“We have no way of knowing what lays ahead for us in the future. All we can do is use the information at hand to make the decision possible. It's gonna be fine. Your whole life is gonna be fine.”
--William Cleary, ‘Wedding Crashers’
Chapter 201 – Father and daughter
Zhao Sunli the War Goddess looked every inch the imposing Amazon, clad in her black armour as she stood quietly on a spot overlooking the army camp below. The red trimmings on the armour and the spear that was stuck into the ground beside her gave off a menacing aura. The impassive expression on her face would send chills down the spines on those who saw her. It was as if she was a Valkyrie surveying her charge below, her cold eyes scanning for faults and disciplinary infractions among her troops.
“Stop that, you’re scaring my soldiers,” a rough voice complained from behind her.
Sunli stiffened but did not turn back for she recognized the voice of her father, Zhao Tong the Thunderer. On the hand, Zhao Tong huffed and puffed as he laboriously climbed up the vantage point to join her. While he did not expect his daughter to help him up, he was still slightly disappointed that he was completely ignored.
He deliberately made his grunts louder, hoping to elicit guilt from Sunli but she was like a rock: silent, emotionless and unfeeling. When he finally stood beside her, she wordlessly shuffled to the side to make room.
“Well, good to know I’m not completely dead to you,” Zhao Tong said sarcastically.
“You’re sweaty,” Sunli replied. A small smile carved on her lips took the sting out of her words.
“Anyone would sweat climbing up here!” Zhao Tung retorted.
“I don’t sweat,” Sunli said in an even tone, the flash in her eyes warning her father not to broach further on the subject.
“You’ve changed, I never thought you’re one for mountain hikes,” Zhao Tong said instead.
“It’s cool and relaxing here,” Sunli said calmly.
Zhao Tong leered at her. “Is that it? I remembered you and Huang Ming assaulted Tigertrap Fort by jumping off a cliff. You sure you’re not reminiscing?”
He did not expect his reticent daughter to suddenly swing a punch at him, but fortunately he was still limber enough to react and narrowly avoided the blow. The veteran of a hundred battles was frightened by the killing intent behind the punch, his skin trembling by the cut of the wind.
“Are you mad, attacking your own father!” he gasped, his eyes bulging and his short beard bristling with indignation.
“There was a fly,” Sunli replied without batting an eye.
“Even if there is one, do you expect to kill it with a punch!?”
Zhao Tong stared at his daughter in disbelief. If it wasn’t for the twinkle of mischief in her eyes, he would not have discovered the humour beneath her laconic attitude.
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You have changed,” he repeated. “Ever since you ran off to Tianxin City with Little Hongqi that time, you have changed.”
“And how is Hongqi?” Sunli asked.
“She has been fending off bugs for you,” her father said.
“I will thank her later,” Sunli said softly.
Zhao Tong squinted at her. “You sure you don’t have anything going on with that General Yin? He has been sending emissaries here every week to look for you.”
A murderous aura radiated from Sunli as she glowered at him.
“Good, good,” Zhao Tong said hastily. “…Otherwise I wouldn’t have the face to look at Ol’ Huang in the eyes,” he mumbled.
The murderous aura intensified. “What?” Sunli hissed.
“Ahem. I said, they told his envoys that you are not here, but they can’t keep up the fiction forever,” Zhao Tong diverted.
“Why not?” Sunli asked icily.
“You’re not helping matters by standing here in full view for anyone who only needed to look up! You’re hiding in plain sight!” Zhao Tong said exasperatedly.
Sunli blinked. “Oh,” she muttered, as if the thought had never occurred to her at all.
“The last shipment of parts is ready. You can set off whenever you like.”
The look on Sunli’s face brightened.
Zhao Tong turned surly. “Look at you, so happy to be leaving your poor father.”
“Nothing of the sort. I just wanted to see the power of these new weapons for myself,” Sunli said, though her eyes were elsewhere.
Zhao Tong snorted. “These crossbows are powerful, but their range is too short. They are only useful for defensive purposes.”
“Which is why they are being sent to Tigertrap Fort,” Sunli reminded him.
“You had my soldiers turn into woodcutters and craftsmen to make these unfinished pieces, but I don’t even get to have one complete weapon for myself,” Zhao Tong complained.
