Hidden behind smiles
“May all your foolish holidays be as bright as this one…”
--Khyron Kravshera, Robotech
Chapter Sixty Nine – Hidden behind smiles
While the duel between Zhao Tong and Huang Zheng unfolded at the city walls, things were no less dramatic back at the Huang residence.
The relatives and guests who had arrived for the wedding banquet were distressed and confused by the twists and turns of the night. They hung about the dinner hall, chatting and gossiping excitedly to wile the time away, impatiently awaiting news regarding the emergency. The dishes were served, but the attendees were too distracted by the threat of an invasion to enjoy the delicacies.
Huang Lang and Huang Ke wanted to disperse the banquet and leave right away to carry out their father's instructions to rally the governor and the rest of the military forces, but Cao Tianyun stopped them.
“Let’s give the guests a toast,” she suggested.
“Sister-in-law, this is no time to be drinking!” Huang Ke complained.
“You will only alarm them even more if you were to leave without saying anything. We need to show them that all is well in hand,” the Clouded Moon explained, inwardly pleased being called by her new title.
Huang Lang nodded. “My clever wife, you are right,” he said with a smile, causing Cao Tianyun to blush underneath her veil. She reddened even more when Huang Lang leaned in to whisper, “I’ll be sure to reward you well later.”
Then the two brothers and their respective brides stood together before all the guests.
“Honoured guests, allow us newly-weds to give you all a toast!” Huang Lang said, and the quartet bowed deeply.
The guests were moved by the gesture. A lesser family in such a situation might be harried into panic and thus lose face. But the Huangs showed firmness in the face of possible disaster. Even though the wedding banquet was disrupted firstly by Lord Fang La and then by a mysterious force outside the city, the Huangs remained composed, exuding an aura of being resolute in a storm.
“Look at how calm they are. Even though it is their wedding night, they are not worried at all by the situation,” a guest praised.
“Indeed, we should be as secure as they are. The Great General is handling the matter personally after all!”
When the four newly weds raised their cups of wine, the guests followed suit. They cheered lustily before emptying their glasses. Buoyed by the assuredness projected by the Huangs, the guests settled into eating and drinking.
After going to several tables to exchange further toasts, Huang Ke slipped away discreetly to head to the army barracks. Just as he was about to vault onto his horse, his wife appeared.
“Don’t get yourself killed, I’m too young to be a widow!” Liu Yuchun warned him, her hands on her hips. But underneath her veil, she bit her lips with worry.
Huang Ke leaned forward and snatched one of her hands. Before she could protest, he kissed it while keeping his eyes on her veiled face.
“Wait for me, I don’t want to miss our first night!” he said passionately.
“Get lost, you scoundrel!” Liu Yuchun huffed and stamped her feet in exasperation, to which Huang Ke laughed loudly as he rode away.
At another gate, Huang Lang bid his own wife farewell. “I’m off to find your father, take care of things here,” he said.
“I will, please do not worry,” Cao Tianyun said.
“But I am worried…” Huang Lang trailed off.
“Is something wrong?”
Huang Lang leaned in closely to whisper in her ear, “Are you going to wait up for me?”
“Of course I’ll wait for you,” Cao Tianyun replied guilelessly. Then she realized the implications when she saw her handsome husband smiling. “Oh… oh!” she uttered shyly.
“Don’t forget, I promised to reward you well,” Huang Lang said with a devilish grin.
“Off with you!” Cao Tianyun flushed, and her black-bellied husband rode away elatedly.
That was why Madam Li would find her two daughter-in-laws somewhat distracted as they went around the tables greet the guests and relatives.
Soon they reached where Qiong Ying who was disguised as Quan Lu was seated.
Qiong Ying on her part had wanted to leave earlier, but would be impolite for her to do so without first bidding Madam Li farewell. After all, they had met when she arrived.
“Sir Quan Lu, I hope you did not find all this all too discomfiting,” Madam Li said by way of apology.
