“Dude looks like a lady.”
--Aerosmith



Chapter Seven - I made a mess

“Muge Jian!” one of Cao Shuang’s men gasped.

They turned to see a graceful figure behind them, a young man with delicate features, a ‘beautiful man’. He was dressed in a robe lined with white fur. With his long hair tied in a long ponytail, one could almost mistake him for a girl. He had slender features, yet his eyes were sharp and alert. A long sword was sheathed at his side, its hilt encrusted with jade and topped off with a red tassel. This was Muge Jian, nicknamed the Masking Sword for his guileful sword strokes that prevented his foes from even seeing his face. He was a famous wandering swordsman, coming and going as he pleased.


Cao Shuang’s retinue parted and gave way as he sauntered towards the Huangs.


Huang Lang smiled as he gestured Muge Jian to join them. Huang Ming hastened to pour him a cup of tea for him.


Cao Shuang and his men turned grey when they saw the Masking Sword was together with the Celestial Qilin. Not willing to stay any longer, Cao Shuang signalled his men to leave.


“I’ll remember your insults, Huang Ming,” he hissed.


“Yes, I’m sure you will,” Huang Ming agreed with indifference.


Cao Shuang’s ears burned, but he stomped off with his men.


Muge Jian laughed lightly, and the atmosphere returned to its normal calmness.


“Greetings to brother Jian!” Huang Ming said with a grin.


“You rascal, when did you become so brave?” Muge Jian asked. His question was asked in all honesty; in his mind he had always thought of Huang Ming was of the lesser sort.


“I have always been like this. It is just that I am tired of being patient,” Huang Ming answered with a grin.


“Well, whatever it is, it is nice to see you finally grow a spine,” Muge Jian said, not entirely convinced. Yet he was happy to side of a person whom everyone had written off as a simple wastrel.


“Any news from the capital?” Huang Lang asked, changing the flow of conversation.


Muge Jian leaned forward and lowered his voice: “The king is ill!’


The two Huang brothers shared a quick look. Huang Ming nonchalantly picked up a bun, pretending to be occupied peeling the outer layers. Huang Lang meanwhile put on a disinterested face and turned his gaze back to the streets.


“Who is in charge of the imperial court now?” he murmured so that only the three of them could hear.


“Tong Xuan,” Muge Jian said, barely concealing his distaste.


Huang Ming understood his friend’s aversion. Prime Minister Tong Xuan the Heavenly Dog was widely known as a corrupt and greedy person. Tong Xuan had no formal education nor the qualifications to be an official, but he was very cunning. He got his position by being a sycophant to the king when they were younger, much to the grief of the loyal officials of the court. The upright officials who brought up petitions against him would find themselves punished by the king, ‘as if bitten by a dog whose owner they had offended’.


“Is there not one honest person left in the capital?” Huang Ming sighed.


“No one dares to say anything after what happened to Minister Jun. There was a fire at his residence. Tong Xuan has graciously moved the minister’s family ‘for their protection’, guarded by his trusted troops,” Muge Jian sneered.


In other words, hostages.


“I suspected this long ago, but Tong Xuan alone can’t count for much. Who else?” Huang Lang suddenly asked.


Muge Jian countenance was grim. “Gao Fang. They are working together.”


Marshal Gao Fang the Wave-Queller was a great general, his title given when he had successfully repelled an invasion from the neighbouring state of Chu decades ago. But the hero of the war had turned avaricious after he had been bestowed with honours. He returned to the capital, meddling in politics and interfering with the promotions of others; an old man reluctant to give up his authority.


Any person would lament at this state of affairs. The fate of the entire country was in the hands of two corrupt and selfish individuals. One had military authority while the other held sway over the bureaucracy.


“Nobody would dare to challenge them,” Muge Jian said.


A sudden thought came to Huang Ming. “Is that why Cao Shuang was swaggering in our faces just now? His father Governor Cao Yuan is one of Gao Fang’s direct subordinates.”


Huang Lang nodded; a thin smile on his lips. “Did you know that your ‘friend’ the Handsome Scholar have been hanging around the Cao residence, before your life-changing night? From before you had even loaned money to Smithy Liu?”


Huang Ming was shocked. He had thought it was a simple, lecherous ploy by Nangong Xie to get Liu Yuchun; but now the scope had widened beyond what he had imagined.


