On the final showdown between the Li Princes… and the Epilogue. Click here for the entire Runaway Dragon series.
|Artwork found at Rob Radboud's website|
Chun Sik Sik blinked. She must have misheard.
"They suggested me to kill my brothers."
"And..." she dreaded the answer, "I assume this is not a joke...?"
Li Sai Man looked so sad when he shook his head. Then, a helpless question, "What should I do...? I don't know what to do..."
"Sai Man..." she stopped, carefully considering her words. "They are your brothers..."
"I know..." he sighed, pinching his nose bridge.
"What did you say to your aides?"
He shook his head again. "I told them I can't possibly say yes to that. Then they ask me to take time to think about it..."
Sik Sik looked at her husband for a while. "You definitely don't need my permission for this..." when Sai Man blinked slowly to acknowledge her, she resumed. "Then... you're definitely not yet sure of what to do..."
"True." He sighed. "I don't need your permission. I need your counsel."
"Sai Man... I can't possibly counsel you to kill your brothers..."
He looked at her in the eye. "I know that."
"Yet you're not certain whether or not to do that." Her voice trembled, thus she paused. "To...kill your own brothers..."
"They almost killed you, Sik Sik. They almost killed me too, but I could still defend myself with the doctors and your company. But -" he looked at her again, dead serious this time, "they kidnapped you, subjected you to pain for two days, and stationed lowly guards who, against all morals and virtues, almost couldn't hold themselves."
"You were stressed out afterwards, don't you remember?"
She nodded. "But -"
"Do you know that you almost couldn't make it that night during labour?" He decided to blurt out the truth he had been keeping for himself.
Sik Sik blinked. Slowly, she shook her head.
That was true. After the labour, the doctor blurted out how they came so close in losing her. Only Sai Man heard it, so he only asked the doctor again when he was alone with the kind doctor after the labour. Carefully, the doctor reiterated what he said earlier; the Princess of Chun could have died during labour.
Sai Man originally thought that Sik Sik's weak constitution was the reason for her difficult labour, but then a few weeks afterwards he learned that it was not the case. She was considerably weakened due to the kidnapping, and the stress of a possible rape during the kidnap.
"Sik Sik -" Sai Man grabbed her shoulders. "You almost died that night. You were tired and stressed out during the kidnapping, and that taxed your body." He exhaled and resumed, emphasising each word. "I. Almost. Lost. You that night."
"Sai Man..." Tears welled in her eyes as she let him hug her. "I didn't know..."
"I didn't want you to," he whispered. "But now I know what they'd do if I make a mistake, a misstep in the Court. They'll have my head and mistreat you. They might eradicate your clan. Then they'll bring down Tai Tang because of their ignorant governance. I can't let that happen..."
Sik Sik hugged her husband back. She knew what he said could happen if the Crown Prince was in charge. Still... "They're still your brothers..."
"I know that." He buried his face deeper into her hair. "That's why I'm at loss..."
Sik Sik closed her eyes. She was at loss, too.
Li Sai Man delayed giving any response to that idea for a few days. Yet, when his silence gave way to an unprecedented heated argument between Sik Sik (who had decided that the idea was bad) and her brother Cheung-seun Mokei (who had made the Crown and Third princes his sworn enemies), the Second Prince decided he needed to take a break. When Sik Sik tersely said she wanted to go to her favourite temple for prayer, Sai Man went out with her on impulse and also to protect her. Perhaps Sik Sik's treasured Buddha could help him decide.
Sik Sik's bad mood was soon alleviated as they approached the vicinity of the temple, located just outside the western wall of Cheung'on. "I wonder if we'll meet Master Yuen Jong one of these days..." she wondered as she let Sai Man lifted her from Thunder. "Or would he be on his journey to the West already?"
Sai Man just made a non-commital sound as he looked at the temple gate. He felt he recognised an old woman that was entering the temple, assisted by a young aide. He shook his head and followed Sik Sik inside as one of his aides secured Thunder. As Sik Sik lit the incense and chanted her usual sutras, Sai Man sat by a pillar and lulled his head against it. The temple felt peaceful and cool, soothing his confused mind.
When Li Sai Man opened his eyes, he saw Sik Sik just wrapped up her chants and now was walking towards a monk to give her donation. Sai Man was putting his shoes on when he caught the look of the older woman he saw earlier. Then he realised why he thought he knew her. After glancing in alert at the surrounding, he nodded at the old woman and followed her outside the meditation hall. Under a tree before the exit, he finally greeted her.
"Cousin, I never thought I'd see you here in this disguise."
Tao Chiu Yi couldn't hide her happy smile under her old-lady make up. She straightened up to reveal her youthful posture. "I never thought I'd see you here, Second Cousin! You weren't a temple-goer as I remember."
"I'm still not," he admitted. "Yet I like listening to Sik Sik's chants. Plus, with what happens these days, I just want her to be safe."
Tao Chiu Yi nodded. "Princess of Chun has a sincere heart. I'm happy for you two."
Li Sai Man nodded in gratitude. “Thank you for your information that saved my life, and also Sik Sik’s.” When she smiled to acknowledge him, with clouded face, he continued. "I'm sorry I haven't been able to release you from that place..."
She shook her head. "I trust you're thinking of something."
"Why are you in disguise? I thought you can go to the temple as you wish, as long as you're guarded?"
