“So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
--The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Chapter Twenty Seven - The Slap
Huang Ming saw the distressed serving girl, sweat lining her brows.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“There is someone looking for you and your companions. Madam Xu told me to find you,” the serving girl reported anxiously.
“Who is it? And why couldn’t my friends handle it on their own?”
“Sir, your friends... Your friends have passed out. And Madam Xu said the one who is looking for you is your own brother.”
“Geh!” Huang Ming inadvertently exclaimed.
Quan Lu couldn’t help but chuckle softly at Huang Ming’s horror.
Huang Ming ignored his new friend’s humour and focused his attentions on the serving girl. He saw that she was sweating heavily, she must have searched frantically before finding him in the garden. Taking pity on her sorry state, Huang Ming pressed his silk handkerchief into her hands. Quan Lu noted the kind gesture with surprise.
Huang Ming interrupted the servant before she could say anything. “Don’t refuse. Cut the crap, wipe your sweat and tell me, which brother of mine has come?”
The girl obediently wiped her brows with his cloth and said, “I didn’t see him personally, sir, but Madam Xu it was ‘the bigger one’.”
“Then it must be Ah Ke. Where is he now?” Huang Ming asked urgently.
“Madam Xu is stalling him,” the girl answered. She wanted to return the handkerchief, but was hesitant as it was now damp with sweat. Huang Ming waved her off.
“Listen lass, I need you to find me two fresh fish from your kitchens. I don’t care how much they cost,” he said.
“Fish?” the serving girl repeated in astonishment.
Huang Ming clapped his and snapped, “Do it now!”
She jumped with a start and quickly ran away.
Quan Lu looked at him strangely.
“What’s with the fish?” Quan Lu asked as Huang Ming paced around nervously.
“I’m going to use them as a prop,” Huang Ming answered without pausing.
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, I don’t want to go around carrying a chicken,” Huang Ming said absent-mindedly, leaving Quan Lu even more bewildered.
The serving girl quickly returned with a woven basket, within which were two large fish. Huang Ming only took a cursory look before nodding, satisfied with the glistening, damp fish.
“Friend Quan Lu, it was nice meeting you today but now I have to go and rescue myself from this predicament,” Huang Ming said hurriedly. He took the basket of fish and made haste, leaving Quan Lu and the serving girl completely befuddled.
Quan Lu’s emerald eyes watched him leave. Then he smiled mysteriously and made his way somewhere.
Even before Huang Ming reached the room, he could hear his brother Huang Ke bellowing.
“Enough of your games, woman! Where is my brother?”
Huang Ming took a deep breath, counted slowly to ten and put on a jovial face before bursting into the room.
“I’m back!” Huang Ming exclaimed happily as he held up the woven basket.
All eyes in the room turned to look at him, and Huang Ming affected an expression of great surprise as he glanced around the room.
Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang were asleep while still sitting, their faces were on the table and surrounded by a wall of empty wine bottles and plates of half-eaten food. There were a few scantily clad ladies passed out around the unconscious duo. It was plainly obvious that some sort of ridiculous drinking game had caused the disorder. The remaining ladies who still had their faculties were standing behind Madam Xu who was confronting Huang Ke. They had various looks of amusement on their faces and were not afraid of Huang Ke at all.
Before anyone could say anything, Huang Ming made a great show of stunned astonishment by letting the basket of fish fall limply out of his hands and onto the floor.
“What happened here? I was just gone for a while!” Huang Ming said, pretending to be completely shocked.
“You! Of all the nerve!” Huang Ke exclaimed and strode to grab his younger brother by the lapels. Huang Ming was reminded of the day when Huang Ke did the same thing when the matter of Liu Yuchun’s engagement was revealed.
“Stop! I don’t want to get splattered by your saliva!” Huang Ming yelped, pre-emptively putting a hand to shield his face.
“Rargh!” Huang Ke roared furiously and shook his younger brother around like a rag doll, causing him to be thoroughly dishevelled.
“Wait, stop stop stop...” Huang Ming gasped once Huang Ke relented, his eyes swimming around dizzily. Huang Ke exasperatedly pushed him away, causing Huang Ming to stumble. Fortuitously he tripped forward and landed in arms and other soft parts of the Lichun’s ladies. They giggled as they helped him up, some helping to straighten up his clothes and hair even as Huang Ke glared at the situation.
Seeing the ladies fawning over his brother only increased his anger and envy.
“What... What happened?” Huang Ming asked after he had recovered.
“You’re going to suffer for this. Mother’s going to string you up,” Huang Ke threatened.
“Me? Why?” Huang Ming said, acting completely mystified.
Huang Ke spread his arms wide. “What do you think?” he demanded, gesticulating at the room.
“What, this? This was Cao Shuang’s idea! He’s the one who wanted to come here,” Huang Ming said, having no reluctance at all in assigning the blame to the unconscious man.
“And Liu Xiang?”
“He said we shouldn’t go anywhere without guards, so he ‘offered’ to follow us,” Huang Ming explained. He looked over at the sleeping military officer and curled his lips. “Some guard he is...”
