To the royal banquet
“Trust me, I know what I'm doing.”
Chapter 109 – To the royal banquet
Huang Ming smiled for the Prime Minister’s benefit. Since the Prime Minister had gone out of the way to mention it, it was obvious that the Prime Minister was baiting him.
“A woman? That’s interesting,” Huang Ming said, raising an eyebrow.
Tong Xuan hid a grin, seeing how the young man was stirred. Perhaps there was some truth about the lascivious stories surrounding the young man after all. He was sceptical at first, since the source of the stories came from his nephew Fang La’s hanger-on, the so-called Handsome Scholar Nangong Xie.
“Indeed. From General Yin’s brief letter, she is a great beauty as well.”
Huang Ming smiled grew broader and said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. We mustn’t allow our country to be shamed. Since the king wishes for my presence, I will of course attend and do what I can to alleviate his worries.”
“Good!” Tong Xuan praised, inwardly sneering at Huang Ming’s pretentiousness. “Our country is indeed fortunate to have someone as loyal as you!”
Then the Prime Minister passed to him an invitation card for the royal banquet. The meeting was concluded soon thereafter and the Prime Minister departed in good humour. Tong Xuan was pleased to have seemingly discovered the strings to tug the kingdom’s newest hero. In his mind, the young man was yet another pawn that could be played using lust or patriotic sentiment…
Once they have seen the back of his carriage, Uncle Li Hong breathed a sigh of relief. He gave his nephew a withering look.
“What are you, twelve? How can you blatantly pick a fight with the Prime Minister in my home?” he demanded.
“Sorry,” Huang Ming said contritely. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
“Damn right you shouldn’t. If you’re going to incite someone with a lot of guards like Tong Xuan, at least do it somewhere else. What if a fight breaks out? Then I’ll get stuck cleaning up the bodies,” Uncle Li Hong grumbled.
Huang Ming laughed. His uncle was only pretending to be a spineless, stereotypical merchant in the presence of the Prime Minister to the extent of personally serving tea to him; it was all a façade.
The uncle and nephew then returned to the residence, whereupon they held counsel with Sunli and ‘Quan Lu’. The two women had been waiting anxiously ever since they caught wind of Tong Xuan’s surprise visit. They had strained their ears to eavesdrop on the meeting and had heard much of its contents.
“What are you to do?” Qiong Ying asked.
“Oh, the usual. Visit the palace, see the king,” Huang Ming said breezily with a shrug.
“Be serious!” Qiong Ying exclaimed while rolling her eyes with exasperation. She recalled Madam Li’s remark about Huang Ming needing a guiding hand, and now she knew why.
“Relax,” Huang Ming said. “It’s not as if I can turn down the king’s invitation. Don’t worry, I’ll play it safe.”
“Your words hardly inspire confidence,” Qiong Ying muttered. “I don’t suppose I can come with you…”
“Now who’s being reckless? I can’t simply bring someone uninvited to see the king,” Huang Ming smirked. Seeing how Qiong Ying was pouting sullenly, he hastened to add flatteringly, “Not even someone as peerless as you. You might attract unwanted attention.”
“Well, you’re right,” Qiong Ying nodded, pleased at the implied praise.
Uncle Li Hong had been following their conversation with some bewilderment. There was something between Huang Ming and the ‘man’ known as Quan Lu… had his nephew expanded his ‘tastes’? He swore to write back to his sister; how exactly did Madam Li raise this son of hers? How did he swing from being a person who behaved beastly towards girls to someone who would flirt with a man?
“Perhaps I can go with him as a guard. I’m a military officer after all,” Sunli suddenly said, interjecting into the conversation.
Li Hong brightened. Zhao Sunli the War Goddess! Now that’s someone suitable to pair up with his nephew. Even though she had a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, at least she was still a woman. This strapping, tall woman might just be the firm guiding hand his nephew needed to prevent him from potential excesses…
Huang Ming was of course unaware of the gears turning in his uncle’s mind, and thus was startled when he enthusiastically supported Sunli’s suggestion.
“That’s right, she can,” Li Hong said loudly. “The king would want to see her as well!”
Huang Ming stared at him. “Really? You’re suggesting for her to crash into the royal banquet uninvited?”
“Of course,” his uncle said, a matter-of-factly. “You have no idea just how famous she is, do you?”
Qiong Ying narrowed her eyes at Huang Ming and added, “I say, you’re awfully set on going alone to the royal banquet tomorrow. Are you sure you’re not intrigued by the female Jin ambassador mentioned by the Prime Minister?” she asked suspiciously.
“No,” Huang Ming replied firmly and told the two women about Huang Lang’s disappearance. “I need someone to investigate this matter for me,” he said.
Qiong Ying’s ‘handsome’ face frowned in serious thought. “I can do this. I have some contacts here in the capital,” she announced. In away, she relished the chance to delve back into her cloak and dagger ways once more.
“I’ll have some trusted people to assist you, Sir Quan Lu,” Uncle Li Hong said, and Qiong Ying nodded gratefully.
“Don’t do anything reckless,” Huang Ming reminded her.
“Relax, I’ll play it safe,” she said, throwing back his earlier words at him.
The next day, Huang Ming and Sunli arrived at the royal palace. The scholarly young man was in simple robes without any ostentations, while his companion was a taller woman with short hair and dressed like a military officer. There was already a line of guests waiting for entry, and the duo patiently stood in queue. Their presence attracted whispered gossip, all wondered who the ordinarily dressed young man was.
“Maybe the son of a minor noble, or a merchant family,” some guessed. Others turned their noses up, sniffling about poor rabble trying to get ahead of themselves.
Huang Ming and Sunli ignored them.
“Halt!” the guards at the palace gates called out when they saw the mismatched pair.
“State your business!” the guards demanded.
“I’m invited,” Huang Ming replied mildly and showed them the invitation card given by the Prime Minister.
Still suspicious, the guards glanced at the card. Then they looked back up in astonishment, before rubbing their eyes to read the card once more.
“It’s Sir Huang Ming! And Zhao Sunli the War Goddess!” the guards gasped.
The remark drew the attention of the surrounding rubberneckers. Those who had disparaged them earlier turned ashen when they realized that they had insulted the most famous names of the day. Didn’t the Prime Minister personally invite the strategist who saved the day at Tigertrap Pass? Wasn’t the War Goddess the heroine that had slew so many of the Wei devils?
Upon hearing the hubbub, a palace eunuch rushed over. It was the same, young and fresh-faced eunuch that had delivered the royal summons to the Huangs.
“Sir Huang Ming! Lady Zhao! Why are you queueing up here? Please, come in, come in!” the eunuch exclaimed.
“It’s my first time here, I do not know the protocols,” Huang Ming replied with a smile.
“It’s our oversight, our fault!” the eunuch apologized and personally escorted Huang Ming and Sunli into the royal banquet directly, leaving the other guests gawking at their backs.
The players enter the ring,
Who knows what troubles it will bring.