Saturday, 29 October 2016

Runaway Dragon and Missing Phoenix part 2

Part Two of the Runaway Dragon and Missing Phoenix series (the Foundation 1984). Would Li Sai Man consider the request to return to Cheung’on? Click here for Part 1.

Cheung Cheut Chan and Li Sai Man (from Ep 5 The Foundation)

Runaway Dragon and Missing Phoenix part 2

The Lady with the Red Sleeves tentatively entered the veranda facing the back garden of the younger Li couple. She had read about the garden from Sik Sik’s letters, carefully sent to Tang through the Fusu spy network. Sik Sik never mentioned anything dangerous; just those mundane things of a peaceful life, like her vegetable and herb garden and how Sai Man got the hang of ploughing in the field. But through her letters, Cheung Cheut Chan could get a glimpse of a serene life that her surrogate little sister had been sharing with Li Sai Man.

Now, even in the darkness of the night lit only by two small lanterns, and despite her distress, Cheut Chan could feel the serenity of the garden that could only be created by a soul such as Chun Sik Sik. Cheung Cheut Chan traced her dainty fingers on the wooden railing, absentmindedly observing some pots of herbs adorning the simple railings. Her nose caught the whiff of roses and jasmines, and she wondered whether Li Sai Man would attempt to pick those flowers to appease Sik Sik. Perhaps some other times, when he faced less dire situations than this one.

Cheut Chan heard a vague argument in the garden. It was a small garden, so the fact that she couldn't really hear what the young couple were saying was a testament of the restrained nature of the argument. She could tell though when the argument finished, temporarily at least, when she heard footsteps retreating back to the veranda and she saw Li Sai Man's defeated face.

When your beloved is angry, only then you men realise how important she is...

She remembered how her husband Li Ching was so scared that she'd leave him after Sai Man and Sik Sik ran away. Counsellor Li Ching practically begged her to stay.  She was so tempted to leave that day, to catch up with Sik Sik, to make amends of what her husband had done to the shy girl. Yet, upon seeing Li Ching's devastation, Cheut Chan stayed.

And now, she was asking Li Sai Man to return back to Cheung'on with her. Would Sik Sik beg for Sai Man to stay? Or would Sik Sik be so angry that she left him instead?

"She told me to leave her alone," was Sai Man's voluntary explanation as Cheut Chan raised an eyebrow. "She also said she didn't want to see you." Upon watching tears welling again in Cheut Chan's eyes, Sai Man was quick to add, "Basically she just wants to be alone." He massaged the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Perhaps that's what we should do..."

Cheung Cheut Chan nervously played with her red sleeves. "I'd return to the Fusu capital now if it's not so late..."

The Second Prince of Tang shook his head. "Don't be silly. Sik Sik doesn't want to talk to us now. Doesn't mean that she wants you to walk back to the Palace alone."

The Lady in the Red Sleeves sighed. "I am truly sorry for barging into your peaceful life..."

The Second Prince nodded to acknowledge her as he sat on the veranda stairs. He massaged his neck for a while before resting his arms on his knees and observing the stars above. Cheut Chan slowly sat next to him, observing the dark figure in the garden.

"Is that a swing?" She suddenly asked, realising that at the moment Sik Sik was sitting on a construct that looked like a swing.

Sai Man nodded. "I built it for her last year. She really liked it. To think that a girl could be happy for just simple things..."

"She’d be generally happy for those simple things anyway, but I think it's more because you built it for her..."

He nodded but didn't say anything.

"Are you happy here, Young Master Li?"

Unexpectedly, Sai Man gave a smile and a nod. "I never thought I would, but I actually am..." He thought he saw Cheut Chan smile. She then stopped short of asking something and looked at the stars instead. Knowing what she wanted to ask, he volunteered that information.

"I do miss Cheung'on and Tang, though. I wonder what happen to that old lady who sells fruits just around the corner of your house. Has she got her son a job? He lost it a few weeks before I left because his boss was downsizing his business."

"How did you know that?"

"Sik Sik asked her about her life when we were out buying fruits. They talked like waterfall while I was listening." There was mirth in his voice that made Cheut Chan smiled again. "You see... I never thought that Sik Sik would be someone who could understand what I did as a... Well, a wannabe ruler. But through her idyllic conversations with normal people, she actually gave me hints of what I could have done to improve the people's condition. I didn't see it until I was here."

