The title for this chapter of Da Mo Yao is the ancient name for football (i.e. soccer for those in the States). One of the legends about Huo Qu Bing was that he loved playing football and forced his army to dig football fields and play with him. Tong Hua actually manages to explain away a lot of the historical tales about Huo Qu Bing in her version of his life in Da Mo Yao. She explains why he did certain things aside from acting like a spoiled entitled brat, and how it fit into his character and personality. I love seeing Yu Er and Qu Bing bonding and talking, really digging deep into who the other person is and what they care about. It’s not just loving the other person, it’s trying to understand each other so they can forge a life together. We get a final bit of reprieve before the action moves back to Chang An, and maybe a rollicking game of football is exactly what they need to unwind.
Chapter 23: Football
“What are you thinking about?” Huo Qu Bing tenderly asked. I pulled back my gaze and lowered the carriage curtain, turning back to smile at him “I’m going to miss Brother Wolf.” Huo Qu Bing held my hand “We do need to thank Brother Wolf for getting us out of Qi Lian Mountains, but I feel like you’re more reluctant to return to Chang An.” I furrowed my brows but didn’t respond. He was silent for some time before saying “I also don’t want to return to Chang An.” I thought about it and realized his meaning. My heart ached for him so I laughed “You’re the only one who thinks I’m a treasure. No one will be fighting you for me.”
Huo Qu Bing smiled and then pulled me into his embrace without another word. My head rested on his knees and I wearily closed my eyes. Huo Qu Bing slightly shifted and made me more comfortable “If you’re tired just sleep awhile.” I replied “It’s stuffy to ride in a carriage. If you’re bored you can go ride a horse. You don’t need to keep me company.” He gently rubbed my forehead “How could I possibly get bored when I’m facing you. Just get some rest.” I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
Right when I’m sleeping soundly I hear Zhao Puo Nu whispering in a low voice “General.” Huo Qu Bing raised the curtain “Is there news?” I glanced at Huo Qu Bing and then quickly scrambled up. Huo Qu Bing smiled and lightly patted my back, and then turned back to Zhao Puo Nu and Chen An Kang. They were riding alongside us. When they saw us immediately separate inside the carriage, Chen An Kang smiled and looked elsewhere, but Zhao Puo Nu looked alarmed and then reported that Li Guang and Zhang Ying have made contact. Li Guang’s army barely set out before they were met with forty thousand Xiong Nu forces from the Xiong Nu’s Left Sage King.
I sucked in my breath. The Xiong Nu place the left in the highest position, so the Left Sage King commands the most elite forces behind the Shan Yu’s own forces. Li Gan is with his father, so is he alright? Huo Qu Bing glanced at me but didn’t say anything. Zhao Puo Nu explained that Li Gan refused to back down in the face of a larger force and managed to penetrate into the Xiong Nu army and single handedly kill over 200 warriors, using his bravery to urge the Han army to withstand the siege and hang on until the backup army of Zhang Ying arrived.
Li Gan held down the fort for over a day until the backup army arrived and chased the Xiong Nu forces away. Huo Qu Bing was thrilled to hear of Li Gan’s valor, though he scoffed at how slow the back up army had to be crawling along to arrive so late. Huo Qu Bing confirmed that Li Guang’s army was under siege so he couldn’t assist Huo Qu Bing, but what about Gong Xun Aou’s forces? Chen An Kang confirmed that, just as Huo Qu Bing suspected, Gong Xun Aou’s forces got lost in the desert. Huo Qu Bing laughed that his uncle is surely going to face a head ache when he gets back.
Zhao Puo Nu cheerfully suggested that this foray was to chase the Xiong Nu out of the River West area and we have succeeded at that mission. Even though General Li Guang and General Gong Xun Aou did not end up participating, the Emperor should be so pleased with Huo Qu Bing winning the Qi Lian Mountains and kicking the crap out of the Xiong Nu that he will likely not severely reprimand General Gong Xun. Huo Qu Bing has a slight smile but said nothing, only waving them off.
He sat there quietly, not sure what he was thinking about. He didn’t move for quite some time, so I shook his elbow “What are you thinking about? You earned quite an accomplishment, wondering what the Emperor will bestow upon you?” He smiled and whoosh he had me pined underneath him “I only want the Emperor to bestow marriage. To you.”
