“Oh, love cup!”
--Roger and Jessica Rabbit, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'
Chapter 200 – Enough
Qiong Ying leaned back into her chair and sighed with relief.
‘I could use one of his massages,’ she thought ruefully. She looked around the room and saw signs of Huang Ming everywhere.
At first, she had returned to the Li Chun Brothel, only going to the Huangs for dinners. But soon Madam Li made it clear that it was inconvenient for Qiong Ying to shuttle back and forth. Even if she was using her Quan Lu disguise, the constant to and fro would raise suspicions. It was simple convenience for her to stay at the Huang residence.
Initially Qiong Ying demurred due to her ambiguous situation. She was not a legal wife, yet also not a concubine. Legally, she haven’t married into the Huangs yet, but they had all but accepted her into the family; even going as far as giving her Huang Ming’s room.
Fortunately, the awkwardness was mostly avoided due to the relative emptiness of the Huang residence. The patriarch Huang Zheng was stationed at the strategic Tigertrap Fort. Huang Ke and his wife Liu Yuchun followed to assist him. The eldest brother Huang Lang was home handling the family businesses, but he and Madam Li spent most of their free time with Cao Tianyun who was heavily pregnant.
Thus Qiong Ying was mostly left to her own devices, a fact that she utilized fully as it enabled her to conduct her own matters in private. Huang Ming had given her several tasks after the events in Beihai, and she took them seriously.
And what of Zhao Sunli? The Amazon had escorted Qiong Ying back to Tianxin City, but once this was accomplished she had quickly made her way elsewhere, presumably to join up with her father Zhao Tong. She too had her own list of missions given to her by Huang Ming.
Before Liu Yuchun followed her husband Huang Ke to Tigertrap Fort, Qiong Ying gave her a bundle of schematics drawn up by Huang Ming.
“What are these designs for?” Qiong Ying had asked Huang Ming.
“Wonder weapons,” he had answered vaguely. Perhaps he did not know it, but Qiong Ying noticed that he had a shadow on his face as he handed over the schematics; as if he had second thoughts about his decision.
He did not seal the bundle, implicitly allowing Qiong Ying to study them on her carriage ride back to Tianxin City. There were arrows that flew on fire, devious traps that explode on contact and gigantic barrels of iron that launch heavy projectiles.
She was no technical expert, but she was intelligent enough to grasp the implications of the designs. To her consternation, she could recognize some of the designs: she had seen the remnants of the so-called “cannons” that the Jins had brought to bear against the city of Beihai.
How did Huang Ming dissect the remains and reverse-engineered them so quickly?
Her suspicions were reinforced by Liu Yuchun who was overwhelmed to receive the schematics, before she had left for Tigertrap Fort.
“He did this all by himself?” Liu Yuchun had asked with astonishment.
“As far as I know,” Qiong Ying answered cautiously. “Do you understand them?”
“He has made it easy for me. Look, every part is drawn in detail and I know what needs to be fitted together, like a puzzle,” Liu Yuchun marvelled. But as she leafed through the pages, her expression turned grave.
“Is something wrong?”
“This goes even further than the mechanical crossbow he had drawn up before. I thought that was deadly enough, but this…” Liu Yuchun murmured. The tomboyish woman sat down and exhaled heavily.
“I have just started production of the crossbow, but these… these things have already made them obsolete,” she sighed.
Qiong Ying pointed to Huang Ming’s meticulous notes that had accompanied the designs. “But he says here that the formula for the, what did he call it, ‘powder’, isn’t perfected yet.”
“Mmm, but that is your responsibility, not mine,” Liu Yuchun said unsympathetically. “I’m only responsible for the hardware, you’re the one who have to hire the alchemists, miners and craftsmen to make the powder.”
Qiong Ying grimaced. “Can you imagine the looks on the faces of their guilds when I request them to collect sulfur, saltpetre and to venture into deep caves to gather the dung from bats? Finding them would be difficult enough, let alone recruiting the people who are willing to work with such materials.”
“Well, I’m sure you can handle it,” Liu Yuchun smiled.
“I am not ‘handling’ the dung. That is what money is for, so that other people can be hired to do it,” Qiong Ying said firmly.
Liu Yuchun chuckled. “But let us talk of other things. How are you and Huang Ming?”
Qiong Ying arched a pretty eyebrow. “Not as good as you and Huang Ke. You miss him so much that you’re going to him to that fort. What, him returning once a month isn’t enough for you?” she deflected.
“That’s not it!” Liu Yuchun protested, even as her face turned a shade of pink. “I just can’t bear to stay here any longer!”
Qiong Ying’s other eyebrow went up. “Are you being bullied here?” she asked disbelievingly.
“No, of course not,” Liu Yuchun denied vehemently. She glanced around conspiratorially, as if afraid of being found out. Qiong Ying automatically leaned closer to listen.
“You have just returned, so you have no idea,” Liu Yuchun said in a quieter voice.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” Qiong Ying nudged eagerly.
Liu Yuchun opened her mouth to explain, but then closed it and smiled mischievously. “You’ll find out soon enough,” she said smugly. “Also, don’t be shocked if Madam Li eats fast.”
“What?” Qiong Ying demanded anxiously, but Liu Yuchun refused to elaborate and thereafter departed to Tigertrap Fort. The sister-in-law left for Tigertrap that day with a big smile, as if enjoying a private joke.
It took several days, but Qiong Ying later understood, and found herself wanting to leave as well.
Though she was kept busy with the tasks Huang Ming had given her; she still made the effort to show up for meal times with Madam Li, Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun.
“Here, this is the best part,” Huang Lang said gently as he placed a chicken drumstick on Cao Tianyun’s plate.
“Then, here’s the second best piece for you,” Cao Tianyun said shyly as she placed a chicken thigh on Huang Lang’s plate.
It was as if the husband-and-wife were in their own bubble. Qiong Ying could almost imagine flowers and a pink atmosphere surrounding them.
Qiong Ying was not embarrassed by their public display of affection, but she noticed the attending maids and servants were looking everywhere else. Their emotionless faces were comparable to those of guards who had to stand stoically on duty for hours.
She gave Madam Li a sidelong glance to see her reaction. To her astonishment, the matriarch was shovelling food as quickly as possible, her chopsticks and mouth working non-stop, pausing only to wash the food down with soup or tea.
“I am done, but you young people can take your time,” Madam Li announced after finishing her bowl of rice. She smiled at Qiong Ying and left with her personal maids.
Was it Qiong Ying’s imagination, or were their steps hurried? And was she mistaken, but did one of the maids quietly request the kitchen maids for additional dishes to be delivered to Madam Li’s private quarters later?
The days passed like this, and Qiong Ying witnessed more unbearably sweet, loving scenes between Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun. It was as if they were re-enacting the corniest scenes from romantic novels.
One day, Qiong Ying happened to come across a distressed Cao Tianyun being comforted by Huang Lang. The usually graceful and gentle Cao Tianyun exhibited all the hormonal mood swings of a heavily pregnant woman.
“Tell me the truth, you are disgusted by me, aren’t you? You are going to throw me away!” Cao Tianyun demanded, her eyes red with unreasonable anger.
“Of course not. You belong to me,” Huang Lang replied unflappably.
“Even when I am so bloated and fat?”
“Even your fat belongs to me,” Huang Lang said.
Cao Tianyun was moved and she gave her husband a hug, and the situation was resolved.
In the shadows, Qiong Ying shuddered as she felt the goose pimples on her arms.
‘I can’t stay here. I’d better finish everything quickly so I can leave to join Huang Ming in Chu!’
So sticky, like glue.