A gaggle of women
“You dun goofed.”
Chapter Fifty Seven – A gaggle of women
“Hey hey, care to introduce these lovely ladies to me?”
The voice was coy, dripping with all the smarmy ooze of a snake oil peddler. Behind the curtains of their hats, the faces of Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun turned very cold, even though they saw that the speaker was a beautifully handsome man with jade-like skin and clear green eyes. But Huang Ming was already smiling before he turned around to face the speaker, a man whose face was shrouded by a hat and silk mouth mask.
“Brother Quan Lu, please don’t say words that ill match your handsome face,” Huang Ming said brightly.
“I was just going to buy some cakes from this shop when I saw you,” Quan Lu said, the brilliant green eyes twinkled with amusement.
Indeed, it was Qiong Ying in her male persona as Quan Lu. She had been vigilant after the recent encounter with Huang Ming and Lord Fang La, and had kept watchful eyes over them both. When she heard that Huang Ming had finally made an appearance, she quickly put on her disguise to meet him. Who knew that the moment Qiong Ying arrived, she saw her quarry talking familiarly with two charming but oddly-dressed women. A feeling of annoyance rose in her, and she boldly approached them with a mind to cause Huang Ming trouble.
“Brother Huang Ming, it looks like you are a very popular person. You were intimate with my cousin and yet still not satisfied?” Qiong Ying said in an accusing tone, causing the ladies to go wide eyed.
“Your cousin has sharp teeth and a temper to match, she frightens me,” Huang Ming said with a grin, ignoring the questioning looks on the faces of his future in-laws.
Qiong Ying could feel her forehead pulse and she managed to swallow her indignation. “Nonsense, my cousin is a delicate flower and a peerless beauty!” she said instead.
“I’m not too sure about the ‘delicate’ part. She certainly made her mark,” Huang Ming replied, rubbing the spot where she had bitten him that day.
Sunli was attentive to notice the gesture. “It was his cousin who bit you?” she asked blandly, causing Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun to lean in with much womanly interest.
“Who is this fellow?” Liu Yuchun demanded.
Quick introductions were made, and the ladies Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun looked at Quan Lu in new light. On her part, Qiong Ying was relieved that they were Huang Ming’s future sister-in-laws.
“Quan… I know this name. But, who is his cousin, and why did she bite you?” Cao Tianyun asked.
“His cousin is the Lady Qiong Ying,” Sunli answered, and the two women drew their breath. They had heard of the mysterious Lady Qiong Ying, but obviously what they knew were only hearsay and rumours of the Lichun and its courtesans.
Qiong Ying saw their prying eyes and her eyes curved as she smiled underneath her mask. “Brother Huang Ming, it’s no good to rile up my cousin and leave her in distress,” she said in a deliberately vague manner.
“Please don’t say such misleading things,” Huang Ming said hurriedly, and Qiong Ying laughed. Huang Ming saw that his friend was full of life and vigour and was pleased by it. “It is good to see you in good health, Brother Quan Lu. I was to extend a invitation for you that day, but you were away,” he said.
“I heard it all from my cousin. I do not wish to distract your family in this troublesome time,” Qiong Ying said, subtly acknowledging the looming problem with Lord Fang La.
“What troublesome time?” Liu Yuchun asked. Her question caused the other three to look at her awkwardly.
‘It would seem Ah Ke had wisely kept his mouth shut,’ Huang Ming thought. It would seem to be the logical conclusion as Liu Yuchun was only from a family of honest craftsmen.
Liu Yuchun saw that they shared a mutual secret and she did not like the feeling of being left out.
“I see how it is,” she said angrily. Fortunately, the line moved forward and finally it was time for Huang Ming’s little group to enter the bakery.
“Come, let’s buy some cakes,” Cao Tianyun urged and pulled the simmering Liu Yuchun into the shop.
Smiling wryly, Huang Ming followed them in, as did Sunli and Qiong Ying. Once he had entered, he saw the reason for the queue outside. It was a small shop, with rows of simple racks to display a plethora of various cakes, pastries and deserts of all kinds. The aroma of baked goods and sweets filled the air. Each item was lovingly crafted, all were a feast for the eyes and nose. To save space and maximize storage, the aisles were narrow and cramped, thus necessitating a limited number of customers at any given time.
Huang Ming admired the view, but having not much interest in such things, he went straight to the counter to place a large order to be delivered to the Huang household.
“How many pieces?” the cashier asked curtly, a thickset woman who had all the airs of a cynic.
“Enough for a hundred persons,” Huang Ming replied.
“Be specific, how am I to know how many pieces each person is to eat?” the woman demanded.
“Then, two hundred fifty pieces in total,” Huang Ming decided promptly.
The woman rolled her eyes and went to make the necessary arrangements. Huang Ming couldn’t help but smirk, such a brief and mundane encounter with a surly shopkeeper was yet another reminder that some things were universal across multiple worlds and dimensions.
“Young Master Huang?” a voice called.
Huang Ming turned around and saw that it was Lin Hua, the charming lady from the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities.
