“Oh? You're approaching me? Instead of running away, you're coming right to me?”
--Dio Brando, ‘Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure’
Chapter 275 – Stories
They were finally going to meet.
In his early experiences, Huang Ming would feel trepidation and unease as he followed the eunuch to Princess Jin Hua’s residence. He was finally going to meet face-to-face with the enemy Avatar of this world.
Not this time.
One could say he had become jaded. If not for the nagging sensation at the back of his head, he would not have bothered with this game. The stakes might be high, but for a pawn like himself; it meant nothing.
Still, there was a sense of anticipation, akin to that of meeting a long lost friend or on the adrenaline build-up on the way to finally pay for a highly desirable collectible.
Compared to the times when he had confronted and was confronted as arch-rivals in love and war, this first meeting would be relatively mild and uneventful. At least, he hoped so. After all, he had been warned by his Patron that the enemy Avatar had an unprecedented headstart advantage in this world.
Well, what was the worst that could happen? He had already made the preparations as best he could, even being able to invite the enemy into his homeground.
He had considered simply ambushing the Princess of Jin. Kill her, and to hell with the consequences. Such a shocking and unprovoked attack would ignite a war. His family will be captured and tortured and everyone and everything he had known in this world would go up in flames. What would that matter to him? He was a traveller, a passerby. He could callously forget them and just bury himself in the next mission. And the next. And the next.
And he had done so before.
Until he was forced to pull himself together, to remind himself of his humanity.
That was why he cheerfully followed the eunuch.
The cheer was snuffed out when he saw General Yin in his path.
“On patrol, General? Stories of the general’s meticulousness must be true. I humbly thank you for your service for our kingdom,” Huang Ming said, even though he knew it was a lie.
A shadow flickered over the general’s face, annoyed that he did not even get the chance to craft an excuse to save face for this coincidental meeting.
“Yes,” he said and decided to be blunt, “I heard you have been summoned by our guests.”
“The stories of the general’s sharp hearing are true as well!” Huang Ming feigned surprise. “Yes, the Princess of Jin had summoned me.”
‘Me’ was slightly emphasized. Meaning, she invited me and not you.
The general obviously caught the connotation and his eyes narrowed. “You should not be alone, what if the Jins have designs on you?” he said and offered to ‘escort’ Huang Ming.
Huang Ming thought of refusing. It seemed that the general’s infatuation was indeed serious. Still, he could not resist dangling the general along and see him fall on his own sword.
“I have long heard stories of the general’s selflessness. Of course, I am glad to have your protection,” Huang Ming hammed it up, causing the general’s grip on his sheathed sword to tighten.
The two men followed the eunuch without exchanging further words. The confused eunuch on his part hurried his steps, greatly frightened by the black, simmering aura that the general was emitting.
They were stopped at the door by the Jin guards.
“Halt! The princess had only asked for Sir Huang,” they said sternly.
Huang Ming smirked, having expected it. “Perhaps the general should retire for now. I have come this far, there is no reason for me to fear anything,” he soothed.
“I will wait for you,” the general said coldly.
“But it would trouble me greatly if the general is so burdened,” Huang Ming said cloyingly. “Who knows how long this meeting would take?”
“I will wait,” General Yin repeated through gritted teeth.
“Stories of the general’s patience are true,” Huang Ming sighed with praise as he followed the eunuch in.
The general’s eyes bore into Huang Ming’s back. His dark mood was apparent to all and the Jins stared at him warily. The Jins had been mystified when their princess had asked for this Huang Ming, and seeing how protective General Yin was now dispelled their doubts. This Huang Ming was surely was an important person for the renowned general to escort personally! Look at the general, his face trying to intimidate the Jin guards, every inch of his body seemed coiled and ready to rush in to save Huang Ming if anything were to happen.
Thus, General Yin Yanzhao’s resentment had inadvertently enhanced the status of Huang Ming among the Jins.
While General Yin could barely control his raging emotions, Huang Ming himself had a challenge of his own.
When he stepped into the inner sanctum, he could see that it was lavishly and elaborately decorated by the Jins.
That was not the problem, as it was supposed to cater to the tastes of the diplomats staying there.
The problem was that Huang Ming could identify and relate to some of the things in display.
An ordinary person would be enraptured by the strange and intricately made objects in the room. Pieces of curved glass, cylinders of shiny metal, a polished sphere, tapestries and paintings hung on the walls…
Huang Ming recognized them all. Rudimentary spectacles, a telescope, a globe, maps and artwork done in a distinctly Renaissance style on Earth…
“Has the gentleman taken a fancy to them?”
A clear voice that rung like a bell drifted over, and Huang Ming turned around to have his first encounter with Jin Hua, the Princess of Jin. She sauntered over, with handmaidens at her sides.
‘Shorter than I expected,’ was his immediate thought when he laid eyes on her, but he quickly banished it. She was obviously younger than her sister Qiong Ying. It was Jin Hua’s deeds and fame that had conditioned him to think that she would be of bigger stature.