Cheut Chan studied Li Sai Man for a while before she finally spoke again. "I regret coming here... I came here on impulse, for I can't see my husband so depressed after you left...But -" she sighed and folded her arms, "I should have listened to him."

Sai Man turned to face his guest. "What did the Counsellor tell you?"

"That he'd taken too much from you by supporting the idea of killing Sik Sik... Hence he doesn't want to take anything anymore from you." When Sai Man didn’t respond, Cheut Chan added, “He thought you were still angry at him for supporting that idea.”

Li Sai Man shook his head. “I’m more angry at myself for contemplating that idea. Of course, securing people’s life is important... but allying myself with someone, who happened to be my uncle, who would suggest the murder of an innocent woman, and then I agreed with his proposal... “ he sighed. “I’m more angry at myself.”

Cheut Chan considered her words carefully with her next question. “Have you forgiven yourself for that?”

A head shake was the answer. “Sik Sik had forgiven me before we reached Fusu... but until now, I haven’t forgiven myself.” He looked at the stars and the shy waning Moon. “Carrying guilt is a very heavy act indeed.”

The two friends watched the night sky for a while before Cheut Chan unexpectedly yawned. Sheepishly, she apologised.

“Don’t be. You’re tired from your journey... and perhaps also from this...” he waved at his wife who was still sitting in the dark. “ – this quarrel. It might be best that you retire for the night.” When his guest nodded, he rose. “Let me show you your room.”

He escorted his guest to her simple but comfortable room. They were about to bid each other goodnight when Sik Sik reappeared next to them.


Li Sai Man and Cheut Chan turned to acknowledge her. Sik Sik looked pale, and under the night lantern and candles, they could see that she just finished crying. But when she spoke, her words were clear.

“I apologise for my immature behaviour. I should have not been so childish as to... keep Sai Man for myself.” Sik Sik shifted her weight several times; clearly she was not comfortable with this situation either. “Sai Man is my only family now, and your requesting him to return to Tang is basically a deprivation for me.” Unconsciously, Sik Sik touched the edge of a gold bangle that she was wearing. Cheut Chan saw that it was a bangle that Sik Sik didn’t wear often when she was living in the Li Mansion. She had it before she dated Sai Man, but she never wore it more than twice. Cheut Chan always thought it was a present from Kong Fung, hence she was surprised that Sik Sik wore it when she was already married to Sai Man.

Sik Sik continued, “However... if my husband wishes to return back to Cheung’on, I cannot say anything against it. I’m not sure I want to return there though, for the place brought me so many bad memories...”

“Sik Sik...” Sai Man wanted to say something, but he couldn’t find the right words. Cheut Chan on the other hand just turned to face the Second Prince, suppressed hope was clearly etched on her face. The said royalty couldn’t take it anymore. With an exhale, he turned to face another direction, clearly in conflict with himself.

Sik Sik noticed how the situation had made her husband uncomfortable. “Well, I suppose I will just retire for the night. Sister, I will see you in the morning for breakfast. Sai Man...” She wanted to say so many things, but she couldn’t. Hence, she just said, “I’ll go to bed now.”

Sik Sik turned and walked away.


She heard him, but she didn’t turn back. She didn’t want to say what she wanted to say, that she didn’t want him to leave. Hence, she just stood there, willing herself not to cry.

“Madame Li...” Sai Man addressed Cheut Chan properly, his words were polite yet firm. “I thank you for your trust in me, for your husband’s trust in me. However, I have a family now here that I want to spend my life with. If Sik Sik is not going back with me to Cheung’on, then I’m not going there.” Sik Sik turned slowly, her eyes widened in disbelief, as she heard her husband saying, “I love her.  She is my rock in this world, she keeps me sane, she made me a good man. I have other things that I can do here, things that also benefit the local people. The Great Tang should be able to resolve its own fate... my father should be able to act like a real emperor he should be and give the people what he promised when we established the kingdom.”

“Second Prince...” Cheut Chan couldn’t stop her tears from falling. She was sorely disappointed, yet she also understood Sai Man’s choice. “Second Prince, I...”

