“Riajuu bakuhatsu shiro!”

--Japanese magic spell incantation

 

Chapter 290 – Family matters

 

The Huangs returning to Tianxin City had a caravan of several carriages, escorted by trusted family guards. The women would be together in one carriage, while the men in another.

 

“Why should I be stuck with my smelly brothers?” the three Huang sons complained even as their mother and wives and children got into their own carriage, Qiong Ying and Sunli included.

 

“Please spare the guards from your dogfood,” Madam Li snorted, “They have to bear with you lot for the past few days.”

 

The nearby guards were scrupulously looking straight ahead, as if not hearing her words. But yes, they had suffered as they bore witness to various displays of affections from Huang Lang and Huang Ke towards their wives during the brief holiday. Many of the men and women of the guards were still unattached, and it was not too difficult to imagine their envy towards their blissfully married charges.

 

Even Madam Li could not stomach the sweetness shown by her sons and her daughter-in-laws for each other. There was no way she could tolerate being exposed to their loving gestures for the entire trip back to Tianxin City.

 

Indeed, the young married women were all glowing, their jade-like skin glossy and smooth, and their cheeks radiant with the flush of happiness. Cradling their young children in the crook of their arms, Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun were the perfect picture of contentment.

 

“Leave us womenfolk alone, unless you want to help looking after the kids,” Madam Li warned. She wanted to have some real women talk. It was indeed a rare occasion for all of them to be gathered in one place for a length of time.

 

The Huang brothers grudgingly agreed. They were quite inept at changing soiled nappies, and Huang Ming was not going to volunteer his expertise willingly for those not of his. Thus the three brothers were in a carriage of their own.

 

Huang Ming had found it strange that even his military brother Ke was not riding on his own horse, but soon he discovered the reason.

 

“So, when are you giving us nephews and nieces?” the middle brother asked in his rumbling voice.

 

“Not you too,” Huang Ming groaned. “Why is everyone so interested in my love life?”

 

“Who was the one who constantly bragged about having two wives?” Huang Lang smiled. The scholarly eldest brother was now sporting a thin moustache. Not quite as jarring as the time he was undercover in the capital plotting against Prime Minister Tong Xuan, but enough to add an air of debonair maturity to his handsome features.

 

“You guys can do it too,” Huang Ming smirked.

 

There was a brief pause in the air, then his two brothers bristled at the insinuation.

 

“Don’t even joke about that in front of the ladies, or someone will die,” Huang Ke said ominously.

 

“You mean you, right?” Huang Ming pre-empted.

 

“You smart ass,” Huang Ke scowled, annoyed at having his punchline stolen.

 

Huang Ming chuckled.

 

“But seriously. How do you handle it?” Huang Ke asked.

 

“Handle what?”

 

“Don’t play coy,” Huang Ke growled. “The women gossip among themselves, and I’m more inclined to believe that you had Qiong Ying and Sunli talk you up just for the laughs.”

 

“Rest assured, your little brother here is a very talented and studious person,” Huang Ming replied seriously.

 

“...But how?” Huang Ke was genuinely curious.

 

“That is a very good question with a very interesting answer! The cost for this knowledge is 2,000,000,000 gold taels,” Huang Ming quoted.

 

“You are already rich,” Huang Ke pointed out.

 

“There is no such thing as too much money.”

 

“Why do you need more? Are you up to something again?” Huang Ke asked as his excitement grew. “Are you making new weapons?”

 

“This and that,” Huang Ming said vaguely.

 

The middle brother rolled his eyes and gave up. “Your two wives must be very high maintenance,” he grumbled.

 

“Tsk,” Huang Lang tsked. “I did not expect you to be so interested in our younger brother’s situation.”

 

“Mmm. Maybe we should tell sister-in-law that he wishes for an addition,” Huang Ming suggested, much to the look of horror on Ke’s face.

 

“What makes you think she would believe you?” he demanded.

 

“Please, do we not have most handsome and trustworthy faces?” Huang Ming grinned.

 

Huang Ke snorted derisively. “Ah Lang maybe, but definitely not you. You are definitely not trustworthy.”

 

“I only meant you want another child, what were you thinking about?” Huang Ming said innocently.

 

“You… you….” Huang Ke reddened at his innermost desire being exposed. Heavens knows he had been trying judiciously, not wanting to immediately burden his wife.

 

Huang Lang indulged in a smile of his own, as he too had a similar predicament. Then it vanished as quickly as it came, as if such a smile was something that was reserved only for his wife.

 

“Let us talk seriously,” he said suddenly.

 

“Oh?”

 

Huang Ming was intrigued. Had something happened? Huang Lang was outwardly a scholar and respectable businessman, but the connections from the past still remain and he had his fingers on the pulse of the martial underworld.

 

He placed his elbow on the knee and leaned in to make sure he would be able to hear his eldest brother.

 

“How are you still without children?” Huang Lang asked, and Huang Ming nearly slipped.

 

“Yeah. Is there a problem?” Huang Ke asked. His eyes travelled downwards. “Mother always did say that it would rot and fall off if you drank and indulged too much.”

 

“I can recommend a specialist to take a look and give you some herbal prescriptions,” Huang Lang said. “Not that I needed them in my case, but the doctor has a good reputation,” he added with a tinge of pride.

 

Huang Ming’s face twisted, unable to form an immediate retort to what was absolutely a ridiculously untrue accusation. The brothers laughed at his expression, and after a moment of indignation, he too could not help but join in.

 

“Are you planning something?” Huang Ke asked later.

 

“If you want peace, prepare for war,” Huang Ming quoted.

