“This humble warrior will take the Shofixti maidens you possess, gently wake them and then perform ribald feats of unsurpassed fertility!”
--Captain Tanaka


Chapter Twenty Four - Into darkness

Huang Ming looked at Cao Shuang incredulously. “You must be joking,” he said. “You even mocked me for going there!”


“I have never been there,” Cao Shuang admitted.


“I don’t want to go there!” Huang Ming shot back. There was a selfish reason for his refusal; he absolutely did not want to be accused as the person who introduced the only son of the governor to the brothel.


“You can be my guide,” Cao Shuang insisted.


Huang Ming grimaced. He could only remember the barest of details as it was shrouded in an alcohol-fueled haze. He deliberately avoided delving too deeply into the original’s experiences of the place; the last thing he wanted was to be a voyeur and stumble across an unsightly memory.


Cao Shuang’s expression darkened when he saw Huang Ming’s reluctance. “Does this mean you were not sincere in apologizing earlier?” he asked as he draped a beefy arm around the younger man. Cao Shuang was a not a small man. Not as tall as Huang Ke and not as stout as Ma Jun, but he still had considerable bulk. Now he used his size to coerce Huang Ming.


“Look, I’m trying to turn a new leaf. I don’t want to go to such places anymore,” Huang Ming pleaded.


“I don’t know what you’re thinking about, I’m just saying we go there and have a meal while being served by beautiful women. There’s no hanky-panky. Maybe we’ll even get to meet the secretive lady Qiong Ying,” Cao Shuang said, remembering the jeers Huang Ming had received during the day of the poetry competition.


Huang Ming sighed. It seemed he was destined to be played around by those older and bigger than him in this world. It certainly did not go the way of those oriental stories he had read on Earth where transmigrated and reborn characters often trounce and outsmarted their elders time and again.


‘I should ask Muge Jian for pointers. Maybe he has some secret manual or cultivation technique he can teach me,’ Huang Ming thought. It occurred to him that he had never actually seen Muge Jian use his sword, and much of his exploits were from stories and rumours. Perhaps martial artists could fly around in the sky in this world like in those stories…


The increasing pressure exerted by Cao Shuang brought him back to the present.


“Fine, fine! But I’ll say this, if we are ever questioned, it’s every man for himself!” Huang Ming relented.


The two made their way towards the heart of the city. But who should they bump into but none other than Liu Xiang the Iron Tiger. Huang Ming was astounded by the coincidence; he felt his Patron was playing a joke on him.


“Brother Liu Xiang!” he greeted the stern-looking military officer. Cao Shuang stood a few steps back, not sure on how to approach him.


Liu Xiang smiled at Huang Ming before giving a curt nod to Cao Shuang in acknowledgement. Of course, Liu Xiang knew of the new ties between the Huangs and the Caos, but it did little to appease him. Apparently the warnings and lies from the Huang brothers worked all too well, Liu Xiang could barely disguise his contempt for the governor’s son.


Huang Ming approached closer and whispered, “It’s all fine now, and things have all worked out. You should let bygones be bygones; they had their own circumstances beyond their control.”


Liu Xiang nodded, but his countenance towards Cao Shuang did not get any friendlier.


“Where are you headed, brother Liu Xiang?” Huang Ming asked.


“To eat,” Liu Xiang replied bluntly.


“What a coincidence, so are we,” Cao Shuang broke in.


Liu Xiang narrowed his eyes at Cao Shuang. “You two are together by yourselves? You don’t even have your personal guards,” he asked. The Iron Tiger thought that it was a trap to harm Huang Ming, but a smile from the younger man assured him.


“Would you like to join us?” Cao Shuang offered, hoping to mend relations with the officer. There shouldn’t be any animosity between them, the responsibility lay with Nangong Xie for his scheme involving Liu Xiang’s sister and yet wrath was laid on Cao Shuang. Cao Shuang did not know that the reason for this was the twisted truths from the Huang brothers previously.


“No thank you,” Liu Xiang answered brusquely and made as if to leave.


“We’re going to the Lichun Brothel,” Huang Ming added, hoping that the strict military man would rebuke them and thus bring an end to Cao Shuang’s frivolous agenda.


“What?”


“Cao Shuang hopes to see lady Qiong Ying,” Huang Ming explained ‘helpfully’. It earned him a glare from Cao Shuang.


“Yes, we are,” Cao Shuang disclosed, emphasizing their togetherness.


“Aren’t you afraid of your family’s anger?” Liu Xiang asked in astonishment.


“We’re only there for some companionship while eating. Not for, er, personal services. I have never been there before,” Cao Shuang explained.


Liu Xiang blinked. Then he coughed. “Even so, it’s not proper for you to go to such an establishment without an escort. I shall have to come with you as your guard.”


Cao Shuang was delighted. “Yes, please come with us,” he said, to which Liu Xiang nodded and gestured for them to lead the way.


Huang Ming’s mouth dropped open; he did not expect such an outcome. He looked at Liu Xiang who avoided his gaze. Then Huang Ming understood; it was blatantly obvious that the Iron Tiger was also interested in the Lichun Brothel. Huang Ming had hoped that his presence would deter Cao Shuang from going there, but it seemed Liu Xiang too was using them as an excuse to visit the place.


‘How did I get into this mess?’ Huang Ming complained.


And so Huang Ming found himself visiting the famous bordello with the future brothers-in-law of his siblings. He did not relish the conversation he would have with all the parties concerned once word got out. His reputation was the worst among them; it would be inevitable that he would be blamed for this excursion.


The Lichun Brothel was a large compound fronted by a multi-storey building, painted red and vermillion. A balcony allowed the beautiful young women on the upper floor to call and beckon at the street traffic below. Their lightly clothed bodies and brazen flirting caused numerous people to look up and stare as they walk past. A few men were even brave enough to respond to the siren calls of the courtesans, exchanging harmless trifles and teasing each other. A conservative fellow would turn red at their banter, a traditionalist would be howling in outrage at such behaviour in broad daylight. Then again, such people would have little reason to be in the area, wouldn’t they?


The bawdy and lively exterior served as an advertisement of sorts and was only the most base of services offered in the establishment. Its owners eschewed the secretive and discreet entrances of its competitors; the Lichun flaunted itself and was proud of it. It also had a restaurant and functioned as an inn, though it would be obvious that customers could indulge in much more than the usual fare.


As the trio approached the entrance, the ladies shrieked, firstly with disbelief and then with delight, showering the men with admiring gazes and blatant sex appeal. Their eyes shone, each hoping to be favoured by these famous men.


Huang Ming gave them a wave and a lopsided grin; his companions were uneasy and did not know where to look as a male usher guided them to a spacious dining room. To Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang, Huang Ming looked very assured and confident in this den of pleasure, yet they could not see the depths in his eyes.


Huang Ming had often wondered at the fate of such women. Even back on Earth, he had an idealistic project about interviewing women of the night and documenting their plight. He soon realized that many such women had simply given up or unable to break away due to various factors beyond their control. There were even those who had willingly entered the trade because it offered a better life than what they had. Across multiple worlds and many dimensions, the stories were depressingly similar.


His reverie was broken when a woman came over to welcome them.


“Oh my, Young Master Huang! How good to see you again!” she gushed.

 

Madam of the den,
Bustling like a hen.​