Chapter Fifty Eight – Sincerity
“What’s going on?” Huang Ke demanded.
“You better chase after her,” Huang Ming suggested.
Huang Ke stared at him. “What?”
“Go after her you big doofus, that was Liu Yuchun!” Huang Ming yelled.
It took a moment for Huang Ke to register what he had heard. His mouth agape, he turned and saw the departing profile of Liu Yuchun in the distance. Without further ado, he broke into a run after her.
“How dramatic,” Qiong Ying commented dryly.
“My brothers are hopeless romantics,” Huang Ming said.
“And you aren’t? My cousin told me of the song you sang, the lyrics were touching,” Qiong Ying said, being careful with her voice so as not to betray her true identity.
Huang Ming chuckled softly. “I’m going after them, he will probably muck it up without my help. Sunli, please escort these ladies back,” he said.
“There’s no way I’m missing out on something this interesting,” Qiong Ying declared. She looked back conspiratorially and saw Cao Tianyun, Lin Hua and Sunli nodding in agreement.
“Hold it!” Huang Ke shouted.
Liu Yuchun heard the shout, but chose to ignore it. She increased her pace, but Huang Ke’s large strides soon caught up. He grabbed her shoulder and forcibly turned her around.
“I called for you, did you not hear me?” he demanded.
Liu Yuchun angrily swiped his hand away. “I’m not some pet that is at your beck and call!” she snarled.
“No, you’re not,” Huang Ke said quietly, his brows furrowed as he withdrew his hand. He was not a dull person; he had some inkling about what was really in his wife-to-be’s mind. He had voiced his doubts to his brothers before and seeing the moody Liu Yuchun now made him realize that his fears were not unfounded.
Liu Yuchun’s anger dissipated when she saw Huang Ke’s pensive mood. She could not help but look closely at the man who would be her husband. They had met only fleetingly before, the first time was when she had been kidnapped by that rascal Huang Ming, and Huang Ke had proceeded to gallantly escort her home as part of a scheme to save her reputation.
But soon thereafter rumours spread and her brother Liu Xiang the Iron Tiger went to demand satisfaction, only to return home to tell her that Huang Ke was in love with her.
She did not protest when the matchmaker came on behalf of the Huangs, she was still reeling from the shock. Her father took her stunned silence as consent, and before she could say anything it was all done and dusted. She was to wed Huang Ke, and that was that. It wasn’t a bad idea actually, the Huang family was very prominent and famous; for a modest family of craftsmen the marriage proposal was like an unexpected blessing from the heavens. Besides, they had heard much about Huang Ke who was indeed a fine man without evil gossip, unlike that Nangong Xie who had approached her before. She was to be an official wife to boot, and not as a mere concubine. That alone made her father enthusiastic about the marriage.
However, women wanted love in their life and she was no different. Being packed off to be married was a devastating blow, a feeling that was compounded after hearing the great romance of Cao Tianyun and Huang Lang who would ironically be part of her new family. Liu Yuchun had gotten very friendly with Cao Tianyun after their respective engagements were made official, but she found her own love life to be lacking when compared to her new sister-in-law’s. Cao Tianyun had described Huang Lang as a genuine black belly who would tease her in their private moments, much contrary to his public image of a calm and careful person.
Liu Yuchun had sighed and laughed at the stories Cao Tianyun had told. But they made Liu Yuchun feel completely inadequate. Who was Huang Ke, what was her husband-to-be like as a person? She had no idea. And yet, she was to marry him?
Now Huang Ke stood before her, and she could finally see him up close and personal. There was a difference from that first time, back then she was a maiden. Now she was his fiancée and soon to be a married woman, thus her perspective was different.
Huang Ke was a ruggedly handsome man with chiselled features. He had a square, firm jaw, his eyebrows thick and his eyes fiery. It was a different sort of handsomeness found in his older brother Huang Lang who had a scholarly air and a cool, heavenly existence. Huang Ke had all the flame of a martial, warlike person; a true God of War on the battlefield that befits his stature and station as a military officer.
Liu Yuchun was grateful for her curtained hat, it helped to obscure her blushing face. Still, she averted her eyes away from the much taller man.
Huang Ke saw her slight movement and thought she was being sullen.
“Do you want me to leave?” Huang Ke asked.
“No…” she blurted before she could help herself.
Huang Ke sighed. When Huang Ming had laughed at his troubles, his younger brother had hit the mark more than he would know. Huang Ke was indeed inexperienced in such matters involving the fairer sex. He had never given romance much thought, he had simply assumed that marriage was something his parents would arrange, that he would accomplish his duty by being a fruitful father and that was the end of it.
“What is it that you want?” he asked softly, his voice rumbling like a distant rolling thunder.
A simple phrase, yet with such import that she was at a loss.
Huang Ke felt a twinge when he saw her hesitation. What was it that Huang Ming had told him?
Why are you wasting your time thinking about ‘what ifs’?
How right that was. All his life he had been taught to be disciplined and decisive as a military man, why was he so wishy-washy now?
“Let me see your face,” he said.
Liu Yuchun shrank back, unsure of his intentions. But she did not resist when Huang Ke leaned forward and reached out with both hands to gently part the thin curtain that hung from her veiled hat.
