally allowed his entrance. After he changed into a new set of clothing, Li Sai Man stayed with his wife through the night. He couldn’t afford even a nap, for Sik Sik looked so spent every time the contraction happened. Finally, just before dawn, their first born came into the world. Husband and wife cried as they hugged their first baby. Sai Man’s robe was blood-stained, but he couldn’t’ care less as he let Sik Sik breast-feed their baby.
Yet, the Prince of Chun’s problem didn’t stop there. It was soon clear that Sik Sik was so tired from the labour that her health was compromised. She persisted in breast-feeding the baby herself, hence she tried to stay awake and eat as much as she could for the baby. Yet, every time she breast-fed the baby, her stamina dropped that she just slept the whole day afterwards. After she collapsed during one particularly heavy breast-feeding session, Sik Sik eventually had to let a milk-nurse breast-feeding her child as she recuperated from her compromised health. It took her two weeks to be able to walk outside her room, all the while she stayed inside her chamber, her face pale as sheet, her breathing short, and her skin so cold to touch. Li Sai Man almost lost his mind to see his wife like that. When she finally recovered, he was so grateful that he shed tears as he hugged her. Yet, true to his inquisitive mind, Sai Man still asked his doctor’s advice on how to avoid Sik Sik’s health problem again.
“Can we still have another baby later?” He fired another question to the doctor before the latter even answered his earlier question. “Was the delivery making her sick? Can we still have...” He blushed, “…well, can I still touch my wife?”
“Second Prince,” the doctor couldn’t help smiling when he replied. “Of course you can still commune with your wife. And yes, she can still have babies. No, the labour wasn’t the reason she collapsed.”
“Then…” Sai Man sat down to prepare himself. “Then what is the reason of her collapse?”
The doctor sighed as he sat down as well. He had tried to avoid this conversation, for he knew where it would end. “The Princess’ health didn’t deteriorate because of the labour. She was reasonably healthy last month. No…” He prepared himself to tell the truth. “The Princess became unhealthy after being kidnapped. It was such a stressful experience that compromised her health…” The doctor stopped as he saw Li Sai Man’s worried face turned into anger. Carefully, he resumed, “Well… but Second Prince, you’ve done the best you could to help her getting better. Our Princess can ask for no better husband…”
The doctor still stuttered some sweet nonsense before he excused himself. He was aware of the rivalry between Li Sai Man and his two brothers, and he knew that he was loyal to Li Sai Man whatever happened. But he also knew that, if Li Sai Man found the extent of the impact of the kidnapping to Sik Sik, the Second Prince wouldn’t let go of his brothers.
It seemed, the doctor was right.
The next day, after a whole day of meeting with his aides, Li Sai Man finally made the time to see Sik Sik again. He found her breast-feeding their baby with such a peaceful countenance. Despite the storm in his head, Sai Man was very grateful to see Sik Sik returning to health. Her hair was flowing poetically again (instead of damp due to cold sweat), her complexion was now colourful once more, the colour of a blushing plum blossom. As she felt him approaching, she turned and cast her beautiful smile.
“Sai Man…look how hungry Sing Kin is…” Li Sing Kin was the name of their first born.
The father gently touched his son’s soft head as he kissed his wife’s forehead. “Please don’t over-exert yourself, Sik Sik… You’re just getting better…”
Sik Sik smiled and shook her head. “No, I won’t. I promise you, after he’s satiated, I’ll get back to bed and sleep. Though it seems that’s the only thing I do these days…”
“And that’s all I ask you to do,” Sai Man massaged her back. “Oh, and eat a lot of good food.”
“I hope I can cook for you again soon…” Sik Sik sighed. “I feel guilty that I don’t cook your favourite dishes these days…”
“Please don’t. You’re doing what you can do right now, that is staying healthy. I’m not asking for more.”
They then chatted about mundane things for a few minutes. Sik Sik studied her husband’s face. He was definitely worried about something, but he didn’t tell her.
“Sai Man, what is it?”
His smile was too quick to appear. “What is what?”
“Something you want to tell me?”
“I’ve told you all I wanted to tell you just now…”
Sik Sik looked into her husband’s eyes as she shifted Sing Kin to her other breast. “Something… you need to tell me but you prefer not to?”
“There’s no such a thing –”
He sighed. Then he nodded and looked away. Sik Sik looked at their baby; he was now asleep. Silently, she returned to their chamber and placed him gently in his cot. She then returned outside to the veranda. Li Sai Man was already sitting on the veranda stairs, absentmindedly studying the green grass of their inner garden. Inside the small garden, next to the replica of Sik Sik’s Fusu swing, a plum tree was standing poetically. It had shed its last flowers last spring.
“Sai Man…” she massaged his neck as she sat down next to him. “Anything you ought to tell me…?”
He sighed again and rested his head on her shoulder. Sik Sik said no more. She just caressed his head and let him rest for a while. Then, as she wondered whether he had fallen asleep, Sai Man straightened up his posture and faced her.
“I just had a meeting with Li Ching and others, including your brother, before coming here.”
She remained silent, waiting for him to continue.
“They suggested me to kill my brothers.”
I just realised that Li Sai Man’s title (Prince of Qin) was actually pronounced ‘Chun’ (as in, ‘Chun-wong’) in Cantonese, for the character 秦 is the same as Sik Sik’s family name (秦惜惜). Thus, I have changed ‘Prince/Princess of Chin’ into ‘Prince/Princess of Chun’. It’s such a weird coincidence that Sik Sik’s family name is Li Sai Man’s princely title…
I think the next chapter is definitely the last one. It will be more difficult to write, because it was closing in to the real history… and I still prefer my Li Sai Man to be a hero, or with the least self-interest as possible…