I was embarrassed and flustered and grabbed his hand which was venturing inside my robe “Didn’t you said, before we got married, we wouldnt…..” He smiled and kissed me on the lips “I said we wouldn’t do that, but I didn’t say we wouldn’t kiss, we wouldn’t hug, we wouldn’t touch.” I pushed him “There are people outside the carriage! Stop being so crazy.” He let out a long sigh and then leaned on my elbow and hollered outside “Order the army to move faster so that we can set up camp faster.” I laughed and chastised him “You’re abusing your authority.”
He leaned his head and lightly blew in my ear. If I laughed he’ll surely get more into it so I controlled myself not to laugh, keeping a straight face “What were you just thinking about?” He didn’t answer me, only lighting rubbing my ear lobes “People say that a big ear lobe is a sign of good fortune. You appear to have a lot of good fortune, and marrying me must be your biggest good fortune.”
I huffed “Nonsense! People say that a thin lip means unfaithful, which makes me afraid of marrying you.” He laughed “You still dare to argue with me?” and then he started nibbling on my ears, his tongue lightly tracing the ridges. My body turned weak and tingly, and his breathing got heavier and he got more into it. I quickly said “I know what you were thinking about earlier. You were thinking that between the Great General Wei and the Emperor, you’re stuck between them, so how are you to balance that delicate relationship.”
He stopped and caressed my cheek “You sure know how to change the subject.” I hesitated and then allowed my heartbeat to settle down “You’re not denying it, which means I’m right.” He sighed and stretched “Some things can be worried about after returning to Chang An. No reason to rush these things.” I was silent and then nodded “Right. Let’s not think of these things now. If we want to worry, we can worry after we get back to Chang An.”
He sat up straight and and rubbed my forehead, staring at me “I don’t care what you are worrying about, what you are scared about. All you need to remember is that I will be your husband, no matter what happens I will be there. In happiness or in sadness, we will face it together. In the future, it will not be you alone facing everything, but us facing things together.”
Our eyes met and my nose started to redden and my throat got all dry. I can’t say a single word, only reaching out my hand and our fingers tightly entwined with each others. From now on, I will no longer be a lone bird flying, with only me and my shadow as a companion. I have him.
The night fires in the army camp burn brightly, and all around are people laughing, crying, or fighting. Huo Qu Bing explains that to survive is a blessing, and they will surely be greatly rewarded when they return to Chang An. Being through a war and going back to greatly changed circumstances takes a while to work through all those complicated emotions.
I discuss how the military manuals I read said that army behavior must be tightly regulated in order to win battles. He lightly coughed and then tried to keep himself from laughing. I got annoyed and wanted to huff off, but he grabbed my hand “Lady wife, please don’t be mad, let your husband carefully explain this to you.” I shake off his hand “Who is your lady wife! If you continue to mock me, I don’t want to be your lady wife.” Huo Qu Bing embraced me and was about to whisper in my ear when I see Chen An Kang heading towards us so I quickly shake him off. Apparently General Li Guang is arriving to give his report.
Huo Qu Bing sees my frown and tells me I can’t hide, but I tell him to go do his official matters and I’ll go wander around. He knows I don’t want to see Li Gan so he let’s me off the hook.
I wander around and see a group of soldiers gathered around a fire tearing into a roasted rabbit. They discuss how to spend their newfound riches, and which dancing house is the best. Some complain that the girls at Luo Yu House are so high and mighty, but no one dares upset them because her highness the Consort is their staunch supporter. I sigh, realizing that Luo Yu House has clearly pissed off people without even realizing it.
As I was deep in thought, I felt someone staring at me. I look up and see Li Gan and Gong Xun Aou walking past following Huo Qu Bing. Li Gan looked at me and then a look of shock passed through his face as he recognized me. He looked at Huo Qu Bing, who just smiled back and then shook his head at me. Gong Xun Aou saw Li Gan looking at me so he also looked at me. When he recognized me, he shot me a look of disbelief, and then shot Huo Qu Bing a look of shock. I turned away and hurried into the tent. The things that will come are already arriving.
“Asleep?” Huo Qu Bing asked as he entered the darkened tent. “Not yet.” He embraced me from behind “Why are you sitting in the dark in a daze?” I was silent and when whispered “General Gong Xun Aou doesn’t seem happy to see me.”
