“Si vis pacem, para bellum.”
--Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus
Chapter Fifty Five - Preparation
When Huang Ming returned home, he found that his family were already waiting for him. The patriarch Great General Huang Zheng, his wife Madam Li, his elder brothers Huang Lang and Huang Ke, as well as Sunli and Zhao Hongqi were all in attendance. Ostensibly it was for a family dinner, but once the food was served, the lights were turned down, servants were dismissed and the doors shut.
Sunli stood at one side to watch over them, her tanned skin almost melding her into the darkened atmosphere; her diligent eyes betrayed her presence.
Zhao Hongqi being the youngest, fidgeted nervously. Madam Li looked at her kindly, picked a piece of chicken and urged her to eat. Joyfully the young girl began to stuff her cute face with the delicacies.
Huang Ming moved his chopsticks to do the same. But before he could put the first morsel into his mouth, his mother slapped down his hand, causing him to drop his chopsticks.
“How can you eat at a time like this?” Madam Li scolded.
“But I’m hungry,” Huang Ming stated forlornly and glanced at Hongqi who was steadily building a small pile of discarded bones and leftovers.
His mother sighed at his incorrigibility.
“Little brother, this is no time for jokes. Your news about Lord Fang La and his medallion of authority is ill news indeed,” Huang Lang said.
“He is not worth anything. It is the medallion that is the problem,” Huang Zheng grunted.
“What if it was… ‘misplaced’? How about we call on your friend Muge Jian?” Huang Ke suggested.
Huang Lang shook his head. “I have sent spies. Lord Fang La has a formidable bodyguard troop that escorts him everywhere he goes. All are figures of reputation, it will be impossible to steal the medallion from his person. Besides, I do not know where my friend has gone, people of the martial world come and go as they please. To hold on to such lofty people like ordinary retainers is like catching the wind.”
“That rules out ambushing Lord Fang La too, then. Even if we attack him with our loyal soldiers, it would be construed as an act of rebellion and our enterprise will be ruined,” their father sighed.
Huang Ming then told them about Lord Fang La’s menacing behaviour and his all but assurance to attend the wedding.
“It does look like we’re in a pickle,” he said, pointing out the obvious.
Such light-hearted words were unpleasant to hear, and Huang Lang narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Then he spied something on Huang Ming that caused him to smirk.
“Still, we have to thank you for bringing us the news in advance. Not even Governor Cao knew of Lord Fang La’s arrival, he is just as worried as we are now that our houses are to be joined,” Huang Lang said smilingly.
“It was Sunli who delivered the message,” Huang Ming said warily, unsure of his brother’s intentions. The smile on Huang Lang’s face was very handsome, but Huang Ming knew his brother was up to something.
“While it was Sunli who delivered the message, it was you who made its contents. But where did you get the information about Lord Fang La and his medallion?” Huang Lang said, still smiling.
“I so happened to come across that Nangong Xie and he couldn’t help but brag about his new found connections,” Huang Ming said vaguely.
Huang Lang nodded sagely. “Where did you meet?” he asked casually.
Huang Ming’s face froze, from the tone and smile on his brother’s face he surmised that the matter was already known.
“At the Lichun,” he admitted in a resigned manner.
“What!?” Huang Zheng roared.
“It’s not what you think!” Huang Ming said hurriedly.
“Ah, but I heard you actually met the peerless Lady Qiong Ying,” Huang Lang said, his smile getting broader. Huang Ming was beginning to feel sick of seeing it, he recalled that his eldest brother was usually a taciturn person. Who knew that after Huang Ming’s transmigration, his casual and sarcastic attitude had rubbed off on the rest of the family.
“Oh? How was she?” Madam Li asked, showing much interest.
“Is she as beautiful as they say?” Huang Ke chimed in.
“Yes, yes, she is beautiful beyond compare. But that’s not the only thing,” Huang Ming said nonchalantly and informed them of her good deeds as told by Miss Lin Hua of the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities. He also told them of the various pieces of news from across the continent that was shared by Qiong Ying.
“For someone who is supposedly secluded in a brothel, she knows a lot,” he concluded.
“She does sound extraordinary,” Madam Li commented. “But how is she as a person?”
Huang Ming blinked. “Well, she seems decent enough. She’s not a vulgar, crass person if that’s what you wanted to know.”
Madam Li’s eyes flickered over to Sunli. “Perhaps you should write that in your report to General Zhao. Maybe that will help swing his thoughts favourably towards that Zhang Ping,” she said, causing Zhao Hongqi to pause in mid-bite. She quickly resumed her eating, but face and ears were red with girlish shyness.
