“Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
--Robert Louis Stevenson


Chapter Sixty Three – The red banquet

As planned, the two wedding teams of Huang Lang and Huang Ke met at a crossroads in the city. The two newly married brothers could not help but smirk knowingly at each other as they rode side by side back towards the Huang residence, their respective brides in the palanquins following behind them. The combination of the scholars and musicians from Huang Lang’s entourage and the valiant soldiers from Huang Ke’s team made the procession very grand, and people turned out in droves to cheer at the spectacle. Huang Ming was content to drift further back, letting the men and women of the hour soak in the attention.


At the appointed auspicious hour, the two brothers carried their respective brides across the threshold into the Huang residence, and the entire Huang family clan turned out to welcome their newest additions. Huang Ming stood at one side to watch, curious about the wedding ceremony of this new world. He found that it was similar to traditional Chinese customs: bowing to Heaven and Earth, kneeling before the parents, offering of tea, receiving words of advice and blessings.


In addition to the traditional gifts of roast pork, fruits and vegetables from the families of the brides, there were some unusual presents. From the Caos there was a large scroll and a trunk, while from the Lius there was a suit of armour and a pair of axes. Later Huang Ming would learn that the scroll was the solidarity pledge and the trunk containted the collected poetry submissions from Cao Tianyun’s competition; while the martial weapons were what Huang Ke had asked for during his first meeting with Liu Yuchun so long ago.


Huang Zheng and Madam Li were very pleased by their daughter-in-laws. The necessary rites completed, they hastened to raise the kneeling young people up.


“You may retire, soon it will be time for the wedding banquet proper,” Madam Li said. The two brothers joyously led their wives to their respective rooms where they would rest and prepare to present themselves at the wedding banquet later.


Once again, Huang Ming became the caretaker of the younger generation while the adults were busy. The children knew it was nearing the end of their time with ‘Uncle Ming’, so they were a little more subdued this time around. After the wedding banquet, most of the clan would only stay for another day or two before leaving for their respective homes.


Huang Ming picked up the adorable Huang Zhixiao and pinched her nose. “Don’t be sad, we’ll play some animal chess!” he said.


“Don’t want to,” the little girl mewled.


But Huang Ming merely grinned. “Ah, but this time I have gifts for you all,” he said, causing his little nieces and nephews to be curious…


Soon it was evening and it was time for the banquet. The hall was draped in red and gold. The tables covered in red cloth and the atmosphere was filled with an air of excitement. Enticing smells wafted from the kitchen as the chefs cook up a storm. Servants buzzed from table to table, making final adjustments to the seating arrangements and making sure all was perfect.


Esteemed guests from all over the city arrived in a stream of carriages, greeted at the gates by all three Huang brothers. Huang Lang and Huang Ke were still dressed in red, making Huang Ming seem all the more drab in comparison. However, he still received quite a bit of attention. Now that he was the one left unmarried, it was inevitable that those wishing for closer ties to the Huangs would focus to him, much to his annoyance.


Then his mood lifted when he saw Quan Lu arriving. However, the beautiful man was alone.


“Brother Quan Lu!” Huang Ming greeted.


Quan Lu nodded. He cupped his hands and bowed deferentially to Huang Lang and Huang Ke.


“So, you’re Quan Lu. I have heard of you,” Huang Lang said, looking directly at Quan Lu.


Qiong Ying bowed once more to break eye contact and turned towards Huang Ming instead. “My cousin sends her regrets, she feels that she is too lowly for this special occasion,” Qiong Ying said.


“I understand,” Huang Ming said, not wishing to press upon the matter in public. He personally led Quan Lu into the banquet. The guests and family members stared at Quan Lu, wondering at the identity of this stranger.


In truth, Qiong Ying had wrestled with the idea of appearing alone in her true guise. She was tempted to do so out of pure mischief, she wondered at what kind of uproar her real appearance would cause. In the end she decided to settle with her Quan Lu persona. She had made certain plans and did not want her true self to distract matters, for she knew Lord Fang La would be making a splash at the banquet.


“Mother,” Huang Ming called out, and Qiong Ying saw Madam Li approaching.


“Sir Quan Lu,” Madam Li greeted. “Your cousin is not coming?” she asked, disappointment evident in her voice.


“She… she says it’s not proper,” Qiong Ying stuttered.


“Nonsense. Our entire clan is mystified by her, we were all looking forward to see her,” Madam Li said dismissively, causing Qiong Ying to be truly regretful at her earlier cautious decision.


“I am… I am sorry, I did not think that you would be so welcoming. She would be happy to know that you do not look down on her,” Qiong Ying managed to say, somewhat overwhelmed.


She had heard of Madam Li’s reputation: a paragon of fairness and wisdom as well as a widely admired heroine in her youth. Madam Li had gave equal blessings to Cao Tianyun whose father had feuded with Huang Zheng, and Liu Yuchun who was from a humble family of craftsmen. Now Qiong Ying experienced her generosity first hand and it made her feel so small to be deceiving the Huangs with her Quan Lu disguise.


“Please tell your cousin that she is welcome to visit us any time,” Madam Li said.


Qiong Ying was astonished. It was one thing to be invited by Huang Ming, but Madam Li was the matriarch.


“But how would that look? A person of her status should not come and go as she pleases, lest there would be evil talk!” Qiong Ying insisted, laying her fears bare.


Madam Li waved it away. “You underestimate your cousin’s reputation. I know of her. While I do not approve of the Lichun, I know that the unfortunate women there would have suffered much worse fates if not for her interventions.”


Qiong Ying lowered her face so that she could discreetly blink away the tears that were threatening to spill. “On her behalf, I thank you for your kind words. Her circumstances had always weighed heavily upon her,” she said, struggling to maintain her Quan Lu persona.


“Besides, nobility does not guarantee that person’s honour,” Huang Ming added, his eyes hardening as he stared elsewhere.


Qiong Ying and Madam Li followed his glance, and saw that it was the arrival of Lord Fang La and his bodyguards that had darkened his mood.


Huang Lang and Huang Ke maintained a semblance of civility as they guided them through the banquet.


“It is fortunate that he did not bring that Nangong Xie with him,” Qiong Ying volunteered to say.


“He’s probably busy playing with his lewd statue,” Madam Li snorted, causing Huang Ming to grin.


“We should go, the banquet will begin momentarily,” Huang Ming said, to which his mother nodded in agreement.


“Sir Quan Lu, we’ll talk more later,” Madam Li murmured to Qiong Ying.


Qiong Ying watched the mother and son pair leave and felt her own heartbeat to pulse. She wondered if the plan she had set in motion was far too ambitious. The person whom she had entrusted her plan with was extremely sceptical to say the least.


Nevertheless, she could only watch the drama as it unfolded.
 

At long last,
The die is cast.​