“Miss Lin Hua, what a surprise,” Huang Ming said, genuinely stunned. ‘What is this, why do people keep appearing here?’ he wondered.
Qiong Ying and the others gathered nearby, they were curious about this woman who was speaking familiarly with him.
“Are you collecting more women? You’re going to hurt my cousin’s feelings,” Qiong Ying said lightly.
“This is Miss Lin Hua,” Huang Ming introduced.
“From Hall of Treasures and Antiquities?” Qiong Ying asked with an arched eyebrow. She looked at her with a discreet eye, Lin Hua was a charming lady indeed as she had heard. Qiong Ying was a little annoyed, just how many beautiful women Huang Ming was acquainted with? Furthermore, this Lin Hua was also familiar with Sunli, they greeted each other with friendly smiles.
“I did not know you have a sweet tooth,” Lin Hua said to Huang Ming.
“And I thought you preferred peaches,” Huang Ming deadpanned, causing her to flush.
Then she asked, “How is our project going?”
“I, uh, have been busy,” Huang Ming admitted sheepishly. He had put aside the music box while he worked on the other items, the encounter with Lord Fang La had pushed it back.
“What? Please take this seriously, you have no idea how furious my father and grandfather was when I told them the box is with you without so much as a collateral!” Lin Hua exclaimed.
“Rest assured, I’ll work on it when I can. It’s just that things have become complicated,” Huang Ming said.
“What project?” Qiong Ying asked.
But before Huang Ming or Lin Hua could answer, the bakery’s proprietress reappeared.
“Are you people done? If so, quickly pay up and leave, you’re holding up the queue!” she demanded.
Embarrassed, the group paid for their purchases and left.
“What a rude person,” Qiong Ying commented after they had exited.
“Rude? I call that efficient,” Huang Ming said. “Yes, she could be more polite, but imagine how she feels, sitting in this small shop for hours doing the same thing over and over, day after day.”
Liu Yuchun rolled her eyes. “You sound like you know how that feels. Since when have you worked a day in your life?” the blacksmith’s daughter asked.
Huang Ming merely smiled. How could he tell her that he had worked almost every job imaginable in his multiple lives? From menial jobs to skilled labour and slaving away behind a desk, he had seen and done it all. Even before his career as an Avatar, he had worked his entire life on Earth. It was also this basis that made him slow to use all his skill and experience immediately once he had transmigrated. Yes, he had done so with much gusto several times, but eventually it all became wearisome and tedious. The novelty of transmigration wore off quickly once he realized that he had to redo everything from the first step, that he wasn’t given cheats nor so-called plot armour. Worse still, once he did acquire helpful items or immense wealth, he could not take them with him into the next transmigration anyway.
As Huang Ming’s thoughts drifted, the women were introduced to each other.
“So your cousin is the lady Qiong Ying!” Lin Hua gushed.
“Quan Lu is also the man that the young master was seeking a gift for,” Sunli added helpfully.
“Really!” Lin Hua said, and she eyed Quan Lu up and down. “I can see the possibilities…” she murmured and giggled as Sunli nodded in agreement.
Qiong Ying was a little bewildered, but then she recalled what Huang Ming had mentioned to her about peaches. She did not know whether to laugh or cry.
“What was that about a project?” she asked instead.
“Well, he was actually looking for a gift for you,” Lin Hua said with much amusement. “It was an… antique, and he offered to restore it in exchange for a payment in kind.”
“I have heard something of that from my cousin, but I did not know the lengths you are going to,” Qiong Ying said to Huang Ming. Then, remembering about the ‘peaches’, she thought of a prank and said in a soft voice, “I am very, very touched…”
It raised the hackles on Huang Ming, but Lin Hua was delighted. She could almost see a flowery background between Quan Lu and Huang Ming…
“Found you,” a growl interrupted. A gigantic shadow loomed over them. Huang Ming looked up… and up. It was his brother, Huang Ke, riding on his horse.
“Hello,” Huang Ming greeted with as much enthusiasm as watching paint dry.
Huang Ke grunted as he dismounted. “Mother asked me to find you. You’re making this an annoying habit,” he said.
“I was just ordering some osmanthus cakes for our family guests,” Huang Ming said.
“Are you sure that’s it? Who are these women?” Huang Ke asked, his eyes narrowed. His displeasure grew when he saw his brother’s coterie: he recognized Quan Lu and Sunli of course, but not Lin Hua nor the other two women with curtained hats.
“These women are special,” Huang Ming said bemusedly, realizing that Huang Ke had yet to recognize his own wife-to-be.
“What’s so special about them? Stop wasting time, go home and meet the elders!” Huang Ke said impatiently.
Liu Yuchun couldn’t bear it anymore, she snorted and stomped away.
“Oh, you’re in trouble now, brother,” Huang Ming said to Huang Ke, and everyone else nodded in agreement.
Huang Ke was confused when he saw the various degrees of pitying looks.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
He thought he saw flirtation,
But he couldn’t read the situation.