“I volunteer as tribute!”
--Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games
Chapter Forty – Drafted
“You… why do you know all this?” Sunli asked.
“What does that matter? Knowledge is power, and I know a lot,” Huang Ming grinned.
Sunli bit her lower lip, before coming to a decision. “Teach me,” she said.
“Surely you already have teachers. You are already in the army, and you’re close to General Zhao,” Huang Ming pointed out.
The guardswoman sighed. “He means well, but he treats us women soldiers with too much care. We drill and we march, but I… we could not convince him to let us contribute more. We can pull bows and swing swords. We can follow orders. But it’s hard to find mentors that don’t have ill intentions, or those who would take us seriously.”
“Listen, we can talk about this some other time. This is too serious a topic for me to talk while I’m half-naked. I want to clean up and get dressed, if you don’t mind,” Huang Ming said teasingly.
Sunli was reminded of Huang Ming’s bare upper body, and she quickly turned before her mind could register why she did it. A different kind of heat reddened her face, not the sort of anger which had fuelled previous iterations.
“I, er… I’ll be going now,” she stuttered and marched stiffly away.
Huang Ming shook his head and chuckled cynically. ‘Oops… I forgot this host body is somewhat handsome. I need to take care of my effect on people,’ he thought.
After taking a quick shower and changing into fresh clothes, Huang Ming went to find his brothers who were having a light breakfast and discussing some matters in hushed voices.
“I’m here, what do you need?” he asked as he unceremoniously joined them at the table and poured himself a cup of tea.
Ordinary, such behaviour would be considered rustic or even insulting in an upper class family. But Huang Ming’s nonchalant attitude had infected the household and many of the usual tropes of ‘face’ and stifling etiquette were easily dispensed with. The atmosphere was casual akin to a modern family.
“We were talking about wedding preparations,” Huang Lang said.
“Leave it all up to the women, don’t interfere or you will regret it,” Huang Ming replied sagely.
Huang Lang smiled faintly. “You talk as if you’re not included. How’s General Zhao’s daughter?”
“I’m not getting married to her. She’s too young,” Huang Ming protested. His two brothers exchanged knowing glances, as if sharing a private joke. It made him uncomfortable. “Besides, I think she likes Zhang Ping. I know he intends to court her,” he added.
“He likes Hongqi?” Huang Lang asked.
“I’m not sure if it will work out, but at least there’s some mutual attraction there. I’m willing to sacrifice and step aside in the name of true love,” Huang Ming cried mockingly.
“How convenient for you,” Huang Ke drawled.
“You have your true love too,” Huang Ming leered.
Huang Ke grimaced. “No thanks to you,” he said accusingly at the youngest brother.
“Enough with that already. Are you really that dissatisfied with Ms. Liu?” Huang Ming demanded.
Huang Ke shook his head and sighed. “That’s not it. I do like her. She’s lively and has character. But I only met her once before you set us up. It’s not fair for her.”
“You underestimate her, brother. You know what’s she like, does she strike you as a fragile, meek flower? If she’s against marrying you, she would have said so,” Huang Ming scoffed.
“Maybe her family pressured her to do it,” the middle brother insisted.
“Then meet her again and find out, why are you wasting your time thinking about ‘what ifs’?” Huang Ming asked. When he saw Huang Ke bowing his head, he slapped the table and laughed.
“You’re shy, aren’t you? Hah!” Huang Ming guffawed.
“Why, you-!” Huang Ke snarled and grabbed Huang Ming by the neck.
Huang Lang calmly drank his tea and actually took the time to refill it. Twice.
“Alright, that’s enough,” he said finally, and Huang Ke released his choke hold. Huang Ming hacked and coughed, and quickly drained his cup of tea to ease the pain.
“Ah Ming is right. If you’re that worried, you should go meet her. You’re engaged now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t court her. If anything, she would appreciate the effort,” Huang Lang advised.
Huang Ke threw up his hands in frustration. “But that’s the point! I don’t know anything about such matters!”
“You should ask Ah Lang, he’s the expert. He courted the governor’s daughter while the rest of us were in the dark,” Huang Ming said, jutting his chin at the eldest.
“Don’t bring me into this,” Huang Lang warned.
“You are partly to blame too,” Huang Ke growled at him.
“Oh?” Huang Lang uttered, arching an eyebrow.
“You two made such a splash at the governor’s competition; everyone is swooning about your romanticism. Now I’m expected to go through a hellish challenge myself!”
“Challenge? From who?” Huang Ming asked.
“Liu Xiang. You should have seen the look on his face, so smug when he told me he’s not holding back during the door games,” Huang Ke grumbled.
Huang Lang was astonished. “What?”
“But the door games are set by women,” Huang Ming pointed out, recalling that the Chinese tradition of wedding games on Earth and on this world were somewhat similar. It involved the closest female friends of the bride to humorously bar the way of the groom, ostensibly to tame the would-be husband as well as to extract pocket money.
“He received special dispensation, he’s calling himself the door general,” Huang Ke said in derision.
“Ah, payback for the fish, I guess,” Huang Ming nodded. Despite the mood, Huang Ke smirked as he recalled that bit of memory.
Huang Lang was puzzled. “Fish? Did you two do something? I got the same message from Cao Shuang, he’s the door general for Cao Tianyun.”
“No, nothing, absolutely not,” Huang Ming murmured.
“Which means you did something. Which means it’s your fault that I’m in the same mess. You need to solve this for me,” Huang Lang said in annoyance.
“Hey, back off! I asked first!” Huang Ke shot back.
“Don’t you two have your own set of close friends to help out?” Huang Ming asked.
“You are not excluded,” his two brothers chimed simultaneously.
“I don’t know the wedding details, but it should be a double wedding. Doesn’t that mean you two are setting out from the house at the same time to bring back your brides? I can’t be at two places at once,” Huang Ming interjected.
“You owe me a favour,” Huang Ke reminded him.
“Yes, I do,” Huang Ming sighed, somewhat forlornly. He had hoped his two elder brothers would wrangle some more and thus leave him out of it as a compromise.
Huang Lang frowned. “I don’t care, you can help Ah Ke first. Then you can ride like hell over to mine and help me. The governor’s residence is further along the way in any case.”
As Huang Ke nodded in agreement, Huang Ming facepalmed. ‘Why does this always happen to me,’ he lamented to himself.
“Because you brought it down on yourself,” Huang Lang answered his unspoken thoughts.
“This is why I don’t want to get married. It’s so troublesome,” Huang Ming muttered. His two brothers looked at him in self-satisfaction, again discomfiting him.
“Don’t be too sure,” Huang Ke snorted.
“You’ll never know,” Huang Lang added.
Huang Ming had the sneaky suspicion that he was being set up, but his thoughts were interrupted by Yu-er.
“Young master, your friends have arrived,” the maid announced.
“It must be Zhang Ping, bearing gifts to impress Little Hongqi,” he surmised. Then he frowned, wondering aloud, “Friends? Who else is with him?”
Another eventful day,
There will be plenty to say.