“I truly am sorry,” Sai Man suddenly enveloped Cheut Chan’s cold palms with his. “I truly think of you as my dear friend, as my older sister... And I truly treasure Counsellor Li’s advices... But I just can’t face those politics anymore. I’m tired of them all. I want to live here peacefully. Sik Sik gave me this chance again, and I’m happy to be with her.” He looked at Sik Sik, whose tears also streamed like a river down her pale face. He then looked at Cheut Chan, who looked back at him in a mixture of sadness and acceptance. 

“You will always be my friend.” He then gently embraced Cheut Chan, who sobbed uncontrollably in his arms. After a while, she sheepishly let go. She was about to use her red sleeves to clear her face when Sik Sik gave her a handkerchief.

“I’m sorry for this, Sister...” the younger woman embraced Cheut Chan. This time, no tears, for both women had shed enough. They just stood there for moments, embracing each other, feeling each other’s grief and happiness. Later, Sik Sik went inside Cheut Chan’s chamber and had a long chat with her well into the night. When Sik Sik finally returned to her own chamber, she found her husband lying on the bed, waiting for her. They didn’t say anything. They just embraced each other and fell asleep in each other’s arms.


Cheung Cheut Chan left after breakfast the next morning. She felt sorry to leave her friends, and more regretful that her visit had given them some burdens. However, as she had told them, she had to make this visit. She bade them a tearful farewell, not knowing when, and in what situation, she'd see them again. Yet, she was also grateful that she and Sik Sik had talked about her visit, and that she truly saw how happy Sai Man was in his new life. Perhaps, the Great Tang could truly manage without the Second Prince, for surely the latter was happier without the former...

About an hour after Madame Li left, Sai Man found Sik Sik in the garden, tending to her herbs. When his wife asked him if he was going to the field, he shook his head. Instead, he took her to a small Fusu town about an hour’s walk from their house. He took her sightseeing and treated her for a nice lunch by the river bend. He bought her a new novel she'd always wanted to read and then they explored the river bend before returning home. He assisted Sik Sik preparing dinner and had them having an early dinner afterwards.

Art by Ibuki Satsuki

Then, after dinner, on the veranda facing the backyard, he communed with his wife. Gently, slowly, under the waning moon. He didn't say a lot during their union, he just looked deep into her eyes and kissed her gently and deeply in between movements. However, Sik Sik knew he just did the whole thing today to ensure her that he was definitely staying. When she finally exploded in her colourful supernova alongside his own fiery explosion, she prayed that the Heaven would always bless their marriage.


After their union, Sai Man took time to clean his wife and himself. Then he scooped her on his lap and encouraged her to read her new novel on the back veranda. She read for a while before falling asleep in his lap peacefully, knowing that he'd stay. He carried her into their bedroom and lay next to her, watching her sleeping. It took him a while to fall asleep, but he finally did.



Half a year later, winter came into the Central Plains harsher than the previous year. Sai Man and Sik Sik had arrived in the late summer of the previous year, and they only truly settled in their current house as autumn came. They had very little food stock during the winter, hence Sai Man had to accept food supplies from Yau Yin Hak, the Dragon-bearded Man, the ruler of Fusu. That was the reason of Sai Man’s hard work in the summer and autumn, for he wanted to make sure that he and Sik Sik was independent in their life. Li Sai Man had also fortified the house and made an extra hearth, such that their house was quite warm now in the winter, much better compared to the previous year’s winter when he and Sik Sik often had to snuggle very close to each other for warmth (which was usually followed by some bedchamber activities due to their proximity).

Now in that particular winter afternoon, Li Sai Man was sitting by the fire in the kitchen as Sik Sik made him new trousers. A paper was on the kitchen table, full of scribbles, next to some maps of adjacent regions in the Central Plains. Outside their house, a snow storm raged the village, but their house was strong and warm enough to provide them with safety and warmth.

