Win by losing
“You know, the first time we met, I really didn't like you that much.”
--Harry Burns, ‘When Harry Met Sally’
Chapter Seventy Six – Win by losing
“Let’s fight,” Sunli said.
“There’s no need for violence,” Huang Ming said with his palms up.
“When it comes to dealing with you, there’s always a need for violence,” Sunli said. Qiong Ying and Madam Li nodded in approval, much to his consternation.
Huang Ming shot them a dirty look before sighing. “Alright, how do you want to do this?”
“We’ll have a spar. I will only marry a man who had defeated me and I will break this engagement myself.”
“Fine,” Huang Ming said, half-elated at the opportunity to extricate himself.
Then they moved over to the martial hall.
However, the spectacle became much bigger than he had wanted. His clan relatives who were milling about preparing their luggage for departure had caught wind what was happening. Soon the entire parameter of the hall was packed with his relatives. The elders naturally took their seats of honour, while the younger ones dispensed with etiquette and sat on the floor.
Huang Ming felt as if he was a circus act as even the maids and servants of the household came to rubberneck and add to the growing hubbub as well. Some were even giving their moral support to the guardswoman who had instilled discipline and martial training in them. Sunli had became an elder sister figure for them; her military bearing and heroic presence meant she had her fair share of admirers. It was a similar to the problem that she had faced in her all-female troop in General Zhao’s army, she was viewed as valiant and heroic as any man.
“Your youngest always seem to cause the strangest of events,” an aunt said dryly and Huang Zheng grimaced.
“Well, one bad egg out of three isn’t too bad,” another relative chuckled.
“He’s not really a bad egg,” Huang Zheng said stiffly.
“If you say so. And who is that oddly-dressed woman?” the aunt asked, motioning towards Qiong Ying who was looking quietly at Huang Ming.
“That’s… that’s his fiancée,” Huang Zheng managed to say, surprising those who had heard him.
“So he’s one foot stepping on two boats in broad daylight?” the aunt said with amusement.
“That’s the Lady of the Lichun, and the other is General Zhao’s daughter. They are the ones who are pursuing him,” Madam Li smirked proudly, and the women gasped in surprise.
“How did all this come about? You must tell us the story!” they pleaded, already making mental arrangements to delay their departures.
In the middle of the hall, the two combatants stood and faced each other.
“Alright, lets get this over with,” Huang Ming said brightly.
Sunli narrowed her eyes. “Don’t even think about losing on purpose,” she said.
“You lost to me once before,” he reminded her.
“That was just a fluke,” Sunli insisted and blushed as she remembered the time she ended up being plastered to his naked upper body.
Huang Ming leaned in to whisper so that only she could hear: “Make up your mind, do you want me to win or not?”
The guardswoman narrowed her eyes. “I will not marry a weakling,” Sunli announced loudly, and some of the spectators cheered.
Then Qiong Ying said loudly: “Neither would I, so you pretty damn well win.”
Aghast, Huang Ming marched over to her. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
Qiong Ying sniffed and wrinkled her nose in mock disdain. “Do you expect me to marry a man who was defeated by a woman?” she asked airily, causing the crowd to laugh.
Huang Ming gave her a stink eye. “You really want me to win?”
“My, aren’t you confident? Mind you, you won’t get either of us if you lost,” Qiong Ying pointed out.
“Alright, this is all on you,” Huang Ming said.
“Win first, then we’ll talk,” Qiong Ying replied with smile. She had her own reasons for pursuing this line of events.
Huang Ming snorted. Then Zhao Hongqi ran up to him and clasped his hands to wish him luck, ignoring the withering look from Sunli.
“You must win!” Hongqi said fervently. “I can only get married after her, so you must win!”
Huang Ming could only chuckle. He shook his head and turned to face Sunli.
“Let’s begin-” he said, and immediately the guardswoman leapt at him with a flying kick. Startled, he brought up his arms to block the impact. The crowd gasped at the sudden attack.
“Another sneak attack opening?” Huang Ming asked teasingly.
“Defend yourself,” Sunli said coldly as she clenched her fists.
Ever since that day when she was literally hugged into submission, Sunli had thought up ways to defeat this shadow in her heart. She found herself annoyed and had thrown herself into the task of training the maids and servant girls to distract herself. She thought she had dispelled the doubts in her mind, only for it to resurface when her father renewed the engagement.
It was not as if she was entirely against the idea. Over time, the guardswoman had found that Huang Ming was not as despicable nor lowly as she had heard. Indeed, she found herself intrigued by the many faces he had shown. Irreverent, intelligent… The depth of knowledge that he had shown flashes off was astonishing. Even the fantastical stories he had told Zhao Hongqi and the children of the clan were fascinating.
And as he had reminded her, he had beaten her before. She had prided herself on her martial prowess, that she was more than a match for any man. Yet, this foppish-looking fellow had laid her low and forced her to admit defeat unwillingly.
