It's my birthday and it's my wish for everyone to stay safe and be well.

I got great taste, don’t I?

--Tony Stark, ‘Iron Man’ (2008)


Chapter 279 – Clarity


The night before the mass wedding.


While General Yin Yanzhao was having meeting Princess Jin Hua, Huang Ming too was away the same night. He did not go to to an opulent mansion, but sneaked to the barracks to meet Zhao Sunli.


“What are you doing here?” she asked with her usual stony face.


“Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for,” Huang Ming replied honestly.


She frowned but showed him in to her quarters.


It was drab and spartan. Huang Ming sat down at the only available stool and she stood before him like a soldier at attention.


“Are you, uh, prepared?” Huang Ming asked doubtfully.


“I have scouts keeping an eye on things,” she replied. “The general was spotted heading to the Princess of Jin’s residence.”


“Thank you, but that is not what I meant,” Huang Ming said with a frown.


“Is there something else?” Sunli asked with a modicum of concern, worried that she had missed something.


“There is the little matter of our big day tomorrow,” Huang Ming said with a smile.


“Oh. The wedding dress is prepared, if that is what you are asking,” she reported with all the enthusiasm of a potato.


Huang Ming could not help but chuckle. He ignored her deepening frown and gently guided her to sit on his knee.


The reason he did it gently was because she would likely rip his arm out of his shoulder socket if he acted without warning. As it was, she allowed him to hold her hand.


“I take that you don’t like it,” he teased as their fingers twined.


“This is… acceptable,” she said with a lowered voice as she flushed.


Up close, Huang Ming thought the blush on her tanned skin to be very cute.


“I meant your wedding dress,” he smirked, unable to resist teasing her further.


He could feel her stiffen in embarrassment but he tightened his hold on her hand.


Unfortunately, her eyes narrowed at him and her own grip tightened considerably.


“I’m sorry,” he quickly surrendered and her grasp loosened. Huang Ming sighed and leaned his head on her shoulder. Once more he felt her stiffen, but after a while she relaxed.


“I am sorry,” he repeated softly.


“It is nothing. I was too… uptight,” she said, looking down at him as if she was with a very large pet.


“That is not what I meant,” Huang Ming said again.


“What now?” Sunli said warily.


“I promised you that you would get a full and proper ceremony. “I didn’t even formally ask you about marrying me.”


I asked you,” the warrior woman reminded him, not seeing his point. It slightly backfired, because she began to feel the redness creep again as she recalled the way she had asked him to marry her in front of the Huang clan.


Somehow, Huang Ming was heartened at her lack of care about that particular issue.


“We had an engagement,” she said as a-matter-of-factly.


“I don’t know why you changed your mind,” he said.


“You seem like a good match,” Sunli said with a straight face.


“Oh, is that all? My devastatingly handsome face has nothing to do with it?”


“You gave me purpose. You bested me in combat, mentored me in stratagems and taught me to think for myself,” she counted.


“Go on,” Huang Ming urged with a smug grin.


“I think those praises are more than enough,” Sunli said with an arched brow. “What about you? You too wanted to end the engagement before we have even met. What changed your mind?”


“It was your devastatingly toned legs,” Huang Ming said without blinking.


She stared back into his eyes expressionlessly.


“Do you not believe me?” Huang Ming asked.


“It is not too far-fetched for you to like someone like myself,” she said evenly. “Recall that I was repulsed by your sinful and depraved reputation.”


Huang Ming knew that she must have thought of herself as unattractive at worst and unappealing at best. Certainly Sunli did not fit the mould of traditional dainty beauty in this current setting. Even progressive women like Madam Li and Qiong Ying still could pull off the damsel-in-distress look if needed be.


But Sunli with her tall frame, tanned complexion, short hair, athletically toned body and career choice defied the conventions of the day, and it was not too difficult to imagine why she would feel different.


No matter. They will have a lifetime to change that.


“Well, I am sinful and depraved person,” Huang Ming leered, but Sunli could see the twinkling in his eyes and knew it was more mischievous than obscene.


“Do you know what you remind me of?” Huang Ming asked.


Her expression remained flat as she waited to see where he was going this time.


“You are like a panther. Fierce, but beautiful,” he murmured.


It made her spine tingle.


“Go on,” she echoed his earlier words.


He indulged her. “Handsome and gallant. Sleek and powerful. Lithe and graceful. Confident and capable. Oh, you have no idea how captivating you are to me. And if you wish, I can tell the world all about it.” 


“I suppose those are acceptable reasons,” she said curtly, but the tug at the corner of her lips betrayed her feelings.


“I imagine I will have more descriptions tomorrow,” Huang Ming said, this time with a more realistic leer.


Somehow, Sunli found herself not repulsed.


Unsure of how to deal with this new experience, she instead tried to change the subject.


“You still have not told me why you decided to visit.”


Huang Ming responded by looking at her up and down, still with that wolfish grin on his lips.


“I am not that sort of woman,” she said hastily. They may be getting married tomorrow and she might be unorthodox, but she still knew the sensibilities of an unmarried woman.


“What exactly were you expecting?” Huang Ming laughed.


The flush of embarrassment was not helpful to reinforce the cold glare she was trying to give him.


“I thought you might feel uncomfortable about tomorrow,” Huang Ming said. “Like I said, you are no ordinary woman. I know I promised you full and proper rites, but maybe you have your own ideas about this totally new ceremony.”


“I do,” she said immediately.


“The wedding clothes?”


“The wedding clothes,” she nodded grimly.


“I know you’d prefer to wear your military attire,” Huang Ming smirked. “I do wish I would have thought about it earlier. I could have commissioned something truly glorious for you.”


“And I know you would say that. I already have one made,” Sunli said with a modicum of triumph.


Huang Ming was slightly concerned. “I hope you didn’t feel the need to be restrained with the cost.”


“Don’t worry, I had it billed to you.”


Not expecting this at all from someone as straight-laced as her, Huang Ming laughed.


“What else did you have planned for tomorrow?” he asked.


“A few other things…” Sunli said, this time with a real grin of her own.


He liked it.


“Tell me all about them, and I’ll do my best for you,” he promised.


He leaned in on her shoulder,

And the doubts were over.