“Those giraffes you sold me, they won't mate. They just walk around, eating, and not mating. You sold me... queer giraffes. I want my money back.”

--Proximo, ‘Gladiator’

 

Chapter 259 – Turning to drink

 

The days seemed to pass peacefully for Huang Ming as he juggled with his to-do list. No news or alerts about Jin or their princess, Wei or their General Ran, nor the insidious General Yin within Wu itself. The construction of the new capital was proceeding well, the granaries were full and the people happy and content.

 

But Huang Ming knew that the peace was a fragile illusion. Things were stirring, ironically partly because of his own actions to try and counteract them. His father was reinforcing Tigertrap Fort, and so Wei would be ramping up their own forces. To nullify Jin, he had invited Prince Chu Xiong to stand together with Wu. Surely Jin would be planning something in response. As for General Yin, Huang Ming had watchful eyes keeping surveillance on the slippery man…

 

Suddenly his doors crashed open. The sudden gust of air threatened to scatter the paper documents on his desk but Huang Ming managed to slam his palms to force them back down.

 

“You need to leave,” a visibly agitated Zhao Sunli said tersely.

 

Huang Ming blinked. “Uh, hi,” he greeted, wondering why the watchful eye he was thinking was breathlessly before him. A hundred questions flash through his mind.

 

“Get moving,” Sunli growled.

 

“What happened?” Huang Ming asked as he rose to his feet. Had General Yin finally acted? Was there going to be a coup?

 

“My father is looking for you,” Sunli said urgently.

 

Huang Ming paused. “Oh. Hm. What?”

 

“Wahaha!” a raucous laughing voice echoed.

 

“Too late,” Zhao Sunli sighed.

 

Zhao Hongqi bounded into the room, a full sized halberd draped casually over one shoulder. It was comical to see the short girl with the weapon… until one realized that she was completely at ease carrying it.

 

“Found you! Don’t even think about running away!” the petite girl said cheerfully.

 

“What?” Huang Ming repeated.

 

A few moments later while still bewildered, he found himself persuaded at halberd point to get on a horse. They rode wordlessly out of the capital, where a small troop were encamped.

 

It reminded him of that time long ago when he and his father had snuck out after conducting a theatrical defence of Tianxin City, when Zhao Tong had pretended to be a bandit.

 

“Use your silver tongue and worm your way out of this without promising anything,” Sunli whispered through gritted teeth as she led him to the main tent. She pulled aside the flaps and gestured for him to enter.

 

“You are not going in?” Huang Ming asked with a frown, to which she shook her head and avoided his eyes.

 

Huang Ming remained uneasy but went inside the tent.

 

Inside was the veteran General Zhao Tong the Thunderer, sitting on a chair covered in a white tiger’s pelt and a barrel of wine cradled in the crook of one arm. All around the tent were racks and racks of gleaming weapons, their sharp blades and edges glinting by the dancing candlelights around them.

 

“You’re here! Come, join me!” the aged general roared heartily; his short beard bristling.

 

Huang Ming saluted him but the general waved it dismissively.

 

“What fine wind blows sir this way?” Huang Ming asked.

 

“Cut it out with the formal talk,” the general growled. He gestured for Huang Ming to join him.

 

The moment the young man sat down, the general pushed the barrel of wine towards him.

 

“I heard you are quite the drinker,” Zhao Tong said.

 

Huang Ming smiled wryly. “Were,” he corrected. He grabbed the barrel with both hands and took a quick swig, not bothered by the excess that spilled down his chin.

 

“Delicious,” he said as he wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

 

The general was pleased. “Haha! I knew you had potential!”

 

“Too much of a good thing is bad too, general. Don’t drink to excess,” Huang Ming said lightly.

 

“Brat, don’t you start,” Zhao Tong grumbled. “I am already sick of hearing such tiresome advice from my daughter.”

 

Huang Ming chuckled. “She cares about you, sir. She wants to see you hale and hearty for years to come.”

 

“Nobody lives forever,” Zhao Tong said ominously. “Other than waiting to see the day she marries, there is nothing left for me to live for.”

 

Huang Ming’s easy going smile vanished, not liking such dark talk from the normally jovial-looking general.

 

“Is something wrong? Are you ill?”

