“Is it time for my 10 a.m. scolding?”
--President Josiah Bartlet


Chapter Twelve - These women and their crackpot men

At the Huang main hall, the two brothers Lang and Ming had their heads bowed and their expression suitably chastened as they stood before their mother. She was seated on her imposing throne which had a tiger’s pelt draped over it.


Madam Li drummed her fingers on the armrest as she studied her two sons critically.


While at her usual morning gathering of friends, she had received well wishes and heard gossip about Huang Ke and Liu Yuchun. There were even songs about it! She could only smile stiffly and made excuses to hurry back home to summon the two brothers who were responsible.


“Why am I hearing talk about you two going out and then returning home with promises of a bride for Ah Ke?” she asked conversationally.


She could see her two sons were trembling. Privately, she was amused that she could still put fear into these two grown men. Still, she was annoyed at their meddling. How dare they take away her fun, ahem, her privilege; interfering in the love life of her sons was her prerogative!


The two brothers were tongue-tied, each urging with their eyes for the other to speak first.


Finally Huang Lang nodded and said, “Dear mother, Ah Ming saw that Ah Ke truly loved Ms. Liu, so he plotted a situation where he could bring them together.”


Huang Ming went white with horror. When he made his brother promise to take responsibility, this was not what he had imagined. He quickly pointed accusingly at his elder brother and yelled, “Ah Lang told me to do it! He said it was to help Ah Ke!”


The two brothers wrangled right there and then; it actually warmed Madam Li’s heart as her sons behaving just like little boys again. However, she had the sneaky suspicion that they were trying to divert the issue and wasting time so that the matter would be postponed.


“Enough. Don’t think you can fool me by whittling the time away. Tell me exactly what had happened,” she said coldly.


“Mother is most wise and all-knowing,” Huang Ming mumbled.


Huang Lang then explained the matter, from Marshal Gao Fang to Governor Cao Yuan, his son Cao Shuang to Nangong Xie, Nangong Xie to Huang Ming, Huang Ming to Liu Yuchun, Liu Yuchun to Liu Xiang.


Madam Li listened silently, but as the story progressed her sons could feel her oppressive aura growing. She was aware of the poor relations between her husband and the governor, but while the men were blowing hot and cold; the womenfolk of both houses still had some polite relations as they cross paths in society.


“And you two saw it fit to keep me in the dark all this time?” she demanded.


“I am sorry, mother,” Huang Lang apologized.


“Well, I didn’t know either until he told me,” Huang Ming said. He shrugged off the death stare from his elder brother.


Madam Li retrieved a letter and tossed it to her elder son. “We received an invitation from the governor for a poetry competition. Your father and the governor have been on bad terms and so I wondered why we would receive such a gesture and yet I had not heard anything from the women in their family, but now I know it’s yet another scheme,” she said.


Her sons quickly read the letter.


“Yes, it’s probably a way to capture us to be used as hostages in order to blackmail father,” Huang Lang reckoned.


“He must be truly desperate to dangle his daughter like a piece of meat,” Huang Ming smirked.


Huang Lang frowned at his choice of words. “You did the same thing to Ah Ke!” he said waspishly.


“It was you who put me in that situation,” Huang Ming reminded him.


Madam Li raised a hand to prevent another round of wrangling. “Men are all idiots, harming one’s own family,” she said dismissively.


Huang Ming was nonplussed. “Mother, do you object to Liu Yuchun?”


“That is not the point. As your mother, I’m supposed to do the matchmaking. Not you.”


“Fine, you’ll handle things from now on,” Huang Ming muttered.


“Of course I will. You have no idea,” his mother replied.


Huang Ming shuddered at the prospects of an arranged marriage.


Huang Lang was unconcerned. “How should we respond to this?” he asked, steering the conversation back on topic.


“That girl Tianyun is a treasure. If one of you can bring her home as my daughter-in-law, it would be wonderful. Then she will be part of our family, not one of the Caos any longer,” Madam Li said.


“You really have no objections to her?” Huang Lang inquired slowly.


“None. Oh, your father may object and be a crackpot about it, but he’ll come around.”


“It’s not as if we would win a rigged contest,” Huang Ming reminded her.


“It is enough for you two to first make a good impression on her and on the women of their family. The doubts I have now is how to go about sending you two to this ‘competition’ and yet return safely. For all we know, you two might be the only ones invited in this sham,” Madam Li said.


‘If you’re that concerned, shouldn’t you be stopping us from going?’ Huang Ming wondered.


Instead he suggested, “That’s easy enough. Mother should go about and gossip about this among your friends. They will be sure to demand invitations for their own sons.”


Madam Li nodded in approval.


Huang Lang was displeased by the idea of increased number of people being associated with the event. “The Caos are desperate enough to concoct this plot, I don’t want bystanders to be harmed by our feud,” he said.


