“They say the open road helps you think. About where you've been and where you're going.”
--Dominic Toretto


Chapter Twenty Five - It’s been a long day

The person who called out to Huang Ming was the madam of the Lichun, a woman in her mid forties, plump and jovial. She was dressed in thick silk and adorned with jade bracelets and gold necklaces.


Behind her was a parade of beauties, ranging from the bewitching to the delicate. They batted their eyes at the three men, knowing that it was a rare chance to catch the favour of an esteemed person who can give them a different life; even if it meant being a mere concubine.


The eyes of Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang couldn’t help but roam everywhere, after all how often does one get an opportunity to openly ogle at such women in close proximity?


“Ai, we haven’t seen you for so long and wondered what had happened, it turned out that you participated in the governor’s competition,” the madam said. “Your brother won and now you come to us to heal your heart, eh?”


“Be mindful of what you say, this is Cao Shuang, son of the governor,” Huang Ming warned with a smile, gesturing to the person in question.


The madam responded by thumping Huang Ming on the shoulder. “Of course I know he’s the famous son of the governor, I’m not blind!” she huffed at him. Then she turned to bow at Cao Shuang with the sweet smile of a predatory salesperson.


“We are grateful for your patronage today, o’ Master Cao Shuang. We hope that you will grace us with your favour!” she said flatteringly.


On his part, Cao Shuang did not know how to respond. He wasn’t used to dealing with people of such flippant character; the tangled argument he had with Huang Ming was an example of this. Cao Shuang usually bullied others into submission, and never really faced people who simply ignored his position and prestige. He nodded and quickly signalled for Huang Ming to take charge.


“This is Madam…” Huang Ming paused in mid-introduction. He truly did not remember her name, so he gave her a puzzled look. “Hey, mother hen, what’s your name again?”


The plump madam did not take offence at his rudeness even as the girls behind her giggled. She snorted and placed her hands on her hips, acting hurt.


“How can you forget me, I even gave you your first time too,” she pouted.


Huang Ming was horrified. “No, you didn’t! Don’t say such misleading things!” he hastily yelled. Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang had a mixture of fascination and disgust on their faces as images of Huang Ming doing the nasty with this flabby and gaudy creature floated in their minds.


“How is it misleading? I, Madam Xu personally poured you your first ever drink here,” she replied innocently. Then Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang understood.


“Don’t shame me in front of my future brothers, you cruel woman,” Huang Ming said in a friendly manner, waving a finger to show his mock displeasure. Inwardly he was relieved, for a moment he considered delving into the memories of the original to verify her words.


The madam smiled broadly and clapped her hands, signalling the end of the banter.


“What is it you desire today, o’ honoured guests?” Madam Xu asked grandly. She spread her arms wide and the courtesans behind her assembled themselves in a line-up.


“Today is just an introduction of sorts. My brother Cao Shuang wants some genteel entertainment while we partake in your food,” Huang Ming answered in an equally ostentatious manner.


“Mmm, so you require entertainment? Music? Dancers?”


“Of course! Today is all about my dear brothers Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang. Bring all you’ve got, dazzle them with your hospitality and serve them your best dishes! It’s all on them!” Huang Ming said, ignoring the look on their faces.


Laughing gaily, the courtesans flooded forward and Huang Ming directed them all to the governor’s son and the military officer. The two men became flustered as the lively women sat very closely and made most of the opportunity to impress them.


Madam Xu was delighted to say the least; she quickly ordered some dishes and wine. Soon musical instruments were brought over, some of the girls went to play them, others danced while the remainder occupied the two men with vivacious flirting.


The girls plied drinks and food so that Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang did not even need to use their own hands. At first the duo was stiff and nervous, but a few drinks later they began to laugh it up with the girls. Even the stern-looking Liu Xiang broke as the girls fawned over his physique.


Whenever a girl made eyes at Huang Ming, he merely smiled and gestured for her to focus on his two friends. Every now and then he moved further away from the crowded table, and soon he was left by his lonesome at one corner as he looked on at the spectacle. It reminded him of the countless celebrations and gatherings he had with his acquaintances and friends across his multiple lives and experiences: clubs, bonfire dances, revelry on the streets, family reunion dinners...


No one except his fellow Avatars could understand such a sense of loss, and while his lips were smiling faintly, his eyes were deep and melancholic.


This could not escape the attentions of Madam Xu.


“Young master, is something not to your liking?” she asked in concern, seeing how Huang Ming was by himself and not drinking a single drop of wine. She recalled how he had gotten drunk and bawdy very quickly in his previous meeting.


Huang Ming shook his head. “Today is about them, not about me. I am happy seeing them happy,” he said cryptically. Then he got up before she could question him further.


“I’m going to the restroom, don’t you dare follow me!” he said cheekily and left, leaving the madam bewildered.


Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang did not even notice his exit.


***


Huang Ming did make his way to the restroom and refreshed himself, but he did not immediately return to the dining room. The loud, boisterous noise within deterred him from doing so and he knew those within were living it up.


Instead, he turned towards the garden of the Lichun. The Lichun was a large, sprawling estate was shaped like a rectangle; the most known aspect of the establishment was the front building where the leisure rooms for parties were, this world’s equivalent of girly bar and restaurant back on Earth. The long sides of the Lichun were the inn proper, individual rooms where sensual pleasures were consummated once the customer had negotiated for it. At the very end was the private living quarters for the employees. In the centre of all this was a large enclosed garden with a single gazebo.


He slowly walked through the garden and marvelled at the dissonance between the idyllic calmness here and the rowdy atmosphere of the frontal building. Occasionally sounds of merriment would leak through from the surroundings, but overall the garden was like an enclave of peace.


He went to the gazebo to rest. To his surprise, there was a zither sitting on the stone table. He recalled the original Huang Ming’s knowledge of the musical instrument as he slowly ran his fingers over the taut strings.


‘I wonder if I can play Earth music with this,’ he mused. He sat down before the instrument and moved it into position.


The earlier melancholia was still lingering within him, and he remembered a sombre song that he had heard from a certain blockbuster action film back on Earth. It was an eulogy, a song about promising to see a lost one again in the afterlife.


He plucked and strummed the zither, filling the gaps of the music with his own improvisation. The notes rang clear, the melody floated through the air.


Images from his past lives flitted through his mind as he played. All the friends and families, all the loved ones he had found and lost. It was ironic as the original song promised a reunion, but he had lived and died over and over and found the concept to be false for him. Every death meant letting go of his loved ones, every life meant he had to start over.


There was little chance for a reunion for him to see them again as the song promised.


He lifted his hands as the song finished, ending it on an abrupt note and letting the reverberation linger in the air. For a few moments he stared at the zither, lost within his memories.


Then, a small cough interrupted his thoughts.

 

Lost in his thoughts, a moment so fleeting,
He played some music, and found a meeting.​


---
Notes: "See You Again, Chinese Guzheng"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEvQXSkfoUs