Truth to one, lies to another
“She lived boundlessly, as generous as she could be cruel, prepared to give her life at any moment for a worthy cause, but rarely sparing a thought for the many casualties that fell in her wake.”
--Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville
Chapter 212 - Truth to one, lies to another
“Yes, about dirty jobs. Sorry, I need you to put on drama together with Prince Chu Xiong,” Huang Ming said apologetically.
“Easy,” Qiong Ying replied, to which Huang Ming tightened his hug around her thin waist. “Are you worried?” she asked with an arched eyebrow, feeling his surge of concern.
“Nobody likes seeing his woman being used,” he said with a straight face.
She gently flicked his nose. “Says the one who came up with the idea.”
“Still, doesn’t mean I have to like it. So don’t go overboard, alright?” he replied with with all seriousness.
There were times when Qiong Ying could not tell whether Huang Ming was being solemn, sarcastic or frivolous, but at this moment she knew that his concern was genuine. She felt the heat from his embrace eliciting warmth within her, and she found herself snuggling closer to him.
“Did I make you fall for me all over again?” he teased.
“You just have to ruin the moment, don’t you?” she sighed.
“Do you want me to be as romantic as my brother? Because I can,” Huang Ming said semi-threateningly.
“Stop it,” Qiong Ying warned.
Huang Ming grinned. “Are you tired? Because you have been running through my mind all day,” he said sappily, knowing it was her weak point.
She shuddered and burrowed her nose into his chest to hide her reddening face.
“You should say such things to Sunli,” she said gruffly, her voice muffled by his clothes.
Huang Ming felt the wind out of his sails when his weak point was brought up.
“And how is she? I sent her letters but she never wrote back.”
Qiong Ying smirked. “Her letter is with me,” she said triumphantly.
“We have met up several times.”
“What?” Huang Ming repeated.
“It is not as if our lives revolve around you, you know,” she pouted.
“Really. Besides me, what other things you two have in common?” Huang Ming asked skeptically.
“Don’t change the subject,” she said. “She’s doing well, and her father is very favourable about the marriage still. Your weapon designs are making an impression on him, you should be proud.”
Huang Ming had the sneaky feeling that she wasn’t telling him everything.
“And what about you?”
“Where else would I find a husband that gives me so much freedom? And handsome, wealthy and famous to boot?” she replied. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“We’ll talk about this another time,” Huang Ming promised as he released his hug. “We have more important things to do.”
A few hours later, Qiong Ying, Huang Ming and Prince Chu Xiong acted out a drama for the entire caravan column to see. As planned, the prince woke up from his nap and then indignantly marched into Huang Ming’s tent to ‘rescue’ the glass-like woman.
“Sire, I have yet to finish my investigation,” Huang Ming protested.
“It looked more like an interrogation to us!” the prince shot back. “We do not see the point of you harassing this poor woman, so cease your persecution at once!”
The royal then ordered his maids to take in the mourning woman once more back to his side of the camp. With a swish of his sleeves, the prince turned away and left. Huang Ming completed the scene by narrowing his eyes at the prince’s back. The only thing missing was a dramatic, tense musical note in the background.
All these were reported to Prince Chu Feng who received the news with glee. He had used the excuse that he was going out to hunt the bandits that had harmed the woman’s family so as to be absent while the drama unfolded, thereby avoiding being implicated. For several days he trailed on the royal procession by keeping to the hilly, forested terrain, to keep up the alibi.
Still, there was a sour feeling within his heart as he recalled the woman’s wounded and delicate beauty. It was akin of knowing the dangers of too much delicious wine, yet still tempted by its aromatic fragrance. Or, like a child who was forced to give up something to a younger sibling.
Perhaps that was why he led his men to rejoin the royal procession sooner than he had planned. Within the deep recesses of his heart, there was unwillingness for his brother, or Huang Ming for that matter to devour the delectable bait.
He returned just as the procession was making camp, a day out from their destination. One could already see the towering pagodas of the Bright Filial Piety Temple in the distance. He and his men were suitably dusty and bloody: they ruthlessly dismembered some wild game so as to reinforce their alibi.
Nothing illustrated Prince Chu Feng’s indecisive nature than this particular incident. He was striding purposefully towards the royal quarters before he belated remembered his mother’s warnings. His steps began to slow, and he hesitated in seeking his brother as an excuse to glimpse at the beauty once more.
As he approached, he could hear the sounds of a feast, perhaps his brother was indulging himself before entering the temple proper. Chu Feng sneered at his brother’s lack of discipline.
Then, as if making up his mind at the last moment, he changed direction to head back to his personal tent.
His bodyguards who were following him in a military march nearly collided into each other at his sudden swerve. The prince obviously did not know or care about the near calamity that he had caused his men. The grizzled veterans could only roll their eyes at their prince.
Before Chu Feng could congratulate himself for having the presence of mind to remember his mother’s words, the melancholic sounds of a zither filled the air. The sounds of merriment from his brother’s tent died away.
Chu Feng was never one for the arts, having spent his years with military matters. But there was something about the music that caused him to come to a halt. It was not just him; even his veteran guards were affected. They stood still, their eyes raised as they drank in the sombre music.
The sorrowful tune was rudely interrupted, the playing suddenly stopped on a jarring note. Chu Feng could not help but turn back to look at his brother’s camp.
For a moment, there was silence.
Then the flaps of the tent burst open, and a tearful, beautiful figure ran out. Who else could it be, but the woman that had haunted his thoughts so recently?
Like a startled dear, the woman seized up when she saw him. She had escaped from Prince Chu Xiong’s tent, only to cross the paths of Prince Chu Feng right after.
“Are you well, lady?” Chu Feng asked hoarsely.
The woman could only nod her head miserably, but her shaking shoulders said otherwise.
‘Maybe it’s time we should have a chat and find out her plans to deal with my brother and Huang Ming,’ he thought to himself. His mother had told him to let the woman accomplish her mission herself; all he needed to do was to stay away and watch her drive a wedge between the two targets.
One look at her and all such thoughts were now the furthest reaches of his mind.
Bait and switch,
By a tempting witch.