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“Sorry, but a toll is a toll, and a roll is a roll, and if we don't get no tolls, then we don't eat no rolls. I made that up.”
--Little John, ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’


Chapter 104 – On the road

A few days later, a small caravan of horse-drawn carriages escorted by mounted guards made their way leisurely towards the capital of Wu, Gusu City.


Within the most luxurious carriage were Qiong Ying and Huang Ming, while Sunli remained outside on her own horse and appearing most valiant in her armour. The Amazon turned her nose when offered the use of a carriage and instead opted to act as the leader of the caravan, a role that she relished. Huang Ming had smiled wryly, realizing that the tanned woman was one of the sort who enjoyed a position of responsibility. Indeed, she took charge of the escorts detail, including where to stop and camp. The guards under her command knew full well of her capabilities from the recent war with Wei and followed her orders without complaint, there was no need for her to brandish her terrifying spear to demonstrate her skill.


As for Qiong Ying, she went in her Quan Lu disguise. Besides Sunli and Huang Ming, none of their entourage knew of the real identity of the ‘beautiful man’ who was sharing a carriage with their young master. All they knew was that Quan Lu was a dear family friend of the Huangs and they were to accord the proper respect to him.


Qiong Ying used her male disguise so as to facilitate her being in the same carriage as Huang Ming, but much to her disappointment the young master spent most of his time being lost in quiet thought while absent-mindedly fondling a small box in his hands. At first she thought he was worried about the appointment to meet the King of Wu, but eventually his distracted silence wore her out by the third day of their journey.


“I say, you ignoring me like this is wounding my pride as a woman,” she grumbled as she pinched his waist.


Huang Ming winced as the pain broke his stupor. Then he grinned as he gave ‘Quan Lu’ a frank once-over. “But you’re not a woman right now,” he said.


Qiong Ying snorted as she spread her hand-held fan open. “Your brows were so furrowed in worry that I thought of inserting coins in them. Were you thinking about your present to the king?” she asked, nodding towards the box in his hands.


Huang Ming looked down at it wistfully. In it was the music box from Lin Hua which he had repaired by burning the midnight oil. It was fully functioning, but he had not demonstrated it to anyone else. Despite fixing the box, there was no real joy in his accomplishment. When he had taken out the drum cylinder, he found a message crudely etched on it.


FIND ME.


Two simple words. Two simple, English words.


It was confirmation that whoever made the box came from Earth. Maybe not his Earth, but from Earth nonetheless.


There was no special placing or care in its writing, it was as if the author suddenly decided on a whim to scratch a scrawl on the metallic surface of the drum, an act of pointless vandalism on what was otherwise a work of mechanical art. In fact, Huang Ming imagined that the author actually wanted to write ‘FIGHT ME’ but had changed his or her mind partway.


Of course, it was an obvious leap for him to conclude it was the handiwork of Qiong Ying’s ‘sister’ Qiong Hua, now known as the Princess of Jin; the prime suspect to be his opposing Avatar on this world.


Huang Ming had been in a funk ever since the discovery of the message, because he now knew he had to kill someone who came from Earth. There were precious few Earthling Avatars over the course of his adventures, and it was always regrettable to kill someone from ‘home’. Previous suspicions could simply be brushed aside as mere assumptions, but the tangible presence of the music box was a physical reminder of his situation.


The message was a blatant challenge, a brash invitation from the opposing Avatar.


It meant he had to step up and make the necessary preparations against the Princess of Jin. She had a ten year start on him and from what he had heard, the country of Jin was transforming rapidly.


To be charitable, his own progress was quite remarkable. He had only been in this new life for a relatively short period, but he had already influenced the course of one war and was now in a position to actually meet the King of Wu. From there on he could influence national policies and decision-making so as to combat his adversary on a grand scale.


But as his mother had warned, there was still Prime Minister Tong Xuan; the corrupt official who was in control of the royal court.


Huang Ming would need to find a way to get rid of the prime minister’s influential presence, if he was to have any real say in the future of the kingdom of Wu. Since he had so propitiously arrived into a family of patriots that was the pillar of the country, he might as well help to prop it so as to stand against Jin. Besides, his brother Huang Lang was already determined to remove Tong Xuan to rescue the country from his grasp.


As the quote goes, ‘Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’… while it was not wholly appropriately applicable to him personally, Huang Ming felt that a touch of viciousness would be required if the Kingdom of Wu was to be saved.


“Did you hear me?” Qiong Ying asked in annoyance when she saw Huang Ming lost in thought once more.


Huang Ming opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly the carriage halted with a rude jolt. Sounds of horses neighing in protest and men shouting followed thereafter, with Sunli’s voice cutting through the commotion as she gave rapid orders to mobilize the escort guards.


Puzzled, Huang Ming opened a window.


“What’s going on?” he asked.


“Bandits!” came Sunli’s terse reply.


Huang Ming did not know whether to laugh or cry, his father and Zhao Tong have made up bandit threats multiple times and here he was, actually facing real brigands.


Shaking his head, he exited the carriage. Qiong Ying of course did not want to miss out on the fun, and since her own life was in danger; she saw no reason to hide uselessly since she was in her male disguise.


They saw a motley crew of rough men barring the road. They were armed with peasant weapons: woodcutter axes, iron farming tools, crude spears. Their leader was a young man dressed loosely so as to bare his chest that was tattooed with twin tigers.


“Who are you? How dare you block the king’s road!” one of Huang Ming’s escort guard shouted.


The band of brigands laughed derisively. “Over here, I your father is the king!” the tattooed young man said.


While the two groups were shouting insults at each other, Sunli discreetly moved her horse closer to Huang Ming. She was already wearing her helmet and had unslung her spear, ready for battle.


“What do you think?” Huang Ming asked in a low voice, defering to the amazon’s judgment.


“A bunch of riff-raffs, they pose no real threat to us,” Sunli replied coldly.


“They must be really bold to be operating in this area,” Qiong Ying noted.


“Or desperate,” Huang Ming added. “Let’s hear them out and avoid bloodshed if we can.”


At Sunli’s signal, one of the escort guard shouted, “What do you want?”


By now, the tattooed young man noted the presence of Huang Ming and ‘Quan Lu’. Seeing the two ‘beautiful men’ only increased his contemptuous attitude.


“Two foppish young masters, travelling without a care! Now that you have deigned to step into my realm, you will need to pay the toll!” the young man said.


The escort guards were enraged. “Do you know who you’re talking to? That’s Master Huang Ming, hero of Tigertrap Pass!” they shouted, much to Huang Ming’s chagrin.


The cocky smile on the tattooed young man disappeared. “Huang Ming? Son of General Huang Zheng?” he demanded.


“That’s right!” the guards replied, seeing how his facial expression had changed. The brigands who were howling and whistling before were silenced, and the atmosphere became tense as they glared at Huang Ming.


“Not quite what I had expected,” he muttered, puzzled by the reception.


Then the tattooed young man roared, “Brothers, the heavens have favoured us! Huang Ming! Come out and face our fury!”


“Huang Ming! Come out!” the brigands chorused.


Huang Ming’s face was stricken as he recalled what his sister-in-law Cao Tianyun had said.


‘You offended a lot of people…’

 

A bump in the road,
Collecting what was owed.​