Lies and more
“Now you're looking for the secret. But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”
--Cutter, ‘The Prestige’ (2006)
Chapter 178 – Lies and more
For the next few days, the citizens and soldiers of Beihai observed a cold war between the Royal Inspector Huang Ming and the War Goddess Zhao Sunli.
Those who were close enough knew that Huang Ming had tried to make amends with the martial woman, only to be rebuffed at every turn. Eventually Sunli showed her temper, and Huang Ming was upset enough to lash out in return. Each refused to give in to the other, meaning that they never settled their issue even to the day of Sunli’s departure. Their awful row was witnessed by outsiders, causing embarrassment to all who seen it and becoming the source of hushed gossip.
Meanwhile, the citizens had greeted the news of the transfer with some trepidation: stripping away the veterans was akin to leaving the city and the surrounding district naked. While not all of the veterans decided to leave, those who remained were too few in number.
Some of the city’s leading personages laid their worries bare to General Yin. The general assured them that all was well, and that replacements were already well on their way. Besides, it was winter, nobody would risk an attack due to frostbite and snowstorms and other icy hazards…
By the end of his explanation, the rich and powerful of Beihai were so convinced that they were openly thanking and praising General Yin for rewarding the veterans with a cushy, parade ground jobs at the capital. A few influential families even decided there and then to uproot their entire families and wealth to follow General Yin back to the capital city, such was their eagerness to be close to such a heroic personage.
Thus on his departure day, General Yin’s contingent grew much larger. He had entered Beihai with Zhao Sunli and a handful of his trusted guards; now he was set to leave with several thousand men and a long baggage train of civilians following them with all of their earthly possessions in tow.
Needless to say, the sight of seeing the veterans and the rich folk leaving the city for warmer climes cast a pall on those who remained. Suddenly it seemed all the vibrancy and good cheer that Huang Ming had injected into Beihai was being sucked away.
The dour look on Huang Ming’s face as he gave General Yin and Zhao Sunli the send-off was plain for all to see. As Sunli busied herself readying the entire column to march, General Yin went to assuage Huang Ming.
“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Huang Ming told him sullenly.
“You are such a worry-wart,” General Yin said, a smile taking the sting out of his comment.
“If indeed there is a Jin attack, I will only be able to hold the city for thirty days at most,” Huang Ming complained.
“Thirty days is more than enough for reinforcements to arrive,” General Yin pointed out. “Do not worry, I have reports that the first group of your replacements soldiers are already on their way to Beihai.”
“So you say,” Huang Ming replied grudgingly.
General Yin’s smile vanished. “I do not joke around with military matters,” he said stiffly.
Huang Ming saw that he had offended the general, and he was suitably chastened. He sighed as he looked at the distant figure of Zhao Sunli.
“Sorry,” Huang Ming said contritely, “I have let personal matters affect me.”
General Yin gave the young scholar a shake of his head. “I heard you two had an almighty quarrel,” he said.
“That is putting it mildly,” Huang Ming admitted.
“Mmm. I have seen the split stone in the garden, is it true that it was her handiwork?”
Huang Ming laughed hollowly. “I took a joke too far…” he said.
“Some women do not take kindly to jokes,” General Yin said sagely. “You should apologize, before she leaves.”
Huang Ming’s face hardened. “Though I admit it was my fault, I was merely trying to be more familiar with her. We are engaged, but we have yet to be intimate. For her to react so strongly and to hold a grudge over a minor thing meant she do not see me as her fiancé at all.”
He sniffed. “Maybe I should rescind the engagement, seeing that we are like oil and water.”
General Yin’s grip on his horse’s reins tightened. “You should not say such words lightly,” he said quietly.
“You are right of course. Our engagement was decided by our dear parents,” Huang Ming exhaled. “It would not do to go against their wishes, and it is not as if I am a selfish princeling who would break an engagement with a good-with-nothing-girl.”
He chuckled as his eyes continued to gaze at Sunli. “She is definitely not a good-for-nothing-girl.”
General Yin did not understand the reference, but nodded in agreement.
“Perhaps her anger will cool after some time has passed. Matters of the heart cannot be rushed after all,” he said consolingly.
“Will you do me a favour? I was thick-headed and behaved like a fool. Can you… advise her accordingly?” Huang Ming asked sheepishly.
“Think nothing of it. It is but a small matter,” General Yin said immediately.
Huang Ming bowed slightly, his face red with shame. “Thank you. I am sure you will do everything you can to repair our engagement.”
“Of course,” the general replied with a smile.
After escorting General Yin for a few miles, Huang Ming bade him farewell. He gave one last look at Sunli, yet the War Goddess remained aloof and ignored his pleading eyes. Crestfallen, he watched on as General Yin rode side-by-side with Zhao Sunli at the head of the long column.
One could see that Huang Ming was severely depressed. Some of his minders thought to soothe him. Yet the moment the column was out of sight, Huang Ming burst into laughter. It was not the sort of laughter a defeated man would utter; it was a cynical one, perhaps even sinister.
The former leader of the White Wolves, one of the veterans who elected to remain in Beihai as Huang Ming’s bodyguard; wondered if his lord had gone crazy from girl-troubles.
“What is the young lord laughing at?” the grizzled veteran asked him directly.
“About the games people play,” Huang Ming said, immensely pleased with himself.
Huang Ming ignored the puzzled look on the older man.
“Let us return. There are many things for us to do,” Huang Ming said.
And so it was. Huang Ming stepped up defences of Beihai, shrinking the areas of responsibility to compensate his much reduced forces. He had stockpiles of material and items made in barely concealed secret, as if he was already preparing for an inevitable siege. To top it all off, he had an enormous flagpole erected over his pagoda-like residential office. A gigantic banner was commissioned, with the simple name ‘Huang’ woven boldly on it. It was so large that it was visible from beyond the city walls.
Many in Beihai were of course alarmed by such preparations, and some were frightened by the gloomy, warlike atmosphere. It was as if Huang Ming was going to make Beihai his inevitable last stand.
Then one day a missive arrived from the neighbouring district: the first batch of replacement soldiers for Beihai had arrived at the border. But the district commander of the replacements was spiteful and wanted a face-saving gesture: he refused to march all the way to Beihai. Instead he wrote for Huang Ming to send an officer to take charge of the final leg of the march.
Thus Huang Ming called for General Li Jing. The srih-chewing man hawked and spat loudly when he was told of the problem.
“What nonsense! If Beihai was indeed attacked while he is dilly-dallying because of this, would he take responsibility later?” Li Jing grumbled.
“Nobody likes giving away their soldiers that they have trained and commanded to another,” Huang Ming said amicably. “Besides, you must be delighted to get out of the city and stretch your legs, aren’t you?”
General Li Jing laughed. “You are right. With so few men, our patrols are few and far and between. If I stay still for too long, I’ll get sick!”
“Well, now you have an excuse. Go on, but don’t tarry. Receive the transfer of men and bring them back here immediately,” Huang Ming said.
“You have nothing to worry about! I will be back with the replacements within three days!” General Li Jing promised as he thumped his chest.
Thus General Li Jing set out with a small group of men to accomplish his task. But the three days became five, five days became a week; yet there was no sign of General Li Jing, nor the replacement soldiers…
The curtains of war,
Parting to reveal what’s in store.