Now their eyes met, with no place to hide.
He stared into her eyes, and she found herself helpless tear her own gaze away. She felt a heat rising within her, it was as if the fire in his eyes were transmitted to her.
“I know this marriage is unfair to you,” he said, directly exposing her worries. “But if we are to be husband and wife, we must be clear with each other.”
He drew back and stood at his full height and placed his hands behind his back. He gave her all the attention he had, as seriously as any of the times he had listened to a report from his soldiers.
“Tell me, what is it that you want?” he asked again.
Liu Yuchun saw that he was completely frank with her, and decided to do the same. “Why do you want to marry me?” she asked.
“Because you interest me,” came the immediate answer. Huang Ke was honest, he saw in her an uncommon temperament. She had shown much liveliness and fearlessness in their first meeting, and ever since then he had been intrigued by her.
It was said so matter-of-factly that it took her a few seconds to register it.
“Am I just a wallflower to be plucked at your whim? You don’t know anything about me,” she managed to say even as she felt her cheeks blush.
“It is precisely because I know that you’re no wallflower that I am interested about you. Yes, I know next to nothing about you. But, I think it is the same for you, is it not?” Huang Ke questioned.
“Aye,” Liu Yuchun admitted firmly.
Huang Ke nodded in satisfaction. “When we get married, we will have all the time to find out more about each other,” he said.
It was as if a thunderbolt had spiked Liu Yuchun’s brain. “You… you…” she sputtered.
But Huang Ke was relentless. “I won’t waste your time by promising you the moon and the stars. What I can promise is my sincerity. Ms. Liu, we may have met in unflattering circumstances, but that does not mean I am a person who would take you for granted.”
He took a deep breath before continuing. “But… if you feel strongly against this marriage, I would not hold it against you. Though it would be late and make both of us laughing stocks in the eyes of the world, I would gladly bear such ridicule if it could ease the knot in your heart.”
It was at this moment that Liu Yuchun was sure of Huang Ke’s sincerity. What does it say about a man who could promise such a thing? To deliberately lay bare his intentions, and to willingly withdraw if she wished?
Huang Ke’s eyes bored into hers. It was as if he was searching for something. She knew what it was, he had bared his soul and expected her to do the same.
“So tell me, what do you want?” he repeated.
“I… I want love. To be loved and to be in love,” she said. Years later, she would hit herself for saying such a corny line, it would be a source of much amusement that would vex her in the future.
“I will love you, and you will learn to love me,” Huang Ke said firmly. Years later, he would cringe whenever reminded of this corny line, it would be a source of much amusement that would vex him in the future.
They smiled at each other, at peace and coming to an understanding at last. How many married couples can say the same?
“Though…” Huang Ke mused aloud.
“Though what?” Liu Yuchun asked.
“I like this look, but don’t make it too much of a habit,” Huang Ke chuckled as he gave her male scholar’s clothes a once over.
Liu Yuchun snorted. “Hmph, why not? You would feel threatened just because I can wear pants like a man?”
“Threatened? How could you possibly threaten me?” he said and laughed.
“With this,” Liu Yuchun said and raised a fist to show him, evoking the time when she had punched Huang Ming.
“I’m not like my brother,” Huang Ke said with a grin. With a deft move, he stretched out a hand to grab her fist and completely encased her smaller one.
She tried to pull back, but his grip tightened. “Let go!” she growled.
“Never,” he said, and it carried a weight that went far beyond the current situation. Liu Yuchun blushed, she knew what he had meant.
They stood there awkwardly, her hand in his.
A short distance away, Huang Ming’s face was scrunched up. “Ugh, so sugary sweet,” he said.
Cao Tianyun lightly smacked him on the shoulder. “Don’t be such a boor, ‘tis such a heart-warming sight,” she scolded.
Beside her, Lin Hua sighed. “Yes, your brother is extraordinary,” she commented. Then she smiled at Cao Tianyun and said, “It seems that our city would have another dramatic love story to compete against yours.”
Cao Tianyun reddened.
Sunli and Qiong Ying were silent, their eyes gazing on the profiles of Huang Ke and Liu Yuchun, lost in their own thoughts.
“How long are they going to be standing there and holding hands like that?” Huang Ming demanded.
“What are you saying? Don’t ruin this moment!” Cao Tianyun exclaimed.
Huang Ming smiled. “He’s making trouble for himself,” he said.
Huang Ke did not know it yet, but soon unhappy, single men everywhere would grumble about how he had raised the bar, and the Huangs would be held as an example of romance. Indeed, future story writers would record a ditty saying thus:
The mountain-splitter broke her resistance,
With honesty that shone with brilliance,
In public he declared his intentions,
Brushing aside all her apprehensions,
Captivating all who had witnessed,
Silencing even the critics vicious.
Seeing how the situation had been resolved happily, Huang Ming brushed off the imaginary dirt off his hands, as if he was the one who did the hard work. In truth, the sappiness in the scene that he saw reminded him of his own memories, and he was eager to be away as a result.
“I’m going home, this is sickening,” Huang Ming said.
But, as he turned to leave, someone stopped him.
“Huang Ming?” a man called out.
A blast from the past,
A man known, a debt he had owned.