“Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.”
Chapter 150 – Sprung
Driven by his lust for the heavenly wine, Wang Hong hastily forced General Yin Yanzhao to go with him to the Ma clan.
They were soon stymied by a large crowd at its doors. Only the presence of guards of the Ma clan prevented the loud, boisterous crowd from breaking down its doors to loot the place.
The arrival of the imposing figures of Commander Wang and General Yin soon subdued the restless gathering.
“Clear off this rabble!” Wang Hong growled and the Imperial Guard obeyed by shouting and shoving aside the civilians who ran away in panic. Those who protested or continued to linger were manhandled, resulting in blackened eyes, bloodied noses and broken teeth.
General Yin’s face was impassive but inwardly sighed as Wang Hong’s men cleared the area. How low have the Imperial Guard fallen! They were supposed to be the elite soldiers that protected the King of Wu and his palace, yet they behaved little more than armed thugs in uniform. None of them even questioned the validity of Wang Hong’s orders who treated them as his personal lackeys.
The Ma clan guards at the doorway eyed at Wang Hong warily. They were grateful for the dispersal, but now faced an even more daunting problem.
“Bring out whoever is in charge! I want to speak to him!” Wang Hong said in domineering fashion.
A few moments later a perspiring, barrel-chested merchant appeared.
“Ma Jun greets his excellency,” the merchant greeted as he bowed deeply.
“I heard you have some contraband here,” Wang Hong said roughly, humiliating the merchant by not returning the greeting.
Ma Jun was terribly shocked by the accusation. “There is no such thing! We are law abiding merchants, all our paperwork are in order!”
Wang Hong sneered. “We shall see! Open up, I shall conduct an inspection personally!”
“Sir, I beg your kind understanding… My clan is in the midst of an important event…” Ma Jun said hesitantly.
“Get out of my way!” Wang Hong snarled and Ma Jun drew back fearfully. Seeing the stout merchant cowering brought a sinister smile on Wang Hong’s face. The moment he stepped into the courtyard, he could smell the sweet aroma of wines.
“Commander Wang, perhaps we should give them some face,” General Yin ventured to say.
But Wang Hong smiled scornfully. He was spurred by the tantalizing scent of alcohol. Having forcefully curbed his drinking over the past few days, how was he to resist?
“Why so timid like a woman? We are men of authority, we should flaunt our powers!”
He ordered his men to search the premises. Ma Jun the merchant panicked, waving his arms in despair as the dozen or so men stormed in.
“Stop! Stop! Sire, I know what you seek! Please, call your men back and I will give it to you!” he shouted plaintively.
Wang Hong smirked at General Yin. “Do you see now? Why give them face when we should be the ones demanding for it?”
General Yin could only nod and smile, not wanting to antagonize the commander. The meek gesture only increased Wang Hong’s disdain for him.
Ma Jun brought out a slim bottle of wine and presented it to Wang Hong with both hands.
Wang Hong glared at the merchant. “One bottle? Do you think we’re beggars?”
Ma Jun hurriedly shook his head. “No, of course not! This, this is just the first offering!” he explained. He quickly opened the bottle and a waft of fruity smells exploded.
Wang Hong was literally salivating. He all but snatched the bottle and sniffed at it. He closed his eyes and smiled with pleasure as he breathed in deeply.
“Just as the rumours say,” he cackled a moment later. He was about to take a swig from the bottle, but was suddenly reminded of Prime Minister Tong Xuan’s warning. He stopped himself and reluctantly passed the bottle to General Yin.
“Here, drink this,” he said gruffly.
General Yin’s eyes widened. “Many thanks!” and took a deep pull from the bottle unceremoniously.
Wang Hong could not help but gulp and swallow his own saliva as General Yin relished the taste and drained the entire bottle.
“How is it?” he asked cautiously as the general wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
“Outstanding!” the general said. “A pity there’s only so little of it,” he continued, eyeing at the empty bottle mournfully.
Wang Hong had watched with a pained expression as the general drank, but he kept a close eye to see if there were any ill effects. Other than the faint blush of red in the general’s face, there was none.
