Hearing different things
“Tonight, we will be partaking of a liquid repast as we wind our way up the Golden Mile.”
--Gary King, ‘The World’s End’ (2013)
Chapter 141 – Hearing different things
Thus a few days later, Huang Ming found himself drinking and making merry in the brothel, in plain sight for all to see.
“You need to draw Nangong Xie out. Make all effort to let everyone know that you are going back home soon, that this is going to be your last night in the capital,” Cao Shuang had told him earlier.
“What, do you expect me to shout and sing in the streets?” Huang Ming grumbled.
“No, you can start right here in this brothel. Here, take this money. Splash the cash, indulge in your most hedonistic desires and make as much of a spectacle as you can. You were famous for being the wastrel of Tianxin City, I’m sure you know what to do,” Cao Shuang said sarcastically.
Huang Ming’s facial expression was solemn and his voice flat as he nodded reluctantly.
“This is such a heavy responsibility and a most terrifying duty, but I will do my utmost,” Huang Ming deadpanned.
“I’m sure,” Cao Shuang sneered. “Just don’t overdo it, you are only to pretend to be roaring drunk, we don’t need you to get too smashed to avoid an actual assassination attack.”
“Maybe I should go with him,” Quan Lu suggested. The disguised Qiong Ying was none too pleased with this particular scheme.
“No, you stand out too much,” Cao Shuang said as he shook his head.
Qiong Ying did not know whether she should laugh or cry, her male disguise had worked all too well. She was about to tell Cao Shuang the truth, after all they were practically distant relatives with their ties to the Huangs.
But just as she had opened her mouth, she changed her mind.
“Fine,” ‘Quan Lu said distractedly. Huang Ming frowned, he did not think that she would give up her idea so quickly.
Later he asked her about it, and she smirked.
“I had thought you would be there to restrain me,” Huang Ming said with a smile of his own.
“I had thought you would prefer being unfettered while indulging in your most hedonistic desires,” she teased.
“Well…” Huang Ming trailed off and affected a wistful look.
She pinched him in the waist and they shared a laugh.
“I think the disguise is still useful for the time being,” Qiong Ying said. “You and Cao Shuang are too focused on Nangong Xie, but you have forgotten about Lord Fang La. ”
“I thought he would be swept along with all the rest when this is over,” Huang Ming admitted. He did not consider the Prime Minister’s nephew a serious threat at all, after all he had seen how the man had dropped his nobleman’s façade and revealed his cowardly nature on the walls of Tianxin City.
“I have a plan,” Qiong Ying said and told him.
Huang Ming’s face scrunched up once he had heard it.
“You are vicious,” he said in a complimentary tone. “Remind me not to get on your bad side.”
Qiong Ying gave him a sweet smile. “Just don’t overdo it,” she said, repeating the earlier warning from Cao Shuang.
That was several days ago.
Since then Huang Ming had prominently and loudly made it known that he was living it up every night at capital’s night spots, partying as if it was his last day.
To keep the ruse believable, Huang Ming had his bodyguards stand stoically on the first night. On the second night, he had them pretend to reluctantly accompany him to drink after much coaxing, making sure to covertly dump their drinks.
On the third night, all three men were singing loudly shoulder-to-shoulder as a mass of singing girls laugh and clap along gaily. It had appeared to all observers that the young master was having so much fun that even his bodyguards had been influenced.
By the fourth night, the entire brothel was filled with singing, turning the pleasure house into a giant party venue. Patrons who were seeking lusty delights of the flesh were instead drawn into drinking and rub shoulders with the Hero of Tigertrap Pass. Huang Ming toasted them all and regaled them with exaggerated war stories.
Each night was filled with gambling, drinking games, singing girls and other revelry and would only end in the wee hours of the next day with the three men staggering home in a terrible state.
This epic drunken binge soon became the gossip of the capital city and eventually got the attention of Nangong Xie. At first the Handsome Scholar scoffed and sneered, patiently waiting for the day that Huang Ming would leave the city so as to meet an ‘unfortunate accident’ that he would prepare in advance.
