“So let's just file that one under ongoing disasters, shall we?”
Chapter Twenty Two - Forget It
Seeing her husband’s nervous expression was enough evidence for Madam Li. She slapped the table in anger, rattling the teacups.
“What is wrong with the men of this family? You keep making marriage plans without consulting me!” she complained.
Huang Zheng and his sons Huang Lang and Huang Ming all had various looks of guilt and avoided her fiery gaze. Only Huang Ke nodded in agreement with his mother, eager to stay on her good side.
“Well? Speak up!” Madam Li demanded.
“We met with Zhao Tong when we, er, ‘destroyed’ the bandits,” Huang Zheng said simply, and understanding dawned on his wife’s face.
“You mean you got drunk!” she exclaimed angrily.
Zhao Tong the Thunderer was one of Huang Zheng’s peers, another aged comrade-in-arms. Together they had braved innumerable battlefields. He was notorious for two things: his loud voice and his drinking habit. One of Madam Li’s few silver linings when the Huang family was transferred to Tianxin city was that her husband would be away from Zhao Tong and thus unable to join in one of his drinking binges.
“Well, we haven’t met in a while,” Huang Zheng said defensively. “He’s in the neighbouring city of Wuxin now, commanding its army. We rendezvoused and had a meeting regarding the princess’s letter.”
Huang Ming suppressed his groan as yet another party to the ticking time bomb that was the princess’s call to arms was revealed. Worse still, it was the drink lover Zhao Tong.
Madam Li was also unimpressed. “I don’t care about that drunkard Zhao. What mess did you get Ah Lang into?”
“Eh, the meeting lasted for a long time and so we had a few drinks after the serious talk…” Huang Zheng began.
“Oh I’m sure you did,” Madam Li said evenly, her eyes narrowing.
Huang Zheng coughed. “Ahem… old Zhao was moaning about his unwed daughter, saying how nobody dared to approach her because of him.”
“What happened next? Did you put up Ah Lang’s name?” Madam Li asked.
Huang Zheng scratched his head, muttering, “Sometimes, I forget things... My memory’s a little hazy…”
“Your memory better improve quickly or you’ll be sleeping at the barracks for the next month,” Madam Li snapped.
Huang Zheng sighed, wondering how his life would be if he had listened to the little doubts that he had when he first saw this woman who would become his wife. He had fallen for her beauty and her spirit, but there were times when he wished she was not so wilful.
Then he brightened as if relieved, saying, “At first Zhao Tong saw Ah Ke and was happy with his bearing. He proposed a match there and then, but Ah Ke said it wasn’t proper for him to be married before Ah Lang. So old Zhao asked about Ah Lang instead.”
Now it was Huang Ke’s turn to blanch. Huang Lang glared at him, realizing that this middle brother had made him as an excuse to avoid calling the boisterous Zhao Tong his father-in-law. Despite the situation, Huang Ming couldn’t help but smirk; it was ironic that the brothers were scheming marriages for each other while the relevant person concerned was absent.
“Congratulations, eldest brother. Now you’ll have two brides to choose from,” Huang Ming said facetiously.
Madam Li raised a hand to quell the rising retort from Huang Lang, not wanting the discussion to be interrupted by brotherly wrangling. She motioned for her husband to continue.
“And what happened next?”
“Well, I said I’ll find him a son-in-law. Old Zhao only got the idea after Ah Ke mentioned Ah Lang,” Huang Zheng said, pleased at being able to extricate himself from immediate trouble.
All eyes now turned to look at Huang Ke.
“Hey, it was true that it wasn’t proper for me to get married before Ah Lang!” he protested.
“Hah, good second brother!” Huang Lang smiled with clenched teeth and hit him on his back. It was not a little forceful, and Huang Ke would have retaliated if not for a look from his mother. He sullenly glared daggers at Huang Lang, muttering beneath his breath.
“Father, did you say Ah Lang’s name directly?” Huang Ming asked, not liking the way the conversation was flowing. He immediately prepared his defence: lawyering.
“I actually didn’t mention Ah Lang’s name at all, but old Zhao was saying how he was looking for the best to marry his daughter. I guess he simply assumed it would be Ah Lang, he’s quite famous after all,” Huang Zheng replied, eyeing his eldest son with some measure of pride.
Huang Lang was in no mood to be flattered. “If you didn’t make a direct promise with my name, then we can still rescue this preposterous situation,” he said.
Now they looked at Huang Ming.
“Not it!” he immediately asserted.
“What do you mean, ‘not it’? You’re the only one left,” Huang Lang said, eager to resolve the problem.
“That’s right, I have yet to thank you for finding a bride for me, younger brother. Let me return the favour,” Huang Ke agreed brightly. He copied what Huang Lang did earlier and hit Huang Ming on his back. Huang Ming had to grip the table with both hands to prevent his chest from hitting the edge, Huang Ke was that powerful.
“I was only doing what was necessary,” Huang Ming replied through gritted teeth. “And no, I’m not going to get married to someone whom I have never met.”
“I’m sorry son, but you have to make this sacrifice,” Huang Zheng said gravely, not feeling sorry at all. He was of the opinion that this son would truly be a changed person once married. Besides, he felt that ever since Huang Ming’s ‘change of heart’, his entire household seemed too relaxed and flippant. It was as if Huang Ming’s nonchalance had infected everyone else in the Huang family.
“I must refuse this honour,” Huang Ming answered sarcastically.
“Why? Do you prefer boys? It’s Min Guang, isn’t it? That young kid has been following you for years,” his father said, horrified.
“No!” Huang Ming blurted quickly, also horrified that his father had such thoughts. “Sir Zhao Tong is expecting the ‘best’ for his daughter, and my reputation is hardly sterling. I would never satisfy his requirements,” he pointed out.
Huang Zheng grimaced at the reminder. “True, your reputation precedes you. And news of Ah Lang’s engagement would surely spread quickly as well,” he said.
“It’s pointless to cry about spilt milk, let’s just forget about it,” Huang Ming suggested. “After all, it’s just drunken talk between two old friends. What is sir Zhao Tong going to do, send his daughter here without advance notice? Even someone as rash as him wouldn’t do something like that, he would at least wait for an official proposal and then negotiate about the dowry.”
Huang Zheng and Madam Li nodded. But Huang Lang reacted badly, it was too passive and too lackadaisical of a response and it smacked of irresponsibility.
“I don’t want this hanging over my head while I’m engaged with Ms. Cao Tianyun,” he said exasperatedly. He had planned his arrangement with his beloved over a long period, to see their plans derailed at this point was more than he could bear.
“Then lets have our parents formalize your engagement tomorrow. Set a reasonable wedding date quickly before Zhao Tong could do anything about it,” Huang Ming proposed. “Meanwhile, I’ll try to come up with some other plan, maybe find another suitable solution.”
Huang Zheng grunted, the prospect of becoming in-laws with Governor Cao Yuan was not very appealing to him.
“It seems that’s the only way,” Madam Li said heavily. She pointed a finger at her youngest son, saying, “And don’t you dare make any final decisions about your own love life without consulting me. The other men have overstepped their boundaries, you better not follow in their footsteps.”
“Of course, mother has the final say,” Huang Ming agreed respectfully.
The ‘other men’ in question heard nothing but much sucking up in his words, but they knew better than to antagonize Madam Li further.
The matter settled thus, or rather, simply postponed; the Huangs visited the Caos to finalize the matter of Huang Lang and Cao Tianyun.
A short relief,
A respite too brief.