 

“You’re the one ill!” Zhao Tong exclaimed with outrage. “I’ll have you know that I can still pull the biggest war bow and outdrink anyone!”

 

“If you’re not dying, then why the unpleasant words?” Huang Ming asked as he exhaled with relief, finding himself liking the general’s straightforward and blunt nature.

 

“That doesn’t mean I would wait for old age to come for you and Sunli!” Zhao Tong bellowed.

 

“Oh,” Huang Ming replied brilliantly.

 

“When are you going to make my girl an honest woman?” the general demanded.

 

Huang Ming scratched his cheek sheepishly. “I am kind of busy…”

 

“Not busy enough that you still have another woman beside you, while my daughter is bathed by the rains and dried by the sun spying and scouting for you,” Zhao Tong interrupted.

 

Huang Ming knew he was in the wrong, and so he did not refute the general’s biting words. Instead, he smirked.

 

“Are you jealous, old man? Should I find someone for you? After all, I was the matchmaker for both of my brothers.”

 

“Nonsense!” Zhao Tong thundered; his already red face turning into a deeper shade. “How dare you tease this old man!”

 

Huang Ming stroked his chin as he gave the general a cursory lookover. “You underestimate your charm, o’ general. Plenty of women would find someone as you to be attractive still.”

 

“Enough!” Zhao Tong growled furiously. “Your mother said that you have a way with words, I see that she was not exaggerating. Do you find my daughter not to your liking? No? Then why are you so resistant? Do you prefer boys? Is that it?”

 

“You just accused me of keeping a woman earlier,” Huang Ming pointed out incredulously.

 

“Maybe you’re just putting up appearances,” Zhao Tong said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

 

“Father…” Sunli’s voice interrupted exasperatedly from outside the tent.

 

Huang Ming had expected her to barge in, but surprisingly the Amazon decided to stay outside. Of course, this would usually be the case in a normal household where the nubile female would be shyly listening in from behind a curtain while her mother would be doing the matchmaking. But this was no ordinary household, and they were in a military camp instead of a mansion.

 

“Get in here. This is your future we’re discussing, it is right that you should be part of this,” Zhao Tong said gruffly with a man’s way of seeing things.

 

‘Maybe I really do need to find him a woman…’ Huang Ming mused.

 

There was a brief silence before Sunli entered the tent stiffly.

 

“You said you wanted to talk to him about the new weapons,” she said as she glared at her father accusingly.

 

“What are you even doing here anyway?” Huang Ming interjected, glad to have an opening to change the subject.

 

“I am sending a petition to the court on your father’s behalf,” Zhao Tong snorted.

 

“Uh. What?”

 

“Your father is lovesick,” Zhao Tong said derisively.

 

“Oh. Oh…” Huang Ming mumbled. “So… he’s asking you to replace him at Tigertrap Fort while he comes to the capital to fetch my mother?”

 

“He has a cover story,” Zhao Tong chuckled. “He said he was bringing some of the new weapons to present them as royal gifts.”

 

Huang Ming’s smile faded slightly. “So he’s finally satisfied with the performance?”

 

“Aye,” Zhao Tong nodded grimly. “Brat, I’ll be honest. Those fire-sticks of yours can give any man nightmares. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a volley. And those enlarged versions would make walls useless…”

 

The veteran general shuddered. It was his turn to give Huang Ming a lookover. “How did you think of such terrible weapons?”

 

“What about the new crossbows?” Huang Ming avoid the question.

 

“I prefer them,” Zhao Tong grunted. “Launching arrows at five times the speed and no fear of the rain rendering it useless. Won’t frighten the horses with the noise and not to mention being much cheaper and faster to make too.”

 

“Maybe you can work something out with my brother while you are at Tigertrap Fort. Crossbows and firearms… we have need for both in full readiness.”

 

General Zhao grunted in agreement. Then his eyes widened as he glared at Huang Ming.

 

“Don’t you think you can segue out of this conversation just like that. What do you plan to do with my daughter?” he roared.

 

“Father…” Sunli shook her head.

 

Huang Ming sighed as he eyed the barrel of wine.

 

‘Looks like it’s going to be a long night…’

 

 

A small reunion,

During the peaceful illusion.