Huo Qu Bing replied “He messed up so badly this time, normally he ought to lose his head, but lots of people in court will surely plead for him. But he will still be cast down as a commoner. Uncle (General Wei) feels greatly indebted to him for saving him from Princess Guantao years ago, so uncle will surely help him build up his accomplishments and regain his official title. But right now he’s clearly not going to be happy. And whether he’s happy or not has nothing to do with us. We should be happy for ourselves.”
I snuggled in his arms and used my fingers to count “It’s just me. But what about you? Your aunt is the Empress, one uncle is the Emperor, another uncle is a General, yet another uncle is the Great General, and your step-father is a high ranking official in court. Plus all their relatives. Even if I use all the fingers on my hands it’s not enough to count them.”
[Quick primer on the Wei siblings (who are really the Han dynasty equivalents of the Song sisters if you ask me): there are three sisters and one brother. The eldest is Wei Zhi Fu, who married Emperor Wu of Han (Liu Che) and became his Empress, next is Wei Jun Ru who married General Gong Xun Aou, next comes Wei Shao Er (Huo Qu Bing’s mother) who married a Han court official surnamed Chen (though she had Huo Qu Bing out of wedlock), and lastly there is youngest brother Wei Qing who married Princess Pingyang (the Emperor’s older sister. Whew, these Wei siblings sure can marry well.]
Huo Qu Bing tightened his arms and I yelped that it hurt, and he angrily chastised me “Why are you over thinking! I can determine my own life. I don’t listen to what others say if I don’t agree. Also, you have your wolf pack in Xi Yu. I’m afraid you’ll run back to Xi Yu if you’re unhappy. Who dares to make you even the slightest bit unhappy?”
I turned over and rested my head on his shoulder “I sense that you don’t like the politics in Chang An either. Why don’t we run away! Travel from the South to the North, from the desert to the plains, we go wherever we want. Isn’t that swell?” He was quiet for some time “Looks like Chang An really hurt you. In the past you always charged straight ahead without a care. You fought for anything, you dared to do anything. But now you want to run away, you’re even too scared to go back to Chang An.”
I felt bad so I forced a smile “I suppose I’m feeling some emotional exhaustion is all. I…..”
He covered my mouth “I didn’t mean anything by it so you don’t need to explain. Just like you said, I’m not all alone. My grandmother and my mother were born of such low status, the Wei women found it hard to even find a man to marry. My mother, my aunt, and my uncle were all born without a father. I am also born out of wedlock. If it wasn’t for my aunt (Empress Wei), I will probably carry the brand of being illegitimate and be a servant in the Princess’ Estate. Or I might be like my uncle, and if I couldn’t stand it anymore, run to my birth father’s estate and be his stable hand and be treated worse than a pig or a dog by the lady of that house.”
This is the first time Huo Qu Bing has spoken of his background. His usual arrogance is all gone, and my heart aches for him. I tightly hug his waist and he just smiles and shakes his head at me “Without aunt, even with uncle’s prowess, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to succeed. And without aunt and uncle, no matter what I wanted to accomplish, there was no way I would lead an army to war at the age of eighteen. These things, Xi Ma Qian and those scholars were right about. Yu Er, my childhood dreams are close but not yet achieved. Also, right now the Crown Prince is only eight years old and needs guidance. Uncle is around but he’s in an awkward situation. Since I was a child I’ve received the benefits from my family, and I cannot just receive and not give back. When I accomplish what I need to do, I will leave Chang An with you. And with the Emperor’s temper….” He softly sighed “In truth, history shows that the only truly wise official was Fan Li (a scholar, general, and politician in the Chu Kingdom). He was born when his country was in need, and he helped reclaim lost territory. After he exerted his great will and vision, he left it all behind and went to travel the country. He managed to create an even more legendary life afterwards. His life was more exciting than a normal person’s two lifetimes.”
I replied “I understand now. After the Xiong Nu no longer have any ability to attack the Han dynasty, then you will have fulfilled you childhood destiny. Then you will discuss other things.” Huo Qu Bing smiled and lowered his head to kiss me on the cheek “I guess this means you have to live the old adage ‘marry a dog follow a dog, marry a chicken follow a chicken.'” I coldly huffed at his “If you want to refer to yourself as a dog or a chicken, be my guest! But don’t use that comparison on me. I want to happily be my snowy moonlight beauty.”
