One after the other
This chapter is dedicated to Evelyn Halim. Thank you for your donation, and see if you can spot your cameo!
“Like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream.”
--Del Griffith, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’
Chapter 103 – One after the other
Fortunately for Huang Ming, the proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of his friend Zhang Ping the Stone General.
The eyes of the broad-shouldered, muscular man flickered when he saw how Huang Ming was being cornered by the Huang family women and ‘Quan Lu’.
“Is this a bad time? I can come back later,” Zhang Ping said in a neutral tone.
“On the contrary, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” Huang Ming exclaimed hastily as he extricated himself from the ring of women. Liu Yuchun and Cao Tianyun sighed mockingly as if thwarted, and together with Madam Li they made as if to leave.
But then Zhang Ping greeted the matriarch with a respectful bow.
“My apologies; but my business with Brother Huang will be short. There is no need for you to leave on my account,” he said, much to Huang Ming’s annoyance.
Madam Li and her two daughters-in-law smirked when they saw Huang Ming’s ashen face, while Qiong Ying hid her own smile as she fanned herself like a leisurely young master.
“Thanks a lot,” Huang Ming growled.
“But I haven’t done anything yet,” Zhang Ping stated honestly, oblivious to his friend’s mood. “And this is something they should hear as well.”
“Oh?” Madam Li asked with an arched eyebrow.
“I have decided to join General Zhao Tong’s army so as to earn his approval,” Zhang Ping said.
Huang Ming was startled. “Did Little Hongqi ask you to do this?”
“No,” Zhang Ping said and shook his head. “This is entirely my own idea. I have courted Miss Zhao Hongqi for some time now, and I have come to the conclusion that I would need to prove myself to her father about my worth.”
“But you’ll be abandoning your family business. Do you have your parents’ approval?” Huang Ming asked.
“My parents love Hongqi very much and have encouraged me to pursue her wholeheartedly. And compared to what you have done for our country, I feel quite ashamed at my lack of merit,” Zhang Ping said.
“We’re all doing our bit in some way. Like Ma Jun, you already contributed by helping the construction of Tigertrap Fort,” Huang Ming pointed out.
“But the fort is now finished. I have completed what you had asked of me and I have been idle ever since,” Zhang Ping said. “My part is done, unlike Ma Jun who is continuously supplying food and wine to the troops. Even He Ding and Lei Yan are working for your father directly, how can I do any less?”
“But we’re only doing administrative work,” Huang Ming told him. “Sir Zhao Tong is a fighting general; he needs warriors and not administrators.”
“That suits me perfectly fine,” Zhang Ping said as he lightly flexed his shoulders. “Though the war with Wei is over, our country has suffered grievous losses. I must do my part.”
Huang Ming saw the gentle giant was resolute, and thus did not try to dissuade him further. Then he frowned as he realized something.
“Have you talked this over with Hongqi? Where is Little Hongqi anyway?” Huang Ming asked aloud.
And lo, at that moment the person returned. Zhao Hongqi had grown a few inches taller since the last time he had seen her, but the wahaha girl still had her hair tied in buns and was still wearing her red armour. Her playful eyes widened when she saw that Zhang Ping was present.
“You’re here! Wahaha!” Hongqi exclaimed in delight, to which Zhang Ping smiled benignly and nodded.
What they talked about afterwards escaped Huang Ming’s attention, for Zhao Hongqi did not arrive alone. Behind the little girl were two other women: Zhao Sunli the amazon, and much to Huang Ming’s shock; Lin Hua of the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities. From the way Sunli was smiling cynically, it was obvious that she had arranged for Lin Hua to come.
“You, you, you…” Huang Ming sputtered.
“Miss Lin Hua told me about how you owe her, so I escorted her here. No need to thank me,” Sunli said with a smirk.
Truth be told, she did not go out of her way to intentionally make trouble for Huang Ming; it was just happenstance. Sunli and Lin Hua shared a rapport over ‘peaches’, their codeword for ‘relationships between beautiful men’. Having returned to the city a little earlier, she went to visit Lin Hua to discuss their shared interest. When the dark-skinned woman heard Lin Hua grumbling about the long overdue, loaned box, Sunli suggested for her to confront Huang Ming about it.
“But he has just returned, wouldn’t it be unseemly?” Lin Hua had asked hesitantly.
Sunli waved a hand in dismissal. “Bah, you need to be direct with someone as shameless as him,” she replied.
