He’s back! Huo Qu Bing goes off to war for the first time and makes a huge mark on the battlefield. But when he returns to Chang An, will things remain the way he left it with Yu Er? Timing really is everything, but true love sometimes can’t be stopped. Remember Jin Yu’s first meeting with her two guys in the desert? It was Xiao Hu that left her heart aflutter, and it was Xiao Huo that she looked for and was hoping to see at the other end of the corridor at the Shi Estate. But their paths missed each other, and Jiu Ye was the one Yu Er let into her heart because there was a void there he filled with his kindness and care for her. If he accepted her then the story ends right here, but he didn’t, so does that mean Xiao Huo and Yu Er get another chance? Or will she stubbornly cling to her feelings for Jiu Ye like those Lover’s Vines? She is a stubborn girl, but I have an inkling that Xiao Huo is even more stubborn than she is.
Chapter 12: Invitation
The Fall arrives and the Han’s battle with the Xiong Nu ends. Even though the army commanded by the Great General Wei captured or killed tens of thousands of Xiong Nu, one of his subordinates the General Zhao Xin met the army led by the Shan Yu himself in battle, and somehow Yi Zhi Xie was able to convince Zhao Xin to switch sides.
When the news reaches Chang Ah, Emperor Wu of Han orders Zhao Xin’s entire family and estate to be killed. When the special army arrives, they discover Zhao Xin’s two young sons have somehow vanished. The Emperor is livid, until another new arrives that makes him thrilled, Huo Qu Bing, in an attitude like he doesn’t care and refusing to follow battle protocol, privately leads 800 of his hot-blooded Yu Lin Army soldiers into battle against direct orders to stay put.
He succeeds in sneaking onto the Xiong Nu army base, and he manages to kill the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, and a bevy of officials ranking from the Shan Yu’s grandfather’s generation. His troops captures the Shan Yu’s uncle Luo Gu Bi and kills two thousand and twenty eight soldiers. Huo Qu Bing’s private attack expedition emerged victorious despite having smaller numbers, and he personally managed to capture or kill four of the top officials in the Xiong Nu.
At a time when both sides suffered tremendous losses, and a Han general switches sides to the Xiong Nu, Huo Qu Bing’s prowess on the battlefield and his success only appears even more stunning. The Emperor crowns him as a Grand Duke and gives him wealth to equal over a thousand households. For the Great General Wei who commanded this entire army, battling to a draw with the Xiong Nu in this tussle, the Emperor does not cast blame or reward.
When I hear about all this, it makes me even more confused. If Yi Zhi Xie can somehow smuggle Zhao Xin’s two young sons out of Chang An under the Emperor’s nose, then he can kill me anytime, why even hire assassins?
Huo Qu Bing dumbly stares into Yi Ping Ju. From top to bottom, all three floors are filled with beautiful young girls, chattering away and lively. His face is somber while I stand next to him and giggle.
He sudden turns and jumps back into the carriage and pulls me inside while I holler “Hey, hey, Grand Duke, you are supposed to be treating me to a meal at Yi Ping Ju.”
He huffs in annoyance “I wanted to treat you, not every single girl in your dancing houses.”
I laughed “I always wanted to have the girls gather for a meal to strength their ties. But if the meal is too cheap people will laugh at me, but if the meal is too expensive my wallet will hurt. Since you agreed to treat, I thought why not invite all the girls, so I had Yi Ping Ju help organize it. Why are you so stingy? You went out for a twirl and came back a Grand Duke. Treating a few hundred of us to a meal is something you can easily afford.”
“Went out for a twirl? What an interesting way to downplay it. Next time you join me for the twirl and I’ll split everything I’m rewarded with you in half” he says as he continues to stare at me.
I avert his eyes and look outside with a smile “Where are we going? Knowing we were going out to eat, I purposely didn’t eat much for lunch. And even though we are not eating at Yi Ping Ju, you still have to pay that bill.”
He has a small smile and quietly sits there looking at me, not saying he’ll pay for it or not pay for it. After being apart for over a month, he appears the same as before, yet he appears to have changed as well. My heart feels this indescribable confusion. I subconsciously shrink back into my seat and press myself into the seat back.
When the carriage stops, he jumps off with an elegant flourish, turning around to assist me. I laugh and raise my chin, pushing his hand away. I push off the seat and with a kick on the roof, somersault out of the carriage. I turn in the air, my skirts swirling, and land with a flourish in front of him. I look at him with a pleased expression and he smiles back “You’re so competitive, but that was very pretty.”
