“Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it's always a self-portrait.”
--Irene Adler

Chapter Twenty Six - The Emerald Eyes

Huang Ming turned and saw perhaps the most ‘beautiful’ man he had ever met. He had met quite a few handsome men during his short awakening here in this world, but none could compare to this person. His elder brother Huang Lang had the icy sort of look, coupled with his newly revealed romantic nature it was enough to make women swoon. On the other hand, Huang Ke and Liu Xiang had the chiselled, square-jawed fierce features that drove women wild. Even Min Guang with his young and fresh-faced countenance appealed to their maternal nature.

This fellow was in the mould of Muge Jian, pale with delicate features and long hair flowing past the neck, tied in simple tail. While Muge Jian the Masking Sword had sharp eyes and toned physique that distinctly marked him out as a man who could be cold-blooded when needed; this person was slender, androgynous and languid to the point of being effeminate. He was dressed in white, large-sleeved robes with a thick silk shawl draped around his neck. His eyes were the colour of emeralds, soft and dew-like.

If he had cross-dressed as a woman, he could very likely make men question their own sexual orientation. Indeed, Huang Ming felt that there were few women who could compare to this person.

“I have never heard such music,” the person spoke in a rough whisper.

It startled Huang Ming; the hoarse, throaty voice was completely unexpected and clashed against the man’s image. His surprise was visible, and the stranger immediately added, “I apologize for my voice, I am ill.”

He coughed once more and pulled his shawl upwards so that his dainty lips were loosely covered. The gesture reminded Huang Ming of the surgical masks worn by the Japanese when they were sick, done as a show of courtesy to nominally prevent the spread of germs.

“I was resting when I heard you and I could not resist seeing who had played such marvellous and strange music,” the stranger said, his voice now slightly muffled.

Huang gestured for the stranger to sit down. The explanation only increased his curiosity, was this stranger one of the Lichun’s ‘exotic’ offerings? Yet, there was something oddly familiar about this person.

“You look familiar. I feel like I know you,” Huang Ming said bluntly. He could see the glimmer of humour in the stranger’s green eyes.

“We have never been introduced. From afar I saw you at the governor’s competition,” the stranger replied.

Huang Ming frowned; surely he would have noticed such a person previously. The stranger’s features were very distinct, his splendour would have evoked glances and talk from the other candidate suitors.

“I kept a low profile, and thanks to you and your brother, the competition was over before I had a chance to reveal myself,” the stranger continued, sensing Huang Ming’s doubts.

Huang Ming nodded. For him, the events of that day had blended into a blurry mess after the multiple revelations of conspiracies from his brother and mother.

“Well, we can get acquainted now. I’m Huang Ming, and I thank you for not being too critical of my playing,” he said and cupped his hands in greeting.

The stranger mirrored his gesture, saying, “And I am Quan Lu.”

For some reason, his greeting was far more graceful than Huang Ming’s. Even his fingers looked slender and soft.

Huang Ming made a mental note to ask Cao Shuang about this mysterious person later. The governor’s son would surely know since he was in charge of the entrance to the competition and had inspected each invitation that was sent.

“I thoroughly enjoyed your playing. What is it called?” the sickly stranger asked.

“It’s called ‘See You Again’. It’s just something I had made in jest,” Huang Ming answered and shamelessly stole credit for the song. ‘It’s not as if anyone would know,’ Huang Ming thought. He did not feel any disquieting vibe that would mark the effeminate man as an enemy Avatar.

“Interesting. What is the intent behind the music?”

Huang Ming looked at the zither wistfully. “It’s about losing someone, and yet hoping to see the person again in the afterlife,” he answered.

“You have lost someone?” the stranger asked, a spark of curiosity in his green eyes.

Huang Ming smiled. “It’s just music,” he replied. Quan Lu could see he was reluctant to elaborate further, and tactfully decided not to pursue the matter.

“My zither is blessed to have been touched by your hands,” Quan Lu said instead.

“Ah, so this is yours,” Huang Ming replied, looking at the zither on the stone table. It was entirely ordinary, with no superfluous ornaments or intricate carvings to make it stand out in any way.

“Indeed. It’s one way to pass the time while I am convalescing from my illness,” Quan Lu said.

“You are staying here?” Huang Ming asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I… have a dispute with my family, and the regular inns would not receive an ill guest. This was the only accommodation that would accept me, albeit at a premium,” Quan Lu replied hesitantly.

