“We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”
--Winston Churchill on Erwin Rommel
Chapter 236 – Scouting
“What is going on?” Huang Ming demanded as he flung open the carriage curtains.
“Sir, there is someone blocking the way ahead. Lady Sunli has gone forward to check,” a mounted Wu escort reported.
“We should go and check. Give me your horse,” Huang Ming ordered.
“I am coming too,” Prince Chu Xiong declared.
“Whatever happens, remember who you are and why you are here. Sit up straight and lift your chin up as befitting a prince,” Huang Ming murmured discreetly.
“Don’t be insulting, I know what to do,” the prince bristled. The prince then took a deep breath and wiped the annoyance from his face, replacing it with royal indifference.
Another horse was called and the duo then rode forward of the procession, where they were greeted by the sight of tense Chu soldiers in a standoff against a force of riders ominously dressed and armoured in black.
The black warriors lined in a row to block the road. They were silent with their mouths drawn in grim lines, yet their body language deliberately incited their mounts so that the horses were digging the ground with their hooves and their nostrils flared with eagerness; a stark contrast to the stony faces and impassive faces of their riders.
But the Chu soldiers that had accompanied Prince Chu Xiong were elites as well and did not back down from the menacing aura emitted by the black riders despite their small number. Their gleaming and polished armour were in direct opposition the gloomy darkness of the Wu riders blocking their way, but their eyes shone with equal determination. Prince Chu Xiong could not help but feel a swell of pride when he saw how stalwart his men were.
Pity then the ordinary Wu escorts that were ordered to escort the Chu embassy. It was obvious that they were of a lower class compared to the elites that were glaring at each other. Only Zhao Sunli’s valiant presence prevented the Wu soldiers from faltering back behind the Chu warriors.
“Who is in charge here?” Sunli called out in challenge. Yet she knew full well of who she was facing, for she had seen these unfriendly black riders before.
When the black riders parted to make way for their leader to approach her, Sunli was not surprised to see him.
General Yin Yanzhao the North Star still looked as imposing and attractive as she remembered him. But knowing what she knew of him now, the steel behind the general’s gentle outlook only made her more wary.
“It has been some time, Miss Zhao Sunli,” the general greeted formally.
“General,” Sunli replied brusquely with a nod.
The general sighed softly in an elder-brotherly sort of way, as if helplessly bemused by her cold demeanour.
The way the general had benignly reacted to her curtness only irritated Sunli even more. She was reminded of how well he had treated her, now it all felt as substantial as smoke and mirrors. The words of wisdom he had given her seemed very different to his actions or the lack thereof that had endangered the city of Beihai.
In truth, Sunli still had doubts about the general. Did they not all work together to get rid of Tong Xuan and Gao Fang? What if Huang Ming and Qiong Ying were only over-reacting and reading too much into the general? What if it was all a coincidence and a big misunderstanding?
Sunli did not realize it, nor would she admit it; but within her heart she was already biased in favour of Huang Ming. Despite his frivolous nature, he had yet to lie to her and his words were almost prophetic at times.
“What is the general’s meaning?” she demanded.
The general shook his head. “We received a hasty messenger regarding the Prince of Chu, and so I was dispatched to greet him and escort him to the capital.”
His kindly look disappeared as he continued: “Surely you understand. We have fought them in the past, and yet suddenly there was a report of a grand Chu procession being allowed to land on our shores and march inland unimpeded. Our kingdom could be in danger.”
“There is no danger,” Sunli replied.
General Yin shrugged. “One would not know if this was truly a diplomatic mission…”
The general turned slightly to glance at Huang Ming who had ridden up to join them and caught the tail end of the conversation.
“Or?” Huang Ming prodded with a smile of his own.
“Or if they were aided by traitors to sabotage our kingdom,” the general continued blandly.
Huang Ming laughed. “General, this Chu embassy do not number over a thousand people, many of whom are servants, acrobats and entertainers! This is a grand occasion to seal an alliance between Chu and Wu, it is only proper that all pomp and circumstance be accorded thereto.”
The general gestured towards the formidable Chu troops in the procession.
“Such elite soldiers are sure to provoke wariness and rumours,” he said.
“True. You must be familiar with such troublesome matters yourself,” Huang Ming sighed, looking pointedly at the black riders waiting ominously behind the general.