He started laughing loudly and I hurried to shush him “Gong Xun Aou and Li Guang’s tents are nearby.” He continued to laugh and I glared at him before extinguishing the lamp. I started to make the bed and he smiled “Even though we said we would sleep apart, but I really miss you. We don’t do that….let’s just make out for a little bit.” My face turned red and I admonished him “I don’t know what you think about all day?’
Huo Qu Bing chuckled and sidled up next to me, with his nose buried in the crook of my neck and his hand on my chest, murmuring “Food, women, sex….if I don’t think about those things that would mean something is wrong with me. If I wasn’t so afraid you’d get pregnant, I really can’t……..ay….” My body melted in his embrace, and the half made bed become a jumbled mess because of us. He suddenly stopped and buried his head down, with his body all stiff. I can hear him breathing heavily, and only some moments later did his breathing become normal. He raised his head and smiled “We’re getting married the moment we reach Chang An. Otherwise all this is going to destroy me.”
I lighted rubbed his eyebrows, really hurting for him. The entire Wei family, from the Empress on down to the Great General Wei, are all illegitimate. Huo Qu Bing is also illegitimate. People wouldn’t dare insult them to their faces, but they constantly talk about them behind their backs. He acts like he doesn’t care, but as a child he surely wondered why his dad didn’t marry his mom. Why other people had a dad and he didn’t? So now he doesn’t want his own child to be subject to the same censure, so he wouldn’t have a child before getting married.
He grabbed my finger and lightly kissed it, and then immediately let me go and stood up. He walked some distance away before turning to look back at me “Yu Er, sometimes you are so mesmerizing. Seeing you like this, I finally understand why some kings would rather have the beauty over the empire.” I didn’t do anything yet he made it seem like I was seducing him. I made a face at him and immediately fixed the blankets and got under the covers, deciding to ignore him.
He looked at me and then smiled “I noticed you didn’t eat much during dinner. And we’re sleeping late tonight, so you’ll probably be hungry in the middle of the night. Shall I ask the chef to bring some roast lamb in?” I shook my head and declined, but then shared with him what I had heard around the camp. Soldiers were complaining that they didn’t have enough to eat. Didn’t the Emperor send new provisions for him? If the army rations are running out, why doesn’t he share with the army since he can’t finish it all and we’re almost back to Chang An?
He smiled and fixed my blankets and gave me a history lesson. Some of the most powerful generals of the past did indeed train their soldiers well, so well the soldiers only responded to them and not to the Emperor. But what happened to them? The Emperor killed them after they served their purpose. The Great General Wei treats all his troops well and is beloved by his soldiers, yet look at him now, the Emperor no longer trusts him.
I was silent and then replied “I understand now. Sun Zi was right, but he missed one point. He didn’t teach those victorious generals how to keep their own heads after they won the war. In history, there are plenty of victorious generals, but very few that have emerged unscathed afterwards.”
He nodded and sat down next to me “The soldiers will surely be hating me for not sharing provisions with them, which I can easily do and earn their affection and praise. But why do I want their praise? The love of the people is something that can only belong to the Emperor. Especially people like me, who wield military power, we are what the rulers must guard against. If I take the Emperor’s provisions to win the soldiers’ affection, it will only harm me down the road. Some other generals like Li Guang do share their provisions because they are kind, but they can afford to do so because they have won very few battles, so the Emperor will never worry about them. Think about it? If the Emperor hears that the soldiers love me, and with his current concern over my uncle, will I ever get another chance to lead an army?” He sighed “Because of this, even if I can’t eat all those carts full of provisions, I can only keep it for myself.”
I turned over to pick up the pillow “This whole way home you have been behaving oddly with the weirdest requests. You randomly ask soldiers to build you a football field, or go hunting with you for fun. Leisure and waste of time are perfect words to describe you. I was wondering what had gotten into you! But I thought you won those life and death battles, so whatever made you happy was fine. I didn’t realize there was a reason to your madness. Come to think of it, my arrogant and direct behavior in Chang An was truly risky, and I probably skated by with some luck.”
