In Sickness

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Ho was at peace with himself for a week. A week!

And what a wonderful week it was! Untorn, unregretful, even hopeful. By the shrines, Mei had given him her blessing. He had heard her voice in the rustling of the leaves and her giggles in the gurgling of the fountain. He had said his farewells to her and the child he'd never held and had never named. He also embraced a great many other children, his nieces and nephews as well as their parents. Even his father no longer bristled when he opened his mouth. It was uncanny.

As he rode back home to his new bride, he understood the fortunate Lord Yong's impatience.

Oh, how fast did it all fall apart when he returned to Sutao, and oh, how so completely! And fate was not through with him yet: judging by the singing that drifted through the gates of his house, things went from bad to worse while he went to his offices in the port.

The singing assaulted Ho's senses worse than a war drums' beat might have. Digging his fingers into his temples, he rushed across the courtyard. He should have known that his mother-in-law would defy his wishes. He had been short-sighted to leave the household in this demon's hands for three weeks. And before that, when the maid had died he should have cancelled the wedding. It was an ill omen!

But it was no use to bemoan his weaknesses now.

Earlier today the ever-blessed Counselor Fujuan hinted at sending an inspector to Chong Ho's house to investigate a rumour that his new wife's affliction was a case of the Inscrutable Contagion outside the Seaward. Chong Ho had to make a substantial gift to postpone the visit. Easy enough this time, but he was worried.

The faeries swore and signed off at the Prefect's office that his household was free of illness after the maid's death. They did not even mention the Inscrutable Contagion. But with the cases in the Seaward on the rise, no amount of silver would keep the inspectors off his property. The official investigation meant quarantine, his town estate and businesses locked down, and Ho himself would have to withdraw to the countryside and paint landscapes until the authorities were satisfied.

That's if he remained unaffected. It drove him to distraction that after all the costly faery prayers his new wife fell ill. They did everything right, and she still fell ill! And just her, too. Why? Absurdly, it felt that he would have been less riled up if it had not been just her.

It was as if a Celestial pointed a divine finger at him and said: "Can't you take a hint, Ho? You were not destined to be a married man. Why did you defy the will of Heavens?"

And what do I have to say to that? Dew-on-a-petal made me? The Benefactor wanted it? I did not think I was significant enough to warrant the Heavens' close interest in my affairs? Ancestors, I get it now, I will mourn my second wife and won't as much as look at another woman again! I am done!

And, yes, he would mourn Tien Lyn, despite the calamity of their union. He will mourn what could have been. She was as inoffensive as a lotus flower, and she did not deserve to wilt, no more so than Mei did.

Torn by regrets, Ho at least he did not take the leave of his senses as his mother-in-law did. Yesterday, she told Ho of some beggar she wanted to bring in to heal Tien Lyn. Ho forbade it in no uncertain terms, explaining that the purported miracle worker was a charlatan, a son of a carnival acrobat, and everyone knew that the wandering performers were an untrustworthy lot. Ancestors, in Seaward, people count a kind word as a miracle, they are so used to their miserable lot!

The proud Dew-on-a-petal, who wrinkled her perfect nose at his ancestry, should have stayed clear of the dockside tales. She should have been satisfied with the fortune expended on the respectable doctors and the faeries of the Temple of the Serene Joy in attempts to nurse Tien Lyn to health.

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