“Article 2: A Bro is always entitled to do something stupid, as long as the rest of his Bros are all doing it.”
--Barney Stinson, The Bro Code
Chapter Thirty One - Conspire (1)
Huang Ming yawned. In the morning he had been to the governor’s residence, then lunch at the Lichun with Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang. Now he was heading to the market square and it was approaching the evening.
Already the streets leading to the square proper began to fill. Street vendors lit up brightly coloured lanterns and hawked their wares; candied fruits, handcrafted toys, clothing and even snake oil masquerading as traditional remedies. Musicians and street performers began their routines, hoping for a generous collection.
It had the air of a lively night market.
As the little group walked towards the market square, the ladies Zhao Hongqi and Sunli in their military armour drew the curious looks of passersby. Zhao Hongqi was oblivious to their gaze, she was busy admiring this or that while eating a snack that reminded Huang Ming of cotton candy. It was bought by Zhang Ping who saw her longing look at the cloud-like confection. Huang Ming could only shrug wryly when Sunli refused his offer to buy her the same.
The stone-faced beauty completely ignored Huang Ming’s attempts at small talk, her steely eyes alert as she acted the ways of a dour and dedicated guardswoman. She kept a discreet distance from her charge with one hand on the pommel of her sword, watching over the wahaha girl who strolled beside Zhang Ping without a care. Those who stared at Zhao Hongqi quickly averted their eyes when they saw the formidable-looking guardswoman behind her.
Zhang Ping was willing to answer Zhao Hongqi’s curious questions about this or that attraction, and Huang Ming had no interest in delving into his memories for trivial reasons. Thus Huang Ming walked quietly beside the stoic guardswoman, following Zhang Ping’s lead.
Soon they found He Ding and Lei Yan. They exchanged greetings and they were surprised when Zhao Hongqi was introduced as Huang Ming’s cousin. Zhao Hongqi’s childish nature soon won them over and the girl found herself being treated each time she pointed at something. They were initially curious about Sunli, but after seeing her disciplined mien they began to treat her as invisible as any ordinary servant which suited her just fine.
A few purchases later, the group broke away from the crowded streets for a brief rest.
“Min Guang and Ma Jun aren’t joining us?” Huang Ming inquired.
“They have their own affairs to attend to and could only extend their deepest regrets,” He Ding said airily.
Huang Ming raised an eyebrow. “You mean they think this is a waste of time. What is this about buying trinkets?”
He Ding and Lei Yan exchanged mischievous glances before saying, “This was actually Min Guang’s idea, he’s absolutely crushed that he couldn’t make it. We were inspired by you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those foreign books that you have been reading, the ones with ridiculous stories,” Lei Yan reminded.
Huang Ming frowned as he realized they were talking about the books like ‘Otherworldly Beauties of Ye’ which was on his table at home. It was a fantasy story that involved fantastic elements of alchemy, martial arts and seducing beauties.
“I only read them out of curiosity,” he said with a straight face, remembering that they had thumbed their noses at the original Huang Ming when he had shared snippets of such stories with them. Only Min Guang showed any interest, the others thought it was trashy entertainment for the common masses.
“Yes, we know,” He Ding said impatiently. “It’s the parts where miraculous treasures are described.”
Huang Ming was beginning to understand but asked, “What about them?”
“We want to make a prank on an epic scale. We’re going to buy some cheap trinkets and weapons, put fanciful names on them and then bury them somewhere,” Lei Yan said and snickered.
Huang Ming groaned inwardly, his friends were like little boys with too much time and imagination.
“You two could have done this by yourselves, why drag me into it?” he asked, supremely unimpressed by the project.
“Lei Yan can pick out the goods and I can write the names, but you’re the one who actually read the books. You have the naming sense,” He Ding answered.
“Is that really it?” Huang Ming asked disbelievingly.
“You’re also the money,” Lei Yan said, causing Huang Ming to roll his eyes.
“What about me then?” Zhang Ping asked.
“You’re the muscle, we need someone to bring them back,” Lei Yan said without remorse.
“You could have just hired porters,” Zhang Ping retorted in irritation.