Wang Hong then kicked out at Ma Jun impatiently. “Bring out everything! Hurry!”
Ma Jun could only clench his teeth and sob, the very picture of a distraught merchant. More bottles were brought out, and Ma Jun could only wring his hands and clutch at his sleeves in despair.
Still wary, Wang Hong nodded at General Yin. “Go and find a bottle for your father,” he grunted almost unwillingly.
“I will have to taste to find out,” General Yin said slowly. It was just what Wang Hong wanted to hear: he needed someone to taste them all for poison and the so-called North Star had volunteered himself to do so.
“Then take a sip from each!” Wang Hong said generously, as if they were his to give. He paid close attention to General Yin for tell tale signs of poisoning. However, the way General Yin gleefully stooped to unseal and smell each bottle was tearing at his heart, even though his mind was telling him to be careful.
Soon the courtyard became filled with intoxicating smells as General Yin opened each bottle and savoured each gulp.
Eventually Wang Hong ran out of patience and swiped an opened bottle for himself. Without nary a thought he poured the sweet nectar down his throat. Each drop was like the brief rain in a desert: swallowed eagerly and disappearing just as fast.
“Fantastic!” Wang Hong praised and smashed the empty bottle down.
By now General Yin had made his choice, guarding the bottle in his chest, as if afraid Commander Wang Hong would go back on his word.
Wang Hong noticed it and sneered at General Yin. “Do you think I would covet yours when there are so many here?”
General Yin was taken aback. “Surely you’re not taking all of them,” he said in astonishment.
“And why not?” Wang Hong said and drained a second bottle that was also opened by General Yin.
“We can’t go around seizing the private properties of others, it isn’t proper,” General Yin protested.
“Your words ring hollow with that bottle in your chest,” Wang Hong said, full of contempt for the general.
“I was planning to pay for it,” the general said defensively. “We should not be too overbearing…”
Wang Hong laughed harshly. “How womanly of you! I am the law here!”
General Yin grimaced. “Sir, please watch your tongue. You risk offending people with your reckless words.”
“Risk? What risk is there from these merchants?” Wang Hong asked loudly. By now he had drained his third bottle that had been tested by General Yin, and the empty vessel too joined its smashed brethren around his feet.
“Well, what if someone here challenges you?” General Yin asked.
Suddenly the atmosphere turned cold. Wang Hong narrowed his eyes.
“Do you mean yourself?” he growled. He snapped his fingers and his dozen men quickly surrounded General Yin in a ring.
“Do you think I’m a mere fool? To lure me here with alcohol right at the time when I was trying to abstain myself, you think too lightly of me!” Wang Hong said with a leer.
General Yin affected a frightened look. “Commander, you have made a mistake. If I meant you harm, I would not have come here unarmed,” he pleaded.
Wang Hong threw back his head and laughed uproariously. “Gentlemen, the brave General Yin Yanzhao the North Star!” he barked to his men, pointing at General Yin insultingly.
General Yin stood silently as he was surrounded by a ring of scornful laughter.
“Nobody in their right mind would dare to fight you,” General Yin said. “Besides, you are the Commander of the Imperial Guard. Who would dare to kill you?”
“Hah! Kill me?” Wang Hong said. He raised a fist high and shook it challengingly.
“Who dares to kill me?” he mocked aloud.
“I dare to kill you!” a savage voice shouted from behind.
Shocked, Wang Hong turned around but could not react any further. A spear thrust flashed and lodged itself in his throat. The great Commander Wang Hong fell over with a gurgling a mouthful of blood, a hole in his throat and his eyes wide in disbelief.
As his life began to fade, Wang Hong saw that his killer was a woman. A woman, of all people!
If he had a few breaths more, he would have recognized that the deathblow was delivered by Zhao Sunli the War Goddess. Perhaps then he would not be so discontented.
Wang Hong soon expired, his heart full of dissatisfaction.
Driven to drink,
He was hoodwinked.
Provoked a strife,
And lost his life.