“Oh, you're the best friends anybody ever had. And it's funny, but I feel as if I'd known you all the time, but I couldn't have, could I?”
-- Dorothy Gale


Chapter Four - The 1,000 Taels Statuette

After resolving the issue with Liu Yuchun and having Huang Ke to escort her home, Huang Ming went back to his room. He poured himself a cup of tea to soothe his aching stomach.


As he drank, he recalled the encounter with the woman that had punched him. There was something Liu Yuchun had said that piqued his interest. It was regarding the sky-rocketing prices of raw materials. Huang Ming recalled that it was the sudden climb in prices that had forced Smithy Liu to seek a loan from him in the first place.


Just as he was pondering on the matter, Yu-er came in and announced the arrival of Nangong Xie, nicknamed “The Handsome Scholar”.


Huang Ming frowned; it was unusual for the original Huang Ming to receive visitors in the morning as he would still be sleeping until late afternoon. Inwardly he was cautious. He recalled that it was Nangong Xie who had continuously plied drink after drink on the original Huang Ming.


He bade Yu-er to show the guest in and whispered some instructions to her. Yu-er’s eyes widened, but she hastened to obey.


"Hahaha, brother Ming!” a devilishy handsome man called in salutation. This young man looked every inch the stereotypical playboy scholar. Indeed, Nangong Xie was very wealthy and wasn’t shy to use his fine-looking features to entice women to one of his many homes for a tryst.


“You are early this morning, brother Xie,” Huang Ming gave him a fake smile and saluted him in return.


“You drank too much last night, I came to check up on you,” his friend said.


“Haha, you are too kind,” Huang Ming said and gestured for him to sit with him. He personally poured a cup of tea for his guest.


Nangong Xie the Handsome Scholar looked up and down at his host and was surprised. “For a person who drank so much and had to be sent home by carriage just the previous night, brother Ming looks remarkably well,” he said.


“My capacity isn’t small when drinking with friends, one thousand cups isn’t enough!” Huang Ming replied in humour.


“Well said!” Nangong Xie laughed. Then he looked around discreetly to confirm that Yu-er was standing far away before lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner: “I heard you followed my advice and brought Liu Yuchun to your home?”


“Yes, I did,” Huang Ming replied. He kept his dawning realization off his face, waiting to hear more from his friend.


“Alas, I fear I have done you wrong!” the handsome scholar sighed dramatically.


“I did exactly as you have said. What’s wrong?” Huang Ming asked.


“I warned you about the possibility of Smithy Liu absconding without paying and told you to hold her to prevent it from happening. But I forgot to take into account that his son is serving in the city garrison. There is no possibility of Smithy Liu packing up and leave; it would destroy his son’s career!” Nangong Xie explained.


“Ah, that’s right. Liu Xiang is in the military,” Huang Ming said, continuing to play the fool.


“Did you...lay your hands on Ms. Liu?” Nangong Xie whispered, his eyes wide in insincere panic.


“Be at ease, I did not touch her. I was out cold last night,” Huang Ming replied. ‘You actually killed me,’ he added mentally.


His friend drew a deep breath, a satisfied smile on his lips. “Even so, Liu Xiang the Iron Tiger might not forgive you. People will talk about his sister spending a night at your home.”


“I don’t want any trouble with Liu Xiang! Or any tiger! What do you propose I do?” Huang Ming exclaimed in false alarm.


“This is easily remedied!” Nangong Xie laughed. “Let me meet Liu Yuchun, I will act as if I have rescued her from you. I will spirit her away so that when Liu Xiang comes looking for her, she would not be here!”


Huang Ming now knew that Nangong Xie cooked up this scheme to get Liu Yuchun for himself. As a playboy, Nangong Xie didn’t just want simple physical relations; he wanted to conquer the fiery woman’s heart as well, to make her willingly fall for him.


Huang Ming’s heart grew cold. The Handsome Scholar had forced the original Huang Ming to continuously drink to ensure that he was too drunk to have taken advantage of Liu Yuchun himself.


Huang Ming hid his cynical smile by making a show of slowly drinking his cup of tea. Yu-er who had been standing in a distant corner of the room and had remained silent all this while noticed his movements and quietly withdrew.


“This is hardly ideal, brother Xie! You get to look like the hero who rescues the damsel in distress while I’ll have a military officer tearing up my home!” Huang Ming said loudly after draining his cup of tea.


Nangong Xie blinked. He felt it was uncharacteristic of his friend to remain calm. The Huang Ming he knew would be frantic with worry and would beg for him to take Liu Yuchun away.


“Well, do you have a better idea?” he asked.


Huang Ming stood up and slowly made his way to the study table. “Ah, life is hard!” he lamented, “Not only did I not get a payment from Smithy Liu; I have invited trouble from his son! With my allowances cut, I’m going to need to sell my things for pocket money!”


Nangong was delighted and relieved that Huang Ming was only hinting for money.


“Fear not, brother Ming! It so happens that I’m looking to buy your-”


“My statue? How kind of you, brother Xie!” Huang Ming interrupted and beamed as he grabbed the lewd ivory statue from his table.


