Sunday's chapter.

“I love it when a plan comes together.”
--Hannibal Smith, ‘The A-Team’

Chapter 151 – Clean up

There was an awful silence once Commander Wang Hong died.

The dozen Imperial Guards who had followed him were aghast as their commander fell to the ground after being speared in the throat by Zhao Sunli the War Goddess. None of them knew what to do, and they stood in mute horror as their commander shuffled off the mortal coil.

Sheltered in the shade of the Ma clan’s residence was Huang Ming. His hands were behind his back and a lazy smile was on his face as he looked on at the scene in satisfaction.

This was the outcome planned by Huang Ming: to have Wang Hong killed at a time when he least expected it.

“Wang Hong has put up his guard lately, it would be difficult for you to fish him out of the safety of his home,” Huang Lang had cautioned.

“He is a man of many vices, he will be easily tempted out,” Huang Ming said.

“You have read too many novels. Wang Hong is rough but not stupid,” Huang Lang said sceptically.

“It doesn’t matter if he is suspicious or not,” Huang Ming argued. “All that matters is that we attempt to entice him. If he’s a fool, he will be tempted by the wine. If he is suspicious, he will want to investigate and catch us.”

Huang Lang nodded. “Fine, but how would you do it?”

“I have already written to Ma Jun, he will do so-and-so,” Huang Ming replied.

In his letter to his friend the Wine Barrel, Huang Ming had detailed certain instructions. Ma Jun was to enter the capital with his finest wines and make his arrival as loud and conspicuous as possible to attract the attention of Wang Hong.

Coupled with rumours spread by the planted agents of Huang Lang and Cao Shuang, the capital was soon abuzz with the fictitious Ma clan competition. In reality, all the wagons that entered the capital belong to Ma Jun’s business, he simply had them enter the capital on various intervals and from different directions to give the impression of a widespread gathering.

The scheme was helped somewhat by Ma Jun’s very real products. Ma Jun really did run a brewery and he saw the entire plot as an opportunity for him to expand the family business. When he received Huang Ming’s letter, he wasted no time in selecting his family’s best (and most expensive) product and chartered a fleet of wagons for the masquerade before any of his clan elders could protest at his recklessness.

However, rumours and excellent product were not enough to draw out Wang Hong. The final piece of the puzzle was General Yin Yanzhao the North Star.

Someone was needed to nudge Wang Hong into action, and the general readily agreed to Huang Ming’s plan.

“I cannot help you search the Jin ambassador for your Nangong Xie, but this is something I can do,” the general had said when they met.

Huang Ming had the sneaky suspicion that the presence of Sunli in that meeting played a part in the general’s decision. Sunli herself remained unaware of her influence, she merely nodded in gratitude. The martial-minded woman was eager for the plan to proceed, as she was to deliver the actual deadly blow itself.

Such was the suddenness of her attack that even a powerful man like Wang Hong stood no chance at all. The way she shook her silver spear to flick away the blood after the killing blow made it all seem so casual, as if she was doing something simple as picking something out of her pocket.

None of Wang Hong’s Imperial Guard moved to retaliate. Indeed, when Sunli’s eyes turned to glare at them, a few of the men backtracked in fear. But before they could break into an escape, General Yin took advantage of their poor morale.

The general seized a spear from one of the men who surrounded him and quickly dispatched its previous owner. In a sequence worthy of an action film, the general brandished the spear with skill and broke free of the encirclement to stand with Sunli, side-by-side.

The duo nodded silently at each other and came to an unspoken agreement, charging simultaneously at the bewildered Imperial Guards.

Huang Ming did not see the point to do more than to watch on from his vantage point. The Imperial Guards were armoured and armed with spears, they were beyond the reach of his wristblade.

Besides, there was no stopping the War Goddess and the North Star. They worked seamlessly together, switching positions and covering each other as their spears struck left and right, high and low at Wang Hong’s men. Soon they lay dead, joining their deceased commander on the ground.

The courtyard which was filled with the sweet aroma of alcohol mere moments ago was now awash in the rusty smell of blood and sweat.

“Well done,” the general praised.

“Indeed,” Huang Ming said as he approached. “Thank you for your aid, General Yin. The King will know of your service.”

“Well, I certainly hope so,” the general remarked lightly. “Otherwise I would be labelled as a traitor for participating in the murder of the Commander of the King’s Imperial Guard.”

Despite the bloody grounds they were in, Huang Ming smiled.

“Do not worry about it, I have already informed the king long ago,” he said.

General Yin arched an eyebrow. “You were so confident? What if I had failed and Wang Hong never came here?”

“Then I would have made another plan. But there was no doubting your success, o’ General,” Huang Ming said. ‘You were a very convincing actor,’ he left unsaid.

Huang Ming had covertly spied on the entire drama, and the general’s acting to lull Wang Hong into the trap was very telling. The general played his role to perfection, like someone who was experienced with wearing a mask to hide the truth.

Had Huang Ming voiced this observation, he would have been ridiculed and be accused of jealousy. General Yin Yanzhao the North Star was a famous patriot, a respected figure from a long family line that defended Wu’s northern borders stalwartly against the Jins. He was so honourable that their long time enemy trusted his word for safe passage.

Yet, the sense of unease that Huang Ming felt whenever he met General Yin never went away. Huang Ming could tell, the man was used to playing a role.

He wondered if it was a mistake to have stayed quiet when the King of Wu told him of his decision to name General Yin as the new commander of the Imperial Guard.

Huang Ming consoled himself in private. Perhaps this was General Yin’s ultimate goal. Perhaps he was weary of the chilling winds and blizzards of the north, tired of constantly being wary of the Jins. Perhaps he wished to move to the capital and take up the prestigious post and enjoy a life of comfort after a saga of family tragedies.

What was done was done. Wang Hong had fallen, Nangong Xie had disappeared.

Now only Prime Minister Tong Xuan remained.

The noose tightens,
His fears heightened.​