“There are many temptations in this life, but cake is probably one of the biggest of them.”
--Mma Potokwane, ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’
Chapter Fifty Six – Pastry patsy
Huang Ming was awoken by boisterous noises and was immediately assaulted by a throbbing pain on his lower back. Yet again he had fallen asleep while working on his tinkering, a common occurrence over recent days as he burned the midnight oil. He studied his fingers wryly; they were smudged with ink, grime and dirt. But when he glanced at the items he had made, he exhaled in satisfaction. It took backbreaking hours, but he felt it was all worth it.
He frowned as the hubbub outside escalated; it was the sound of people moving busily in and around the Huang residence. Huang Ming quickly cleaned up and went to the main hall to check.
He saw that it was very lively with a line of horse-pulled carriages and wagons outside. The doors were wide open and a stream of servants and maids were going in carrying numerous luggage and boxes from the carriages.
“What is going on?” he asked Yu-er who was standing by the gateway, skilfully directing the porters to their rightful destinations within. With her was the indomitable Sunli, she stood vigilantly and kept her hawkish eyes on the visitors.
“The clan has come!” the young maid said excitedly.
“And nobody is here to greet them? Where are my parents?” Huang Ming asked.
“They already went to the city outskirts to await the arrival of your clan elders, they will return in a day or two,” Sunli replied.
Huang Ming nodded; he was told by his parents that their relatives would come early for the double wedding. A dozen or so extended families, nearly a hundred persons from all across the continent would be arriving for the grand event.
“Isn’t this Cousin Ming?” someone called out politely. Huang Ming turned to see a group of young men and women dismounting from the latest batch of carriages, and recognized them as his cousins of the same generation and similar in ages. Several were already married, and they were proudly carrying and leading their children towards him.
Huang Ming bowed deeply in greeting, causing some of them to widen their eyes in shock.
“Did not expect to see you up this early,” one of the cousins commented frankly.
Huang Ming smiled wryly. “If I can’t wake up with this much noise around, I might as well be dead,” he said self-depreciatingly, causing the group to laugh. He had browsed his memories; most of his relatives had a low opinion of the original but were too polite to make snide remarks about his poor reputation.
Huang Ming immediately set out to change that, he invited them into the main hall and ordered refreshments and treats for all. Transmigration and stepping into a new life was a lonely business, and Huang Ming took the opportunity to renew and mend relations with his cousins and the little nephews and nieces. He was heartened that there wasn’t a stereotypical overbearing, bullying cousin so often found in the stories that he had read. Apparently, the original Huang Ming was the overbearing, bullying cousin.
Those who had known the original were pleasantly surprised by Huang Ming’s change of personality, and soon the main hall was filled with friendly gossip and laughter. Reintroductions and family news were exchanged. It was a heart-warming experience; he could not help but became a little misty eyed when he saw the antics of the children as they enjoyed the candied fruits and osmanthus cakes that he had raided from his mother’s stash.
One of the married cousins saw that he was somewhat affected and decided to nudge him.
“When is your turn? When are you getting married?” she asked.
“When I find someone who can handle a bundle of joy like your kid,” Huang Ming said with a smile, nodding towards a child who was slobbering all over a candied apple. It earned Huang Ming an embarrassed smack on the shoulder, and the cousin hastily got up to wipe her son’s face.
For a moment, Huang Ming was alone. The hall was lively, adults were talking to each other, children playing and laughing, servants and maids bustling about… but Huang Ming sat alone as he looked at them all. Like the time when he was at the Lichun with Cao Shuang and Liu Xiang, the atmosphere reminded him of his past; this time of his own progeny that he had left behind here and there. Were they prospering without him? Had they been wiped out by some calamity after he had moved on? Do they still remember him? There was no way for him to know…
He felt a slight tug on his sleeve, and he looked down to see that it was an adorable little girl, holding a piece of half-eaten osmanthus cake in her tiny hand.
“Hello,” Huang Ming said kindly.
The little girl tilted her head as she offered her half-eaten cake to him.
“Good god but you’re so cute!” Huang Ming exclaimed. He pulled the child closer for a hearty hug and ruffled her hair. The little girl did not protest but smiled silently.
“Hey cousin, don’t manhandle my child,” the girl’s father warned good-naturedly.
“What’s her name?” Huang Ming asked.
“Huang Zhixiao,” the little girl answered proudly.
Huang Ming pinched her adorable face and gave her father a sagely nod. “It’s almost a crime for her to be your daughter. It’s her good luck that she inherited her looks from her mother,” he said, much to the amusement of everyone present.
The little girl offered her cake once more, but Huang Ming chuckled. “You eat it, there’s plenty more,” he said.
Zhixiao shook her head and pointed to the empty platters. When Huang Ming ordered Yu-er to bring more out, the young maid told him that there were none left.
“Fine, bring something else,” he said.
“Yes, young master. But, what are you going to do?” Yu-er asked, puzzling Huang Ming. “There’s no osmanthus cake left,” she repeated slowly.
Zhixiao’s father laughed heartily. “Hohoho! You’re in trouble now, I know Aunt Li really loved those osmanthus cakes,” he guffawed.
Huang Ming shrugged. “We’ll just buy some more.”
Yu-er shook her pretty head. “Young master, the bakery is very proud, and madam had to buy the cakes personally. Not even her personal maids were allowed to purchase for her. It is quite a popular product, I fear it may be out of stock,” Yu-er cautioned.