"That's the point. I hate the constant surveillance; it's like living in a prison! Hence, borrowing Madame Li's methods, I decided to wander around in disguise. I've considered sneaking out to meet you or Madame Li, but I thought, I'd practice with the temple first."
"That's very dangerous, what you're doing!"
"Better embracing danger than living a humiliated life!" Her eyes sparked with determination which silenced Sai Man.
"Have they done that much damage to you...?" He finally whispered. At that time, Sik Sik was approaching them, preventing Chiu Yi from replying. Upon recognising the "old lady", Sik Sik gasped and hugged her. It was the first time the two women properly greeted each other after Sik Sik and Sai Man left Cheung'on more than two years ago and it mattered a lot for Sik Sik that she finally could convey her gratitude for Chiu Yi's help since even before the Cheung'on escape.
"Thank you so much for your help with the poison antidote, and also with my kidnapping. And...I'm so sorry that I was ever doubting you that day," Sik Sik said, feeling embarrassed that she once thought that Chiu Yi wanted to steal Sai Man, whereas Miss Tao just wanted to warn her about Sai Man's plan.
"It was natural that you doubted me," Chiu Yi nodded to acknowledge Sik Sik's embarrassment. "And most importantly, Man-gor has changed his mind and now he's protecting you." She smiled at Sai Man, who was also embarrassed to be reminded of what he almost did to Sik Sik. "I learned how your friends rescued Sik Sik while you scored the tax proposal. It was a pleasure to see your brothers fuming over your double victories."
Sai Man grinned and held the smiling Sik Sik.
"Keep her safe, though, Man-gor," Chiu Yi unexpectedly added. "I've learned that your brothers truly want to terminate you..."
"I'm aware of that," Sai Man replied, as Sik Sik exhaled a sharp breath next to him.
"- and that they have been talking about sharing Sik Sik between them in the event of your demise," Chiu Yi added in a deadpan tone. "I'm not joking," she added as she saw Sai Man glaring in disbelief. "I've heard it several times now how they both desired your wife." Then, to Sik Sik, who was visibly retreating inward, she added, "But I'm sure Man-gor will protect you, Sik Sik. You're going to win this, Cousin. I have faith in you."
Thunder (the real thunder, not the horse) was heard cracking in the sky, filling the silence left by Chiu Yi's information. She looked at the sky and declared that they must make their way back soon. After some sincere goodbyes, they parted ways. Chiu Yi had a palanquin with her, inside of which she'd change back into Concubine Tao.
Li Sai Man took time to let a distance between them and Chiu Yi. He didn't want her to be seen with them, lest it would put her in danger. Afterwards, he helped Sik Sik rode onto Thunder the horse, and together they rode back to Cheung'on with their aides behind them. It rained just before they entered the city gate, hence they decided to rest inside a pavilion by the road. No one was using the pavilion, hence they could have the place for themselves. The pavilion was big enough for Sai Man's aides to hurdle in one corner while the Second Prince held his wife tight in another corner.
After some silence, Sai Man finally whispered to Sik Sik's ears. "I have to eliminate my brothers, Sik Sik. I'm so sorry...but if that's the only way to protect you and the people, I'll get the blood on my hands..."
Chun Sik Sik knew what Li Sai Man was going to say since Tao Chiu Yi left, hence she felt somewhat relieved that he finally said it. Yet, she knew she could not agree to it.
"I know you don't agree with me, but this time, I need to go against your counsel."
"You'll have blood on your hands..."
"I'll take that risk to protect you."
She said nothing. Instead, she just let him hold her. She couldn't stop him from his plan, but she'd be there to hold him and support him throughout the ordeal, whatever the result would be.
Late June 626
Days suddenly went by like a puff of smoke for Chun Sik Sik. The Chun Manor was always busy since Li Sai Man returned to Cheung’on, but the recent ripples of activities in the Manor were different than before. The morning meetings and afternoon consultations. The night visits of Li Sai Man’s aides. One night-visit of Cheung Cheut Chan in her maid uniform and her disguise make up, giving Sai Man a secret letter from Tao Chiu Yi. Then, a late evening meeting between Li Sai Man and his aides, including his advisors Fong Kiu and Dou Yue Fui, summoned through Cheung-seun Mokei from the frontline. The fact that Fong Kiu and Dou Yue Fui sneaked into the Chun Manor dressed as monks was enough for Sik Sik to realise the lethal nature of the game. Li Sai Man himself gave her detailed information, such that Sik Sik was as well-informed as Kong Fung and Man Ching Ping, who have decided to support Li Sai Man’s plan.
Then it happened. Based on his aides’ suggestions, the Second Prince had used the factual infatuation between the Third Prince and Concubine Cheung as his weapon. Li Sai Man sent a secret message to his father Emperor Li Yuen about the unfaithfulness of the Crown and the Third Princes. Tao Chiu Yi again lent a hand by providing Li Sai Man with an earring and a bangle of Concubine Cheung that the Concubine had carelessly left behind in the Third Prince’s Manor while Tao Chiu Yi was accompanying the Crown Prince to visit his brother. Li Sai Man had enclosed the earring and the bangle with the secret letter. Of course, Concubine Cheung could say that someone had stolen the jewelleries, but the main point was not to confront the Concubine and the Princes. The main point was to make Li Gin Sing and Li Yuen Gat panic, such that they lowered the guard and prone to attack.
