“So long, gay boys! ”
--Mr. Chow


Chapter Twenty Three - Ties that bind

The next day, Huang Zheng and his wife went to visit the Governor Cao’s residence along with some gifts. Huang Ke went to the barracks for his military duties while it wasn’t proper for Huang Lang to visit the residence again before the wedding.


He personally packed a bundle of gifts he picked himself and handed it to Huang Ming to be given to the Caos.


“What’s this?”


“Just some little gifts. Some candies, tea, the usual. Make sure Ms. Cao gets this,” his brother said airily.


Huang Ming saw little reason to join in the visit, but he was ordered to go anyway.


“You should take the opportunity to mend relations with Cao Shuang,” Huang Lang said. Huang Ming grimaced, who'd knew that his jibe to Cao Shuang on the day of the competition came true.


The Huang entourage was met at the entrance of the governor’s residence by Cao Shuang. His countenance was stiff and it seemed he had lost weight in the days since Huang Lang’s dramatic proposal to his sister. He received the gifts politely and guided them in.


Governor Cao was in no better shape than his son, but he greeted the Huangs. After some polite words, the women retired to the inner chambers to discuss the wedding details while Cao Yuan and Huang Zheng went to the governor’s study to firstly settle their official business.


Only Cao Shuang and Huang Ming were left out, they were obviously not part of the women’s group nor legally be privy as to the affairs between the military and the governor. Cao Shuang had wanted to retreat to his own privacy when his mother gave him an order.


“Entertain your guest while we conduct our business,” Lady Cao had said sternly as she left.


There was an awkward silence between the two as they waited, sitting some distance apart. The minutes passed very slowly as they avoided each other’s gaze.


A burst of laughter from the study finally made them look at each in surprise.


***


As Huang Zheng followed Cao Yuan into the study, he made up his mind to act as professionally as possible so as not to jeopardize the impeding marriage. The two men had quarrelled in the past, and while the feelings were bitter they were mostly confined in their official capacities as General of the Army and Governor of the City respectively. Their private encounters were few and far in between and they had maintained a cold air of civility while doing their public duties.


“Governor Cao, here is my report. The bandit threat has been completely eliminated,” Huang Zheng said as he handed over a scroll.


The governor nodded in acknowledgement, placing the scroll on his table and not bothering to open it. “Did you discover their origins?” he asked instead.


“Unfortunately, no survivors were captured,” Huang Zheng lied without blinking. Suitable arrangements had been made to deceive the governor.


The governor was more than eager to put the bandit troubles behind him. “Well, they deserved their fate for daring to attack government transports,” Cao Yuan said.


Huang Zheng nodded and smiled, pleased with himself for duping Cao Yuan. He did not tell the governor that the stolen goods have been appropriated and stored away by his trusted men.


When Cao Yuan saw the expression on the general’s face, his temper was roused. He could not help but see it as a sign of gloating.


“You must be pleased with yourself, finally getting rid of the bandits as well as having your son snatch my daughter,” he said coldly.


Huang Zheng’s ears reddened. “Your daughter seduced my son right under your nose, how did you not notice?” he fired back.


The two aged men glared at each other. It seemed a physical altercation would happen there and then, only to be interrupted when there was a knock on the door.


“Enter!” Cao Yuan said tersely.


It was Cao Tianyun, bearing a tray carrying a pot of tea and teacups like a maid.


“Please have these cooling tea as the weather is hot lately,” she said with an innocent smile, showing no indication that she had overheard the outburst earlier.


Cao Yuan grunted as his daughter poured the drinks for them, his anger forgotten.


Looking at her at closely, Huang Zheng couldn’t help but admire her delicate features and graceful demeanour. Truly, she was a beauty and worthy of her fame.


“Cao Tianyun greets the general,” she said shyly and curtsied.


“Mmm, thank you,” the general said, pleased with her countenance. His own fury was dispelled.


She smiled and then excused herself.


For a while, the two men sipped their tea in silence.


“Nice tea,” the governor said at last, wanting to break the strange atmosphere.


“It’s from my son, he bought it personally,” Huang Zheng replied, remembering the bundle of gifts his son had packed.


The two men shared a look and sighed simultaneously. It didn’t take too much deduction to realize that their children had once again worked together against them.


“He’s/she’s too clever,” they chorused. They blinked each other in surprise, and then shook their heads like the tired old men they were.


“I can see why my son is enamoured with her,” Huang Zheng conceded.


“You have a fine son, she has chosen well,” the governor complimented.


“I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea about their romance,” the general said frankly.


