“Our units are merely passing through the area.”
--Oft-told lie, ‘Civilization V’

Chapter Sixty Five – Challenge

The soldier quickly went to knelt before Huang Zheng and saluted with a thumping fist over his heart.

“Our scouts have reported an unknown body of men approaching the city limits,” the soldier said.

“What is their composition?” Huang Zheng asked.

“Sir, they were mounted, and they carried no banners to identify themselves.”

Lord Fang La snorted when he heard the report. “How coincidental of them to arrive at this very hour,” he said, utterly convinced that it was all a trick.

Huang Zheng’s veteran subordinates seethed with fury at the veiled accusation.

“An enemy at the gates is no laughing matter, my lord,” the aged general said quietly.

“If indeed there is an enemy,” Lord Fang La replied coldly.

Huang Zheng sighed. “My lord, I am not defying the royal decree, merely postponing it for a few hours. Surely you understand the logic of first seeing this matter through. Once we get a clearer picture, transfer of military command will be done properly in front of the men to prevent confusion. Do you agree?” he reasoned.

Lord Fang La nodded stiffly in agreement.

“Then, I will see to this personally. Perhaps my lord would want to wait here in safety until I send word that it is clear?” Huang Zheng asked.

Now it was Lord Fang La’s to roil at the subtle inference of cowardice. “Nonsense! Since I will be taking command soon, it is best that I get myself acquainted with your troops quickly. I’ll be following you as an observer.”

Huang Zheng’s disdain was obvious. “My lord, this would be a night operation against an unknown opponent, not a parade at daytime. It could be dangerous,” he said, further inflaming the younger man.

Lord Fang La smiled coldly, inwardly sneering at Huang Zheng. He was convinced that the general was trying to bait him and then arrange an accident. Such an unsophisticated and crude tactic, a meagre ploy that was so easily seen through.

“Then I have to depend on you to ensure my safety,” Lord Fang La said blandly. Then he beckoned Huang Ming. “Come along, young master. I could use your company in this little soiree.”

The faces of Huang Zheng and Madam Li changed colour, as it all but ensured that their youngest son would be a captive. Huang Ke’s fist tightened, while Huang Lang stared at Lord Fang La coldly. All were helpless to act directly while they were in the public eye.

Huang Ming pointed at himself in surprise. “Me?”

“Ah, but we’ll merely be as observers,” Lord Fang La replied soothingly. “ You can see your father in action and then write about his glory. After all, it would be his last sortie as general of the legion.”

The latter part was ominous, it implied that it would be end of Huang Zheng’s battlefield career once the transfer was complete. At best case, he would be promoted and pushed aside, at worst; he would be disposed once he had returned to the capital to receive the ‘rewards’.

Huang Ming’s eyes narrowed at the mention of possible harm to his father.

Huang Zheng made as if to intervene, but Lord Fang La waved his complaint away. “Rest assured, my bodyguards will protect him just as well,” he said, reminding everyone present of his menacing guards.

“I am in your hands,” Huang Ming said and bowed before anyone else could interrupt.

“Indeed,” Lord Fang La said as he smiled faintly. He nodded smugly at Huang Zheng and said, “Let us proceed.”

Huang Zheng quenched his anxiety at his son being taken hostage, and decided to act professionally.

“Ah Lang, you will have to take care of the guests in my stead. Ah Ke, inform Liu Xiang that you two are to be on standby in the city. Send word to Governor Cao as well,” he said.

“Father, let me come with you,” Huang Ke said as he stepped forward.

Huang Zheng shook his head. “No, while I am away you would be in senior command. The city needs a familiar face to assure the citizens,” he said. Then he turned to the banquet guests and saluted them with cupped fist. “This old tiger have to go out once more, forgive me for being a poor host!”

“O Great General! Who else can shoulder this burden but you? We await your good news!” a guest called out, much to Lord Fang La’s displeasure.

“Ever victorious! Ever victorious!” the crowd chanted, filling the banquet hall with their passionate cheers.

Madam Li emerged with her husband’s military armour. Three male servants followed behind, carrying his great sword. Her stoic calmness as she helped Huang Zheng don the armour touched the hearts of those present and earned their respect.

