“Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space…”
--Genie, Aladdin

Chapter Seventy One – Night moves

Qiong Ying regretted accepting the offer to stay the night. After the series of tumultuous events, she wanted to unwind and collect her thoughts in private. If not for Madam Li’s insistence, she would have gone back to the Lichun and soak herself in a luxurious bath of heated water and scented incense.

Now she found herself being led to Huang Ming’s private residence, because all the guest areas had been occupied by relatives of the Huangs.

“Sorry for the mess, Brother Quan Lu. I was busy…” Huang Ming trailed off apologetically as he opened the doors.

Qiong Ying was surprised; she had expected a scholarly atmosphere. But in the living room there was a cluttered work bench, boxes of materials and wooden shavings strewn on the floor. It looked more like a carpenter’s workshop. She could not recognize the half-completed items on the workbench.

“I didn’t know you’re an artisan, brother Huang Ming,” Qiong Ying said lightly.

Huang Ming waved dismissively. “It’s nothing. Good brother, you saved my mother tonight. Let me give you a toast!” he announced.

He had disdained the original’s drinking habit and hadn’t touched alcohol since transmigrating, but tonight he felt the need to drown his troubles. He retrieved several small bottles of wine from the original’s collection and led Qiong Ying to the inner courtyard to drink under the twinkling stars.

They eschewed the use of cups and instead drank from straight from the bottles. Huang Ming soon understood why the original was such a drunkard: the wine was fruity and fragrant. Even Qiong Ying was appreciative, though she was careful to only take tiny sips, pretending to empty a new bottle when in truth she continuously picked the same one over and over.

They settled into a quiet rhythm of savouring the alcohol and the gentle breeze, the night sky illuminated by the moon that hung overhead.

“Ahhh, what would I give for some fried chicken…” Huang Ming groaned forlornly as he licked his lips.

“Fried chicken? At this hour?” Qiong Ying asked, her stomach roiling at the mere thought of it.

“Don’t knock it till you try it,” Huang Ming admonished. He had searched his memories and found that deep fried chicken as he knew it was unfamiliar here. Even the simple dish set off a chain of thought: he began to wonder about the equivalent herbs and spices that he could use in this world.

Huang Ming was about to take another gulp of the wine when he heard some noises. Fearing the worst, he raised a finger to shush Qiong Ying and turned his head to listen closely. Qiong Ying nodded, she too heightened her senses. Assassins?

It was distant and muffled, but still audible. It was the sound of physical exertion, and Huang Ming frowned as he realized that it drifted from the direction of Huang Lang’s residence. By now Qiong Ying too had recognized what she was hearing, she became red-faced and hastily turned away.

Huang Ming coughed in embarrassment. “Brother Quan Lu, there are insects here. Let’s sit elsewhere,” he said as nonchalantly as possible.

Of course Qiong Ying was quick to agree. They got up and took their bottles to the opposite corner of the courtyard. But just as they were about to sit down, more sounds came from beyond the wall. This time it was from Huang Ke’s residence.

“You got to be kidding me,” Huang Ming swore in annoyance.

“Shush!” Qiong Ying hissed even as she felt her entire being burning up with voyeuristic shame. She wasn’t too innocent about the birds and the bees, she did run the Lichun after all. However, she stayed mostly aloof and had left the day-to-day operations to her confidant Madam Xu.

“Brother Quan Lu, let’s go back inside,” Huang Ming suggested.

They moved as quietly as possible back into Huang Ming’s residence. Just as precaution, he closed the doors and windows facing the courtyard. In his heart he praised his brothers, they were indeed men among men. He shook his head bemusedly, silently congratulating them on their happiness.

“I’m going to need more alcohol to forget all that,” he muttered with a lopsided grin.

“As do I,” Qiong Ying nodded.

The absurdity of it all caused the two of them to laugh. Huang Ming then took out the rest of the wine, planning to finish off the stash right there and then with a bosom friend. It was also a symbolic gesture, he wanted to get rid the final traces of the original’s lingering presence.

Meanwhile, Qiong Ying’s emerald eyes darted over the workbench. “What are you making here?” she asked.

“Just some knick-knacks,” Huang Ming said self-depreciatingly as he glanced at his handiwork.

Qiong Ying saw that Huang Ming was melancholic and decided not to press the issue.