“Neither had I,” Cao Yuan admitted.


“It seems we are both inferior to our children,” Huang Zheng coughed wryly.


The governor grimaced, saying, “And our wives too, scheming and plotting behind our backs.”


Huang Zheng made a show of looking around before lowering his voice, “Shh, don’t say that so openly, we’ll get scolded!”


Cao Yuan nodded. “Ah, such is the fate of men and their wives,” he lamented.


They burst into laughter.


***


The sound of laughter was the last thing Huang Ming or Cao Shuang had expected. They looked at each in surprise, both not understanding what had made their fathers cheery.


“What do you suppose happened?” Huang Ming asked.


Cao Shuang snorted, not deigning to reply even though his curiosity was also piqued.


Huang Ming sighed and went over to Cao Shuang.


The older man tensed up, unsure of his guest’s intentions. His tired eyes flickered when Huang Ming greeted him solemnly without any trace of mockery or gloating.


“Master Cao Shuang, please accept my apologies for my behaviour previously. Let’s just let bygones be bygones,” Huang Ming said and offered his hand.


Cao Shuang narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “I don’t believe you,” he said.


Huang Ming shrugged. “That doesn’t matter. My brother is getting married to your sister, and now we are of one house. Besides, our personal quarrel is only superficial, and if anyone is to blame, it would be Nangong Xie.”


Cao Shuang sighed. “I suppose you are right,” he agreed and shook the offered hand.


Huang Ming beamed, glad to have accomplished his task of reconciling with Cao Shuang. He made a mental note to visit his friends as well as inform Liu Xiang about it so that everyone would get along, as well as not to unravel the pack of lies that he had weaved.


Once the handshake was over, the two young men stood around awkwardly. Cao Shuang was a few years older than even Huang Lang, thus they found even less topics in common to talk about. Huang Ming thought about the conflict Cao Shuang had with the rest of his friends, they had complained about the former’s interference in their family businesses, but he thought it was still too early to raise the issue as he did not know the details.


“Let’s go see our mothers, this is getting uncomfortable,” Huang Ming proposed.


“What? How can we simply intrude into the conversations of womenfolk?” Cao Shuang asked.


“They would be more than happy to see us having reconciled,” Huang Ming assured him.


Cao Shuang thought he was right and therefore led him towards the inner residence where the Cao ladies were talking with Madam Li. As they approached, the two men could hear cheerful chatter and the occasional lady-like giggles. It confirmed that the relationship between the two families were very friendly and familiar.


Before Cao Shuang could knock on the door, the duo overheard the conversation therein.


“...You have no idea just how happy I am that Ah Lang’s matter is settled,” Madam Li’s voice said in relief.


“Ah, I can understand. Now that your sons are getting married, you can look forward to having grandchildren,” Lady Cao said wistfully.


“If only Ah Shuang could do the same,” Matriarch Cao added.


Cao Shuang pulled a face and motioned for Huang Ming to stop. He was not eager to intrude during this particular conversation. Huang Ming grinned mischievously and made as if to knock the door, causing Cao Shuang to threaten him with a raised fist.


“Surely an outstanding young man as him would have many suitors,” Madam Li said diplomatically.


“There have been a few, but Ah Shuang never expressed any interest,” Lady Cao fretted. “He keeps saying that he would find his own bride.”


Madam Li sighed in agreement. “I know what you mean. Just the other day Ah Ming said something similar. Times are changing, sons don’t like mothers matchmaking for them any longer.”


Now it was Huang Ming’s turn to freeze. He looked at Cao Shuang with wide eyes and urgently motioned for him to back off. Cao Shuang smirked but the two men quietly moved away from the door.


“You don’t suppose... Well, there are stories about men fancying other men,” Lady Cao said with feigned trepidation.


“Scandalous!” Matriarch Cao exclaimed. “I would force feed Ah Shuang aphrodisiacs and lock him up with a woman to produce a heir if need be!”


Lady Cao giggled, knowing her mother-in-law was being facetious.


Madam Li laughed. “If you do so, please share them with me so that I could so the same with Ah Ming!”


Huang Ming and Cao Shuang stared at each other in horror. They could not see that the women was joking, from a distance it really felt like a credible threat. They took to their heels.


“How vicious!” Cao Shuang said as he trembled.


“They even think we prefer men,” Huang Ming agreed.


“Let’s get the hell out of here and prove them wrong,” Cao Shuang suggested.


Huang Ming was puzzled. “What do you have in mind?”


“Let’s go to the Lichun Brothel!”

 

A strange twist of fate,
Off to the brothel to escape.​