“The more participants, the more difficult for Cao Yuan to do anything violent. But I do wonder how much he thought this through,” Huang Ming said.


“Why?” his brother asked.


“Wouldn’t it be funny if his daughter somehow ended up falling in love with an undesirable person like Nangong Xie?” Huang Ming smirked.


“Not funny at all,” Huang Lang said flatly.


“Yes, the girl is innocent. I’m not willing to see such a flower be ruined by a crooked strategy,” Madam Li replied in agreement.


“Please, it’s not as if he has any chance. Or anyone else, for that matter. This is just an excuse to lure us into their den. Though I don’t see how she or her mother would agree to such a plan in the first place. The women in the house of Cao can’t be happy that their outstanding daughter is being used as mere bait,” Huang Ming said.


“Oh, I’m sure they would be furious,” Madam Li smiled knowingly.


Indeed they were. Madam Li had proudly displayed the invitation to her friends, inflaming the various notable families and influential clans. By disseminating news of the poetry competition among her social circle, the entire city was soon buzzing about the governor looking for a husband for the beautiful Cao Tianyun. What was supposed to be a private matter to entrap the Huang brothers became a public news. Very quickly the governor’s residence was besieged by emissaries of the interested factions, each demanding an equal invitation.


Obviously this state of affairs caused considerable stress to the Cao household.


Like how the Huang brothers had trembled before their mother, now Cao Yuan found himself cowering before his. In his case, there were three women: his aged mother, his wife and of course, his own daughter. Three generations of women brought their wrath down at the poor governor.


“What sort of man are you to sell your daughter like this?” his wife shrieked.


“It’s my fault, my fault for not raising a better son!” his mother wailed.


“Father, why would you do this?” Cao Tianyun asked softly. She turned away slightly as a single tear streamed down her cheek. She looked like a stricken goddess. It was enough to cause heartbreak for anyone who saw her.


Cao Shuang was conveniently away for some reason or another. Wang Hao, being an indentured servant; could not be present unless specifically called for. Thus, the esteemed Governor of Tianxin city stood alone before the three main women of his house.


Assaulted from all sides, Cao Yuan was at his wit’s end. “Stop... Stop crying! Listen to me! I was wrong! But I had a reason!” Cao Yuan said at last.


“Explain yourself!” his mother demanded.


Cao Yuan then told the story of how he was pressured into this predicament by Marshal Gao’s instruction to harry General Huang, that this latest scheme was a desperate gamble.


Even as he tried to justify himself, the women grew angrier.


“You must be a crackpot to resort to this! What sort of creature are you? How could you use your own flesh and blood like this? Today you’re flogging off your daughter, would tomorrow be my turn?” his wife wept.


His mother offered no succour, she too was vitriolic as she ranted, “How did I ever raise such a block-head? I know you are grateful to the marshal for your position today, but a man should know better than to harm his own family! What is the point of being a governor if the whole world ridicules you for staying on using the skirts of your daughter?”


“Father, you are after all the legitimate governor of the city. Marshal Gao is abhorrent, not one soul who does not know this. Why would you continue to bend your knee to a crooked man?” Cao Tianyun said reproachfully.


Cao Yuan temper exploded. “Enough! This isn’t just about me! I would retire if I could, but would the marshal let any of us go? He bore a grudge against General Huang for all these years, imagine what he would do to our entire family!”


But his forcefulness only made them resent him even further.


“Even if you want to curry favour with Marshal Gao, there should be a better way than this. You have all but ruined my granddaughter’s prospects of happiness, who would dare approach her with talk of marriage after this?” his mother choked.


Cao Yuan sighed, “The die is cast, what else can be done?”


“Now that this foolish piece of fiction has become fact, you have to issue the same invitations to those banging on our doors,” his wife said.


Cao Tianyun’s beautiful face became a mask of determination. “Since things have come to pass, promise me this: Allow me to be the judge and set the challenges myself. I will make it so that no one unworthy would be my husband,” she said.


Seeing how her father was still hesitant, Cao Tianyun softened her gaze and pleaded, “Promise me, father, let me choose my own man.”


Cao Yuan finally agreed, and left to write the additional invitations that were to be distributed.


After he had left, the three Cao women calmed down and exchanged looks with one another.


“Tianyun, this has become very serious,” the grandmother intoned.


“Rest assured, I know what is at stake,” Cao Tianyun said.


“This is all we can do, now our family’s future is in your hands,” her mother said.


Cao Tianyun nodded, her eyes shone with anticipation.
 

 

In duel, men risk lives for honour,
In love, women brave no less horrors.
Treated like pawns without respect,
They plotted their own grand project.
And while the men are reluctant,
For the women, it’s no less important!​