“Finger lickin’ good.”
--Kentucky Fried Chicken
Chapter 232 – Unexpected
Once night has fallen and the streets became quiet, the group slipped out of the inn. The two princes led them to a discreet part of the palace walls. Bian Qing’s warrior nuns were dispersed around the city, ready to cause diversions at an agreed hour to cover their escape.
“This is a dead end,” Bian Qing stated the obvious.
“Patience,” Chu Feng admonished smugly, revelling in the opportunity to show off.
“This isn’t one of those ‘push a brick and open a door’ type of entrances, is it?” Huang Ming asked even as Chu Feng was raising a palm to touch the wall.
Chu Feng froze, the wind having been taken out of his sails. His hand was still hovering a few inches from the wall as he stared at Huang Ming with a mixture of disbelief at having his thunder stolen.
His brother Chu Xiong sighed and reached past him to push the brick. There was the sound of stone moving on stone and a section of the wall shifted to reveal a gap.
“How did you know?” Bian Qing asked Huang Ming, her eyes wide with wonder.
“I’ve done my share of tomb raiding,” Huang Ming said nonchalantly.
“You have?” Qiong Ying asked.
“What are you even doing here?” Chu Feng scowled at the ‘widow’.
“We can talk when this over, let’s get a move on,” Huang Ming hushed.
Chu Feng stifled his annoyance and lead the way, go through the gardens and winding paths before reaching the inner palace.
“I expected more guards,” Sunli said.
“It is as if they do not care at all,” Huang Ming remarked airily.
“This makes no sense at all,” Chu Xiong said.
“Sure it does. I can think of a few reasons why.”
“Like what?” the prince demanded.
Huang Ming spread his palms apologetically. “It is possible that the king is already dead, and hence there is no need for security.”
The two princes were aghast.
“How dare you joke around like that!” Chu Feng hissed.
“Who said I was joking? It is only a possibility,” Huang Ming replied.
“That is in very poor taste,” Chu Xiong said coldly. His discontent had grown ever since Huang Ming’s cavalier and lackadaisical attitude in the endeavour became obvious. With his admission that Huang Ming was leaving soon, Chu Xiong felt that he was losing an advisor just when he needed one the most.
However, it had little effect on Huang Ming.
“Stop sulking, let’s go check whether your royal father is still alive,” he said.
“You-!” Chu Feng started, only for Bian Qing’s bear paw clamp around his mouth.
“Quiet!” she hushed. “This is not the time or place!”
The two princes glared furiously at Huang Ming, but knew that she was right and continued to lead the group deep into the inner palace.
Even here, there was a distinct lack of security, only the sparse patrols that was easily dealt with simple ambushes and knocking them out.
The two princes grew more despondent the closer they get to the inner sanctum. None of the familiar army of attendants were present, it was as if the eunuchs and maids of the palace had been completely dismissed.
Furthermore, there was a thick air of perfumes and incense hanging in the air, so much so that it caused their eyes to water and gag at the smell.
“What the hell is going on!” Chu Feng groused as he rubbed his irritated eyes.
“I have heard of this…” Chu Xiong said slowly as he looked at Huang Ming.
Huang Ming looked back at him impassively.
His silence only made Chu Xiong more agitated. He rushed forward, almost stumbling in his haste.
“What?” Chu Feng demanded.
“There have been historical instances when such thick scents are used to disguise certain smells… like those of bodies,” Huang Ming told him calmly.
Chu Feng blinked. Then a horrifying realization dawned on him and he too broke into a run.
“They are panicking. Bian Qing, keep a lookout. The last thing we need now is for guards to make a sudden check,” Huang Ming said.
The towering woman was worried for her prince, but she nodded grimly, and stayed behind to secure their exit.
But when Huang Ming, Sunli and Qiong Ying entered the inner courtyard, they saw the two princes standing in stunned silence, their jaws had dropped open at the sight before them.
The inner courtyard of the king’s personal residence should be a palace of solemn grace, the gardens painstakingly and meticulously cared for so as to surround the sovereign with beauty and peace. It was a private place for the him to indulge in moments of quiet contemplation, away from the burdens of kingship and the political machinations of the palace. Not even the queen or his concubines were allowed in this oasis of calmness without his express invitation.
Yet at the moment, there was no such idyllic atmosphere in the king’s private resting area.
For one thing, there was a roaring spitroast in the middle of the previously pristine garden. The immaculately trimmed environs was being overwhelmed by a whole hog being roasted, its glistening skin with dripping fat shining causing the fire to reflect and dance wildly on the exotic flowers and leaves.
And who was slowly turning the roast? The very King of Chu himself was on one end, while Duke He was on the other. They were taking turns to spin the hog, switching responsibilities to swig from the bottles of wine in their free hand, swapping crude comments and laughing amicably like common soldiers.
Judging from their red faces, the king and the duke had been drinking for some time.
“What the hell…” the two princes muttered, unable to fully process what they were seeing.
“Look, your prodigal sons have finally come!” the Duke exclaimed.
The king turned and waved. “About time you two got here!” he roared heartily. “Come and turn this for us!”
The two princes exchanged dumbfounded looks before shuffling forward uncertainly, still unsure of the situation and still wary of their uncle the Duke.
“See? I was right,” Huang Ming said as they watched on from a distance.
“But you said the incense is to cover the smell of bodies,” Qiong Ying said with an accusing look.
“Technically that is a carcass, but close enough,” Huang Ming said with a shrug. Indeed, it was only when they had entered the courtyard that they could smell the delicious roasting meat.
“Do you know what is going on?” Sunli asked him directly.
“If I am not mistaken, this entire thing was a ruse by the king to decide on his heir,” Huang Ming said with a smile.
Qiong Ying’s eyes narrowed.
“So you knew?” she asked.
“Of course not, I’m no prophet. I was just making deductions and assumptions from observations.”
“Then why did you not share them with us?” Sunli asked with an arched eyebrow.
“I was just guessing. I could be wrong too.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” Qiong Ying declared. “It must be fun for you to watch us worry about the worst scenarios,”
Huang Ming coughed nodded towards the princes.
“We can talk about this later, let’s go see if I am actually right.”
Qiong Ying still gave him the evil eye as he lead the way. She nudged Sunli conspiratorially.
“Look at him, all smug and pleased with himself,” she complained behind his back.
Sunli nodded in agreement. “Getting too big for his boots,” the Amazon said.
Qiong Ying nodded and smiled at Huang Ming’s back.
“Needs to be taken down a peg or two, like what Bian Qing did to her prince..”
She looked at Sunli knowingly, and if Huang Ming had turned back to look, he would have seen the dusky warrior woman blushing.
Not what they thought,
Still, it was not for naught.