“Our chief weapon is surprise!”
Chapter Sixteen - Inquisition
The suitors were lounging around the hall, exchanging pleasantries and idle talk with each other as they awaited the next challenge. It was rare for all these personages to be gathered in one spot, thus they took advantage of the event to introduce themselves and make connections. After all, they had signed the pledge and were brothers-in-arms in the future.
More servants came into the hall. Without any preamble they began to rearrange the furniture. What were simple rows of tables akin to an examination setting were moved slightly so that straight lines became curves. Eventually the tables formed a concave formation, reminding Huang Ming of an auditorium.
Three new, larger tables were laid out in the front, completing a roughly ‘D’ shape. The arrangement was so that the three new tables faced the others, becoming the obvious focal point of attention.
“What do you think is happening?” Min Guang asked. Huang Ming couldn’t help feeling paternal towards this fresh-faced young friend whose eyes were wide like a doe.
“Judging from the setting, it looks like there will be an interview,” Huang Ming.
“An oral examination in front of everyone?” Lei Yan couldn’t prevent a tremor of trepidation in his voice. All around, his fellow candidates were also worried. Only Huang Lang was unconcerned.
Then the doors opened once more, and the Cao entourage entered the hall. This time, there were additions: two older and very dignified women, one of which was using a gnarled walking stick.
“The mother and grandmother,” Huang Lang murmured. Those who heard him grew increasingly disquieted.
Cao Tianyun guided the grandmother, while Cao Shuang held the hand of his mother as they went towards the front tables.
Zhang Ping was nonplussed. “This is entirely unorthodox. I did not expect this sort of inquisition,” he grumbled.
“Nobody expects the inquisition,” Huang Ming said with a smile, as if enjoying a private joke.
Cao Shuang clapped his hands for attention. “Young sirs, please attend!”
Huang Ming leisurely followed his brother so that they were together. Seeing the two choosing their tables without concern, Huang Ming’s friends hastened to gather near them. It seemed that there wouldn’t be any need for randomized seating this time around.
Indeed, some of the more discerning ones rushed to chose tables at the back, behaving like reluctant students afraid of being called up by the teacher. They had joined with a slim hope of catching the attention of Cao Tianyun, but now the situation was one where they could invite public ridicule instead and thus their hearts quivered.
Others were more confident and eager to attract attention, they strode confidently to the fore. Previously they were all bent over their tables as they did their calligraphy and thus had little opportunity to admire Cao Tianyun. Now they seized the chance to have a closer look at the Clouded Moon.
Huang Lang took the initiative to humbly salute the elder women. “We greet the honoured ladies of the House of Cao,” he said solemnly and bowed in a very proper and polite manner. Huang Ming and his fellow suitor candidates hurriedly followed his example and bowed deeply.
Cao Tianyun’s grandmother, Matriarch Cao; looked very feeble but nodded and managed a smile. With great reverence, Cao Tianyun guided the matriarch to the middle table and slowly sat her down. She herself took position to the left, leaving her mother to be on the right side of her grandmother.
Lady Cao was very pleased at the deference shown by the young men and said, “It is our honour for such distinguished guests to be here, please be seated!”
The gathered young men took their seats. Now two score and ten of the city’s most eligible bachelors faced the daughter, mother and grandmother of the Cao family. Though they are adult men in the peak of their youthful splendour; they cannot help but feel intimidated by these three ladies.
Lady Cao was especially daunting, after all this was for the benefit of her one and only daughter. Her eyes were especially sharp and one could feel an oppressive aura from her. Even the stout Cao Shuang who stood off to one side and fiercely glaring at the candidates could not compare. The Huang brothers were reminded of their own mother who had put the fear in them so recently.
Then Cao Tianyun said, “Honoured guests, Cao Tianyun sincerely thank you for your calligraphy submissions. Cao Tianyun is still very young and not very knowledgeable, there are some whose works are beyond her own poor comprehension. I pray that the young gentlemen could enlighten me.”
One of the maids stepped forward to place a stack of papers on Cao Tianyun’s table. Huang Ming noticed the pile seemed too small to be the entirety of submissions from the fifty young men.
