You’re like that crazy guest guest who thinks he’s part of the family already.

--Claire Cleary, ‘Wedding Crashers’

 

Chapter 281 – As expected

 

There was no time anyone to ponder on the sudden disappearance of the Princess of Jin, for the jovial atmosphere was shattered by bellows of upheaval and cries of “Treason!”. Fires broke out spontaneously around the city, sowing chaos and confusion.

 

Those in the square began to murmur in unease as they could hear the distant commotion. A few began to panic, seeing smoke and flames in the city that dyed the evening sky with red and black.

 

Soon word came: the Imperial Guards had risen in revolt, waving banners and chanting slogans opposing the royal marriage between Wu and Chu. A few other units had been misled, thinking that the Imperial Guards were responding to a threat and joined them. They unwittingly contributed to the chaos as the Imperial Guards marched towards the palace.

 

But Huang Ming was prepared for this scenario.  Thus when messengers were rushing in to report, the newly wedded royal couple were composed and unperturbed. After all, the Imperial Guards were currently commanded by General Yin Yanzhao, and most of the men had been replaced by his own cadres. It was obvious that the general was behind this disturbance, even if the news-bearers claim ignorance as to the ringleader. Even at this juncture, the general was hiding.

 

Most of the crowd was too distracted to notice Princess Wu Liying and Prince Chu Xiong rising to their feet, until she picked up a wine jug and flung it down from the platform. The sharp sound of smashing porcelain seized their attention, and all eyes turned to see their monarchs standing regally before them.

 

“Meng Jian! Wang Tian!” the princess called out in a stern, dominating voice.

 

Two military officers of high rank stepped out to report.

 

“Present!”

 

“Gather your men and take charge of the garrison!”

 

They saluted but the princess was already moving on.

 

“Fan He! Liu Xin!”

 

Two more officers reported. “Present!”

 

“Head to the districts and rouse the constables. Patrol the districts and arrest the troublemakers. The entire city cannot be traitors!”

 

Then she turned to the ministers.

 

“Ji Xiang, Lu Wei,” she called, and two distinguished officials prostrated themselves.

 

“Organize the 12 ministries and 36 departments! We must take stock of all our resources and personnel!”

 

The civilians in the square watched attentively with bated breath. How often do you get to see your ruler actually giving orders to generals and ministers? This was their royalty in action, something they had only read or heard about ancient lords and kings leading their men energetically at the forefront. In history, once the realm was settled; they and their descendants disappear into their palaces to be surrounded by luxury, never to be seen by their common subjects again.

 

Prince Chu Xiong’s spine tingled as he witnessed how his newly wedded wife took centre stage and held the entire square mesmerized with her commanding presence. The prince was slightly envious, but knew this was her moment. These were still her subjects and she knew them better than he did, something he would need to remedy in the near future once this matter was settled.

 

This was explained to him by Huang Ming earlier, having insisted that the royals be prepared for this scenario. Chu Xiong was slightly skeptical, but Huang Ming was sure that something would happen and said that the royals should take advantage of it.

 

“One day in the far future, they will make epic movies about this moment,” Huang Ming had said vaguely.

 

“What’s a ‘movie’?” Chu Xiong had asked, but Huang Ming ignored the question as with other cryptic, unfamiliar terms he had uttered every now and then.

 

The prince snapped back to the present when he heard her consort call out the next names.

 

“Huang Ming!”

 

Huang Ming aped those who had gone before him. “Present!”

 

“We have a need of your wife,” Princess Wu Liying said dryly, a mischievous glint in her eyes.

 

“Which one?” Huang Ming asked with a grin.

 

The princess allowed herself a faint smile, before hardening her eyes.

 

“Zhao Sunli,” the princess ordered, and the Amazonian stepped forward.

 

“We place you in overall command, and put our lives in your hands. Take charge of our forces, hold the line here!”

 

“I hear and obey!” Zhao Sunli acknowledged.

 

Already, the soldiers in the square had assembled, ready to be led.

 

“Hold,” Huang Ming interrupted, as per his part in the drama. He bowed deferentially to the princess and said, “Your highness, this position is very vulnerable. Perhaps you should retire to the palace.”

 

“And cower in luxury, and leave the people here defenceless?” the princess demanded.

 

Over the course of the day, the crowd of ordinary civilians had swelled. At first it was the eager spectators wanting to watch the festivities, but now the people streaming in were those fearful of the disorder in the city. The princess spoke into the voice trumpet to address them:

 

Princess Wu Liying squared her shoulders and her head rose proudly. “Where I am, it is the palace! The curs that dare to wound our kingdom so, let them come if they dare! My people! Don’t let the sounds of discord sow fear in you. You see me before you, and I stand here together with you all. No lowly plot nor evil deed will triumph this day. And when this time of crisis has passed, you will all have a  proud story to tell your descendants!”

