There is more
"Well, don't be stupid! Tell her where you're going. In fact, tell her who you work for. She'll be impressed."
--William Cabot, 'The Sum of All Fears'
Chapter Seventy Eight – There is more
There was not another wedding to be held. Huang Ming told the crowd that the situation was still ambiguous, and the double engagement required time for those involved to sort out their feelings.
“How much time do you need? One month? Six? Do you know how difficult it is to assemble the clan like this? You might as well marry them both and be done with it, rather for our relatives to travel back and forth across the country,” his mother had demanded impatiently.
“Am I the one getting married or you?” Huang Ming grumbled, much to the amusement of his family.
“There!” Madam Li pointed. “Your insolence right there is what worries me. With your temperament I’m sure you’ll find more women troubles down the line if they aren’t there to rein you in.”
Qiong Ying laughed. She snapped her fan shut and saluted the matriarch. “Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to keep an eye on him. While we appreciate your enthusiasm, it is true that this comes as a surprise for all of us. I beg your indulgence so that certain matters could be discussed further.”
She gave a sidelong glance to Sunli and the guardswoman nodded stiffly in agreement.
Eventually Madam Li was persuaded and the entire matter was concluded. The clan members were disappointed, but were also relieved as they had not prepared for such an occurrence. Besides, they were already packed up and had made arrangements to leave that day, and so they merely proceeded as per their original intentions. As they left, Huang Ming gave them some whispered instructions and gifts.
“What are these?” they had asked.
Huang Ming had given them the spring-loaded hidden blades, rope darts and other clever gadgets that he had managed to make with his simple tools. He did not have the opportunity to use them against Lord Fang La, and after hearing Qiong Ying’s warnings he decided to have them mass manufactured.
“Just so-and-so devices. Feel free to break them apart and find how they worked and improve on them. Keep them in secret and make more, I’m sure your mercenary companies can find use for them,” he told them.
His relatives were delighted, and as they said their goodbyes, they exhorted Huang Ming to behave. “Don’t you dare muck this up,” an aunt warned. Others made sly remarks and envious comments at his engagement predicament.
Little Huang Zhixiao was most reluctant to leave, the little girl clung on to her new favourite uncle. Huang Ming searched for a gift, but she extracted a promise for him to write regularly instead. The little girl bravely held back her tears and waved at him until her family’s carriage faded out of sight into the horizon.
“She is very cute,” Qiong Ying commented, seeing Huang Ming’s distracted look.
“Hmm? Yes, she is,” he agreed, but his thoughts were already elsewhere.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“It’s this music box that I borrowed from Miss Lin Hua. She told me a merchant from Jin sold it to her,” he said. He had seen the box again while looking for a present for his niece, and he was guiltily reminded of his promise to repair it.
Qiong Ying had scowled when Lin Hua’s name passed from his lips, but it turned grim when the state of Jin was mentioned.
“There are many clever fellows in my sister’s employ, maybe it’s one of their products. But we’ll see about that later, Madam Xu is coming with my things. Send her to me when she arrives,” she said.
“What things?” Huang Ming asked.
“I need to be presentable when we meet your parents later,” she said airily. Then Qiong Ying turned towards Sunli and held her hand. “This concerns you too,” she told her. The guardswoman was still smarting from her bizarre engagement but allowed herself to be pulled along.
“What about me?” Huang Ming asked.
“Go away, we women have some things to discuss in private,” Qiong Ying said, waving a hand in dismissal.
He chuckled but did not complain, hoping that the two women could work out their differences.
As Qiong Ying’s requested, a family council was held a few hours later. The maids and servants closed the doors and windows and withdrew.
“Well, what is it now?” Huang Zheng asked gruffly. He was the sort that did not take surprises well, and in recent times he found himself utterly bedevilled by his wife and sons who had conspired behind his back. Qiong Ying’s reveal was another one, and he took it a little more personally as he had been completely fooled by the Quan Lu disguise.
“I’m in the dark as you are,” Huang Ming said honestly.
As if on cue, Qiong Ying and Sunli arrived. Qiong Ying had changed clothes, she was dressed as a woman this time. For the Huangs, it was the first time they saw her as such. She wore a magnificent green, flowing silk robe decorated with dragons swimming in the clouds, her long hair tied in a loose tail that flowed down the small of her back. A slight tinge of cosmetics highlighted her lips and emerald eyes against her pale, flawless skin; truly a sight to behold.
