“I just want an identity. I want to be a normal man.”
--Chen Wing-yan, ‘Infernal Affairs’

Chapter Seventy – A haunting past

Lu Minzhong stabbed his dagger viciously towards Madam Li’s abdomen, causing Cao Tianyun to scream in alarm.

At this critical juncture, Liu Yuchun who was already suspicious of him reacted almost instantly. Liu Yuchun forcefully pushed Madam Li out of the way to take the intended blow. It looked as if it was certain that the newly wedded bride of Huang Ke would suffer grievous injury.

But just as the tip of the dagger had pierced through Liu Yuchun’s bridal dress and nicked the skin underneath, Qiong Ying lashed out with a kick and struck the extended forearm of Lu Minzhong. Lu Mingzhong wailed in pain and anguish as the dagger’s deadly thrust was diverted harmlessly away. He tried to bring his shaken limb back under control, but Qiong Ying stepped in and struck the side of his head with her elbow. Stunned, Lu Minzhong dropped his weapon.

Once bereft of his weapon, the would-be assassin was quickly captured by the furious relatives and guests of the Huangs. The more hot-blooded of them were ready to lynch the grey-faced man, but Madam Li got back onto her feet to take charge.

“Don’t kill him!” she ordered.

Cao Tianyun snatched a tablecloth and tore long strips for the men to tie up the struggling Lu Minzhong. She also stuffed his mouth to prevent him from biting off his tongue, and Madam Li nodded in approval at her quick thinking daughter-in-law.

Madam Li then turned and saw Liu Yuchun who was nonchalantly touching the small cut on her torso. Madam Li’s heart ached when she saw the small traces of blood. She quickly called for the women of the Huang clan to assist Liu Yuchun.

“It’s just a small nick…” Liu Yuchun protested.

“Nonsense, what if it leaves a scar?” Madam Li admonished her.

“Come along sister, let us first take care of your wound,” Cao Tianyun urged and led her back into the private quarters.

The guests calmed down when they saw that Madam Li was unaffected, and were further cheered when a messenger arrived to tell proudly of Huang Zheng’s successful ‘duel’ at the city walls. Madam Li then took the opportunity to end the banquet.

“What of the assassin?” some of the guests asked.

Madam Li smiled coldly even as the bound Lu Minzhong stared hatefully at her. “He must be an agent of the invaders, seeking to unsettle my husband,” she lied.

Lu Minzhong’s eyes bulged with fury, he wanted no more than to tear her flesh with his bare hands. Madam Li then bade the men to confine him. Seeing his violent reaction only gave credence to Madam Li’s statement and the guests were convinced.

“It must be as you say. They know our general is our city’s bulwark and they have resorted to despicable means to defeat him!”

“All the more reason for the Great General to remain in the city. Who is Lord Fang La, how can he ever fill the Great General’s shoes?”

“You’re right! We must send petitions to the royal court, for them to call the Great General back to the capital during such a critical time surely must be the evil design of foreign powers to weaken the city!”

The guests then pledged to write the petitions, and Madam Li thanked them as they dispersed. She then sent messengers to her sons as well as stationing a man at the city gates to wait for Huang Zheng. The relatives were dismissed and only the inner circle remained.

Qiong Ying saw through Madam Li’s craftiness and admired her scheming. With just a few words, Madam Li had turned Lu Minzhong into a convenient tool to further General Huang’s cause. Qiong Ying smiled and turned to leave with the guests, but Madam Li prevented her from doing so.

“Sir Quan Lu is truly this family’s benefactor, we are in your debt once again,” Madam Li said.

“I only did what was natural,” Qiong Ying said modestly, eager to get away from the highly intelligent matriarch.

“Please wait. Since you were closest to the incident, I will need you to stay as a witness to explain to the general,” Madam Li said with a smile.

Helpless, Qiong Ying could only relent and nod in agreement.

Huang Lang and Huang Ke arrived first, but they did not have to wait too long before Huang Zheng and Huang Ming returned, with Sunli in tow.

“What happened?” Huang Zheng demanded.

