Chapter 3: Blind Love Speaks of Chiung Yao1
“Miss, Miss, Miss! Oh, no, I mean, Princess Princess!”
Shan Xi’s string of calls and busy footsteps startled the sole crow on the roof beam into flight. It circled a bit, and then landed on the eaves again, peering down into the yard with a cocked head. Lotus had her head bent down and was checking a lunch box2. Today was Cao Min’s birthday. Lotus had gone to the grave to worship her ancestors, and the lunch box was for her father and brothers. She frowned involuntarily upon seeing Shan Xi run in panting, “What are you yelling about? You have no sense of the rules at all.”
Shan Xi stuck her tongue out and surreptitiously made a silly expression. She hurried to report before she regained her breath, “Princess! I’ve heard from Cao Zhong on the outside that Zhao Pang has sent a fast horse back to report that he will arrive back with the imperial decree in a few days.”
Lotus was startled and didn’t say anything.
“Princess! Aren’t you worried? I’m worried to death about such a big matter!” Shan Xi pouted.
Lotus was startled into a laugh, and looked at the merrily smiling Shan Xi, “What are you worried about?”
Shan Xi could discern the ridicule in Lotus’ tone, and was a bit irritated, “I’m worried for the princess of course! What if the imperial court actually did give its approval? Then the princess would have to truly go to the Ming court!”
Lotus retracted her smile when she heard these words, and bent her head down to organize the lunch box. She spoke after a while, “Is the carriage ready? Let’s go.”
Shan Xi didn’t dare speak further, and carried the lunch box as she followed Lotus out of the inner gardens.
Hai Shou was already waiting outside, and hastened to bow when Lotus came out. The three of them boarded the carriage with Hai Shou sitting on the carriage shaft, looking around alertly all along the way in protection.
After Lotus had been given the title of Princess, she still lived in the Cao manor apart from entering the palace to pay her respect to the king and royal consort. The King felt kindly towards her for her loyalty, and bestowed upon her a palace eunuch called Hai Shou. Although Hai Shou was young, he had spent quite a while in the palace. He was exceedingly clever and quick witted. Ever since Lotus had become a princess, many social interactions had arisen. He had appropriately and deftly dealt with all the exceedingly numerous assorted tasks of sending gifts, greetings, praying, etc. It was said that Hai Shou possessed extraordinary martial arts capabilities because he was the direct disciple of Tibetan Sharjah School. Shan Xi was curious and had teased Hai Shou several times to make him show a hand or two, but Hai Shou had lightly evaded them all, and had not revealed himself.
(AN: A person called Hai Shou truly did exist in history. He was one of the few foreign officials in China. He had brought seven imperial decrees to Korea during the period of Emperor Yongle. But whether he was truly well versed in the martial arts, the history books made no note of it.)
The group arrived at Mt. Yongxing not long thereafter. The carriage stopped at the foot of the mountain, where Hai Shou led the way, and Shan Xi – carrying the lunch box – brought up the rear as the three followed the small path in the mountain to the Cao family cemetery that was halfway up the mountain.
The winter sun was present at the moment, and the accumulated snow had yet to melt. The mountainside was an expanse of white – almost like the immortal realms in the heavens, or like the world of glass3 in the east.
A large patch of level ground was present after taking a left from the Fuyuan Bridge – they were almost at the Cao family cemetery. Lotus spotted a tall and straight black figure in the distance, and her heart gave a leap. She had continuously avoided Lee Fangyuan ever since being titled Princess Yi Ning at the Sajeongjeon Hall last time. She’d kept her head lowered, not daring to look at him during the few unavoidable occasions they attended together. It was Cao Min’s birthday today, and Lee Fangyuan and Cao Min were as close to each other as brothers. He would have come to pay his respects today.
After walking closer, Lee Fangyuan was indeed standing solemnly in front of Cao Min’s tomb, his back tall, straight, and dignified. His dark, colored black, fox cloak would occasionally sound as the wind kicked up the bottom part of the coat. Lee Fangyuan only tilted his head and looked sideways, before stepping off to the side, clasping his hands behind his back, and gazing up to the heavens.
Hai Shou and Shan Xi hastened to walk forward and pay their respects, where Lotus also made a small curtsey4, calling out softly, “Royal brother!” at which Lee Fangyuan snorted heavily and didn’t respond.