Fortunately for the Huang men, their wives were also distracted to have noticed their awe.
The exception was Huang Ming as his attention was on Sunli who stood beside Qiong Ying. She wore a polished suit of scaled military armour. Not the grey, nondescript suit that she had worn previously, this one was black with red plates and trimmings. It wasn’t the armour of a simple soldier, this was something for an officer of rank as befitting her true identity. She appeared very valiant and formidable, and it wasn’t difficult for Huang Ming realize why Huang Ke was a little daunted by Sunli in their previous encounters.
Seeing them thus, the Huangs could not help but heap praises on the two women.
Qiong Ying and Sunli nodded to each other and they greeted the Huangs in their own ways. Sunli knelt on one knee like a soldier and and saluted with a fist over her heart, her eyes downward. Qiong Ying on the other hand knelt down in maidenly fashion, placed one hand over the other on the ground and bowed deeply, reminding Huang Ming of a Japanese custom.
Madam Li and Huang Zheng were startled by their deep obeisance.
“What are you doing? Get up, get up,” they exhorted.
“We have deceived your family, this is our apology,” Qiong Ying and Sunli murmured together.
“Enough. We only have tigers in our family, there is no need for such formalities in the future,” Madam Li said, much pleased by their display. Even Huang Zheng’s expression became softer.
Both Sunli and Qiong Ying tensed up when she said ‘family’. Even though their current situation was still ambiguous and less than ideal, it would seem that their marriage to Huang Ming was a foregone conclusion.
Qiong Ying was especially moved. She bowed deeply once more.
“Let me formally introduce myself. This one is called Qiong Ying, originally from the state of Jin. You know of me as the Lady of the Lichun, and I bring with me my dowry,” she said solemnly.
“Oh?” Madam Li asked skeptically, as it was obvious that the beautiful woman who was still kneeling before them was empty handed.
She told them: “I have settled here in this city for several years, but I had lived in many places previously. And in every stop, I have established a network of informants. Under my care, there are more than a hundred souls working as my eyes and ears. From them, I receive various information and news from across the continent.”
Qiong Ying’s green eyes looked directly into the Huangs. “That is what I offer,” she said and paused, allowing her words to sink in.
The Huangs sucked a deep breath, this was basically a spymaster outing herself. Huang Ming remembered Qiong Ying’s words when he had confronted her about her ‘test’: “Because this isn’t just about me.”
Then she continued, “I know many things. For example, last night Lord Fang La vented his anger on Nangong Xie and official Shen He. Lord Fang La plans to depart tomorrow back to the capital to inform his uncle Prime Minister Tong Xuan about the ‘Wei’ raid, and he was afraid that he would be punished for failing to take charge of the city’s legions away from you, General Huang Zheng.”
“How do you know this?” Huang Zheng demanded.
“One of Nangong Xie’s servant girls is indebted to me, she had overheard their meeting,” Qiong Ying answered.
It was a short statement, but one that sent warning bells ringing in those who had heard her. Qiong Ying saw that Huang Lang eyes had tightened.
“Rest assured, I did not infiltrate this house, nor had the need to. Your family servants have followed you loyally for a long time, and you have not recruited anyone new when you settled here,” she said.
Huang Lang nodded, but his eyes were still wary.
“Where is this leading to?” he asked.
“I have dire news to share. The faux ‘Wei’ raid that I proposed to Miss Sunli and carried out by her father General Zhao Tong...” here Qiong Ying motioned to the guardswoman who nodded in acknowledgement, “…was in fact a prelude to an imminent and very real attack by Wei.”
“What?!” Huang Zheng and Huang Ke chorused.
“Even as we speak, General Ran of Wei is submitting plans to his king to launch an invasion on our country to take advantage of the growing unrest caused by Prime Minister Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao Fang,” Qiong Ying said gravely.
“Is this for certain?” Huang Zheng exclaimed.
“I had ulterior motives when I suggested using Wei disguises for the ‘raid’. One was to frighten Lord Fang La, and the other was to have him return to the capital and report it. Thus, the fake attack becomes a real warning,” Qiong Ying explained.
Huang Ming arched an eyebrow at this, realizing just how deep this woman really was.
‘What have I gotten myself into?’ he thought, not for the first time.
While he was playing and fumbling,
In the distance, a storm is rumbling.