Time and time again, I bought into every beautiful lie, every empty promises you made. I let myself hope, believe that you will make good your promises.
ー 我在乎你 ー
You said I mattered.
ー 反证不会负你 ー
You said you will never turn your back on me.
I gave you my heart.
I entrusted my life in your hands.
All I wanted was to be your everything.
Yet you still chose your duty, responsibilities over me.
You still chose to leave me...
A single tear, as clear as crystal rolled down her carefully made up face but she made no move to wipe it away. Her apathetic face matched her stoic composure as she remained unnervingly still, sat on the edge of the bed; - waiting.
Silent footsteps carefully camouflaged in the whispers of the wind, stealthily approached the private chamber. But if she could so easily be caught off guard after being in this covert business for so long, then she should deservingly be killed many times over now.
Knowing yet unmoving, - she remained tranquilly sat, not even a muscle moved out of place. She couldn’t see who it was, but tell-tale signs gave the silent arrival away.
Neither spoke nor acknowledged one another until she felt the warmth of another body sat next to her.
“Do you regret...?”
Still shielded from seeing him in person, only his soft uncertainty carried across the wind. She couldn’t remember when she last heard his voice without heavily laced with regret and melancholy.
Wan Mei understood the unspoken words of his question and merely shook her head in reply.
“After all these times, what is there left to regret?” She said resignedly.
She could feel his lithe hands conscientiously resting on either side of her shoulders, gingerly steering her in his direction.
She waited for his next course of action.
He waited for her refusal.
They remained at stalemate until the wait became unbearable.
“Refuse me now, and I shall go...” He was the first to speak, but she could hear desperation crack in his hushed voice. Tremor audibly heard in the breath he drew before carrying on, “... but if we continue, I will never let you go again...”
It was a generous offer on his part. But she knew there was no turning back.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to...”
Taking that as her consent to proceed, he removed his hands from her shoulders to lift away the red silk veil over her head.
It took a second to adjust to the sudden assault of light in her eyes.
But before her, was not the man she had hoped to see.
A laugh tumbled from her lips.
It dawned on her that this must have been what he had felt upon regaining his eyesight years ago. The person who has been by his side all those times was not the first person he saw; just like how he was not the counterpart she had expected to see at her bridal night.
“I am so used to seeing you in shades of green, that red on you is quite the shocker,” she said as her eyes appraised the godly Gong Zi in the elaborate red attire befitting a king’s wedding.
No witty comeback, but reciprocated with his signature wry grin.
“You are exceptionally beautiful tonight...” the princely man said with sincerity that should have made any bride the happiest person on Earth. But her heart has been locked frozen for so long, Wan Mei couldn’t really return the favour.
And he knew it.
He moved to cup her cheek in his palm and swiped his slender thumb under the eye that shed the solitary tear.
“Thinking of ‘him’ still?”
An innocent question asked in a voice so composed, Wan Mei could tell how deeply Gong Zi must be hurting to be putting on his aloof persona.
Unwavering, she looked at him straight in the eye, “‘He’ is in the past now. ‘He’ cannot be my future.”
And that was the truth, they both knew it.
Wan Mei was the master of Gui Hua City.
Gong Zi was the Duke of Ning, - de facto owner of Gui Hua City; the city’s silent protector.
And Chang’an was now the Emperor Chu; no longer a shadow of hers, or a citizen of Gui Hua City. All ties between them had now been severed and could no longer be reconciled.
So, there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to object the union of Gong Zi and Wan Mei.
But he wouldn’t have been able to survive this long if he wasn’t an intelligent man. Gong Zi knew that even if today Wan Mei surrendered her body to be his wife, he was still a long way from owning her heart.
Drawing her petite body close to his chest, “Is there a place for me in your future?” he whispered wistfully.
Wan Mei made no move to return his embrace, “I don’t know....” she answered him honestly.
From the time she started living in Gui Hua City, she has been served one lie after another. From Cha Luo who hated her very being so much that lying wasn’t above her in order to get her way, to sweet but empty promises from the one person she loved.
Only Gong Zi.
That despite all the manipulation and secrecy between them, despite often made a piece of chess in his elaborate schemes, he had always shown her due care and consideration. He had trusted her ability to rise above any obstacles thrown at her, enough to throw her to the wolves to fend for herself. In return, she had trusted him enough to throw a dart deadly accurate to the chest, to make belief she was dead. He even gave her the right to serve alongside with him for his mother’s revenge, not Yue Ying.
Gong Zi might have been the second man who had been silently protecting her, but he was the only man who chose to be confront her straight on, no untruth withheld. The very least she could do was offer him an honest reply.
Reluctantly, he drew apart. Sadness from the first time they have known each other till now, was still evidently there. In the past, he was tormented by vengeance, burdened by filial piety and duty; but now, she was the reason for the pain reflecting in his otherwise, bewitching eyes.
“Gong Zi, Wan Mei knows all that you have done for me. It would be too greedy of me to ask for more from you...”
“Then tell me, are you marrying me out of your own free will?”
Moving to stand, Wan Mei cast a distance glance out to the full moon framed by the windows.
“Are you asking me this because you want to know? Or are you asking this for the benefit of the one hiding in the shadows?”
Knowing that he had been outed, the uninvited interloper took a step forward into the light from the screen behind her.
“Wan Mei...” the man whose voice she had longed to hear called out to her, dragging all the agony and sorrow she had carefully tucked away, to the surface again. The intensity of the pain was truly unbearable as she screwed her eyes shut from revealing anymore.
Dragging a shaky breath, she steeled herself to ask through gritted teeth, “...Why are you here?”
“Wan Mei... say the word, and I will take you away from here...” Chang’an offered, extending his hand to her, ready to steal her away at a heartbeat.
