“If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
Chapter Sixty Seven – Actors
Huang Zheng gave his son a warning look lest there would be spies, but even he could not conceal his gleeful smile. It was times like this that he was grateful for his full and lengthy beard. Then he bade for fresh horses and a few trusted confidants to fulfil the scouting mission that he had proposed to Lord Fang La earlier.
“You’re coming with me,” he said to his son.
Huang Ming nodded, and joined the small troop as they rode out of the city and into the night. Soon they reached a small camp, hidden amongst the hills. A few sentries stood guard, but they greeted Huang Zheng and his troop with friendliness.
“Just in time for dinner,” a voice said, and Huang Ming immediately recognized the stout warrior who had duelled his father. A spitted animal was being roasted over a campfire, and an alluring aroma wafted in the air.
“It’s because you gave me quite the workout,” Huang Zheng replied affably as they dismounted to join the warrior at the fire. Huang Ming noted that the man was no longer wearing the fur-lined Wei armour. At this close distance, Huang Ming could see that the man was as old as his father, his salt-and-pepper short beard and hair roughly cut in a soldiery fashion.
“You’re not too shabby yourself,” the warrior said. He frowned at Huang Ming as he took his place by the fire. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“This is my youngest son, Ming,” Huang Zheng replied.
“Huang Ming greets the General Zhao Tong,” Huang Ming saluted with cupped hands.
Indeed, the mysterious intruder who had yelled challenges at the city and subsequently fought Huang Zheng under the moonlight was Zhao Tong the Thunderer, an old friend of the family.
Huang Ming recalled the moment when his father had leaned in to whisper in his ear before riding out for the duel.
“That man is Zhao Tong, I recognize his voice,” he had said, much to Huang Ming’s astonishment.
The duel itself did not look fake, it was entirely much too realistic for Huang Ming’s liking. But while the distant spectators were chewing their nails and bulging their eyes at the duel, the participants themselves were having a discussion.
“Hello, old friend,” Huang Zheng had said while they locked their weapons.
“I was told that your fat is in the fire,” Zhao Tong said merrily.
They swung their weapons at each other, broke off and then charged back at each other for another bout.
“Indeed, that nobleman up there is Lord Fang La,” Huang Zheng continued.
“I heard. Let’s fight a little closer to the wall, I think I can kill him with an arrow,” Zhao Tong had suggested.
“Enticing as that sounds, it is enough to give him a scare,” Huang Zheng replied.
“Come on, this damned Wei costume is giving me the hives,” Zhao Tong said irritably.
“Where did you get it anyway?” Huang Zheng questioned.
“We’ll talk later, I’m getting hungry!”
And thus the two combatants twirled and clashed ever closer to the city wall, giving Zhao Tong the opportunity to fire a shot at Lord Fang La. Then Zhao Tong retired, and Huang Zheng returned to a hero’s welcome.
“So this was the young man who yelled that I wasn’t worthy, eh?” Zhao Tong said, giving Huang Ming an eyeful.
“My apologies,” Huang Ming said with a grimace.
The older man waved it away. “Never you mind, it all worked out in the end. I hope that fellow I killed wasn’t anyone important,” he said.
Huang Ming grinned, thinking about Lord Fang La’s brave but unfortunate bodyguard. “No, it was just a nameless henchman,” he said honestly. Then he considered the alternative. “But what if he was someone important?” he ventured to ask.
“If he died so easily, then he wouldn’t be important enough,” Zhao Tong said as he roughly chopped off a roasted hind leg for himself.
“And thank you for that. That uppity noble is probably packing up to leave first light tomorrow,” Huang Zheng said, as he did the same without ceremony. They were old friends, they did not need unnecessary politeness between them. After all, they trusted each other enough to swing full force with deadly weapons.
“You realize of course that this is the second time that you’ve pulled off this trick,” Huang Ming pointed out, referring to the false flag bandit menace that his father and Huang Ke had conjured up to trick Governor Cao.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Huang Zheng said testily.
“There is one thing I don’t understand, when did you send word to General Zhao Tong?” Huang Ming asked.
“I didn’t,” Huang Zheng admitted. He looked at his friend meaningfully.
Zhao Tong smiled ferociously, the drippings from the meat staining his short beard. “Bring the wine!” he called out. A figure emerged, bringing along two jars of wine.
Who was it but Sunli? The dancing light from the campfire on her armoured profile made her look like a fiery valkyrie, a war goddess of flame as she approached. Huang Ming couldn’t help but gawked at her, belatedly realizing that due to his long nights of tinkering and tiring days spent with his relatives, he had completely forgotten about the stoic guardswoman. He had become so accustomed to her lurking in the background that he simply did not miss her absence.
“Don’t drink too much,” Sunli said sternly as she passed the wine to General Zhao. She saw how Huang Ming was staring at her and she gave him a short nod of acknowledgement before turning to leave.
“Hold it, sit down with us,” Zhao Tong commanded. Sunli frowned, but obeyed and sat beside the general.
“Wait, why, how… what are you doing here?” Huang Ming stuttered even as the two generals began eating and drinking.
“Your friend proposed this stratagem,” Sunli said.
“Quan Lu,” Sunli answered.
Huang Ming’s bewilderment was only compounded. “What do you mean? What does he have to do with this?”
“Several days ago, Quan Lu informed me that there would be a Wei supply train within striking distance from General Zhao’s area of control. Quan Lu said that the supervisor in charge was one of General Zhao’s enemies. I was not entirely convinced, but I rode to inform the general of it,” Sunli explained.
Zhao Tong burped loudly in satisfaction. “Indeed, I’ve been meaning to pay that rascal Wei Kun for sometime,” he said in satisfaction.
“Ah, so that’s where you get those Wei uniforms,” Huang Zheng said.
“I don’t see how they could fight in those things, the damned fur gets sticky with sweat,” Zhao Tong complained as he scratched his neck, reminded of the irritation that he had felt.
“But you did get something else?” Huang Zheng prodded.
“Quite a harvest, really. Enough to fund your ‘bandit’ operations,” Zhao Tong nodded. Huang Ming knew that they were talking about their secret preparations to fight against Prime Minister Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao Fang.
“It seems that I have yet another thing to thank that fellow for,” Huang Zheng said gruffly.
Huang Ming scratched his head in wonderment. It was a reminder that despite his special circumstances, the world does not revolve around him alone. People would act and events would take place without his involvement, the natives of the world were not mere puppets nor a generic cast of characters in a play.
“Well, that’s the head and tails of it. I’ll best be going back, lest my governor kicks up a fuss,” Zhao Tong said as he wiped his beard.
Then he glanced at Sunli and asked loudly, “What about you, my daughter? When would you be returning to me?”
“Your daughter?” Huang Ming was flabbergasted.
The real fiancée,
Only now he sees.