“A little party never killed nobody.”
--Fergie, ‘The Great Gatsby’
Chapter 280 – Marriage
The day of the wedding.
The ordinary, bustling lives of the city came became even more of a beehive of activity. The designated streets leading to the central square were cordoned off, and those savvy enough had already auctioned off the best viewing spots of their buildings for those turning out to witness the novel spectacle.
The start of the marriage ceremonies were done in a traditional manner: each groom set out to the homes of their brides and to go through the usual rites. Each man would have to endure the challenges and teasing from their bride’s sisters and friends before paying obeisance and offering tea to the parents.
But instead of escorting the newly-weds back to the groom’s place for the congratulatory wedding feast, they were instead routed towards the capital’s central square. The kingdom had provided each family with a grand and luxurious wheeled palanquins and the finest of horses specially for the event. Each was decorated with an engraved seal of the kingdom, a hereto unprecedented honour that was customary reserved for the high nobility.
The carriages made their way down the designated streets and merged into a literal bridal train. Their proud grooms rode their handsome horses beside them, accompanied by teams of musicians as they based in the cheers of the onlookers enthralled by the spectacle.
And a spectacle it was, to see 100 red and gold palanquins and 100 horse-riding grooms making their way into the square. They moved in orderly fashion towards their prepared spots, equally spaced and immaculate in presentation as they faced the single raised platform in front of the royal palace. A small table with prepared tableware, a plate of sweets and a jug of wine waited in front of each parked carriage.
Rows of soldiers ringed the terrace and the square, the leather and metal of their armour polished to a sheen, their weapons at attention to give off a valiant and redoubtable aura. They projected gallantry and pride, and also served to deter any potential trouble.
On the platform were the true stars of the day: the Prince of Chu, Chu Xiong and the Princess of Wu, Wu Liying. Seated flanking them were the elite echelons of Wu: ministers and nobles of the highest ranks.
Among them was Huang Ming.
Looking down at the sight from the platform, Huang Ming was aware that on his original Earth, it might look like a cult ceremony from South Korea or a choreographed mass event from North Korea. In some ways both had what he wanted: to create a new tradition and to indoctrinate real feelings towards the kingdom. It all smacks of propaganda, but it was also the fastest and most efficient way at the current situation.
“This looks very familiar,” a feminine voice drawled.
Huang Ming turned to Princess Jin Hua beside him. The princess from Jin had the seat of honour, her veil tantalizing hiding her lips.
It was a simple statement, but the implications was enormous to Huang Ming. Perhaps Jin Hua really came from Earth. Or one version of it anyway.
“Where is my sister, your bride?” the princess asked as the last of the carriages joined the formation. There was one glaring, empty spot at the head of the arrangement.
There were latecomers.
In such a large, open space; the last to appear would have the dubious distinction of becoming the focus of attention.
The carriage was identical to those already present: red with gold trims.
No, the attention was on the groom. Atop a magnificent white horse was a tall and slim figure with broad shoulders. She had a bow and quiver on her back, a spear in hand and a sword sheathed on the hip. Her hair was short to the point of boyish and she wore a single purple gem earring. Her fighting robe beneath the armour was made of dyed silk, embroidered with a stalking panther. Her breastplate was silver and her belt had clasps of ruby.
In some other day, people would gasp and jeer at the idea of a female in a male’s position, but Zhao Sunli was such an awe-inspiring sight that all complaints did not come to their minds. After all, this was the Amazon general that defended their kingdom and rescued their soldiers multiple times. Even the most conservative of them had no arguments about her merits.
She easily stood out among the more traditionally dressed grooms in the square. All watched with bated breath as she proudly rode with the bridal carriage to fill the final spot at the head of the formation.
Was she really playing the groom?
No, for after the carriage had settled, Zhao Sunli approached the platform on foot and then, with a smile only for the man in her eyes, raised an inviting hand.
Huang Ming was tempted to leap down from the platform into her arms like some princess or damsel, but he thought better of it.
The entire square watched as Huang Ming climbed down the stairs and accepted her hand. They saw how the leading strategist and the famed female general of the day, and they wondered what sweet nothings were exchanged between them as they walked back to the carriage.
In reality, it went something like:
“My knight in shining armour,” Huang Ming smirked.
“My feeling for you is like the Great River, endlessly flowing…” Sunli serenaded in a sarcastic monotone.
It took all of Huang Ming’s self-control not to burst into laughter.
Instead, it was the bride inside the carriage that broke, a soft giggle that only the three of them could hear. Who else would be inside but Qiong Ying?
The quote about the flowing river was an inside joke shared between the three of them, when Huang Ming had wrote that letter to infuriate General Yin.
Suddenly Huang Ming stopped. Since Sunli had appeared in a military dress, what would be Qiong Ying be wearing?
The ceremony was starting. He and Sunli turned to face the raised terrace as the Princess Wu Liying and Prince Chu Xiong stepped to the forefront to address the 100 couples. Fixed in front of the podium was a speaking trumpet, a cone made of brass that Huang Ming had invented to amplify their voices just for this occasion.
First came the usual speech that Huang Ming helped the royals to draft. It was the usual platitudes of a welcoming message, thanking the Heavens for its graciousness on this great day… The audience and the participants were riveted. For many, it was the very first time and perhaps the only time in their lives to actually hear their sovereigns speak to them.
