“It’s not that simple.”
--Allie Hamilton, ‘The Notebook’
Chapter 138 – Telepathy fail
Evening was giving way to night when Zhao Sunli returned to the Li Clan residence. She found Huang Ming waiting for her. Her fiancé’s head was bowed, a frown upon his brows as he pondered over a scroll by the candlelight.
It was already past dinnertime and most of the Li Clan had retired to their respective dwellings within the estate, but those who had seen Sunli earlier in the library and then Huang Ming that night would note the similarities in their reading interests. The scroll in his hand was the very same one Sunli had tried to decipher.
She was struck by the image of the studious young man, and found herself looking over his profile for a few heartbeats.
They say a man was most attractive when he was utterly focused, and at this moment Huang Ming was demonstrating it.
This version of the young man was the one that had caused the most frustration and confusion in Sunli’s mind. Not the smart aleck with a frivolous tongue, not the reckless daredevil that jumped down into Tigertrap Fort with her in his arms. It was this one, the one with eyes like shimmering, unfathomable pools who had poured military wisdom in their private lectures.
She wondered if he had deliberately shown this aspect of himself to others, if there were others who knew of his depths.
‘The Lady Qiong Ying?’ an insidious whisper suggested from the depths of her heart before she could extinguish the thought.
The candlelight flickered from a stray breeze, causing the shadows to dance momentarily.
Huang Ming looked up from the scroll as if searching for the source of the breeze, and he saw Sunli watching him like a silent sentinel.
“Welcome back,” he greeted.
Sunli nodded simply, unsure as what to say.
“Have you eaten?” Huang Ming inquired softly.
“I had dinner with General Yin,” Sunli said matter-of-factly.
It was Huang Ming’s turn to nod without a word, his gaze on her unwavering.
It suddenly occurred to Sunli that her actions could be misconstrued.
Though she grew up in the martial environment of General Zhao Tong’s army camps, she was aware of some female proprieties. A single female going out with a man only to return at dark would be subject to public gossip for unladylike behaviour.
Sunli recalled that there were no ridiculing stares directed her way the whole day she was out with General Yin. The sight of two formidable military figures together, talking with serious looks on their faces as they strolled side-by-side deterred anyone from making snide remarks. It was plainly obvious that the pair were earnestly discussing weighty matters and it was not some outing between lovers.
Yet... why did she suddenly felt as if she had done something improper?
Why did she feel as if she had betrayed Huang Ming, despite the calm and non-judgemental way he was looking at her now?
“How was your day?” Huang Ming asked.
“Very good,” Sunli answered shortly, not volunteering more.
“I see…” Huang Ming said with a slight smile.
“We discussed the campaign in Wei in detail,” Sunli said. “Your tactics were of particular interest to the general,” she continued in a rush.
Then she inwardly chastised herself, why did she feel the need to explain herself?
Huang Ming’s eyes lit up and beckoned for her to sit with him.
“What did the general have to say?” he asked as he poured a cup of tea for her.
Sunli sat down, glad to push aside irritating things such as ‘feelings’ for the time being.
The two then spent several hours discussing the points, comments and arguments General Yin had raised.
“The general is very astute,” Huang Ming said later, and Sunli nodded in agreement.
“He reminds me of our fathers,” she said. Then she paused and frowned. “Without the old men nonsense,” the Amazon added.
Huang Ming chuckled.
“From the way you describe the discussion, it seemed he was doing most of the talking,” he noted.
“He was very persuasive,” Sunli said tersely. She was not about to tell her fiancé that he was right, that she was all but too overwhelmed by her proximity to a revered hero to have made any real rebuttals.
Huang Ming did not say anything, but his smirk was plain to see.
“He is a general after all, who am I to contradict him?” Sunli growled hotly.
“I am not making fun of you,” Huang Ming said, raising a hand in placation.
Sunli snorted, and Huang Ming scratched his cheek depreciatingly.
The moon was high in the night, and their candle had already burnt half its lifespan.
“We need to talk,” Huang Ming said quietly.
Sunli was startled. She remembered how Huang Ming had offered to have a heart-to-heart talk about their relationship limbo before that breathless moonlit jump into Tigertrap Fort, and the way she had angrily rebuffed him then.
She saw the solemn look on his face and she tensed in anticipation… not really knowing what she was bracing herself for.
“What do you want?” she asked slowly.
“What do you think of General Yin?” Huang Ming asked in return.
It was as if she was punched in the gut.