“And risk exposing this prank to outsiders?” He Ding scoffed.
Huang Ming patted Zhang Ping’s back to comfort him. “Well, at least you get to meet my cousin,” he said, nodding towards Zhao Hongqi who was preoccupied with eating skewered meat.
“That’s true,” Zhang Ping said absent-mindedly, gazing at her. Lei Yan and He Ding saw the fascination evident in his eyes.
“Zhang Ping... You like her?” Lei Yan asked.
The bigger man blinked a few times before looking directly at Huang Ming. “Are you against it?” he asked frankly.
“On the contrary, I am happy,” Huang Ming answered honestly, relieved at a potential solution to his immediate concern.
“Ohhhhhh,” Lei Yan and He Ding cheered in unison, causing Zhao Hongqi to look over momentarily before refocusing on her delicious meat skewer. From a distance, Sunli narrowed her eyes suspiciously at them but made no move to listen in.
The boys huddled closer conspiratorially.
“I have to tell you something, she came here because her father wanted to join our houses,” Huang Ming stated.
Zhang Ping’s face fell. “Then, you’re engaged to her?”
“There’s nothing formal. Her father simply wanted her to marry well,” Huang Ming assured him. “Sunli, her guardswoman; thinks it’s all a mistake. And I don’t even want to get married so soon anyway.”
“Is she really your cousin? I never heard you mention her before,” Lei Yan asked.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen her before. We’re not related, I only call her cousin because she’s the daughter of General Zhao Tong,” Huang Ming explained.
“Ah, that explains it,” Lei Yan muttered and nodded knowingly.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Zhang Ping frowned.
“He has a reputation for being a rough person. There are rumours that he had offended many government officials with his temper and belligerence,” He Ding answered.
“What does that have to do with her?” Zhang Ping demanded of Lei Yan.
Lei Yan was flustered by his question. “Well, she’s not very domestic looking,” he said diplomatically.
“If I wanted a dainty maiden then I would have gone through with any of the arranged marriages that I have received,” Zhang Ping replied.
“There are people who actually want to marry you?” Lei Yan asked, astounded. He immediately received a disgruntled smack on his shoulder from Zhang Ping.
“And why are you so reserved?” He Ding asked Huang Ming. “The Huang Ming I knew would jump at her at the first opportunity.”
Huang Ming smiled. “But I have changed. I’m not the Huang Ming you once knew,” he said mysteriously.
“Good for you, but I think you have another reason,” Lei Yan said.
“Alright, then let’s just say I prefer the guardswoman,” Huang Ming huffed, causing his trio of friends to steal a glance at the stern guardswoman.
“That’s more like it,” Lei Yan nodded. Then he frowned, “But she’s so mannish.”
“There are limits to playing around, even if she’s just a soldier. You shouldn’t do anything that would cause her hurt,” He Ding said in disapproval.
Huang Ming only said such a thing frivolously to avoid dragging out the issue, he felt that it would be difficult to convince the people of this world about equality, women rights, the differing perceptions of beauty and even the age of consent. For example, none of his friends had questioned Zhao Hongqi’s age. Such concepts took a long time to be accepted back on modern Earth as well.
But after hearing He Ding’s reprimand, Huang Ming thought that his friends were broader-minded than he had expected. It seemed that this world was not too stereotypically backward socially. He sighed inwardly and wondered at the influence of Nangong Xie, would the original Huang Ming be as deviant if he and his group of friends had never encountered the Handsome Scholar?
“I don’t understand why you would prefer her,” Lei Yan mumbled, eyeing the guardswoman.
“There’s no need for you to understand,” Huang Ming interjected. “Only that brother Zhang Ping to know that I will not stand in the way if he wishes to court my cousin.”
“Then we should work together for brother Zhang Ping’s sake,” Lei Yan said.
The group of friends nodded in agreement and Zhang Ping was gratified.
From the shadows, a pair of green eyes looked on at them intently. The person was irritated at not being able to hear their conversation. Then the mesmerizing eyes flickered over to the strange women dressed in armour, studying them with curiosity.
Hidden in the shadows,
Someone was eager to know.