“Be a man. Do the right thing!”
--Russell Peters


Chapter Thirty Five - Looks and glances

“This one is Quan Lu,” Qiong Ying said and bowed humbly in her disguised voice.


“Quan? Are you from the Quan family of Liyan County?” Madam Li asked.


Qiong Ying coughed and kept her head bowed to hide her startled reaction; she did not expect Madam Li to be familiar with her disguised surname. She had called in a few favours with the real Quan family to build her false male identity. The family had fallen on hard times and had relocated to a less reputable area, they were insignificant when compared to the other prominent clans.


“This lowly person is but from a branch family of the Quan,” Qiong Ying replied vaguely.


“Please raise your head. The Quans have a long history and they deserve respect, even if their present situation is unfavourable,” Madam Li said.


“I am overwhelmed by your kindness,” Qiong Ying said sincerely, gratified that someone was speaking up for her adopted family. She straightened up and removed the wide-brimmed hat, revealing her partially masked face and clear, green eyes. “Forgive me for this mask and my rough voice, I am suffering from an illness and I do not wish to dirty those around me,” she said pre-emptively and coughed once more.


Madam Li raised an eyebrow when she saw her guest’s appearance. “I heard you exerted yourself and saved my son. Do you wish for a doctor?” she offered.


“You are most kind, but it’s a chronic condition and I do not want to impose. I will feel better with some rest,” Qiong Ying answered. The last thing she wanted was for a doctor to examine her too closely.


“Is that so. Well, I’m sure you young people have plenty to talk about. I’ll leave it to you to take care of our guests,” Madam Li said and nodded at Huang Ming.


“Can I have some cake then?” Huang Ming asked blithely.


Madam Li narrowed her eyes. “Don’t push it. When your father and brother returns from dinner with the Caos, we’ll talk more about what happened.”


“Mother is most wise and generous,” Huang Ming mumbled as Madam Li turned away. Unnoticed by anyone, she gave Quan Lu another appraising look as she left.


Huang Ming clapped his hands. “Well! I guess that’s that.”


“I will go check on Hongqi,” Sunli said matter-of-factly. She gave Huang Ke a withering look before leaving.


“What a strange woman,” Huang Ke commented as he stared at her departing profile.


“Hey, you’re already engaged,” his younger brother reminded him.


“Ha-ha,” Huang Ke laughed flatly and grabbed a fistful of Huang Ming’s shirt. “And I have you to thank for it.”


“I don’t know what’s your problem. I thought you liked Liu Yuchun,” Huang Ming said innocently. “Or do you prefer Sunli? You were staring at her butt. Don’t think I’m not afraid to tell Ms. Liu about that,” he threatened.


“I did not, you little brat!” Huang Ke growled even as his ears reddened at his brother’s baseless accusation.


“And what’s with the look she gave you just now?” Huang Ming demanded, hoping to fluster his brother further.


Huang Ke eyed at him suspiciously. “Who knows? Why are you so interested in her?” he asked, turning the tables on Huang Ming.


“He said he preferred the guardswoman instead of Zhao Hongqi,” Zhang Ping answered helpfully and earning a glare from Huang Ming.


“Oh, really? He said that?” Huang Ke said and laughed, as if enjoying a joke.


“That is indeed unexpected, Brother Huang Ming,” Quan Lu remarked sharply. Perhaps, too sharply.


Huang Ming rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Look, I only said it because they kept pestering me about Little Hongqi. I don’t want to get married yet!”


“Oh, you don’t want to get married yet,” Huang Ke repeated in a mocking tone. “I wonder if you had ever considered that I might have felt the same before you got me engaged?”


“That was Ah Lang’s fault. It was all his idea,” Huang Ming replied righteously. Knowing that their elder brother was absent, Huang Ming showed no hesitation to heap the blame on him. After all, he was confident that Huang Lang would do the same thing if their positions were reversed.


Huang Ke gritted his teeth. “It may have been his idea, but it was all done by you. It’s your fault that they are singing songs about... about my romance! You owe me one,” he insisted.


“I owe you? I got you a wife! You’re the one who owes me!” Huang Ming exclaimed indignantly.


Huang Ke wordlessly raised a hand and one by one, collapsed each finger inwards to form a fist. As it clenched powerfully, Huang Ming could hear the tendons and muscles creak ominously as the boulder-like fist trembled in front of his face. It was an impressive display of strength.


“Alright I owe you one,” Huang Ming said smoothly.


Huang Ke snorted in satisfaction and left, saying, “I’ll find you later, you’ll sort things out for me about her.”


For a moment, there was silence as Huang Ming, Zhang Ping and Quan Lu stood around awkwardly.


