“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’
Chapter 84 – Opening move
Much to Huang Ming’s consternation, the latest merchant caravan to Tigertrap Fort also brought along a very cheery Qiong Ying. More accurately, ‘Quan Lu’, for the woman was in her male guise. The cosmetics and male clothing helped to conceal her gender; but the soldiers in the fort who haven’t touched a woman in weeks could not help but stare at the ‘beautiful man’ whose flawless complexion and gentle features were causing them to question their own sexual orientation.
Huang Ming tried to maintain a stony face as he dragged her away from their stares. He knew that the friends and colleagues that he had been made in the fort would no doubt be teasing him later.
“Nice to see you too,” Qiong Ying said dryly, secretly pleased at the urgency in which he had grasped her hand and pulled her away.
Huang Ming sighed. He had encountered all sorts of people before, but Qiong Ying was… unique. Perhaps it was because of her modern-like, confident nature that resonated with him in this feudal world. When she took out a foldable fan and snapped it open to fan herself, all the while with a smug-looking smile; Huang Ming could not help but feel as if he had found a kindred soul right from his original time period.
He shook his head wryly.
Qiong Ying frowned when she saw the gesture, interpreting as a slight to herself. “This is not the welcome I was expecting,” she huffed, snapping the fan shut like a quietly irate gentleman.
“What are you doing here?” Huang Ming asked instead, tempering the question with the beginnings of a smile.
“That is a question I should be asking you. You didn’t seek me out when you came back, you don’t write… It’s almost as if you’re avoiding me,” she said, arching an eyebrow upwards in accusation.
Huang Ming shrugged apologetically. Truth be told, it had somewhat slipped his mind. After the capture of the fort, he did return home for a hectic few days to pick up his things and join his father’s staff officially.
“I was busy,” he said truthfully, recalling the way his father had thrown him feet first into the ways and means of military logistics and administration, also known as ‘paperwork’. Coordinating the construction of the fort with his friends and supervising the movement of twenty thousand lives was an eye-opener to the way the military operated in this world.
“Busy with what? To the extent of not even sending a message with so many merchants coming to and fro?” Qiong Ying groused.
“I was busy searching myself for a sense of purpose,” Huang Ming replied facetiously.
Qiong Ying gave him a look, her green eyes dulling just enough to tell him that she was not impressed.
“That is one of the most clichéd things I have ever heard,” she said icily.
Huang Ming laughed. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “I was just swamped with learning the ropes under my father.”
Qiong Ying crinkled her nose cutely. “Are you sure you’re not keeping a woman here somewhere?” she sniffed.
Huang Ming did not deign to dignify her question with a response, he merely continued to look at her with quiet amusement.
Flustered by his frank gaze, Qiong Ying coughed. “Ahem. Where is Sunli?”
“Out on patrol. She will return soon.”
“Aha!” Qiong Ying said triumphantly. “You’re so intimate with her that you keep track of her movements!”
“No, I keep track of her movements because I’m the one who draws up the training and patrolling schedules,” Huang Ming informed her.
“Oh. Ah, I see…” Qiong Ying said, suitably deflated. “How are things with her?” she then asked in a quieter tone.
“She’s doing well. There were a few questions about her leadership, but she broke the noses of a few men and now they are calling her Big Sis.”
Qiong Ying rolled her eyes in exasperation. “You know what I mean. How are things between you two?”
“Awkward,” Huang Ming replied, and left it at that. It was an all-encompassing answer. Part of him thought that General Zhao Tong’s daughter would stay at Tianxin City at the Huang residence to continue to train the servants and maids there, but little Zhao Hongqi had taken up that task with gusto instead, freeing Sunli to return to Tigertrap Fort. Hongqi herself wanted to stay at Tianxin City; not that the fact that Zhang Ping was nearby to coordinate deliveries of stone and construction materials had anything to do with it.
The first taste of true military command had motivated Sunli. Having only played a bit-part role in the actual capture of Tigertrap Fort and feeling overshadowed by Huang Ming’s exploits, she frightened Huang Ke into appointing her as one of his lieutenants. The men were sceptical at first, but a few broken bones and hours of harsh but fair treatment later; they became fiercely loyal to the dusky war maiden.
She took her responsibilities seriously, impressing Huang Ke and his veterans with her dedication and hard work. It also meant that there were little contact with Huang Ming besides the occasional briefings and reports as she would be out in the field most of the time while he was mostly cooped up in the fort itself. The few times they had met in private were distilled to short and business-like greetings.
“You need to work on it,” Qiong Ying advised, being unhelpfully vague.
“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here,” Huang Ming said to change the subject.
“Since you’re being distant, I’m trying out the ‘commuting wife’ lifestyle,” she said. Then she frowned, adding, “I don’t think I like it. The roads are awful.”
Huang Ming flicked her nose gently. “No, really; what are you doing here?”
“I bring news,” Qiong Ying said as she rubbed her nose.
“What’s so important that you couldn’t just send a message?”
“The army is mobilizing.”
“So, Wei is finally on the move?” Huang Ming said. “I guess our gambit to nip their invasion in the bud by capturing this place failed…”
Qiong Ying shook her head. “No, it worked out well. Too well,” she said ruefully. “It is Marshal Gao Fang who is mobilizing. He and Prime Minister Tong Xuan have convinced the court that your success here meant that Wei is ripe for the taking.”
Huang Ming stared at her in aghast. Part of him knew that such an outcome was a possibility, but he had thought the marshal and prime minister would be busy consolidating their grasp of the capital. Then his father and General Zhao Tong and their conspirators could form a plan to oppose them. The capture and fortification of Tigertrap Pass was meant to deter Wei from robbing the house while they away putting out the fire.
“Something about taking a few cities, force Wei to give up some land that was historically Wu’s,” Qiong Ying said airily, waving her hand in the air.
“Is this for real?” Huang Ming demanded.
“Real enough that your brother Huang Lang and Muge Jian are heading to the capital,” she said.
“They are going to meet with some loyalists to make some plans. Your father will be too busy, after all.”
“What do you mean?” Huang Ming asked.
“Marshal Gao Fang is commanding the attack on Wei personally. He’s bringing a hundred thousand men here, and your father will be appointed as the vanguards to lead the charge.”
Huang Ming could imagine what the good marshal had planned for his father, and he did not like it.
A plot against his father,
To be used as mere fodder.