Merry Christmas,
Sorry it wasn't fast.

“You wouldn't want to be responsible for killing the spirit of Christmas now would you, Santa?”
--Bernard the Head Elf, ‘The Santa Clause’ (1994)

Chapter 179 – A winter interlude

The prolonged absence of General Li Jing did not go unnoticed by the citizens of Beihai. Rumours and gossip abound, fear and panic began to spread like a disease. Though the city had stood proudly as a bulwark against the Jins, the transfer of General Yin Yanzhao and the veterans as well as the disappearance of his erstwhile replacement Li Jing shook the hearts and minds of the common folk.

Those who had elected to remain began to lament their decision not to follow the rich and wealthy to the capital. An overwhelmingly gloomy air cast its dreadful pall over the city.

Yet… Huang Ming was unaffected. He cheerily proceeded with his daily routine as usual, even greeting and trading jokes with all who came across him. For some reason he had recently taken to wearing clothing predominantly in red and white; and was was extremely generous to the young and needy. It brought some cheer to the city, and soon his acts inspired others to do the same.

Even Qiong Ying was bewildered by his antics. One day she awoke to find several pairs of socks being nailed at the wall over the room’s incense burner, which also doubled as a heating brazier. There were nothing special about the socks, they were the sort of knee-high slips used by any soldier in conjunction with their army boots.

She thought it was all very bizarre, until she touched the socks. To her delight they were toasty. In the cold mornings of wintertime, the sensation of warm clothing was much appreciated. A different sort of warmth rose from her heart at his thoughtful gesture. As she slipped the male socks over her feet as part of her Quan Lu disguise, she made a mental note to replicate the same for her other clothes; it simply made the morning chill more bearable.

But later that day as she was about to thank him, Huang Ming looked at her accusingly. He had returned with an armful of gaily wrapped boxes and parcels. Incongruously, he was also carrying a miniature potted tree which was trimmed and shaped curiously like a triangle.

“What happened to the socks here?” he asked as he set them down near the brazier.

Qiong Ying pointed to her own feet.

“You are not supposed to wear them,” Huang Ming chuckled.

Qiong Ying blinked. “What else are you going to do with them?”

“To put gifts in, of course,” Huang Ming said as a matter-of-factly. He gestured at the parcels and boxes.

“What nonsense are you on about? They are socks,” she groused.

“But they are mine to do as I wish. Now you owe me a pair of socks,” Huang Ming returned.

The good feeling that Qiong Ying had from wearing the clothes she thought Huang Ming had prepared for her vanished. Perhaps it was due to stress, perhaps it was also the sense of impending danger from Jin; but it all culminated into this moment.

“Fine, fine! You can have them back!” she growled, her emerald eyes glaring at him.

She angrily kicked off her boots and furiously peeled off a sock while still standing up.

“I want a new ones, what am I supposed to do with a pair of stinky socks?” Huang Ming grinned.

“Stinky? Stinky!?” Qiong Ying said, outraged. She flung one sock at him, the other was still around her dainty foot. She hopped around comically as she struggled with taking off the remaining sock.

Tragically, she was off-balanced and soon fell over with her arms flailing. She would have suffered an ignominious injury had Huang Ming not swept her up in his arms.

“Careful, you still owe me some socks,” Huang Ming grinned.

Still cradled in his arms, she tore off the last sock and tried to slap it onto his face. He easily evaded the clumsy effort, infuriating her with the all-knowing smirk on his face.

“You shouldn’t throw stuff at me. Once is excusable, twice is the limit,” he said.

“Hmph. So what if I did it three times?” she snorted, folding her arms while still in his carry. Then she saw the twinkle in his eyes, and remembered the horror he had put her through before. She started to scramble in an attempt to escape, but his hold on her was like vice.

“This,” he said, and proceeded to tickle her.

Several minutes of uncontrollable giggling left her completely out-of-breath. The flush in her face, her tossed hair and the flash in her green eyes as she glared at him caused Huang Ming to laugh.

“Well I’m glad that someone is enjoying himself,” she said sarcastically. “The rest of the city is living from day to day waiting for the hammer to fall, but you seem to be carefree.”

“Why worry about the inevitable?” Huang Ming asked rhetorically. “Besides, I have everything planned out.”

“Really?” Qiong Ying asked suspiciously. “You have only been doing strange things lately.”

