“Welcome to ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’, the show where everything's made up and the points don't matter.”
--Drew Carey


Chapter Nineteen - Plots within plots

The person whom Wang Hao was leading into the hall was none other than Madam Li, wife of General Huang Zheng, mother of Huang Lang and Huang Ming.


Huang Ming’s mouth dropped open. While he had some sneaky suspicions about the entire affair, one look at Huang Lang told him that his elder brother did not expect this as well. The brothers were worried, thinking that their mother had been lured here.


Cao Shuang was elated at first; he too shared the same reaction. He thought Wang Hao had managed to trick Madam Li to coming to the Cao residence willingly, that a scheme had been engineered so that all of General Huang’s dependents could be captured as hostages in one fell swoop. However, the presence of the fifty suitor candidates reminded him that it was impossible. There were too many witnesses and he couldn’t possibly detain all of them.


He glared at Wang Hao. ‘Why did you bring her to the main hall where everyone is gathered? You should have locked her up somewhere!’ he said to himself.


Then the worries of the Huang brothers and Cao Shuang’s speculation ended. A few steps behind Madam Li was the redoubtable Muge Jian, the Masking Sword. He rested an easy hand on the pommel of his sword, the only armed man in the entire hall. Huang Lang breathed a sigh of relief; he had tasked his friend to watch over his household while the brothers were away. Still, he wondered at the reason his mother and his friend were here in the lion’s den. He glanced at Cao Tianyun; she was just as perplexed as he was.


Madam Li went over to the Cao matrons; they exchanged greetings and friendly looks. Muge Jian took up a position nearby, smiling and ignoring the questioning looks from the two Huang brothers.


“Am I too early? Is it done yet?” Madam Li asked conversationally.


“Just about,” Lady Cao replied with a smile. Then she looked at her daughter who was still in a daze and said, “Silly girl, what are you waiting for? Do you accept the proposal?”


The entire hall hushed and strained their ears to listen.


“Yes, I accept,” Cao Tianyun said shyly, her heart beating as if it was going to burst.


A thunderous applause filled the hall. Then shouts of acclamation joined in. Feelings of envy and dissatisfaction were swept away by the moment. After all, it was a fair contest. It was fitting that the Celestial Qilin, the best and brightest of their generation, the most accomplished and qualified among them; would be matched with the Clouded Moon.


The cheers and celebratory mood grew as Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun bowed to each other, their mothers looking on approvingly.


Of course, there were those who remained bitter, like Nangong Xie. Seeing that his cause was lost, Nangong Xie angrily turned around and left. On his way home, he saw people cheering. The news had already spread beyond the walls of the governor’s residence.


And where was the governor in all this commotion? Cao Shuang was numb from shock and thus did not immediately think of his father.


The cheers went on for a while before Lady Cao raised a hand. Obediently the young men quietened down, their faces still flushed and their smiles yet to fade.


“We are blessed that the event reached a happy end. The House of Cao thanks the honoured guests for their participation today!” she said, bringing the proceedings to a close. Once more there were cheers. The maids and servants began to escort the excited guests out. Each was eager to leave and regale their families with first-hand accounts of the event, their shame of not being chosen were forgotten. Who cared about their poetry being criticized earlier? They had just seen a public declaration of mutual love from the two most famous personages of the city.


The story would be repeated and exaggerated, indeed, one story-teller would say,
 

A thousand men sought the Clouded Moon,
But only one made her spellbound,
To the Celestial Qilin she granted her boon,
A love eternal, forever bound!​


Some of the leaving guests noted the dazed and confused look on Cao Shuang. They assumed he was simply exhausted; others who had known of his resentment slyly congratulated him as they went past.


Soon the hall was empty save for the Caos and the Huangs.


“Let’s discuss the details,” Madam Li said. The Cao matrons beckoned for servants to prepare a seat for her and to bring out refreshments.


“We’ll have to wait for my husband to return from his campaign, but I think so-and-so month would be auspicious for a wedding,” Madam Li suggested.


