“I'll give you all the love he denied
I'm about to take his spot”
Chapter Forty Two – Brushed aside
As soon as they saw it was Madam Li, the quarrelling twosome shut their mouths. Who did not know of Madam Li, wife of the great General Huang Zheng? She was a heroine in her youth, famous for her beauty as well as ability. Though she had mellowed out after the birth of her sons, she remained a formidable person of quick wit and sharp tongue. Her maids spread out wordlessly behind her, adding much awe to her presence.
“Greetings to Madam Li,” Zhang Ping, Ma Jun and Min Guang chorused. They received an imperious nod of acknowledgment from her.
“What was all that racket?” she asked. The two culprits Min Guang and Zhao Hongqi had their heads drooped to avoid her piercing gaze.
“It’s just an argument between young people,” Huang Ming explained.
Madam Li saw the familiar faces around his son. “It must be your fault,” she deduced.
“What? No, I was just standing here!” Huang Ming protested.
“Please don’t blame brother Huang Ming, it was my fault,” Min Guang admitted while wringing his pale hands in distress.
“That’s right, he started it,” Zhao Hongqi added smugly, jutting her chin at Min Guang and with her hands on her hips.
Min Guang gulped. “I… I did not believe that she was brother Huang Ming’s fiancée,” he explained guiltily.
“So what if she is?” Madam Li said curtly, causing the young man to flinch. Huang Ming opened his mouth to interrupt, but Madam Li cut him off. “Be quiet, it’s not your turn yet,” she rebuked. Then Madam Li focused on Ma Jun whose jovial countenance had disappeared under her scrutiny.
“What about you?”
Ma Jun blinked and pointed at himself in askance.
“Yes, you. You’re from the Ma Family Brewery, are you not?” Madam Li asked with a tinge of irritation. The mere thought of alcohol was anathema to her at the moment, especially with her own husband’s inebriated state the previous night. Besides, wasn’t this fellow one of those who often went with Huang Ming on outings till very late into the night? Her youngest son had just begun to turn over a new leaf; the last thing she wanted was for him to revert back to his dissolute ways by associating with those ne’er-do-well friends again.
“Yes, I am Ma Jun. I came with Min Guang here to call on brother Huang Ming, we have heard from our friends about his adventure,” Ma Jun answered honestly. Huang Ming grimaced at the word ‘adventure’; he recalled his mother’s promise to interrogate him further about it. Indeed, he could see the darkening expression on his mother’s face.
“As you can see, he is perfectly fine,” she stated plainly.
There was a pregnant pause as Ma Jun nodded in agreement.
“Is there anything else?” Madam Li prodded.
Ma Jun got the hint. “Oh! Er, no, there’s nothing else. We will be going now,” he said as he nudged the reluctant Min Guang. Zhao Hongqi couldn’t resist sticking her tongue out at Min Guang as they left.
“Stop that,” Madam Li said sternly and Zhao Hongqi meekly obeyed. Madam Li then noted Zhang Ping’s servants and the large amount of gifts and boxes with them. “What is all this?” she demanded.
Zhang Ping stepped forward and bowed. “I brought them as gifts for Ms. Zhao,” he said.
“Well, please take them away. They are blocking the way and making a mess,” Madam Li said without skipping a beat.
“But it’s all for me!” Zhao Hongqi objected.
“How can you receive gifts from another man when you are already betrothed?” Madam Li told her coldly. She turned her attentions to Zhang Ping. “The general would not appreciate having his house being stuffed with such things. I do not appreciate it. Take them away,” she said. Her maids shared smiles of relief; they did not relish the duty of unpacking and organizing such an pile of goods.
Not wanting to antagonize her, Zhang Ping could only helplessly order his servants to return with the gifts as Zhao Hongqi watched on forlornly.
“Do you have any other business?” Madam Li asked when she saw that Zhang Ping was still lingering.
Zhang Ping took a few deep breaths as he gathered his courage. He looked squarely at Madam Li, his eyes filled with determination.
“Madam, I wish to know whether the engagement between Ms. Zhao and brother Huang Ming is formalized,” he said slowly.
“It is not,” Madam Li answered.
Emboldened, Zhang Ping ventured to ask, “Then, if I may be so bold, may I have the opportunity to court Ms. Zhao for myself?”
Zhao Hongqi turned to stare at him in surprise. She turned crimson and quickly ran to hide behind Sunli’s back. A few of Madam Li’s maids sighed with admiration, they had heard about Huang Lang’s dramatic proposal to Cao Tianyun and what they were witnessing now was somewhat similar. It was the stuff of romantic stories, the sort that such maids dreamt of.