“It’s just the festive season. We’re in the north, surely there must be a tradition or two,” Huang Ming said.

“What festive season? It’s winter, people are going to spend time indoors away from the cold,” Qiong Ying said.

“Don’t be such a spoilsport. If you’re too naughty then there won’t be any presents for you,” Huang Ming replied while wagging a finger.

Qiong Ying perked up. “Presents?”

“Come, help me set this up,” Huang Ming said and pointed at the potted plant.

“I don’t understand you at all. This isn’t a dwarf plant suitable for indoors,” Qiong Ying complained, giving the offending plant a baleful look. It was a coniferous sapling that would eventually grow to an enormous tree after many years, yet here it was in their room.

“This is all part of a new tradition. It will be the season of giving,” Huang Ming said solemnly.

Qiong Ying rolled her eyes. “How do you expect it to catch on?”

Huang Ming spread his arms wide. “You said the people are depressed. I’m just giving them an opportunity to cheer up. People will dress up, hang lanterns and decorate small trees like this and put wrapped presents underneath.”

“Presents for who?” Qiong Ying asked. “You’ll only get complaints if the folks hear that you’re asking for presents.”

“It will all be anonymous! That’s the surprise of it all, giving gifts and doing good deeds for each other without advertising themselves!” Huang Ming expounded.

Qiong Ying admitted it was an interesting idea. “But then, wouldn’t this tree be a little too small?” she asked.

Huang Ming pulled her close. “This one is just for the two of us,” he said. “I have already commissioned the biggest tree to be planted in the middle of the city for all.”

Qiong Ying nodded in understanding. Then she looked over at the parcels and boxes that Huang Ming had brought.

“Is my present there?” she asked coyly.

“They are all for you, but I’ll show you the best one later,” Huang Ming said with a smile.

Several days later, an enormous fir tree arrived at the city square. It required a team of horses and experienced woodsmen to transport it. There was even a group of soldiers escorting it into the city.

The sight of such huge tree and the effort required to pull it attracted a huge commotion. Despite the lightly falling snow and winter chill, the people of Beihai turned out to see the strange sight of a gigantic tree being dragged and then planted in the city square.

“What is this about?” a curious spectator asked.

“Sir Huang said there will be festival entered around this tree. Anyone can hang personalized decorations on the tree, and that folk are to donate small presents to be placed below it. It will all for each other,” the soldiers said.

“What a grand idea,” the citizens praised. The novelty of it all took hold on their imagination, and soon a joyous mood infected the city. Lanterns were hung, and on Huang Ming’s suggestion and illustrations, lines of decorations were connected from house to house; all gravitating to the giant tree in the city square.

At night the lights were lit up. Instead of the usual quiet wintry desolation, the citizens of Beihai saw the streets glowing with the light from the innumerable lanterns. The enterprising ones set up stands to sell warm food and alcoholic drinks, and the atmosphere became very jovial as people turned out in droves despite the cold. Presents were exchanged, toasts were made, laughter and joy filled the air…

Qiong Ying leaned back in Huang Ming’s embrace as they stared down at the night-scape from an open window. They were wrapped in a thick blanket, their breathes visible due to the cold.

“What do you think of my ‘present’?” Huang Ming asked, his chin resting on the top of her head, his arms around her.

“Very beautiful,” Qiong Ying said.

“...But?” Huang Ming asked, sensing the hesitation in her voice.

“Nothing,” she said, only to exclaim in pain later when Huang Ming ground his chin on her head.

“Ow! Stop that!” she yelled.

“Tell me,” Huang Ming said.

Qiong Ying sighed. “This is all very nice, but it doesn’t solve the problem of your lack of soldiers. We know Jin is attacking, and none of this will prevent it.”

“Prevent it? Why would I prevent it?” Huang Ming laughed sinisterly.

Qiong Ying twisted her neck to look up at him in astonishment. “You want them to come?”

“Of course. What do you think all these lights are for? It’s a beacon to guide them on their way here,” Huang Ming said.

“But we are completely outnumbered! How do you plan to fight them?” Qiong Ying asked worriedly.

“I told you, it is the season of giving. I have been waiting for them all this time, and I have presents for them.” Huang Ming answered

“I’m not sure I like this festival,” Qiong Ying muttered.

Several days later, the waiting came to an end.

A festival of lights,
An interlude before the plight.​