“Don't go mistaking paradise for a pair of long legs.”
--Drummer Girl Watts


Chapter Twenty Nine - I prefer you

For a moment, Huang Ming gave his mother a dull stare.


“From Wuxin City?” Huang Ming repeated.


“Wuxin City,” Madam Li confirmed flatly.


“What would I give for some coffee,” Huang Ming muttered forlornly.


“What is ‘coffee’? Stop your mumbling and go greet them,” his mother ordered.


As Huang Ming reluctantly shuffled forward, he gave the two young women another look-over.


Huang Ming couldn’t help but feel that the shorter girl was too young to be wearing military armour. Judging from the colourfully decorated armour and pale skin of the younger girl, it seemed she looked every inch the ordinary tomboy playing soldier and yet couldn’t abandon the vanities of a young girl.


Beside her, the taller woman with short hair and in nondescript armour had an impassive look, gazing on him as if one would study an insect. Her fingerless gauntlets and leather armguards exposed her browned skin and athletic figure. In contrast to her companion, it was obvious that she was no dainty flower playing military dress-up. Between the two, this serious-looking woman was more to his liking. It somehow reminded him of a previous life where he was partnered with a no-nonsense female adventurer.


“Huang Ming greets the honoured guests from Wuxin City,” Huang Ming said and offered them a polite bow.


The younger girl’s eyes lit up. She stood imperiously with her hands on her hips, threw back her head and laughed. “Wahaha, you’re a gentleman! Good looking too! I like you!” she said loudly. Then she gave her older companion a meaningful look, as if expecting her to agree.


The taller woman frowned. “You should introduce yourself first,” she said quietly.


The girl coughed and nodded, slightly embarrassed at being reminded of it. With a proud thumb pointing at her own heart, she proclaimed, “I am Zhao Hongqi!”


With her hands still on her hips, she jutted her chin upwards and for a moment Huang Ming thought he could see her nose growing longer with pride. A moment passed before the taller woman sighed.


“I am her guard, Sunli,” she said and greeted Huang Ming in the martial fashion, cupping a hand over a fist.


Some polite greetings were exchanged before they were seated, Sunli opting to remain standing behind Zhao Hongqi as befitted her station as a mere personal guard.


“I have not seen General Zhao in a long time, how is he?” Madam Li asked.


“He is well. The General speaks of you and of Great General Huang often. He says he misses the old days,” Sunli replied with all the emotional delivery of a weather report.


“I’m sure. Has he considered remarrying?” Madam Li asked her with a faint smile. There had been many memories where she and the wife of Zhao Tong had burst into their drinking sessions and pulled them home by their ears.


Sunli gently nudged her ward, urging her to speak. Despite her bravado earlier, Zhao Hongqi seemed meek and nervous in front of Madam Li.


“G-g-general Zhao says he’s too old to marry again, and that he can take care of himself!” Zhao Hongqi stuttered. She glanced at Sunli, and the guardswoman nodded slightly in approval.


Madam Li sighed. Though she cherished her own husband’s faithfulness very much, there were times when she had wondered if it would have been better for a man to have several wives to avoid the lonely future of a cold bed. General Zhao Tong, like several others; had followed Huang Zheng’s example and married only once. Unfortunately the wife had died due to illness and he raised his daughter practically by himself. Their many military transfers meant Madam Li could not be at hand to help, she had never even seen his daughter before.


Madam Li saw that the bun-haired, impish young girl was eager to emulate and seek the approval of this Sunli, it was obvious she looked for a strong, sister-like figure. Zhao Hongqi’s warlike clothings showed the flaws in Zhao Tong’s education and his failure to instil proper ladylike behaviour in his daughter. Her nervousness when talking to Madam Li and yet her brashness when facing Huang Ming meant she was probably more used to male acquaintances, a possible effect from Zhao Tong’s long military career.


Madam Li then peeked at the standing guardswoman and admired her dutiful and steadfast nature. Her lack of a surname probably indicated a lowly birth. Madam Li did not disapprove of her dark skin, finding her stoic looks as pleasing as any heroic man. She suspected this long-legged, high-waisted Sunli to have her own share of female admirers, especially among those who disliked the way clueless men talked about peerless, jade-skinned beauties.


If Huang Ming knew of his mother’s thoughts, he would considered her as remarkably progressive in this world. He had the same opinions as her regarding these visitors.


“How old are you, Ms. Hongqi?” Huang Ming asked conversationally.


In contrast to her jittery response to Madam Li, Zhao Hongqi was more exuberant when talking to Huang Ming. “I am seventeen this year! No, eighteen!” she said, changing her mind after stealing a look at Sunli.


‘Don’t lie, you brat. You don’t look any older than Yu-er,’ Huang Ming thought, her short height and bubbly nature reminding him of his own personal maid.


