“Let the games begin!”
--Lord Victor Nefarius, aka Nefarian, aka Blackwing


Chapter Sixty Two – So black

Huang Ming jumped back on his horse and quickly rode back for home, knowing that Huang Ke would be impatiently waiting. True enough, Huang Ke was already waiting outside the Huang residence with a cohort of similarly dressed men with him.


“Aren’t you an eager one?” Huang Ming asked sarcastically.


“We go now,” Huang Ke said bluntly.


“Wait, I’m sore from that hard riding,” Huang Ming complained facetiously.


His elder brother incinerated him with a hard stare. “Stop wasting time,” he snarled.


“I was only joking. Where is your team of ‘brothers’?” Huang Ming asked.


Huang Ke simply gestured at cohort of men. They were all strapping men from the military, powerfully built and their eyes alert even on this happy day. The aura of severe discipline was seeping throughout their bodies. All were dressed in military attire swaddled in red cloth, as was their right as veteran soldiers.


Huang Ming was taken aback by their seriousness, the way they stood attentively and quietly was more like a honour guard than a wedding team. It was a far cry away from Huang Lang’s entourage of carefree scholars and intelligentsia.


“Is this is a wedding team or an assassination team? They look deadly serious,” Huang Ming commented.


“Marriage is a serious matter,” Huang Ke replied.


“Aren’t you going to introduce the ‘brothers’ to me?”


Huang Ke snorted. “You may be my little brother, but you have yet to earn the right to know my troops. You have to earn their respect first,” he said.


A lesser person might feel insulted, but Huang Ming understood his brother’s behaviour. It meant he took his job very seriously and he truly treated his fellow soldiers as brothers-in-arms, and not as mere cannon fodder that was so common among more callous military commanders.


“I see your point, but this is supposed to be a wedding after all. Do your men know how to smile? Otherwise your men are going to scare everyone off the streets,” Huang Ming said.


“There will be less obstructions that way,” Huang Ke said with self-satisfaction. With a powerful leap he mounted his gigantic warhorse which was clad in red and gold. The only thing missing was Huang Ke’s mountain-splitter axe that was his appellation.


“March!” he commanded, and his cohort of men shouted as one in acknowledgement. Huang Ke led them on their way, the troop moved with military precision behind him in quick steps.


Huang Ming stared with disbelief. He was wondering about the lack of music when there was a burst of drums. Huang Ming turned and saw that the rear of the cohort were the musicians. To be precise, the drummers. The drums were strapped to their chests, and they were pounded in quick, rhythmic beats in time with the soldiers marching. The drummers were synchronized; they performed as one, alternating between hitting the animal hide and the rim to produce a hypnotizing effect. They were actual military drummers, a way for orders to be transmitted from the commander to his troops on the field. Today, they were being used as accompaniment for Huang Ke’s wedding entourage.


“Well, I guess that works…” Huang Ming muttered.


It was as Huang Ming had expected. The sight of these stone-faced soldiers marching to a military beat was enough to clear the path of any traffic. Unlike Huang Lang’s procession which had many interruptions from well-wishers, Huang Ke’s entourage moved at a brisk rate towards the residence of Liu Yuchun. Nobody dared to delay the daunting Huang Ke with breezy words.


Still, the precision marching and the military beat of the drums were awe-inspiring. It was no exaggeration to say that this brief, simple display was enough to inspire many to enlist in the military, hoping to gain the same physique and self-discipline that they had seen in Huang Ke’s soldiers.


Soon they reached the home of the Lius. And just like how Cao Shuang had guarded the entrance to the governor’s residence, Liu Xiang stood between the gates. Worryingly, in his hands was his viper-tipped spear.


“Go see what that fool is doing,” Huang Ke said in a low voice to his younger brother.


Huang Ming nodded, and dismounted.


“Greetings, brother Liu Xiang!” Huang Ming said and bowed deeply, as he always had a healthy respect to someone who was armed with a deadly weapon.


Liu Xiang merely nodded in acknowledgement.


Huang Ming scratched his head in a show of puzzlement. “Where are the ‘sisters’?” he asked.


Liu Xiang snapped his fingers and a group of imposing men burst out of the residence, lining up behind him. They had the same hard stare and aura as Huang Ke’s soldiers.


“Let me guess, they are your brothers-in-arms,” Huang Ming sighed.


One could almost see the sparks of competitiveness as the two groups of soldiers glared at each other. Huang Ming remembered that their troops had always competed against each other in training. Huang Ke’s recent success against the bandits had upped the ante, one could guess some bragging was involved, hence the unfriendliness in the air.


