“A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
--Don Corleone, “The Godfather”

Chapter 106 – The Li Clan

The rest of the journey to the capital Gusu City was uneventful. The former bandit Tian Zhu proved to be an able and useful, often moving ahead to scout the road to ensure smooth sailing for the caravan. At night when he returned to the caravan’s camp, he would bring back some small game that he had hunted.

“Is this really necessary?” Huang Ming had asked about his scouting.

Tian Zhu smiled mirthlessly. “Ever since the reverse at Wei, the common people are restless and discontented. This is made worse by corrupt officials who are raising taxes in the name of rebuilding our armies, but only a blind person would fail to see that they are taking the chance to line their own pockets, causing ordinary folk to rise up in protest. Brigands prowling the main roads like what I did are not an unusual sight.”

The veteran guard Zhen Tian agreed with his assessment. “I have heard of such occurrences in the rest of the country. Though I might add that this isn’t a recent thing. Our infrastructure and security have been neglected for many years. The mercenary companies are finding much work guarding the merchant and trading caravans, including those of your relatives, young master.”

Huang Ming nodded, reminded of the fact that he had gifted those paternal relatives with some useful weapons and gadgets when they had gathered for the double wedding of his brothers. But this time his mother reminded him to seek his maternal relatives in the capital, having sent word of his impending arrival to them in advance. The reason for having multiple wagons in the first place were the numerous gifts and packages that he had to deliver to friends and relatives in Gusu City.

Gusu City was a large city that was home to a very large population. Its walls rose twice the height and width of those in Tianxin City. Within its walls was an orderly constructed metropolis that was based on a grid-like block system with roads wide enough for multiple carriages and wagons. Despite the ill fortunes of war, all the major gateways into the city were crowded with merchants caravans; a sign of prosperity. The people behaved as if they were insulated from the troubles outside of their city walls, it was bustling and lively.

The largest block was of course the royal palace, a vast sprawling complex of splendid gardens and ornately gilded residences, decorated with all manner of mythical beasts such as dragons and winged tigers. Even from a distance, Huang Ming could see the magnificent opulence of the main palace building. One could appreciate its beauty, though cynics would say it was a grand example of how wasteful the rulers of the country had been.

Huang Ming did not know the protocol when it came to being summoned by the king, but he felt the first order of business was to clean up and make himself presentable after the journey. Seeing the majesty of the palace only reinforced his view. Finding a place to stay was not difficult as his relatives on his mother’s side had a prominent presence in the capital, the noble mercantile Li clan.

Standing outside the Li mansion was an eager lookout. The young servant’s face lit up when he saw the procession of carriages approaching. He quickly ran to report and soon a group of richly dressed individuals came out to greet Huang Ming as he descended from the carriage. Young and old, they represented the main Li family.

“Cousin!” “Little Ming!” “Nephew!”

Huang Ming was a little surprised by their greetings. Apparently, being a war hero was enough to erase any ill feelings that the original might have accumulated.

At the head of the welcoming committee was a middle-aged man with a dignified appearance whose features reminded Huang Ming of his mother. Before Huang Ming could say anything, the man stepped forward to grasp him on both forearms.

“Hah! I knew there were some good in you! Your parents are too good of a pedigree for you to remain as a debauchee!” the man said with a humorous glint in his eyes.

“Nice to meet you too, Sir Li,” Huang Ming said wryly.

“Sir? What nonsense! Call me uncle!” the middle-aged man grumbled good-naturedly.

Huang Ming obediently bowed his head and greeted, “Uncle Li Hong.”

Li Hong was Madam Li’s elder brother, and thus really was Huang Ming’s uncle. According to his memories, Li Hong was one of the select few who never gave up lecturing the original Huang Ming when he was younger, constantly urging him to change his ways. Oh, there have been plenty who had done the same, but Li Hong did it out of care and not just admonishment. Of course, all his advice had fallen on the deaf ears of the original. Huang Ming felt a burst of warmth when he saw this genial uncle whose joy was genuine and plain to see.

Then the atmosphere turned silent and the babble of enthusiastic noise that had celebrated his arrival died down. Huang Ming only needed to half-turn to see the reason for their sudden disquiet, for it was Quan Lu’s turn to descend from the carriage. Even Uncle Li Hong was distracted, his grip on Huang Ming’s forearms slackened.

A few of his female cousins (and aunts) were instantly smitten by Quan Lu’s appearance. It seemed that even in the capital, it was difficult to find a ‘man’ as beautiful as Qiong Ying’s male disguise. Her startling green eyes, white scholarly robes, a gentleman’s folding fan and the sheathed sword by her side gave her the looks of a poetic swordsman.

“This is…?” Li Hong asked. Quite a few of the females in attendance leaned in to listen.

Huang Ming and Madam Li had debated about revealing Qiong Ying’s real identity to their relatives, but ultimately had decided against it. Qiong Ying herself had suggested that since they were in the capital with the additional motive of assisting Huang Lang later on, it would be useful to keep the truth under wraps for the time being.

Thus, Huang Ming lazily drawled, “This is Quan Lu, my very good friend.”

Qiong Ying resisted the temptation to pinch his waist, the emphasis on the word ‘friend’ was somehow aggravating to her ears. Instead she affected a faint smile and cupped her hands to greet Huang Ming’s maternal relatives in the martial fashion.

Huang Ming noted that a few of his younger, female relatives giggled as they softly repeated the name to themselves shyly. Then they gasped as their eyes were once again diverted elsewhere; this time their gaze landed on Sunli. They had paid little attention to the athletic woman when she had easily vaulted down from her horse, thinking her slim profile was just another of the escort guardsmen. But once she took off her helmet and revealed her face, they finally realized the warrior wielding a long spear was actually a heroic, handsome woman.

For some reason, Huang Ming felt proud that Sunli elicited such admiration from his relatives.

“And this is Zhao Sunli of Wuxin City,” he announced.

“The daughter of General Zhao Tong?” Li Hong asked. “The one from the campaign in Wei? The one they call the War Goddess?”

Huang Ming smirked. “Yes, she is the War Goddess,” he repeated blandly, ignoring the flush of red on the tanned woman’s cheeks and the fury in her glaring eyes.

“A true heroine in our home! I say, your circle of friends have improved greatly!” Li Hong exclaimed with joy. Indeed, the hubbub around them exploded once more.

“I have heard of you!” “I admire you!” “Please tell us your war stories!” were among the various squeals of the excited relatives.

Sunli inadvertently took one step back from the pressure, overwhelmed by the reception. Behind her, the escort guards that had respectfully (and fearfully) obeyed her orders during the journey and had known of her bloody battlefield accomplishments snickered at her discomfort. The Amazon gave them a furious stare and immediately they straightened up to hide their glee.

Of course, seeing how a woman had so easily cowed these men into submission only increased the admiration from Huang Ming’s relatives. Huang Ming could already imagine some of his younger cousins going ‘Onee-sama’ towards Sunli.

Li Hong coughed to discreetly admonish them, and then gestured towards the Li residence.

“Come in, come in! We have lots to catch up!”

A good welcome,
For the handsome.​