“On the contrary, I am sure that everything would be well,” Qiong Ying said with twinkling green eyes, knowing full well that Sunli would act decisively with the information that she had given the guardswoman.
Qiong Ying did not know what the Huangs had planned to deter Lord Fang La. Rather than to wait passively, she decided to move independently by dangling an irresistible lure for General Zhao Tong: ambushing a Wei transport caravan supervised by a certain Wei Kun who had a bit of a rivalry with the general. In return, General Zhao would lead a body of troops dressed in Wei colours to trick Lord Fang La.
While Qiong Ying had no idea how it would all play out, she was sure that it would all fall into place as planned. She did not take action lightly, it was carefully calculated for maximum profit to further her own goals.
Madam Li saw her quiet confidence and smiled. “It seems that Sir Quan Lu knows something,” she said to her daughter-in-laws. They tilted their heads slightly in askance.
“Ah, but I was only stating the obvious. There is no one more worthy of our trust than the Great General,” Qiong Ying said.
“High praise indeed, coming from a Quan,” Madam Li commented.
“What do you mean?” Qiong Ying asked, her heart beating faster. She had heard of Madam Li’s sharp intellect, and now she was experiencing it firsthand.
“Of course, I mean your Quan Patriarch. We were acquaintances, you know,” Madam Li said smilingly.
“Oh, really? I truly did not know,” Qiong Ying said, hoping that her own smile was not too strained. Suddenly the bindings that hid her chest felt all the more restrictive.
“I heard there was incident in Liyan County involving the Quans, but I myself had been following my husband in his military tours. Now that you’re here, could you tell me about it?”
Qiong Ying bowed her head slightly and put on a depressed air. “It’s… it’s not my place to talk about the matter. I am but from the branch family after all,” she said as she wracked her brains. She had no idea what Madam Li was talking about. The reason she picked the Quans for her fake identity was because of their current obscurity, who knew that it would be called into question by someone who was familiar with them?
Madam Li nodded in kind understanding. “I see… perhaps you can send a message to him on my behalf? It would be nice to talk with old friends once more,” she said wistfully.
“Of course, it would be my pleasure,” Qiong Ying said.
“Good, good. Come back tomorrow and I’ll hand you the letter. I’m sure Huang Ming would be delighted to entertain you since he’s away tonight,” Madam Li said with a smile that showed her teeth.
The last thing Qiong Ying wanted was to see Madam Li again so soon after her identity was called into question, but she could only nod in acquiescence.
Fortunately for Qiong Ying, there was an interruption from an unlikely source. The young man who had greeting Huang Ming on the street the other day suddenly appeared with a inscrutable smile on his face.
“Greetings to the Madam, and congratulations on the double wedding,” the young man said.
“Thank you…” Madam Li said automatically. She frowned, not recognizing him. “This is…?”
“This is Lu Minzhong, brother Huang Ming invited him,” Cao Tianyun supplied the introduction. Madam Li nodded but remained puzzled, she did not know this Lu Minzhong at all.
“Yes, he did. I must say that your family’s good fortune is to be very envious about. Everyone’s smiling and laughing, even in this uncertain time,” Lu Minzhong said. He was still smiling, but Qiong Ying saw that there were greyness in his eyes. She began to tense up, feeling that something was about to happen.
Liu Yuchun who was standing behind Madam Li felt the same. She did not see Lu Minzhong that day and thus she had no idea of the young man’s background, but every inch of her being screamed danger. Even Cao Tianyun sensed that something was wrong.
“You must be very full of joy,” Lu Minzhong continued as he took a step closer.
“But of course,” Madam Li said slowly. “It’s the joy of one’s parents to see their children get married.”
It was as if something snapped within Lu Minzhong. He howled incoherently and drew a dagger from his sleeves before lunging savagely at Madam Li.
Blood flowed, and someone screamed in terror!
A wedding in red,
There was blood shed.