“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
--Kautilya, ‘Arthasastra’


Chapter Seventy Two – Setting the stage

Huang Ming began to topple over, but Qiong Ying grabbed him by the lapels and pull him close so that his head was resting on her chest. He could hear her pounding heartbeat, it was unmistakable.


“What… how… why… eh…?” Huang Ming babbled in a daze. He wasn’t repulsed by ‘brother Quan Lu’, after all he had transmigrated as females before. It was the sudden nature of it all that had flustered him, he really had no idea as to why Quan Lu had kissed him.


And despite his current manly inclination, he could not help but feel comforted by Quan Lu’s warm grasp.


“What is this…” Huang Ming mumbled as his friend’s sweet scent filled his senses, sparking an annoying familiarity that he could not pinpoint at the moment.


Qiong Ying chuckled, pleasantly surprised that Huang Ming had not immediately rejected her male guise out of hand. It was yet another facet of Huang Ming that surprised her. Was this really the beastly wastrel that had became the subject of ill rumours everywhere? Then she thought his amicability was due to the alcohol’s influence; so she decided to play a prank to test the waters.


She ran a finger over Huang Ming’s throat and chin, gently tilting his head upwards so that she could stare down into his confused eyes. Huang Ming had a case of déjà vu, there was something familiar about this...


“Don’t worry, this lord will treat you well,” she said, her eyes glinting mischievously, aping one of those black-bellied characters that she had read about in novels.


Huang Ming’s face scrunched up, he too had seen such stories and dramas on Earth. Despite the strange situation, he could not resist playing his part of the play.


“Lord, you’re so bad…” he said in his best coquettish voice, going so far as to twist his waist away shyly.


Qiong Ying stared at him. Then she threw her head back and laughed uproariously like a tyrant. It was infectious, and Huang Ming too found himself joining in and laughing at the absurdity of it all.


They were soon gasping from venting their hilarity, and Huang Ming pulled away. He wiped away the tears from his eyes.


“Well, you stole my lips. What do you plan to do about it?” Huang Ming said with mock seriousness. He resisted the temptation to lick his lips, the fragrant aroma still lingering from their embrace. In another world, in another life, he might have been repulsed. But perhaps it was because of his innate easy-going nature and multitude of experiences, he found himself undisturbed over the matter. Shocked, yes. Revolted? No. Besides, the offending party was possibly the most beautiful man he had ever known. Quan Lu’s interest in him was flattering to say the least.


“Silly guy, what do you fear? Of course I’ll take responsibility,” Qiong Ying said with a devilish grin.


Huang Ming rolled his eyes. “I sure hope so. First your cousin molested me, and now you. Does it run in the family?”


“I’ll explain,” Qiong Ying said even as her cheeks coloured, remembering the time when she had bitten him.


“You can start by telling me why you kissed me, or else things will get very awkward between us very quickly.”


The corner of Qiong Ying’s mouth tugged upwards in a smile. “Because you amuse me.”


Huang Ming frowned. ‘That sounds awfully familiar…’ he thought. Then it hit him…


‘Brother Quan Lu’ quietly undid his scholar’s hairdo, and a magnificent waterfall of raven-black hair spilled past the shoulders to the small of the back. Then Quan Lu gently powdered the face with a sponge, wiping off the excess cosmetics with a cloth.


“You… you’re…” Huang Ming stuttered.


Then ‘Quan Lu’ flashed a brilliant smile, and finally Huang Ming recognized Qiong Ying, the Lady of the Lichun.


“Hello,” Qiong Ying greeted timidly in her real voice. Her green eyes gleamed at him hopefully, watery and filled with expectations.


For his part, Huang Ming’s mouth dropped open. Then he buried his face in his hands, moaning in denial. “No no no…”


Qiong Ying was nonplussed, it wasn’t the reaction she was hoping for. “What do you mean? Am I such a disappointment?” she demanded in a huff, her pride as a woman sorely tested. She thought he would be pleased and perhaps even be enamoured with the reveal. Wasn’t that usually the case in romance novels?


