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“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

--Tony Stark, ‘The Avengers’

 

Chapter 261 – Wistful

 

They picked a tree.

 

It reminded Sunli of that brief time they shared in Chu. The Amazon could not help but tilt her head downwards as the memory of that idyllic moment replayed in her mind as they silently went under the tree’s generous shade.

 

Her eyes followed Huang Ming’s back as he mumbled some nonsense about needing a pair of something called ‘jeans’ before sitting down on the grass and leaned back on the tree trunk. Sunli picked the gentle bump of an exposed root to sit nearby.

 

Huang Ming coughed. “Well, how should I begin…” he muttered.

 

Sunli arched an eyebrow, realizing that he was still on about the previous matter. Part of her was embarrassed; another part of her was being mischievous.

 

Huang Ming actually launched into a spiel, as if he was some bearded old man. “Ahem. Well, when a man and woman love each other very much…”

 

“I know,” Sunli interrupted.

 

“Eh?” Huang Ming said articulately.

 

“Do you think I am some delicate maiden who lived her life in a mansion?” she scoffed.

 

Huang Ming smirked. “Well, I think not on the second part, but I wasn’t too sure on the first part.”

 

Sunli blinked before she understood what he had said. Her eyes flashed dangerously, causing Huang Ming to raise his palms in surrender.

 

“I was only joking,” he said with a half-smile. “Seems you learned a thing or two about lying from the books I gave you.”

 

“What?”

 

“Deceptions, ruse and strategies in warfare can be applied in everyday life, as you have discovered,” Huang Ming nodded with half-lidded eyes.

 

“Oh. Of course,” Sunli muttered. While she did indeed learn a thing or two from reading books, she would never tell him that it was not from his strategy books but from the romance novels she had borrowed from Lin Hua. Those stories always had a cold-hearted, stern-faced character that would lie shamelessly to cover up mistakes and hide real intentions.

 

“You have changed,” Huang Ming remarked.

 

“You’re the one to talk,” Sunli retorted immediately. She remembered how she had first laid eyes on him: a young scholar who lacked the strength to truss up a chicken and armed with nothing but a glib tongue and strange ideas in his head. It seemed like he enjoyed wasting time away playing around, but as time passed and situations grew dire; he too became more calculating and reserved.

 

How mysterious, for someone to change that much. Where did he find the time to design those new weapons for Liu Yuchun to build, where did he find those strange recipes he had Ma Jun to concoct, when did he learn knowledge of city-planning to design an entire new capital? These were in addition to his myriad of eclectic interests. Even his mother Madam Li was mystified by his talent as a chef, complaining that she had been putting on weight ever since he started to cook for her.

 

History had some personages that were immensely talented and influential. Ancient sages like Kong Qiu, Shen Gua, Su Zirong were poets and authors, engineers and inventors, philosophers and physicians, people with insatiable appetite for knowledge and the ability to actually use it…

 

He seemed just as monstrous as they were.

 

“Who are you really?” she mumbled.

 

Huang Ming flapped the large sleeves of his scholar robes comically. “I am the terror that flaps in the night,” he said bombastically.

 

‘Nevermind,’ Sunli dismissed the grandiose thoughts away.

 

“Liar-Liar-Pants-On-Fire,” he said, the grin on his face taking the sting out of his words.

 

“Please be serious,” Sunli sighed. The man could be so infuriating at times.

 

“What do you expect? Your father had me drink and then you invite me out here where we can be alone… wait, is some sort of plan to jump me?” he asked in alarm.

 

Normally, Sunli would be absolutely furious. Someone spewing such nonsense would find himself on the business end of her sword very quickly, but the way the wind gently brushed Huang Ming’s hair, the faint red blush on his cheeks from the alcohol and the way he was sitting cross-legged nonchalantly against the tree like some prankster god or mischievous deity took her breath away.

 

She shook her head exasperatedly, annoyed at how easily she had gotten distracted.

 

What he said was true, she had changed.

 

Life was supposed to be simple. She grew up in the army with her father and that was where she thought she would end her life with. Maybe even be raised to be a general like he was. She could not remember her mother, and she had grown up seeing her father without a wife and thus thought it was natural to live alone. She simply assumed that there was no need for her to have children of her own, she could easily train a few promising younglings picked up from the battlefields to be her inheritors. God knows that she already had a few calling her ‘big sister’ like Hongqi.