The driver left and I looked around at the surroundings. We were in a quiet lane with tall walls on both sides. I suspiciously asked “Where is this place? What are you planning?”
He replied “Climb the wall and go inside.” I stared wide eyed at him “Looking at the height of this wall, this is no ordinary estate. It’s alright if I get captured, but you’re a Grand Duke now.” He countered “Then it’ll depend on how good you are. With the wall this high, I can’t climb over without some assistance.”
Feeling curious, and a bit playful, plus some excitement, I still acted all annoyed in front of him”What bad luck, having to go through so much trouble just for a meal.” My hands went to the silk sash I normally wore around my waist, which had gold balls attached to one end. It looks decorative, but has another purpose. My hand flew forward and the sash cut a golden streak in the air, twisting around to catch a branch on the other side the wall.
Huo Qu Bing used the sash and climbed two steps before he flipped himself and landed on the tree. I did as well, and took the sash off the branch and put it around my wrist. My hand held another branch as I stood up and looked around the yard.
He muffled his laughter “I had thought you enjoyed being a thief.”
I replied “No one in Chang An would dare have ideas when it comes to these rich and powerful people. I’m not going to worry about my insignificant life and just have fun now. If something happens, I’ll just say you ordered me. And if you were captured, that would be even more amusing.”
Just as I jump off the tree with Huo Qu Bing, a few large black dogs immediately charge us. I throw my sash at their heads, hoping to knock them out with the gold balls. Huo Qu Bing grabs me from behind and pulls me into his embrace. With one arm around my waist, his other arm pulls the sash and decrease the strength of the gold balls.
Before I could think clearly, the dogs have arrived at our feet, all of them twirling around our legs and wagging their tails at Huo Qu Bing. I angrily asked “Don’t tell me this is your own estate.”
His arm around my waist doesn’t loosen, and instead he presses up close to me, resting his chin on the top of my head. He murmured in a low voice “Unfortunately, you have guessed correctly.”
I struggle to free myself, but before I can get free, the soft warmth of his breath grazes my skin, making it tingly. His body has a male fresh scent completely different than a woman’s smell of lotions and makeup. He’s like the oak tree and sunlight. His smell so near my nose makes me feel like I almost can’t breath. My body feels weak and my head is a little cloudy, leaving me unable to think of what move I wanted to make.
In my nervousness I thought about just throwing the gold balls at his head to free myself, but then I worried that I might bash his head in. Before I can decide, he suddenly releases me like nothing just happened. He pulls my hand so that we kneel down before the dogs as he talks to them “Get familiar with this smell, so you guys don’t accidentally hurt my person.”
I have no choice but to allow the dogs to sniff me all around, while I scoff “It’s just a few dogs, what a joke! How dare you look down on us wolves.”
He patted their heads “If I wasn’t here, they would have attacked you the moment your feet touched the ground, and called for their companions. Isn’t attacking in large numbers one of your wolf tricks? And don’t forget about the people who would have swiftly followed.”
I give a humph and toss off his hand “Why would I ever have a reason to sneak into your estate. There will never be a reason for me to tussle with them.”
He gives a whistle and the dogs run off. He stands up and brushes his hands clean and looks at me with a smile and teases “It looks like you enjoy jumping over walls and onto roofs. Who knows if one day you will miss me and come here to see me. So I’m taking you here to familiarize you with the route. In case you alert people, and with your thin skin, you may be afraid to come back again.”
My face is red and I tie the sash around my waist “Where is the front door? I’m leaving.”
He ignored me and walked ahead “I brought back a royal chef from the Ruo Yi kingdom, a master at roasting meat. A sheep from the plains who has been running from the Spring until the Fall, with meat that is perfectly tender. Paired with side dishes from other Xi Yu territories, eating the meat when it’s fresh of the pit, that taste is so good it’s impossible to describe.”
I swallowed and my feet started to follow him. The Han people don’t eat roast meats, preferring to braise. When I get desperate I would start a fire and roast my own meat, but my culinary skill is so that only the wolves likely find acceptable.
I kneel before the fire pit, with my hands propping up my chin, staring at the chef. A boy no older than sixteen, whether it’s the fire or my staring, his face gets redder and redder.
Huo Qu Bing pulls me off the ground in one fell swoop “If you keep staring, we’ll be eating minced meat.” I take a deep sniff of the air and reluctantly follow him back to the table.