Huang Ke dismounted and strode to face Liu Xiang.


“Brother-in-law,” Huang Ke greeted.


“I’m not your brother-in-law yet,” Liu Xiang replied testily.


“Why so angry?” Huang Ke asked.


“I know what you did with the fish!” Liu Xiang shot back.


Huang Ming stepped in between them, looking up at the two men wryly.


“Brother Liu Xiang, what do you have planned? The wedding door games should be held by Miss Liu Yuchun’s sisters…” he said, trailing off sheepishly.


“Her ‘sisters’ are all married to my soldiers,” Liu Xiang said. He gestured towards the residence behind him and Huang Ming could see a group of women whispering warily among themselves. It seemed that they too were worried at the stifling atmosphere, but were helpless to intervene.


“They know of Huang Ke’s soldiers and have no wish to be trampled by their brutish ways, which is why they had ceded the game to be handled by me instead,” Liu Xiang continued.


Huang Ke snorted in derision before Huang Ming could protest.


“Lets get this over with. How do you want to get beaten?” Huang Ke asked.


Liu Xiang gestured to his men to make space, and with a whirl of his viper spear he drew a large circle on the ground.


“Pick your men, we’ll wrestle one-on-one, with the loser being knocked out of the circle. The team with the last man standing wins!” Liu Xiang said.


“Then I’ll cut the head of the snake first,” Huang Ke said as he cracked his fingers with relish.


“Bring it on!” Liu Xiang growled, throwing his spear to one of his subordinates.


Huang Ming saw that the atmosphere was chilly. He raised both hands to stop them.


“Hey, this is supposed to be a day of wedding, not bleeding!” Huang Ming exclaimed.


“Don’t worry, I’m not the one bleeding,” Huang Ke said.


“Be quiet!” Huang Ming shouted. “You think his sister would be happy that you got in a fight with her brother?” he demanded. Then he whirled at Liu Xiang and asked, “You think your sister’s going to like you messing up her wedding day? What if someone gets hurt?”


The two men looked away discontentedly.


Seeing how they were somewhat ashamed, Huang Ming made a prompt decision. He waved at the group of sisters in the distance.


“Sisters! Bring two basins of water and two inkstones!” he called out.


“Inkstones?” one of the women repeated dubiously.


“Yes, ink! The kind you write with!” Huang Ming said.


“What are you up to?” Huang Ke said suspiciously.


“Giving you guys a way to fight,” Huang Ming answered cheerfully.


Soon the ink and basins of water were produced. Huang Ming tossed an inkstone into each basin and stirred with a laddle, turning the water into black ink.


“Pick your men,” Huang Ming said. “Let them dip one hand into the ink and step into the circle and do ink-fencing.”


“Ink-fencing?” Liu Xiang asked incredulously.


“No punching, no kicking, no grappling. Whoever first blackens the other’s face wins. Lightest touch counts,” Huang Ming explained, causing the ladies to giggle with excitement.


Huang Ke stared at the black ink with some trepidation. “I don’t want to get any of that on my clothes! These are my wedding clothes!” he said.


“It’s a last man standing contest. Maybe you wouldn’t need to fight at all,” Huang Ming said easily.


“We’re ready,” Liu Xiang announced.


“So are we,” Huang Ke said.


Huang Ming frowned when he saw his brother’s selection. “You’re one short. Pick one more soldier,” he said.


“You suggested this game, you’re going to be the anchor,” Huang Ke told him. “Besides, the fish slap was your idea anyway,” he added off-handedly.


“What?” Liu Xiang shouted, his eyes bulging at Huang Ming.


“Yes, it was his idea,” Huang Ke repeated, pleased to have diverted his future brother-in-law’s anger away from himself.


Huang Ming saw that Liu Xiang was indeed angry, and he quickly turned towards his fellow ‘brothers’ to give them tips. Since he was the anchor, there was a chance for the game to be over before it was his turn. He hoped that would be the case.


“Keep your inked hand extended, like a sword or a spear, and your other hand behind your back. Stand sideways to reduce your profile and only strike when you see an opening. Remember that lightest touch counts, and you must smear the ink on their faces to win,” Huang Ming advised.


The men nodded but stared at their blackened hands dubiously. Huang Ming then whispered to them so that Huang Ke could not hear.


“Win or lose, when I give the signal, do so-and-so…” he said and the men nodded.


