Apologies to all, the "two chapters per week" now rings so hollow. Unfortunately real life circumstances still remain tight for me.



“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”
--Captain Jean-Luc Picard, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’


Chapter 223 - Relaxed

“How dare you behave so obscene,” Master Zheng Yen hissed through clenched teeth, thoroughly outraged that she was manhandled by Huang Ming.

Huang Ming blinked but quickly recovered his wits and utilized one of his maxims: When in doubt, deny. Deny using nonsense.

“Master Zheng Yen, you’re the one who fell into me. You took one drink of your own brew and keeled over.”

“Nonsense!” she thundered. But there was heat in her cheeks. Whether it was from the shame of being touched by a male or the flash of anger, she was not sure. Certainly, it was impossible for it to be the flush resulting from alcohol… or was it?

“Really? You were saying how good the tea tasted,” Huang Ming said, pointing towards her tea cup that was still in her hands.

It was all nonsense, of course. But Master Zheng Yen frowned. Try as she might, she could not immediately recall how she ended up in his arms. The mere thought of it increased her ire. To think she was so affected, like a silly young maiden!

She picked up her tea cup and sniffed the remaining liquid within. To her surprise, she could detect an enticing aroma. It was subtle, yet her brows shot up appreciatively.

“What did you do?” she asked suspiciously.

“Me?” Huang Ming pointed to himself in surprise. “You were the one who brewed it.”

Master Zheng Yen’s frown deepened. She had absolutely no recollection about it.

“Did you forget? We were discussing how you should formalize the tea ceremony, for you to put all that you have learned into a set of procedures to promote the art and healing power of tea. Maybe this is why you should do so,” Huang Ming said glibly.

Master Zheng Yen glanced around the room and it was obvious from the surrounding mess that she was indeed the source of the commotion. Belatedly, she saw that the small table, teapot and utensils had been overturned from her side.

Her short-term memory seemed to be in a fog, was she really that affected by her own drink? She looked down at her cup once more, resisting the temptation to taste the remnants. Was there a contaminant in the tea leaves? A mistake in the way she had brewed it?

Pity that the teapot had overturned. Perhaps Huang Ming was right, she should write down everything and prevent such an embarrassment from ever happening again.

“Whatever that tea was, it seemed super effective,” Huang Ming remarked lightly.

“Enough, please leave,” Master Zheng Yen said wearily as she clutched her forehead.

Huang Ming graciously nodded without complaint. But before he left the room, he couldn’t resist a last jibe.

“I have seen tea used in a myriad of ways but for someone to actually get drunk from drinking tea… Master Zheng Yen, you’re the first one,” he said with a chuckle as he left.

Only the years of meditation prevented her from lashing out in anger. After taking several deep breaths, she stepped out of the room to find one of her apprentice nuns.

“Go clean the tea room, there was an accident,” she said.

The apprentice stared at her with her mouth agog.

“What is wrong?” Master Zheng Yen snapped, unused to this sort of reaction.

“Master…you look... radiant!” the apprentice gasped. She hurriedly brought over a basin of clear water so that her master could see.

Upon seeing her own reflection, Master Zheng Yen was shocked. Some of her wrinkles disappeared, and while no one could ever mistaken her for a young maiden, she was no longer the frumpy woman who was austere beyond her years.

What was it that Huang Ming said? The healing power of tea…

“Quick, fetch me the writing materials!”

***

Elsewhere, Huang Ming was humming a tune to himself as he sat under the shade of tree. Despite the strange meeting with Master Zheng Yen, Huang Ming felt truly at peace in a long, long time.

Did he also drink the tea? Because he felt so relaxed to the point of being giddy. He could drift away smilingly into a sleep without a care, despite Miss Black telling him to be more urgent. It was as if he just knew that his age-old worries were assuaged, that it was fine for him to truly loosen up for today.

“What are you doing here?” a voice softly asked.

He opened one eye to see Sunli looming over him.

“Sit with me,” he said with a smile.

She tilted her head quizzically, but accepted the invitation after looking around.

“Something happened to you,” the dusky Amazon said after studying his face.

He shrugged. “I just feel… happy.”

In the past, Sunli would be furious at him. They were in the midsts of enemies, and here he was, lazing around without a care in the world.

But today, there was a serene look on his face. He was like the cliché commonly found in the novels that she read: an aloof, simple person who cared not for the troubles of the world.

It reminded her of their first meeting, where he was frivolous and cared little for proprieties. But this time there was no mischief in his eyes, no calculation behind the scenes. The self-satisfied smile on his lips was that of someone who just had a delicious meal or indulged in something truly luxurious.

“Are you on drugs?” she demanded.

The charge was so out of the blue that Huang Ming laughed out loud.

“Quiet!” Sunli whispered fiercely, afraid that someone would take notice of them sitting together underneath the tree. She started to get back on her feet, but Huang Ming reached out and pulled her down into his embrace.

“What are you-” Sunli started to exclaim in astonishment even as she blushed hotly. By reflex, her body jerked to get free.

“Shhh,” Huang Ming admonished gently and encircled his arms around her.

She was taken back to the past once more… to the time when she had challenged him and ended up being defeated by a similar, all encompassing hold. Her dark skin reddened when she recalled the memory of being held forcefully against his naked upper body back then. But there was no force this time, it was as if she was being enveloped by warmth.

“Let me go, someone might see and blow our cover!” she hissed tersely to cover her shyness.

When he did not respond, she turned to glare at him, only to find his eyes closed in bliss.

“Let us have this moment, we deserve this much,” he murmured as he nestled closer to her.

There was no lewd desire nor lust from him, there was only comfort.

A gentle breeze washed over them, and Sunli found herself loosening up her tense muscles and allowing herself to indulge for a brief moment.

Soon they will need to put into motion their plan to pressure Prince Chu Feng and hopefully provide the impetus for their candidate Prince Chu Xiong to be chosen as the heir apparent of this rival kingdom. This would ensure the safety of their southern borders. Then they can return to Wu, deal with General Yin Yanzhao and prepare against the Jins from the north.

But until then, they deserved this much…
 

After the debrief,
A great relief.​