“Search your feelings; you know it to be true!”
Chapter Seventy Seven – Compromise
“Hold it!” Huang Ming shouted, raising his hands to quell the festive mood. To his surprise, it actually worked, and he found himself being stared at by his clan members as they froze in mid-applause.
“What’s the matter? Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet now?” Madam Li demanded.
“We need to discuss details. Be right back!” Huang Ming said hastily. He grabbed Sunli and Qiongying by the wrists and ran out of the hall as catcalls and teasing cheers showered on them.
Huang Ming led the two women back to the privacy of his residence, and Qiong Ying chuckled.
“Aren’t you in too much of a rush?” she teased, and Sunli reddened. The guardswoman was conflicted; the enormity of what had happened was now registering in her mind. She had become caught up in the duel, and had forgotten about the situation with Qiong Ying. If she had voiced her concerns to Huang Ming, he would have told her about the suspension bridge effect.
“Be serious,” Huang Ming chided as he closed the door.
“Alright,” Qiong Ying said contradictorily as she fanned herself like a foppish nobleman.
“We need to… clear the air, so to speak,” Huang Ming began. He looked guiltily at Sunli, and the guardswoman bowed her head to avoid eye contact.
“I thought you would be happy. Most men would be delirious marrying two at once,” Qiong Ying said with a smile.
“I thought you knew that I wasn’t like ‘most men’,” Huang Ming said with a grimace. He looked into the enigmatic woman’s emerald eyes. “I want to know why,” he said softly.
“Surely you know.”
Huang Ming shook his head, and Qiong Ying sighed.
“Although I have some fame, I am but a single woman from an extinguished family, a questionable background to say the least. You are the son of a great general. When I said ‘I have a brothel’, I did not say it lightly. In the eyes of the world, I am a lowly woman, despite all I have done. I did tell you that realistically I could only marry as a concubine,” she said.
“You know of my reputation. What do I care about the eyes of the world?” Huang Ming countered. “Why are you quibbling about your status when even my parents have given their approval?”
“That is because she is included,” Qiong Ying murmured, glancing towards Sunli who was listening with a growing disquiet.
“Is that what you’re worried about? Let me ask them myself,” Huang Ming said immediately. Then he realized the impact of his words and saw that Sunli had become ashen-faced.
“You do not understand,” Qiong Ying said sternly and snapped her fan shut to break the thickening air.
Huang Ming folded his arms. “No, what I do not understand is the need for you to complicate matters between us. I mean, I understand, but why did you not tell me what you were thinking? Is this a test?”
Qiong Ying shuddered, and he knew that he had made a mark.
“Because this isn’t just about me,” she said vaguely instead.
“Do you think that little of me?” Huang Ming asked calmly, but she could hear the tinge of indignation in his question.
“On the contrary, this is for your sake,” Qiong Ying said.
“This is sure a strange way of showing it,” Huang Ming muttered.
“Is it? After all, she is your official fiancée. She would make a fine consort, someone who can stand with you in the limelight who wouldn’t hinder your future,” Qiong Ying said with a smile.
“And where does that leave you?” Huang Ming asked in return.
“If… if you can continue to favour me as a wife, I will be content to be at your side,” she said.
Huang Ming stared at her, reminded of cultures where the being the main wife was coveted. There were numerous stories and historical facts about concubines and mistresses competing to become the head of the domestic household and ensure the supremacy of their line. Such instances would include slander, poison and even murder. And often, such stories did not end well, not even for the winner.
He remembered what she had told him: “…I would have to find someone rich and powerful and enter the family as a simple concubine first… I would have to plot and scheme my way to win the husband’s favour...”
Then he understood. This was her own clumsy way to tell him that she trusted him enough to take another woman, risking her own agenda and putting her faith in him. She had completely reversed the calculative plans that she had told him frankly: from finding a simpleton noble to manipulate to marrying him, from plotting to be the main consort to be content as his concubine, from marrying for the sake of her plans to an actual, meaningful relationship with him.
Well, it was either that… or that she was still skeptical due to the original’s reputation for a roving eye… Was there no end to that man’s grasp? He banished that thought aside and chose to believe in the former.