The general smiled. “Point taken.”
Huang Ming nodded amicably. “Right. There is no danger.”
Then Huang Ming lowered his voice. “Besides, did we not sweep our kingdom of traitors when we destroyed Tong and Gao?”
“The flames of greed and ambition can be ignited anywhere, even in a monastery,” Yin Yanzhao said as he looked at Huang Ming. ‘I know what you have been up to.’
The younger man held his gaze. “Indeed, one can never be too sure of the true nature of men,” Huang Ming replied. ‘I know what you really are.’
The two men gave each other friendly smiles while hiding contrary thoughts in their minds.
“What is the holdup?” a voice drawled.
Both turned to see Prince Chu Xiong slowly sauntering over on his horse. The prince was a handsome young man to begin with, but after Huang Ming’s guidance the laziness and weak body had gradually been replaced with one being filled with youth and vigour. Mindful of what Huang Ming had told him previously, he held his back straight and tilted his head slightly so that he appeared proud and dignified.
“Allow me to make the introductions. This is Prince Chu Xiong of Chu,” Huang Ming gestured with a bow.
According to protocol, the general should have dismounted to make his obeisance. But General Yin remained on horseback and saluted with one hand over one fist.
“General Yin Yanzhao,” he announced himself as he looked at the prince frankly.
The Chu soldiers bared their teeth at the bare minimum of respect shown by the general, their grips tightening around their spears. In response, the general’s black riders leaked their murderous aura.
“We have long heard of the North Star,” Prince Chu Xiong said. “We were wondering who the King of Wu would send to receive us. You are an acceptable choice. You may lead the way for us.”
Yin Yanzhao’s lips twitched, realizing that Huang Ming’s influence was far more insidious than his spies told him.
“The prince is mistaken,” General Yin said.
“Oh? Does the general think it is beneath his dignity to escort this prince?” Chu Xiong interrupted.
‘It is amusing how alike they are,’ Yin Yanzhao thought darkly.
The general bowed his head slightly. “Unfortunately, this general has other responsibilities. Now that we have verified your presence, we will make haste to inform the king and prepare the capital to welcome you appropriately.”
Prince Chu Xiong nodded. “We understand. You may go now. We look forward to your preparations.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. Without waiting for General Yin’s reply, he turned his horse around and rode back towards his royal carriage, with his Chu soldiers closing ranks behind him.
“The prince is still young and this is his first excursion, I pray that the general take no offense,” Huang Ming said apologetically.
“I have heard that you have been teaching the prince to change his ways while you were in Chu, it seems the rumours were true,” the general said. ‘So, you’re trying to hug onto a golden thigh for support.’
“Well, I can’t be the only one teaching royalty,” Huang Ming smirked. ‘I know about you mentoring Princess Wu Liying.’
“General,” Huang Ming said suddenly. “Do you remember what I wanted when we met in Beihai?”
Yin Yanzhao raised an eyebrow. “You said you wanted a long life.”
“As did you,” Huang Ming confirmed. He looked at the general directly in the eye.
“Let me repeat myself: I still want a long life. There is no danger here.”
‘Do you think I have forgotten?’
For a moment the general was puzzled. Then he remembered how he had falsely assured Huang Ming that Beihai would still be safe after stripping away most of its garrison.
General Yin Yanzhao chuckled. ‘I guess I deserved that.’
“We will meet again in the capital,” he said without malice.
“See you when I see you,” Huang Ming returned affably.
The general signalled to his black riders, and they rode away just as quickly as they had arrived.
Sunli and Huang Ming watched the black riders disappear into the horizon.
“I have misjudged him,” she said.
“Forget about him,” Huang Ming said brightly. “Do you think your husband was cool just now? We were practically doing one of those tense, dramatic scenes where we were hiding daggers behind our smiles; just like in those novels that you are so fond of reading.”
Sunli flushed. “Quiet, you!” she scowled. She turned her horse away and hollered at the escort guards to move out and did everything to avoid looking at Huang Ming.
Despite what had happened, Huang Ming chuckled; because she didn’t refute his words.
Then he raised his head to look at the horizon.
‘I’m gettin’ too old for this shit,’ he grumbled.
An encounter on the way,
Promises made, debt to repay.