“Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.”
Chapter Six - Peppermint Soap
“We’re going out,” Huang Lang said without any preamble the moment he saw Huang Ming.
Huang Lang did not bother to elaborate, simply turning to leave. Huang Ming hurried to follow him outside where two horses were saddled and waiting, being held in place by a steward.
His elder brother climbed one horse effortlessly and rode off at a slow trot. Huang Ming was grateful that there were stirrups as he clambered on the other, it has been a long time and many worlds ago that he had ridden on a beast.
“Where are we going?” he asked after he had caught up. He noticed that his brother had a sheathed sword on his belt.
“The Floating Cloud,” his brother said curtly.
It was the name of a reputable restaurant in the city. Huang Ming was mystified, but knowing his brother’s temperament he knew it would be better to wait for his brother to explain in his own time rather than pestering him with questions.
True enough, Huang Lang remained silent during the journey. As they went deeper into the city Huang Ming saw that their horses were more for simple convenience: those on foot simply parted ways wherever they went. Some men recognized them and gave salutes, some ladies pointed and giggled as the handsome brothers went past.
As they left the quiet, noble quarter where their estate was located, the streets got livelier. Shops of all kinds lined both sides of the streets, their merchants and assistants competing for the attention of the passing throng. The smells of cooked food and spices wafted in the air, lending exoticness to the street.
Eventually the brothers reach a large building that dominated the intersection of a cross-junction, a structure of wood three storeys high with open air balconies. The signboard proclaimed ‘Floating Cloud Restaurant’, written in gold and red. A cacophony of noise emanated from within, the usual din of people talking and eating, a combination of clinking tableware and boisterous chatter.
A servant was ready to take their horses as the brothers dismounted and went into the restaurant.
“Oh my, the young masters from the Huang family!” a middle-aged manager rushed to approach them.
“My usual table,” Huang Lang said. Huang Ming raised an eyebrow, he did not know his elder brother frequented the place.
“Certainly! Please!” the man nodded and bowed respectfully, gesturing for them to go up the stairs.
“I didn’t know you come here often,” Huang Ming asked as they climbed the stairs to the third floor, the background noise slowly became fading as they went up.
“There are many things you do not know,” Huang Lang replied diffidently.
The third floor was an exclusive area, each table were apart from each other, partitioned by colourfully patterned, chest-high silk screens for modest privacy. One could still see the silhouettes of the guests, but nothing more. Conversations here were much more subdued: it was a place for the rich and famous, not like the previous floors below.
Huang Lang ignored the enclosed tables and went to the open balcony where there was only a single table without any silk screens. This was his spot.
Without being asked, a few servant girls came over and served piping hot tea and some plates of small foods and freshly steamed buns. They quickly withdrew once they were done, returning to their distant stations, attentive and ready to come forth if called.
Huang Ming’s puzzlement deepened, apparently his elder brother’s tastes were so well known that the restaurant already knew what to prepare quickly in advance. He searched his memories, the original Huang Ming had little or no cordial relations with the eldest brother ever since they have become of age; the gap in their contact yawned much wider when compared with Huang Ke.
Huang Ming drained his cup. “Good tea,” he said, hoping to spark a conversation.
Huang Lang merely drained his own cup and nodded when Huang Ming refilled it. Still he remained quiet.
Sore from the morning bout with Huang Ke and now annoyed at Huang Lang’s silence, Huang Ming sullenly picked up his chopsticks and pecked at the food.
“I know this isn’t the Lichun Brothel, but don’t look so sour,” Huang Lang suddenly said, naming the famous establishment frequented by the original Huang Ming.
Huang Ming flushed and nearly dropped his chopsticks in shock. He bared his teeth in a forced smile, annoyed at this latest reminder of the original Huang Ming’s promiscuous past.
“I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort,” he growled, “just wondering what we’re doing here.”
His brother looked out the balcony into the busy streets below. “We’re here to show our faces,” he said cryptically.
“By now the whole city would know that two-thirds of our city’s soldiers have set out in haste. The urgency in Huang Ke’s march would have set tongues wagging. By showing our presence here it gives the impression that all is well,” Huang Lang explained.
“Is it? That all is well?” Huang Ming asked, causing his brother to turn his attention back to him.
Huang Lang gazed solemnly at him, weighing whether to divulge further. He took a deep breath and exhaled heavily as if making up his mind.
“Maybe not,” he said at last.
“Something to do with the rising prices?” Huang Ming ventured.
