“I’m trouble.”
--Pink


Chapter Fourteen - The pledge

When the Huang brothers and their fellow peers reached the governor’s residence, they could see Cao Shuang beset by a crowd at the entrance. There was a commotion as numerous people wanted entry.


“My invitation was stolen!”


“If you don’t let me in, my clan over at that city won’t let you off!”


“I’m the real so-and-so’s son, an impostor has stolen my invitation!”


“How much for an invitation, I’ll pay for it!”


“Can’t I go in just to watch?”


Cao Shuang’s face was very dark. “I said if you don’t have an invitation, get lost!” he roared.


“They really didn’t think this through,” Huang Ming smirked.


Huang Lang frowned as he urged his horse forward. The crowd naturally parted when they saw a horse coming.


“It’s Huang Lang!”


“It’s the Celestial Qilin!”


“Look at how handsome he is, surely he’s the favourite!”


“The Celestial Qilin and the Clouded Moon, they would make a good pair!”


Huang Ming smiled when he heard the praises being heaped on his brother. Then his grin slowly disappeared when the crowd noticed that he was there too.


“Eee, it’s that wastrel Huang Ming!”


“How cheeky of him to show up! Does he think he has a chance for Cao Tianyun’s hand?”


“A toad craving a swan’s meat!”


“They say he’s Huang Lang’s little brother, but I’m guessing he must be adopted!”


‘What is this difference in treatment?’ Huang Ming wondered in annoyance. Loudly, he exclaimed, “I’m only here to make up the numbers, my heart belongs to another!”


“Your heart is in the Lichun Brothel!” someone in the crowd jeered at him, and laughter broke out as Huang Ming threw a knowing wink and waved good-naturedly.


Huang Lang saw that the tensions had diffused somewhat and seized the chance to address the crowd.


“Good people, standing here and making such a racket is unseemly. This is after all the governor’s residence. Please give some respect to us all and return to your homes,” he said politely.


“But we want to watch!”


“We want to know who Cao Tianyun would choose!”


“I am sure Cao Shuang will inform the public the moment the result is known,” Huang Lang said. Cao Shuang grimaced when his name was mentioned, but he nodded. He did not want to inflame the crowd.


“The Celestial Qilin is right. Let’s go home, we won’t be able to get in anyway!” a voice called out.


Soon the crowd dissipated in good order.


Cao Shuang was displeased at how Huang Lang had easily settled the situation when his own efforts did not bear fruit. Still, he admired Huang Lang’s calmness.


Led by Huang Lang, the group of suitors dismounted and saluted Cao Shuang. Each had to present their invitation for inspection before they were allowed entry.


Cao Shuang respected Huang Lang, but there was no love lost when it comes to Huang Ming.


“So you actually dared to show up,” Cao Shuang sneered when it came to Huang Ming’s turn.


“I was invited, why not?” Huang Ming replied nonchalantly.


“Your face is indeed thick,” Cao Shuang snorted.


“Ah, don’t be like that. We might be brothers-in-law soon!” Huang Ming said and clapped Cao Shuang on the shoulder. He quickly went in to join his brother who was ahead even as Cao Shuang turned green.


“You shouldn’t antagonize him so much, we might actually be family soon,” Huang Lang said in a low voice.


“It’s precisely because we might be family soon that I’m making fun of him now. Once he becomes our brother-in-law, I might have to show some respect,” Huang Ming replied, much to his brother’s amusement.


As the rest of the participants filed in, Huang Lang remarked, “This could be trouble for the winner.”


“Yes, marriage at a young age can be quite awful,” Huang Ming nodded sagely.


“Not that. I meant that the winner would obviously invite the envy of all these men and their families. Even the Caos would make enemies no matter who they chose.”


“What? Such a simple problem to solve,” Huang Ming scoffed.


“Oh?”


“I would do so and so,” Huang Ming explained.


Huang Lang’s eyebrows arched in surprise. ‘My brother is not simple!’ he thought.


***


Within the residence, Cao Tianyun oversaw the final bits of preparations. She had converted the main hall into an examination hall of sorts. She carefully made sure each table was equally distanced and equipped with the four implements of study: brush, inkstick, inkstone and paper. All were of standard quality, not one table was specially singled out.


The servants and her maids had advised her to let them do the menial tasks, but she refused.


