“I never asked for this.”
--Adam Jensen, ‘Deus Ex’
Chapter Fifty - First look
When Madam Xu returned, the plump woman told Huang Ming to follow her. Seeing her perspiring visage, Huang Ming smirked.
“You could have just showed us his place when I first asked, would have saved you the trouble of going back and forth,” Huang Ming teased as he and Sunli trailed behind her. The madam merely rolled her eyes at him and increased her pace, much to Huang Ming’s surprise. He felt that the normally jovial madam was unusually worried and distressed.
Madam Xu led them to the most luxurious section of the Lichun. Huang Ming was suspicious; the area they were in did not seem to be the lodging area, but a place where important guests were entertained.
“Here we are. Go in, they are expecting you,” Madam Xu announced as she opened the door.
“Who’s ‘they’?” Huang Ming asked. When he stepped into the large room, he saw the answer. He immediately recognized two faces, while the third man was unfamiliar to him.
“You!” Official Shen He shouted with anger.
“Huang Ming?” Nangong Xie exclaimed in disbelief.
On his part, Huang Ming went, “Ah.”
For a few moments, they stared at his face which had a look of obvious puzzlement. Then he made as if to leave. “I’m sorry, I got the wrong place. I’ll be going now,” he said, raising a palm in a show of apology.
Nangong Xie sighed. “Little Ming, if you’re looking for a tumble, you need to head back out to the pleasure rooms. This area is for cultural entertainment only,” he said in a gentle tone, like he was admonishing a misbehaving child.
Huang Ming smiled cynically. “I bow to your superior knowledge, Brother Xie. You are after all much more experienced than I,” he said.
Nangong Xie flushed as Huang Ming’s words meant that the Handsome Scholar was a frequent visitor to the brothel.
Seeing his acquaintance being so flustered, Official Shen He spoke up. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
Huang Ming merely blinked. “I just said I made a mistake, for which I apologized. I’m looking for someone,” he said patiently as if explaining to a child.
The government official was rendered speechless by the young master’s honesty.
“Are you looking for Quan Lu?” a voice called out. Huang Ming looked and saw that it came from a woman who sat behind a veiled curtain.
“Yes, yes I am,” Huang Ming answered.
The woman laughed lightly. “Then you must be the Huang Ming my cousin has talked about so often,” she said.
Huang Ming was baffled. “Cousin?”
“Quan Lu is my cousin. My name is Qiong Ying,” the hidden woman introduced.
To which, Huang Ming merely said, “Oh.”
Qiong Ying was slightly unsettled at the lackluster reaction. “Why don’t you join us here while waiting for my cousin to return?” she suggested. From behind the curtain, she smiled enticingly. Though she was partly hidden, Nangong Xie and his companions could see the outlines of her curving lips due to the hue of her cosmetics. The ethereal effect provided by the thin curtain made her like some sort of fairy enchantress.
However, Huang Ming remained unimpressed. “All I want is just to give him these fruits. You can help me pass them along,” he said, holding up the basket in question. He was intrigued by her silhouette, but he had lived many lives and seen many beauties. It would take more than just a pretty face and a sexy body to move him.
Now Qiong Ying was truly grateful for the curtain, because otherwise the men in the room would have seen her peerless smile becoming strained. She could feel a vein or two on her head pulsing.
“Little Ming, don’t be rude to the Lady Qiong Ying!” Nangong Xie rebuked, taking the opportunity to curry favour with the woman in question.
“What exactly you want me to do? First you told me off for coming here, but when I try to leave I get scolded again!” Huang Ming complained loudly, his free hand on his hip in a show of exasperation.
“Please do join us. My cousin have told me many things about you,” Qiong Ying said sweetly, causing Nangong Xie and Shen He to be terribly annoyed at Huang Ming.
“That is not very reassuring,” he said dryly, privately cussing out Quan Lu’s loose lips. From the moment he had stepped into the room, he knew that there would be trouble. Seeing the unfamiliar nobleman seated in the position of honour rang off alarm bells in his mind, he had no desire to be caught in unwanted problems due to some sort of misunderstanding arising from a woman.
Qiong Ying sighed audibly, causing the other men to clench their fists tighter at the provocative sound.
“You are indeed a stubborn person. I feel that this lowly woman can only appeal to you by showing her true face,” Qiong Ying said. She stood up and bade the servants to pull apart the thin curtain, showing her glorious beauty to all. Whatever ill feelings the men had for Huang Ming disappeared when they saw her. Indeed, in the small corner of their minds they were even thankful that he had provoked her to reveal herself.
It was as if a fairy had descended, a creature of pale skin and brilliant green eyes like the finest jade. Her long, lustrous, raven-black hair flowed past her neck, tied with a beaded hair tie. She was dressed in a grand, green robe embroidered with the motif of a golden scaled dragon curling around clouds. Despite the voluminous and flowing clothing, one could deduce her full figure and thin waist. Truly, a dazzling sight that would cause fishes to drown and birds to plummet if they had seen her beauty. Or so the legends would say, as eagerly marketed by the Lichun.
For a moment she stood there while the eyes of the other men blazed with desire, her own eyes boring deeply into Huang Ming. The other men should be angry, should be covetous that her attentions were elsewhere; but they were so swept by her beauty that they became lost while drinking in her sensual appearance.
Huang Ming did not shy away from her gaze, he stared right back at her. Yes, he was somewhat affected by her looks, but he was sensible and experienced enough not to be lead by his hormones. But he remained unsure on what to do next. The woman had revealed herself as if it was some sort of boon, to simply dismiss it outright would humiliate her and probably earn the hatred of every man in the world. He was very tempted to simply say‘You look nice’ but it seemed woefully deficient. Yet, he was already annoyed at being mislead into the room, and he was not in the mood to be overly flattering.
So he acted the way he felt most comfsortable: with nonchalance.
“Fine, fine, fine,” he chanted and sighed mightily, as if reluctantly giving in. He slouched his shoulder and shuffled forward, making a show of utmost disinterest, that all this was a chore.
Qiong Ying felt her eye twitch, partly with humour and partly in annoyance. It was the first time she felt lacking, that her vaunted beauty was of no importance to this man. Still, she beckoned for the servant girls and they quickly set up a table for him. Huang Ming wryly handed over the basket of fruits to one of them as he sat down, and he soon found himself sitting directly facing the unknown nobleman.
The noble had refined features, a clean-shaven man in his early thirties. He had dignified brows and clear eyes, a dignified man with regal bearings, hiding a forceful nature underneath a veneer of politeness and culture.
Now that he was in the pot that he had tried to avoid, Huang Ming wanted to learn the nobleman’s identity. “This is…” he said, leaving the sentence hanging so that someone would introduce the unfamiliar man.
Nangong Xie did not disappoint him. He proudly introduced the nobleman.
“This is Lord Fang La, nephew of Prime Minister Tong Xuan!”
A reluctant pawn.