Déjà vu slipped into Gong Zi’s subconscious as though someone pressed a replay button in his head, forcing him to relive memories he longed to forget. Like the time he overheard Wan Mei pleading Chang’an to take her away from Gui Hua City. Or the time he gave her the choice to save her shadow instead of staying with him.
The irony of the matter left him cynical to the core.
“Yes, Wan Mei... say the word and your Prince Charming will rescue you from your odious fate...”
Wan Mei snapped around at Gong Zi’s callous words.
As though he could read the indignant in her eyes, the enigmatic king continued on indifferently, “You chose to leave me for him once. I don’t expect the second time to be any different.”
She knew him well enough by now to understand that his heartless nonchalance was a defensive mechanism against his heart getting hurt. But she thought in return, he would know her by now too, to know that she was conscious of her every decision. Including marrying him.
“Gong Zi, I will answer your question earlier for both your benefits...” she started as she moved to stand between both men, but her attention was directed at the young duke.
“Gong Zi, I will concede that in the past I did leave you despite saying that I will stay with you. But you are wrong to believe that I will do it again for the same reason. If you betray me, I will leave you... But not for Chang’an anymore...” Wan Mei threw the last words over her shoulder in her former shadow’s direction.
“I may be grateful to you for a lot of things, but I am not marrying you out of gratitude or sympathy. What we have may not be called love at this point in time, but we have a relationship and understanding built over the years. And that is why, I am marrying you out of my own free will...”
Her proclamation rendered him stunned and speechless, “Wan Mei...”
“You can doubt my heart, but please don’t doubt my decision...” she reasserted before turning to face the one man who had her heart.
“Emperor Chu, this evening you have committed more crimes than your life could afford. Foremost, you are have set foot on the wrong side of the state. Secondly, you have rudely intruded Duke of Ning’s private residence. I don’t believe you are welcomed here. But neither are as heinous as trying to runaway with His Highness’s bride on his wedding night... Before matters become worst, I suggest you leave...”
“Wan Mei, do you truly want to marry this man?” There was a note of unsaid plea in Chang’an’s words, begging her to choose him again.
But hopes dashed to millions of irrecoverable pieces when the longing he had counted on seeing in her eyes reflected bleak rejection.
“If you didn’t hear me earlier, I will repeat myself again just this once more. I married Gong Zi, Duke of Ning by choice, not by force. I choose to marry Gong Zi,” Especially emphasising on her last words, she said with absoluteness that offered no room for debate.
“You don’t have to sacrifice your happiness anymore, Wan Mei...”
Irritated by the man’s persistence, she allowed her anger to burst forth unchecked.
“What good is happiness if it only leads to grief?! You are the reason I don’t believe in happiness anymore. For every time I allow myself to believe, I am betrayed by the same person I believed in.... I am done living on frivolous dreams. Leave, Chang’an... and don’t ever come back.”
With that said, she turned her back against him before he could see her shed more tears over him.
Watching the exchange made Gong Zi both the happiest and the saddest man alive.
Happiest, because despite her heart belonged to another, she still chose him.
Saddest, because she would still cry for the other.
That was why he made no move to console her. He just couldn’t hold her in his arms when she was crying for another man.
Carefully schooling his inner turmoil, he nonchalantly drummed his fingers along the edge of the bed, “Emperor Chu, I have been far more than generous to allow you to overstay your welcome. Now that you have the answers you came for, it is time for you leave,” The smooth calmness of Gong Zi’s voice carried an underlying icy menace that promises swift execution of his prowess.
“... Wan M...”
“LEAVE!!!” She bellowed unrestrainedly which prompted Gong Zi to send Chang’an out the chamber with a single blast of pure energy.
Shocked into reacting on reflexes, Wan Mei turned to reach out only to let slip of the tongue before she could catch herself, “Chang’...!”
Her instinctive reaction, the name of another man on her lips, - hurts far worst than a sword to his chest. How he wished he was blind again, never to see such heartbreaking sight. Tears were forcibly held back as Gong Zi closed his eyes in agonising despair.
“Do you still love him..?”
His heart rendering question returned Wan Mei to her senses. Regaining some semblance of composure, she dared to venture a glance back at him.
“It’s still not too late to leave with Chang’an...” Up until now, he was still giving her a choice.
She had seen many of his façades but she could only remember the one other time he had worn such pained look, - when he had forced himself to leave a devastating scar on her face. He thought she would give their mission away, but even at death’s doorstep, she held firm. And that was when she had his respect.
Just like how he still respected her wishes now.
She couldn’t remember when was the last time she had reached out to him on her own volition. She would never had thought how easily he could let his guard down or how openly he would display his vulnerability to her. But as her hands reached to caress his cheeks as how he had gently held her face in his hands earlier, the young master of Gui Hua City knew that this was the Duke’s way of expressing how much she meant to him, - enough for him to show the side of him that he could never show the world.
“Gong Zi, I cannot say I love you... not now. Neither could I say I will never love you. But know that at this very moment, you are the man I choose as my 夫君 (fūjūn). Not Chang’an. Not anyone else. But you, Li Siyuan, Duke of Ning...”
“But you know just as well, that our marriage is purely political. I need your influence just as much as you need protection under my wings...”
“Gong Zi...” stroking his face tenderly, she locked gaze with him, “I may not be able to say right now that I love you, but I know that you are not marrying me because you don’t have an ounce of love for me.”
Shivering slightly at her ministrations, “So... is that why you choose to stay?”
“No, I choose to stay because... I choose to be loved. Loving someone has been too tiring for me...”
Lowering his face till their nose were mere millimetres apart, “Then, for the rest of your life, allow this fool to love you....” he said, closing in the distance till his lips met the softness of hers.