Although Sai Man was hoping that his father would respond positively (at least for him) to the letter, he was surprised that the Emperor actually summoned him right away. On the 3rd day of the 6th month of the 9th year of Mou Dak (Wu Te), or 1 July 626, Li Sai Man received a note that he should attend the Court in the morning with his brothers for a cross examination. After his father’s eunuch left, Sai Man read the notes out loud once more in front of his aides.
“Show down is tomorrow,” He said afterwards as he gave Li Ching the letter.
“We’ll be ready,” Cheung-seun Mokei replied calmly.
“I’m so done with your brothers’ antics, Milord, that I’m so ready for tomorrow,” General Waici Ging Dak (Yuchi Jingde, 尉遲恭) added, his left hand gripping the hilt of his sword hanging on his hip. Not long before Li Sai Man met Chun Sik Sik, Waici Ging Dak was almost executed by the Court due to some accusations from the Crown Prince estate, which was triggered by the General’s refusal to join the Crown Prince’s team. Li Sai Man’s plea to the Emperor was the only reason General Waici still had his head attached to his body, hence the General had been a very faithful follower of the Second Prince ever since, even when Sai Man took the hiatus in Fusu.
“Well, gentlemen, so you know what to do then.” Sai Man looked around the room. “Sik Sik –” he addressed his wife who had been faithfully listening to the conversation. “Please keep your promise.” When she looked in doubt, the Second Prince turned to his old friends. “Kong Fung, Man tai-gor, you understand why I need you to accompany her.”
Kong Fung looked alternatingly between Li Sai Man and Sik Sik. “I understand,” he nodded. Earlier, Sai Man had ordered Sik Sik to stay at home. He had also emphasized that under no circumstances would Kong Fung leave Sik Sik, for the Hao Tien Mun leader was the most capable person that Sai Man trusted the most to safeguard his wife. Sai Man agreed to have Man Ching-ping shifting between tasks, but Kong Fung had to be with Sik Sik. As weird as it was for Kong Fung to have his former rival requesting him to escort Sik Sik, Kong Fung realised why Li Sai Man asked him to do that. To protect the one you love, you need to send the one who cared for her the most. And although Cheung-seun Mokei was very close to Sik Sik these days, the one person who would care for her like Sai Man would was Kong Fung himself. The Hao Tien Mun hero didn’t know what to think of that request, other than realising the logic behind it.
“Then it’s settled then. Let’s retire early tonight.”
However, Li Sai Man didn’t go to sleep until late at night; nor did Chun Sik Sik. Together, they just held hands and watched the stars in the dark velvet night tapestry. They knew if the plan failed, it would be the end of their lives, and thus none of them wanted to go to sleep. They eventually did sleep for a few hours, before Sik Sik woke up on instinct. She was about to wake her husband up when he opened his eyes and reached for her hands.
“I love you,” he whispered as he squeezed her hands against his chest. “Wait for my news.”
She nodded and squeezed his hands back.
[I might write a deleted scene for the last night before the coup if you ask me in the comments...]
2 July 626
The blushing dawn of the 4th day of the 6th month of the 9th year of Mou Dak saw about ten men already waiting in the dark at one of the turrets of the Yuen Mou (Xuanwu, 玄武) Gate, the northern wall of Cheung’on. None of the men were nervous. At least, if they felt it within, the nervousness evaporated as soon as they saw the calm countenance of Li Sai Man. The countenance of a person who knew he was going to do something controversial, yet he would do it anyway to protect the ones he cared the most.
After inspecting their small army, Cheung-seun Mokei approached the Prince of Chun. “Good thing that Seung Ho is stationed here, otherwise it would be difficult to secure this Gate.”
Li Sai Man smiled. “It’s always good to have someone you trust at important places, literally this time.” Seung Ho (Chang He 常何) was his old retainer who had been stationed at the Yuen Mou Gate two years prior. Being the northern gate of Cheung’on which also served as the direct entrance to the Palace section, the security of Yuen Mou Gate was of utmost importance to Tang. It was partly Sai Man’s luck, and partly also his own merits that gained him Seung Ho’s support, thus accessing the upper part of Yuen Mou Gate was a child’s play for the Second Prince.
“Do you think she’d tell them?” Cheung-seun Mokei asked his brother-in-law without wavering his gaze northwards at the direction of Lam Wu Hall (Lin Hu Hall 臨湖殿), from which the Crown Prince and the Third Prince were expected to appear.
“There’s no reason why she wouldn’t tell them,” Sai Man folded his hands and looked at the eastern horizon. The dark velvet colour was changing into a purple hue with a deep orange undertone. “Concubine Cheung would know that Emperor Father summoned me yesterday; she’d tell my brothers about it. If they don’t come today, they’ll risk my father’s anger. If they come today, well, that’s what we want.” On impulse, he turned to see Sik Sik’s brother. He frowned. “Mokei, what is it?”
“Looks like you want to ask me something. Better do that now while dawn isn’t breaking yet.”
Cheung-seun Mokei studied the face of his brother-in-law. “Fine. I was just wondering…what would you do if they actually listen and walk with us to the palace peacefully?”
“Despite the odds that they won’t?” Sai Man waited until Mokei nodded before resuming. “If they agree to meet Fu-wong in peace, I’ll just tell them what I already knew. That they, at least Yuen Gat, is having an illicit affair with Concubine Cheung. The jewelleries would be a burden of proof, as well as the witness statement from my cousin. Chiu Yi also has some indications that Gin Sing has been flirting dangerously with at least another concubine. That would be enough to rattle my father.”
