The royal banquet (1)
“And to show I bear no ill will, I, too, shall bestow a gift on the child.”
Chapter 110 – The royal banquet (1)
“I thought this would be a smaller function,” Huang Ming commented as he and Sunli followed the eunuch.
The young eunuch was taken aback. “Did you not know? Today is the princess’s birthday celebration as well.”
“I was not informed about that,” Huang Ming said dryly. Luckily he had brought along the music box with him, it was safely tucked in his robe’s voluminous sleeve.
The eunuch knew better than to say more, everyone had heard that the Prime Minister had personally went to deliver the invitation card. As they say, the mouth can destroy one’s body.
As the eunuch led Huang Ming and Sunli to the banquet hall, Huang Ming could see that the interior of the palace was just as magnificent as its exterior. The royal guards that stood attentively were dressed in ostentatious armour that reminded Huang Ming more of cosplay than actual usefulness. The gaudy armour worn by Marshal Gao Fang was perhaps inspired by this: large shoulder pauldrons and fishscale armour that shimmered with gold. Even their spears and swords had golden motifs. In comparison, Sunli’s black armour was far more functional and practical.
Sunli was dismissive about the guards, but she was still shocked by the amount of wealth on display. Huang Ming smiled cynically as he contrasted the extravagance of the royal family to the mud and blood that the Wu soldiers were suffering in Wei.
The eunuch pushed open the grand doors and gestured for them to follow him into the hall.
The cavernous hall was dominated by the colour of royal yellow. The pillars had exquisite carvings of coiling dragons and soaring phoenixes, their eyes were encrusted jewels. The floor was of the highest quality wood and marble, waxed to shiny perfection to reflect the glittering jewels that adorned the ceiling like stars. The sparkles from the incalculable riches here gave the entire hall an ethereal, dream-like feel, the palace maids in attendance looked like fairies.
Atop a raised stage was the king’s throne: a piece of furniture made of fragrant wood and decorated with gold and jade. A smaller version flanked it. The king himself was an older man, his face pale with sunken cheeks and darkening circles under his eyes; signs of a life of excess. Even the grand silk robes and headdress with dripping beads and pearls could not hide the aura of weaknesses from him.
Huang Ming’s cynicism only grew when he saw the scene. In Chinese history, the founder of a kingdom would usually be described as humble, his advisers wise and his generals heroic. But in this kingdom of Wu, the king was a spendthrift, his chief advisor was the scheming Prime Minister Tong Xuan and the leader of his armies was the ravenous Marshal Gao Fang.
Gao Fang was gone, but there was still Tong Xuan. The king seemed ill, and the problem was further compounded when Huang Ming noticed the figure on the smaller throne beside the king. Usually it was the seat reserved for the crown prince, but instead it was a young woman, Princess Wu Liying. Unlike her father’s weak countenance, the princess was far more regal in her demeanour. The serious expression on her beautiful face showed dignity that was lacking in her father.
‘So this is the little lady whose letter written in blood caused such distress,’ Huang Ming grumbled, recalling the grave expressions on the faces of the family when the truth behind the fake bandit attacks on Tianxin City were revealed to him.
The banquet was about to start, the seats were already half filled with high ranking officials of the country on one side and foreign dignitaries on the other side.
‘I see Tong Xuan didn’t even tell me the correct time to attend,’ Huang Ming thought. The Prime Minister was seated closest to the royalty, his own table was the biggest after them.
The eunuch then loudly announced their names: “Sir Huang Ming and Lady Zhao Sunli!”
The atmosphere turned still as all eyes turned to stare.
Sunli was still in awe of her surroundings, but Huang Ming discreetly nudged her.
“Keep calm and carry on,” he murmured. Then he took the lead and stepped forward to pay his respects to the royal hosts. The Amazon quickly recovered and followed, even as her taller height and shortened hair drew more attention than Huang Ming’s ordinary self. He was easy on the eyes, but Sunli was an extraordinary woman. Besides, he was dressed quite ordinarily like a simple scholar. The duo stood out like sore thumbs.
They stopped before the royal thrones and bowed deeply to the king and princess.
“Haha, rise! Rise!” the king said enthusiastically as life ignited in his eyes. One could tell that he was previously bored by the whole affair until the appearance of the duo. Maybe Sunli’s inclusion was pleasant surprise, for the king had only summoned for Huang Ming previously. The king was quite happy by what he saw: a young man with pleasing features and a heroic woman who was more than an equal to any man.
“We have long wished to see our country’s newest heroes, and truly you do not disappoint,” the king sighed in admiration.
“As do we,” Princess Wu Liying said slowly, her eyes still unsmiling as she stared at Huang Ming. It was just one cold, regal look; but it was obvious to him that the princess was not as convinced of his hero status as her father was. There was something about her that rubbed Huang Ming the wrong way. Perhaps it was the letter she had sent to her father, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. Even if the letter had not reached his father, the way it was written directly implicated the Huang family, and Huang Ming being part of the said family was less than impressed by the princess’s literary effort that could have wiped them out had it fallen to the wrong hands. Speaking of which, he wondered if his father still kept the secret letter within the linings of his belt? He made a mental note and bowed deferentially to the princess.