The first bout began and the first pair of combatants circled each other warily. The sisters watched from the sidelines, they were intrigued by this ‘non-violent’ game and privately praised Huang Ming for his quick thinking to defuse the volatile situation.


The two fighters jabbed at each other with their inked hands. The sisters squealed and cheered at the near misses when ink smears began to appear. Despite their initial doubts of the game, Huang Ke and Liu Xiang were soon engrossed as well, yelling commands and warnings to their respective fighters.


Then the stalemate was broken and the loser ended up having a black palm print on his face, causing everyone to break out in peals of laughter. As more faces became blackened by ink, friend and foe alike mocked each other regardless of faction; and the earlier tension was forgotten.


Except for Huang Ming. His toes curled with every loss from his side, and his worst fears came true. It came down to him against Liu Xiang.


“He looks very eager for this…” Huang Ming muttered as he eyed Liu Xiang who was glaring at him.


“Don’t shame our family, but don’t piss him off too,” Huang Ke said helpfully.


“Do you want me to win or not?” Huang Ming asked in annoyance.


“Win? You? Against Liu Xiang?” Huang Ke snorted and walked away from the circle.


“I’ll show you,” Huang Ming muttered. He had faced countless dangers and fought innumerable foes, what is Liu Xiang compared to them?


Then he nearly bit his tongue when Liu Xiang dashed forward, his inked hand sliced through the air like a knife. Huang Ming barely jumped away in time.


Liu Xiang was relentless, chasing after him with thrusts and jabs with such speed that all Huang Ming could see was a lance of blackness striking towards his face. Even though it was just a ‘game’, it was terrifying.


At first, seeing Huang Ming dodging and squirming away from Liu Xiang’s attacks was comical and funny to Huang Ke. But as the game went on, his visage became serious. Huang Ming was doing better than expected. Liu Xiang too was astonished, he did not expect Huang Ming who had the reputation of a wastrel to be so agile.


Then Liu Xiang became infuriated when he saw Huang Ming sticking out his tongue at him. Liu Xiang angrily slashed his hand at the jeering Huang Ming, but instead of jumping away as before; Huang Ming leapt towards him instead. Before the Iron Tiger could react, Huang Ming swiped two fingers on his cheek, and two streaks of ink marred his face.


Huang Ke and Liu Xiang stared at Huang Ming in disbelief.


The audience cheered. The sisters had tears of laughter, they were already planning to tell of this game for other festivities in the future. The soldiers too found it invigorating and were discussing about implementing it as a sparring exercise.


“I guess you can get married now,” Huang Ming said cheekily.


Huang Ke closed his gaping mouth. “Well done,” he growled.


Liu Xiang was still shocked. “How did you…”


“It was luck, just luck,” Huang Ming said and thumbed his nose. Unfortunately, he had done it with his inked hand, resulting in a thumbprint right on his nose, causing much laughter again.


Then Huang Ming nodded at Huang Ke’s brothers. Seeing his signal, the men gathered and each knelt on one knee. They cupped their hands and chorused as one:


“The legion calls on Miss Liu Yuchun! Please marry our commander Huang Ke, become our sister-in-law!”


“The legion calls on Miss Liu Yuchun! Please marry our commander Huang Ke, become our sister-in-law!”


“The legion calls on Miss Liu Yuchun! Please marry our commander Huang Ke, become our sister-in-law!”


“Enough, just come in already!” Liu Yuchun’s voice yelled from within, much to the amusement of her team of sisters.


The soldiers cheered, and Huang Ke had a very large smile as he strode into the Liu residence to perform the necessary ceremonial rites with Liu Yuchun before her parents.


Huang Ming exhaled, his task was done. Soon the bride would climb into a palanquin, and she would be escorted back to the Huang residence.


Elsewhere in the city, Nangong Xie was stewing as he knew full well that Liu Yuchun and Cao Tianyun were forever out of his grasp. He had thought that Lord Fang La would disrupt the wedding ceremony, but he gave no such orders; much to the Handsome Scholar’s disappointment.


“You have something to say?” Lord Fang La asked.


Nangong Xie bit his tongue and shook his head, bowing very deeply.


“I do not care for your petty desires, all I want is to take over the military authority from the Huangs,” Lord Fang La said.


“I fear that they would not give it quietly,” Nangong Xie said.


“We will visit them during the wedding dinner. I have a very grand gift for General Huang,” Lord Fang La replied.
 

The wedding preamble is done,
But the problem has just begun.​