The chef brings the meat to the table and I immediately shove a big piece in my mouth. After eating a few pieces, Huo Qu Bing asks me “While I was away, what did you do in Chang An?”
“Not much, just running the business. Oh wait, I went into the Palace and met the Emperor……”
Before I finished talking, he hit me on the head and growled “What insanity possessed you to enter the Palace to meet the Emperor?”
I hold my head and glare at him “Who says you can tell me what to do? I can do whatever I want!”
He glared at me back for a few moments before asking “Did that hurt your head?”
My eyes widen “Why don’t you let me hit you on your head and you can see!”
Who knew he would actually stick his head out in front of me. I laughingly push his head away “If I hit it, my hand would hurt more!”
His face is solemn and he asks he “What did the Emperor say?”
I cocked my head and thought ” Complimented me a bit, for my sudden appearance and scaring away the desert thieves. He rewarded me a few items, and with a smile told me I can go visit Consort Li in the Palace in the future to keep her company.”
“What was your impression of the Emperor?” I thought a bit and shook my head, so he said “What’s with the head shaking? You don’t have any impression?”
I respond “That’s not possible, especially for such a person! It’s just too complicated that I can’t explain. His age is around 37 years old but he looks like he’s barely 30. His eyes make him seem like he’s 40, but his energy is like a 20 year old. He was very warm in speaking to me, but I know that is just one of thousands of ways he can talk to people. There is a complicated nature within him. He doesn’t care about position and background, not caring about Consort Li’s low birth, so he was very considerate towards me. But he still resides higher than anyone, and no one dares to offend him. I was kneeling the entire time.”
He coldly huffed “You could have been outside (the Palace), but you deliberately chose to go inside and kneel. Serves you right!”
I can see he’s not happy so I reassure her “Don’t worry, Consort Li was besides me the entire time.”
He shook his head “One can get bored looking at peonies and want to pluck some dog tail grass to play with one of these days.”
I angrily laugh “So I’m a dog tail grass, that would make you…..” I don’t finish my sentence.
“Make me what? What am I?”
I humphed at him and ignored him to eat my meat. My mind was filled with images of Li Yan smiling at the Emperor that day. The Emperor and the Princess already knew I was friends with Huo Qu Bing, but it was the first time Li Yan has heard of this. When she heard this, I can see that underneath her smiling face is concern and worry.
Huo Qu Bing asked “What are you thinking about” and I quickly answer “Li Yan” to avoid him asking more.
I finish eating and wash my hands in the water, wiping it with a cloth. I think back to how the scholar officials have been discussing how Ning Che suggested to the Great General Wei to give a portion of his reward from the battle to Consort Li. When the Emperor heard of this, he gave Ning Che a higher position, which show how much he care for Consort Li.
I softly say “Having the Great General Wei give a portion of his reward to Consort Li is not her desire, it’s due to people wanting to remain in the Emperor’s good graces.” He coldly laughed “Do I care about that money? I despise Ning Che for suggesting that the Great General’s successes are solely for the Empress. Perhaps early on it was because of my aunt that my uncle was greatly used. But over the years, his multiple successful expeditions to the Xiong Nu was earned by himself. But those scholars refuse to give us any credit. Xi Ma Qian called me ill-mannered and rude, but when I see these useless scholars, I honestly don’t know what to say to them other than look at the sky.”
I see his exasperation and laugh “So there are people who leave you annoyed. I thought you weren’t scared of anyone. Who cares what they say? Those scholars have no power so they can talk more freely in front of the Emperor. But the Great General holds all the army control in the Empire, so he has to be extra careful when speaking to the Emperor.”
He sighed and didn’t answer. Seeing his furrowed brows, I felt bad and tugged on his sleeve. I tease “Xi Ma Qian is a mild-mannered gentleman. Your behavior really doesn’t merit that he compliment you.”
He looked at my hand “Why are you all touchy feely with me, that is not the behavior of a gently bred lady. But…..” and he tried to grab my hand “I like it.”
I angrily slap his hand away and he withdraws it with a smile. But his eyes are bright and his face is alive, which makes me relieved, and I smile back at him.
We haven’t see anyone but we hear their footsteps first. A voice says “What fragrant roast meat, the traditional Xi Yu roasting method. Qu Bing sure knows how to enjoy himself.” I quickly stand up but he shakes his head “Don’t worry, it’s my uncle.”
I knew I shouldn’t have come and angrily ask “Your uncle? General Wei and the Emperor are also your uncles. Which one is this? General Gong Xun He?”