Thinking about that day only reignited her anger.
Sunli launched a punch, seeking to wipe the smug look off Huang Ming’s face. He brought up a hand to block, but then she drew back and lashed out with a kick instead. Huang Ming reacted much faster than she thought possible: he dropped to the floor to kick at her standing leg.
She quickly jumped away to avoid the blow. The guardswoman had remembered how Huang Ming had caught her in an embarrassing hold on the ground the previous time, and she had no wish to give him the opportunity to do so again.
The spectators nodded in approval at her nimble movement. Some were more surprised by Huang Ming’s fitness, was this really the same dissolute young man they had known before?
Sunli tried again.
She crouched low before springing forward in a dash, thrusting her fingers as if they were like daggers. The maids whom she was training widened their eyes as they recognized the moves, enlightened that the same attacks using a dagger as had been taught to them could also be used while barehanded. Some of them shuddered, seeing her fingers darting viciously to gouge and stab. They were worried that something unfortunate would happen, but the Huangs themselves were unconcerned. It was a reminder that the Huangs were first and foremost a martial clan after all, despite their mercantile forays.
At first, Huang Ming was flustered by Sunli’s aggression. But he deftly avoided her attacks by backtracking and sidestepping and soon it was Sunli who was becoming more and more impatient.
“Is running away all you can do?” she demanded during a lull.
Huang Ming smiled wryly. He spread his arms slightly and planted his feet in a show of provocation.
Sunli knew that he was baiting her, but she gritted her teeth and lunged forward again. Once more she thrust her hand out like a knife, and Huang Ming made as if to grab the outstretched wrist. But at the last moment the guardswoman drew her hand back and slammed into him shoulder-first instead.
Huang Ming crashed with a groan and soon found himself pinned underneath her in a mounted position. She straddled over his stomach, a triumphant grin on her face as she raised a fist threateningly.
“Anything to say?” she asked.
Despite the disadvantageous situation, Huang Ming smiled back infuriatingly at her.
“Do you surrender?” he asked flippantly.
“Nonsense!” Sunli exclaimed incredulously, but then she was undone. The momentary distraction was enough for him to roll over violently and reverse the situation so that he was the one pinning her.
“Do you surrender?” he repeated.
“You didn’t even land a single hit on me!” Sunli said defiantly.
“Lightest touch counts,” Huang Ming said and patted her cheek condescendingly.
She struggled angrily but unable to emulate his earlier escape as he was bigger and heavier than she was.
“How could I have lost to you…” Sunli said helplessly, tears threatening to spill from her eyes.
“You didn’t lose to me. You lost to yourself… impatience and overconfidence were your downfall,” he told her.
Sunli closed her eyes and found herself agreeing with him.
“I’ve lost,” she whispered.
Huang Ming nodded in satisfaction, and then froze when he remembered the implications.
“No, no, you have actually won. By losing, you have found your shortcomings and won yourself a better understanding of yourself,” he said hastily as he helped her up.
“Quite a marvellous display of hand-to-hand fighting there, little brother. I didn’t know you have it in you,” Huang Ke said loudly from the sidelines.
“This is just a spar,” Huang Ming said with a glare.
Huang Lang then stepped forward. “Ah Ming is right about one thing. Zhao Sunli, by losing to him you have actually won. Surely now you see that he is indeed a worthy husband,” he said.
Sunli bowed her head to hide the flush in her face.
“Stop embarrassing her,” Huang Ming growled.
“You’re the one embarrassing her,” Huang Lang said with a straight face. “You beaten her black and blue, and now you want to evade your responsibility?”
“But I was the one who was beaten up,” Huang Ming muttered indignantly. He looked around to find support, only to find bemused faces looking back at him.
Qiong Ying included.
He looked questioningly at the cross-dressing woman, waiting for her to speak on his behalf. Much to his annoyance, she actually pulled out a foldable fan to fan herself like a handsome young nobleman.
“She did say she will only marry a man who had defeated her,” she reminded him breezily. “Why don’t you ask her what she wants?”
“Ask her! Ask her!” his relatives urged, caught in the drama.
Seeing how everyone was conspiring against him, Huang Ming turned to face Sunli who still had her eyes down.
“Well? Do you want to break the engagement?” he asked, throwing the initiative back to her. Let her decide, it’s her life after all.
“Would you have me?” she asked shyly.
“I’m sure our fathers will understand-” Huang Ming nodded before registering her words. “Ehwhatisitthatyousaid?”
“You will marry her, you dolt,” Qiong Ying said delightedly.
“What?” Huang Ming said in daze.
“I have already given my permission,” Qiong Ying said smugly.
“And mine,” Madam Li added with satisfaction. She clapped her hands.
“It looks like we are going to have another double wedding,” she announced, and the clan laughed and cheered.
Met her match, found a catch.
All’s well, ends well.