The smile on Nangong’s face froze, but he swallowed his immediate retort. “I am always happy to help you out, brother Ming,” he said instead. That statue had been a running joke in their social circle, a source of mockery and gossip behind the original Huang Ming’s back. Nangong didn’t want to be anywhere near it, but he was eager to get the issue over with.


“Pay now. After you get Liu Yuchun, who knows when will I get to see you again?” Huang Ming joked, winking at him knowingly.


Nangong Xie laughed, pushing his annoyance aside as he thought of Smithy Liu’s daughter. He withdrew several credit notes from his sleeve and showed them to Huang Ming.


“Here are notes for a thousand taels, I trust this is enough?” Nangong Xie said. It was a large sum, but for a wealthy person like him it wasn’t too significant.


“Enough, enough!” Huang Ming laughed. He took the notes and handed over the statue.


“What is enough?” Another voice queried just as the item changed hands. The two young men turned to see Madam Li walking in. She was attended by a few personal maids.


“Nangong Xie greets the esteemed Madam!” Nangong Xie said hurriedly.


Huang Ming’s mother nodded in acknowledgement, but her eyes were fixed elsewhere. Nangong’s soul almost left his body as he realized she was staring at the statuette in his hand. The maids too were staring at it, and one can feel that the Handsome Scholar’s image had taken a tumble among them.


“Mother, brother Xie here has bought that statue from me!” Huang Ming said. He discreetly shot a desolate look at Nangong, acting as if he was just as troubled as he was.


“Good, hand it over. You bought it with my money in the first place,” Madam Li said with satisfaction.


“You said my exact thoughts, mother,” Huang Ming mumbled and passed her the notes reluctantly.


Madam Li smiled. “You two can continue, I am going to the gardens,” she said and made her exit, her maids giggling behind her.


For a while, the two men stood there silently. Then they looked at each other and sighed.


Nangong did not expect such an event. Nangong was especially aggrieved, his reputation would take a beating after being witnessed holding the obscene piece of art. Despite this, he did not blame Huang Ming. In his mind he thought Huang Ming was just as unfortunate as him as the money went to his mother.


What he didn’t know was that Huang Ming had arranged for this little play. He had instructed Yu-er to ask for Madam Li after he had signalled for it by drinking tea. He knew his mother detested the statue and she who had indulged in his whims often was more than happy to play her role in the affair.


“Brother Xie--” Huang Ming began sorrowfully.


“Say no more,” Nangong interrupted. Then he laughed as he gestured with the statue in his hand, “At least I got something out of this!”


Huang Ming chuckled, but for very different reasons than Nangong.


“Well, let’s go meet Ms. Liu now,” Huang Ming said. Nangong Xie’s mood brightened as he followed his host to the guest residence.


Huang Ming acted as if he was puzzled when they reached the residence and saw only Yu-er sweeping the floor. “Why are you here? Where are the guards?” he asked in feigned astonishment.


“Reporting to the young master: The humble maid is cleaning the place. Master Huang Ke came by this morning and had already taken the guest back to her home,” she said with a curtsy.


“What!” Nangong Xie exclaimed and stared wildly at Huang Ming.


He in turn pretended to be in shock. Huang Ming spread his hands and shrugged in a gesture of helplessness.


For a moment Nangong was speechless. This blow was too much to bear, he glared at Huang Ming. He can’t even demand for the return of his money as it was taken by Madam Li. All traces of friendliness had vanished.


“Brother Xie--”


“I bid you farewell, no need to send me off!” Nangong Xie said as he angrily shook his sleeves and left in a huff.


After he had disappeared from view, Huang Ming grinned mischievously at Yu-er and rubbed the top of her head.


“Well done Yu-er!” he praised.


She blushed in delight.


“Here, take some money and buy something for yourself,” Huang Ming said and rewarded her.


“Yu-er is only following the young master’s order, how can I take this!” she said in astonishment.


“You deserve this,” Huang Ming insisted and pushed the money into her little hands. Then he added: “Master Nangong Xie would be in a terrible temper if rumours spread about how he bought the statue from me and immediately went home in an excited manner. Make sure not to say anything of the sort when you’re outside later. Tell the other maids not to gossip!”


He winked at her, and Yu-er knew that what her young master wanted was the exact opposite.


She clutched the money and grinned: “Yu-er knows what to do!”


A few days later, Nangong Xie would hear stories about how a gallant Huang Ke had saved Liu Yuchun from his wastrel younger brother, even going as far as to escort her home personally to explain the matter to Smithy Liu. The ladies of the city now whispered about Huang Ke’s chivalry.


As if it wasn’t enough, there were rumours about how Nangong Xie had went early in the morning and bought the obscene statue from Huang Ming at an exorbitant price. He even left quickly in great excitement after obtaining it. This piece of salacious gossip even eclipsed Huang Ming’s treatment of Liu Yuchun in the first place, as it was delicious irony for the playboy Nangong Xie to be smitten with an inanimate object.


It was enough to drive him ill with rage!

 

The Handsome Scholar,
Couldn’t contain his ardour,
In the morning he went,
A thousand taels he spent,
On a bawdy ivory idol,
To satisfy his lust, it became vital! ​