Huo Qu Bing nodded and stood up to welcome them as Gong Xun He and Gong Xun Aou walk in. When they see me behind Huo Qu Bing, a look of shock passes through their faces but it was so quickly it barely registered. I knew how crafty they are.
When I returned home that night, I wasn’t terribly happy or sad. I didn’t want to let random people affect my mood, though I was a bit more alert inside.
When Gong Xun He saw the way I held my knife and cut my head, he looked flabbergasted and asked me if I lived with the Xiong Nu before. I was so nervous that I lied that I didn’t. Gong Xun He was himself a Xiong Nu person, so he immediately recognized how I held the knife. He didn’t ask any further but it was clear he knew I lied to him. His eyed me coldly after that. I wished I had casually answered that I lived there with the nomads on the plains. But my hesitation to reveal the truth will only make Gong Xun He suspect me. And Gong Xun Aou seems to dislike me even more, ignoring me the entire time.
Huo Qu Bing can sense their attitude but doesn’t say anything. He was even more solicitous towards me. He took my knife and personally cut the meat before placing it before me. In the past, Huo Qu Bing has only been served by others, he has never served another. Gong Xun He and Gong Xun Aou are both stunned. When the arrogant Gong Xun Aou saw the way Huo Qu Bing treated me, he had no choice but to hide his dislike and treat me with more courtesy.
These past few days, when meal time arrives, I remember the delicious roasted lamb and that talented chef. The food on the table before me pales and looks tasteless. If Huo Qu Bing knew that, after I ate his delicious food, I was so greedy that I’ve been plotting ways to steal his chef, he’ll probably call me a ravenous greedy little wolf.
I was still daydreaming about my food when a girl comes in crying “Madam, please come, third master Li has arrived to tear down our dancing house. I couldn’t stop him and he ripped my dress.”
I laugh and tell her to wipe her nose “Don’t cry, I’ll buy you a new outfit.” She sniffled and asked to pick out her color and I say fine, asking her to explain about what happened. She got scared “We don’t know either. Normally third master Li is gentle and refined, always polite to everyone. We always enjoy his visits. But today he stormed inside and demanded to see Hong Gu, and then started throwing things left and right. We tried to stop him but he pushed us aside. He looked like he wanted to punch someone so we all ran away. He’s probably still throwing things right now.”
Hong Gu, looking ragged, walks in and I laugh at her. She huffs at me “Laugh all you want, if he keeps destroying things, we’ll all be out on the street tonight.” I run outside after her “Don’t be upset. If he wants to throw a fit, we can’t stop him. He has martial arts and we can’t win in a fight. Let him throw things until he gets tired and stops.” I hand her a mirror and she yelps when she sees the state of her disarray.
She wails “I have never been so mistreated as today. Letting a young man yell and rail at me, calling me an evil cruel witch. He asked about the handkerchief and I told her that the owner of this dancing house did investigate and told me which girl the handkerchief belonged to. He demanded to see you but I can see the rage in his eyes so I lied that you went out. Did Li Gan find out the handkerchief belonged to Li Yan? How did he find out? I thought this was only between you and me? And didn’t you burn that handkerchief already?”
“I don’t know” as I lied to Hong Gu and fixed her hair. “From now on, you need to forget about the handkerchief and pretend it never happened. Never mention it again.” She quieted and answered “I’ve already forgotten.”
A maid come in bearing hot water and looking worried “Third master Li is still throwing things!” I laugh and tell Hong Gu not to worry “Whatever he destroys, I’ll make him pay for it.” She looked alarmed “How do you dare ask him? If he saw you, he’d probably toss you instead.”
I laugh “Why would I ask him? A son’s mistake is for a father to rectify. I’ll ask General Li Guang, an honorable man, who would pay for it. If we deliver the bill to his estate, how could he not pay us?”
She thought for a moment and smiled “Li Gan’s two older brothers have already died young and General Li Guang was so saddened by it. Li Gan is especially filial towards his father and has never dared disobey his father. If General Li heard about this, no matter how angry Li Gan is, he won’t dare come again to cause a scene. Yu Er, you are so smart!”
I handed a lipstick to her “Just tally a list of the broken items and give it to me later.” I think to myself – Li Yan, I have no clue how you managed to fan the flames, but the fire has reached me now. So you’ll be paying for half of the broken items. General Li is a decent man and I don’t want to take advantage of him, so I’m putting this tab on you.