“And of course, since they are more likely to fight us…”
“Then we fight them too,” Sai Man finished the sentence. Then, almost whispering, he added, “We just have to.”
“Would…” Mokei hesitated, but since Sai Man just gestured for him to resume, he thus resumed. “Would… I mean…have you ever wished things were different? That you are not at odds with them?”
“Haven’t you?” Sai Man asked back. “Haven’t you at times wish that your brother Cheung-seun On-yip did not dump you all back then?”
Mokei looked at Sai Man in the eye. “Many times. But then… then things would be different. You and Sik Sik might not meet. Or you two might meet, but there would be no love between you two.”
“True. But things would be happier for her. As it would for me…” Sai Man turned his attention back at the purple horizon. “… had my brothers and me are just normal, loving brothers…”
Mokei studied the slightly slumped shoulders of the Second Prince. For a few seconds, Li Sai Man looked lonely. Cheung-seun Mokei nodded. “I have no further questions, Milord.”
An hour later, as the blushing purple dawn gave way to an orange hue, the Third Prince Li Yuen Gat rode out of the Crown Prince Manor alongside his brother Li Gin Sing. A contingent of army rode behind them, ready for battle. The fact that the Crown Prince had agreed to bring the army relieved Yuen Gat. Since last night, he had tried to stop his brother from coming to the Main Palace. There was no way they could win against Yi-gor’s arguments this time. They had to retreat and plan a rebuttal to the accusation, no matter how truthful it actually was. Yet, Tai-gor dismissed his counsel. Instead, the Crown Prince was very adamant to go to the Palace immediately to clear up the rumours.
“How are we clearing it up, Tai-gor?!” Yuen Gat practically screamed last night. “We both know that Yi-gor’s accusation is correct. How are we going to erase Concubine Cheung’s presence in my manor? She visited me so often! And what about your affairs with Concubine Leung? Who knows who’ll spill the beans this time?!”
Upon his brother’s silence, Yuen Gat grew more restless. He scanned the room just for any idea before he saw Tao Chiu Yi, sitting silently on the balcony, ignoring all that happened.
“You!” Yuen Gat strode towards the balcony. “You tipped Yi-gor about us, didn’t you?!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Chiu Yi calmly replied.
“No idea!! And how do you explain that one afternoon where Tai-gor couldn’t find you?!”
“I was visiting a temple! Ask the monks there if you don’t believe me!”
“You!” Yuen Gat only managed to not slap Chiu Yi because he saw his brother approaching. “If you dare to betray us, you’ll learn your lessons!”
“Sam-gor!” Li Gin Sing intervened with a high octave. “I don’t recall I gave you the permission to speak to my concubines like that! If Chiu Yi spilled the beans, she’ll get the punishment she deserves. But if not, you better watch next time!”
“Tai-gor, there may be no ‘next time’! Emperor Father is summoning us tomorrow.” Third Prince exhaled to suppress his anger. “Let’s pretend we’re ill. It’s flu season anyway!”
Li Gin Sing looked at his brother in the eye. “We’re not going to feign sick. We are going to the Court tomorrow. You stay here tonight with me. And –” He looked at Chiu Yi, who still looked distance despite her beating heart. “Men! Lock Concubine Tao tonight until tomorrow. Don’t release her until I tell you so!”
And so Chiu Yi was locked down. Somehow though, Third Prince knew that action came too late. Something was already boiling outside, and he couldn’t see how he’d win the arguments this time. His father, old as he was, was proud of the parade of concubines he had, hence having illicit affairs with his concubines was a big mistake.
Riding closer to the Yuen Mou Gate, Li Yuen Gat glanced at his eldest brother once more. He had to say it.
|Cheung'on with Yuen Mou (Xuanwu) Gate in the north (Bingham 1950b, Fig 1)|
Riding closer to the Yuen Mou Gate, Li Yuen Gat glanced at his eldest brother once more. He had to say it.
“Tai-gor… let’s just not go to the Court today. Let’s rethink the strategy.”
The Crown Prince tsk-ed impatiently. “Sam-gor, I know you want to help both of us, but running away isn’t the answer. We have to-”
Li Gin Sing couldn’t finish his sentence. They just passed by the Lam Wu Hall into the vicinity of the Yuen Mou Gate. The rising sun bathed the Gate in a glow of morning warmth. Which meant, the ten or so people on the front turret were also visible. Including –
“Sai Man!” Li Gin Sing exclaimed. “What the hell is he doing there?!”
Li Yuen Gat frowned as he realised that his second brother was not alone. Then the realisation hit him. “Tai-gor, this is a trap! We must retreat!” Upon receiving a panic nod, the Third Prince changed the course of his horse. Yet, they were just galloping away when he heard horses on his back.
“Tai wong-hing! Sam wong-hing! What’s the hurry?!”
The Crown and Third Princes had no option but turning back to face the Yuen Mou Gate, from where Li Sai Man and his aides were riding off. The Second Prince stopped his horse Thunder a distance away from the other princes, but the three princes were already within shouting distance from each other.
“Brothers! I thought you were going to the Court today to meet Fu-wong?!”