 

Huang Lang’s brows rose appreciatively. “Very insightful. Where is it from?”

 

“I thought of it,” Huang Ming said shamelessly.

 

“Who cares? I want to know what you’re planning. This situation with Jin can’t last in a stalemate forever. I have a feeling they will be antsy again soon,” Huang Ke said impatiently.

 

Huang Lang nodded in agreement.

 

“Well, Sunli have already told me her concerns. I’ll be visiting Ma Jun later. I’ll think of something,” he said, using the same words he had told Sunli.

 

“Think of something soon. It’s my ass in the front line,” Ke said.

 

“There’s no need to hold on to Tigertrap Fort with your life,” Huang Ming reminded him sternly. “It’s a glorified cork in the bottle, but it isn’t the only stopper we have.”

 

“I know, but I’ve grown to like the place.”

 

“Don’t get too attached to it,” Huang Ming admonished.

 

“I’m more concerned with other areas, to be honest,” Huang Lang interjected. “They tried to attack from Beihai and Tigertrap and failed. Surely they will use other methods.”

 

“Such as?”

 

Huang Lang shrugged. “Perhaps the Jin horsemen would start building ships and sail down the Great River?”

 

Huang Ke stared at him, aghast. “Is there any truth in that?”

 

But Lang shook his head and unfurled his folding fan. “Wild rumours and speculation,” he admitted.

 

Huang Ke was relieved. Then he started once more. “If not from the waters, what about from the air?”

 

He was referring to the manner the Princess of Jin had escaped two years ago.

 

Huang Lang’s first instinct was to say that Huang Ke’s thought was outlandish. But then he remembered: even Huang Ming had used gliders in a daring night attack to capture Tigertrap Fort.

 

‘Can it be?’ he looked in askance towards his younger brother.

 

“It’s not outside the realm of possibility,” Huang Ming admitted.

 

A hot air balloon was one thing, but manned flights to cross the peaks that separated Jin and Chuwu…?

 

“It doesn’t hurt to prepare,” Huang Lang returned his earlier words to him.

 

“I’ll think of something,” Huang Ming repeated. He looked out of the carriage’s window, already lost in thought.

 

The rest of the journey was pleasantly uneventful. The roads were improved as a key part of the kingdom’s development. Taking inspiration from ancient China and Rome, Huang Ming had suggested long trunk roads radiating from the new capital to the four corners of the kingdom. The construction was standardized and enterprising folk began congregating at the designated rest areas and trade posts.

 

Thus at every stop, the Huangs and other fellow travelers were able to enjoy local specialties of each region. In time, these places will grow into little townships, shortening the lines of communication and increasing the volume of trade.

 

When they finally arrived at the Huang residence in Tianxin City, Great General Huang Zheng was already waiting for them. The aged military man was still hale and hearty.

 

“I have returned, father. It has been awhile,” Huang Ming said solemnly.

 

Huang Zheng did not reply but walked towards him. Seeing him approach, Huang Ming spread his arms out for a hug…

 

…Only for his father to brush past him. He completely ignored his sons in the first carriage and went directly to the second where Madam Li and the rest of the women were alighting.

 

“Was the journey difficult?” he asked as he held his wife’s hand.

 

“You are such a worry-wart,” she complained, but allowed him to gently guide her down the carriage as she cradled their young daughter.

 

Her daughters-in-law descended too, with Qiong Ying and Sunli helping Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun with their sons. Huang Ming could see the gentle look on his wives as they held the children.

 

Perhaps he really should work harder on it.

 

“Have the kids given you any trouble?” Huang Zheng asked as he made silly faces at his grandsons.  Then he wiggled a finger at his daughter’s face. Huang Ling cooed as she tried to grab at it.

 

“What sort of trouble could they give me beyond soiled diapers and messy meal times?” Madam Li rolled her eyes.

 

“I meant our sons,” Huang Zheng said, jerking a thumb back at the three brothers.

 

“So was I,” Madam Li replied with a straight face, and the womenfolk giggled.

 

“This is what I get after all this time?” Huang Ming complained. His arms were still outstretched for the non-arriving hug.

 

“Now you see what I have to deal with,” Huang Lang whispered from behind his folding fan.

 

Huang Ke scoffed at their whining. “You only see him whenever he returns here. I deal with him every working day at the fort. He complains at everything. He says he prefer the old days when he would be swinging his sword at the enemy that he could see, knee-deep in the mud.”

 

            “While walking uphill, barefoot in the rains?” Huang Ming asked with a smile.

 

“You know it.”

 

“Bitter complaints might be more palatable than sweet nothings,” Huang Lang said. His brothers gave him incredulous stares.

 

“That’s rich, coming from you,” Huang Ke said, “Didn’t mom run away from home because she was sick of you and sister-in-law?”

 

“It’s another thing entirely to be one watching others doing it,” Huang Lang said defensively. “Like this, I can’t bear to watch.”

 

He pointed his fan at his parents. Madam Li was handing Huang Zheng some packed delicacies that she had bought during the journey.

 

“Some osmanthus cakes for you,” Madam Li said.

 

Huang Zheng was delighted, because it was his wife’s favourite and had hoarded it jealously. It was rare for her to offer any voluntarily. He immediately opened one of the packages, just in case she changed her mind.

 

The smile on his face slowly faded.

 

“These are half-eaten,” he mumbled. He squinted his eyes suspiciously at the cakes. “They looked dried out and old.”

 

“Just eat it,” Madam Li said, “You’re the oldest thing here.”

 

 

Days of smiles and mirth,

In such times, are of great worth.