"You guys really seem like you have a lot of sexual chemistry."
--Alex McDonough, 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry' (2007)
Chapter Sixty One – So close
At last, it was the day of the wedding.
At the crack of dawn, the brothers Huang Lang and Huang Ke solemnly washed up with water infused with flower essences and dressed in the finest clothes of red. Before the family ancestral altar, the two brothers made their obeisance to the clan elders. The elders nodded in approval of the two gallantly dressed brothers.
The oracles had been consulted, and Huang Lang being the elder picked the earlier auspicious timing to set off. At the appointed time, Huang Lang stood up and bowed to his parents.
“Well, now I’ll go fetch your daughter-in-law,” he said with a smile.
“Hurry up,” Huang Ke growled, causing the hall to erupt in laughter. It was customary for the elder to get married first, so Huang Ke couldn’t actually set out until he had gotten word about Huang Lang’s successful invitation of Cao Tianyun.
Huang Lang’s marriage entourage consisted several of his best friends, all reputed members of the literati. At the head was Huang Ming, being the younger brother he had the responsibility of leading the way and the ‘charge’ on the bride’s residence.
When Huang Lang mounted on his horse, one could sense an overwhelming majestic bearing. A handsome scholar with pale, jade-like skin that was the envy of women; yet his clear eyes and calm bearing showed that he was not a mere flowery man. With his spotless reputation and impressive talents in literature and business, he was the complete package. This was a man who was quietly confident in being the best in whatever he puts his mind into, and it showed.
“Looking good,” Huang Ming commented with a lazy grin.
To Huang Ming, his elder brother was like the dreamy prince-like figure so often depicted in drama shows, the unbelievably handsome and capable leading man that was the object of desire for countless women. He only hoped that his sister-in-law Cao Tianyun to not be embroiled in some ridiculous plot involving jealous women in the future.
“Let’s go,” Huang Lang commanded, and the entourage set off accompanied with lively musicians. They paraded down the streets, attracting the attention of all as they headed towards the governor’s residence, reminding them of the time when the city’s most eligible bachelors had gathered for Cao Tianyun’s poetry competition. Only this time, there was only one obvious leading man.
Over at their destination, the governor’s residence was pulsing with excitement as well. Matriarch Cao personally styled the hair of Cao Tianyun, a ceremonial tradition symbolizing blessings from the elder for a long life of matrimony. Lady Cao and the closest female friends and cousins of Cao Tianyun watched on with reddened eyes.
As Lady Cao put on the finishing touches to her daughter’s cosmetics, she spoke: “Tianyun, you are full of wisdom and intelligence. Your husband is the greatest man of our time, and I am proud that you have made him your own. But a man is a fickle creature, and you must never take love for granted. As a woman in these trouble times, you must never be too dependent on him, you must do your part as well, for marriage is about being equals. Do not fear your mother-in-law Madam Li; she is a good woman who is wise and steadfast. And remember, should you ever feel the need to come home, we are always here for you.”
Cao Tianyun was greatly affected, her eyes became watery as she hugged her mother closely.
“Silly girl, it’s your happy day, why are you crying?” Lady Cao admonished, but her own eyes were shimmering as well.
Outside of their room, Governor Cao overheard it all and he too could not help but shed a few tears. In most cases, the marriage of a daughter was almost an after-thought, as a married daughter would leave the family and join the house of the husband. But Governor Cao had doted upon Cao Tianyun, a clever and beautiful girl that was the apple of his eye.
The door suddenly opened and Cao Tianyun saw the eyes of her father.
Governor Cao coughed in embarrassment. “Your mother had given all the good advice, what else is left for me talk about?” he said gruffly.
“Father!” she exclaimed and gave him a fierce hug.
Governor Cao sighed and gently brushed her hair. “Stop crying, you’re ruining all the hard work your mother had done!” he said. His daughter laughed bittersweetly in his embrace.
“Sire, they are arriving, Master Cao Shuang is greeting them,” the servant Wang Hao reported.
“I’m warning you, don’t go too far!” Cao Tianyun told her ‘sisters’.
“Relax, it’s just for fun!” one of them said.
“Speak for yourself! There’s money involved!” another said, causing them to laugh. The female friends and cousins cheered boisterously as they went to gather with Cao Shuang.
