As I post this, I am recovering from a work-related injury on my leg that just happened today. Hadn't have much time to write and so I had to dig into one of my prepared chapters which was actually slated for editing/revision, meaning this is before the input/criticism from my readers. Nevertheless, the general direction is there. I am not sure how long this injury will take for me to recover, but I will try to continue with my schedule.

“Baby you don't know me, cause you're dead wrong”
--Kelly Clarkson, ‘Stronger’

Chapter 176 – Talking in the moonlight

Huang Ming later found Sunli in the gardens. The Amazonian was sitting on a rock outcropping, her arms linked around one knee while the other leg was left dangling. The night clouds somehow covered the moon just enough to shine a column of light down on her. The moonlight on the metal on her armour sparkled, lending an ethereal halo on the War Goddess.

The gardener might be outraged that someone would be sitting on his meticulously tended garden where every flower and every stone had its place, but to Huang Ming the toned figure of Zhao Sunli only added mystique to the scenery.

Zhao Sunli herself was unaware of the picturesque picture she was part of. Her brows were furrowed in thought, her lips pursed and her eyes stared at some inscrutable detail on the ground.

‘All that is missing is some fireflies or will o’ the wisps to complete a fantasy picture,’ Huang Ming thought wryly.

He approached her quietly, and for once the usually vigilant woman was so deep in thought that she did not hear him.

He stood behind her, looking at the way her back was arched, tracing with his eyes the tensing musculature underneath of her neck and shoulders. It was like admiring the static pose of a prime athlete.

Huang Ming would have gladly stood there admiring the profile of her back, but he knew that for the martial woman to be so distracted meant there were weighty matters indeed in her mind.

He coughed gently, and agilely jumped back at the vicious elbow swing from her. Huang Ming had expected such a reaction, it was akin to creeping up to a martial artist who would respond to surprises without thinking.

Sunli scrambled to her feet, and dropped low into a ready stance. Only then did she realize it was Huang Ming.

Her lips moved as if to say an apology, but when she saw the smile on Huang Ming’s face, she squashed the impulse. Instead, she gave him a baleful look.

“How long have you been there?” she demanded.

“Only just,” he said.

Sunli snorted in response, internally mortified that someone had sneaked up on her. She folded her arms across her chest and turned her face away, using her anger to avoid looking at him in the eyes.

Huang Ming chuckled.

“How have you been?” he asked softly.

Sunli glared at him from the corner of her eyes.

“Fine,” she said after a while.

Huang Ming sat down on the large rock that she had vacated. He patted the spot beside him invitingly, but Sunli did not oblige. Instead she pulled out several envelopes where she had placed them close to her heart, and mechanically passed it to him.

“From your family,” she said. “Their letters came to Tianxin City, before they knew you had been transferred here.”

Huang Ming accepted them gratefully but did not immediately tore them open. He could not resist letting his fingers savour the lingering warmth of the envelopes.

Sunli saw it and flushed. “You pervert, what the hell are you doing?” she growled.

“Hey, at least I didn’t sniff at it,” Huang Ming said.

“Give them back!” Sunli exclaimed in shock.

“But they are mine,” Huang Ming replied and smoothly slid the letters into his own robes.

Sunli clenched her fists, unable to refute his words. She turned around to march away, but Huang Ming grabbed one of her hands and pulled her in.

“You-!” she seethed, but Huang Ming did not take liberties with her. Instead he slid her over so that they were sitting side by side on the rock.

“Do you want to talk?” he asked gently, even as she was trying to free herself from his grip.

It was as if the wind was taken out from her sails, and she relented. Huang Ming then released his hold, and she grudgingly rubbed her wrist.

“Talk,” Sunli said, almost sullenly.

“What about?”

She narrowed her eyes at his playful manner. “What is this nonsense with Qiong Ying about a spy in your midst?” she eventually asked.

“That maid really is a spy,” Huang Ming replied honestly.

“Then haven’t you arrested her?” she demanded icily.