“Make sure you mention the bite mark on my brother’s neck,” Huang Lang added airily.
There was a commotion as everyone stood to see for themselves. Huang Ming wanted to jump up and leave, but found his foot being trod by Huang Lang under the table.
When they saw the faint bite marks on his neck, Madam Li and Huang Zheng exchanged exasperated looks, while Sunli’s eyes narrowed. Huang Ke couldn’t help but give Huang Ming a thumbs up.
“Looks like you managed to catch a big fish,” he said in praise.
“It was just a disagreement,” Huang Ming said mildly. He tried to kick Huang Lang under the table, but his brother easily evaded it.
“Enough about that courtesan!” Huang Zheng grumbled.
“Also, it was her who sent the warning message about Lord Fang La,” Huang Ming added to cool his father’s anger.
“Is that true?” Madam Li asked Sunli.
The tall woman nodded. “Yes. It was her attendant who passed me her message.”
Huang Ming then explained Qiong Ying’s clever method to transmit secret messages in open view of strangers, and they admired her ingenuity.
“We can adopt such methods ourselves,” Huang Lang mused.
Huang Ming scoffed. “Good luck in transcribing a hundred myriad letters into a series of hand signals. I certainly do not want that sort of tedious task.”
“It seems that girl trusts you very much to have shown you such a secret,” Madam Li remarked.
“She is the cousin of Quan Lu,” Huang Ming informed her.
“The same Quan Lu as your saviour?” Madam Li asked, while her husband turned pale.
“I only know of the one,” Huang Ming shrugged.
Hearing that, his parents exchanged meaningful glances. Then Madam Li said, “I told you to invite him for dinner. What did he say?”
“I did not see him, he was away. But I left word with her that he is free to visit us whenever,” Huang Ming replied.
Madam Li reached out and pulled on Huang Ming’s ear in admonishment. “How irresponsible!” she exclaimed.
Huang Zheng nodded in agreement with his wife. “How are we suppose to prepare if he is to show up suddenly?” he demanded.
“My friend is someone who prefers simplicity,” Huang Ming said as he rubbed his ear. Then he gave his father the evil eye, saying, “Rest assured father, he had not said a single ill word about what you had told him that night.”
Huang Zheng coughed in embarrassment as he recalled his drunken tirade at the person who had saved his son’s life.
“Ahem… also, what else have you been doing? There were a lot of items delivered to you today,” he said instead.
“That’s right. I have seen some of the deliveries. It looks like tools and materials for crafting. Since when you are so nimble with your fingers?” Huang Ke asked incredulously.
“Never you mind. I plan to make some items. They may not be needed, but useful all the same,” Huang Ming said vaguely.
Huang Lang rapped the table for attention. “We’re getting distracted from the matters at hand. How are we to deal with Lord Fang La?”
“Is there any danger of him harming us directly?” Huang Ming asked. “He might make trouble at the wedding, but I do not think he will want to shed blood and blacken his own name. Rather, I think he will pressure Governor Cao to publicly demand the transfer of military power from our father. After all, there is no need for him to use underhanded means when he has a perfectly legitimate method using the medallion of authority.”
“Legitimate, my ass,” his father sneered. “A military command authorized by a decrepit marshal for transfer to the unworthy nephew of a corrupt prime minister, our country’s days are dark indeed.”
“I will have to discuss with my father-in-law,” Huang Lang said, and no one objected to his use of the term for Governor Cao. Despite the grim mood, no one had any doubts about the union of Cao Tianyun and Huang Lang.
“It looks like we can’t do much more than to be on our guard,” Huang Ke summed it up.
“Let’s eat,” Huang Zheng said gruffly.
After the sombre dinner, Huang Ming retired to his residence. His room was filled with boxes and packages that he had ordered from various artisans, and it took him several hours to unpack and arrange them to his preference. Finally he came across the box containing Lin Hua’s music box. Like a child giddy with his new toys, he immediately set to work. He remained shut in for the next few days, only coming out for dinner with the family. He did not participate in the strategy meetings with his family, nor in the drills conducted by Sunli for the household’s staff. The servants and the maids were sceptical at first, but Sunli’s discipline and Madam Li’s own observation soon dispelled any potential dissent.
The days passed very quickly like this. Soon, it was just a week before the wedding of his two brothers.
Prepare for war,
Sharpen the fang and claw.