At the main entrance, Cao Shuang stood with his feet spread apart and hands on his hips to block the way. As the head of the entourage, Huang Ming dismounted first.
“Greetings, brother Cao Shuang!” he said as he bowed differentially.
“Why are you here?” Cao Shuang asked bluntly. He was still smarting from the incident at the Lichun, he had went back there on his own and eventually coaxed the details of what had happened that day from the serving girls. His face turned red as he remembered how they had laughed when they recounted how Huang Ming had slapped him with the fish to wake him up.
“To fetch Huang Lang’s bride!” Huang Ming replied fearlessly.
“Not so fast! To get to our beloved sister, you guys must first pass our test!” the sisters demanded.
“My brother is a great hero, there’s no mountain of knives he wouldn’t climb nor sea of blood he wouldn’t swim!” Huang Ming said bombastically, causing Huang Lang to smile wryly. His fellow ‘brothers’ cheered raucously in agreement.
One of the sisters was not impressed. “Cut the crap, either pay up or put up!” she said, a tough-looking gal that was the senior of the group.
“How much do you want?” Huang Ming demanded.
“Nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine taels of gold!” came the immediate answer.
It was a symbolic figure, as the number 9 represented longevity. The other favourite lucky number was 8, which meant fortune. But obviously the sisters would pick the higher number to maximize their gains.
“Too expensive, why don’t you go robbing instead?” Huang Ming said.
Cao Shuang actually pulled out a dagger from his sleeves. “That’s right, this is a robbery!” he said, causing the sisters to screech in laughter.
Huang Ming shrank back in exaggerated fear. “Come on now, let’s not resort to violence!” he said. He was playing his part in the drama, knowing full well that Cao Shuang was seeking to regain his face.
“Nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine!” the tough-looking gal repeated insistently.
“Is there any way to get a discount?” Huang Ming asked.
“You’re not handsome enough to get a discount!” she said mockingly, and the sisters laughed uproariously. Much to Huang Ming’s annoyance, so did his ‘brothers’. Then Huang Lang dismounted to join them.
“Sister, what about me then?” Huang Lang asked politely.
Seeing the handsome Celestial Qilin up close caused the sisters to quiet down, they whispered excitedly among themselves. The tough-looking sister rolled her eyes.
“Stop swooning, he going to be Tianyun’s husband!” she said exasperatedly.
“Which is why we must take this chance to look at him closely before they seal the deal!” one of the sisters tittered.
Huang Lang gave them one of his best smiles (the very best is of course reserved only for Cao Tianyun), and they sighed at his dreamy visage.
“Nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine taels of gold is too cheap a price for my wife, but we are not carrying that much with us right now,” he said solemnly. Huang Ming could see that the sisters were beginning to melt, their faces flushed as his brother stared deeply at them. Even the tough sister became ensnared in his gaze.
“Well…” she stammered.
Cao Shuang saw that they were becoming helpless, thus he intervened. “Then, you’ll need to pass our test,” he said loudly, snapping the sisters out of their reverie.
“That was dangerous, dangerous!” one of sisters whispered as she fanned herself frantically.
Huang Ming tsked. ‘Damn, so close!’ he thought.
“What do you have in mind?” Huang Lang asked conversationally.
Cao Shuang snapped his fingers, and a servant appeared carrying a tray.
“What’s this?” Huang Ming asked.
“Dried seaweed,” Cao Shuang answered. “Take turns eating this sheet of dried seaweed until it’s all gone,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound too difficult,” Huang Ming said.
Cao Shuang grinned. “Without using your hands,” he added.
“Oh… What the hell,” Huang Ming grumbled in realization. It meant the ‘brothers’ had to pass the sheet of thin seaweed to each other using just their mouth, and as the sheet becomes smaller, the closer the contact would have to be.
“I volunteer as first!” one of the quick-thinking brothers announced.
“Second!” “Third!” “Fourth!” “Fifth!” “Sixth!”
Before Huang Lang or Huang Ming could react, they were automatically nominated as the last two, meaning they were the last to eat the seaweed.
“I thought we’re on the same team,” Huang Lang murmured.
“Your friends are such good brothers,” Huang Ming muttered.