“It looks like there are indeed many things I do not know,” Huang Ming said bitterly, echoing the statement his elder brother had said earlier.


“Don’t leave me out, what’s this about Ming’s life-changing night?” Muge Jian asked peevishly.


Huang Ming sighed and briefly sketched about Nangong Xie’s ploy regarding Liu Yuchun, of course omitting the part where he was hit by the smithy’s daughter.


“Hold on, if you already knew about the Handsome Scholar colluding with the Cao family, why did you let your brother fall into this scheme? He almost died!” Muge Jian demanded of Huang Lang.


Huang Lang did not avoid his brother’s questioning look; he gazed directly into Huang Ming’s eyes.


“By the time I got wind of it, it was already too late. Liu Yuchun was already in our estate and you were out celebrating the night away with Nangong Xie,” Huang Lang said calmly.


Huang Ming bowed his head slightly, a million thoughts in his head. He was extremely irritated; he had barely arrived and already found himself being played around like a pawn. It reminded him of his situation with his Patron, which annoyed him even further.


“I doubt the Handsome Scholar actually planned to kill you, little brother,” Huang Lang added, “and I think his plan was part of something bigger.”


“What do you mean?” Huang Ming asked.


“I did not object when you loaned money to Smithy Liu, because I wanted to have some sort of connection with his son Liu Xiang. Father and Ah Ke command two of the three legions in our city. Liu Xiang commands the third. Perhaps someone told Nangong Xie and arranged for you to mess with Liu Yuchun, to wreck our family’s chances of bringing Liu Xiang into our side,” Huang Lang said.


“Wait, this is too much. What is this about ‘our side’ that you’re talking about? It’s as if you’re expecting the worst… Don’t tell me you plan to fight against Tong Xuan and Gao Fang?” Huang Ming asked in a daze.


Even Muge Jian was aghast. “Even if you’re loyalist, you don’t even have a figurehead to support. The crown prince is too young. Tong Xuan is sure to make himself the regent and thus control the throne. You will be outnumbered. It will be like pitting an egg against a rock,” Muge Jian said pessimistically.


“Loyalist? I am a realist,” Huang Lang smiled faintly.


Huang Ming nearly crushed the peeled bun in his hands; his brother was implying a rebellion. He looked critically at the mangled piece of confectionery before popping it into his mouth and chewed slowly.


Huang Lang gave him a look. “We might not have a choice, you already seen that Cao Shuang’s behaviour. Marshal Gao Fang and our father have an irreconcilable grudge from many years ago. It cannot be wiped away with just words. Already Governor Cao Yuan have been pushing our father around, sending him on fruitless missions. Soon he will have an excuse to remove our father from command. Then he will promote Liu Xiang and this will make him loyal to Gao Fang’s faction.”


“And I made a mess of things,” Huang Ming whispered.


“Yes, you did. You managed to settle Liu Yuchun before, but I doubt it’s enough to repair the damage you done in the first place,” his brother said evenly.


“I wish you had brought me in on this earlier,” Huang Ming grumbled.


“I wish you were trustworthy earlier,” Huang Lang replied coldly.


“And I am now?” Huang Ming retorted.


“Not fully.”.


Huang Ming was irked. “What, nearly dying isn’t enough for you?”


“You being duped by Nangong Xie could very well cost us all our lives in the future, so no; your own life isn’t enough,” Huang Lang countered.


“Sure, rub it in some more.”


“Don’t worry, I will,” his brother said flatly.


Muge Jian was privately amused by the two brothers. They were basically discussing outright rebellion and the possible destruction of their entire family, yet their words went back and forth without too much concern.


“Fine, fine, what do you want?” Huang Ming finally relented.


“It is obvious. You have to find a way to recruit Liu Xiang before the governor promotes him,” his brother answered.


“Oh, is that all?” Huang Ming asked sarcastically. “Let me go home and think about it, I’ll let you know how it goes in a few days.”


“No, we don’t have time, this needs to be settled now. I want to see how you’re going to solve this, which is why I had someone spread the rumours and tell Liu Xiang the Iron Tiger that you’re here. He should be arriving soon.”


A thunderous roar interrupted Huang Ming’s frazzled mind.


“Huang Ming! I have come for you!”


Who else could it be but Liu Xiang the Iron tiger?

 

Iron Tiger at the gate,
His roar made men quake!