He hid a smile, pretending to rub his cheek thoughtfully. ‘She already made her selection, she just don’t want to offend anyone by naming names. So she’s making this show in front of everybody,’ he thought to himself.
One of the candidates took the opportunity to stand confidently and cup his hands. “I am more than happy to help guide the lady with regards as to my composition,” he said smilingly.
Cao Tianyun appeared to be taken aback and leafed through the collected works. She frowned when she had went through the pile. She whispered to the maid in an urgent manner, the servant curtsied and made her way out.
Cao Tianyun bowed apologetically to the bold young man, “It appears my servant has misplaced your composition, Young Master Gan. I beg you to wait while she looks for it.”
The man surnamed Gan flushed, but managed to nod before sitting back down amidst silent chuckles and pitying looks from his peers. The gathered men were not fools, they had the same observation as Huang Ming when they saw the small stack of papers. The vain man was certain that he was one of the short-listed, now he became the butt of jokes among his peers. Helpless, he could only pretend to believe in the fiction given by Cao Tianyun.
Cao Tianyun lifted a sheet of paper and read,
“The moon soars in the night,
Bathing the world with its light,
With all I have I will fight,
And rescue the maiden from her plight.”
Lady Cao nodded and asked, “Who wrote this?”
A certain young man beamed with pride. He stood up and bowed to acknowledge his authorship.
“I thank Young Master Yang for his words. However, I wish to inquire, what exactly is the plight that my daughter is in that requires rescue?” Lady Cao asked with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
The young man froze, his mouth opening and closing but no words came out.
Cao Tianyun bowed to her guests, saying, “This humble maid had provoked the young sirs into this embarrassing event and thus invited ridicule. But I, Cao Tianyun would like to make it very clear. I am indeed seeking a worthy husband, and it is by the grace and indulgence of my parents that this is possible. They have given in to my selfish whims, this shows the love I have received from my father and my mother. I beg the young sir, please do not have ill thoughts of Cao Tianyun’s parents.”
The poor man could only bow repeatedly, saying, “I dare not, I dare not!”
‘So it’s this sort of scheme, shock and awe, shame and blame,’ Huang Ming scoffed. He was a little annoyed, this was a situation where the Caos could twist and turn the written words in any way they wished. It may have started as a poetry and calligraphy session, but now the suitors were forced to defend themselves without offending their hosts and yet remain open to ridicule.
Seeing Cao Tianyun slowly lifting another paper caused the entire hall to fill with dread. She read,
“Both brush and spear,
A man should aspire,
To the highest peak,
And not to be meek.”
Huang Ming could hear his friend He Ding the Odd Brush gulp with nervousness. He Ding was pale as he stood and bowed, his personalized brush that hung from his belt now felt as heavy as a lump of iron. An irony to those in attendance, for his poetry talked about bravery and now he appeared as if a breeze could blow him over.
Cao Tianyun handed the paper over to her elders. Lady Cao and the matriarch nodded appreciatively at the beautiful brush strokes.
“What wonderful calligraphy, Young Master He,” Lady Cao praised. She beckoned to a maid and the servant held the paper for all to see. Huang Ming did not really understand art, but he could see how the strokes flowed powerfully like a river. Many of the candidates muttered words of appreciation, He Ding was indeed a master.
His friend’s complexion became better. “I thank you for your kind words,” He Ding said.
Matriarch Cao nodded. “A good young man,” she said softly and He Ding’s smile grew brighter.
Then she casually asked, “Your brush is certainly at the peak, what about your spear?”
The smile disappeared from He Ding’s face. One look at him and one would know he was a bookish sort of fellow without any martial background.
“This humble person is still learning the way of calligraphy and has yet to find a spear master to follow,” he managed to say. His friends hid their smiles and resisted their urge to laugh, He Ding was notorious for avoiding physical activity and was loggerheads with the muscular Zhang Ping. That was to say, He Ding probably never lifted anything heavier than a brush in his life.
“A pity, such pity,” Matriarch Cao muttered, loud enough for all to hear. She waved a hand in dismissal and He Ding quickly sat back down. With a simple gesture, the matriarch had wiped away his delusions for her granddaughter’s hand.
Now the hall was thoroughly cowed!
Words used as a weapon,
Deadly like any venom.