“Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
--The Joker, ‘Batman’ (1989)
Chapter 177 – The setup
The night breeze was chilling as Sunli stood in the moonlight, one hand holding firmly on her gleaming sword. The soft wind gently whipped her short hair, framing her angular face and determined eyes.
A veritable picture of a War Goddess, ready for what may come.
Huang Ming remained sitting on the rock while Sunli waited for his response to her challenge. Time seemed to stand still as their eyes met.
Huang Ming’s hand moved, and Sunli’s grip on her sword tightened. Was he going to accept her sudden demand?
Her fiery eyes watched as Huang Ming’s hand rose slowly, his fingers curling in slightly one by one except for his little finger…
…Which he raised to his nose, and gently rubbed a nostril.
“No,” he said lazily.
One could almost hear the crickets as Huang Ming blatantly dismissed Sunli’s proclamation.
The War Goddess stared at him dumbfoundedly, her mouth open in disbelief as Huang Ming continued with his show of nonchalance. He went as far as to flick away an imaginary booger.
“Why not?” she sputtered.
“Because I had already won, and I would like to keep my winning record,” Huang Ming said as a matter-of-factly.
“Does that mean you will never give me a fair match to regain my honour?” she demanded furiously.
“Hey, if you can come up with something that doesn’t involve pain and suffering, I would be more than happy to accompany you. How about a game of chess… or a pie-eating contest?” Huang Ming suggested.
At this point it took all of Sunli’s self-control not to swing the sword at him. Just at it seemed that her towering rage would finally erupt, Huang Ming suddenly asked: “Your complexion seems pale, how’s your diet lately? Have you been eating wild game?”
“What?” she asked in bewilderment. Huang Ming seemed to time his change in subject to take the wind out of her sails.
“Give me your hand, let me see if something is wrong.”
Utterly deflated, Sunli woodenly placed her hand in his. She did not react as Huang Ming began to tap at her palm intermittently.
In fact, she was so out of it that she did not pay attention to Huang Ming’s hmm-ing and haw-ing. It was not until Huang Ming began to caress her palm that she was suddenly jolted back to the present.
“What the hell are you doing?” she scowled as her face flushed. She struggled to retrieve her hand from Huang Ming’s molestations, but he kept a firm grip.
“I’m not done, pay attention,” he said sternly and resumed tapping various points on her palm.
Seeing his concerned expression put Sunli in a thoughtful mood. Thus she stood there quietly in the moonlight, her hand in his…
In the shadows, a pair of spying eyes narrowed. The owner had seen enough of the picturesque scene; and retreated deeper into the darkness.
“You rogue!” Sunli’s yell shattered the peaceful atmosphere.
Huang Ming jumped up and away as Sunli’s sword cut the wind.
The sudden outburst of violence shocked the spy. What had happened?
“Come now, we’re engaged. Why so angry about me copping a feel?” Huang Ming laughed.
Then the spy understood. Huang Ming had angered the War Goddess with a stray hand.
The spy watch on quietly to confirm. The sheer strength in Zhao Sunli’s sword strokes meant she was thoroughly infuriated, her blade flashing in the moonlight.
Perhaps the War Goddess’s outrage faded after the first few attempts at cutting Huang Ming in two, perhaps the idea of actually killing her fiancé had slowed her hand. Either way, Huang Ming easily evaded her sword by nimbly jumping away this way and that.
It was comedy bordering on almost farcical, and the spy soon lost interest in watching Sunli hack away impotently while Huang Ming’s continued to tease.
Eventually Sunli gave up, and Huang Ming fled, his roguish laughter filling the air as he disappeared. In a feat of strength, Sunli slashed her sword on the rock on which they had sat on just a few moments ago and cleaved the stone into two. She glared angrily at her handiwork before stomping away.
The spy waited a long while before emerging from the shadows, and the figure of Miss Xilei was revealed. The buxom woman examined the destroyed rock, and could not help but be impressed. Sunli must have been thoroughly enraged to accomplish such a feat…
That was what she reported later in a clandestine meeting. Once more she was in secret conference with her Jin confederates.
“...and how is that relevant to our enterprise?” Songdan the hideously scarred man asked dismissively.