“We will need to consult the oracles for the specific date, but it should be fine,” Lady Cao agreed.


“Wait wait wait,” Huang Ming rattled, “What is going on here? Why are you even here?”


“Making wedding preparations, what do you think?” his mother scoffed.


“Isn’t this moving too quickly?” Huang Ming asked.


“It’s not you who is getting married anyway. That reminds me, I need to talk with the Lius regarding Liu Yuchun and Huang Ke,” his mother said. She turned to Lady Cao and asked, “Would you object if it’s a double wedding?”


“Of course not. All the more reason for a grand wedding ceremony,” Lady Cao replied affably. Matriarch Cao nodded her assent, and smiles were exchanged. The atmosphere was very genial.


Huang Ming was nonplussed. He whirled on his brother. “You planned this!” he said accusingly.


Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun shared a look. They nodded resolutely to each other and then knelt together before the Cao matrons and Madam Li.


“We have not been filial, please forgive us!” they intoned together as one.


“Oh? What do you mean?” Madam Li asked, arching an eyebrow. Lady Cao was still smiling, as if enjoying a private joke.


“We have been acquainted since Governor Cao Yuan’s investiture ceremony, I have been courting her in secret ever since,” Huang Lang admitted. Cao Tianyun blushed and kept her head down.


Flashes of memories went off in Huang Ming’s head.

…Huang Ming threatened, “What, not happy? You want me to find you a wife too?” Huang Lang shook his head and smiled…

…“He must be truly desperate to dangle his daughter like a piece of meat,” Huang Ming smirked. Huang Lang frowned at his choice of words…

…“That girl Tianyun is a treasure. If one of you can bring her home as my daughter-in-law, it would be wonderful. Then she will be part of our family, not one of the Caos any longer,” Madam Li said. “You really have no objections to her?” Huang Lang inquired slowly…

…“Wouldn’t it be funny if his daughter somehow ended up falling in love with an undesirable person like Nangong Xie?” Huang Ming smirked. “Not funny at all,” Huang Lang said flatly…

…“Want to bet to see who between us would win Cao Tianyun’s hand?” his brother said challengingly…

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


“You mean you made this… this event? You planned it all?” Huang Ming asked.


“Well, not exactly,” Huang Lang said, giving his fiancée a meaningful look. “Originally it was planned for me to come and make a commotion, and then I would make my declaration in front of Lady Cao and Matriarch Cao and appeal to them,” he explained and bowed apologetically to the matrons.


“Cao Tianyun was selfish and now begs forgiveness. I deliberately made it a big event so that many esteemed witnesses would be present,” Cao Tianyun said. Then she added in a tiny voice while her eyes stared at the floor, “I wanted everyone to know what a man my husband is.”


“Please forgive her, I am willing to take any punishment in her stead,” Huang Lang pleaded.


Madam Li and Lady Cao looked at each other and laughed.


“Stop your nonsense and stand up,” Matriarch Cao cackled, her eyes twinkling with amusement. When Huang Ming first saw her, he thought her to be a very feeble old woman. Now she looked very lively, the humour on her face shedding away years of weariness.


Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun were baffled by the merriment of their mothers. They slowly got on their feet with trepidation.


“How ignorant you think we are! Did you really think we would be unaware of your doings? We are your mothers, how could we not notice your behaviour?” Madam Li asked.


“Your face practically shouts for joy each time you received a letter, how could you deceive me?” Lady Cao added.


“You already knew?” Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun asked together.


“Who do you think had me called here?” Madam Li demanded.


“Honestly, did you think we would agree with this ‘competition’ if we didn’t know your true feelings? If it was any other man, we would never go along with it!” Lady Cao replied.


Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun were stunned but very happy. They gazed lovingly at each other.


Just then, there was a raucous commotion.


“Treachery! Betrayal! I have been betrayed!” a loud voice shouted.

 

Just after they had confessed,
Another voice shouted in distress.​