“What?” Sunli managed to say. ‘Did he think I was swayed?’ she thought, half-horrified, half-indignant.
Huang Ming seemed to not notice her rapidly changing facial expressions.
“Huang Lang is back,” he said mirthlessly, “...and somehow he has gotten us all involved in a grand scheme to save the country.”
Sunli took a sharp breath to steady herself, willing herself to ignore the cauldron of bubbling emotions within her.
“What happened?” she asked.
Huang Ming then told her about the meeting with the King of Wu, and the subsequent plot orchestrated by Huang Lang to remove Prime Minister Tong Xuan.
“... and so we intend to recruit General Yin to our cause. Do you think he will agree?”
Sunli stared at him. A part of her was debating whether she should slap him or punch him in the nose.
Finally sensing that something was wrong, Huang Ming frowned.
“Are you alright?” he ventured to ask.
“You should ask him yourself,” Sunli snarled through gritted teeth.
Huang Ming leaned back and crossed his arms in thought.
“You’re right, this is too important for intermediaries. I should really talk to him face-to-face,” he said, nodding to himself. “Do you know where to find him?”
It was all too much for Sunli. Feelings of agony, hurt, anger and other unfamiliar emotions converged in a fiery ball and she could not bear to be in his presence any longer. She shot to her feet, startling Huang Ming in the process.
“He’s at the capital’s barracks, find him yourself!” she seethed and stomped away.
Huang Ming watched her go. Then, his shocked face slowly gave way to a knowing smile.
“What the hell was that?” Qiong Ying asked reproachfully as she emerged from the shadows.
“It was exactly as you saw,” Huang Ming replied.
“What I saw is you doing your best to be dense and stupid. Are you trying to drive her away?” Qiong Ying demanded.
“Are you sure? Because it sure looked like you were,” Qiong Ying said suspiciously.
“She is young and confused, and so she must see the entirety of what it means to be involved with us,” Huang Ming said sagely.
Qiong Ying was so mystified that she did not retort about the age thing.
“Just what do you mean by that?” she asked.
“I have you,” Huang Ming began. “She knows this, and yet she is… trapped in this triangle with us.”
“She can be the main wife, I have said I didn’t mind,” Qiong Ying said impatiently.
“And I am very lucky,” Huang Ming returned. “But what about her? You have seen for yourself, she has no idea what she is facing. She doesn’t know what to say or how to even begin sorting her own feelings.”
“If you talk to her-” Qiong Ying began.
“This situation was your doing, not mine,” Huang Ming interrupted her. “She has to find what she truly wants now before getting into bed with us, and not regretting about what could have been when it is too late.”
Qiong Ying gave him the evil eye. “I think I understand. You are trying to say that you’re letting her see all of you, including the worst parts, as well as other possibilities; before she commits. That you’re placing the decision in her hands? Is that it?”
“She has already seen my good parts after all,” he grinned. ‘Including what I looked like topless,’ he left unsaid, recalling their spar so long ago.
“I am not sure that she did,” Qiong Ying said nastily.
“This is for her own good, don’t worry about it,” Huang Ming said airily.
She snorted in exasperation. “Are you some sort of selfless romantic fool? You do realize that there is a possibility that she would leave you for good? Maybe even for General Yin!”
“And it would be her choice,” Huang Ming said. He propped his chin with one fist and smiled at her.
“I don’t think there is another man like you, so willingly to allow something in your hands the choice to jump back out,” Qiong Ying grumbled. “All she needs is just some sweet talk and she’s yours.”
“This isn’t about me spreading my arms and letting her jump into my warm embrace. This is about her deciding if she should jump at all,” Huang Ming said.
“So complicated,” Qiong Ying muttered.
“This is who I am. Would you prefer if I’m the sort to fly from woman to woman and make a harem? Will you be happy and play nice with each other at home, while I’m off finding more peerless beauties with jade-like skin?” Huang Ming asked rhetorically.
Qiong Ying rolled her green eyes.
“You two are quite alike, you know,” Huang Ming said lazily. “Given a different situation, would you willingly share a husband? I think not, and you have seen how conflicted she was.”
Qiong Ying sighed, admitting that he did have some logic, even though she thought it was all overly complicated. And so altruistic.
Then she frowned mightily.
“You are giving her a chance to make a choice,” she stated.
“What about me?” Qiong Ying demanded. “How is it that I did not get the same treatment?”
Huang Ming smirked.
“You jumped me first,” he reminded her.
A strange kindness,
Yet, a guidance.