Lotus took the dishes out from the lunch box. The kimchi and scallion pancakes5 had been made for her father; her oldest brother had always loved dukboki6 and doenjang jjigae7, and her little brother loved his sister’s tteok8 the most. He would always fight to help when she was milling the rice. He would plant his hands on his hips and say to his sister, “My strength is the greatest!” The sight of him indifferently milling away always made Lotus burst out laughing. …could it be that it would never be seen again?
Lotus put the dishes in front of their three tablets, observing the rites and rituals. Past events floated through her eyes and mist had unknowingly clouded her eyes. Everything was a blur as she looked out. She could see through the blur that the three tablets had been wiped clean, and that all sorts of snacks were placed in front of them. The altar in front of her father and older brother had a flagon of wine next to the snacks.
Lee Fangyuan seemed to have perceived her mood, and said softly behind her. “The Count of Bravery would always drink with us brothers everyday on this day.”
Lotus’ body trembled as a single tear dropped into the snow. It vanished after causing a small crater upon impact.
Lee Fangyuan’s face was cold and solemn. He flicked a glance at Hai Shou and Shan Xi, saying frostily, “Leave us.” Hai Shou and Shan Xi looked at Lotus. The two of them moved far away after she inclined her head a tiny bit.
Lee Fangyuan walked up, and sat down not too far from Lotus with a grand sweep of his cloak, with his eyes continuing to gaze up towards the heavens. It was a sunny day, with the heavens high and the clouds pale – a cloudless blue sky. The sunlight shone directly down amidst the frigid wind, and was a bit too dazzling. Lee Fangyuan spoke lightly after a while, “I will lead troops to kill the Japanese pirates. I will train the navy. I will protect the land and people of my Korea.”
Lotus lowered her head without a word, but her body shuddered a bit.
Lee Fangyuan was still gazing up at the heavens as he continued slowly, “I will find Azhi Taibiao and have him hacked to death with a thousand cuts, successfully obtaining vengeance for Ah Min and Ah Xiu9. Their death was too cruel.”
Lotus’ body trembled as she could no longer contain herself, and the tears that she had been suppressing for many days broke free of their dam.
Lee Fangyuan stretched out his right hand and put it lightly around Lotus’ shoulder, murmuring. “Cry, cry, let it all out.” Lotus tilted her head and rested it on Lee Fangyuan’s shoulder, finally giving voice to heart wrenching sobs. The birds on the tablets couldn’t bear to hear as they spread their wings and flew away.
When the bodies of the Cao father and sons had returned home, Lotus had personally dressed and laid their bodies in a coffin. Cao Mengyi’s fatal injury was a blow through his chest, piercing him from behind. It was obvious that he had been ambushed from behind. Cao Min and Cao Xiu, on the other hand, all had hundreds of blade injuries on their body, all different in both character in size. How many Japanese pirates had surrounded and attacked them after they had taken off their armor? Half of Cao Min’s right foot was missing, and the back of his head had been flattened by a blunt object. As for Cao Xiu, apart from the missing fingers on his right hand, his left arm had basically been sewn back on. One wondered how much silver, spittle, and effort Minister Yoon had gone to, to retrieve this arm from the pirates? Lotus had been afraid that her mother would be sad and hadn’t let her mother seen until she was done. Lotus however, hid away and cried until her eyes were red, her heart broken into pieces.
After crying for a very, very long time, Lotus slowly calmed down and stopped her sniffles. She called out softly, “Brother Yuanyuan!”
Lee Fangyuan shuddered, and he lightly clasped her right arm.
Lotus had been only one or two when she’d started playing with Lee Fangyuan. The adults had instructed her to call him, “Elder brother Fangyuan”. Lotus had just started talking, how could she have spoken those words? Her young voice always called out, “Brother Yuanyuan, Brother Yuanyuan!” This sweet voice had drifted around Lee Fangyuan’s entire childhood. Lotus had changed to the proper name afterwards, and the two met infrequently due to the difference between women and men. Lee Fangyuan had not heard this name in a long time, and his heart was sorely agitated. He only tightly clasped her arm and didn’t dare move.
Silence reigned for a moment as the two felt a refreshing pleasantness that they had never felt before.
After who knew how long, Lee Fangyuan softly said, “Lotus, I will do all of these things well, believe me.” “Mm.” Lotus responded.
