“Which is more important, your honour or your life?
Which is more valuable, your possessions or your person?
Which is more destructive, success or failure?”
--The Tao Te Ching


Chapter Two - Are you ill?

Huang Ming greeted the next morning with a pleasant surprise. Apparently the host's martial background had conveniently cleansed the after-effects of the hangover, leaving him fresh and bright for the new day. His portion of the bed was still drenched with the fragrance of sweet alcohol.


“Good morning, young master Huang,” Yu-er murmured shyly as she sat up from the bed, her hands clutching the blanket around her for modesty.


Huang Ming nodded, slowly climbed out of the bed and stretched widely, giving Yu-er the opportunity to get dressed hurriedly behind him. From his memories he knew that Yu-er was surprised again, the original Huang Ming had always been a late riser.


She wondered if he was ill.


“I will be having breakfast. Tell the servants not to make my bed, leave it as it is,” her young master said.


Yu-er acknowledged with a bent knee and quickly went away.


Alone at last, Huang Ming went to a standing mirror of polished bronze to study his new body. He had a handsome face. A lean body, but strong. Muscular from martial arts training from a young age, yet with some flab as the original had neglected to maintain the routines. Signs of someone who preferred to enjoy life and relying on the fame of the family, rather than training further.


As he got dressed, his eyes swept around the traditional-looking room. A study table with the implements of calligraphy, an assortment of books, a flute as well as a zither... Huang Ming rolled his eyes when he saw the lewd ivory statue again. A wry smile on his lips as memories of the original flashed in his mind. The table represented a microcosm of the original.


He was a person of wide interests, but of no devotion. His parents hoped to instill a literary career in him and thus catered to his whims. But once the original Huang Ming had satisfied his curiosity with the basics, the interest would wane and eventually abandoned. He had so much, yet he did not appreciate what was given, easily diverted by sensual distractions.


The new Huang Ming shook his head.


‘Time to meet the family,’ he thought and took a deep breath.


The moment he stepped out of his room, he noticed a powerful presence near him.


“What's this? Little Brother waking up early?” A booming voice called him with humour.


Smiling, Huang Ming turned to greet him. “Good morning, Second Brother.”


This was his Second Brother, Huang Ke the Mountain Splitter. He was towering man with powerful muscles, ruggedly handsome with a square jaw and round eyes that burned with passion. Only two years older, yet the difference in their sizes were stark: Huang Ke was a full head taller than him. Huang Ming knew that this brother spent his time practisingwith the battle-axe that was his namesake and was fond of proving his strength. He neglected his studies and insisted in following the military path, eventually becoming an officer in his own right under their father’s command.


“Ha ha ha, good morning!” Huang Ke laughed good-naturedly and clapped heartily on Huang Ming's back. A simple gesture, but it still caused the younger brother to stagger a half-step.


“Don't be so noisy in the morning,” a new voice admonished from the side.


It was Huang Lang, the eldest son, just a year older than Huang Ke. In contrast to Huang Ming's lazy outlook and Huang Ke's brutish features, Huang Lang had a noble disposition. Groomed to be the heir of the family, Huang Ming knew that his eldest brother had a calculative mind and the prowess to back up his authority. Huang Ming could not recall the last time he saw his eldest brother smile. The man had no room for leisure; he was dedicated to managing the business inherited from maternal side of the family. People called him the Celestial Qilin for his calm and steady nature.


“Good morning, Eldest Brother,” Huang Ming greeted politely.


Huang Lang's dispassionate eyes gazed at him.


“You were out drinking again yesterday,” he said flatly. A statement, not a question.


Huang Ming smiled. "The last time. Never again."


‘Indeed, last night actually killed the original Huang Ming...’ He thought wryly.


“Are you ill?” Huang Lang's scepticism was obvious.


“Let’s just say something happened, and my eyes are opened.”


The elder brother frowned. “It would be good if it is so,”" he said, “It is time for you to grow up and take charge of your life.”


“I will be troubling my brothers for advice later,” Huang Ming said solemnly, cupped his hands and bowed to them both. This time Huang Lang's eyebrows rose in a rare slip of composure.


“Good younger brother!” Huang Ke exclaimed in approval.


The three brothers went to the dining hall together.


The parents were already seated around a round table made of marble. They were drinking tea and chatting quietly to each other while several maids stood in attendance, Yu-er among them.


Seated at the head was the father was a stern-faced person, powerful with the countenance of a person who was used to getting respect. Thick jade rings adorned multiple fingers on both hands. This was General Huang Zheng the Great Sword, patriarch of the Huang family, defender of Tianxin city and a bulwark of Wu. Sixty years of age, yet he could still pull the stiffest bow and twirl the heaviest glaive with ease, striking fear into his foes.


To his right was the mother, dressed in beautiful silk, a jewel-crusted phoenix pin in her hair, her eyes sharp and her bearing was imperious. No longer young, but still a beauty with unblemished skin. She was of the Li Clan, a famous merchant caravan family.