Sik Sik finished her last lining for Sai Man’s trousers. She looked up and smiled as she saw her husband frowning at the papers. Since settling down at Fusu, Sik Sik loved the look of Sai Man when he was writing or calculating. It was that intense look that signalled he was thinking of something to better their lives. Not just her life and Sai Man's, but the lives of the people in this village. Sai Man was a good farmer and a good samaritan. None of the villagers realised that they had the Second Prince of Tang living among them, for Sai Man had introduced himself as “A Man” and Sik Sik as “A Ling”. Yet, despite them being young newcomers, the villagers had grown to like them both. The village leader Mr Ho particularly looked up to Sai Man’s advices, despite Sai Man’s novice status as a farmer. The villagers of course sensed that Sai Man was from a rich family, and that he ran away with his wife because his family didn’t approve of their union. Such an issue was common in those days. What was not common was that the rich person ran away with the poor spouse and settled down as a mere farmer. That was what the villagers respected out of Sai Man. That, plus the fact that Sai Man truly cared about the village’s prosperity. It was Sai Man himself who volunteered to check up the water supply status of the village. He had heard of bad drought in the past that made people suffer due to crops failure and. He had learned of floods that killed people, and that if the village and Fusu in general wanted to survive, both issues had to be dealt with accordingly.

Sik Sik picked up one of the maps that showed the close up Fusu territory. Fusu was located southeast of Tang, between Chang Jiang River and Pearl River. Its location did not benefit the canals that had been dug between Yellow River and Chang Jiang, thus Fusu periodically experienced drought and flood, depending on the climate cycle. Yau tai-gor, as Li Sai Man and Sik Sik endearingly called him, had done what he could do to help his people, but the Dragon-bearded Man was more skilled at battles and wars than governance. After plunging into the farming world, Sai Man truly realised the importance of good water supply, which was currently lacking in Fusu. The insufficient transportation system also meant that grains and other farming products had to be transported long-distance, which increased the price for middlemen, instead of for the farmers.

Sai Man sighed and put down his brush. "We need to have the irrigation canals fixed before we can think about increasing supplies for ourselves and for the general trade. At the rate we're going now, any efforts to have more crops are useless because of the limited water supply. And any grains we produce are not competitive in the market outside Fusu due to the complex chain of custody.”

Sik Sik nodded. Sai Man had discussed these issues with her many times that she understood his economic terminologies. "Isn't Yau tai-gor doing something with the river? Trying to build canals to link it to Chang Jiang or Pearl River or something like that?”

"He can't do it alone. Just like Huang He that flows from Tibet into the Tang territory, Chang Jiang tributaries also flow from Tibet into Tang first before coming here. Yau tai-gor needs to collaborate with Tang to ensure the irrigation here is well-fed. Unless he finds a good groundwater source here, but that effort has been rather futile so far."

Sik Sik frowned. "What about making canals like we have on Tang to connect us with Pearl River?"

"We can...but Yau tai-gor doesn't have the technology necessary for that. We have them with our engineers in Cheung'on. We - " Sai Man suddenly stopped. He just realised he was talking as if he was still governing Tang. He caught Sik Sik's gaze and looked back at the paper.

It was a while later before Sik Sik put down the map she was holding and reached for her husband's hands.

"Sai Man...You are a kind person..." She caressed his callous hands, rough from the hard work in the field. "And you are a good leader too. You lead people, inspire people, that's what you do..."

Her husband looked up and smiled. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“I’m sure we can find a way. Let’s go to the capital next week to talk to Yau tai-gor. A visit to him is very much overdue anyway.”

Sai Man was about to agree with her suggestion when someone knocked on their door. Sik Sik lifted her eyebrows before indicating that she’d open the door and that Sai Man should return to his paper instead. Sai Man agreed. Their neighbours often knocked on their door in the winter for some medicine herb supplies that Sik Sik had. He was about to measure the distance between their village and the nearest Pearl River tributary when he heard a commotion outside. His warrior alarm went off as he jumped and ran towards the living room, worried that something happened to Sik Sik. To his surprise, Sik Sik was already running towards him.

“A Man, Mr Ho needs our help. He has some refugees from Tang, and one of them is dying!”


