“Women: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.”
--Desiderius Erasmus

Chapter Thirty Six - Under the moonlight

The trio of Quan Lu (Qiong Ying), Sunli and Huang Ming were at the courtyard garden, sitting inside a small gazebo. Qiong Ying felt it was ironic, she had first met Huang Ming in a gazebo at her Lichun during the day and now they were meeting at night in a similar structure at his place.

Huang Ming had bidden the servants to hang the lanterns so that the courtyard was brightly lit. With the full moon above and fragrant wine being served, it was the perfect setting for friends to make merry and become closer.

Or it would be, if not for icy demeanour from both Sunli and Quan Lu. When they had sat down and drank the first round of toasts, Huang Ming made the introductions.

Sunli’s first remark upon seeing Quan Lu sipping his drink while still masked was, “You should take that off, it looks uncomfortable.”

Whereupon Quan Lu’s immediate retort was, “Being sick is uncomfortable.”

And thus the atmosphere became chilly, freezing the nascent conversation entirely and draping the gazebo with silence. The two guests eyed each other suspiciously.

The guardswoman was truly curious at the waspish response. Had she mistakenly offend Quan Lu with her blunt mannerisms? After seeing Quan Lu’s refined behaviour and skill with the sword, Sunli was mystified at how such a person would be acquainted with a known wastrel like Huang Ming. She felt she had to research Huang Ming further. After all, there was a marriage at stake.

Meanwhile, Qiong Ying was annoyed at herself for her impulsive response. Qiong Ying was irritated at how the guardswoman had eavesdropped on the earlier conversation with Zhang Ping. She was not accustomed to being caught unaware, she was the one who usually did the spying and plotting. Furthermore, didn’t that Zhang Ping say Huang Ming had expressed interest in Sunli?

These two women had such deep misgivings regarding each other and their host.

Huang Ming was not dense; he knew his guests had some sort of conflict even though they had just met. He chalked it up to simple personality clash, he had seen such instances often enough. Some people simply do not get along. He decided to ignore their petty differences because as far as he knew, it had nothing to do with him. They had all just met each other, after all.

“Today is a lucky day,” Huang Ming remarked.

“Really?” Sunli asked dourly, remembering the encounter with the thugs.

“Well, I did get to know you and Quan Lu today,” Huang Ming answered.

“You have just met today? The way he came to your rescue, it was as if you were long time friends,” Sunli stated. The emphasis implied that Quan Lu’s help was for Huang Ming and his hapless friends. It was unnecessary for her and Zhao Hongqi.

“I was there to amuse myself. Brother Huang had the situation well covered,” Qiong Ying replied, implying that Huang Ming needed no rescuing at all. The thugs were obviously frightened and awed before she made Quan Lu’s appearance.

Huang Ming thought that their words were barbed.

‘This is what I get for trying to be a good guy. I should have called it a night,’ he thought to himself irritably, regretting the elaborate courtyard drinking session.

Unexpectedly, Sunli nodded in agreement with Quan Lu. “Perhaps you are right. Their acting did seem to have worked.”

Huang Ming groaned, recalling the cringing moment. “It appeared reading all those books were of use after all,” he joked.

“What books?” Sunli asked.

“Fantasy books about people practising mystical arts, being able to fly around in the sky and fight using magic and alchemy,” Qiong Ying replied.

Sunli frowned. “So that’s where all those outlandish phrases you two were saying came from. It sounded like supernatural nonsense for children.”

“They are foreign stories. I only read them because of their outlandishness,” Huang Ming said defensively.

The guardswoman turned to look at Qiong Ying. “You read them too?”

The disguised woman nodded; glad that her mask covered her blushing cheeks. “My illness confined me for long periods; reading books was but a distraction.”

“You do look pale. You should get some exercise while under the sun, it would do you good,” Sunli said with all seriousness.