“How did he even do that?” Huang Ming muttered as he flexed his own fingers. Disappointingly, he could not reproduce the threatening sounds that had emitted from his brother’s fist.


Qiong Ying chuckled softly. She did not expect the prestigious Huang family to be so close and frivolous with each other. From what she had witnessed, she felt the Huangs were not the typical noble family that was concerned with face and power struggles among themselves.


Zhang Ping shuffled his feet uneasily. “Brother Huang...” he began.


“And what do you want? Why are you even still here?” Huang Ming lashed out, remembering how his friend had made Huang Ke laugh at his expense.


“Well, er, it’s about Zhao Hongqi,” the big man said shyly.


“Yes yes, I know you like her. Go ahead and court her if you want, I had already told you this,” Huang Ming said in dismissal.


“But she came here to marry you.”


“There isn’t a formal proposal, it’s just drunken talk between our fathers. It wasn’t suppose to be me in the first place,” Huang Ming replied wearily.


Qiong Ying’s eyes glittered as she heard their conversation. She felt heartened, so it seemed that the engagement was but a whim of fancy that her quarry had wanted no part of. It was to the extent that Huang Ming was allowing his friend to step into his shoes.


“It wouldn’t be proper for me to court her if you have yet to reject her,” Zhang Ping protested.


Huang Ming sighed. “Brother Zhang, I know you’re a forthright person. First tell me, why do you like Little Hongqi? You only just met her today.”


“She is cute.”


Huang Ming waited for a few heartbeats as Zhang Ping became silent. Realizing his friend was at loss, Huang Ming frowned and wondered if he had erred in giving him the opportunity to pursue his ‘cousin’. While Huang Ming was not eager to dive into marriage, he did not wish to sacrifice an innocent girl to someone with superficial feelings.


“That can’t be all there is. If it’s just a pretty face you want, I’m sure you can have your pick. You said so yourself earlier back at the market. Let me tell you now, if your interest in my cousin is only skin-deep, then you can forget about courting her,” Huang Ming warned.


“No! That’s not it... I mean...”


Qiong Ying coughed, reminding the two men of Quan Lu’s presence. “Do you mean you like her personality?” she ventured to say. She wanted to help the clumsy man as their objectives were aligned.


Zhang Ping brightened. “Yes! She’s so... so lively! So lovable! I don’t know how to explain it. She’s... like a rabbit, she makes me want to protect her, to cherish her!”


Huang Ming nodded, though in his mind he was conjuring an image of a rabbit that could swing a halberd around. “You like her because she’s a cheerful person.”


“Yes!”


“Then why do you want to wait for me to reject her before making your move? Do you want to swoop in like a white knight and pick up the pieces of her shattered heart because it’s easier that way?” Huang Ming scoffed.


“No!” Zhang Ping said angrily.


“Then let her know your intentions. You ask for me to reject her, but she haven’t even told me anything of the sort yet. As far as I know, she does want to get married, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be me. Be honest and prove yourself to her, let her think for herself. Marriage is a serious matter, it should always start with the truth,” Huang Ming said frankly. However, the whimsical plot he had conducted regarding Huang Ke and Liu Yuchun made him feel like a hypocrite. He wondered what Huang Ke had wanted of him, perhaps his second brother had a similar concern.


Zhang Ping exhaled forcefully. “I’ll tell her right now.”


“Are you insane? She’s already asleep, come back tomorrow!” Huang Ming scolded.


“But-”


“Have a good night’s rest and come back with gifts for her tomorrow,” Huang Ming urged.


“I understand. I’ll come tomorrow then,” Zhang Ping relented. The big man gave Huang Ming a salute before leaving.


Once again there was an awkward silence as Huang Ming and Qiong Ying contemplated what had occurred. For Huang Ming, he was ruefully remembering Sunli’s angry words about him treating Zhao Hongqi like cabbage. Qiong Ying on the other hand felt her heart being pricked when she went over Huang Ming’s advice about honesty.


As if on cue, the two looked at each other and shared a wry look. Huang Ming could see Quan Lu’s forehead scrunched in thought.


“Sorry that you had to see all that,” Huang Ming apologized sheepishly.


Qiong Ying shook her head. “On the contrary, I am envious of your family and friends. You are a lucky person,” Qiong Ying stressed.


“Ah, but you’re a friend as well. I’m lucky to have you too.”


Qiong Ying bowed, glad that she was still wearing her mask that hid the blush on her cheeks.


“Let’s sit down, have a drink under the moonlight and maybe eat some buns to relax,” Huang Ming suggested.


“I’ll join you,” Sunli’s cold voice interrupted and startled them. The guardswoman had returned a few moments ago and had overheard the talk regarding Zhao Hongqi.

 

Using words and a glance,
As sharp as any lance.​