Remembering how facetious Huang Ming had been when dealing with Nangong Xie and Shen He previously, Lin Hua agreed with her assessment and followed her suggestion to visit the Huang residence.
Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun couldn’t help but giggle at Huang Ming’s predicament while sneaking glances at ‘Quan Lu’ ghastly face. The entire affair was hilarious to them as bystanders.
Madam Li was also greatly amused as she noted the new arrival. “Well my son, it seems you actually have enough players for a full table of mahjong,” she remarked.
Huang Ming ignored the taunting looks from his family and instead turned to greet Lin Hua. “I assume you’re here about the box? I’m halfway done restoring it.”
Lin Hua was pleasantly surprised. “You mean you can fix it?”
“I’m doing my best, but I keep getting interrupted,” Huang Ming said blandly.
“Oh, I’m sure he will be done very soon,” Madam Li interjected. “He has to, because he has been summoned to the capital by the king himself.”
“What?” Sunli, ‘Quan Lu’ and Lin Hua chorused. The trio were taken aback by their synchronous exclamation, and exchanged surprised looks with each other. It only increased the hilarity felt by Madam Li and her daughters-in-law, it took much of their self control not to burst in laughter.
“When did this happen?” Sunli demanded.
“You just missed messenger delivering the edict,” Cao Tianyun informed them.
“When do you leave?” ‘Quan Lu’ asked.
Huang Ming gave them all a supercilious look. “As soon as possible,” he said, exaggerating his relief to be rid of all of them.
Qiong Ying and Lin Hua bowed their heads in thought, while Sunli rolled her eyes. The amazon instead turned to focus on Zhang Ping and Hongqi who were still discussing their future plans between themselves without caring what was happening around them.
“You are actually going to meet the king?” Lin Hua asked a moment later.
“So says the edict,” Huang Ming replied, nodding towards the rolled up decree that was still on the table. Lin Hua eyed the scroll with amazement; and a wide smile blossomed on her beautiful face.
“I intend to call in on the favour you owe me,” she announced.
Huang Ming’s forehead creased. “The favour was for me to repair the box, which I am already doing.”
She wagged a finger in response. “That is not enough, considering the numerous delays you have given me.”
Huang Ming groaned in a low voice, but unable to refute it. “Well, what is it you want?” he asked.
“Repair the box, and present it to the king. That should promote our name greatly,” Lin Hua answered with self-satisfaction.
Huang Ming’s eyes goggled at her. “You want me to shill for your Hall of Treasures and Antiquities?”
“Who better to do so than the newest hero of our kingdom?” Lin Hua said with a flattering tone.
“You don’t even know what the box does,” Huang Ming reminded her.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out once you’re done repairing it,” Lin Hua said breezily.
“How would you know if I kept my word?”
“Oh, I’ll know. I have friends in the capital, including one who has a mania for dogs. Big, ferocious dogs,” Lin Hua warned.
“Alright, alright…” Huang Ming said in acquiesce.
‘Quan Lu’ snapped his fan shut. “I would come along with you. I too have friends in the capital, and I would like to take the opportunity to visit them.”
“Eh?” Huang Ming articulated.
Madam Li nodded in satisfaction. “Good. He needs a guiding hand lest he goes astray,” she said to her son’s chagrin.
“Ah, if not for my responsibilities here, I would go as well,” Lin Hua sighed. Her regret was genuine, but not entirely due to the reason that she had said. She saw how familiar Quan Lu was with Huang Ming, and she thought that they made a good pair of ‘peaches’. Lin Hua rued at the missed opportunity to observe these two ‘beautiful men’ together over a period of time.
“Go where?” Sunli asked, shaking off the distraction from Zhang Ping and Hongqi’s discussion.
“The capital. What about you? Are you going? Because if you are, I will trouble you for some books on peaches from the capital. I heard they have a wide range,” Lin Hua said, even as Madam Li, Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun were mystified at her request.
Sunli blinked when all eyes turned to her. She noted the mischievous glint in Qiong Ying’s emerald eyes, and somehow it was enough to provoke her.
“I will go,” the tall woman said firmly, and once more Madam Li nodded in approval.
Qiong Ying laughed as she flipped open her fan once more like a young master.
“Well, brother Huang Ming; it looks like we’ll have a nice trip ahead of us,” she said.
“Lucky me,” Huang Ming muttered.
Yet to start the journey,
Already he was worried.