This chapter was rough. Just as I sat down to polish the text, this happened:

"Why aren't you ready yet?"
"Ready for what?"
"We have a dinner engagement!"
"What? That's the first I've heard of it."
"Well now you've heard it. Go get dressed!"

/bleh

Forgive me, this was posted after the dinner. And yes, Chinese grand dinner... hours and hours...



“Annie, are you okay?”
--Michael Jackson


Chapter 131 – The War Goddess’s introspection

Zhao Sunli was bored.


She could not follow Huang Ming into the palace this time around, and she did not have any friends nor acquaintances in the capital. Qiong Ying was away as well, taking with her the two bodyguards Zhen Tian and Tian Zhu,


Sunli did not enjoy moving about aimlessly. Thus she holed up in the Li Clan residence instead of sightseeing the capital, waiting impatiently for Huang Ming’s return.


The Amazonian warrior tried to occupy herself by reading up classic military scrolls in the Li Clan’s library, but the archaic texts irritated her. They were such a far cry from the direct and novel lessons Huang Ming had given her.


Her vexation was compounded by the shy looks from the younger members of the Li Clan who thought themselves invisible. How could they resist stealing glances at the female warrior whose spear had struck terror in Wei?


Look at her! The fierce beauty Zhao Sunli sitting imperiously in the library, one hand holding a treatise while her brows furrowed in deep thought. One could almost see an aura of martial majesty emanating from the figure.


Sunli knew that they were not malicious, yet she could not help but felt pressured by their eyes. The womenfolk were full of admiration, the menfolk were in awe.


So she left the library and went to a quiet corner of the gardens with her weapons and armour, intending to clean them. What was it that Huang Ming had said? ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’. She approved of the soldierly phrase, and adopted it zealously.


The Li Clan’s garden was large and meticulously well tended. The flowers were in bloom, the grass freshly trimmed, the weather was clear and birds were singing in the trees… though the little creatures were scared off when Zhao Sunli came carrying her weapons and armour. It was as if a dark cloud had parked itself at one end of the garden, an oppressive aura that would repel any one from approaching.


Of course, she couldn’t get rid of her admirers completely. The Li Clan younglings were pretending to browse the books in the libary earlier, now they were pretending to be enjoying the fragrance of flowers and the scenery in the gardens. From a safe distance, that is.


Thus Sunli could not find any of the usual pleasure while she was cleaning her implements. All the while there was a twinge of irritation in her heart. That one stray thought about Huang Ming reminded her of her current predicament: being stuck in an ambiguous relationship state.


Over time, Sunli realized that the roguish young man was more than she had initially expected. She recalled the time when she found out about the engagement and had travelled to Tianxin City with Zhao Hongqi to investigate the salacious rumours surrounding her fiancé.


It was almost a lifetime ago.


She discovered that Huang Ming was more than just a smooth-talker, that there was a third party who literally stole him away from her. Then there was an actual war, and even little Hongqi found herself being pursued romantically.


But what about Sunli herself? She was the official fiancée to Huang Ming, yet Huang Ming was entangled with another. She recalled the uneasy compromise struck by the woman known as Qiong Ying who was seemingly more comfortable in her male persona of Quan Lu.


That third party was easily the most beautiful woman she had ever known, and to make the matter worse her disguise as a man had also easily fooled everyone. Then there was her own cringe-worthy confession…


Sunli snarled and quickly erased that memory from her mind. A few of the Li Clan juniors who happened to catch sight of clenched teeth from the fearsome War Goddess blanched and hurriedly left, leaving their ignorant relatives puzzled…


Despite the camaraderie Sunli had shared with Huang Ming during the campaign in Wei, it seemed to cool off when the war was over. They had maintained a cool and professional relationship when they were stationed at Tigertrap Pass, and Sunli learned to trust Huang Ming’s judgement and strategies. He gave her military responsibilities and authority, and actually trusted her to accomplish them instead of hovering over her like what her father General Zhao Tong had done previously.


Huang Ming.


What a difference the person was from the evil, scandalous gossip that she had heard. He had defeated her in a spar, surprised her with his military knowledge and despite her wall of ice she had put up, she found herself warming up to the young man. Especially since that night when they had scaled the walls of Tigertrap Pass and floated down into the fort under the pale moonlight…


Once more Sunli snarled to cut off her train of thought. This time more of the Li Clan juniors saw the sudden expression of fury, and even more were frightened into making hasty exits.


Huang Ming.


She had been observing him whenever she could and she still find him mystifying. Sometimes flippant, sometimes deep. Infuriating, but inspiring. Easy-going at times, unbending at others. She knew firsthand the way his mouth could run, and yet there were times like when he had bowed and made a heartfelt apology to Tian Zhu.


And his talents.


She saw how he had directed thousands of soldiers to bedevil even the mighty General Ran Wei in the battlefield, and then the way he had overturned Lord Aidi’s schemes in the very palace itself. It was as if he had done all these things before, taking decisive action with confidence.


Compared to him, what about her? She had allowed Qiong Ying and Huang Ming to dictate the parameters of their weird relationship, not knowing how long such a situation would last.


Was she really satisfied with the way things were?


The War Goddess closed her eyes and took a deep breath of fresh air. There was a slight breeze and she allowed herself to be caressed by the wind.


Suddenly Sunli had her peace and quiet.


A brief moment in time for her to forget the ridiculously embarrassing love triangle she had thrown herself into.


“Erm, Miss Zhao…” a shy voice called out, breaking the moment.


Sunli slowly opened her eyes, repressing the sigh that was about to escape from her lips. So much for a respite…


Standing before her was a shy young girl of the Li Clan.


“Yes, what is it?” Sunli asked.


“There’s a guest…”


Sunli frowned. “Huang Ming is still at the palace,” she said.


The young Li girl shook her head.


“No… it’s for you…” she said and gestured to someone behind her.


Sunli’s eyebrows raised when she saw the guest.


“You are…”
 

Three meetings,
Three greetings.​