“I'm only human after all, don't put your blame on me.”
--Rag’n’Bone Man, ‘Human’
Chapter 105 – Blame
Despite Sunli’s warning look, Huang Ming moved forward to have a closer look at the men who were blocking the road and angrily calling out for him. When he saw that their anger was not superficial, he erased all thoughts of bravado and nonchalance.
“I’m Huang Ming,” he said, affecting a serious mien. “What is your grudge with me?”
The youthful tattooed leader of the men gnashed his teeth and growled. “A hundred thousand men went into Wei, how is it that you were able to return while so many of our fathers and brothers fell?”
Then Huang Ming understood. The anger that these brigands felt was their grief for their lost ones from the ill-fated campaign.
The tattooed young man spread his arms in mock reverence of Huang Ming. “The Hero of Tigertrap Pass! The young master strategist! The new saviour of our kingdom of Wu!” he called out sarcastically.
“I have never heard of those,” Huang Ming muttered.
The young man didn’t hear him, and proceeded to rant in heartache, “Why! Why did you not bring our loved ones back with you? Do you know of our pain of not even having a corpse to bury?”
Huang Ming drew his lips into a thin line, recognizing the raw emotions the young man was showing.
Instead, he bowed deeply. “I am sorry,” he said sincerely.
“You-” the tattooed young man exclaimed, torn between rage and grief. His men stared at Huang Ming, their eyes in disbelief at seeing the so-called hero paying them deep obeisance.
When Huang Ming fell onto his knees, the bandits were struck dumb.
“I am sorry,” he repeated sorrowfully. “You are right. Our grand army went into Wei, only one in five returned safely. Because of my pitiful ability. Because I was not forceful enough. Because I was afraid of offending Marshal Gao. Alas, so many paid the price for my timidness.”
Those who heard his lamentation were greatly affected. Some of the escort guards who were veterans that had followed him and his father Huang Zheng into Wei had tears streaming down their faces.
“How dare you accuse the young master! What do you know of our plight in Wei?” one of them yelled indignantly at the bandits. “Where were you when we fought knee-deep in the blood and mud for our country? Where were you when we braved the hail of arrows and faced a storm of swords?”
The bandits were ashamed, none more so than the tattooed young man who was their leader. Quietly he ordered them to break up the blockade to allow Huang Ming’s entourage to pass. But Huang Ming then called out to the youth.
“You lot are fit and sturdy, why have you turned to this lawless banditry and harm ordinary folk?” he asked.
The tattooed youth shook his head bitterly. “What other recourse do we have? Our families are burdened by debt, our lands seized by the corrupt officials. Our fathers and brothers joined the Wei campaign to earn some steady income, but who knew that they were never to return home?”
Huang Ming sighed. Just moments ago he had dreams to reform the country to prepare against the threat of Jin, but listening to the resentful words of the youth made him realize the enormity of the task ahead.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Tian Zhu. My friends call me Tattooed Tigers, as you can see why,” the youth replied. Huang Ming nodded in understanding, seeing the prominent tigers drawn on the young man’s body.
“It so happens that I am headed to the capital to meet the king. Come with me, we might find an avenue to voice your grievances to the court directly,” Huang Ming suggested.
Tian Zhu and his men were greatly surprised. “But why would the king believe us?” they asked.
Huang Ming smiled. “You did call me the Hero of Tigertrap Pass,” he pointed out.
The bandits took several minutes to confer among themselves before coming to a decision.
“We’re rough and illiterate men, and there are too many of us. But let Tian Zhu follow you, you may do with him as you see fit,” they said, much to Tian Zhu’s shock.
“But I’m your leader!” he complained, but the peasant bandits laughed loudly.
“We listened to you because of your fiery passion, but it is not your destiny to remain with us lowly lot. Follow the young master, you will reach greater heights!”
Seeing that he had no choice in the matter, Tian Zhu nodded. He cupped his hands towards Huang Ming to pay his respects. Huang Ming received him with a smile and told him to follow Sunli as an assistant. Tian Zhu was skeptical when he saw that the leader of the escorts was a woman, but his doubtful thoughts were extinguished when the guards told him of Sunli’s terrifying deeds.
Huang Ming then turned towards his escort guards to find the one who had rebuked Tian Zhu earlier. The guard was a seasoned soldier in his mid-thirties who bore his battlefield scars proudly.
“You have a way with words. What is your name?” he asked.
“Zhen Tian,” the guard said, slightly embarrassed at being singled out. “I was there in Dashan Plains, I saw how you and your father the Great General had tried to save us all. No one here belittles what you have done for us, we all know that the true criminal was that creature Marshal Gao.”
Huang Ming then tried to reward him, but the older man refused. It only increased Huang Ming’s respect for him.
The matter being settled, the caravan then continued its journey towards Gusu City.
Inside their carriage, Qiong Ying studied Huang Ming’s countenance.
“What is it?” Huang Ming asked, noting the look on her face.
“You’re recruiting people,” Qiong Ying stated.
“Yes,” Huang Ming said with a shrug. “I need talented people. This country needs help, and I can’t do everything alone.”
“You won’t be alone,” Qiong Ying said quietly. Then she tilted her head slightly. “You still manage to surprise me, I’m not sure what you did just now was real or not,” she said, referring to the moment when he had knelt before the bandits.
Huang Ming smiled faintly and he turned to look away. “It is. There are times when my father had wanted to save everyone, but I had told him that we could only focus on us and our own. Too many have been led astray by Marshal Gao; and there are times when I wondered if I could have done things differently.”
Qiong Ying squeezed his hand to comfort him.
“I have heard many things from my network. I know that you did your best under the circumstances.”
Huang Ming chuckled softly.
“Sometimes, my best isn’t good enough.”
Mocking his lack of ability,
Disturbing his tranquillity.