“Happy birthday, Princess,” he said blandly, and decided against presenting the music box after all.
The princess merely nodded in acknowledgement.
“And this young woman is Zhao Sunli! Indeed, we have heard of your name as well,” the king said with approval. “You are truly a credit to your father.”
Sunli flushed, she was more happy about the mention of her father than of herself.
“I am eager to serve the country!” she said and saluted in military fashion.
Compared to the chilly reception that Huang Ming received, Princess Wu was far more satisfied with Sunli’s heroic bearing.
“We have long heard stories of your prowess. You must demonstrate your skills to us soon!” she said. Then with a slight frown, she sighed. “The world needs more role models for women to look up to. We regret the delay in seeing you in person.”
“Our apologies for our tardiness, we were beset by a rabid dog,” Huang Ming said apologetically, causing the Prime Minister Tong Xuan’s face to twitch. He was after all nicknamed the Heavenly Hound, and those in attendance who knew the political undertones turned pale at Huang Ming’s bluntness.
“Oh?” the princess asked disbelievingly. “There is such a malicious creature in our capital?”
“Unfortunately it escaped before we could kill it, we beseech the king to issue a warning later so that the people would be prepared,” Huang Ming said with a straight face.
The king nodded in agreement and then bode them to take their seats of honour beside the Prime Minister as other visitors were announced and filed in to pay their obeisance.
“I was only testing you, a harmless prank,” the Prime Minister muttered, half in jest and half in anger; as if he was merely slightly upset about the jib.
Huang Ming smirked and pretended to bow apologetically. “And I was just teasing you,” he said, causing the Prime Minister to guffaw. Those nearby were surprised by the laughter, was not the Prime Minister enraged by Huang Ming’s insult? Now they look like dear friends!
But of course, the older man was still pretending to be an affable uncle-type figure, and Huang Ming knew better than to fall for the Tong Xuan’s performance. After all, this stately looking old man with a genial attitude was responsible for Huang Lang’s current disappearance.
“You did not tell me it’s the princess’s birthday,” Huang Ming said with a disarming smile. “Any more surprises you have yet to reveal?”
The Prime Minister returned his smile. “A few more,” he admitted. “Besides, you’re not late at all, the Jins have yet to arrive.”
Just as he had said that, the hall was silenced once more as the next visitor was announced.
“General Yin, escorting the esteemed Jin embassy!”
And once more all eyes turned towards the entrance. They saw General Yin who stood stiffly at the entrance, pausing to stand aside and give way to another party. The general was a man with broad shoulders, with salt-and-pepper hair and a face that was bathed by the rains and dried by the winds. But his dignified military bearing paled in comparison to the guests that he was escorting, it was almost as if he had melded anonymously into the background as two other persons walked past him.
At once, everyone felt a sense of deja vu, for it was again a man and woman duo just like Huang Ming and Sunli.
Leading the way was a young man who walked with his head slightly tilted haughtily. His long hair was pulled back and tied in a top knot, the tail dangling loosely behind his shoulders. He was dressed in the finest of silk and fur, and he walked with a swagger. Compared with Huang Ming’s subdued clothing, it was heaven and earth. It was also heaven and earth when the man was compared to his companion, she was far more memorable.
With him was also a military woman, but unlike Sunli’s athletic and slim profile, this woman was huge. She was taller, and wider than Sunli, a hulking woman made of slabs of muscle on muscle. Sunli looked well at ease when wielding her spear, but this woman looked like someone who could swing a giant axe and make it sing. She was dressed in thick furs that exposed her powerful arms. With her shock of red hair and eyes that glared challengingly at everyone, she looked every bit the stereotypical barbarian woman.
She was as far away from ‘jade-skinned beauty’ that Huang Ming had encountered previously.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” the Prime Minister whispered with a chuckle.
“I see that the Prime Minister has a sense of humour,” Huang Ming replied flatly.
The forgotten General Yin then appeared to bow before the king, smiling wryly as he did so.
“May I present the ambassador from Jin, Lord Aidi,” the weathered general said, gesturing towards the young man. Lord Aidi bowed with one arm over his waist, and one could see a sardonic smile on his handsome face when he rose back up.
“Ah,” Tong Xuan breathed out in shock. “I thought the woman was the ambassador,” he said, abashed at his mistake.
Huang Ming did not believe him for a second. Surely General Yin would have mentioned it in his advance report to the court. And even Huang Ming had some vague knowledge of Lord Aidi, he was one of the famous personages that were mentioned in that meeting with Lord Fang La in Qiong Ying’s Lichun so long ago…
“Happy felicitations to the princess,” Lord Aidi said, his voice dripping with honey. “We bear a gift to celebrate this occasion, and pray that the princess would find it amusing.”
He snapped his fingers, and the muscular woman behind him stepped forward to present a small packaged box. It was comically small in her bear-like hands.
All eyes were glued towards it, necks craned and stretched to see what the Jins had brought for the Princess of Wu…
A small surprise.