“We're surrounded. That simplifies the problem.”
--attributed to Lewis Burwell ‘Chesty’ Puller, USMC
Chapter 191 – Troubles everywhere
Despite the joy of the Beihai citizens, the mood of the relief soldiers brought by Zhao Sunli were sombre. They did not partake in the victory celebration, choosing instead to keep to themselves while the city were rejoicing over defeating the Jins. One might be forgiven to think that Zhao Sunli’s soldiers were ordered to stay vigilant for possible Jin retaliation; that they were stoic warriors who refused to let down their guard.
Away from the prying eyes and jubilant crowd, the trio of Huang Ming, Qiong Ying and Zhao Sunli held conference.
Huang Ming personally poured them some tea, ignoring the convention that females were to serve the men. Similarly the two women thought nothing strange about his gesture; they were already used to it. After all, they had even seen General Huang Zheng doing it for his wife.
Despite his curiosity, Huang Ming told himself to be patient as Sunli wordlessly ignored the hot drink, her eyes almost glazed in a thousand-mile stare. The fire that had burned so fiercely in the battle now dimmed to almost nothing.
There were still dust and dirt caked on her skin and clothing, as well as dried flecks of blood. Judging from her dried complexion and deepened wells on her eyes; Huang Ming knew that she had gone through an ordeal.
Qiong Ying was still in her Quan Lu disguise, but allowed her hair down and loosened her clothes for relief. Instead of a devilishly handsome scholarly man, she now looked like a devilishly handsome valiant woman, reminding Huang Ming of those poorly disguised, cross-dressing swordswoman from television shows.
Yet, even she seemed tired as she sipped at her tea gingerly.
“How did the thing with the spy go?” Huang Ming asked her softly.
A shadow passed over Qiong Ying face, and Huang Ming could see that the experience had not been pleasant.
“It went well enough, considering how I had broke the heart of a woman helplessly in love. I have gotten some information, but I leery of repeating the deed. Let just say I plan for Quan Lu to have an ‘unfortunate accident’ soon, so that she might have some closure,” Qiong Ying said as she absent-mindedly turned her cup this and that way.
Huang Ming blinked. “Oh? You’re suggesting to let her live?”
“I have not decided yet,” Qiong Ying admitted. “Though it might be callous to say this, she might be useful in the future.”
Huang Ming nodded in understanding, but Sunli chuckled hollowly.
“Useful,” she mumbled as her eyes flickered at them. “I wonder if it was easy for you two to see others as tools,” she said, her voice growing in resentment.
For a moment Huang Ming entertained the idea of facetiously saying ‘yes’. It was a common trope in fiction that any long-lived character would be jaded to the extent of being dehumanized, and there were times when Huang Ming felt completely detached from the fates of the characters that surrounded him.
Before he had decided on his answer, Qiong Ying spoke up.
“It was not ‘easy’,” she said coldly.
It was like ice and fire when Huang Ming looked at the two women in his current life.
“You said it’s all over. What happened?” he asked Sunli.
The Amazon took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. “The siege here is just but one part of the Jin strike,” she answered grimly.
Huang Ming frowned. “Though I anticipated a surprise attack here since it was so blatantly obvious, I didn’t expect it to be of a wider scale. Is that what happened to General Li Jing? He was ambushed?”
Sunli nodded. “I got your message that night and I went to meet General Li before I left Beihai. We set a time and place to meet after I had left Beihai, but…”
She paused, and finally decided to drain her cup of tea.
“But?” Huang Ming prodded as he refilled her cup.
“I was late to the meeting point, because I couldn’t get the Beihai veterans to myself. General Yin kept them as the escorts for the people who followed us. Since I had acted being annoyed by you the entire time, I told him that I needed to vent, and received permission to go on a hunt,” Sunli said.
“‘Acted’?” Qiong Ying murmured doubtfully.
Sunli ignored the subtle accusation. “I then rode to the meeting point, but General Li Jing was not there. But I saw signs of a recent battle, and followed a trail of corpses. General Li Jing did receive the reinforcements that you told him to get… but they were then attacked by Jin raiders.”
“And General Li Jing himself?” Huang Ming asked.
“Alive, but grievously wounded. Most of the reinforcements were decimated. In fact, the Jins attacked just as General Li had completed the handover. I had him being cared for by a kindly hermit in wilderness, since you had insisted that Beihai was a target.”
“Which turned out to be right,” Huang Ming reminded her. “Still, that doesn’t explain your reaction. What do you mean by ‘it’s all over’?”
Sunli sighed. “It is all over, because after I had gathered the surviving reinforcements, I received news that this siege in Beihai was but a sideshow.”
“A sideshow? Thirty thousand men attacked this place, and it was a diversion?” Qiong Ying said in disbelief.
“This is not like the western border, where any attack by Wei had to go through Tigertrap Pass,” Sunli told her. “Here in the open plains, the Jins can bypass Beihai. This was not done in the past because Beihai was a formidable threat. But thirty thousand men were more than enough to surround Beihai in its weakened state.”
“How far have they gone?” Huang Ming asked quietly.
“Fortunately, they haven’t gone too deep into our country. But they are repeating what we had done in Wei by razing and raiding the entire length of our borders,” Sunli replied.
But Huang Ming was less optimistic. “Did General Yin took charge and prevented the Jins from going towards our capital? That is why Beihai did not receive any help or news: he is too busy organizing the defences of everywhere else.”
“You are right,” Sunli said, albeit reluctantly.
“That doesn’t sound too bad, all considering he is preventing the Jins from conquering the rest of the country,” Qiong Ying said, playing the advocate.
Huang Ming shook his head. “We haven’t heard everything,” he said. He looked at Sunli in the eyes. “You’re telling us that the Jins are being stymied by General Yin, yet you said this place was just a sideshow.”
Sunli nodded grimly.
“It’s a simultaneous attack. From the south, the state of Chu had crossed the river with a force of fifty thousand. Two of our cities have already capitulated, and most of our forces have been sent to try and stop them.”
“What else?” Huang Ming asked, sensing it wasn’t the end. Fifty thousand men were still manageable, after all Wu themselves had thrown a hundred thousand soldiers at Wei previously.
Sunli did not waver from his gaze.
“From the west, Wei is attacking through Tigertrap Pass once more. I couldn’t get more information, but last I heard your father and brother are still holed up in Tigertrap Fort.”
Hemmed in at all sides,
Three countries seek to divide.