“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
--Oscar Wilde

Chapter Forty Six - Bad intentions

Huang Ming turned to see who had interrupted his discussion with Lin Hua. His mood dipped, for he had recognized the voice. The person was a well-dressed, handsome-looking gentleman with a false smile on his lips. Behind him was a fat government official who was accompanied by two guards and walked with a swagger of self-importance.

“Ah, brother Nangong Xie. It has been a while since we have met,” Huang Ming greeted.

“Little Ming, it’s because you have been quite busy lately!” Nangong Xie said with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes.

Huang Ming smirked faintly when he heard the appellation. The tone in which Nangong Xie the Handsome Scholar had called him made it clear that they were no longer amicable friends.

“It’s because my brothers are getting married soon. I’m running here and there on errands for them,” Huang Ming said airily.

Nangong Xie scowled. His scheme to entrap Liu Yuchun had failed, and then Cao Tianyun had all but ignored him during the competition. Gallingly, both had ended up with Huang Ming’s brothers. Even his business relation with Cao Shuang had evaporated; the governor’s son had made numerous reasons to avoid him. Nangong Xie had thought that Cao Shuang was simply busy, but he was incensed when he heard that Huang Ming had accompanied the governor’s son to the Lichun Brothel and came out as good friends.

Losing Cao Shuang’s support was a bigger blow than losing the women. The Handsome Scholar could get fine women at his leisure with his looks alone. But he had thrown in his lot with the governor’s son in hopes of expanding his own influence. Now Cao Shuang and Huang Ming were related by the marriage of their siblings and Nangong Xie found himself isolated in the city with no one to lean on.

Nangong Xie was not dull; he had put the pieces together and concluded that the young wastrel was the one orchestrating everything, as unbelievable as it had seemed. Huang Ming had never shown any intelligence beyond seeking pleasure and merriment. It was as if all those months of association was a long-term deception to trick lull him into underestimating Huang Ming.

To further reinforce his suspicions, he found the dissolute Huang Ming right here in the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities instead of a pleasure house, browsing the historical pieces with seemingly real scholarly interest. There was almost no trace of the old Huang Ming that he had known; none of the half-lidded eyes, sunken cheeks and sallow complexion that were the hallmarks of excess. In fact, Huang Ming looked very fit; his face had the very glow of health. Nangong Xie had seethed as he observed him from afar before approaching; it was plain to him that this was the true character of Huang Ming.

“I have yet to congratulate your family, I have been busy myself,” Nangong Xie managed to say.

“Ah, don’t worry about it, brother Xie! I understand very well!” Huang Ming said in a forgiving tone, irritating the Handsome Scholar. “But I see that you’re not alone,” Huang Ming said as he glanced at the people with Nangong Xie. He did not recognize the obese government official whose eyes were roving all over Lin Hua ravenously.

Nangong Xie’s lips curled into a sneer, feeling somewhat proud that he had his nemesis at a loss. He gestured politely at the official behind him.

“This is Official Shen He from the capital. He is here on an inspection visit under the direct orders of Prime Minister Tong Xuan. And this is the youngest son of the Great General Huang Zheng.” Nangong Xie introduced.

Huang Ming bowed in acknowledgement. Behind him, Sunli narrowed her eyes at the name. But as she was dressed like a lowly soldier would, she was treated almost as invisible and was ignored by the interlopers. They did not even notice that she was a woman.

“Ah, yes, yes, I have heard of you,” Shen He said half-heartedly. He was far more interested with Lin Hua who stood beside Huang Ming. “What about you, my dear?” the official asked, his eyes wide with greed.

Lin Hua was disgusted by his blatant appeal, but managed to smile brightly to maintain her hall’s reputation. “This lowly self is Lin Hua,” she informed him.

“You are indeed a beauty! I could use your expertise with the auction,” the official said lecherously.

Lin Hua was distressed, she saw that Shen He was indeed a high-ranking, powerful government official and she did not know how to extricate herself.

Fortunately, Huang Ming interrupted him. “I’m sorry Official Shen, but I have engaged her services first. I have urgent need of her advice.”

The fat government official stared at him, he could not believe that someone had actually dared to defy him. His two bodyguards shifted slightly.

“Little Ming, be considerate! Official Shen He has travelled a great distance from the capital and today is the only day of leisure for him before he begins his inspections proper. Let him have the privilege of having Ms. Lin Hua’s services today, you can come back later!” Nangong Xie suggested, his eyes glinting with evil intent.

Huang Ming laughed. “I’m not so bold as to monopolize Miss Lin for myself. Why don’t we move together so that all of us could benefit from Ms. Lin Hua’s knowledge?” He looked over at Lin Hua questioningly. “The auction is due to begin soon?”

Lin Hua nodded. “Very soon, but there is time for us to see the last few top items for today.”

“Then, we are sorry to trouble you, Miss Lin. Maybe you could call over some of your colleagues to help?” Huang Ming said apologetically, before Nangong Xie or Shen He could break into the conversation.

Lin Hua looked at him warmly with gratitude. “No trouble at all!” she replied. She quickly made the arrangements and soon several attendants of the hall came over bearing trays of drinks. Each was impeccably dressed and professional in behaviour. Most importantly, all were men. Now Nangong Xie, Official Shen He and his bodyguards were outnumbered.

“Come, we move on to the next item,” Lin Hua said and she broke into a brisk walk and Huang Ming quickly followed her, Sunli a few steps behind him. For a moment, Shen He and Nangong Xie stood there dumbfounded. Nangong Xie thought of saying something, but the entourage of attendants was embarrassing. They stood nearby, their eyes showing their eagerness to serve. It was the sort of invisible pressure you get when overly attentive waiters hovered around your table.

“Official Shen He…” Nangong Xie spoke up slowly, as if mortified by the turn of events.

“Let us follow them,” the fat official snorted. “The son of a mere general! How dare he!”

Nangong Xie smiled malevolently.

Hide a dagger behind a smile,
Find a chance, stab with guile.​