“Drink up!” Huang Ming urged, giving her a bottle. As before, she took small sips to pace herself while Huang Ming was seemingly trying to make up for the time he had stayed sober, chugging bottle after bottle.

In truth, he had spent many sleepless nights making clever devices and hidden weapons to arm his family. Had Lord Fang La decided to encircle the Huangs on the night of the wedding banquet and kill them all as depicted in a certain song of ice and fire, Huang Ming would have revealed his small cache of crude, spring-loaded darts, spikes and incendiaries. It wasn’t much, but enough of a distraction to buy time for the Huangs to develop a countermeasure or an escape route. Or perhaps even allow Huang Ming to approach Lord Fang La and threaten him with the hidden wrist blade mounted on his underarm.

Besides, when violence really occurred, he wasn’t even personally involved. It was his father who had fought the duel; it was his mother who was endangered by an assassin. He had been preoccupied with the minutia of tinkering with gadgets and toys while Quan Lu and Sunli were conspiring at the scale of using an entire cavalry force to pantomime an attack on the city. Huang Ming could only chuckle at his narrow field of view.

Sunli saved his father, Quan Lu saved his mother. It made Huang Ming feel that all his meticulous work as laughable as parlour tricks. Not to mention, he was the one who had actually invited the assassin into their home!

‘I have fallen into the trap of trying to solve everything myself just because I’m ‘special’…’ he thought scornfully as he chugged more wine.

“Brother Huang Ming, what are you thinking about?” Qiong Ying asked quietly.

“Well, brother Quan Lu… I was thinking how and why you had sent Sunli the information to entice General Zhao Tong,” Huang Ming said instead.

“I just saw an opportunity for mischief and took it,” Qiong Ying said easily.

“I’m surrounded by scheming liars!” Huang Ming complained. Qiong Ying merely laughed, and it only increased Huang Ming’s annoyance.

“I’m serious! You saw how my family is calling Sunli my fiancée?”

Qiong Ying nodded, grateful that Huang Ming had brought up the issue himself. “Yes, how did that happen?”

Huang Ming slammed down his empty bottle on the table. “Turns out she’s General Zhao’s daughter. Little Hongqi’s her adopted little sister,” he grimaced as he picked up another bottle. “They played me for a fool, all of them!” he added discontentedly.

“I’m sure they have their reasons,” Qiong Ying managed to say.

“How did you even know of the Wei supply convoy that was ripe for General Zhao Tong’s picking?” Huang Ming demanded even as his eyes became half-lidded. The combination of alcohol and his depression was hammering its consequences on him.

“A little bird told me,” Qiong Ying said. When she saw Huang Ming’s face, she raised a hand to placate him. “What does it matter? In the first place, I wasn’t sure of the information. But as luck has it, it all worked out in the end.”

“So even Brother Quan Lu is keeping secrets from me,” Huang Ming said bitingly.

Qiong Ying remained silent, her heart in turmoil.

“I’m all alone in this world,” Huang Ming whispered fatalistically. Faces from his past lives floated through his mind, further blackening his mood.

Fuelled by his melancholia, he lamented by quoting a sad Chinese ballad:

When I can’t sleep, is there someone to accompany me?
When I’m in sorrow, is there someone to comfort me?
When I want to speak, is there someone to understand me?
When I can’t forget you, will you come to love me?​

Huang Ming laughed bitterly. Then he saw the stricken look on Qiong Ying’s face, and was immediately regretful.

“I’m sorry,” Huang Ming said sheepishly.

“No, I’m sorry. No more lies,” Qiong Ying said.

“What are you talking about…” Huang Ming began to ask when suddenly Qiong Ying leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.

On the lips!

When she pulled back, Huang Ming could see the blush spreading on the cheeks of the handsome ‘brother Quan Lu’.

It was too much, and Huang Ming fell over.

Drunk to the brim,
Words fail him.​

Song title: 我等到花兒也謝了
Song title pinyin: Wǒ Děng Dào Huā Er Yě Xiè Liao
Song Title translation: I’ve Waited So Long That the Flowers have Withered
Original singer: 張學友 (Jacky Cheung)
Lyrics, translations & video: http://tonybong.blogspot.my/2016/02/wo-deng-dao-hua-er-ye-xie-liao.html