“To spread back misinformation, of course. There is nothing more valuable than a spy with a blown cover.”

Her eyes narrowed further. “Are you sure it’s not because you’re not having fun with her?”

“I’ve been too busy,” he scoffed.

Then he folded his own arms and looked at her seriously. “You should already know the reasons. I have discussed them with you before. Do you still not see it?”

“All you have is conjecture, and to me it seems you’re chasing shadows and plotting against phantoms,” Sunli said.

“Really?” Huang Ming asked. “Has the general not approach you, as I said he would?”

Sunli stiffened. “We have a purely professional relationship,” she said.

“Did he not try to appeal to you? I bet that he said something about patriotism… or camaraderie between soldiers.”

Sunli stared at him incredulously.

“How… how did you know?” she asked.

Huang Ming waved his hand dismissively. “Standard noble evil villain behaviour, I’ve seen such things many times in movies.”

“What is a ‘movie’?”

“Ahem. It’s not important. But was I right?” Huang Ming diverted.

Sunli frowned. “Yes. He did say something to the effect. About how soldiers are sent to die for some lines on a map.”

Huang Ming smiled thinly. “Then did he wax poetic about some leaders do not have the martial spirit, or too inexperienced about using the military? Or that they are too power hungry to know the horrors of war?”

“The legacy of war,” Sunli corrected, and stopped herself. “How did you-”

“At this point I would be more surprised if he said ‘War, war never changes’,” Huang Ming interrupted, deliberately affecting a hoarse voice for the quote.

Sunli was of course confused by his otherworldly sentences. But Huang Ming didn’t give her time to dwell on it.

“I guess he said he is doing the things he did to affect changes from the top, to prevent people like them from sacrificing soldiers, is that it?”

Sunli nodded.

“What about me? Did he paint me as some ambitious young man who seek glory at the expense of dead soldiers?”

Sunli shut her mouth, and it told him that he was right.

“Well, what did you think of his pitch? Did you believe him?” Huang Ming asked.

“Of course not,” she said. “But he did have a point, about the likes of Gao Fang and Tong Xuan.”

“But are you going to join him? Hmm?” he asked as he peered playfully at her face.

Sunli pushed his face away. “I don’t know what to believe,” she grumbled. “You keep telling me to keep my guard up, that I should be wary about the general.”

“You should keep your guard up against anyone,” Huang Ming shrugged.

“Even you,” Sunli stated, half-questioningly, half-accusingly.

“I haven’t been fair to you,” Huang Ming acknowledged. “I gave you time and space, have you thought things through?”

“You… you can be infuriating!” Sunli seethed. “Why are you so roundabout about this? If you want me to be with you, why don’t you just come out and say it? Why are you dangling these… these choices at me?”

Huang Ming blinked. “I did not realize you are having such a hard time,” he said, half-jokingly.

“Do you find this funny? I think you’re deliberately putting me in a spot where I have to willingly submit myself to you, is that it?” she glared.

“You already did,” he reminded her.

Sunli flushed, as she remembered the way she had declared herself for him.

Huang Ming shook his head. “Don’t get angry about the past. Do you know how I look at you?” he asked enigmatically.

“What are you on about now?”

“Sunli, we have not been very close. I only know you from our limited times together, and to me I feel that you are someone who values her own independence and strength. Am I wrong?” Huang Ming asked.

She kept quiet.

“Or are you actually a maiden in heart, that you want someone to pursue you whole-heartedly like in those romantic novels?” Huang Ming continued with genuine curiosity.

Much to his surprise, he saw her ears redden.

He was surprised, and he reached out with his hand to brush her hair back.

Sunli did not allow it, she blocked the attempt with a forearm.

“You said you see me as a strong woman,” she said, and he nodded.

“You defeated me once, long ago,” she said as she rose to her feet. Huang Ming watch on with fascination as she stood to her full height.

The War Goddess unsheathed her sword. The blade glittered in the moonlight.

“Well, let me show you just how strong I am now.”

A rematch,
For a fair catch.​