Intermission & Seeds
“The best strategy is to let your opponent know your next move. Even better is to let your opponent know your next two moves.”
--The Ravages of Time
In the infinite cosmos, the two mystical beings that were playing an unimaginable tabletop game paused, unsettled by what they have seen.
“That was unexpected,” the hooded female said coldly. Her looks were cloaked in shadows, yet one could almost imagine a frown on her unseen face. From underneath the hood, her glimmering black eyes swirling and glowing with the deadly might of black holes.
The male with his crown of flames returned her challenging stare. The embers that were his eyes pulsed with the power of a billion exploding suns, unrelenting and refusing to back down.
“I am as eager as you are to reach a resolution to our conflict, but I would never tamper with our contest,” he said, his voice rumbling with displeasure.
The clouds of nebulae surrounding their space crackled with discordant energy, reflecting the moods of the two competitors.
“This round is not like the others,” the female said.
“That is so,” the male admitted. “This is proceeding much slower than usual. It is as if…”
“As if some force is deliberately dragging this out,” she finished for him. “But to what end?”
“To annoy us,” the flame-wreathed man answered. “But who could have done this. We have been here all this time.”
“We had a recent visitor,” the woman reminded him. The swirling mists surrounding her condensed.
“Outrageous!” the male thundered. “We have to find out if anything else has been tampered with!”
“You are suggesting we intervene directly?” the female queried.
“What choice do we have?”
“We could wipe the round entirely.”
A smile flitted on the man’s fiery features. “Are you trying to take advantage of the situation? Your Avatar is not so disadvantaged to warrant a re-do.”
“You seem to have benefited from the tampering of the game,” the female scoffed.
“You accuse me of being in league with the one responsible?” the man asked softly, violence trembling beneath his words.
“Merely stating the facts. The irregularities are too much to ignore, and your Avatar has been given a handicap as a result,” she replied coolly.
“Then it would please me to dispel your suspicions. Go ahead, I grant you leeway for a one-time benefit for your Avatar. Within limits, of course,” the man growled.
“Very well, I accept,” the woman replied.
Both stellar beings nodded at the compromise reached. They leaned back on their thrones, their eyes once again drawn back to their game.
Yet, both had hidden smiles on their faces, as if each had gained something over the other despite the negative circumstances surrounding their negotiations…
Chapter 196 – Seeds
The ship rocked violently, feeling the effects of a rogue wave. It jolted Huang Ming awake, and he blearily climbed out of his bunk.
Huang Ming stretched widely, feeling the knots on his shoulders struggling to unravel from the rough journey.
It had been a hectic time since he had been relieved from Beihai. Now the winter city was distant… both as a memory and as a place. Since Yin Yanzhao had marched triumphantly to ‘save’ the city, there were numerous redeployments.
One might wonder how Yin Yanzhao could manipulate the news so that he emerged as the main hero, but it was a simple matter of keeping the people busy with repairs and rebuilding. They say people are fickle, quick to forgive and even quicker to forget, and this was the case here. The people of Beihai who had praised and cheered for Huang Ming now had the name Yin Yanzhao on their lips.
He generously compensated those who had suffered during the siege and thus reinforced his reputation further. The survivors were encouraged to stay and rebuild their lives. People are eager to forget the bitter past and enjoy the sweet present, thus all the heroics and strategies of Huang Ming became mere stories told during breaks or embellished during drunken revelries. Those who left Beihai were already embittered from personal loss and preferred to forget their harrowing experiences.
In the past, Huang Ming might feel short-changed having his merits taken by someone else. After all, the King of Wu did give him some gifts. The monetary rewards were bordering on lavish: a chest of gold and jewels, bolts of silk and so on.
But it did not include a title or a rise in rank. One might say that Huang Ming’s current role as ‘Royal Inspector’ was already unprecedented and unsuited for an increased in authority. Perhaps the bureaucrats and sages in the capital have yet to fully flesh out the newly made office. Or perhaps the King thought Huang Ming did not care. After all, didn’t he even refuse to refuse an offer to marry Princess Wu Liying? Did that not mean Huang Ming preferred a sedentary life?
It was true to some extent. Yet all this were unsaid. The king’s decree recorded thanks and congratulations in the customary flowery language, and made no mention about the glaring lack of a noble title.
Huang Ming did not care for it, but there was a difference of refusing a gift and not being offered one in the first place. It was a difference of night and day. Reading the decree caused him to smile cynically, he was not even given the time for a detour to visit his family but to proceed directly to Chu and then rendezvous with the diplomatic mission which was already on its way there.
It was an austere decree that left little wiggle room for him.
‘He has taken my advice, and now I’m the one emulating Shang Yang,’ Huang Ming thought to himself, evoking memories of the famous personage from ancient China. Shang Yang had introduced many reforms in Qin, but in the process had offended the powerful establishment. In the end he was forced to flee, but the strict laws he had enacted led to his own capture and demise.
Ancient Chinese history is littered with examples of meritorious people who suffered tragic ends, and Huang Ming had no interest in becoming one such example in this life.
It was just as well that things turn out the way it did. It gave the excuse and impetus for Huang Ming to write several fateful letters to his family and several friends. He gave them to Sunli and Qiong Ying, even as they argued to follow him in his mission to Chu.
“I am a soldier, not a postman,” Sunli had growled.
“This is not your last will and testament, is it?” Qiong Ying asked warily.
“Nonsense. The faster you accomplish this, the sooner you can join me,” he said. “And this is no light task, it’s a matter of life and death for all of us,” he emphasised.
They were understandably upset, but considering the responsibilities he had entrusted them, they did not kick up a bigger fuss. They slipped away before Yin Yanzhao had arrived. The general was probably aware of Sunli’s role in the siege of Beihai, but made no mention of her. Perhaps he saw no need in dispersing the thinly veiled cover story. Perhaps the general thought Huang Ming strange for accepting the decree so meekly.
Whatever the case, Sunli and Qiong Ying left unnoticed with the various things, escorted by trusted personnel.
His affairs temporarily settled, Huang Ming then took the long journey south, eventually taking a ship to cross the Great Southern River.
The vessel rocked once more, shaking the cobwebs from Huang Ming’s mind. It would be cause for alarm if not for the jubilant cries of the sailors of the ship.
Huang Ming stepped out to the deck, and saw that the ship was approaching the lands of Chu.
‘If I cannot get a foothold in Wu, then I’ll get one here,’ he thought.
On his own pace,
To find a new base.