But one night the topic of Huang Ming’s revelry turned to stories of Tianxin City. Someone asked for tales of Huang Ming’s past and he gladly obliged, first by enthralling his audience with a retelling of Cao Tianyun’s now fabled poetry competition for a husband.
The listeners clapped and cheered at the end and demanded for more.
Then Huang Ming said, “Here’s a funny story…” and proceeded to make them break into peals of laughter by telling them how he had fooled Nangong Xie into buying a lewd ivory idol.
“Now you might think that someone who is called The Handsome Scholar would be too clever for this,” Huang Ming said, emphasizing the nickname. “But between you and me,” he continued to his audience of dozens, “…he all but allowed himself to be fooled. Rumours has it that he uses one hand to caress it to sleep every night!”
Huang Ming proceeded to grab the air obscenely with one hand to mimic a rough fondle, causing the men to laugh lewdly and the women to blush.
One of the slower-witted serving girls asked naively: “Why just the one hand?”
To which Huang Ming merely gestured exaggeratedly in a stroking motion with his other hand near the crotch level, and the audience howled.
“The Handsome Scholar? More like The Lewd Scholar!”
When this reached the ears of Nangong Xie, he became enraged and was no longer content to wait for Huang Ming to leave the confines of the capital. Without informing his patron Prime Minister Tong Xuan, Nangong Xie took a cadre of men to lay an ambush near the brothel where Huang Ming was.
“What are you doing?” Lord Fang La had asked when he saw Nangong Xie’s murderous intent.
“To settle a problem with that Huang Ming! We have been far too indulgent and passive, it is time we act decisively!” Nangong Xie said angrily and brushed him off.
Lord Fang La swallowed his own anger. Nangong Xie’s lack of reservedness before him was a stark reminder that his own influence in the Prime Minister’s camp had diminished greatly, and Lord Fang La lamented at how the guest that he had brought into his house was now acting like the host instead.
How did things go so wrong? Fang La admitted that he had failed miserably in the attempt to seize military command from General Huang Zheng, but since then the Huangs had grown from being a minor concern at their side to an actual life-risking threat. They had survived the machinations of Marshal Gao Fang and now Huang Ming had even gained the attention of the King of Wu.
Fang La had studied too much history and the classics to know that his uncle the Prime Minister had all the hallmarks of a civil servant overstepping the boundaries. At the very least, he knew that Tong Xuan’s name was not thought to be righteous.
Fang La sighed. As the nobleman turned to leave, soft female laughter drifted over to his ears. He turned to gaze at the distant gardens and saw a young lady surrounded by her maids, and he drew a sharp breath as he recognized her.
The group of women were oblivious to his stare, and Fang La eyes bored deeply into the lady, savouring every detail of the sight.
She was his uncle’s concubine, and Lord Fang La regretted having known her when it was too late. When Prime Minister Tong Xuan had introduced her as the newest addition of his harem, Lord Fang La felt as if he had been struck by lightning.
In Tianxin City he was slightly swayed by the courtesan Lady Qiong Ying of the Lichun Brothel, but Huang Ming’s song about unrequited love drove a sharp dagger into his heart. Huang Ming’s song had resonated with him, reminding Fang La that the person of his desires was so close and yet remained so far…
What a farce this was, him helplessly in love with his uncle’s concubine! The thought of Tong Xuan’s old body pressing down on this delicate young lady made his skin crawl.
Suddenly his uncle was not the beacon of leadership that Fang La once thought he was. Suddenly Tong Xuan was not the patriarch who was industrious in elevating the clan, but someone who was endlessly grasping and grabbing. Suddenly the Prime Minister was not a leader who worked tirelessly for the clan’s prosperity, but someone who was greedy, selfish and domineering.
Lord Fang La’s eyes narrowed. They were still gazing at the young lady frolicking in the gardens, but his mind was elsewhere…
The wind blows and fortunes change,
The reeds bend to avoid a bad end.