You know there's uh, one family charity case who loves you very much.

--Buck Russell, ‘Uncle Buck’

 

Chapter 244 – The job

 

When Huang Ming returned to the residence of his relatives the Li Clan, he found his mother waiting for him.

 

There was no way to have avoided her, she was sitting imperiously in the middle of the audience hall, calmly sipping tea with his Uncle Li Hong.

 

“Hi mom,” Huang Ming greeted casually.

 

The matriarch of the Huang family narrowed her phoenix eyes and for a moment Huang Ming winced as the incinerating glare was focused on him. Uncle Li Hong chuckled silently, obviously enjoying seeing his nephew being in trouble.

 

Then to Huang Ming’s surprise, she stretched her neck to look behind him.

 

Huang Ming glanced behind him to make sure that he was not being followed, but his mother keep looking past him towards the doorway as if she was anticipating the arrival of someone else.

 

“Are you waiting for someone?” Huang Ming asked.

 

“I was waiting to see if you brought back any more strange women,” Madam Li replied with a deadpan expression, causing Uncle Li Hong to laugh.

 

“Oh ha-ha,” Huang Ming grumbled as he joined them at the table, sitting himself unceremoniously as equals. Ordinarily this would cause conservative families to be outraged, for he sitting down without being uninvited.

 

But Huang Ming’s casual temperament was infectious and most of the stifling proprieties were dispensed wordlessly. Huang Ming himself assuaged whatever resentment his elders might have had by offering to pour the tea for them personally.

 

“So, you really have not hooked anyone new?” Uncle Li Hong asked casually as he sipped at his cup.

 

“I do not go around seducing people, why do people think that I do?” Huang Ming put on a wronged face.

 

“Your two brothers are already married but you are running around with two women in tow. Why else?” his mother said sharply.

 

“I am kind of busy. This son of yours did conjure strategies that drove away armies of tens of thousands and saved the kingdom on several occasions, you know,” Huang Ming groused.

 

“Yet you could not find the time to settle down and put your own house in order?” Madam Li asked, arching an eyebrow the way only mothers could.

 

“I am good but not that good. What are you doing here anyway? Are you escaping from Ah Lang and sister-in-law Cao?” he asked to change the subject.

 

“Can’t I be visiting your uncle?” his mother snapped back irritably.

 

Uncle Li Hong coughed. “Well, I am sure you have plenty to catch up,  I will leave you two to it.”

 

He got up to leave, only for his sister to grab hold of his sleeve and pull him back down to his seat.

 

“You are not getting off that easy,” Madam Li growled. “You have yet to tell me why you had brought my sons to a brothel the last time.”

 

Uncle Li Hong went white. “I did not bring them there, I went to rescue him!” he exclaimed indignantly.

 

Now that his uncle was on the receiving end of the incinerating glare, it was Huang Ming’s turn to chuckle.

 

“Don’t you dare laugh,” the normally genial Li Hong seethed. “I haven’t settled the score with you. Do you know how much trouble you got me in with your aunt when your louts barged through my doors and dragged me off to the red light district? You never did help me to clear things up with your aunt, to this day she remains suspicious of me!”

 

“I don’t know, uncle. You seem to know your way there,” Huang Ming slandered, remembering how his uncle and his brother had talked back and forth about his love life as if he wasn’t there.

 

Li  Hong pointed a shaking finger of rage at him wordlessly.

 

“Enough, I’ll talk with sister-in-law,” Madam Li soothed as she gently brought his hand down.

 

“Sorry, uncle, I was just jesting,” Huang Ming apologized light-heartedly, hoping that the smile on his face was not too infuriating.

 

“Hmph. I can see where he gets his nerve from,” Li Hong grumbled.

 

Somehow that did not sit quite well with Madam Li, but she allowed the comment to pass.

 

“You haven’t answered me. What are you doing here?” Huang Ming asked again, steering back to the topic.

 

“Haven’t you heard? You are accused of pawning off the country and the princess to the kingdom of Chu,” Madam Li said sarcastically.

 

“So the king was right? You came here to offer yourself up as a hostage, to silence the rumours?”

 

“That’s half of it,” Uncle Li Hong quipped. “The other half is that your father-”

 

He was roughly interrupted by a sharp elbow from Madam Li into his side.

 

“My father what?” Huang Ming asked with genuine concern.

 

“Pay him no mind,” Madam Li shushed. Uncle Li Hong on his part was preoccupied with getting his breath back as he rubbed his sore ribs.

 

“But-”

 

“No buts, don’t change the subject, we are talking about you,” Madam Li said. “You entered the palace today, did you manage to clear things up?”

 

“I had an audience with the king, yes. He was not against to the idea of marrying off the princess.”

 

The eyes of Li Hong and Madam Li widened.

 

“So it is true? You really brought back a prince to seal the deal with Chu?” Li Hong asked.

 

“Essentially, yes.”

 

“You… you really plan to sell out the kingdom to Chu?” Li Hong gasped.

 

“I plan to ensure our survival when we’re being hemmed in by Jin in the north and Wei in the west,” Huang Ming said.

 

“What have I done to have such a nephew…” Li Hong groaned weakly.

 

“But you said the king was agreeable to the idea? What about the courtiers and officials?” Madam Li asked.

 

“I will probably be summoned to the palace again tomorrow to debate the proposal with them properly,” Huang Ming smiled.

 

“This is no laughing matter,” Uncle Li Hong wheezed. “Ever since you cleared out Tong Xuan, the court is now filled with actual capable and talented people. They will not take kindly to your proposal.”

 

“It is not up to me anyway. Not my problem,” Huang Ming shrugged.

 

“How is it not your problem when you’re the one who brought the Prince of Chu here?” Li Hong demanded.

 

I’m not the one marrying the prince,” Huang Ming reminded them. “Opposition or not, it is up to the princess to decide. The king went out of his way to say so, he would not force her into it.”

 

“Then tomorrow…”

 

“Of course, I would have to save some face for the princess and make it all seem like a good and logical idea in the first place. If she is really against the idea, she could still accept the proposal but point to me to bear the brunt of the criticism. I either end up being praised as brilliant or be accused of being too cavalier… both of which I already am.”

 

Madam Li gazed at her youngest son who nonchalantly drank his cup of tea as if he had just talked about something as mundane as the weather, instead of casually accepting his role as the saviour of the kingdom. Or more likely, the scapegoat should things go wrong.

 

She reached and grasped his hand, squeezing it emotionally.

 

“Why should you bear this?”

 

“Well, someone has to do the job,” Huang Ming answered easily.

 

“Not again,” Uncle Li Hong mumbled. “Last time, you decided on your own to go against Tong Xuan. You recklessly gambled with the lives of both our clans. Now you’re doing it again!”

 

“It was Ah Lang who decided back then,” Huang Ming protested. “Besides, it is not gambling, it’s a calculated risk, I have some plans to increase my chances.”

 

“What plans?” Li Hong asked warily.

 

“I am going to need your help, uncle,” Huang Ming smiled broadly.

 

The mother sees his woes,

No time to think of their foes.