“We were indeed,” Li Gin Sing shouted back. Then, after glancing at the arrows Li Sai Man and his aides carried, he added, “But we change our mind, since we seem to be walking into a trap!”
“These weapons are just for protection, Tai wong-hing,” Li Sai Man replied. “I see you also carry them into the Palace, with an army, no less!”
“It’s because we’re such fools if we’re not prepared to meet your sneaky attack!” the Third Prince had enough. “You accused us of something we don’t do!”
“Are you saying that you two are not having illicit affairs with Fu-wong’s concubines?” Li Sai Man pressed on. “Like, Concubine Cheung and Concubine Leung?”
“You have no proofs! Your words against ours and Concubine Cheung’s!”
“But Sam Wong-hing, do you think I’m such a fool for opening up such a delicate case without a witness?” Li Sai Man maintained his cool. “Don’t you ever think that I actually have enough evidence to proof your guilt?”
Blood drained from Yuen Gat’s face as he realised what Sai Man meant. In anger, he turned to his eldest brother. “I told you we should have killed her! She is the mole!”
“Oh, you mean our Cousin Chiu Yi?” Li Sai Man couldn’t help smirking.
Tao Chiu Yi stood still in one corner of her room where she had been detained since last night. She knew that an attacker was outside, that was very obvious from the very audible sword fights and screams. What she didn’t know was the mission of the attacker, let alone his/her identity. Just in case, she grabbed her sharpest hairpins and tuck them in her buns and her hands.
Suddenly, her door was banged several times. She gasped, but before she knew it, the door hinges gave up. The door was knocked down to the floor and a masked fighter entered Chiu Yi’s room. Immediately, she raised her hairpins; one in a defensive stance, and the other one in a suicide stance.
“Don’t be silly, Lady Tao,” the attacker said. “I’m here to rescue you, not to kill you.” He lowered his mask to reveal his face.
“Man Ching-ping?!” Chiu Yi blinked and made an immediate connection. “Second Cousin sent you to rescue me?”
“Well spot-on.” Ching-ping flashed a rare grin. “Now let’s go before more guards come in.”
“What the hell are you doing to Chiu Yi?!” Li Gin Sing glared at his second brother.
Li Sai Man still maintained his smirk. “If I’m not mistaken, I’m rescuing her. As opposed to you, you put her into misery!”
The Crown Prince flared. “You never love her! You ran away with that whore!”
“Careful!” Li Sai Man finally glared back. “You’re not allowed to defame my wife!”
“Chun Sik Sik is a whore!” forgetting decorum, the Crown Prince screamed on top of his lungs. “And you’re a lowly bastard who wants to take away my position!”
Sai Man curled his fists. “You’re never fit to run a country! The people of Tai Tang will suffer under your rule!”
“I am the Crown Prince! You’re not taking away my position!” As if in trance, Li Gin Sing suddenly reached for arrows on his back and started to shot at his second brother.
“You’re a bastard with a whore of a wife!” The arrows missed Sai Man by a meter or so; Thunder neighed, yet he was immediately calmed by his master.
“You don’t fit to be a king!” This time, the arrows which was aimed at Sai Man almost shot Cheung-seun Mokei’s legs, but Mokei had stationed a shield in front of him, hence the arrows failed to hurt him.
“You’re a liar who defamed me so that I lose my throne!” This time, the arrows fell two meters in front of Thunder, who neighed in panic. Li Sai Man shushed to comfort his horse, yet the Second Prince made no move to leave his spot.
“I’m going to kill you, and I’m going to share your whore of a wife with Yuen Gat once you’re dead!” The arrow flew miserably towards the nearby trees.
Li Sai Man reached for his arrows. “I’m not a liar, not anymore.” He placed the arrows and aimed at his brother. “Time will tell if I’m a good king or not.” He closed his eyes and released the arrows at the Crown Prince; they hit him right on his heart. As the Crown Prince gasped and fell of his horse, the Second Prince opened his eyes and finished his sentence, “And you don’t talk about my wife like that, and you will never touch her.”
Chun Sik Sik gasped in relief as she saw Man Ching-ping escorted Tao Chiu Yi into the safe heart of the Chun Manor. She welcomed her former rival warm-heartedly and gave her some hot tea to calm her nerves while Kong Fung asked if Man Ching-ping encountered any problems.
“Please –” Man Ching-ping rolled his eyes. “I used to work there, so I know what kind of clowns they employ. They couldn’t even graze my skin.”
“Right, Miss Tao,” Sik Sik rose from her chair. “Since you’re safe and sound here, I’m off now.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Kong Fung stopped her. When he looked into her eyes, he shook his head. “No way. Sai Man specifically told you not to leave the Manor.”
“I can’t just sit here waiting for his news, Kong Fung! What if something happens to him?!”
“We have your brother, Counsellor Li and half a dozen generals there with him! What could go wrong?!”
“But you know that the other princes have a large army as well. What if they defeat Sai Man?!”
“I’ve made a promise that you stay in the Manor, and here where you’re staying!” Kong Fung shouted.
“He’s my husband!” Sik Sik volleyed back. “I deserve to know what is happening to him!”
That silenced Kong Fung, such that Sik Sik felt a pang of guilt. Stuttering, she apologised to him, to which he silently nodded. Still, she stood in the middle of the hall, giving no sign to stay, despite the pleas from her mother, Li Lok Wan and Cheung Cheut Chan who were also in the room.
