“Single-mindedness in execution is vital.”
--Yue Fei, Song Dynasty general
Chapter Thirty Nine – The start
“Well this is awkward,” Huang Ming stated mildly as his brothers gawked at the scene.
Sunli slowly disentangled herself from him. Unlike the usual cliché in such moments, she did not run away screaming or blush shyly that was so often expected from women caught in compromising situations. Instead, she closed her eyes and took deep breaths to calm herself.
After a few minutes, the guardswoman opened her eyes and they were cold, free from doubts or shame. Huang Ming thought it was admirable for her to easily return to her usual stony-faced demeanour.
“You sure work fast,” Huang Ke smirked and gave his younger brother a thumbs up, earning him an icy glare from Sunli.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, we were just exchanging pointers,” Huang Ming said as he laboriously got back on his feet. He went to retrieve a few towels and nonchalantly tossed one to Sunli who caught it appreciatively.
“I wonder what mother would feel if she knew about this,” Huang Ke grinned.
“But I was going to tell her anyway. Sunli said she can turn our maids into soldiers, and I was testing her skills with regards to that,” Huang Ming said glibly, plucking the snippet the previous night’s conversation from his memory. Sunli was startled, but nodded in agreement to divert the issue.
Huang Ke frowned. “Whatever for?”
“You know, there are times when all the men of the house are away. Like the time when me and Ah Lang went to the governor’s residence for Cao Tianyun’s competition while you and dad were on military duty. Back then, we relied on Muge Jian to protect mother. But what about the next time? Sure, we do have some guards, but it would be better if the entire household are well drilled in case of emergencies,” Huang Ming said smoothly.
“I did thought of hiring more men,” Huang Lang mused.
Huang Ming gave him a knowing look. “Let’s not bring in new people for now,” he said, subtly reminding his brother about the plot against Marshal Gao. “It would be better if we trained the people we already know first to test it out. They have been with us for many years already. We can call it a daily exercise routine to keep them all in shape and protect themselves,” he added.
“You are right,” Huang Lang agreed. He turned to look at Sunli. “You can do this?” he asked.
Sunli nodded firmly.
Huang Lang was pleased at her confidence. “I’ll discuss this with our parents,” he said.
“I still think they were doing something kinky. Exchanging pointers while rolling on the ground?” Huang Ke muttered. He steadfastly avoided Sunli’s death stare. Huang Ming wondered at that, why was his brother so afraid of Sunli? Why was a lowly guardswoman so fearless in showing open hostility?
“It was unorthodox to say the least,” Huang Lang smiled.
“Ah Ke should know, I tied him in one such move before,” Huang Ming explained as he wiped off his sweat.
“It didn’t work,” Huang Ke retorted.
“That’s because I went easy on you,” Huang Ming lied and draped the towel around his neck.
Huang Ke bristled. “Really. Want to try again?”
“You’re getting married soon and I don’t want to do anything to affect your first night with Ms. Liu,” Huang Ming drawled with a lazy grin.
Huang Ke would have leapt at him right there and then if not for Huang Lang holding an arm to block him.
“Enough,’ the eldest of the Huang brothers called out sternly and stopping Huang Ke right in his tracks. The middle brother snorted and folded his arms across his chest in an obvious show of discontent.
“We have something else to discuss with you, but it can wait until you are done,” Huang Lang said, wrinkling his nose at his brother’s appearance.
“I’ll find you when I’m ready,” Huang Ming said.
The two older brothers left, leaving Huang Ming with Sunli while Yu-er hovered in the background nervously.
Once they were out of earshot, Sunli whirled and slapped Huang Ming. He did not attempt to evade, and Sunli was a little surprised by the stinging pain on her palm as she did not expect to actually hit him. She bit her lower lip and glared angrily at him as her pent-up frustration was released. It wasn’t just the shame of a woman being held so closely, but also the humiliation of professional soldier who was comprehensively defeated in a martial contest.
“Are you quite done, you crazy woman?” Huang Ming asked mildly while projecting what he hoped to be an icy, cool image as he resisted the temptation to touch his cheek. He had seen it often enough in soap operas and tv dramas.
“Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not,” Sunli said in return, not convinced by his bravado.