“Let’s face it, the sisters probably wanted this to happen anyway, am I right?” one of the brothers said, to which the sisters cheered in agreement.
The game began easily enough. The first brother crouched so that he could lick a corner of the seaweed and lift it up from the tray. He munched a few bites, wincing at its taste. Then he turned to face the second brother who received the seaweed by biting on the opposite corner. After ensuring that it had been received properly, the first brother opened his own mouth.
“Salty! So salty!” he complained as the sisters laughed.
Thus the actions were repeated.
The faces of the Huang brothers became stiffer as the sheet of seaweed became smaller and smaller.
“Slow down…” Huang Lang said as his friends bit into the dried seaweed ferociously.
“Stop eating so much… stop it!” Huang Ming shouted. But with the sisters cheering on and the atmosphere full of hilarity, the ‘brothers’ paid no heed to the real brothers. In fact, those who had passed the ordeal were also laughing it up.
By the time of the sixth brother, the sheet of dried seaweed had been reduced to the size of a name card. The sixth brother was holding it with his teeth, with his lips pulled as far back as much as possible. The sixth beckoned at Huang Ming with a crooked finger, eager to get it over with.
‘This is too close for comfort, I don’t even know the guy!’ Huang Ming thought to himself as he found himself face-to-face with Huang Lang’s friend. He pursed his lips to grab hold of the seaweed.
“You can let go now,” Huang Ming mumbled. To his horror, the sixth brother grinned and violently turned his face away so that the piece of seaweed was torn off, leaving just a bite size on Huang Ming’s lips. The sixth brother hurriedly swallowed the rest before Huang Ming could protest.
It was now just the size of a large postage stamp. Huang Ming exasperatedly turned towards Huang Lang who gave his ‘brothers’ a very cold look.
The sisters who had been laughing and squealing earlier were now hushed and leaned in to take a closer look as Huang Lang and Huang Ming stepped closer and closer…
“I’ll take the lead,” Huang Lang suddenly announced.
‘You’ll what now?’ Huang Ming thought in alarm. Before he could react, Huang Lang grabbed him by the waist and spun him so that his face was above Huang Ming’s, reminding him of that classic scene from the old movie Gone With The Wind.
Even as Huang Ming’s eyes widened, Huang Lang began to lean in. The ladies went ‘kya! kya!’ as the faces of the two brothers approached each other. Huang Ming could feel his brother’s breath tickling his nose, and his eyes went wide and round as Huang Lang’s face descended.
Just as their lips were about to touch, Huang Lang managed to grip the piece of seaweed, and the brothers began to relax their tense shoulders. But before they could pull apart, a pair of strong hands suddenly clutched their heads and mooshed them together.
The result of course was a coming together of their lips. The ladies went wild while the men howled with uncontrollable laughter.
Huang Lang immediately released his hold and Huang Ming fell onto the ground. Even as they chewed their respective bites of seaweed, they turned to glare at the smug-looking Cao Shuang.
“Water!” Huang Ming hollered while Huang Lang mustered his dignity to quietly dab away his lips with a handkerchief.
“How does it feel, your first kiss?” Cao Shuang gloated.
“That wasn’t my first kiss,” Huang Lang said flatly and arched an eyebrow at him.
“Ooooooh!” the sisters gushed, and Cao Shuang turned purple as he tried to wipe images of his sister kissing Huang Lang off his mind.
“But it was mine…” Huang Ming whined.
“Rubbish!” Cao Shuang and the sisters chorused disbelievingly.
“You had your fun, now give us a discount,” Huang Lang said.
Eventually the princely sum of nine hundred ninety nine taels of gold was settled upon, a traditional sum which Huang Lang had predicted upon and prepared in several red envelopes containing the credit notes. The sisters received it gleefully.
“Go on then,” Cao Shuang grumbled and allowed them to pass.
“No more games?” Huang Ming asked warily.
“None for you anyway,” Cao Shuang said. There were a few other rituals, but it involved the bride and the groom and Huang Ming was not needed.
“Go back and join with Huang Ke, I think he’s waiting impatiently,” Huang Lang said.
Huang Ming nodded with relief, but grimaced when he wondered what Liu Xiang had in store for him and Huang Ke.
All fun and games,
No harm nor shame.