“Then I’ll call you Little Hongqi, as I’m a whole five years older,” Huang Ming said with a smile, stressing on the age difference which he hoped to deter this young slip of a girl.


Instead, Zhao Hongqi beamed widely. “En! Wahaha, your age is right too!” she said and nodded enthusiastically at Sunli. The brown-skinned woman was displeased, she frowned deeply.


“Right for what?” Huang Ming asked the wahaha girl.


“Marriage, of course!” Zhao Hongqi said and folded her arms in satisfaction, ignoring her guard’s glowering.


Madam Li was surprised at Zhao Hongqi’s straightforwardness. She thought it was amusing, and seeing her son’s mouth fall open somehow made it feel even better.


“I’ll get some tea. You young ones have a nice talk now,” she murmured and quickly got up to leave, ignoring the eyes of Huang Ming.


Seeing how his mother had callously abandoned him, Huang Ming called out resentfully, “Bring some cake too!”


“Cake? You have cake?” Zhao Hongqi repeated, her eyes round.


“Mother, why don’t you treat Little Hongqi here some osmanthus cake?” Huang Ming asked sweetly, deliberately naming his mother’s favourite pastry. It was only made for her and she hoarded it jealously, not even allowing her children to have a bite.


Madam Li’s eye twitched, but she nodded and smiled as she went away.


The moment she was out of sight, Huang Ming turned to look at Zhao Hongqi.


“This won’t work,” Huang Ming said, deciding to be blunt.


“What do you mean?” Zhao Hongqi asked.


“Us. Marriage. It won’t work.”


To his surprise, he saw Sunli agreeing with him. “Miss, you should think this over,” the guardswoman said.


Zhao Hongqi narrowed her eyes. “Do you prefer men?” she asked suspiciously.


“What? No!” Huang Ming exclaimed.


“Then, why? Is it because of your age? It’s closer than you think,” Zhao Hongqi said confidently.


“You are still young, and I’m not looking to get married just yet,” Huang Ming replied.


“Nonsense!” Zhao Hongqi uttered. “I’ve seen men getting married before they turned twenty. By contrast, it is you and your brothers who are strange for getting engaged so late!”


“So you know about my brothers?” Huang Ming asked, raising an eyebrow.


“Of course. The whole town is talking about it. Even a visitor such as I can’t help but overhear a thing a two.”


“Then surely you know of my own poor reputation. I’m afraid I can’t match up to you,” Huang Ming grinned.


“He is right,” Sunli said coldly. “Remember what General Zhao said, you are to wed the finest man. It should have been Huang Lang, and not this person.”


“Thank you, I think...” Huang Ming muttered, his smile faltering.


Zhao Hongqi looked challengingly at her guard. “Then, when... When shall I get married?” she asked the taller woman angrily.


“Why are you in such a rush to get married?” Huang Ming interjected.


“I have heard how people gossip! It’s about time... About time I get married!” the fiery girl answered, still glaring at Sunli.


Huang Ming knitted his brows, he felt something was off about the entire conversation. Was General Zhao Tong ill? But the entire situation came about during Zhao Tong’s hearty drinking session with his father, how sick could he be?


“Even so, I feel that he is not the right choice,” Sunli said blandly. “From what we have heard, he is lecherous, fond of the drink and wasteful with both time and money.”


Huang Ming was annoyed at the way this woman was putting him down, even though it was the truth about the original. Perhaps it was the way she had said it so matter-of-factly.


“That’s right. Anyway, I prefer you,” Huang Ming shot back, giving Sunli an eyeful. He thought antagonizing her would enforce her negative opinions of him. Then she would strenuously continue to advise Zhao Hongqi to abandon the enterprise.


His statement elicited an expression of shock from the guardswoman, the first time he had seen her stoic demeanour crack. She glared icily at Huang Ming, and now he knew she was unused to such frivolous talk.


“Oh? Really?” Zhao Hongqi asked in a very interested manner, not at all perturbed at this sudden development.


Huang Ming began to wax lyrical, deliberately using a honeyed voice knowing that it would further annoy Sunli. “Look at her. A beauty with a face like carved marble and skin like the finest leather. Her eyes sparkle like fire, her body like a powerful tigress. Faithfully following her charge and giving frank words without fear or favour!” he intoned.


“Well said, well said!” Zhao Hongqi clapped in delight, as if not caring that her potential husband had praised her very own guardswoman. Her cheerful reaction unsettled Huang Ming.


Meanwhile, Sunli’s hands were clenched tightly and a blush bloomed on her dark skin. One could see that she was perfectly furious. Huang Ming wondered if she would take a swing at him, seeing her fists trembling in violent emotion.


Just then, Yu-er entered the room.


“Young master, you have a guest,” the young maid reported with a curtsy.


“What, another one? Aren’t I popular...” Huang Ming complained.

 

She called him perverted,
And so he flirted,
A deliberate diversion,
To raise her aversion.​