 

It was both a rousing speech and a congratulatory one, for she was wishing the newly weds in the square to have children.

 

“Long live! Long live! Long live!” the crowd roared as their emotions ran high. Those swept by the fervour immediately volunteered to do everything they can. The officials of the 12 ministries and 36 departments leapt into action.

 

Sunli vaulted back on her white horse and gripped her spear. She gave Huang Ming and Qiong Ying a nod. “Follow me!” she shouted, and the soldiers shouted in unison.

 

There were those who would balk at this sudden appointment. But seeing the fully armed War Goddess dressed in silver and purple,knowing who she was and what she had accomplished, there were none who would question this decision.

 

Of course, Huang Ming had already covered the bases. The men that the princess had called upon earlier were carefully vetted and chosen long beforehand: practical men who were known for their steadfast loyalty. They knew how to prioritize getting the job done. Those 100 newly wedded couples too were carefully selected because of the strength of their character and background, and it was expected of them to put aside the comforts of marriage left temporarily and so inspire the common folk.

 

Indeed, Huang Ming had already penned the rewards and honours for them well in advance. These men and women will form the fresh new core of the unified kingdom, beholden to none except to the new order.

 

As Sunli led the soldiers to secure the area, the princess and the prince went down the platform to join Huang Ming and Qiong Ying.

 

“Looks like everything is playing out as you said,” Prince Chu Xiong complimented. “Not that I am worried or anything since my own Chu warriors are here, but are you sure we’ll be safe from General Yin?”

 

“Relax. He’s following all the cliché and tropes,” Huang Ming assured. “There would be no point if he kidnaps her but fails to capture you two. Thus the majority of his forces will be heading here.”

 

“How reassuring,” Princess Wu Liying stated flatly.

 

“Sunli is more than capable to defeat them. My father-in-law General Zhao Tong is also arriving with his army within the day,” Huang Ming said confidently.

 

“So you’re gambling with our lives,” Chu Xiong said, in the same bland tone that his wife had used.

 

“You two have really grown chummy together,” Huang Ming remarked.

 

“Perhaps we should check on our preparations and call on the Princess of Jin,” Qiong Ying interjected, signalling to her new husband with her green eyes. Indeed, not wanting to give the chance for Jin Hua to slip away to rendezvous with the general, Huang Ming had her ‘disappear’ back to her residence once trouble was confirmed.

 

“Please do. Regrettably, we two have to remain here to pretend to be the stoic and resolute monarchs we are supposed to be,” Princess Wu Liying said dryly.

 

And so Huang Ming and Qiong Ying went to see the Princess of Jin. Her Jin guards were still present, but now a ring of Wu soldiers encircled the entire residence. On the surface, this for her ‘protection’, but it was virtually a house arrest.

 

“Not exactly how I had envisioned our reunion, dear sister,” Jin Hua said calmly as she settled comfortably on her luxurious chair draped with furs.

 

“Yes, I too did not expect you to have such a day,” Qiong Ying replied just as evenly. She was still dressed like a gentlemanly scholar in a groom’s clothing, but one could see the resemblance in their faces.

 

“Well, pride cometh before a fall and all that,” Jin Hua quoted airily. “Oh, and congratulations on your marriage, dear sister. A unique spectacle,” she added.

 

“I have been remiss as well, sister. Have you any children yet with Prince Jin Bao?” Qiong Hua asked.

 

“Not yet, I have been quite busy,” Jin Hua emphasized.

 

The two sisters shared a laugh, and anyone else would thought it was a cordial, friendly moment. It was as if Qiong Ying had dropped by for some tea, and not a reunion after so many years.

 

But Huang Ming knew better, and he wondered if he could actually intrude in such a tense moment.

 

Fortunately for him, the princess addressed him directly.

 

“Why aren’t you using me as a hostage to demand General Yin’s surrender?” Jin Hua asked.

 

Huang Ming shrugged. “It would be our last option. But since you have set him on this path, I imagine you wouldn’t deign to cooperate.”

 

“What the general does has nothing to do with me,” Jin Hua said, charmingly flicking a hand dismissively.

 

Qiong Ying snapped her gentleman’s fan shut forcefully, clearly irked. Huang Ming could see her knuckles turn white and tremble as she gripped the fan.

 

Her green eyes flashed angrily as she told him, “Leave us, I need to talk things through with my dear sister.”

 

“Yes, we have so much to talk about,” Jin Hua agreed.

 

“Don’t do anything I would do. And definitely don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Huang Ming murmured as he stepped aside.

 

On the cusp of disaster,

A reunion for the sisters.