After the mucus and sore throat... a persistent cough.

“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”
--Henry Ford

Chapter 231 – Funneled

The rest of the journey back to the Chu capital was uneventful. Avoiding the main thoroughfares and travelling in small groups, they easily passed the city gates. Huang Ming and the princes were astonished at the ease of entry; they had expected security to be tighter due to the coup.

Yet, the city population was at ease and the checks were routine. There was no air of uncertainty, it was as if everything was perfectly normal. They were even able to secure rooms in an inn as a temporary gathering place.

“The Duke must have planned this for a very long time for everything to go so smoothly,” Chu Feng noted.

“That meathead? I doubt it. More likely it is his capable adjutant that is pouring ‘helpful advice’ into his ears,” Chu Xiong said.

Huang Ming was suspicious too, but there was not much evidence to support his theories and so he held his tongue as the two brothers exchanged thoughts.

“From what news I can gather, Duke He is in command of the Imperial Guard. He has not actually taken the throne nor proclaim himself as regent yet,” Sunli said. “It seems that everything is as it should be.”

“It is as if there is no power grab at all,” Huang Ming remarked.

“Duke He is cautious, which is completely out of character,” Chu Xiong shrugged. “Another sign that someone is pulling his strings.”

“Yes, someone,” Huang Ming smiled faintly. “I suppose it will all be revealed soon enough. What do you plan to do?”

“Well, I plan to sneak into the palace and get our royal father out,” Chu Xiong emphasized, clearly wanting Huang Ming to offer an alternative plan.

“And how are you going to enter the palace?” Huang Ming asked instead.

“There are a few secret areas that are only known to us royal members. Not even the palace eunuchs know of them,” Chu Feng replied.

“If that is the case, why haven’t your royal parents use those secret areas to escape?” Huang Ming asked conversationally.

“Maybe they could not find the opportunity. Maybe they are being watched,” Chu Feng answered testily.

“If they are being watched, how do you plan to get them out?” Huang Ming continued to smile, as if deriving some sort of pleasure in foiling their hopes and dreams.

“We can cause a diversion to draw the guards away,” Chu Feng insisted. “Fortunately, we have Bian Qing’s martial sisters with us. They can cause multiple disturbances in the city while we sneak in.”

“Aye, that we can do,” Bian Qing agreed heartily, relishing the opportunity to cause trouble.

Huang Ming smirked knowingly at Chu Feng, and the prince reddened. His countenance towards women in general had changed tremendously in such a short period of time, and the cause of it was obvious.

Chu Xiong coughed discreetly to help his flustered brother.

“After we have rescued our royal father, what then?” he asked.

“What do you think?” Huang Ming returned.

Chu Xiong frowned, displeased that Huang Ming was clearly intending to be hands off.

“Are you not going to share your nuggets of wisdom?” he said sarcastically. “We are here right now because of you.”

“Because of me?” Huang Ming echoed. “I only gave the options, you were the ones that decided.”

Chu Xiong stared at him. “Are you going to make me beg?” he demanded.

“Don’t be silly. I just want to know what your future plans are.”

“Why don’t you save us the time and just give us the options? You obviously have something in mind,” Chu Feng snorted.

Huang Ming laughed. Qiong Ying helpfully passed him a fan which he unfolded with a quick motion.

“Once you rescue the king, you can immediately wheel him out for the world to see. There is a chance that the Imperial Guard will rally to join you when they see the king with you,” Huang Ming said leisurely.

The two princes reacted badly to the proposal.

“Are you insane?” Chu Feng barked.

“Ah, but you are a military officer of some repute. Surely you can sway them to your side.”

“I have no ties to the Imperial Guard!” Chu Feng growled.

“Oh, so you mean you are not confident enough to cow them with your might and majesty?” Huang Ming arched an eyebrow.

“Yes!” Chu Feng admitted unwillingly.

“Not quite the war hero you think you are, eh?”

His brother Chu Xiong hastened to interrupt. “Besides, our uncle would have placed his men in key positions within the guard. It is more likely that we would not be given the chance to sway the men.”

“Now you’re thinking,” Huang Ming nodded.

“What is the alternative?” Chu Xiong asked.

“You get in, grab your father and slip back out of the city. Rally your loyal subjects and prepare for a war against your uncle.”

“That… seems exactly what anyone in their right mind should do,” Chu Xiong conceded.

“Is it?” Huang Ming challenged.

Chu Xiong frowned. “Of course. The Imperial Guard’s loyalty is uncertain and our father is ill. We can hardly gamble everything on the good will of the guards.”

Huang Ming smiled approvingly. “That is right. You should not risk everything when it comes to the people that you cherish.”

Chu Feng scowled. “That sounds so sappy,” he grunted.

“You should know, seeing how you are now an expert on matters of love,” Huang Ming remarked airily.

Chu Feng was so flustered that he instinctively turned to look at Bian Qing. Their eyes met and even though they quickly broke contact, their red faces betrayed their worst kept secret.

“You two should spend what time is left together, who knows if you will ever get the chance later,” Huang Ming suggested.

Chu Feng opened his mouth to refute him… yet he realized that the warning was very real. He clamped his mouth shut resolutely and in plain view of everyone, grabbed Bian Qing’s hand and dragged the stunned woman out of the room.

Sunli and Qiong Ying shared knowing smiles.

“This is no time to be teasing my brother,” Chu Xiong said.

“Sorry, could not resist,” Huang Ming shrugged apologetically. “There really isn’t any other choice, the risks are too great.”

‘There is one more possibility but…’ Huang Ming thought privately.

“Then why did you even suggest something untenable?” Chu Xiong demanded.

“Because you needed to come to the conclusion yourself.”

Huang Ming snapped his fan shut.

“When this is over, I will be returning back to Wu. I cannot be giving you solutions all the time, you will need to start thinking for yourselves,” Huang Ming said solemnly.

“I thought your goal is to secure an alliance. An alliance, which is not a certainty yet,” Chu Xiong reminded him.

“If one or all of you, your brother or your father survive this ordeal, the very fact that I was with you would be enough to secure some modicum of good will. At the very least, you would be busy in ensuring there would be no others that would emulate Duke He.”

“And what if this venture fails?”

Huang Ming spread his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture.

“Then your country will be in so much turmoil that it would not pose a threat to my country.”

“How very convenient for you,” Chu Xiong said coldly.

“The people of Wu are in peril too,” Huang Ming said, not shying away from the young prince’s stare.

“If you are to be king, you will need to learn and consider such weighty matters too.”

Before they went down,
He was taught the weight of the crown.​