“Masters, Ladies, if I may…” Tao Chiu Yi suddenly spoke. As heads turned to her, she resumed. “I think we should let her go. Sik Sik is the person who grounds Sai Man, who helps him to be the better ruler he is now. I think she does have the right to see for herself what happens out there.”
As others nodded in silent agreement, Kong Fung studied the worried figure of Sik Sik. He finally nodded. “Fine. But Man Ching-ping and I are going with you. At least, I need to keep that part of the promise.”
Instead of order, chaos ensued once the Crown Prince died. Li Yuen Gat shouted an order that, since the Crown Prince died, he the Third Prince was now in command of their joint armies. On his order, his army opened attack against Li Sai Man’s small army of 70 men. Somehow though, having strategists and fighters like Li Ching, Waici Ging Dak and Cheung-seun Mokei helped Sai Man’s army to press on Li Yuen Gat’s army. Soon, Yuen Gat found himself running for his life. On horse, he slipped into the Yuen Mou Gate amidst the fight, then he galloped towards Mou Dak (Wu-te) Hall just outside the Eastern Palace, chased by Li Sai Man and some of his men.
“Sam Wong-hing! If you surrender, we can make this easy for you!” Sai Man galloped Thunder towards the wilderness outside the Mou Dak Hall where he saw Yuen Gat’s horse. Li Yuen Gat almost disappeared behind the trees when an arrow swished past through and hit the Third Prince’s horse. Yuen Gat tumbled off his horse as the poor animal neighed in terror. Yet, Li Yuen Gat picked himself up again and ran away into the trees.
“Get him, Milord!” General Waici Ging Dak, who shot down Third Prince’s horse, encouraged Sai Man. The Second Prince nodded and galloped faster towards the wilderness.
Yet, as Li Sai Man entered the grove of trees, his reins got caught by the branches of a tree. Thunder neighed again and rose his front feet. His master fell, but both the master and the horse escaped Li Yuen Gat’s arrows that fell right where Thunder or Li Sai Man would have been, had the reigns not caught by the tree. It was a big fall for Sai Man though, such that he lost his breath and bearing for a moment or two. Li Yuen Gat seized this opportunity by literally diving towards his second brother and strangled him with the bow.
“I’m going to kill you! I’m killing you now! You took my love away! You took my throne away! I’m going to kill you now, and I’m going to take Chiu Yi and your wife for me!!!”
Sai Man was helpless against the sharp bow string. He gasped for air, but Yuen Gat had locked the former’s head in his arms and pressed the bow string right against Sai Man’s windpipe, such that the Second Prince couldn’t breathe. His arms flailing around him, he tried to grab anything on Yuen Gat’s body for leverage, but his brother, his enemy was too strong and vengeful. Finally, Li Sai Man felt his head getting light; stars in his eyes as his consciousness slipped away from him.
Li Yuen Gat didn’t release Sai Man, but his hold was lessening to a degree that Sai Man could steal some breaths. Amidst his losing consciousness, the Second Prince could see a very familiar figure a distance away from him. He gasped as he realised who the person was.
“Sik Sik…” Sai Man struggled to speak. “Why are you…” He tried to breathe, but he hardly got the air he needed. “Stay… away…”
Sik Sik was indeed a distance away from the two princes. Her hair dishevelled, her breathing erratic, tears streaming down her cheeks as she begged the Third Prince to let her husband go.
“Chun Sik Sik…” Li Yuen Gat smirked as he pressed the bow string against Sai Man’s windpipe again; Sik Sik gasped as she saw her husband’s suffering. Li Sai Man was definitely losing here; his limbs convulsed due to the lack of oxygen, his pupils are dilated. “How beautiful you are… I will have a difficult time choosing which one to serve me first, you or Chiu Yi! Perhaps I’ll just have you both at the same time!”
“No…” Sai Man’s arms flailed again as he desperately trying to free himself. “Don’t... touch…Sik Sik…”
“No?” Yuen Gat pressed the bow string deeper. “I’ll do that in front of your corpse, Brother!” Now blood started to trickle down Sai Man’s neck as he lost his last piece of consciousness.
“No! STOP! Release him, please!” Sik Sik fell on the ground, reduced to tears.
“Of course!” Yuen Gat laughed. “I will release him from this life now! I will release him, and then I will have you for-”
The Third Prince gasped as he felt something sharp piercing his back. He tried to turn to see what happened, but his last breath left him too soon. With a thud, he fell on the ground, two arrows firmly stuck on his back.
“He talked too much,” Kong Fung commented calmly as he released his bow string.
“I should have that honour, you know,” General Waici commented as he walked towards the groves.
“I use your bow you left back there – ” Kong Fung smirked as he handed the General the bow. “– if it’s any consolation.”
“No, not really,” Waici Ging Dak shook his head with a slight grin. He approached Li Sai Man who had been revived gently by the tearful Sik Sik. “Pardon me, Milord, the retainers of the Third Prince kept me away from you.”
Li Sai Man shook his head and waved his hands to dismiss Waici’s apologies. The Prince of Chun coughed and breathed deep several times before he could utter anything; all the while his wife hugged him and sobbed into his robe.
“Thank you…” Sai Man coughed, “… friends… It seems we won?”
Cheung-seun Mokei and Li Ching approached the groove with the Crown Prince’s sword.