Huang Lang raised an eyebrow. “How did you know?”
Huang Ming shrugged, not really seeing the point to explain the incident with Liu Yuchun. It was his turn to play the uncommunicative brother.
“I guess I deserved that,” Huang Lang conceded. “You are right, there’s a situation developing. Bandits usually target merchant caravans, but recently they have been raiding the transports carrying iron ores and grain.”
“I just find it hard to believe that it would be so difficult for father to destroy these bandits,” Huang Ming said suspiciously.
“They are very well organized,” Huang Lang replied, almost in approval.
“Could it be a scheme from our neighbouring rivals?” Huang Ming queried, remembering what Huang Ke had said earlier.
“The governor is worried, yes. There are rumours of unrest elsewhere. Other countries are always looking for an opportunity,” Huang Lang said.
“I actually don’t really know much beyond our city,” Huang Ming admitted.
“It is time that you learn. I’ll have to enlighten you when we return.”
“Why not start now?” Huang Ming smiled.
Then he saw his brother’s eyes glancing elsewhere. He followed his gaze and saw an entourage of noble men and rich merchants approaching them. At their head was an overweight man with a pencil thin moustache dressed in luxurious, gaudy silk.
“Hah! I wondered who you were, it’s actually Huang Lang from the esteemed Huang family!” the leader exclaimed sarcastically while cooling himself with a folding fan.
Huang Ming took an instant dislike to him.
“Greetings to you, Cao Shuang,” Huang Lang said with minimum politeness as he rose to greet him. Seeing his elder brother thus, Huang Ming followed suit.
Cao Shuang, heir of the Cao family, privately called the ‘Ten Scattered Fingers’ in derision by the masses; due to him having a finger in every pie. Of course, nobody dared to call him that to his face. His father Cao Yuan was the city’s governor. On paper, Cao Yuan and Huang Zheng were in charge of the civilian and military aspects of the city respectively. However the two had a frosty relationship and often butted heads due to the governor’s interference in military matters.
Cao Shuang taking the initiative to approach them was unusual; the two families were like oil and water and would take pains to avoid each other.
Due to him being a few years older, Cao Shuang did not bother to return Huang Lang’s polite gesture. Instead he turned his attention towards Huang Ming.
“And little Huang Ming is here as well! Are you sure you’re not lost? Shouldn’t you be at the Lichun Brothel?” he mocked, to which his cronies snickered.
“I didn’t go there today to avoid seeing you, who knew you’d be here too!” Huang Ming immediately replied with a grin, implying that Cao Shuang was a regular patron of the brothel as well.
Cao Shuang angrily snapped his folding fan shut. “I have never been there, how dare you slander me! You, on the other hand, everyone talks of you and your frequent visits!”
Huang Ming shrugged. “You shouldn’t simply believe what people say,” he said in barefaced denial, “just like how I don’t believe the people who call you ‘Ten Fat Fingers’ behind your back.”
Cao Shuang’s face turned red, his retinue were enraged.
Huang Ming raised a palm in mock appeasement. “Calm down, drink some tea, have a bun,” he recited, remembering the phrase popularized by a comedian from his home world.
“You can’t hide behind your father forever. Don’t think your father the general is inviolate, he has already failed several times to stop the bandits!” Cao Shuang sneered.
“And what have you done in the meantime besides shaking the lard on your body?” Huang Ming demanded.
Cao Shuang was speechless.
Meanwhile, Huang Lang had ignored the commotion; he had sat back down and was lazily drinking tea. When Cao Shuang mentioned their father, he only shifted his body slightly so that the sheathed sword that hung from his belt could be seen.
Cao Shuang seethed with anger, yet he was not willing to escalate to physicality for he knew of Huang Lang’s swordsmanship.
“This isn’t over, wash your neck and wait!” Cao Shuang said menacingly.
“I do wash every day, don’t you? You need to take care of your hygiene and take a bath regularly,” Huang Ming returned.
“I do bathe every day!” Cao Shuang thundered back.
“Then I feel I need to tell you this for your own good: you need stronger soap, because you reek. I suggest something infused with peppermint herbs,” Huang Ming said in mock seriousness.
“You-!” Cao Shuang was absolutely furious, gripping his folded fan so tightly that it snapped. His followers stepped forward threateningly.
A small laugh from behind them cut through the tense atmosphere.
“Little Brother Ming’s tongue has gotten sharp!” the voice said gaily.