“Surely that cannot be sustained for too long. You can come to my place. I have an unoccupied residence, you can stay as long as you like,” Huang Ming offered.

“So you are generous as well talented. I admire your submission at the governor’s competition. ‘One lifetime, one dream’. Very fascinating,” Quan Lu said softly.

Seeing a stranger make a big deal of something he had plagiarized was a little embarrassing for Huang Ming.

“It’s just a work of fancy. You think too highly of me,” he said.

“No, I truly hold your work in high regard.”

“Stop flattering, I feel you’re making fun of me,” Huang Ming interjected with a smile.

“I am not.”

“Then don’t refuse my invitation.”

Quan Lu eyes softened. “Do you offer such kindness to everyone you have just met?”

Huang Ming snorted and affected a humorous manner. “Pfft, as if I would simply invite anyone to my house. It’s obviously because you liked my music,” he scoffed.

This was true in a way, but Huang Ming also had a selfish agenda to put this stranger in his debt. This Quan Lu was very beautiful, soft-spoken and seemed like a decent person. Once Huang Ming had verified his identity with Cao Shuang, maybe he could engineer some sort of scheme and offer this person to Zhao Tong’s daughter. After all, he surely would have some sort of esteemed standing to be invited to the competition in the first place. Perhaps Quan Lu would be pleasing to her and satisfy Zhao Tong as well.

There was another reason, but it was more whimsical in nature. Quan Lu obviously knew music, perhaps Huang Ming could test his own potential by playing more songs from Earth and see how well it would be received. He had done it before in his other lives; it was like an irresistible whim to satisfy his own curiosity of seeing complete strangers react to something they had never experienced before. It was a fad back on Earth; there were many videos about how people from one country reacted to the food and culture of another country.

“Aren’t you afraid how people might talk?” Quan Lu asked.

“About what?”

“About how you are inviting a man to your house, and that you knew him from a brothel,” Quan Lu clarified with eyebrows arched in amusement.

“You’re right, that does sound suspicious,” Huang Ming nodded with mock solemnity. Then he rolled his eyes in dismissal. “Bah. What do I care about gossipers, they already talk nonsense about me. Let the small-minded people wag their tongues and amuse themselves. I fart in their general direction,” he said and shrugged.

Quan Lu burst into a laughter that sounded like soft ringing bells. For a moment the hoarseness in his voice disappeared. “You are a carefree sort of person,” Quan Lu said.

“Why do you think so?” Huang Ming asked.

“From your song at the governor’s competition, it felt like you had given up on the world,” Quan Lu commented.

“Ah, but I haven’t given up on what the world can give me,” Huang Ming said with a grin and winked.

“Is that why you’re here in this establishment?” Quan Lu asked in jest.

“Truthfully, I was dragged here. My relatives-in-law are using me as an excuse to come here. Even now, they are enjoying themselves eating and drinking with the ladies, yet I’m going to get all the blame later,” Huang Ming revealed and hung his head despondently like a forlorn puppy.

Quan Lu found his mannerisms to be quite funny. He felt Huang Ming was a jumbled contradiction: able to compose a profound song, play innovative music, humble one moment, aloof in another and now behaving as if like a wronged child. His reputation was never good, yet he seemed deeper than most people would credit him for.

“Enough about that. Please consider my offer, we can discuss more about music and poetry,” Huang Ming said.

“As fate has it, I am leaving soon to settle some matters,” Quan Lu sighed.

“I see. Well, if you ever need a place to stay in the future…” Huang Ming said, completing the sentence with a simple hand gesture.

“Then, let me thank you in advance,” Quan Lu said and bowed.

“We’re now friends, what is this formality?” Huang Ming said and gently clapped Quan Lu on the shoulder.

Quan Lu was overwhelmed. His emerald eyes searched Huang Ming’s. “Forgive me, I never had a friend before,” he said in half seriousness, fishing for his reaction.

“Then it pleases me to be the first,” Huang Ming replied nonchalantly and nodded to himself in a self-satisfied manner, not seeing the emotions in Quan Lu’s green eyes.

It was a strange sight for a third party to see a man as beautiful as Quan Lu looking deeply at Huang Ming as they sat in the gazebo of a brothel’s private garden. On another day, it would set tongues wagging about their relationship and provide fodder for people who fantasize of such things, but as luck has it the third party had more pressing concerns.

“Young master Huang! Young master Huang!”

A distressed serving girl came rushing over.

He found a friend and was content,
Little did he know of the intent.
Their introduction was brief,
For another matter came to grief.​