“We indeed won, Milord,” Li Ching nodded as he gave Sai Man the sword. “We indeed won.”
The rest was history. Within three days, Emperor Li Yuen made Li Sai Man the Crown Prince (and thus, Chun Sik Sik was made the Crown Princess). Grieving due to the loss of his two sons, guilty as they were in having illicit affairs with his concubines, Emperor Li Yuen abdicated two months later. On 4 September 626, Li Sai Man was crowned as the Second Emperor of Tang, gaining the title of Tang Tai Jung (Taizong 唐太宗). Consequently, Chun Sik Sik, or Cheung-seun Sik Sik, was bestowed the title of Empress Cheung-seun (Empress Zhangsun).
What most people did not know was that the day his brothers died, Li Sai Man hugged his wife Chun Sik Sik and sobbed into her robe. Sik Sik knew why he cried. He cried because he had killed his blood brother. He cried for his unfulfilled wish of making peace with his brothers. He cried for he had to soil his hands with blood to protect his loved ones. Sik Sik let him cry until he slept in her arms. In the morning, as he woke up with swollen eyes, he looked at her. She barely changed her sleeping position that night; she held him the whole night in her arms.
“Thank you, Wife…” He kissed her hands in gratitude before laying down on her bosom again. “Please be my eternal counsellor. Help me so I can avoid such bloodshed in the future…”
Sik Sik only nodded and held Sai Man again.
“Do you really have to go…?”
Kong Fung studied the sad countenance of the Crown Prince Li Sai Man. The coronation was set for tomorrow, but the new Crown Prince had known that his friend wouldn’t stay for that. The Hao Tien Mun leader had made that clear since Sai Man became the Crown Prince.
“We’ve talked about this, Your Highness…”
“Kong Fung, we’ve talked about the way you call me.”
Kong Fung nodded. “Fine. Since you’re not the Emperor yet… Li tai-gor, you know this already.”
“I still wished that you would change your mind.” Sai Man shrugged helplessly. “At any rate, I wish you all the best with your school. Let me know if I can be more of a help.”
“The gold ingots you gave me is more than enough,” Kong Fung glanced at his horse, which was standing next to Man Ching-ping’s horse (which was also laden with gold).
“Will you visit us sometimes?” Sik Sik asked. Before Kong Fung replied, Sai Man added, “Even just to berate me for the way I run the kingdom, visit us. We miss you already.”
Kong Fung chuckled. “If you’re going to run the country the way you’ve been planning so far, I don’t think I’ll ever berate you for your governance.”
Sai Man nodded. Then, deciding to end this pain quickly, he sighed and hugged Kong Fung. “Thank you for trying to forgive me, my friend. And thank you so much for your help.”
Kong Fung nodded again. He was never a talker, and he was bad at goodbyes. Today was of no exception. He saluted the Crown Prince and Princess and walked his horse towards Man Ching-ping and his wife Sih Seung-ngan. They turned to salute the Crown Couple again. Afterwards, they swiftly mounted their horses and rode away from the Yuen Mou Gate.
Li Sai Man and Chun Sik Sik watched the three people cantering away until they were out of sight. Sai Man sighed as he embraced Sik Sik on her side.
“Please don’t leave me?” like a child, he begged.
She smiled. “I won’t leave you.”
Chun Sik Sik only kept her promise to Li Sai Man for ten years. In 636, after ten years of serving as the Empress of Tang, her health deteriorated as such that she was bed-ridden during her last months of her life. Still, she still gave light and hope to the people around her, and also to the entire Tang. She still smiled and laughed at Emperor Tai Jung’s lame jokes; she still berated him privately for his mistakes; she still took time to correct their children’s behaviours. During a particularly sweet occasion where Kong Fung visited after years of absence, Empress Cheung-seun invited him for a private dinner in the Royal chamber with the Emperor and Princess Lok Wan. After dinner, the Emperor wisely gave his wife some time with the Hao Tien Mun Master. Sik Sik only asked one question during that short chat.
“Have you forgiven him?”
“His Majesty?” Kong Fung asked.
Empress Cheung-seun smiled. “Yes. Have you forgiven Li tai-gor?”
Kong Fung smiled back. “Your Highness, our Emperor has brought Tang towards prosperity the last ten years. How could I be so shallow and keep my grudges towards him? Although I have to say, I heard that Empress Cheung-seun is an amazing ruler in her own right!”
Sik Sik’s smile turned into a sad one. “I won’t be able to do that again soon…”
Kong Fung looked at her in the eye. “I will miss you, Your Highness.”
“I will miss you too, my dear friend… Perhaps we shall meet again in the next life...”
He took her frail hand and squeezed it gently. “As friends.”
She smiled again brightly. “Yes, as friends.”
“What will he do without you?”
She blinked back her tears. “I don’t plan to leave his heart anyway…”
Kong Fung nodded. Soon, he excused himself with a heavy heart, for he couldn’t tell whether this would be the last time he saw his childhood sweet heart and cherished Empress. Outside the Royal chamber, he looked up to see Princess Lok Wan smiling at him.
“Care for some after-dinner wine?” she asked.
He smiled and nodded. “I was going to ask you anyway. I have so many stories to tell…”
He walked away with Lok Wan, feeling comfortable with her familiar gait next to him. Unknown to them, Emperor Tai Jung walked back into the Royal Chamber. Caressing his own beard, he smiled at his pale yet serene wife.
“I always wonder if they will ever patch up… if their paths will cross again personally, I mean,” he said as he sat on their bed.
“Oh… I wouldn’t worry about them if I were you… Ten years away from Cheung’on, our Kong Fung has learned so much and understood a lot.”
“Has he forgiven me?”
She smiled and nodded. “Besides, no one can get angry for too long with you.”
Li Sai Man laughed. After helping Sik Sik grooming herself for the night, he laid her gently on their large bed. Since Sik Sik was ill, making sure that his wife was ready for bed was his self-appointed task every night whenever he could. Sik Sik’s illness had made her a shallow sleeper, such that his aides had suggested that he slept in another room, at least another bed, to protect his own health. The Emperor firmly declined the suggestions and kept sleeping with the Empress whenever he could. Tonight was of no exception.
“Sik Sik…” he laid down next to her and gently placed one hand around her head while his other hand caressed her abdomen where her birthmark was. Sik Sik squeezed his hand. She had spent much of her remaining energy during the dinner just now that she felt very tired again. “What should I do without you…?”
She squeezed his hand again and whispered, “You’ll be fine… for I will never leave you…”
Sai Man looked at her in the eye. “Liar.”
“…I never lie...”
He sobbed and hugged her to sleep.
28 July 363
A few days later, they had been talking random things until way past midnight before she slept. They had also promised each other that he would be buried next to her when his time came. That morning, he woke up and found her looking at him tearfully, yet also with a smile. He was about to ask how she felt when she squeezed his hands and left her body peacefully.
Later, Li Sai Man would remember that plum blossoms sprout everywhere in the garden out of season the morning of his wife’s death. Li Sai Man mourned Chun Sik Sik’s death for months. He was aware that she had been writing ‘Examples for Women’ (Nu Ze, Neui Jak, 女則), a book to help palace women serving the country. For a few weeks after her death, whenever he read that book, he’d crumble and cry whenever he was in his personal space. He wrote this in an official Tang journal:
This book, written by the empress, is capable of being an example to generations. It is not that I do not know the will of heaven and mourn uselessly, but now, when I enter the palace, I can no longer hear her corrective words. I have lost a wonderful help, and I cannot forget her.
His words were only partially true. The truth is, Li Sai Man didn’t only lose an aide that day. That beautiful summer morning, he had lost a part of him, and that part was not recovered until the moment he left his own body thirteen years later.
Phew! I told you that correcting Li Sai Man’s actions would take time, six part to be exact, each more than 15 pages long.
But, no matter. Finally, I finished the whole series! Thank you so much for sticking with me for so long since…mid October! Three months’ journey…
Once again I need to declare that Chun Sik Sik is an imaginary character, and her association with Empress Cheung-seun (Zhangsun) is my own making. However, as Hannah has gladly agreed, Chun Sik Sik was indeed Empress Cheung-seun. Both had similar virtues and merits, it wasn’t hard at all for me to link the two women together.
To write up about the Yuen Mou Gate (Xuanwu Gate) Incident, I have used Bingham 1950a (The Climax of Princely Rivalry) and Bingham 1950b (Action at the Hsuan-Wu Gate). I made Kong Fung (instead of Waici Ging Dak, Yuchi Jingde) kill the Third Prince, but I kept Li Sai Man as the person who shot the Crown Prince. Drop me an email at southernriver74 at gmail dot com if you want to read these two papers.
Regarding my favourite new heroine, this was Empress Zhangsun’s last words:
“Fang Xuanling had served Your Imperial Majesty for a long time. He is careful, and all of his wonderful strategies and secret plans were not revealed to anyone. Unless there is a particularly good reason, I hope that you will not abandon him. As to my Zhangsun clan, many of them enjoy high salaries and high positions on account of our marriage, not because of their great virtues, and therefore they can crumble easily. In order to preserve the Zhangsuns, I hope that you will not put them in powerful positions, and that they would be satisfied with seeing you at imperial gatherings the first and 15th day of each month. During my lifetime, I made no contributions to the people, and I should not harm them in my death. I hope that you will not build a tomb to cause the people to labor and the empire to waste resources. Make a hill my tomb, and only use brick or wooden implements in the tomb. I hope that Your Imperial Majesty will continue to be close to honest men and stay away from those lacking virtues; that you will accept faithful words and reject wicked flattery; that you will decrease labor and stop hunting. Even as I go into the underworld, if these things happen, I will have no regrets. It is not necessary to summon the sons and daughters back here; if I see them mourn and cry, I will only be saddened.”
Fang Xuanling was a Palace official whom Li Sai Man had a fall out with a few months before Empress Zhangsun’s death. After her death, Emperor Taizong summoned Fang back to his old post. Later, when presented with ‘Examples for Women’, Empress Zhangsun’s own 30 volumes book, Empress Taizong was greatly saddened. He said:
“This book, written by the empress, is capable of being an example to generations. It is not that I do not know the will of heaven and mourn uselessly, but now, when I enter the palace, I can no longer hear her corrective words. I have lost a wonderful help, and I cannot forget her.”
Bingham, W., 1950. Li Shih-min's coup in AD 626. I: The Climax of Princely Rivalry. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 70(2), pp.89-95.
Bingham, W., 1950. Li Shih-min's Coup in A. D 626. II: Action at the Hsüan-wu Gate. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 70(4), pp.259-271.