Huo Qu Bing took the pillow and put it down. He hesitated for awhile before saying the truth “In the latter part your behavior was pretty low key. But when you first started, your tactics were too blunt and direct. Your biggest luck was having the Shi Enterprises protecting you from the get go. If I didn’t guess wrong, the Shi Enterprises must have been secretly getting rid of your obstacles for you. Otherwise, before Li Yan gained power, your dancing house wouldn’t have been that smooth and successful. Plenty of businesses in Chang An have powerful backers, and a Princess who did not make her position clear at that time couldn’t possibly help you. Afterwards, word got out that you saved me before, which helped temper your earlier actions. The Princess, for my sake, is also willing to let some things slide with you. The reason I was so anxious to tell the Princess about my relationship with you that day was because of my worry that your behavior would upset someone out there and the Princess wouldn’t be willing to protect you. Without this, there would no way someone new to Chang An like you would rise so fast in Chang An.”
I had my back to Huo Qu Bing and was looking for the fragrance ball, but my hand unconsciously clenched into a fist. I quickly released it and with a smiled turned back to hang it up. I casually said “So this was what happened! To think I thought I did it all because of my own cleverness.”
He silently looked at me, and my heart was feeling uneven. I peeked at him but he just laughed and told me to get some rest. In the darkness, my eyes are wide open and I stare at the ceiling of the tent. The fragrance balls are hanging from the ceiling and releasing a light scent. When I return to Chang An, I will surely see him again. Does he still enjoy sitting in the bamboo pavilion, watching the pigeons take flight and land?
Huo Qu Bing is sleeping at the other side of the tent, and he asks in a low voice “Are you asleep?” I quickly shut my eyes, and in my nervousness I didn’t answer him. When I realized how oddly I was acting and wanted to respond, I realized that answering now would be even odder. I end up laying there in without saying a word. With sigh that is so soft I can barely hear it, Huo Qu Bing turned over and the tent resumed its normal silence.
I sit on the hillside looking towards the direction of Chang An. Tomorrow we’ll be back in the city. The grass behind me crunched and I turned around to see Li Gan coming up to me. He smiled and made a bow, and I returned it. I asked “General Huo has summoned everyone to play football. You’re not playing?” He walked next to me and laughed “How could I not play? I got kicked by him until I was covered in dust and dirt. If I keep playing, I’ll be incapacitated for the rest of the year. I made an excuse to take a break. How could his leg be that lucky? Everyone on his team has a permanent grin on. They’ve won so much money from the rest of us, we have no money to even buy a drink anymore.”
I stare ahead in silence so he asked “Do you miss Chang An?” I lightly nodded and he quietly said “Not me. I’d rather not go back and prefer to fight a lifetime of wars in the Northwest.” He laughed in a sad way “I know it’s never going to happen, but even my dreams are all her. I’m afraid to say anything, just keeping it in my heart. That one character “Li” appeared to have burrowed itself in my heart. Is it because I can never have her that makes this longing impossible to shake? When I was fighting the Xiong Nu, I thought that death could be an escape, and I actually fell in love with war. In the past it was for family honor and glory, but now I crave that feeling of being at the brink of life and death. Which is when I can forget her.”
I ruefully ask “An entire lifetime without being about to forget someone? Even when you try you can’t forget?” He furrowed his brows “Did I try hard to forget her? Was I trying to forget her, or trying to remember her?” I felt like we each had our own thoughts and was actually talking around each other, so I shook the thoughts from my head and smiled “Before you deployed, did she say anything to you, or mention me?”
He looked dazed and smiled “One day I was in the Palace and happened to run into her. After bowing, she said “the battlefield is danger, please be careful”. I know it was just polite language because she knew I was off to fight the Xiong Nu, but that made me so happy.” I looked at him, thinking that the encounter must’ve have been orchestrated by Li Yan to appear to be a random encounter. I ask again if she mentioned me and Li Gan said she did not.
Zhao Puo Nu came to get Li Gan “My lord Li, everyone is looking for you! General Huo said that if you’re afraid to keep losing, you can be on his team. He guarantees you’ll win all your money back and then some.” Li Gan coldly huffed “I let him win a few rounds and he thinks I’m really afraid of him! Let’s go! Don’t forget that in the past my reputation at football far exceeded my reputation at archery.”
