“I can do whatever brother can do. But brother may not be able to copy me!”
--Koo Jing the Tricky Brains

Chapter Thirteen - Three birds, one stone

The day of the competition soon arrived. The Huang brothers had been brushing up on their artistic senses, from reading works of famous poets to practising their calligraphy. In a way, Huang Ming was grateful for the distraction from worrying about his father and Huang Ke who were away and risking their lives against the bandit menace.

The brothers were dressed in their finest clothes, appearing very lofty and gallant as they rode on their horses towards the governor’s residence. Madam Li’s gossip network had worked very well, there were even well-wishers and rubberneckers gathered in the streets to cheer on them on.

The brothers joined the other young masters from the various families and clans, all converging on the main road to the governor’s home. It seemed like fifty or so of the best and brightest young men of the city of Tianxin had gathered to go on an outing, driving their girlish admirers wild.

Later on there would be a celebrated painting depicting this scene of handsome and famous bachelors on their horses, with admirers lining both sides of the streets as well as leaning over their window sills and balconies to throw flowers onto their path.

“Haha, brother Ming! Fancy seeing you here!” a jovial voice called out from behind.

Huang Ming turned around to see a small group riding up to join him. From his memories he recognized them, they were the friends of the original Huang Ming. A no-good bunch of prodigal sons, wastrels and profligates that hung together wasting time pretending to be classy literati, spending their family’s wealth like water and relying on the reputations of others to protect themselves. Each had some ability, all preferred to avoid their responsibilities.

The one who had called out to him was known as Ma Jun. With him were other young fellows of the same ilk: Min Guang, Lei Yan, He Ding, Zhang Ping. Together with himself and Nangong Xie, they were collectively known as the Seven Stars.

Huang Ming stopped himself from curling his lips in irritation. He knew that these young men grew up with a silver spoon and pampered by their families. It reminded him of the notorious term ‘affluenza’ back on Earth, where spoiled rich kids were said to be unaware of the consequences of their actions because they were brought up without common sense by their wealthy parents.

Huang Ming merely waved, not really sure on how to face these ‘friends’. Huang Ke had told him about Nangong Xie before, and later events have proven those warnings right. Huang Lang offered no advice, he was deep in his own thoughts and allowed his horse to follow the parade of other riders by itself.

Seeing him thus, Huang Ming slowed his own horse to allow his friends to catch up.

They exchanged pleasantries, the fellows saw Huang Lang was aloof and thus did not try to engage him.

“Where’s Nangong the Handsome Scholar?” Huang Ming asked innocently.

“Who? Oh, you mean the idol worshipper!” Ma Jun chortled. The group of friends snickered.

Zhang Ping the Stone General snorted. “He’s probably already at the governor’s residence. He and that Cao Shuang have been like a fingernail and the flesh beneath, almost inseparable,” he sneered. Zhang Ping ran a masonry business and his muscular arms were proof of his efforts.

The group had a poor opinion of Cao Shuang, his interference in their family businesses made them dislike the governor’s son. Nangong Xie’s association with him was a betrayal of sorts, thus they were not hesitant in pouring their scorn.

“We haven’t seen you too for some time, we wondered where you’d been,” Ma Jun said. Ma Jun was called the Wine Barrel, his moniker refers to both his stout features and his family’s brewery business.

Huang Ming found their humour infectious and couldn’t help but smile. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said, quoting a phrase from Earth.

They laughed at his quip, and Huang Ming was secretly delighted.

“We heard about that business with Liu Xiang, is it true?” Lei Yan asked. He was known as the Dancing Abacus, he was trained in accountancy for his family’s business. When at work, his fingers flitted about the abacus as if he was playing a musical instrument.

“Seven parts true, three parts fiction,” Huang Ming smirked.

“Oh, so you didn’t pee your pants?” He Ding the Odd Brush asked. He was skilled calligrapher, his nickname came from the fact that he was left-handed. He was known for carrying a personalized writing brush on his belt.

“I absolutely did not pee my pants,” Huang Ming said with all seriousness.

“Too bad we weren’t there to see the whole thing. You must tell us the real story yourself, all we know are from second-hand accounts and storytellers,” Min Guang pleaded, his eyes shining. He was the youngest of the bunch, fresh-faced with feminine features and popular with the ladies wherever he went. They call him the White Jade, much to his annoyance.

“Later, when this is all over,” Huang Ming promised.

“Shame about Liu Yuchun,” Lei Yan sighed, “I fancy her myself. Let me know if things don’t work out for her and your brother?”

“Why don’t you eat shit?” Huang Ming said with a cold smile. His voice was pleasant, but his eyes were narrowed.

The vulgarity combined with the chill in his tone caught his friends completely off-guard. For a moment they stared at him in shock.

Then they laughed uproariously at Lei Yan, who reddened and shrugged apologetically.

“Well said!”

“Yes, why don’t you eat shit!”

“Eat shit! Eat shit!”

The group of well-dressed young men chanting such crude phrases caught the attention of other participants nearby. Some turned their noses and made effort to distance themselves, others shook their head and pitied the parents of these loud fellows.

