“That is a big business you have in hand at home.”
--Cao Cao to Liu Bei
Chapter 249 – Sneaky business
“What are you doing?”
Huang Ming turned around to see his mother looking at him suspiciously.
“What does it look like I am doing? I am cooking.” Huang Ming rolled his eyes.
Huang Ming was squatting in the middle of the courtyard, grilling several pieces of chicken. Madam Li had said nothing when the servants told her that Huang Ming wanted to cut up the chicken himself.
Madam Li did not like to eat chicken, as it was not uncommon to find shards of broken bone and exposed the discomforting marrows. But Huang Ming had divided the carcass and cut the bones away from the meat, instead simply and forcefully chop up the bird as per the norm.
“This is no time to be cooking,” Madam Li said exasperatedly.
“You are not the first person to say that,” Huang Ming sighed.
“Then why are you wasting time with such a menial task?”
“I was supposed to cook you a meal,” he reminded her. “The last time, Uncle Li Hong didn’t pay attention and the meat was turned into charcoal.”
“It was hardly his fault, you just up and left for the palace. How could you expect a scholar and like him to know anything about cooking?”
Huang Ming chuckled. “Does that mean that Uncle Li Hong would starve to death if he finds himself alone wandering in the wilderness?”
“Your uncle would not have a reason to leave the city in the first place.”
“Hmm. True, I cannot imagine dear old uncle to be roughing it out in the wild,” Huang Ming mused.
‘Mmm, this smells delicious if I do say so myself. This is almost worth the trouble,’ he thought to himself smugly.
He had no idea that his mother had taken his whimsical statement seriously. Her forehead creased with worry and her eyes softened as Huang Ming flipped the pieces of chicken, occasionally wiping the sweat from his brow and blinking away the tears caused by the smoke.
‘My son, how have you suffered to have needed to cook with your own hands...’
“Is something wrong?” Huang Ming asked. “If the smoke’s too much for you, you should stand back a little.”
“Yes, yes,” Madam Li said as she dabbed away her own tears.
“You don’t need to get so worked up just because I decided to cook for you. At least wait till you have a taste first,” Huang Ming joked.
Fortunately for Madam Li, Huang Ming had turned back to the grilling and did not see her shudder with emotions. She remembered the unearthly hours when she could only see her son stumbling home after a night out, and now he was preparing a dish for her? He had changed so much: from a complete wastrel to a mischievous schemer… Hmm.
‘He’s up to something,’ Madam Li thought to herself as she brushed aside her feelings.
“What exactly are you up to?” she asked suspiciously as she narrowed her eyes.
“Why, is it so wrong for a son to serve his mother? Be patient, it will be done soon,” Huang Ming said.
“Why are you so full of leisure when you should be busy handling the matter of the princess’s marriage? What brought about this sudden desire to please me? We have barely chatted ever since you returned from the north-”
She stopped abruptly, suddenly recalling those few snatches of conversation that she had with her son.
“Did your father put you up to this?”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Huang Ming said airily.
“Do not lie to me, I saw your hand pause for a second,” Madam Li said waspishly. Whatever warm and fuzzy feeling that arose from seeing her son cooking for her disappeared.
“I have not gone back to Tianxin City, so how could I have seen father?” Huang Ming said as he scrupulously kept his eyes on the grill.
“Do you take me for an idiot? You send and receive dozens of letters nearly every day.”
“Mother is most wise and all-seeing,” Huang Ming mumbled.
“I knew you were up to no good. You keep making trouble in this neighbourhood. What, the last time wasn’t enough?”
Her son shrugged. “It was just one little fight, no need to get scared. Besides, I do have a reason for doing this.”
Madam Li was supremely unimpressed. “Enlighten me, before I march to the king and demand that you be sent back home.”
“I wanted to be inconspicuous to avoid those who oppose the marriage. Therefore I am hiding in plain sight by openly buying these sort of mundane things and doing nothing but writing and reading letters. And cooking…”
“I assume one of those letters is from your father?”
“Well…” Huang Ming trailed off.
“What did he write?” Madam Li prompted impatiently.
“He, uh, asked for my advice.”
“He asked you for advice?” she asked incredulously.
“To be exact, he asked Ah Ke, who referred him to Ah Lang, who then told him to ask me. So yes, this is all their fault,” Huang Ming replied.
“So this is what you are spending your time with? You idiots…” Madam Li pinched her brows.
“Father did not say what happened, but asked about, you know; if one had upset you, hypothetically; how to get on your good side.”
“And what did you write back to him, hmm?” Madam Li asked with a smile that did not quite reach her eyes.
“I told him that if he did something to upset you, he should buy you a present that is worth about, oh, five hundred taels of gold. Hypothetically, of course,” Huang Ming shrugged.
“Five hundred?” Madam Li repeated.
“Should I have told him one thousand?” Huang Ming laughed. “What exactly did he do to have offended you, mother?”
“He didn’t do anything,” Madam Li muttered.
At first Huang Ming was mystified. Then he understood. It was one of those typical, cliché situations depicted in Earth media, where women somehow expected men to possess the psychic powers to read their minds.
“Mother, you just called us idiots,” he reminded her. “If you want something, you will need to tell us.”
“The point is that I shouldn’t have to ask,” Madam Li grumbled.
“I never thought this was a problem before,” Huang Ming said. Then he made face. “Did you get influenced from seeing Ah Lang and sister-in-law?”
“Nonsense,” his mother snapped. “Keep your nose out of this, this has nothing to do with you.”
Huang Ming held up his palms. “Fine, fine… But now that I am here, there is no need for you to remain as a hostage in the capital.”
“Oh? Are you trying to drive me away?”
“Of course not, mother. I love you too much,” Huang Ming said sappily as he surprised her with a hug.
“Let go, you reek of smoke and meat,” Madam Li said stiffly.
“You’re supposed to give an emotional response to this touching family bonding moment,” Huang Ming said as he stepped back.
Madam Li rolled her eyes, but Huang Ming could see the corner of her lips tugging upwards.
“You think you can get rid of me so that I would not be around to see what kind of mess you are going to cause next?” she said. “You may have tied the Prince of Chu and Princess of Wu together, but you have yet to put your own affairs in order. When are you going to settle down with those girls?”
“Alas, public duty must come before private matters,” Huang Ming sighed.
“You cannot leave both of them dangling forever. They might actually leave you for someone else,” she warned.
“Maybe when all this is blown over,” Huang Ming smiled faintly.
“My dear son, you will not be able to solve a problem by simply ignoring it.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll decide about the girls soon.”
“I meant with the palace politics. You think those who oppose the royal marriage would not cause trouble simply because you’re hiding in here?” Madam Li scoffed.
Huang Ming smirked. “Of course not. I am counting on it.”
Uncle Li Hong chose that moment to arrive.
“Nephew, there are some people to see you,” he announced.
“Perfect timing,” Huang Ming said as he left.
“Perfect timing for what?” Li Hong asked his sister. Then he sniffed the air and pulled a long face.
“Is something burning?”
“Oh no…” Madam Li exclaimed.
He was just going to chill,
But they went up to his grill.