“The superior mind always has a way out: a tiny little door marked 'exit.' ”
--The Pretender


Chapter Thirty Two - Conspire

The one who was watching over Huang Ming and his friends was of course, Qiong Ying of the Lichun. More accurately, she was in her male guise Quan Lu, with the lower half of her face covered with a cotton mask. Dressed in nondescript male clothing and wearing a wide-brimmed that also shaded her eyes, it was easy for her to hide her stunning profile.


She came to spy on them after Madam Xu had reported to her.


“Miss, as you ordered, I went to the Huang residence, but the young master had went to the market square,” the plump woman had reported with distress.


“It’s no urgent matter, why do you look so upset?” Qiong Ying had asked languidly, recalling her orders to playfully harass Huang Ming.


“Had it been any other occasion, I would not have bothered you with a such a matter. But I overheard their maids, apparently one of his cousins came over with a marriage proposal!” Madam Xu answered as she wiped away her sweat. Knowing that her mistress had set her eyes on Huang Ming, she had quickly returned with the ill news.


Qiong Ying raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I did not think there would be such a thing, his reputation isn’t exactly sterling.”


“Perhaps it’s because of the potential bride. They say she’s manly to the extent of wearing military armour,” Madam Xu added.


“A female soldier, now that is interesting. I must see this apparition for myself,” Qiong Ying smiled.


Thereafter she hastened to put on her Quan Lu persona and went to the market square. She had gone incognito many times in this guise, it was far more convenient for a man to travel alone. A beauty such as herself would only attract unwanted attention. Armed with a gentleman’s sword, she looked every inch the wandering swordsman, deterring others from looking at her too closely. While such a sight was uncommon, it was not unheard of, especially with the well publicized appearance of Muge Jian in recent times.


It was easy for her to find Huang Ming, the people on the streets were already talking about the warlike-women in his company and Qiong Ying needed only to follow the gossip. Soon she discovered them, there were indeed two warrior women with her quarry.


The shorter, younger girl in red armour with her hair tied in buns was far more preoccupied with eating, while the taller, long-legged one in grey was constantly scowling. Qiong Ying noted that Huang Ming kept his distance from the two women, preferring to confer with his friends in a secretive manner. Qiong Ying herself was more interested in the taller woman, she had that sort of disciplined outlook that showed her professionalism, unlike the other girl who seemed to be a girl playing soldier.


Every now and then the group would pause at a vendor or shop to buy cheap trinkets and antique-looking knick-knacks: useless swords that were either rusted or simply wooden replicas, old incense burners, small religious idols and icons, assorted fake jewellery... Qiong Ying was mystified by their purchases. The items were only fit for display at a modest homes and were not suited at all for these rich heirs of famous families.


Qiong Ying pondered on how to approach Huang Ming. Then she noticed another party was tailing them. It was a group of thuggish men, their faces were unfriendly and their eyes glinted maliciously at Huang Ming and his friends. She shrank back to avoid being seen, allowing herself to meld anonymously into the street traffic.


Her brows furrowed with worry. She quickly recalled her knowledge of the streets and darted into an alley in a direction so as to intercept Huang Ming ahead.


***


Huang Ming allowed himself to drop back so that he was walking beside Sunli, while his friends were with Zhao Hongqi. They were regaling her with this or that nonsensical story in an effort to draw her ever closer to Zhang Ping, causing the younger girl to wahaha in delight every now and then.


“Don’t look now, but I think we’re being followed,” Huang Ming murmured to Sunli.


Sunli was surprised but nodded and gripped her sword tighter. She too had the feeling of being watched, but she did not expect this foppish man to share her concerns.


“Is there a safe place we can go to shake them off?” the guardswoman asked.


Huang Ming shook his head ruefully. “The hour is getting late, the market is coming to a close. By the time we are heading back, the streets will be empty. Besides, my friends live in different directions, I rather not be separated and let them be picked off one by one.”


“I can confront them while the rest of you make haste,” Sunli suggested with all seriousness.


“I don’t think the matter is that simple. I have never heard of such troubles here before. I fear that they want more than just our money,” Huang Ming replied. Indeed, when he had first felt the unease, he had browsed through his memories. While crimes were not non-existent in the city, the original Huang Ming had never encountered danger in the streets even when he walked home alone while heavily inebriated.


“Then what should we do?” Sunli asked frankly. Huang Ming liked her no nonsense attitude, too often there were those who were headstrong or proud of their own abilities and would not deign to even ask for the opinions of others.


“You should first take Little Hongqi away,” Huang Ming said.


Sunli frowned. “What about you?”


“Oh? When did you become so worried about me?” Huang Ming asked slyly, causing her to blush with fury.


“Don’t be stupid. If you were harmed while we escaped unscathed, how am I supposed to answer to your mother?” Sunli demanded hotly.


Huang Ming could not help but laugh.


“Fine, let us go somewhere so that we might fight comfortably,” Huang Ming said. They called on the rest and the matter was revealed to them. Zhang Ping was not overly concerned as he had some background in martial arts, but the scholarly He Ding was frightened.


“So you still haven’t found a spear master, eh?” Lei Yan said in jest, causing his friend to flush in remembrance of his poetry at the governor’s competition.


“This is no time to be making jokes!” He Ding retorted.


“Well, we might be overly pessimistic. If they are mere robbers then I would be happy to pay for our safety,” Huang Ming said sincerely.


“Let us fight,” Zhao Hongqi said brightly. “It’s pity I left my halberd at your home.”


Huang Ming glanced at Sunli in askance. The guardswoman nodded in affirmation, answering his unvoiced question about the little girl’s ability to fight. ‘So, she isn’t just playing soldier after all,’ he thought.


“Let’s see what we have bought, maybe we have something useful to defend ourselves with,” Huang Ming proposed.


There were a few dubious items. The rusted sword was given to Zhao Hongqi while Huang Ming took the wooden replica. Lei Yan and He Ding were given the incense burner and a cheap medallion made with fake jewelry. Zhang Ping was trained in the unarmed arts and thus did not need a weapon; or in this case, a prop.


“What are we supposed to do with these?” Lei Yan and He Ding asked in despair, whereupon Huang Ming grinned and leaned to give instructions.


Even as Zhao Hongqi laughed, their eyes widened with shock and their faces thoroughly dyed red with embarrassment.


 

A plan conjured in haste,
It was lacking in grace.​