“To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple. There's no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you're gonna find out you're right.”
--Verbal Kint, ‘The Usual Suspects’
Chapter 243 – Tell
“Tell us everything.”
It was a simple command, but the melodious female voice carried an authoritative tone that brooked no disobedience.
Despite having imagining the scenario over and over in his mind, Nangong Xie could not help but gulp nervously. Sitting on the throne before him was the Princess of Jin herself. He only managed to catch a glimpse of her splendour before he laboriously knelt and kept his eyes down.
The princess did not give him the privilege of dispensing with the show of obeisance, even though Nangong Xie had difficulty in moving with a crippled leg as he was escorted into the audience chamber. It was honestly arduous, though the handsome scholar did not make any attempt to hide his discomfort.
Unfortunately the princess was unmoved, and so he was forced to kneel like an ordinary minion instead of a state guest.
‘How did I end up here…’
But he knew.
Nangong Xie did not blame the princess. He was merely someone who sought asylum in Jin after the calamitous events in Wu. The fall of Prime Minister Tong Xuan meant he could no longer prosper in his very own homeland.
In the end, he was again upstaged by Huang Ming. Ever since that fateful night where he forced Huang Ming to get drunk in an indirect scheme to lay his hands on Liu Yuchun, everything had turned out badly; culminating in the night where he was turned into a cripple.
The mysterious stranger who had rescued him that fateful night said that Nangong Xie was still ‘useful’… and promptly sent him north to Jin. Stuck in a cold country and surrounded by the hostile and suspicious, the Handsome Scholar wallowed in his own misery, earning him a mocking nickname from the Jins.
The ache in his crippled leg kept bringing back the infuriating, lackadaisical face of Huang Ming to his mind. Nangong Xie had thought himself clever, only to be played out like a fool.
Eventually he pulled himself out of his stupor and willed himself to get some measure of revenge. But to do so, he would need powerful help… and the first step involves getting himself noticed. By now, thoughts of patriotism and loyalty for his home kingdom of Wu were long gone, replaced by resentment and anger. Was it not Huang Ming’s fault that he ended up here in the cold north, eating the most basic of fare and living in spartan conditions?
And so he picked up the brush.
First he drew a map of Wu and submitted it enthusiastically to his minders. He thought it was a great feat seeing how he had made it entirely from his scholastic memory. His minders were less impressed: there were many periods of peace and merchants from and to Jin were not unheard of. Still, they appreciate his updates on their existing maps.
Then he wrote about specific places and people. He knew that he could not possibly cover the entire history of Wu, but instead focused his attention to the important events and personages that affected the long history between Jin and Wu. He thought that the Jins would appreciate his point of view regarding the people who had inflicted key defeats on Jin.
Once more he was disappointed by the lukewarm reception because the nomadic Jins paid little importance to foreign history… let alone about the people who had defeated them in the past.
Only when he began submitting biographies of recent prominent leaders and officials that his Jin minders began to show active interest. The sickly current King of Wu, the ambitious Princess Wu Liying, General Yin Yanzhao, the background of Minister Jun who was Tong Xuan’s opponent, the newly appointed Royal Inspector Tian Zhu….
Each biography earned him better quality lodgings, and soon he found himself living in relative comfort. He was even given an assistant to dictate his words and a maid to handle the menial tasks.
Of course, Nangong Xie tried his best to put off writing about Great General Huang Zheng as long as possible, because he would then need to write about his son.
Huang Ming… Huang Ming…
But soon the well ran dry and he was forced to tentatively pen a vague document of the great general’s war record.
But then came the most unwelcome of news: the Jins had suffered a reverse in Beihai.
The Prince of Jin, in his haste to surprise his princess; had unwisely attempted a winter assault on the city. Despite the wonder weapons and ridiculous odds in Jin’s favour, the attack failed. The outnumbered defenders of Beihai had sallied forth and destroyed the precious, experimental weapons that the Princess of Jin herself had meticulously developed and dealt a humiliating defeat that affected the Prince of Jin himself. Even the relationship between the royal couple became strained, such was the scale of the defeat.
Overnight, the mood of the Jins fell, and once more Nangong Xie found himself being stared at menacingly, with low whispers pricking his ears. Did he not come from Wu who had defeated them? He spent so much time writing, did he somehow sent back letters to Wu and warned them about the attack?
What made it all the more galling that the one who had commanded the defence of Beihai was none other than Huang Ming!
Huang Ming Huang Ming Huang Ming!
When he heard the name, he had reacted so violently that his assistant and maid were frightened. In their eyes, Nangong Xie was a sullen, quiet man who spent his time writing and leeching resources from their kingdom. Suddenly the one they called The Bitter Man erupted like a volcano, sweeping aside the writing implements off the table with fury. Such was the alarm that guards were called in to calm him down.
The display of apoplectic rage managed to convince the Jins that the scholar was no spy for Wu, that he really had cut his ties with his country of origin. Once he had calmed down, he apologized to his Jin minders and picked up the brush once more, much to their astonishment.
Now provoked beyond measure, Nangong Xie then spent restless days personally writing down everything he knew about his former friend Huang Ming. The assistant assigned to him was reduced to an ink-grinder as The Bitter Man poured his heart out with the written word.
Not a detail was spared: every sordid adventure, every drunken escape and every foul deed was documented; even if it meant revealing that he himself was the instigator.
The Jin supervisor raised an eyebrow when he saw the amount of material he had submitted. He remained skeptical until he realized that Nangong Xie was writing about the man who had given their kingdom a deadly blow, and he nearly tripped himself as he rushed to report directly to the palace.
Nangong Xie himself found himself relieved: writing about his enemy was cathartic and lifted a stone from his heart. He was in a dazed stupor, not caring about the passing of days.
“The Princess of Jin summons you.”
Nangong Xie had stared stupidly at the Jin supervisor, his mouth agape like some country yokel. He was whisked away to be cleansed and dressed up and before being unceremoniously ushered to meet the princess, having given scant moments to gather his thoughts.
Finally, it was the moment he had dreamt about all that time ago. A chance to latch on to a person of authority. He would be well on his way to a life of luxury once more… and a clear path to engineer revenge on Huang Ming.
All he needed was to prove his worth.
He was prepared to do anything.
“Tell us everything,” the princess repeated slowly.
Nangong Xie swallowed and found his mouth to be dry.
“What do you wish to know, Your Highness?”
He was still mustering his courage to look up when a pile of paper slid across the floor.
It was as if a roaring wave had crashed inside Nangong Xie’s head when he saw the first page, and the name Huang Ming immediately leapt out at him.
It was the very same biography that he had submitted.
Did the princess really call him in just to ask about Huang Ming?
“Is everything inside true?” she asked.
Her voice cut through the noise in his brain. He exhaled heavily as if to physically expel the uncertainty and anger away; willing himself to calm down and to remind himself that this was his moment, this was his chance.
“Yes, your highness,” he answered.
“You mean to tell me that this Huang Ming changed in a single night? That he went from being a complete wastrel to suddenly become clever and calculating?”
Nangong Xie took another deep breath.
“It may sound far-fetched, but that is correct,” he reiterated. “It was if the Huang Ming I knew was a fake persona, a completely different and fictional person.”
There was a long pause, and unease began to crept back in.
“No,” the princess said at last.
“It is not far-fetched at all.”
It was destiny,
To find her enemy.