But sMadam Li herself was not shaken. “You are indeed very bold to come to our house and play the third party in such an open manner.” she commented blandly.
Zhang Ping was taken aback. He looked desperately at Huang Ming, but the young master could only shrug helplessly in response.
Desperate, Zhang Ping bowed deeply to Madam Li. “I entreat the madam to give Zhang Ping advice. My intentions are pure, I really do want to court Ms. Zhao. Though I do not understand it, brother Huang Ming had already stated his reluctance to marry her, and it would break my heart to see Ms. Zhao and my friend to be shackled in a marriage of convenience,” he pleaded. Zhao Hongqi’s heart pounded rapidly as she heard the longing in his voice.
“Oh? Have you asked Zhao Hongqi of her opinions?” Madam Li asked while raising an eyebrow. She glanced at the panic-struck girl who shook her head in the negative. Zhao Hongqi could not even muster a wahaha in response, such was the turmoil in her mind.
“Though I had not discussed any of this with her, I see no rapport between Ms. Zhao and brother Huang Ming. In fact, he had expressed more interest towards her guardswoman,” Zhang Ping said matter-of-factly. It caused the entire room to erupt: Madam Li smirked, her maids gasped, Zhao Hongqi clapped with delight, Sunli flushed with exasperation and Huang Ming slapped his own forehead.
“I thank you for that bit of information,” Madam Li said dryly and gave Sunli a once-over. The tanned guardswoman adopted a thousand-mile stare into nowhere in particular and avoided the glance, but she could not stop the red heat rising in her cheeks.
On the other hand, Zhang Ping was elated thinking that he had won Madam Li’s approval. “Then…?” he murmured with anticipation.
“Such matters cannot be decided by us,” Madam Li replied. “All I can do is to write to General Zhao Tong and ask him regarding his intentions. She is her daughter, after all.”
Sunli was alarmed. “You do not need to do that!” the tall woman interjected.
“Why not?” Madam Li asked sharply, turning to look at the guardswoman once more. Zhao Hongqi too looked up at her companion plaintively, causing Sunli to sigh.
“I mean, there is no need for the madam to write the letter personally. As Zhao Hongqi’s guardswoman, I will write a report for the general,” Sunli said with no real enthusiasm.
Zhang Ping hurriedly went to bow before the guardswoman.
“Thank you!” the muscular man exclaimed, his eyes shining with hope. Some of Madam Li’s maids giggled at his eagerness.
“Be careful of what you wish for,” Sunli warned. “I will be making some inquiries about you and your family, the general would want to know about your background.”
Zhang Ping nodded vigorously. “Please, feel free to do so! I am more than willing to answer anything you ask. I will put my entire family and my business at your disposal!”
Sunli held up a hand to stop him. “It is not your wealth that the general is concerned with. He wants Zhao Hongqi to marry a man of good character.”
“I understand. If there’s anything I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask of me,” Zhang Ping said confidently. His joy was plain to see and even Madam Li found herself smiling at the muscular’s man’s yearning.
“Hey, don’t I get a say in this?” Huang Ming grumbled. He was glad for Zhang Ping and the potential resolution of his unwanted engagement, but he was still annoyed at his friend’s unhelpful honesty and direct approach. After all, what Zhang Ping did was tantamount to stealing his fiancée from his very own home in broad daylight.
Madam Li gave him a baleful stare. “Why, do you want to marry Zhao Hongqi after all?” she asked.
Huang Ming scratched his cheek sheepishly. “Well, no…”
His mother grinned. “Then be quiet for now. Don’t worry, there will be plenty for you to talk about after your guests have left.”
Like Ma Jun previously, Zhang Ping got the hint. He bowed once more to Madam Li.
“Zhang Ping thanks you and Guardswoman Sunli for their help. I will never forget this favour!” he said. After giving the now shy Zhao Hongqi a meaningful look, he strode away purposefully; a spring in his step as he left.
Huang Ming had none of his friend’s good cheer, he was gloomy and irritated. For Sunli, it was a humorous contrast from the confident, almost cocky demeanour she had seen earlier in the morning. Remembering his half-naked visage caused the guardswoman to blush once more. She quickly shook her head to banish that image away from her mind.
Madam Li crooked a finger and beckoned her despondent son to come closer. Her face was grim and Huang Ming shuddered to imagine what she had planned for him.
He lost a would-be wife,
Now fearful for his life.