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“Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream.”
--Khalil Gibran

Chapter 133 – Entangling threads

“It’s you!”

Quan Lu/Qiong Ying and the newly arrived man exclaimed in surprise. Their eyes widened in recognition, but the man recovered first. He had a pencil-thin moustache and all ten of his fingers were adorned with thick rings: bands of jade and gold.

The foxy woman who was in a half-embrace with Quan Lu just a few seconds ago rose unsteadily to her feet to greet the newcomer.

“I’ve told him nothing,” the courtesan slurred. She shook her head, sensing an almighty headache. “I think I’ve been drugged…” she mumbled in disorientation.

The man frowned. “You did well, go rest,” he said. The woman nodded reluctantly but did as told, giving Quan Lu a final withering look as she was escorted out of the room.

Quan Lu sighed, partly in admiration of the courtesan. He thought he was being clever by slipping a drug into the drinks to coax information out of the courtesan, but the woman was also stalling for time. Now the bodyguards Tian Zhu and Zhen Tian were restrained outside and Quan Lu was trapped with no avenue of escape.

Luckily, Quan Lu/Qiong Ying knew who the man was. They were almost relatives, though there were no direct correspondence between them.

The man who arrived was none other than Cao Shuang. The son of Tianxin City’s governor, and the brother of Cao Tianyun. The same Cao Tianyun who was Qiong Ying’s fellow daughter-in-law of the Huang family.

The later fact in particular gave Qiong Ying a mental tweak: She together with Zhao Sunli were still just fiancées to Huang Ming and not yet actual wives, though Huang Ming’s mother had already accepted them both. But Qiong Ying could not envisage the day when she would be officially brought across the threshold like Cao Tianyun for Huang Lang and Liu Yuchun for Huang Ke. Despite what she had repeatedly told Huang Ming about her willingness to be a concubine in the shadows and allow Sunli to be the main wife in the limelight, being married in a grandiose ceremony was still a woman’s dream.

A dream.

So long as her sister Qiong Hua was still alive, it would remain just that. The Princess of Jin has destroyed the entire Qiong clan, and from what she had learned it seemed the Princess was determined to wipe out all traces of her previous identity. Unfortunately, that would include Qiong Ying.

She brushed all fanciful thoughts of marriage away. Huang Ming was more than she could ever hope for. Marriage ceremonies and wedding banquets, she did not need those when she had already snared the finest man of the age.

‘There was a more immediate problem at hand’, Qiong Ying chastised herself and quickly reasserted her Quan Lu persona.

“Sir Cao, what a fortuitous meeting. I did not expect to see you here in the capital,” Quan Lu said with all honesty.

Cao Shuang snorted. He only knew Quan Lu in passing, during Cao Tianyun’s poetry competition. Quan Lu was one of the invitees that day, but the entire event was so hectic and blurred into one headache inducing mess that Cao Shuang never really took further notice of him.

Seeing this beautiful man again brought back memories of that fateful day. First Huang Ming had stunned everyone with his thereto literary genius, then his brother Huang Lang literally stole the heart of Cao Tianyun while being cheered on by everyone present. Though Cao Shuang himself eventually accepted their union, he still did not like the fact that he was outsmarted by the Huang brothers that one time. After the wedding and the excitement and despair that rose from the attempted invasion of Wei, Cao Shuang threw himself into his various businesses, expanding everywhere throughout the country.

“What are you doing here?” Cao Shuang asked brusquely.

Quan Lu/Qiong Ying smiled roguishly. She recalled spying on Huang Ming, Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang so long ago at the Lichun Brothel; an incident that ended with the later two being slapped around with fresh fish by the former.

Cao Shuang’s mood worsened when he saw the smile on the beautiful man’s face. He felt as if he was being mocked at.

“Explain yourself quickly,” he growled, flexing his bejewelled fingers threateningly.

Quan Lu made a show of looking around to ensure their privacy before motioning with a finger for Cao Shuang to lean in.

“Your sister sent me,” Quan Lu whispered.

Cao Shuang drew back in surprise, his eyes widening with shock as the words slowly registered in his brain.

Then his nostrils flared, his pencil moustache bristled and his forehead pulsed as blood rushed to his head in anger. How dare this man drag his sister’s name through the mud?

“What did you say?” he said threateningly. He was dangerously close to laying his hands on this delicate-looking man.

Quan Lu’s smirk grew wider. “Listen, I came to the capital together with Huang Ming,” he said.

It took the wind out of Cao Shuang’s sails. The rising magma of anger within him was extinguished, and he almost collapsed onto himself.

“What did you say?” he asked again, this time with a bewildered tone.

“Your sister asked Huang Ming to look for Huang Lang. But Huang Ming was preoccupied with official business, and so I offered to help him instead,” Quan Lu answered, and then explained how he was following the trails of rumours leading to this encounter.

“I… see…” Cao Shuang muttered. Then he gave him a suspicious look. “I do not know you. Do you have any way of confirming your words? Where is that lout Huang Ming?”

Quan Lu rolled his eyes. “Surely you have heard of his summons to the palace? I am staying at the Li Clan’s residence together, they can tell you the same thing,” he said.

“Those Huang brothers are as annoying as flies,” Cao Shuang grumbled, his earlier resentment rekindled.

Quan Lu/Qiong Ying stiffened. Of course she did not take kindly to her man being referred to as a flying insect, but she kept her temper in check.

“What about you, what are you doing here? Besides buying that courtesan’s contract?” Quan Lu asked coolly.

Cao Shuang’s eyes glowered. “Huang Lang sent me here. And she is one of our people,” he said at last.

“What?” Quan Lu exclaimed in astonishment. “Are you in contact with him? Where is he?”

“There are deeper conspiracies afoot, this is not the place to discuss them,” Cao Shuang replied.

Quan Lu nodded in understanding. The way Cao Shuang had referred to the courtesan as ‘our people’ was telling, it meant Cao Shuang and Huang Lang were working together in the capital. It was an undertaking so secretive that they neglected to inform Cao Tianyun, and by now Quan Lu had an inkling of their enterprise.

“Can you at least send a message to him? His wife… your sister is worried about him.”

“I have to first verify your identity,” Cao Shuang said curtly.

Quan Lu waved a hand in acceptance. “Send your men with my guards to the Li Clan residence to look for Li Hong, he is their uncle.”

Then he retrieved a pill from his sleeve and passed it to Cao Shuang. “Here’s the antidote for your woman,” he said apologetically.

Cao Shuang was satisfied and his countenance softened. “You can wait here in the meantime. Is there anything you need?”

Quan Lu was about to decline, but then he smiled mischievously.

“I need something to clear my hangover. Do you have any fresh fish?” he asked, savouring the look on Cao Shuang’s face.

Loose threads and strings,
Coming together in an inn.​