“Shields up! Alright, now we’ve given them something else to shoot at.”
--Captain Hikaru Sulu
Chapter Ten - Combi-Play
At this point in time, Liu Xiang was full of regrets. He had called out Huang Ming in a big way, and now he was the one with egg on his face. However, Liu Xiang was a straightforward man. After all, it was his honesty and directness that earned the loyalty of the soldiers who followed him.
“Huang Ming, if what you said is true, then I apologize. I admit my mistake, I was too hasty,” he said without hesitation.
Huang Ming admired his frankness. Now he knew why his brother was so insistent in taking quick action to recruit Liu Xiang. He was quick to anger and yet forthright when admitting faults. He was the sort of person who would feel indebted to someone who had helped him. Had Governor Cao Yuan been able to promote him, Liu Xiang would be filled with gratitude and would serve him out of sheer principle.
The tensions had ebbed. The spectators were entertained by what had happened. Hearing Huang Ming’s tale and seeing his composure made them look at him in a new light.
“Ha! Don’t think too much about it, brother Liu Xiang! If all goes well, we will be as one family!” Huang Ming said and laughed heartily. He bowed and saluted Liu Xiang as befitting of a junior.
Liu Xiang smiled awkwardly. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea what to do now...” he said sheepishly.
“My brother Huang Lang is in this very restaurant, we can talk further inside. Actually we were discussing about Huang Ke’s love when we heard you call me out,” Huang Ming replied and pointed up to the balcony, and Huang Lang bowed slightly in acknowledgement. He beckoned for them to join him.
Liu Xiang’s face changed colour. Already ashamed at his own rash behaviour, he now knew just how close he had been to courting disaster. It was one thing to beat up a wastrel; it would be another to do it right under the eyes of the wastrel’s feared and respected older brother.
As such, Liu Xiang could not find the words to refuse the invitation; he went into the Floating Cloud restaurant together with Huang Ming.
The show was over, the crowd dispersed and traffic resumed. Huang Ming leisurely lead the way to the third floor. Now the whispers and gossip that floated to his ears were words of praise for his honesty and bravery in confronting Liu Xiang. As a result, Huang Ming was smiling as they approached Huang Lang’s table. A bottle of wine had replaced the pot of tea.
Liu Xiang was considerably surprised to be introduced to Muge Jian the Masking Sword. As a man versed in martial matters, Liu Xiang had of course heard of his fame.
After suitable pleasantries and toasts of wine were exchanged, the men settled down with Liu Xiang being pressured to take the guest seat of honour, facing Huang Lang who acted as the host.
“Liu Xiang, before you say anything else; know that I do not hold anything against you. What you did was to stand up for your sister. It was understandable, even admirable,” Huang Lang said immediately.
Liu Xiang broke into a smile. “I heard you were not one to mince words, and now I see it is true. You have my sincerest apologies, and I thank you for your kind consideration.”
“You should be more careful in the future, Liu Xiang. Do you remember the person who told you about those rumours of your sister?” Huang Lang asked.
Liu Xiang frowned as he recalled the events of the day. He had just settled his returning men into the barracks when he overheard snickering from some passing citizens. At first he had thought nothing of it; there were always the odd few who looked down upon the military profession. But he couldn’t contain his rage when his sister was mentioned. He had demanded the rumourmonger to cough up the story, and then in his red haze of anger he had rode off to confront Huang Ming.
“I don’t know the person,” Liu Xiang confessed, “I had never seen him before.”
“Think carefully, what did he look like? Any distinguishing features?”
“He had an image of a rat, with long moustache,” Liu Xiang said, gesturing two lines from his lips to demonstrate, giving Huang Ming the impression of a Fu Manchu character back on Earth.
Huang Lang took a deep breath and nodded. “I fear you may have been misled.”
Liu Xiang was startled. “What do you mean?” he asked in alarm.
“The person you described seems to be a servant of Cao Shuang,” Huang Lang said grimly. Huang Ming and Muge Jian did not need to pretend to be surprised, they were genuinely so. Apparently, shifting blame to someone else runs in the Huang family. Huang Lang had admitted to spreading the rumours to lure Liu Xiang here, and now he’s slandering Cao Shuang for it.
Huang Ming admired his elder brother’s method of muddying the waters.
“Cao Shuang? But why? I have no quarrel with the governor’s son,” Liu Xiang exclaimed.
“That you know of,” Huang Lang said with a faint smile.
“Please explain,” the Iron Tiger said seriously as lines of worry creased his face.
“It is simple. The governor’s son covets your military authority, he wants to take command of the legions,” Huang Lang replied.