It was this marriage between the martial Huangs and the wealthy Lis that cemented their position as the most influential power in Tianxin city. Even the governor had to consider Huang Zheng’s ‘suggestions’ seriously even though he first rose as a common soldier.


Obviously, such prestige became the envy of others, and Huang Ming knew his family was always wary of those jealous of their strength. This was not helped in anyway by the original Huang Ming’s haughty attitude. He sighed inwardly, wondering at the amount of problems this young master had caused.


“Good morning, father, mother,” the three brothers intoned together and bowed.


“En,” Huang Zhen grunted and gestured for his sons to join them at the table.


Madam Li gave Huang Ming a smile. “You are early today,” she said. He returned her smile, taking the initiative to pick up the pot of tea to refill her cup. She raised an eyebrow but nodded in appreciation.


“I’m not giving you an advance,” Huang Zheng said immediately.


Huang Ming winced inwardly and he could feel his face flushing with embarrassment.


He filled Huang Zhen’s cup too before setting down the pot. Once more he bowed.


“Father, mother… I was wrong.”


This simple admission caused their eyes to widen further. Huang Ke especially enjoyed the shocked looks on his parents, but he too was somewhat curious and surprised. Younger brother was a spoiled child and never afraid to get his way, what brought on this sudden change?


Huang Lang said nothing but paid close attention to his youngest brother’s conduct.


“Are you ill?” Madam Li asked in concern.


From his memories Huang Ming knew the original was a reprobate and the parents had turned a blind eye to his various misdeeds because he knew how to suck up to them. Giving an elaborate lie to them would serve no purpose, Huang Zheng and Madam Li were doting parents but weren’t idiots. He might as well twist the truth.


“I had too much to drink last night, I nearly died from alcohol poisoning,” he sighed dramatically.


“What!”


The others listened with various degrees of shock. Death by binge-drinking was not unheard of, and with Huang Ming’s lifestyle it was somewhat believable.


Huang Ming raised a palm to forestall any questions about his well-being.


“I am fine now, but last night was really dangerous. I actually saw a sea of heavenly stars,” he said grimly, “but at the last moment I was pulled back and woke up.”


His family did not know what to say at this moment.


“I think I gave Yu-er a fright last night,” Huang Ming added as an afterthought and smiled. Yu-er who was nearby, blushed furiously. It was unseemly to have mentioned about a maid sharing his bed, but it was his way to indirectly mention that there was a witness to his words. He could see that Huang Lang had already mentally noted to question the maid later. Telling the servants to leave his bed undone to be inspected by his elder brother would corroborate his story even further.


“My son...” Huang Zhen uttered. Madam Li said nothing as she was still shocked.


“Father, mother… In those last moments, I saw myself. I saw myself like how others would see me, and I was disgusted. I... I want to change,” Huang Ming said, making sure to allow a slight tremor in his voice to enhance the effect.


His father stood up and saluted the heavens with a palm over a fist. “I thank the Heavens for returning my son!” he intoned solemnly. Madam Li smiled, and in Huang Ming’s mind it had been a long time since he had seen such a sincerely pleased look on her face.


“It is good that you are now with us, wiser and humbler,” she said.


Huang Zheng laughed as he sat back down. “My son, it is about time you be more serious about your future.”


Huang Ming nodded. “Eldest brother said the same thing. I want to learn... I want to... To find something that I am good at.”


This was no lie. Huang Ming wanted to find a purpose. As a transmigrated Avatar of his Patron, he had no idea what his role would be in this new setting. All he could do was to strive to the best of this mortal life before returning back to the Waiting Room, or ascend to another plane.


“If you are truly serious, first get rid of that obscene sculpture in your room like I had told you countless times,” Madam Li said dryly, causing him to flush again.


“Your son hears and will obey,” he said, keeping his tone level.


Huang Zheng turned to his two elder sons. “Ah Lang, Ah Ke, you two will teach him while I am away. Governor Cao has asked for increased patrols.”


They glanced at each and nodded.


Huang Ming heard the irritation in his father’s voice when the governor was mentioned, but thought nothing of it. He merely bowed in acknowledgement.


For the first time in a long while, the family enjoyed breakfast together.


The three brothers stood up as one and excused themselves after the meal.


Huang Lang looked meaningfully at his youngest brother. “I will make arrangements for you in a few days; there are some things I need to take care of first. Ah Ke, I’ll leave him to you in the meantime,” he said and left to start his duties, leaving his two younger brothers.


“I think elder brother isn’t convinced,” Huang Ke said.


“It’s my fault. I have been foolish and wasteful all this while. I want to right the wrongs,” Huang Ming replied. Then he saw a peculiar smile on Huang Ke’s face.


“That’s all well and good, younger brother, but what about the woman you brought back yesterday?” Huang Ke smirked.


“Eh?”