The snow storm battered the small village mercilessly as Sai Man and Sik Sik arrived at Mr Ho’s house. Being the village leader, Mr Ho had a slightly larger house than other villagers, but at the moment his living room felt cramped with the refugees. About 10-15 of them, three children or so, many of them aggregating in front of two small braziers, desperately trying to melt their frozen fingers, while some of them ravishingly gulped down meagre portions of congee that Mrs Ho had hastily prepared for them. Sai Man blinked and inspected the surroundings as Sik Sik, her hair still covered with snow, tended to a dying man, a man old enough to be his father, but so thin that he looked like he hadn’t eaten for months. Sai Man saw how some of the man’s fingers were already dark blue. Those fingers were of no use anymore; snow bite had taken them away. Next to the man, an old woman cried helplessly, asking her husband to return to her.

“You promise you’ll stick with me! You promise! Now wake up, old man, wake up and accompany me here!”

“Madam, if you please, I need to tend to your husband...” Sik Sik’s plea fell into deaf ear due to the woman’s grief, such that Sik Sik looked at Sai Man in desperation. Sai Man nodded and sprang into action. He separated the older woman from her husband and took her closer to one of the braziers. “Madam, please, have a rest here... my wife is currently tending to your husband...”

It took Sai Man a good while to calm the woman, such that he was grateful when Mrs Ho took over and assigned him to distributing more congee and setting up extra braziers in the living room for the refugees. Then, halfway through his second task, Sai Man was reshuffled to help Mrs Ho’s daughter-in-law with more food production, before he had to run back to his house to get some extra food supplies. He had just re-emerged from the kitchen with the first batch of fresh congee when he heard Mr Ho’s increasing tone.

“Madam, please! A Ling had done her best to rescue your husband! We have no doctor here, she’s as close as we can get for a medical resource, and your husband’s condition was too bad to begin with anyway. Please!”

Sai Man was never good at handling a criticism towards his wife. He hastily shoved a bowl of congee into the hands of a trembling little girl and her mother before approaching the medical corner to defend his wife. Yet, he stopped short at the pitiful scene in front of him.

The old man had thrown up, discharging blood mixed with what was left inside his intestines. Even the cold temperature of that corner could not prevent Sai Man from detecting the foul smell of the old man’s discharge. The old man’s wife and Sik Sik were drenched in foul discharge, but both were too distraught to even notice. The wife was now clinging helplessly to her husband’s dead body, while Sik Sik tried to prevent her tears from streaming down. She didn’t have time either for grieving, for Mrs Ho had tapped her shoulders gently, asking her to save a child that was just experiencing seizure. Sik Sik exhaled, straightened up herself and informed Mrs Ho that she’d return as soon as possible after she washed herself. She tossed out her foul clothes outside, washed herself in a bucket of freezing cold water, and changed into a fresh set of clothes that Mrs Ho’s daughter-in-law provided before returning in record time. After a long struggle, she was able to finally rescue the child from the seizure.

Hours later, well into the night, Li Sai Man finally had the chance to sip a hot cup of tea in the kitchen. The refugees had been fed, the dead old man, properly wrapped in a piece of cloth, was laid down on a clean corner, his sobbing wife next to him. Sik Sik had managed to make the wife change into a clean set of clothes; she had also made her eat half a small bowl of congee. Sai Man had told Sik Sik to rest, but the girl just nodded, had a sip of tea, then returned to the kitchen for her herb concoctions. 

“What actually happened out there?” he whispered to Mr Ho, who was also drinking his first sip of tea since the refugees came in the afternoon. The storm had abated an hour ago, now they just heard the sweet sound of gentle snow falling on the rooftop.

“A Man ah....” Mr Ho sighed, caressing his long beard. “I only understand bits by bits... but what I know is that these people are from Tang. Not from Cheung’on... but from a village in the southeast corner of Tang. Back in the autumn, they have had their winter supplies cut short because of an order from Cheung’on. These people were very hungry, but instead of going to Cheung’on for help, they had decided to brace the harsh winter and come here instead for protection.” The village leader sighed again. “Haiyaah...I will have to go to the capital tomorrow for assistance. I’m sure there will be more people coming this way...” He looked at the young man. “Will you accompany me tomorrow, A Man?”

Sai Man nodded. “Of course. But I’m still baffled. Why did these people have their winter supplies cut short? On what circumstances, I mean?”

“Because the dogs in Cheung’on only know how to make people suffer.”                                 

