“The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume; but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.”
--Sir Humphrey Appleby, ‘Yes Minister’
Chapter 107 – They meet
It was only midday but a grand luncheon was immediately held. Soon the main hall of the residence was filled with members of the Li clan. Huang Ming could see that the Li clan was prosperous indeed; all of them were dressed richly.
Yet despite their showy clothes, the Li clan was jovial and boisterous as any common, closely-knit family. They were neither solemn nor restrained, it was plain to see that they were honest merchants who loved to talk shop and mingle around.
Uncle Li Hong had Huang Ming, ‘Quan Lu’ and Sunli seated in the first table as guests of honor. Their lunch was constantly interrupted by newly arrivals to toast them and in Huang Ming’s case, to give him a hearty clap on the back.
Throughout the meal, Huang Ming could see that both Sunli and Qiong Ying had garnered their share of admirers. In fact, there were times that he felt that their popularity had overshone his. Huang Ming was still a familiar figure among his relatives despite the original’s murky reputation.
But in Sunli and ‘Quan Lu’ were two new and unknown to them. Quan Lu was seen as a mysterious young man whose aura exudes confidence and likeability. Of course, the extremely attractive features of Qiong Ying’s male disguise was quite compelling to say the least. So much so that Qiong Ying was having a hard trying to maintain her smile as she began to accumulate a following of hot and bothered women... young and old.
Sunli did not fare better. Her short hair and tanned, athletic body oozed exotic appeal. The glare in her eyes did not deter her admirers. The young and impressionable women of the Li clan gazed upon her fervently like some sort of role model, having already known of her battlefield exploits from story-tellers and rumours that were circulating throughout the kingdom.
The buzz created by their presence went beyond the Li residence. The Li clan was quite large, and of course this meant a large network of acquaintances. Daughters-in-laws and son-in-laws would inform their spouse who in turn would spread to their own extended family. What was supposed to be a private luncheon became a grand feast as friends and relatives who ‘so happened to be passing by’ came to visit. Oh? You have guests? Oh my, is that the famous ‘rising strategist’ Huang Ming and his amazing friends? Let us say hello!
Being part of a merchant clan, Uncle Li Hong could hardly turn these people away. They were among the rich and famous of the capital, and while Li Hong was kindly disposed towards his nephew; it didn’t mean that he was beyond using Huang Ming like some glorified neon advertising sign for the various businesses of the Li clan.
“Uncle, if this goes on then I’m going to have to charge endorsement fees,” Huang Ming muttered discontentedly.
Li Hong smirked, but eventually the doors of the Li clan were closed to the disappointment of the busybodies. The banquet then proceeded and ended normally a few hours later, much to the relief of Huang Ming, Qiong Ying and Sunli. Then they were shown to their rooms to rest, but Huang Ming was pulled aside for a private chat.
“Your elder brother is missing,” were not the words Huang Ming wanted to hear out of Li Hong’s mouth, which was why his immediate response was to stare at his uncle incredulously.
“What?” he asked numbly.
“I said Ah Lang is missing,” Li Hong repeated agitatedly.
It took all of Huang Ming’s self control not to explode. Instead he closed his eyes and took several deep breaths to compose himself.
“What happened?” he asked quietly a few moments later.
The older man wrung his hands in guilt, all signs of merriment that were previously on his face completely erased. “I don’t know,” Li Hong said in distress. “He had been staying here for the past few weeks, checking up on your family’s various holdings in the capital. He and that fellow Muge Jian often gallivant into the late hours and I thought nothing of it. But they did not return for the past two days, and nobody knows where they had went.”
Huang Ming clapped a hand over his own mouth as a sickening feeling welled within him.
Li Hong saw his worry tried to comfort him, saying, “I have told others that they had went away for a trip. Maybe they really did, you know how Ah Lang is.”
Huang Ming managed to smile wanly, knowing that his uncle had no idea about Huang Lang’s covert investigation. “Maybe. Maybe you’re right,” he said unconvincingly.
Before he could properly digest the information and form a coherent train of thought, a servant ran breathlessly to announce the arrival of a visitor.
Li Hong frowned. “I told you that we’re not receiving any more visitors!” he rebuked.
The servant bowed profusely. “But sir, it’s… it’s the Prime Minister!”
Li Hong gave Huang Ming a look of dismay before hastening to greet the visitor. Huang Ming followed, taking more deep breaths to calm his nerves as he walked.
An imposing platoon of guards marched into the residence, escorting a tall and dignified middle-aged man with a long beard and dressed in the red robes of a high ranking government official.
‘So this is Tong Xuan,’ Huang Ming thought dispassionately. Marshal Gao Fang was obese despite his martial title, and Tong Xuan seemed to be his polar opposite: tall, stately like an grand old tree and with all the bearings of a statesman. But beneath the veneer of civility, Huang Ming knew that the Prime Minister was just as vicious and voracious as befitting his moniker as the ‘Heavenly Hound’. There were some who would hate being called a dog, but the Prime Minister looked to be someone who took it all in stride.
“The Prime Minister honours my clan with his visit,” Li Hong said with a bow. Huang Ming had no choice but to follow suit, despite his distaste.
“Haha, dispense with the ceremony,” Tong Xuan said with a oratory voice. It was obvious that he was someone who could use his voice to project his force of will in court. “I have heard that our newest hero the strategist Huang Ming have arrived at your home, and I could not bear waiting to see him,” he continued as he stroked his long beard.
Huang Ming smiled with false friendliness, his brother’s disappearance still on his mind.
“I am still young and inexperienced,” he said.
“Nonsense,” Tong Xuan refuted with a smile. “Your glorious deeds have thundered in the royal court, even the King is looking forward to see you. He very much wants to hear about your tricks and traps that had confounded the Wei devils.”
“I am grateful,” Huang Ming replied. “But after all, I’m from a defeated army, part of a ill-fated campaign. I do not deserve such praise. Indeed, I must bear some responsibility for failing to achieve the king’s goals.”
Tong Xuan’s smile did not disappear at the mentions of ‘responsibility’ and the ‘ill-fated campaign’, stinging reminders that he himself had some part in orchestrating it. Indeed, his smile only grew broader.
“So humble despite your talents! I see that you are one who would go very far,” he said genially as he stroked his beard.
But Huang Ming saw how Tong Xuan’s eyes had narrowed.
“I still have much to learn, especially from someone as esteemed as the Prime Minister. You are after all, much more experienced,” Huang Ming said and smiled back fearlessly at him.
Even though the two were speaking amicably and praising each other, Li Hong went white.
It was truly a case of hiding daggers behind smiles!