Liu Xiang was annoyed. “That fathead? He has never marched a single step in his miserable life! What makes him think that he can be a military officer?” he demanded.
Huang Lang gestured for him to quiet down. “Lower your voice! There are people with ill intentions around,” he warned, much to Muge Jian’s private amusement. Little did Liu Xiang know that those very people were right there sharing a table with him.
Liu Xiang gritted his teeth.
“Perhaps you have heard of the troubles in the capital?” Huang Lang asked cautiously.
The Iron Tiger nodded for him to continue as his surprise becoming greater and more evident on his face.
“Then surely you know the connection. Governor Cao was appointed by Marshal Gao Fang, and now the marshal is in league with Prime Minister Tong Xuan. In order to consolidate their hold on the country, they would put their own creatures in charge of the military to prevent dissent,” Huang Lang said urgently.
It took all of Liu Xiang’s patience not to slam the table in disgust. The Huang brothers could see his fist tightly balled with emotions, and quickly exchanged looks.
“Just before you arrived, Cao Shuang was actually right here and was slandering against our father. It is obvious that he hopes to trump up ill-feelings between us and give the governor the excuse to usurp military. Our father the general and Huang Ke will be accused of incompetence, while you will be ridiculed for the quarrel with Huang Ming,” Huang Lang said.
“Brother Liu, if you recall the situation regarding your sister, the scheme to take her to my home came from Nangong Xie, and he is also one of Cao Shuang’s confidants,” Huang Ming added, pouring oil into the fire.
“I don’t mind it if Governor Cao wants me to step down, but to involve my sister in such an underhanded scheme is unforgivable!” Liu Xiang growled.
“If you ever want your problem to disappear, let me know,” Muge Jian said quietly with a cold smile. He had been silent all these while, and just one statement from him was enough to turn the tense atmosphere chilly. It was like a splash of cold water that doused out the flames of Liu Xiang’s rage. After all, the Masking Sword had just casually suggested the assassination of the governor’s son.
Huang Lang gave Muge Jian a look, and his friend duly withdrew his chilling aura.
“Well, the upside of this is that I finally get to reveal brother Ke’s secret love after all this time. I’m tired of trying to help him from the shadows,” Huang Ming said brightly to change the mood.
Liu Xiang smiled as he was reminded of his sister. Her tomboyish manner was a concern for the family; the parents had been vocal about finding her a suitable husband who could keep up with her temperament.
“I take it that you’re agreeable to a match between your sister and Huang Ke?” Huang Lang asked.
“As her brother I have no objections. I hold Huang Ke in esteem as a fellow legion commander. But of course, it is still up to my parents,” Liu Xiang replied.
Huang Lang nodded. “Of course. Not to mention that my father and Huang Ke are away at the moment. This can be settled officially when they return.”
Huang Ming smiled; he knew his task was all but complete. He knew there was a flaw in all this drama, there was a chance that Liu Yuchun might say something. But she did not know the truth behind Nangong Xie and Huang Ming saw no reason for Liu Yuchun to endanger the whole enterprise. Besides, he had the impression that she quite liked his brother when they had met.
“Cao Shuang is not one who would give up after a setback; he will surely take some action soon,” he said as a warning.
“Indeed, the Caos might even send gifts so as to keep you appeased now that their schemes have been wrecked,” Huang Lang added.
“Rest assured, after today I will be on my guard,” Liu Xiang replied.
The two Huang brothers smiled and nodded in approval.
Once again, Muge Jian marvelled at the brothers who were working in tandem. Such glib people! He wondered who influenced the other. Now even if the Caos want to make amends, Liu Xiang would still eye their efforts with suspicion.
Two brothers scheme and plot,
Their foe’s malice come to naught.
After a few cups of wine, Liu Xiang departed for home. Before he left, Huang Lang again stressed to him the importance of being discreet and careful.
Muge Jian shook his head as Liu Xiang rode off.
“What a tangled web you two are weaving,” Muge Jian cackled.
“It is for his own good. If he follows Cao Yuan and submits to Gao Fang, an honest man like Liu Xiang will have a miserable end,” Huang Lang replied.
“So, does this satisfy you, dear brother?” Huang Ming drawled.
“You did very well,” his brother admitted, “But the matter with Ah Ke and Liu Yuchun...”
“That’s your responsibility as you promised,” Huang Ming smirked. Seeing the annoyed look on his brother’s face, Huang Ming threatened, “What, not happy? You want me to find you a wife too?”
Huang Lang shook his head and smiled, realizing that his younger brother had indeed changed.