Xilei snorted. “You know nothing about women. They may be engaged but he doesn’t take it seriously. This is a flaw in his personality, and should be included in his profile for our princess. She would be delighted at this particular detail, it may prove useful to exploit.”
Songdan was about to refute it immediately, but the hunchbacked elder nodded in agreement. “The princess did ask us for all sorts of information,” the elder reminded Songdan.
Songdan remained unhappy. “Elder Wu Zhi, I still do not see why she should be so concerned about this Huang Ming. By all accounts he is just someone lucky with a fast mouth.”
“Luck is also a skill,” the hunchbacked elder said.
“I agree,” a new voice interjected.
“Who!” Songdan exclaimed, a dagger materializing in his hand.
“Calm yourself, he is one of us,” the elder said, and a new figure clad in black appeared to join them.
If Huang Ming or Sunli were present, they would have recognized him as the man who had saved Nangong Xie in the past. This was the same shadowy man who had blocked off Sunli’s spear and helped the Handsome Scholar escape to Jin afterwards.
“If you want to capture Huang Ming for the princess, then you must not underestimated him. He is only frivolous on the surface, he is much deeper than you can imagine,” the new arrival said.
“Hold on, we are only here to gather information. Nobody said anything about kidnapping him,” Songdan pointed out.
“You should. You might not get a better chance,” the shadowy man told him.
“What do you mean?” Xilei asked.
“I have heard what you said about his fiancée Zhao Sunli. I am reliably informed that she will be in charge of taking away the veterans of Beihai. This will leave the city undefended,” the man in black said.
“What concern is that to us?” Songdan asked.
“The Prince of Jin is taking advantage of this. He is already preparing an army to attack the city.”
It was as if thunder had struck the minds of Xilei, Wu Zhi and Songdan.
“How can that be? An attack in winter?” Wu Zhi asked in shock.
The man in black shrugged, as if the matter was of no concern to him. “It seems the Prince of JIn has his own eyes and ears here in Beihai, and he has been counselled to take the risk.”
“Does… does the Princess of Jin know of this? Surely she would not agree to such an operation,” Xilei said, her face pale.
“I have heard that the Prince is doing this on his own accord. Perhaps he is doing it as a grand gesture for her,” the man in black replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Neither Songdan, Xilei nor Wu Zhi cared about the disrespectful tone. Their ultimate loyalty was to the Princess of Jin, not her royal husband.
“This is ridiculous. The Princess is not someone who revels in such pointless wastage,” Elder Wu Zhi said disapprovingly.
“I do not presume to know what our Prince and Princess are thinking. All you need to know is that you have a limited window to operate before the city is besieged,” the man in black said flatly. He then turned towards Xilei.
“Are you certain about what you said earlier?” he demanded.
“Regarding Zhao Sunli and Huang Ming? Of course, I saw everything with my own eyes. If you can sneak in the gardens, you can see the stone that was split in twain yourself,” Xilei informed him.
“No need, I trust you. I have heard that their relationship has always been ambiguous, your firsthand account only lends credence to it,” the man said.
Xilei was mollified. “But would it be so easy to take those veteran soldiers away?” she questioned. “They are the main fighting force defending the city, surely Huang Ming would be loathed to send them away.”
“That is why General Yin brought Sunli along with him,” the man in black said. “He knows that they are engaged, and Huang Ming would be less reluctant if it was his fiancée who is in charge of the matter. Now that he has offended her, she will be eager to leave as soon as possible.”
“What about General Yin himself? Will he be a factor?” Songdan asked.
The man in black shook his head. “No, he will be leaving with Zhao Sunli and the veterans. In fact, he would be more than happy to see a rift between Zhao Sunli and Huang Ming.”
Realization struck the other three.
“How scandalous, the general smitten with the fiancée of another man!” Xilei laughed derisively.
“I have heard that the general made her his assistant in the capital. Now I understand why,” Songdan added.
Elder Wu Zhi shook his head. “This kingdom is doomed, if even someone like General Yin would put his personal interest ahead of national ones.”
One could almost see the smile underneath the man in black’s mask.
“Indeed, this kingdom is doomed.”
Weaving plots in the dark,
Twisting the truth, such an art.