 

This was before she found out that her irresponsible father had arranged a betrothal for her.

 

It seemed only a short while that she had known Huang Ming, yet it had an impact on her life. She was no longer just concerned about the sharpness of the sword, but to also question the decision to swing it in the first place.

 

General Yin Yanzhao tried to impress and awe her with the same lessons, but unfortunately for the general, Huang Ming had met her first.

 

Ah. Just thinking about the general caused her train of thought come to a screeching halt.

 

What was she thinking at this time, when there was a viper lurking in the grass?

 

“You’re thinking if you made a mistake?” Huang Ming asked quietly.

 

Sunli curled her lower lip, annoyed at how he had easily seen through her.

 

“Actually I was thinking about what to do with General Yin,” she said stiffly. Inwardly she was chatising herself for taking the easy way out.

 

Huang Ming’s hooded eyes stared at her, wondering if he should call her out on what he felt was an obvious change of subject.

 

He crossed his arms and nodded.

 

“The general is already reacting to what I have done. Thanks to your surveillance, he has been lying low; but sooner or later he will be forced to take direct action.”

 

“I do not understand why you are not taking ‘direct action’ yourself,” Sunli said bluntly.

 

“He is not like Gao Fang or Tong Xuan. Those two tyrants gave people plenty of reason to hate them, and so when the rallying call for their end came, it was easy to find popular support against them.

 

“But it is different for the general. He is the sole survivor of a famous family of patriots that have sacrificed their lives for the kingdom. He is revered by many and his personal soldiers are fanatically loyal to him alone.”

 

Huang Ming could see Sunli’s fingers flexing and clenching and smiled.

 

“You want to pull him out like a weed and be done with it?” he asked.

 

“I just want this all to be done with,” she answered.

 

“He’s like a pimple, you shouldn’t pop it. Or an itchy scab that you shouldn’t scratch,” Huang Ming said. The unflattering comparison nearly made Sunli crack.

 

“The general has been very careful to cultivate an image, thereby surrounding himself with misguided loyalists who think I am the next Gao Fang or Tong Xuan. Especially since there are those who still see me as having sold out the kingdom and the princess to Chu,” Huang Ming expounded.

 

Sunli snorted, clearly holding those people in contempt. “Yet, you allow them to fester?” she demanded.

 

“Patience,” Huang Ming laughed. “You’ll get the chance to vent my anger.”

 

Sunli snorted and turned away, not allowing him the pleasure of seeing her blush.

 

“It is better to have all the bandits in place before exterminating them,” Huang Ming continued. “The general is powerful, clever and very patient. It is by sheer luck that we managed to know of his weakness.”

 

“You mean the Princess of Jin,” Sunli said flatly.

 

Huang Ming leaned his back on the tree trunk, using his interlocked hands as a cushion.

 

“Yeah. From what I know, the general suffered greatly from the previous governor of Beihai, and was only rescued from the depths of his despair by her. One wonders what sort of woman she is to have utterly bewitched him.”

 

Sunli scrupulously kept her face impassive. “I heard that the reason the general was provoked in the first place was because the princess herself showed interest in you.”

 

“Well, I am quite interesting,” Huang Ming said with a straight face.

 

Sunli rolled her eyes, and Huang Ming laughed.

 

Sensing that she had ran out of conversational topics, Sunli made as if to leave. But Huang Ming lurched forward and grabbed hold of her hand.

 

“What are you doing?” she asked, not exactly using her strength to pull away.

 

“When this is done, I will marry you with all the proper rites and traditions,” Huang Ming said seriously.

 

Time seemed to stood still for Sunli.

 

Then the heat rushed to her face. She hastily tried to pulled herself free from his grip.

 

“Who said I would be waiting for you?” she grumbled as he continued to hold on.

 

“Well, wait for me then,” Huang Ming chuckled.

 

“Let go,” Sunli growled.

 

“Please,” he said, holding her hand with both of his.

 

“Why should I?”

 

“It would make me very happy,” Huang Ming said earnestly, hoping that he didn’t sound too cheesy.

 

“Aren’t you already very happy?” Sunli reminded him.

 

He ignored her question. “Do you want to be the first wife?”

 

She freed herself from his grasp and marched away briskly.

 

“I’ll take that as a yes!” Huang Ming shouted after her.

 

He thought he saw her make a misstep, and grinned.

 

Another moment,

An unspoken agreement.