“I’ll ask Liu Yuchun to make one personally for you,” Sunli said.
“Only one? What about the rest of my men?”
“You are stationed as a strategic reserve and away from the border, it is only logical for the front-line defences to get them first. And there are plans for your soldiers to get get better weapons than these crossbows.”
“Really? What sort of weapons?” Zhao Tong asked excitedly.
“Something that produces fire and thunder, I think.”
“Has this something to do with you telling Zhang Ping to use his mining background to search for? The poor lad have been getting an earful from Little Hongqi for returning every night covered in soot and dirt.”
“Yes. Once he has found the resources needed, you will get the new weapons soon enough.”
Zhao Tong’s unhappy countenance grew deeper. “And when would that be? The crossbows are already ready now. You haven’t ridden the sedan chair and cross the fireplate yet but you’re already favouring your in-laws,” he grumbled.
Sunli flushed. “This is a military decision, not a wedding gift!”
“What, you think sending some new-fangled crossbows are too shabby a dowry gift? Don’t worry; I your father do have some savings prepared just for you.” Zhao Tong said loudly.
“Enough!” Sunli snarled and punched Zhao Tong in the gut.
This time her father did not evade and took the punch. Sunli was more shocked that her blow landed. Her mouth fell open as she worriedly looked up at his face.
“Another mosquito?” Zhao Tong asked bemusedly, showing no ill effect from the hit.
Seeing that he was fine, Sunli regained her composure. She crossed her arms in a show of indifference, but she kept a sidelong glance on her father.
“You need to work on that temper of yours, otherwise you’ll drive your husband away,” Zhao Tong said genially.
Sunli bared her gritted teeth but otherwise did not respond to her father’s teasing.
“You shouldn’t be too hard on him,” he continued. “He pulled our fat out of the fire in Wei and did a respectable job fighting Jin in Beihai. Now the king’s seen fit to take charge of diplomacy with Chu. The young man has seen more of our continent than I have.”
He paused to study her stoic face.
“Has he ill-treated you?”
“Mmm, of course not, you’d probably break his arm. So he never made a move on you?”
“No,” Sunli answered curtly.
Zhao Tong raised an eyebrow. “Is he ‘incapable’? No, that can’t be right, how else did he lay his claws into that Lady Qiong? You mean he has never tried to, ah, force the issue?”
“He left the decision to me,” Sunli growled through gritted teeth.
“Rah haha, a true gentleman eh? What are you waiting for then? Well? You do like the boy, don’t you?”
Zhao Tong frowned. “Have you made a move on him?”
The incinerating glare from her told him the answer.
“He already has someone.”
“So? It’s common for a man to have three wives and four concubines,” Zhao Tong said dismissively.
“You never remarried,” Sunli pointed out.
“That is because I’ve never met anyone else like your mother. Had I really wanted some bedwarmers, all I needed to do is to stroke my beard and give the ladies a wink and they will jump right in,” Zhao Tong said and laughed uproariously.
Sunli rolled her eyes.
“She truly was one in a million,” Zhao Tong said wistfully, his eyes softening. Then he added, “Besides, from what I’ve heard; Lady Qiong Ying is no power-hungry, jealous harpy. Didn’t she offer to be the concubine so that you can be the main wife?”
She stared at him incredulously. “How did you-”
“I’m old, not senile. I have my ways of keeping tabs on my daughter.”
“Listen, I’m not rushing you into anything you don’t want to do. But tell me honestly, have you met anyone like him?”
“No,” she admitted.
“Well then, get on with it,” Zhao Tong said gruffly. “If you tarry too long, he will end up taking orders from Lady Qiong Ying more than from you.
Sunli grimaced, feeling wholly uncomfortable about discussing the matter with her father. Thus she merely nodded.
Zhao Tong shook his head, wishing that his wife was present to give better advice to their daughter. He slowly reached out a hand and gently stroked her face.
For the first time, Sunli noticed the the wrinkles on his hands, the visible veins and bones underneath the aged skin.
Her eyes turned moist when she saw that her father was old.
Zhao Tong gave her no time to wallow in her realization. He gently smacked her face, startling her out of her gloominess.
“Mosquito,” he said.
Sunli finally cracked a smile.
“Get going, lass; and don’t be afraid. You have weapons of your own. Use them.”
The stoic daughter,
The rough father.