Huang Lang was snapped out of his reverie by the sounds of laughter behind him. He frowned when he saw his brother together with the unruly bunch. He strained his ears to listen. He had seen the changes in his brother, and he did not wish for his younger brother to lapse back to his old ways due to these friends of his.

“You have no idea what a godsend this poetry competition is,” Ma Jun said.

“Yes, without that Nangong around to lead us, we have been idling our free time at home,” He Ding interjected.

“You mean you guys haven’t been to the Lichun Brothel by yourselves?” Huang Ming mocked.

“We only went there because you and Nangong wanted to try visit the lady Qiong Ying,” Zhang Ping reminded him.

Huang Ming grimaced as he remembered. Qiong Ying was the top courtesan of the brothel. She was incredibly selective in her clients and even then, she had never provided sexual services. She was the pride of the brothel, her beauty celebrated in songs and official portraits commissioned by its management as a form of advertisement.

There were rumours that her refined manners and skills in tea and music came from her background of a fallen noble family. Others think she was the illegitimate daughter of some foreign family, sent away by jealous rivals to live in exile. Whatever the case, Qiong Ying was someone whom the management had carefully groomed. It was hoped that she would be married off as some noble’s concubine and thus elevate their establishment by association.

The more Huang Ming talked with these friends, the more he realized that most of the dastardly deeds done by the original Huang Ming had its roots from Nangong Xie’s corrupting influence. Seeing the memories from another perspective made him aware that it was the Handsome Scholar’s perverted desires that had guided these group of young men in a twisted manner.

Huang Ming wondered if he could steer these young men back on track. Besides, if there was indeed a power struggle with the governor, the Huangs would need the backing of these heirs of their respective influential families.

“You people are like sheep. Can’t you just elect a leader from among yourselves?” Huang Ming taunted.

“Well then, I nominate myself as befitting the eldest in our coterie,” Zhang Ping asserted.

Immediately he was showered with derision.

“You’ll just lead us to mountain hikes all the time,” He Ding clucked.

“Drinking capacity then!” Ma Jun chimed in.

“Says the wine brewer! How fair would that be?” Min Guang argued. His own drinking capability was very limited.

Huang Ming let them bicker for a while before clearing his throat.

“Gentlemen, you forget that we’re already riding towards a competition that is being judged by a neutral party,” he said.

They stared at him in disbelief.

“You think we can win?” Zhang Ping said.

“Why else are you going then?”

“To catch a glimpse of the Clouded Moon, of course!” his friends chorused.

Huang Ming laughed. “How desperate you people are! If you’re not confident, why bother show up? Don’t be like the owl who longed for the moon,” he said.

“I don’t even remember the last time I heard a poem out of you,” Lei Yan retorted.

“Wait, I remember he made a couplet for Min Guang’s sister,” Zhang Ping mused.

“That was years ago! And it was terrible, which is why we forgot about it!” Ma Jun guffawed.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Min Guang protested weakly.

“You weren’t even there, you have no idea,” Lei Yan said dismissively.

Huang Ming had a lopsided grin. “So you people think you can do better than me?” he asked.

“I’m no scholar of the arts like you, but I know my classics,” Zhang Ping replied.

“I’m confident that I’ll do better than you lot at least,” He Ding said and gestured at the dangling brush on his belt.

Huang Ming suggested, “I don’t know how the competition will be done, but seeing that there’s so many of us, I think there will be several rounds of elimination. Let’s do it like this, whoever is the last man standing will be crowned as our little clique’s leader.”

“Fine idea!” his friends cheered excitedly.

Then Huang Ming noticed that his elder brother was motioning for him. He made some parting remarks to his friends and then hastened his horse to join his brother.

“I heard everything. You really think you can win?” Huang Lang asked, looking over him with a dubious eye.

Huang Ming merely shrugged. “Who knows? It’s just a harmless diversion since mother wants us to catch Cao Tianyun’s heart anyway. Two birds, one stone.”

In truth, Huang Ming was not confident of winning at all. However, he did come from Earth and thus he had some two thousand years of that world’s history and literature to steal from. All he needed to do was to make some translations and changes to suit the current situation. Even so, he had no idea just how well received Earth’s culture would be. He had cautiously used some humour from his past and it seemed to have worked well thus far.

Huang Lang smiled, “Think you can outlast me in the competition?”

“If this was before that restaurant visit, I would have called you the most boring person I’ve known. Now I’m not so sure,” Huang Ming replied.

“That’s not an answer. Want to bet to see who between us would win Cao Tianyun’s hand?” his brother said challengingly.

Huang Ming found his persistence strange. “What’s in it for the winner?” he asked warily.

“Loser owes the winner a favour.”

“You really don’t want to explain to Huang Ke about Liu Yuchun, do you?” Huang Ming grinned.

“Have you seen his fists? They are like boulders!” Huang Lang confided.

The brothers shared a laugh.

“Fine, lets do it. That’s three birds with one stone for me,” Huang Ming said.

A wager between brothers,
The younger against the elder.
A wager between close friends,
For the winner, the right to command.​