Hearing thus, Huang Ming decided to go personally. He bade Yu-er and the other servants to serve his cousins well while he was away.
“I will follow you,” Sunli said in a tone that left no room for dispute. It seemed she was eager to be away from the hustle and bustle of an unfamiliar crowd.
“What about Hongqi?” Huang Ming asked.
Sunli motioned with her eyes and Huang Ming followed her sight.
“Wahaha, follow me!” Zhao Hongqi said proudly, and the little children around her stood at attention like soldiers. She made them march behind her, like a mother duck and her little ducklings. The adults clapped their hands and sang encouragements to the children as they followed the exuberant Zhao Hongqi around the main hall.
“When did she…?” Huang Ming muttered and shook his head. Not wanting to waste further time, Huang Ming and Sunli quickly made their way into the city.
As Yu-er had warned, the bakery was extremely busy with a long line outside its doors; causing Huang Ming to grumble. He was reminded of the ridiculous fads on Earth where people would line up just to buy an exclusive product or another, and he had the sinking feeling that he was about to experience something similar.
Just as he was despairing about the long line, he saw the profile of two familiar persons right in front of him. They were dressed like common, wandering scholars, but the simple clothing could not conceal the shapely figures underneath. Both wore large hats with muslin curtains to conceal their faces, but the beautiful glint in their eyes and alluring lips were still visible. In another situation, they would have attracted unwanted male attention, but standing in line at a bakery store made them seem like eccentrics in poorly worn costumes. Indeed, a few passing children would point at them in wonder, only to be pulled away by their parents who would mutter about ‘strange people and their weird hobbies’.
Huang Ming smiled broadly as he spied on the two women from head to toe, as if enjoying a private joke. How could passing commoners know who these two women were? Their real identities were beyond their reach. One was like a fairy who hid from sight, the other had a fiery temper that would frighten off people.
Sunli curled her lips, disgusted at his blatantly roving eyes. Just as she was about rebuke him, the two women turned around and suddenly noticed Huang Ming ogling at them. They gasped in surprise and started as if to run away.
“Two respected ladies, fear not, I’m here on an errand,” Huang Ming said cheerfully.
“Lower your voice, do you want the whole world to know!” one the women shushed, her eyes darting left and right in alarm. Fortunately it seemed the people nearby were not interested in their conversation, and the bakery line shuffled along.
“Who are they?” Sunli demanded, not too pleased at the sudden inclusion of two other women in her ongoing report about Huang Ming.
“They are very dear women to me,” Huang Ming said blandly.
“You-!” all three women chimed simultaneously.
“Relax,” Huang Ming grinned. “Allow me to introduce to you, these two are my future sister-in-laws. Cao Tianyun, Ah Lang’s bride to be, and Liu Yuchun, Ah Ke’s wife to be.”
Sunli’s complexion changed, she quickly saluted the two women.
“This is…?” Cao Tianyun asked softly.
“I’m Sunli,” the guardswoman answered simply. Cao Tianyun tilted her head in askance, but seeing the tanned woman’s reticence she did not press the matter further.
“Don’t call me your sister-in-law, I’m not married yet,” Liu Yuchun reminded Huang Ming, and he could see the creases of a scowl underneath the muslin curtain.
“What are you saying at this point in time?” Cao Tianyu said in alarm. From her tone, Huang Ming surmised that the sisters-in-law had shared words about their respective marriages more than once.
‘It looks like Ah Ke haven’t won her heart yet,’ Huang Ming thought.
The line shuffled forward, and they moved accordingly.
“You have it easy, you’re getting married to handsome Huang Lang, while I’m with the oafish brother,” Liu Yuchun snorted. Then she blinked when she took a closer look at Sunli. “I say, you’re a woman, right?” she asked.
“Yes, I am a woman,” Sunli replied tonelessly, causing Liu Yuchun to redden at her tactless question.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that… you look very valiant and manly,” the blacksmith’s daughter apologized.
“Don’t worry, I hear that all the time,” Sunli said expressionlessly.
Liu Yuchun was known as a fearless woman, but she was awkward socially. She turned towards Huang Ming to ask, “What are you doing here?”
“To buy osmanthus cake,” Huang Ming answered with a sigh.
“You too?” Cao Tianyun asked.
“It’s my mother’s favourite,” Huang Ming said.
“So it’s true!” Cao Tianyun said excitedly.
“What do you mean?” Huang Ming asked.
“Well, Ah Lang…” Cao Tianyun blushed when she said the name familiarly, “Ah Lang said it’s Madam Li’s secret skincare product.”
“What? She does love the cakes, but I haven’t heard anything medicinal about it,” Huang Ming said. “Are you sure you’re not being tricked by Ah Lang into causing you to line up here for ages just to buy cakes?” he continued mischievously.
Cao Tianyun gasped. “No… he wouldn’t do that! Would he…?” she asked uncertainly. Then she recalled the knowing grin of Huang Lang, the teasing face of the Celestial Qilin that only she would know from their private moments together.
She stamped her feet cutely. “Ooh, that infuriating man!” she complained.
“Hey, does that mean you made me wait in line here with you for ordinary cakes?” Liu Yuchun demanded.
Huang Ming smirked at the potential troubles he was brewing for his brothers. But before he could put in another cutting remark, a new voice interrupted him from behind.
“Hey hey, care to introduce these lovely ladies to me?”
Someone came to flirt,
At a shop that sells dessert.