“You think too little of yourself,” Huang Ming said, reaching out a hand to touch her face tenderly.
“And of me,” Sunli growled from the side, shattering the moment.
Startled, Huang Ming and Qiong Ying turned to see the guardswoman’s crimson face. Not the blush of a maiden, but the red of wrath.
“How dare you… How dare you make a fool out of me…” she whispered, her eyes glaring and shimmering with angry tears that threatened to spill. Her single purple-gemmed earring trembled as she gritted her teeth.
“You’re the one who challenged me,” Huang Ming reminded her.
“Silence!” she roared. Her hand grasped wildly for her sword, only to belatedly realize that she had taken it off prior to the sparring.
Qiong Ying tried to placate her but the guardswoman angrily swiped away her hand.
“You! You knew full well that he has a fiancée, yet you dared to entice him!” Sunli accused.
Qiong Ying did not refute it.
“You… you… tricked me! Tricked us all! Just so that you could make yourself feel better!” Sunli continued, her mind bursting incoherently. She had thought herself content, but she watched on awkwardly as the two had all but expressed their love and devotion for each other. A toxic combination of fury and jealousy bubbled within her as she began to realize just how much of a third wheel she was. To think she had acted like a lovestruck girl, publicly asking for him earlier…!
She felt as she could fall on her own sword there and then; if only it was in her hands at that moment.
“There is no trickery,” Qiong Ying said calmly.
Sunli glared at her.
“There is no trickery,” Qiong Ying repeated. “I was perfectly honest when I wanted you to be his consort, to be my sister.”
“Am I a prize to be won? A collector’s item? To be a notch in his belt?” Sunli rambled.
Qiong Ying smiled and suddenly she raised her closed fan and tapped Sunli on the head with it. The guardswoman was too surprised to react immediately; for a few seconds she stared at her disbelievingly.
Then, as if realizing what had happened, Sunli snarled and made as if to grab her.
“Why did you do that?!” Huang Ming gasped as he held onto the raging woman.
Qiong Ying laughed. “Silly girl,” she said. “Do you not realize how worthy this man is? Did you not see how caring he was?”
“Now you’re rubbing it in my face?!” Sunli exploded.
“You’re not making this any easier!” Huang Ming complained to Qiong Ying as Sunli struggled mightily.
Qiong Ying sighed, and then delivered another knock on Sunli’s head, this time with her knuckles. It wasn’t a gentle tap, Huang Ming could hear the sound of bone on bone and winced even though he wasn’t the recipient. It was forceful enough that Sunli stopped struggling and hissed in pain.
“You must know, when he said it wasn’t fair that his mother was telling him that two was the limit, he didn’t mean that it was unfair to him; or even to me,” she said and pointed at the guardswoman. “He meant it wasn’t fair to you. Do you understand?”
Sunli’s eyes darted at Huang Ming in askance, and he nodded solemnly.
“I may have incited the situation, but you must admit that it was you who initiated the challenge. And it was you who had asked for him, without any prompting. Don’ t throw a tantrum to cover yourself,” Qiong Ying said.
Huang Ming felt Sunli go limp, and he relaxed his grip. Sunli angrily pushed him away, but he saw that the guardswoman had calmed down slightly.
“Think back as to why you had asked for the fight. And then what you had felt afterwards when you had lost,” Qiong Ying continued.
“A spur of the moment, a mistake!” Sunli seethed, even as her face reddened once more.
“Well, there’s no way out of that mistake now, is there?” Qiong Ying said smugly as she flapped her fan open.
“I could very well kill you two and then myself,” Sunli muttered menacingly.
Qiong Ying laughed. “And be lauded as part of a tragic love story for all of time?” she said.
The guardswoman glared at her.
“We are quite alike, you know. We both have masked ourselves before him. I have risked everything and told him the truth, what about you?” Qiong Ying added.
“I…” Sunli began, but then gritted her teeth and looked away. She was right, from the first day she had told him that she was just a simple soldier.
“Be honest. Do you really like him? I think you do. I think your main worry is whether he feels anything for you,” the cross-dressing woman said easily.
Sunli stubbornly pursed her lips.