“Promise me, that you won’t go to the imperial court.” Lee Fangyuan continued softly.
Lotus didn’t respond as she slowly straightened her body, looking at Cao Xiu’s tablet. The golden words of “Baron of Tranquility” danced on the white marble, just like her little brother’s dashing smile.
The sun was a bit eye piercing as Lotus squinted her eyes slightly and responded, “Little brother liked my tteok the most. When he left, I packed a large bag full and put it in his luggage, and hung another brocade bag on his waist. There were two tteok in it, he would’ve been able to reach it easily whenever he was hungry. When Minister Yoon sent back his things, only this brocade bag remained. It had already been dyed red from blood, and even the tteok inside were completely red…” She teared up again at this point and continued softly after a long while. “There are many more little brothers in this world. The people of our Korea all wish to eat tteok peacefully.”
Lee Fangyuan’s body stiffened as he slowly began to loosen his right arm.
Lotus didn’t dare look at him and lowered her head to say lowly, “For my little brother, for these people, I must go to the imperial court.”
Lee Fangyuan stood up suddenly and his hand tilted Lotus’ chin up. His dark eyes stared unblinkingly at her and he yelled fiercely, “Then what about you?! Do you know that the emperor in the imperial court is already seventy years old?” Do you really wish to spend your days at the side of an old man?!”
Lotus struggled but couldn’t break free of Lee Fangyuan’s grip. She could only look up and be forced to look at him. Her eyes held a few traces of panic but more of resolution, “Prince Siddhartha once gave himself up to feed a tiger for the good of all living creatures10. Lotus is willing to give up herself as well.”
“Then what of us? Have you thought of what would happen to us?!” Lee Fangyuan’s hand strengthened involuntarily as he yelled even louder, his voice filled with pain. He was wearing a similarly dark colored black fox hat today, offsetting his eyes like jewels, making them appear even brighter than usual. Except, the jewels shimmered faintly with tears right now.
Lotus was in pain as she took in a breath, her tone full of boundless misery. “Forget about Lotus, there’s only Princess Yi Ning now, royal brother!” She said as she moved her gaze away.
When he heard those words, Lee Fangyuan shuddered as he slowly put down his head, looking at Lotus without moving at all. His fingers had dug in and left a few red marks on the white jade of Lotus’ cheeks. The tears she had shed in her weeping just now were not yet fully dry, and she appeared wretched and delicate, as if she couldn’t hold up to the frigid wind.
Lee Fangyuan’s heart was wrenched with agony as he carelessly took out a silk handkerchief, wiping away at Lotus’ small face. His movements were soft and gentle, as if wiping off his most beloved treasure. Slow and careful, full of endless gentleness.
His sideburns extended down like blades on his stooping side profile, and his thick eyebrows were like those of an ink painting. His angular jaw was as cold and stern as if it’d been cut by a knife. Lotus clasped the hand he was using to wipe away at her face. It was large and warm, reminding Lotus of her father’s large hand. These gentle movements and expressions were a happy time that she had once had.
Lotus’ limpid eyes wavered as ripples travelled across them. Gratitude, vacillation, and sentimentality flashed across them. Their gazes intersected and intertwined, as their clasped hands couldn’t bear to let go. As they smelled the fragrances of each other’s memories, they were involuntarily mesmerized by delight. Time stopped in this moment.
Suddenly, waves of bell sounds came from afar – it was the bells of the Anguk Temple. Pleasing to the ear, yet desolate, surging with pity and sympathy, permeating through this bitter world and making straight for one’s heart.
Lotus was startled, and loosened her hand, abruptly awakening from the beautiful dream. She hastily moved her gaze away, looked down and called out after a long time, “Royal brother!”
Lee Fangyuan was stiff and made not a sound. He then called out coldly, “Hai Shou!”
Hai Shou and Shan Xi hastily ran over from far in the distance as Lotus asked them to clear everything away. The three of them made their way down the mountain.
Lotus turned her head after two steps. Lee Fangyuan’s upright figure stood there silently, sunlight dappling his back yet still unable to dissolve the sorrow and distress found within.
“Take care!” Lotus quietly called out, then turned her head and left hurriedly.
3. Buddhist notion.↩
4. She actually made an ancient Chinese lady’s greeting, in which the lady would hold the two sides of her jacket.↩
9. The prince’s nicknames for Lotus’ brothers.↩