Madam Li then told everyone what had transpired, and Huang Ming’s face became ashen when he heard that the person who had tried to assassinate his mother was Lu Minzhong.

“This is my fault,” Huang Ming whispered as he staggered in shock.

“What do you mean?” Huang Zheng asked sharply.

“He’s… he’s someone I had wronged in the past.”

His father was furious. “Why did you invite him?”

“We met recently and I invited him to the banquet as a way to make amends,” Huang Ming explained regretfully.

“A noble sentiment, but perhaps we should ask him directly,” Huang Lang suggested.

Then the prisoner was brought forward and forced to kneel. When Lu Minzhong saw Huang Ming, he gnashed his teeth in anger so hard that they bled and, stained the cloth gag in his mouth.

“Why did you do this?” Huang Ming asked as he removed the gag.

“Why? Ask your conscience, if you have one!” Lu Minzhong said.

“Is this about what I did?” Huang Ming asked quietly.

“You have no idea, do you?” Lu Minzhong snarled. “When you disgraced me that day, did you know what happened next? My parents hung themselves in shame! I’m the only one left! The heavens have forsaken me!”

Lu Minzhong laughed hysterically. Then he cried. It was a terrible sight that grated on those who saw him. Huang Zheng bade his men to take the obviously crazed man away. They did so, but quickly returned to report that Lu Minzhong had killed himself by dashing his head onto the ground while the guards were distracted.

Huang Ming was shocked. He had seen the pure, unadulterated hatred in Lu Minzhong’s eyes. He knew the original had done execrable things, and he was no stranger to be vilified, but this was the first time in a long while that he had to take responsibility for the actions of his host’s past.

He looked at his hands and saw that they were trembling, it was a physical reaction that reminded him that slipping into a new life did not just mean assuming a cover identity: it meant taking on all the psychological baggage and being personally vested in all aspects of the said life. He wasn’t merely pretending to be someone, he was that someone.

Despite his multitude of experiences, it did not mean he was immune from surprises and shocks. Age did not guarantee wisdom, being jaded did not mean being unable to feel.

Sunli saw how he was affected, and wordlessly moved to support him so as prevent him from falling over. The gesture did not escape the attention of those present.

“Well, I’m glad that is over with,” Huang Zheng exhaled.

Madam Li nudged him, gesturing towards Qiong Ying. “We were fortunate that Sir Quan Lu was here. If it wasn’t for him, Yuchun would have been seriously injured, or even killed.”

Huang Zheng gravely saluted Qiong Ying, startling her. “Thank you. I apologize for my rudeness before, I hope you can forgive me,” he said.

Stunned, Qiong Ying quickly returned the gesture. “It’s a small matter, small matter,” she said.

“Brother Quan Lu, looks like I owe you another one,” Huang Ming said wanly. Then he bowed deeply to his family. “This is all my fault, I have ruined the wedding night.”

“Not only that, but it seems you’re trying to upstage your brothers by bringing back a fiancée,” Madam Li said dryly, eyeing at Sunli who quickly distanced herself from Huang Ming. She tried to maintain a solemn visage, but her tanned skin was unable to hide her blush.

“Fiancée?” Qiong Ying echoed. She had been distracted ever since she saw how the guardwoman had supported Huang Ming earlier.

“Yes, isn’t that right? Did Old Zhao agree?” Madam Li asked her husband conversationally. Huang Zheng nodded in affirmation.

“Ah, so it’s official now,” Huang Lang said brightly.

“I told you so,” Huang Ke smirked at Huang Ming.

Huang Ming glowered at them. “I haven’t forgotten about this. We’ll have words tomorrow. For now, don’t keep your wives waiting!”

“You are right about that,” Madam Li said. “Let us all retire for the night, we can discuss more tomorrow.”

Then she turned to Qiong Ying. “Perhaps Sir Quan Lu should stay the night. The authorities might come to question us soon, and it would be convenient for you to be here when they arrive,” she suggested. After all, Qiong Ying was now intimately aware of certain facts of the night.

“I understand,” Qiong Ying said. She was still stunned by Sunli’s new status as Huang Ming’s betrothed. What was she to do now?

A long night,
Still a long way from light.​