Qiong Ying finally realized that the bronzed woman was not being rude; she was simply forthright and blunt. The realization made her feel awkward about her earlier feelings towards Sunli. She sighed, wondering what it was like to be able to speak one’s mind without the need for obscuring layers and hiding daggers behind smiles that she had grew accustomed to. The fact that she was deceiving Sunli and Huang Ming with her Quan Lu guise was all the more burdening on her mind.

“I envy you,” Qiong Ying blurted.

“Why?” Sunli asked.

Qiong Ying coughed, annoyed at herself for losing control. “I meant your health, of course.”

“All you need is regular exercise,” Sunli replied plainly.

“He knows the sword,” Huang Ming reminded her, recalling Quan Lu’s skilful and deft handling that fooled the thugs.

“Merely for my self protection,” Qiong Ying said modestly.

“Those swords moves you did, they looked pretty. But if you want to kill, simple is best,” Sunli said. She stood to unsheathe her sword and sliced the air to demonstrate. The sword whistled with a terrifying sound.

“Have you been a guardswoman for long?” Qiong Ying asked.

“The army,” Sunli corrected her. “I have been in the army all my life.”

“I have never seen a woman soldier,” Qiong Ying remarked.

Sunli shrugged. “There are only a few of us in General Zhao’s army.”

Qiong Ying turned to look at Huang Ming. “What do you think?”

“I think anyone who would willingly sacrifice their lives at the altar of vigilance to ensure the safety of the country should be commended,” Huang Ming replied honestly. His two guests stared at him.

“That is very poetic,” Qiong Ying said at last.

“Indeed. I did not expect to hear such words from you,” Sunli added.

Huang Ming thumbed his nose wryly. “I suppose you think I’m a hypocrite for saying such flowery words when I’m not a soldier myself, am I right? But I think a woman can do a man’s job well, if given the opportunity. Even if it means training maids into soldiers.”

Sunli nodded. “I can do it,” she said off-handedly.

Huang Ming went on, “Men are taught to live their lives bravely. Yet, when women try to do the things men are expected to do, they are ridiculed and scolded for extending their reach. But who are such detractors to laugh at people who would willingly put their lives on the line for others? That is what I think.”

Huang Ming stopped short of preaching modern sensibilities like gender equality. He had seen and heard enough from women like Sunli who was a soldier and his mother who was a progressive to know that the country was already on the verge of changing mindsets on its own. There was no need for him to personally advance the agenda. That, and the fact that he was reluctant to be a moral crusader. Earlier in his career of being an Avatar, there had been instances where he had fought for changes in other societies; righteously believing that it was his destiny as a transmigrated person to do so. A few such attempts ended up with him being accused of heresy and then burned at the stake (among others) for his troubles.

Sunli stared at him in disbelief, wondering if this Huang Ming was actually an imposter. Who was this man? He who was known for his dissolute ways and self-indulgent behaviour, how could he spout off such words that were so contrary to his terrible and lewd reputation? One could accuse him of play-acting, yet they felt that his words were weighty.

As for Qiong Ying, hearing Huang Ming’s words seemed to have triggered something in her mind.

“Well, that’s enough serious talk,” Huang Ming announced before they could say anything. He turned to the distracted Qiong Ying and asked, “What are your plans? You told me you have a trip soon.”

Qiong Ying made up her mind. “Yes, I am leaving soon. You can visit me before the week is over.”

“I rather not go to there again,” Huang Ming muttered.

Underneath her mask, Qiong Ying smirked. “Even if I can get you a meeting with the Lady Qiong Ying?” she asked smugly.

“Why would I want to meet her?” Huang Ming replied as he was honestly not interested. He had his fill of romantic encounters in his many lives.

Qiong Ying’s face cramped when she heard the dismissive tone in his voice. The more she talked with him, the more confounded she became. Why was he so wildly different than the rumours? Madam Xu had even told her that Huang Ming was a raunchy fellow previously.

“You should go meet her,” a new voice said.

Startled, Huang Ming turned around.

Told to go,
Who’s to know?​