“Do you want more time to find out? Why don’t we tell everyone that we’re only just officially engaged? Both of us, you and me. So that we can have time to know him better,” Qiong Ying suggested.
“You are already in his bed,” Sunli pointed out.
“You’re more than welcome to do the same. How about tonight? You can find out your physical compatibility,” Qiong Ying said teasingly, causing Sunli to flush.
“Hey, don’t I get a say here?” Huang Ming interrupted, a sense of deja vu washing over him. He found that question to be cropping up more and more lately, and all of it seem to involve womanly troubles.
“Of course not, this is between us women,” Qiong Ying said as a matter-of-factly, another very familiar answer that he had been hearing recently.
“I’m very much involved in this equation too you know, even if I had never asked for this,” he said.
“You have an alternative that would satisfy the both of us? And your parents? And her father?” she asked, arching an eyebrow at him.
“I thought so.” Qiong Ying smiled. “I asked if you had any feelings for her, and you said yes. ‘Admire’? That was the word you used, yes? You cared enough to as wanting not to hurt her. I merely guided things along for everyone concerned, rather than let it hang over our heads.”
“Don’t be so smug, you admitted to have escalated this situation,” Huang Ming said stiffly as Sunli looked at him with conflicted feelings.
“There’s nothing else to it. This matter is already out in the open and we have to make the best of it. Do you agree?” Qiong Ying asked in a business-like fashion. Seeing their silence, she nodded in satisfaction.
“Then let’s go back. There is something I need to tell your parents,” she said gravely.
“About Wei?” Huang Ming asked, while Sunli frowned at the mention of the rival country.
“That, and the question of my dowry,” Qiong Ying answered.
She trailed behind Huang Ming and Sunli as they led the way, each was lost in their own thoughts and did not see the cynical smile on Qiong Ying’s face.
‘You will never know… you will never know just how close I was to make you my puppet,’ she thought. ‘If you had shown any hesitation at all, if you had been fickle minded… that if you had heeded my urgings and taken her in easily as I had suggested… I would have hid my true self and schemed my way to control you forever. And regrettably, she would have to die in the future to prevent distracting you.’
‘But I have not chosen wrongly. You have moved me… and I promise to give you all that I have.’
She chuckled and fanned herself a little more vigorously.
“What’s so funny?” Huang Ming asked.
“Just life’s little things,” Qiong Ying said and gave him her most brilliant smile.
Until the very end,
Careful not to overextend.
There were two stories that inspired this characterization of Qiong Ying. These two stories are not spectacularly good nor special, they are more like guilty pleasures to read.
One was http://www.novelupdates.com/series/very-pure-and-ambiguous-the-prequel/ and the other was http://www.novelupdates.com/series/ancient-strengthening-technique/
Spoilers regarding those two stories:
In 'VPaA', the MC traveled back in time due to his regrets in not getting 'the girl'. In his second chance and using his previous knowledge, he snared her heart, and in a plot twist, we found out that she too had some of her consciousness returned to the past as well due to her own unrequited feelings. The story was good up to that point... because thereafter, the heroine went out of her way to accommodate the MC. This includes welcoming the MC's additions to the harem and joining in the bedroom hijinks. She even actively plotted to do so on her own initiative due to her lingering fears of losing the MC in the previous timeline.
In AST, the MC literally flies from woman to woman and goes 'several rounds' with each. All the women are aware of his philandering ways and yet could not help but wait for him despite his long absences and dalliances. Even in the latest chapter where four of the women (!) finally meet each other, there were only a few descriptive sentences about being polite. Not even a line of dialogue. They knew of his multiple interests, yet they remain by his side, not even declaring an outright challenge or competition among themselves or demanding that he make a choice.
Needless to say, I'm of the opinion that the behaviors of women in those two stories are over the top. Qiong Ying is written as a personal challenge to be someone different. I am quite disparaging of the way the women were written in those two stories, could I do any different? This was the result. Of course I won't claim that she came out as perfectly as I had envisioned, I am an amateur after all.
Really, she could be the MC herself, and one could could even say that she would make a better one than Huang Ming. I won't disagree. Perhaps she is, in a way...