Fortunately for her, Huang Ming wasn’t groaning because of her identity. He was even somewhat relieved that ‘brother Quan Lu’ was actually a woman. Rather, Huang Ming was immensely peeved at himself for being duped.


‘All those years I had complained at TV characters when they could not recognize an obviously female actress playing a male disguise… and here I am with a real life Zhu Yingtai! I’m just as oblivious as Liang Shanbo!’ he mentally groaned, recalling the old Chinese romantic legend of ‘The Butterfly Lovers’. Not to mention, all those unbelievable and ludicrous gender-bender dramas featuring beautiful actresses that fooled everyone with a simple boyish haircut and male clothing.


He had mercilessly mocked his family and friends who had enjoyed such stories, and yet now he found himself being as clueless as the confused male characters in those stories.


“I am such an idiot,” Huang Ming declared. He winced as he remembered the times ‘Quan Lu’ had coughed innocuously or avoided eye contact.


“You… you’re not angry?” Qiong Ying asked.


“Not at all. It’s just that… well, I’m kicking myself for not seeing through your disguise,” Huang Ming sighed.


“I do have years of experience,” she said proudly, much relieved at Huang Ming’s reaction. She began to remove the rest of her cosmetic disguise, and Huang Ming saw closely just how misleading make-up could be.


“I’m really surrounded by liars,” he commented dryly as he watched with fascination.


“You sound like you’d prefer it if I’m actually a man,” Qiong Ying said as she eyed him suspiciously.


“You’re the one who kissed me. And I still don’t know what’s going on,” he reminded her.


“This will take a while. Do you have water?” she asked instead, wrinkling her nose at the empty wine bottles on the table. Huang Ming wordlessly went to find a pot of cold tea. When he returned, he found the table had been cleared save for two small cups. He quietly placed the pot on the table and sat down, his eyes scrutinising the mysterious woman.


Qiong Ying turned to properly face him. Her face was solemn as she bowed deeply before him, holding it for a full minute before rising to meet his eyes once more.


“First, let me apologize for the charade,” she said quietly.


Huang Ming nodded and motioned for her to continue with a wave of the hand.


“My name is Qiong Ying,” she said. “And I am a spy.”


Huang Ming blinked, speechless. Qiong Ying calmly picked up the pot of tea and filled the two cups, waiting for him to gather his wits. She pushed a cup towards him as she drank from the other.


“A spy? For who?” he asked after draining his cup of cold tea.


“I come from the state of Jin,” she answered vaguely.


“That does not actually answer my question,” Huang Ming said sharply. Qiong Ying smiled serenely, secretly delighted that he had picked up on her nuanced non-answer. She had deliberately framed her answer so as to provoke a reaction before committing herself. When Huang Ming did not press on the issue, she finally made up her mind.


Huang Ming frowned as he recalled the immediate geography from his memories. Wu in the east, Wei at the west, Jin in the north, Chu to the south. Wars have been fought between all of them, a historical swirl of short-lived alliances and long-lasting feuds.


Wu’s primary adversary had always been the warlike Wei in the west but Jin in the north was a country that had an irregular salient sandwiched by the two competing countries. The southern tip of Jin where it plunged in between Wei and Wu like a dagger had been a point of contention between the three powers.


“Well, what is your mission?” Huang Ming asked.


“To provoke outright war between Wei and Wu,” Qiong Ying answered immediately.


“So that Jin could sweep south once they have exhausted themselves,” Huang Ming murmured dispassionately. “So that’s why you informed General Zhao Tong into ambushing the Wei transport convoy.”


Qiong Ying nodded, pleased by his quick thinking.


“Why are you telling me this?” he asked calmly.


“Because I don’t want Jin to win,” she replied.


“Why not?”


“Because the architect of this scheme killed my father and destroyed my clan,” she said coldly.
 

A woman with a past
Of her line, she is the last.​


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Gender-bender drama as watched by friends and family:
1. 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (South Korea 2007)
2. You're Beautiful (South Korea 2009), or Fabulous Boys (2013 Taiwan remake)
3. The Blade and Petal (South Korea 2013)
4. A Tough Side of a Lady (Hong Kong 1998), or Legend of Hua Mulan (China 2013), or Mulan (Disney 1998)