Li Gan turned to me with a smile “You don’t want to come watch him play? He’s reknown in Chang An for being especially handsome and dashing when playing, totally different than his usual cold silent persona.” I hesitated and then shook my head “You go, everyone is waiting for you!”
On my way back to the tent, I pass by the football field. Huo Qu Bing ordered the regular soldiers not to leave their posts to watch, but there was still quite a lot of spectators gathered around. From far away I can hear the gambling, the fighting, the catcalling. I laughed. If Sun Zi saw this kind of general leading his troops and turning the army base into a gambling den, he’d probably be so pissed he’d crawl out of his grave.
I had planned to circle around, but then remembered what Li Gan said and got curious. I decided to find a quiet spot to watch, not quite sure in what way Huo Qu Bing could be even more handsome and dashing. I found a spot when someone walked up to me “The Great General Wei was a strict leader, what must he think to see this scene?” I sighed, I guess I can’t avoid it. “If General Gong Xun isn’t happy with Huo Qu Bing, then you can tell him directly. It’s no use talking to me about it.”
He smiled until his eyes crinkled together “People say that a wise wife would make a family free of peril. Even though you are just a woman who has no official title to Qu Bing, but you should still….” He wanted to keep lecturing and nagging, but a football whizzed through the air and almost hit the back of his head. He had to kick it back into the field and thus stopped nagging.
Huo Qu Bing, with a gold circlet around his hair, wearing a white robe that is embroidered with a gold dragon, stands right there. He’s tall and broad, with such a magnetic aura, like a warrior god from the Heavens. Seeing him, one who lament and wonder how this Heavenly creature fell from the skies and ended up here on earth. He had a slight smile and was giving Gong Xun Aou a goofy look “General Gong Xun, that was an accidental kick, I do apologize! Since you’re quite good, come down and play a few rounds with us” Gong Xun Aou wanted to decline but already someone was dragging him down.
Huo Qu Bing ran to my side as Gong Xun Aou was changing, whispering in a laughing voice “This round I will be on the same team as Li Gan. I promise we’ll kick Gong Xun Aou six-ways to Sunday, so he no longer has any energy to annoy us anymore.” Li Gan ran over and gave Huo Qu Bing a high five followed by a fist bump, both of them turning to look at Gong Xun Aou with an expression like a wolf spotting a bunny. I used to wonder how these two guys, with such different personalities, could be such good friends. Seeing them like this, I realized they’ve probably pulled these devilish deeds plenty of times before.
Li Gan laughed “Dear younger sister-in-law, thank goodness you came, otherwise Qu Bing this bastard would feel bad making Gong Xun Aou play.” My face turned bright red and I humphed “What nonsense are you talking about?” Li Gan innocently looked at Huo Qu Bing “Did I say something wrong?” Huo Qu Bing laughed and shook his head “Not at all. That was absolutely right.”
I shake my sleeve and move to leave but Huo Qu Bing quickly grabs me. I see the other soldiers are staring at me so I quickly stop and act all serious “Go kick your silly football and stop standing here pushing and pulling.” Huo Qu Bing quickly stepped back. Li Gan pointed at Huo Qu Bing and started guffawing, while Huo Qu Bing just coldly glared at him. Li Gan raised his hands to indicate he was sorry, but he couldn’t stop laughing. Huo Qu Bing sent a flying kick towards him, which Li Gan blocked because he was already anticipating it. He took off laughing.
Gong Xun Aou is done changing and the game begins. Huo Qu Bing turns to give me one last smile before composing himself and running back in the field. This is my first time watching football and I have no clue what the rules are. I don’t know what is good, what is bad, and I could care less who wins. I just stare at Huo Qu Bing.
He’s like the son of the wind. His movements are light and effortless, constantly changing. Sometimes its powerful and smooth like a dragon, other times gentle and airy like a crane. He’s like a priceless sword, one quick movement that no one can block, with a seamless stroke and he has destroyed his opponent yet he is still pristine white.
Under the brilliant sun, he’s so beautiful that it stuns my heart. All around us is the thunderous cheer of the spectators. But everything disappears in my ears. My world is completely silent, and in the silence there is only his form seemingly flying through the wind. In that moment, I know that in my entire life, I will never forget what I have seen today. Even when all my hair turns white and my eyes can no longer see, I will still be able to describe in vivid detail his each and every single movement.