“And didn’t you enjoy yourself as well?” Huang Ke asked coldly, guessing at what had happened. Privately he was annoyed, partly at Liu Xiang’s obvious ploy to visit the brothel and partly at being left out. With his engagement to Liu Xiang’s sister Liu Yuchun, there was no chance for him to experience this establishment himself.
“I wasn’t even here!” Huang Ming replied indignantly.
“Don’t lie to me,” Huang Ke said menacingly.
“I’m not lying! Ask anyone! Look at me, I did not touch a single drop of wine!”
Huang Ke saw that his brother’s face was indeed clear from the reddish tint associated with drinking alcohol.
“Then, where were you?” he demanded. Huang Ke’s wrath had spiked when he saw that Huang Ming was absent earlier, it would have been better if he had found all three of them together. Huang Ke thought his brother had went away to amuse himself privately with a courtesan, and was disappointed thinking that Huang Ming had lapsed back to his perverted ways after promising to reform himself.
“I was outside, buying fish!” Huang Ming shot back and pointed at the fallen basket.
“What’s with the fish?” his towering sibling asked suspiciously.
“To be cooked, of course,” Huang Ming answered and rolled his eyes. “Madam Xu here said they had ran out of fresh fish for their signature dish, ‘the Golden-Scaled Fish Wrapped in Lotus’, so I went out to buy some.”
Huang Ke narrowed his eyes, still unconvinced.
Nobody in the room had ever heard of that dish before, Huang Ming simply made it up on the spur of the moment. However, Madam Xu was quick enough on the uptake to nod in agreement.
She bent to pick up the basket and examined the fish. “Ai-ya, Young Master Huang, these are trout. The dish needs snappers!” she exclaimed in disappointment.
Huang Ming was grateful for her cleverness. He smacked his forehead ruefully. “Ah, I really messed up this time!” he sighed dramatically.
Huang Ke exhaled. “We’re going home,” he said. “You can explain it all to mother later.”
“What about those two?” Huang Ming asked, pointing at Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang. They were still snoring thunderously.
“Wake them up if you can,” Huang Ke said with a grimace.
“It’s lucky that I brought the fish then,” Huang Ming said brightly.
“What do you mean?”
“They say being slapped around by fish can wake people up immediately,” Huang Ming answered with all seriousness.
The people in the room stared at him incredulously, their mouths agog.
“Such nonsense!” Huang Ke shouted in disbelief.
“It’s true, I read it in a foreign book somewhere,” Huang Ming said with a straight face.
“I thought your foreign books are all about sordid, perverted stories with loose women,” Huang Ke said disdainfully.
“And how would you know that?” Huang Ming asked with a smirk.
Huang Ke coughed. “Enough! How do you do this?” he asked.
“Ladies, please help the gentlemen up, we’re going to slap them with the fish,” Huang Ming directed.
The girls suppressed their laughter and sat the two men upright in their seats. They continued to snore even as their heads lolled over to the side. Huang Ming motioned with his hands and the girls obediently held up the heads of the sleeping men.
Huang Ming picked up a fish and then proceeded to club Cao Shuang with a backhand motion. The head of the fish smacked wetly against the Cao Shuang’s face.
Indeed, Cao Shuang woke up with a start. “What? What?” he asked blearily, one hand immediately touching his sore cheek. He sniffed his hand and retched at the smell of fish.
The girls burst into laughter and even Huang Ke cracked a smile.
“That looked like fun,” Huang Ke muttered.
“There’s one more, you can do it to Liu Xiang,” Huang Ming suggested impishly. His brother’s face lit up, Liu Xiang was his direct rival in the military and they had challenged each other many times during exercises, spars and competitions between their legions.
Huang Ke picked up the other fish and gave Liu Xiang a faceful of trout. He too woke up, startled by the pain and his senses assaulted by the lingering stench of the fish on his face.
“Who hit me?” Liu Xiang asked in a daze. Then he saw Huang Ke before him, incongruously holding a fish by its tail. “What is going on?” he continued, his confusion compounded by the haze of alcohol. The sound of laughter from the girls around him only made it worse.
“Party’s over. Time to go home,” Huang Ke said curtly and tossed the fish back into the basket. He turned away so that Liu Xiang could not see the self-satisfied smile on his face. His anger at Huang Ming had faded completely.
“What just happened?” Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang chorused, still not understanding the pain and the smell of fish on their faces. How could they have possibly dreamed of someone slapping their faces with trout?
“Brother, let’s wait for them outside while they settle the bill,” Huang Ming suggested. Huang Ke nodded and swept out of the room with Huang Ming following closely behind.
“Wait, I demand an explanation!” Cao Shuang yelled even as the Huang brothers left the room.
Madam Xu’s lips twitched when Huang Ming gave her a wink as he passed by. She felt that this young master was completely different from the lewd boor that she had known previously. It was mysterious and seeing the two famous men being slapped around by trout would forever be engraved in her memories.
With some trout,
He conjured doubt.