Apologies for the delays. My family being traditionalists meant the entirety of the festivities were observed. While Google is more than happy to tell you that Chinese New Year is merely two days, conservatives will tell you it's actually for three whole weeks...

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
--The Shadow

Chapter 192 – Doubts and motivations

Sunli expected Huang Ming to be distressed, but the young man remained calm. He cupped his chin in quiet thought, slowly digesting the dire news that she had brought.

Eventually Huang Ming exhaled heavily.

“Well, that sucks,” he muttered.

“How can you be so casual at a time like this?” Sunli fumed, her voice tinged with anger. Once she had heard the ill tidings, it became a burden that weighed heavily on her shoulders; not knowing how Huang Ming would react. Yet the recipient seemed unperturbed by the scale of the disaster.

“Would you prefer me to wail and run around like a headless chicken?” Huang Ming asked mildly.

“Of course not!” Sunli fired back. She crossed her arms and sat back down in a huff, more annoyed at her loss of composure than with Huang Ming.

“You seem calm enough. Do you have a plan?” Qiong Ying cut in.

Huang Ming shrugged and raised a palm to ask for patience.

“Let’s back up a little. First we need to make sure that this crisis is real,” he said.

“What is that supposed to mean? Do you think I’m lying?” Sunli demanded, her nostrils flaring with outrage.

“That is not what I said. What I meant was that you might be tricked into spreading fake news. Think about the vast distances involved, how did you get the news so quickly? Our families would have sent word directly to us if there was an attack by Wei, long before it was going to be reported to the capital and then to you,” Huang Ming reasoned.

Sunli’s mouth opened, but the protest died in her throat. She already had doubts about the matter, but the dire nature of the news overrode her misgivings.

“And that’s not it. You said General Li Jing was wounded, did you actually see how it happened?” Huang Ming continued.

The Amazon stared at him in disbelief. “Now you’re suspecting General Li too? But you sent him to pick up the reinforcements yourself!”

“Bear with me here,” Huang Ming smiled indulgently at her.

Sunli suppressed the urge to complain. “Of course I didn’t see it happen. I arrived at the tail end of the skirmish.”

“Don’t you find it all too coincidental? You managed to wriggle an excuse to get away from General Yin, only to find General Li at his deathbed?”

Sunli pursed her lips in a thin line. “But he did receive the reinforcements, I brought them here myself,” she pointed out.

Huang Ming raised a finger. “Firstly, he was sent ages ago. If the reinforcements were late in coming, he could have sent word back to me, long before the Jins attacked Beihai. Secondly, if he did receive the reinforcements timely, why did they not immediately return to Beihai?”

“Maybe the Jin ambush prevented him,” Sunli argued.

“And how did the Jins know exactly when to strike?” Huang Ming countered. “Let me make a wild guess here: You didn’t see Li Jing’s wounds, but he was already bandaged up by his aides who miraculously survived the battle.”

Her silence made known her inability to answer.

“But what does that mean?” Qiong Ying asked slowly.

Huang Ming shrugged. “General Li could be working for the Jins,” he said, causing the two women to gasp.

“Or, more likely; he is working for General Yin all along,” he continued.

“Why… Why would General Yin do all this?” Sunli asked in bewilderment.

“Why not?” Huang Ming returned. “You have this image of him that he is a bulwark of the nation, a selfless person from a family of patriots. Yet his entire family have been embroiled by tragedies, and General Yin Yanzhao is the last of his line. There is nothing left in Wu to tie him down.”

“That can’t be!” Sunli said vehemently. “His entire family fought against the Jins, they fought to their deaths!”

“And where were they buried?” Huang Ming reminded her. “Out in the steppes, with nary a memorial or an honour guard.”

“Ah. The Jin spy…” Qiong Ying spoke up. Seeing Sunli’s confusion, she quickly explained the cover used by Miss Xilei. “The only person guarding the tombs of the Yin clan was a Jin spy. And bear in mind that it was General Yin who sent her there.”

Huang Ming saw Sunli’s face and took pity on her. “I understand that you find it difficult when it is happening right before you. But real life is not like the history books: people have feelings and selfish motivations. Real people are not as simplified as in the historical books, where famous characters can be described with a single virtue.”

“I… I just don’t think it’s possible. You are saying that the North Star is a traitor…” Sunli mumbled. “His father was killed in a Jin ambush, why would he join forces with them? You keep painting a picture of a grand conspiracy by General Yin, but what’s the point in all this?”

“Let’s think this through. Suppose the fact of a three-pronged invasion is true, what is the logical step for Beihai?” Huang Ming asked rhetorically.

Sunli frowned as she weighed the facts. “You would need to evacuate the city. Though you have scored a victory here, your lack of supplies meant it would be difficult to hold Beihai against another determined attempt.”

Huang Ming nodded in approval. “And what do you think would happen to me if I ordered the city to be abandoned, only to find out that the news was untrue?” he asked.

Sunli’s mouth closed.

“...Then you’ll be the one labelled as a traitor. Or incompetent,” Qiong Ying answered for her.

“Surely the king would know better!” Sunli exclaimed.

“The king just recently regained his authority, and I don’t think it would be far-fetched to assume that he might be afraid of another Marshal Gao Fang or Prime Minister Tong Xuan. I may have achieved some credit, but it is also true that we Huangs have been too prominent lately.”

Then Huang Ming smirked. “Did you know that we could have been labelled as traitors if Princess Wu Liying had succeeded in mobilizing my father?” he asked conversationally.

“What do you mean?”

Huang Ming said, “At the peak of the troubles, before Gao Fang foolishly led the invasion into Wei; Princess Wu Liying wrote a letter to my father urging him to raise an army to the capital and capture those two villains. She did not consider that doing so would rip the country apart in a civil war. If indeed that had happened, there would be endless accusations on who would be the traitors then.”

Huang Ming sighed. He was still annoyed by the princess’s letter written in blood. Had he not intervened, the Huang family would be responsible for plunging the entire kingdom into chaos.

“It goes to show that even a well-meaning person like Princess Wu Liying could have caused a disturbance; let alone Yin Yanzhao who has more than ample reasons to do what he did.”

“What reasons?”

“Who knows? Maybe he was turned. Maybe he thinks the old kings of Wu were responsible for the various tragedies that befell his clan. But I believe the turning point was when his wife, his father and the previous governor of Beihai all died in the same year,” Huang Ming said.

His eyes looked up at the moon above them. It hung gloomily in the night sky, as if its glow was diminished by the celebratory lights of the city of Beihai.

“Men have done many terrible things throughout history, and the reasons they have embarked on such destructive agendas are often not explained,” Huang Ming said softly.

In the capital of Wu, a lonesome General Yin Yanzhao was looking up at the same moon, his thoughts just as murky as the ink-like sky.

There was a discreet knock at his door and a shadowy subordinate entered the room.

“Huang Ming has defeated the Jin siege at Beihai,” the underling reported.

“As expected. The young man is much too clever for his own good,” Yin Yanzhao said coldly.

The same sky,
A myriad reasons why.​