Despite her slender build, Huang Ming could sense the confident and majesty emanating from her. She wore a fur-lined coat and a Jin headdress made of marten fur with dangling beads and just like Qiong Ying, Jin Hua too had startling green eyes. Behind the half-veil that covered the lower half of her face, he could see the red tint of her curved lips.
“Huang Ming greets the Princess of Jin and bids her welcome to the Kingdom of Wu,” Huang Ming bowed deferentially. There was no reason he needed to forego civility. At least for now.
“We have long heard stories of you,” the princess said, unknowingly echoing Huang Ming’s mocking of Yin Yanzhao.
It made Huang Ming smirk. “All rumours and exaggerations, I assure you,” he said ingratiatingly, drawing on the experiences of a wastrel.
The faintest crease appeared on the princess’s forehead. She was displeased by his obvious fakery.
“You recognize these items?” she asked instead, gesturing to the telescope.
“I haven’t the faintest clue,” Huang Ming replied as he tilted his head like a puzzled girl.
The frown deepened. “That is disappointing to hear. We have heard that you were behind some of the advancements in Wu,” she said with a tinge of frost.
“I am afraid I have no idea what you are talking about, your highness,” Huang Ming drawled.
“For example, the distillation and breaking down of the elements of things,” Jin Hua said.
Huang Ming laughed. “I fear I have done my friend Ma Jun a disservice. He is the person you meant,” he stated.
“He is descended from a family of wine brewers, you see. He was inspired to seek why things happen the way they do. I must confess that I haven’t the foggiest of what he meant. All I did was to give him money and point him to the proper academicians to facilitate his quest,” Huang Ming explained.
The princess did not believe a word of it.
“You must be very wealthy indeed to indulge in such things,” the princess commented.
“I have a very generous family,” Huang Ming said truthfully. “The princess might not know, but I am the most lacking in talent among my peers.”
“You mean the Seven Stars of Tianxin City,” Jin Hua said, blatantly letting Huang Ming know that she had investigated him thoroughly.
“I am embarrassed. It is just a playful moniker my friends and I adopted. But yes, each of them have more talent in their little finger than me,” Huang Ming exaggerated. “For instance, Zhang Ping has a keen eye for mining and extracting riches from the ground. Lei Yan is a mathematical wizard; He Ding is an artistic genius. They are the people behind Wu’s rise, not me. You can that I am a mere parasite benefiting from being in close proximity to them.”
“You demean yourself,” the princess interrupted. “But where are the rest that makes up the seven?”
Huang Ming recounted wistfully: “Min Guang is a voracious reader, and Nangong Xie is the most talented of us all. They are well versed in the classics and able to pick up any new interest very quickly. Alas, the two of them have drifted away with no news, floating past like leaves in the stream of time as friends inevitably do…”
“Perhaps one day you will meet them again,” the princess said sardonically.
“Perhaps,” Huang Ming said, noting her foreshadowing.
“Still, you cannot deny that you were the architect behind Wu’s military successes. Do not try to deceive us, your fame and exploits have spread far and wide. We know this clearly, for you had compassed my husband’s defeat in Beihai,” the princess interjected.
“I surely wouldn’t dare to lie to your highness,” Huang Ming replied affably. “But they say a story change with every third telling, what more when it travels to such long distances? Yes, I was in Beihai. I can take credit for that victory. Pardon me, but at the time our kingdoms were at war and not at all friendly.”
The princess arched an eyebrow. “Are we on friendly terms now?”
“Of course. Why else would your highness accept our invitation and come here?” Huang Ming returned her smile.
A sly smile curved behind the veil.
“We have our reasons,” she said as her eyelashes fluttered.
Huang Ming admitted that she was indeed a good looking woman, however in his biased eyes she paled in comparison to her sister Qiong Ying.
“Well, now that you are here, please don’t hesitate to tell us should you require anything,” he said.
The princess laughed. “We do wish to knock down parts of this place.”
“Is this residence lacking?”
“Hardly. It is overly lavish and decadent,” Jin Hua said tartly. “Someone with a lesser disposition might feel insulted by such opulence.”
Huang Ming smiled faintly. “My apologies. This place belonged to the former prime minister.”
Jin Hua paused as her eyes narrowed.
Of course she had heard about the infamous Tong Xuan, the corrupt minister who had his hands manipulating the kingdom of Wu. The very same minister who later fell from grace and was executed for his treasonous crimes.
“We have decided to convert it for diplomatic use to provide comfort for those who visit us from afar. But if you wish to make modifications to suit your needs, please feel free to do so,” Huang Ming explained smoothly.
Jin Hua smiled coldly. “We will do so.”
“Well, if there is nothing else, please allow me to withdraw…” Huang Ming began.
“Allow us to gift you something,” the princess said and beckoned at her handmaidens. The two ladies curtsied and went away, leaving the princess and Huang Ming alone.
Suddenly the princess drew near and grabbed him by the arm. She looked up at him with her shimmering green eyes, a seductive smile behind the veil.
“Are you still pretending?”
Their first encounter,
Measuring the other’s power.