“We go to the battlements!” Huang Zheng said, and his subordinate veterans roared in unison. They quickly marched off, with Lord Fang La’s entourage following closely.

The banquet became dispirited with their absence.

Madam Li beckoned to her new daughter-in-laws, still veiled in their wedding attires. “Remember this, we the Huangs are a martial family. There will be times when you will be in my shoes, watching your husbands leave for uncertainty,” she said gravely.

“We understand,” Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun chorused, gripping the hands of their respective husbands tightly.

The guests sighed. For many of them, it was a rare chance to see reality of a military family.

Behind the epics of yore,
Stories where they ride for war,
The men die while chasing glory,
Yet their women live on in agony.​

But not all had the same reverence. There were those who were cynical, such as Qiong Ying. She had kept her Quan Lu persona low-key during the tumult, her attentions were elsewhere…

There was a tense atmosphere at the battlements, the sentries and archers patrolled nervously as their eyes scanned the horizon. The city walls were impressively high, and it gave Huang Ming the chance to take a panoramic view of the place he called home, even though most of the city was shrouded in darkness due to the night. Tianxin city reminded him of an ancient Chinese city: roughly square shaped and surrounded by walls with a gate on each side.

“You’re supposed to be looking outside, not inwards,” Lord Fang La chided him as they joined Huang Zheng on the battlements.

“I have never been up here before,” Huang Ming replied honestly. “Besides, it’s too dark to see anything,” he added.

It was true, night has fallen and there was little to be seen in the distance.

“Light some more fires!” Lord Fang La said irritably.

“No,” Huang Zheng said curtly.

“Why not?” Lord Fang La asked testily.

“My lord, anyone illuminated by the light later would be a target for enemy archers,” Huang Zheng said calmly, as if explaining to a child.

Lord Fang La clenched his teeth in anger, unable to refute the general’s stinging advice.

“General!” a sentry called out and pointed into the distance, causing everyone to rush to the battlements to take a closer look. Soon the black mass became larger and more defined, and eventually the sounds of horses reached their ears.

A small contingent of horse riders broke off from the main body and boldly approached the city walls. They were still too far from the range of the archers, and the night sky made it difficult to make out any distinctive features.

“Who goes there!” Huang Zheng shouted.

“Ra ha ha! General Huang Zheng, you hoary old fool!” a rough voice thundered out from among the riders.

Huang Zheng scowled when he heard the insult, the veins on his neck bulged. “Name yourself! Then I can inscribe your tombstone for you!” he returned.

“We are men of Wei, we do not need to give our names to people who have one foot in the grave!” the voice jeered, and a chorus of laughter roared from the horsemen.

“From Wei!” Lord Fang La drew a deep breath as he wondered if he was wrong in thinking that it was all an elaborate trick of sorts. Certainly, their state of Wu had their fair share of quarrels with their Wei neighbours. But they had been relatively peaceful for some time, why the sudden incursion?

Beside him, Huang Ming frowned. The original’s memories were hazy about history and international relations and thus proved unhelpful, but Huang Ming sensed that there was something off-putting about the entire affair.

“You have come a long way to die!” Huang Zheng yelled back.

“My vengeance knows no bounds!” the rider shot back.

“What vengeance?” Huang Zheng asked, puzzled.

“Aye, vengeance! You made me broke a promise!”

“A promise? What nonsense are you talking about?”

“A promise regarding my child! My child!” the voice raged, then it choked emotionally. There was a short pause before the rider continued, “You recently scored an achievement, aye?” the rough voice asked.

A light of understanding dawned on everyone who had heard the exchange.

“Only a routine pest eradication, a mere trifle!” Huang Zheng scoffed loudly, knowing full well that the rider was referring to the bandit menace that he had destroyed. Not the fake threat that he had conjured together with Huang Ke, but the real, original brigands that had roamed the countryside and thus provided them the excuse for their later fiction.

“I will kill you! Your old blood will be the libation for their deaths!” the voice shouted furiously.

Huang Zheng smiled coldly and stroked his beard as he stood boldly near a fire, so that he was in full view of the riders below.

“You scum! You despise me for my age, eh? You’ll find that my sword is young enough!” he bellowed fearlessly.

“Good! Come down and we’ll have a one-on-one duel!” the voice challenged.

Harsh words explode,
Now it’s time for blows.​