Having familiarized himself with the speech, Huang Ming tuned out as the two royals spoke solemnly. Instead, his eyes scanned the square, because General Yin Yanzhao was not present. Officially, he was to be with his troops and would be enjoying a holiday in honour of the royal wedding. But Huang Ming knew the general was not someone who would indulge in that manner.
“What is the situation?” Qiong Ying’s voice drifted softly from within the carriage.
“No signs of treachery,” Sunli answered her.
“I need to get out of this thing, it’s getting suffocating in here,” Qiong Ying complained.
As if on cue, the square erupted into loud cheers. The royal speech had ended and now it was the two Ministers of Ceremonial rites from Wu and Chu that went to the speaking-trumpet.
It was finally time for the marriage ritual proper.
“O August Heavens, we are gathered today…” the wizened ministers began ceremoniously, their eyes darting to their notes every now and then. The two old men had wrangled about which country’s traditions to follow until Huang Ming had stepped in with his ideas that assuaged their requirements. They especially liked the wedding vows Huang Ming had shamelessly plagiarized from Earth.
The two men might be old but they were experienced and knew how to hold the attention of their audience. Their oratory began slowly but grew in power with every word, urging and lifting the spirits and excitement of those listening. They exhorted the newly-weds to be faithful to each other, to comfort and be loyal to each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until parted by death…
Huang Ming thought the two men might have a talent in officiating marriages. Or in evangelism.
“Let the brides appear!” the ministers ordered and one could almost hear all the women who had been cooped up in the carriages all this while exhale with relief. The grooms proudly and excitedly parted the curtains, extending a hand to assist their brides to step out of the palanquins.
A few stole looks at Huang Ming’s carriage, for he already had the warlike Zhao Sunli beside him. Yet he too was lifting the curtains, and out stepped another figure to join him and Sunli.
Huang Ming could not help but smile wryly. He had expected it, but it was still a surprise to see the brazen Qiong Ying to be dressed like a groom, yet had subtle curves under need the clothes, with makeup and and her hair done in a feminine manner that made it obvious that she was a woman.
Even the two ministers of rites on the platform paused slightly as they caught sight of Huang Ming’s conspicuous trio. Only Huang Ming had two wives-to-be with him.
“I see I will have to fight you two to wear the pants in the family,” Huang Ming murmured and the two women bit their lips to avoid laughing. Their faces flushed charmingly.
Huang Ming could feel some envious looks thrown his way, and he could imagine a few newly-wedded women there would be tugging the ears of their men later that night as a warning.
The old ministers decided to go with their usual response when met with the unexpected: to behave as if they did not see it.
But they all saw it. Especially the Princess of Jin. Her eyes bore at Qiong Ying, and Qiong Ying stared right back.
“The first toast is a libation to the Heavens! It is by their inviolate will that we have this grand day!” the ministers instructed.
Copying the movements of the royal couple on the stage, the cups were filled and each bride and groom stood side by side. For Huang Ming, on his right was Sunli and on his left was Qiong Ying. To other onlookers, the three were behaving just like the other couples in the ceremony. But they were too far to see clearly. Huang Ming, Qiong Ying and Zhao Sunli each had their heads tilted up challengingly and their eyes proudly meeting those of Princess Jin Hua.
Jin Hua received the message loud and clear: ‘You mess with one of us, you will have to deal with all of us.’
She smiled coldly underneath her veil.
Following the royal couple, the men and women in the square raised their cups to the skies and then pour the wine out to the ground.
“The second toast is to honour our sovereigns! It is their divine right and grace that safeguards the home that is our kingdom!”
Once more the cups were filled. This time the cups were raised towards Princess Wu Liying and Prince Chu Xiong. The men and women in the square could feel a sense of pride welling up in their breasts as the two royals toasted them in return. Such a simple gesture, yet it would inspire loyalty and respect, for how often do you get direct acknowledgement from a prince and princess?
“The third toast is to honour each other! It is each man and woman’s vows that bind them in love and in life!”
Once more, a few curious eyes could not resist seeing what Huang Ming’s trio would do. After all, this was the part where husband and wife would be raising a cup to each other. From the corner of their eyes, they could see Huang Ming’s easy resolution: He stepped forward so that he was facing the two women, and all three of them toasted each other.
“If there were only two of us, we could have done the love shot,” Huang Ming remarked after draining the cup.
“What is that?” Sunli asked.
“I’ll teach you two later.”
“Oh? Both of us at once later?” Qiong Ying teased.
“It will be difficult but I would be up for it,” Huang Ming said bravely.
From the platform, the two ministers recited the final words.
“The ceremonies have been accomplish, and with the Heavens as our witness, we now declare you husbands and wives! Long live the kingdom! Long live the kingdom! Long live the kingdom!”
“Long live! Long live! Long live!”
The newly-wedded men and women echoed the chant. The audience and soldiers cheered and roared, thumping their feet and their spears on the ground and clapping their hands joyously.
Huang Ming allowed himself to bask in the atmosphere.
Then he turned to look at the platform.
The Princess of Jin was gone.
A great joyous day,
Still, there’s an annoyance.