“This is a search for my potential husband. The honour of our family must not be compromised by accusations of favouritism, all participants must be given an equal chance,” she said solemnly. Her servants bowed with admiration, soon they would share this anecdote to others and her fame would spread even further and wider.


Cao Yuan who was nearby overheard her words and sighed. “You mean well, but I fear the vicious words will still come. No matter who you chose, there will be ill-feelings left over.”


His daughter smiled. “This is easily solved. Have each suitor sign a pledge to support the winner, no matter who he is. They must swear an oath to come to his aid and punish those who break their word.”


“Good!” his father cried in praise.


***


Just as Huang Ming finished explaining, Wang Hao came out holding a rolled up scroll and whispered in Cao Shuang’s ears.


“That servant fellow, is that...?” Huang Ming muttered questioningly. He was remembering what was said back at the restaurant, about the person who was spreading rumours about him Liu Yuchun.


“Hush, pay attention,” Huang Lang interrupted.


Cao Shuang clapped his hands to bring the participants to order. He proclaimed, “Gentlemen! As you well know, you are gathered here today to compete for my sister’s favour. It is important for you to know that it is my sister who would be the final judge of this event. You have to obey her instructions in this matter. If you cannot abide by her rules, you are welcome to leave!”


The young men looked at each in surprise. They had expected the governor to preside the competition; they did not expect that Cao Tianyun would be so bold as to be the decision maker.


Cao Shuang motioned at Wang Hao. The weasel-looking man opened up the scroll he was holding and turned it so that the gathered men could read it.


Cao Shuang continued, “This is a pledge, personally written by my sister Cao Tianyun! You will each have a turn to read it before signing it. It says that you will uphold the results of this competition. No matter who wins, you will not say a word in argument. In fact, you will swear to support the winner. Those who break their oath will be the sworn enemies of everyone else!”


The crowd immediately cheered when they heard this.


“Good idea!”


“As expected of the Clouded Moon, her reputation for cleverness is no lie!”


Huang Lang eyed his brother strangely. “It looks like she had the same remedy as you,” he said.


Huang Ming was shocked. His solution came from Greek mythology. One of his favourite heroes was Odysseus; it was that legendary hero who had proposed the idea of a pledge to defend the chosen husband of Helen of Troy, resulting in the epic Trojan War.


There was a fear too, for this meant Cao Tianyun was very clever indeed... or like him, had transmigrated from Earth as well. The latter would mean she was an Avatar, which in turn would make her the enemy. It was a sombre reminder that he shouldn’t be enjoying this life too much; he had to beware of someone who could be his opposing Avatar on this world.


‘This could be trouble,’ Huang Ming thought to himself.


“What’s wrong?” Huang Lang asked, noting the look on his brother’s face.


Huang Ming disguised his discomfort with a grin. “Looks like I’m not the only great genius around.”


Huang Lang smiled. “There are many talented persons with secrets, never assume you know everything.”


“Well, this Cao Tianyun is more interesting than I thought,” Huang Ming said.


His brother frowned. “What about the pledge? Are you going to sign it?” he asked.


“Of course!” Huang Ming answered immediately.


“How can you decide so easily? What happens if you’re forced to act for someone you dislike?” Huang Lang admonished.


“Like who?”


“Like that Nangong Xie,” Huang Lang said and motioned with his chin. Huang Ming followed the direction and saw Nangong Xie chatting animatedly with Cao Shuang.


“You forget something,” Huang Ming said indifferently.


“What?”


“I’m only the third son in our family. Of course I can sign it. The winner wants my support in times of trouble? I’ll give him support... My moral support. I’ll cheer and wish him good luck!” Huang Ming grinned.


Huang Lang shook his head at his brother. “You’re incorrigible!”


“What about you, are you signing?”


“How can I back out when you staying? I’m going to win anyway,” Huang Lang said with a gleam in his eyes.


The two brothers stepped forward to sign the pledge. Seeing their confidence and willingness, the other suitors followed.


Then Cao Shuang escorted them to the main hall where Cao Tianyun had made her meticulous preparations.


 

A grand search for a husband,
The worried suitors were heartened,
She made them sign a pledge,
Thus between them not a wedge.
The result they will uphold,
Their word as good as gold,
Against dissent they will defend,
The winner will be their friend.​