“You’re right, it hurts!” Huang Ming admitted. Yu-er hurriedly took a towel, dipped it in a bucket of water and dabbed over the sore spot.
“Much better,” Huang Ming sighed and rubbed the top of his maid’s head with gratitude. Yu-er looked up and beamed at him.
Sunli was annoyed at seeing the maid’s fawning attitude, she felt it was simply because Yu-er did not know any better after sleeping with the young master.
“Now, can you tell me what this is all about?” Huang Ming asked as he pressed the cool, wet cloth onto the side of his face.
The guardswoman did not mince words. “You said you do not want to marry Hongqi because of her age, and yet you have slept with your maid.”
Huang Ming blinked. Then he smiled slyly as he deduced the reason behind the entire farce. “Yes, I did,” he said easily.
“You-!” Sunli choked with anger, feeling aggrieved at his mocking tone.
Huang Ming turned to look at Yu-er and said, “Why don’t you tell Ms. Sunli here in exact detail of what we did that night.”
The maid nodded. “One night, master arrived home very drunk, and told me to warm the bed. So I got undressed…” Yu-er began, her ears reddening.
“Stop!” Sunli interrupted as she too began to blush. Yu-er looked at Huang Ming hesitantly. His grin got wider and he motioned for the maid to continue.
“We went to bed and then we fell asleep,” Yu-er finished.
Sunli blinked. “Is that all?” she demanded incredulously.
“What else is there?” the maid replied in bafflement. The day after that night, she was interrogated by the other maids and was congratulated when she told her story to them. She did not really understand their cheer, but she thought it was something good. Little did she know, they were relieved that she was not ravaged by the lecherous young master, though their opinion of him had shifted since then.
Ever since that night, the young master had reined back on his excesses and regained some measure of respect at Cao Tianyun’s competition. The atmosphere in the household had become brighter and the maids noted that the relationship between the three Huang brothers were much warmer and closer than before. They had wondered if Yu-er had somehow changed the young master, that she was some sort of lucky charm.
“What were you expecting?” Huang Ming asked when he saw that Sunli was tongue-tied. The guardswoman’s face was absolutely crimson as she realized her monumental mistake.
“Well? Hmmmmm?” Huang Ming hummed with mischief and circled around the guardswoman who was burning with shame and regret.
The guardswoman knelt on the floor in repentance. “Please punish as you see fit!” she said through gritted teeth.
“Oh please, get up,” Huang Ming scoffed and offered her his hand.
“What I did was inexcusable,” Sunli said in refusal.
“Are you sure you know what you did wrong?” Huang Ming asked.
The question made Sunli look up abruptly at Huang Ming. Instead of a angry visage, she saw a solemn and serious look on the young master.
“This lowly person has harmed you,” Sunli answered.
Huang Ming shook his head. “Wrong. You made three mistakes.”
Huang Ming told her, “Your first mistake was not getting the full information. Your second mistake was to be provoked into taking action. Yet, when you did take action, you still failed to achieve what you set out to do. That was your third mistake.”
Sunli was bewildered, why wasn’t he angry at what she did to him?
Huang Ming saw the confusion on her face, and told her, “You are a soldier, but you won’t remain as a guardswoman forever. One day you will be promoted and be a leader. Every decision you make will affect the lives of your followers. Your mistakes here are a small matter. But imagine committing such errors while on the battlefield, you would have betrayed the trust your men have placed in you and sacrificed their lives in vain. You must never be too hasty in taking action, and when you do, you must have the skill to accomplish it.”
The guardswoman’s mouth fell open as his words rang through her head.
Huang Ming continued, “Benevolence, honour, courage, strictness and wisdom. All are indispensable,” Huang Ming said, quoting a Chinese patriot from Earth. “You cannot lack any of these. Yet, being too kind is harming yourself, being too honourable makes you gullible. Being too brave is foolhardy and being too strict is to invite mutiny from your troops. How do you find the balance?”
“Wisdom?” Sunli asked. When Huang Ming nodded, she scowled. “You’re trying to say that I don’t know it? Well, you’re right! I’m stupid, I don’t have it!” she said defiantly.
“Ah, but wisdom begins by admitting that you don’t know,” Huang Ming smiled. He offered his hand again.
This time, she did not refuse.
He gave her seeds of wisdom,
She will rise, all will acknowledge.