Sai Man turned to see a weary young man, somewhat of his own age, slumping to the table. The weary young man gestured, asking if he could take the tea, and after a hasty offer from Mr Ho, he gulped down two cups of tea. Then, upon being prompted by Mr Ho, he explained.

“Dogs in Cheung’on said that we didn’t pay taxes this summer and autumn, and that they had extended the deadlines several times. Thus we had to give them our grains and other food supplies. We fought, of course, but we got beaten badly. My father got beaten badly, hence-” He gestured with grief towards the living room where the refugees were resting,  “...hence his condition was already bad when we started the journey...”

“And you walked... the whole two months of winter... here?” Mr Ho commented in disbelief.

“We walked... and we walked... in the storm. It was about thirty of us when we left, now only half of us left... We were reduced to eating rubbish, to eating garbage... eat anything we could eat. The only thing we haven’t done is eating our dead friends... though some of us were so tempted to do that...” He suddenly sobbed and broke down. “My wife died in the forest last week! I couldn’t even give her a proper funeral! If not because of your wife A Ling –” he acknowledged a stunned Sai Man, “my daughter would have died too!”

Then the weary young man sobbed helplessly like a child overcome with grief. Mr Ho couldn’t do anything other than patting the man’s shoulders.

“Please don’t cry, Brother... We’ll go to the capital tomorrow to see our King. He is wise and strong, he will provide us with support.”

“Don’t bother...” the young man commented in between his sobs. “Those royalties, they’re all the same. When they haven’t got the throne, they’ll act sincere and help us, promise us a better life. Afterwards, they’ll toss us aside like street dogs!”

“Haiyaah... don’t say that. Not all kings are like that. Our king is nice. A Man had gone to the capital several times and saw it for himself. Isn’t it right, A Man?” Mr Ho was expecting A Man’s confirmation, but since it never came, he turned to face his neighbour. “A Man?”

What Mr Ho saw next was something he wasn’t expecting. A Man, the usually jovial man, looked livid. His usually cheerful face was red with suppressed anger, his fists curled, his thick eyebrows taut in a frown, his breathing short. Anger ablaze in A Man’s eyes that made him unrecognisable. Before Mr Ho asked what happened, A Man hastily rose from the chair.

“Excuse me, I need to help my wife.”

Then he went outside, definitely not to the direction of where his wife was. Soon, Mr Ho heard the noise of something hitting a wall. Most likely a fist hitting the outside kitchen wall. Mr Ho thought it was wiser not to go out to check, hence he just continued comforting the other man; hoping that the noise he just heard outside was just his imagination.


Author’s note:

I have no idea where Fusu was located, other than “southeast of Tang”. The Tang Dynasty recorded a chronicle of the Dragon-bearded Man, but I couldn’t access the English version. It will take me longer than I thought to finish this story... Hopefully I can upload Part 3 soon... 

Update 6 Nov 2016:

I'm glad I have been portraying Cheung Cheut Chan (Zhang Chuchen) as having an elder sister role to Li Sai Man. That was how Lisa Lui portrayed her in The Foundation 1984, and I like that interpretation. I also think it's much more plausible than, say, the portrayal of Hong Fu Nu (Zhang Chuchen) in Shu Qi and Wallace Huo's Hong Fu Nu series (2006). There, Li Shi Min (Li Sai Man) was shown to court Zhang Chuchen in Ep 5, which deeply disturbs me. I haven't finished the HFN 2006 series, perhaps I won't, for the story drags a lot... (no, not even Wallace Huo can save it IMO). 


TinyGinTX said...

Oh yay! The next installment! Poor LSM...he's really struggling with the poor conditions of his fellow countrymen. I know he's going to fight for the throne now; he can't sit back and let things continue as they are. I'm sure he'll be able to convince SS to go to the palace with him...I hope!

Icha said...

Hi TinyGin! Thanks a lot for the read.

I'm more than halfway through part 3. Check again here please by Friday, I'll have it posted by then. I have to, cos I'm travelling on Saturday for two weeks, and my online time will be limited.

And I'm glad you see where this is going. Yes, Da Tang needs LSM, and he just needs to make one important step to return to Cheung'on!