No rest for the wicked
“This is what I call a timely interruption! Though what'll come of it - the devil himself only knows!”
--Dr. Peter Blood
Chapter 101 – No rest for the wicked
Huang Ming eyes squinted as his hands focused on the music box that he had borrowed from Lin Hua. He had already prised some of the rusted parts open, meticulously arranging the components on his workbench. Currently he was struggling with the drum which was the cylinder studded with small pins, the analogue version of ‘saved data’.
His hand slipped and he accidentally poked something sharp within the box, causing him to hiss. Annoyed, he placed the half-stripped music box on the table and stared at it critically, allowing his mind to wander to distract himself from the pain…
After the campaign in Wei had been called off and the affairs of Tigertrap Fort settled, Huang Ming had returned home for some time off. He did not write back to give his mother advance notice, as he wanted a day or two of relaxation before being inevitably swamped by his friends and visitations from those who would want to curry favour with him. Somehow, word had leaked out and now his name and deeds were the topics of gossip. Unlike his previous terrible reputation, this time he was branded as the brilliant young strategist who had extricated Wu’s army from complete annihilation.
He blamed the soldiers who had survived the campaign, they probably exaggerated his contributions to the masses when they had returned to their homes.
But Huang Ming’s hopes for an anonymous return were dashed right at the city gates by an unexpected source, for he was immediately greeted by a representative of Lin Hua from the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities. Huang Ming had travelled incognito and by his lonesome, having sent Sunli to go on ahead earlier so as to distract attention away. But despite the nondescript clothes and a scarf to hide his face, he was still discovered.
A servant had come up to him after he had discreetly cleared the guards at the city gates. At first Huang Ming thought he was just a peddler trying to push his wares to visitors coming into the city, but then the servant leaned in to whisper, “Miss Lin Hua hopes that you still remember your promise.”
Before he question him further, the servant slipped away and disappeared into the sea of people. Huang Ming was shocked, and then bemused. The enterprising young woman had probably caught wind of his return via Sunli. The two women had unexpectedly hit it off since their first meeting. He grimaced when he remembered their shared deviant interests.
Still, he did make a promise to Lin Hua about repairing the music box, and since he was truly at fault; he decided to get on with it. It was the reason he had only said “Mother, I’m home!”, gave her a hug and immediately went into his room before she could react.
Madam Li was nonplussed, but did not hound her son. She simply assumed he was exhausted and wanted to retire, so she had the maids and servants let him be, giving him the peace and quiet that he had needed to open up the delicate device.
Huang Ming exhaled and cricked his neck, ready to dive back into it when his door flew open with a bang.
“You’re back!” a woman’s voice exclaimed.
Startled, Huang Ming turned around, half-expecting a monster with green eyes…
…Instead, it was his sister-in-law, Liu Yuchun. In the time since her marriage to his brother Huang Ke, she had allowed her hair to lengthen. It helped to lend an air of maturity around her, but the exuberant light in her eyes and loud voice ruined the effect. She still felt like a tomboy despite her married status.
“Yes, well, hello…” Huang Ming greeted wryly as he felt his stomach cramping.
“What’s this?” she asked curiously as she saw his handiwork on the workbench.
“Just some doodads I’m working on,” he replied offhandedly. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Liu Yuchun bit her lower lip in hesitation. “I just want to say thank you,” she said at last.
“The crossbow design you gave me, it worked very well,” Liu Yuchun said quietly. She remembered the night when the intruders came and she had killed one of them with it.
Huang Ming nodded. “I’m glad you’re able to make something out of it. Can I see it?”
She shuddered. “I’ll have someone send it to you later,” she said, and Huang Ming saw the discomfort lingering in her manner.
Huang Ming knew full well of its source. She was still traumatized by her actions. Despite her outgoing, boyish nature, she was still a maiden of this world and age. Compared with Sunli who was raised like a soldier, taking a life would be an unpleasant ordeal for someone ordinary like Liu Yuchun.
He put on a smile and changed the subject. “Actually, I have something for you,” he said as he retrieved an envelope.
“Another design?” she asked with some trepidation.
“It’s a letter from Ah Ke,” Huang Ming told her, and she almost snatched it from his hand. His smile got wider as he gave her a small box wrapped in decorative paper. “This is from him too,” he added.
“That oaf…” she murmured tenderly.
“He also told me to say that he will be back soon to give you what you wanted, whatever that means,” Huang Ming said blandly, trying to erase scandalous imagery from his mind.
Liu Yuchun blushed furiously, remembering the exchange prior to their marriage. The red flush in her cheeks made her very attractive, and Huang Ming knew it was the look of a married woman in reminiscence.
“Before you drift off into wonderland, I wonder if you could help me with something,” he said dryly, interrupting her wistful thoughts.
“What is it?” Liu Yuchun growled, trying to cover-up her embarrassment.
“Do you have anything that can help with this?” Huang Ming asked, and then explained the predicament with the rust.
She rolled her eyes. “You’ll need some oil and grit paper. I’ll fetch some.”
A few moments later she returned with the items… along with Cao Tianyun in tow.
“I heard you’re passing out gifts,” the governor’s daughter said.
Huang Ming blinked. “I don’t have anything for you,” he said sheepishly.
She chuckled at her own joke, then cast her eyes over the broken down music box. “What exactly are you doing?” she asked.
Huang Ming brightened. “You two have delicate handwork, you can help me clean this,” he said.
The two married women exchanged looks as they weighed the options. “What is it, really?”
“It’s a something that I had offered to fix in return for a favour,” Huang Ming said vaguely.
Cao Tianyun smiled. “Is this for a certain lady?” she asked.
“Yeah, it belongs to Lin Hua,” Huang Ming said. “Of the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities. You met her at the pastry shop,” he added as an afterthought.
“What?” Liu Yuchun demanded.
Cao Tianyun’s smile vanished. “I thought this is for Lady Qiong Ying or Sunli. Are you courting yet another lady?” she asked coldly.
Huang Ming couldn’t help but drew back as his sisters-in-law narrowed their eyes at him.
“No, no! This was way before!” he exclaimed.
“I said two is the limit, no more!” another voice interrupted. Huang Ming winced when he looked over and saw it was his mother.
“You have got this all wrong…” Huang Ming mumbled.
“Oh? Someone, bring some tea! It looks like we’ll have a nice, long talk here,” Madam Li said with her eyes glinting.
Just then, a servant came rushing over in distress.
“Madam! Madam! It’s a royal decree!”
Interrupted the interrogation.