Shall we play a game?

--Joshua, ‘WarGames’

 

Chapter 251 – Shots fired

 

Huang Ming led General Yin Yanzhao to the garden pavilion. Tea was served and the general drank without fear.

 

“You are quite cavalier,” Huang Ming remarked.

 

“I believe you would be too much of a gentlemen to poison me in your own home,” the general said blandly.

 

“Is that not why you have arranged for so many people to visit me today? By now, the entire city would be talking about the parade of officials in and out my residence, with you being the last visitor,” Huang Ming said.

 

The general waved a hand in a vague apology. “I hope that you do not feel insulted.”

 

“Of course not,” Huang Ming shrugged. “You were completely right to be cautious.”

 

The two men smiled, knowing that the other were being insincere.

 

“So what have you been up to, general?” Huang Ming asked after the moment had passed.

 

“The usual bothersome responsibilities of the military, nothing that would be of interest to you, I am sure,” the general answered breezily, knowing full well that Huang Ming would be completely interested. Besides, Huang Ming probably already knows.

 

The easy-going grin never disappeared from Huang Ming’s face, confirming the general’s suspicion.

 

“And you? You have been doing some big business at home, haven’t you?” the general chuckled.

 

“I have been cooking,” Huang Ming answered with complete seriousness that caused the general to blink.

 

“Cooking?”

 

“Yes, I would offer you some fruits of my labour but I keep getting interruptions,” Huang Ming sighed.

 

The general was not sure if he was joking or not. His spies had told him that the residence had been receiving and sending couriers nearly every day, but the sheer number of different sources meant it was difficult to determine who was carrying what to where.

 

“It sounds like you are having fun,” the general said.

 

“I am a man of leisure at heart. I am sure you know every bit of my history by now,” Huang Ming smirked.

 

“I have heard that your past is very colourful,” the general replied diplomatically. He had sent men into Tianxin City to investigate Huang Ming’s background and by all accounts, the young man before him was a wastrel for nearly his entire adult life; only to turn his life completely around and rose to prominence with tremendous speed.

 

“Mistakes of my youth,” Huang Ming admitted wistfully. “I befriended the wrong person and he turned my life into a mess. Fortunately, a stroke of luck straightened me out.”

 

The general arched an eyebrow. “Luck?”

 

“Don’t be skeptical, o’ general. Surely you of all people know what it is like to encounter someone or something that would completely change your life,” Huang Ming said.

 

Finally the casual ease on the general’s face disappeared, and Huang Ming knew he had touched the general’s reverse scale. It was like stepping the tail of a tiger, and the tiger was now bristling with killing intent.

 

“Yes… I do,” Yin Yanzhao said slowly as his eyes bore into Huang Ming.

 

Even so, Huang Ming remained unflappable, as if he did not notice the hostile intent rising from the general.

 

“What brings you here today, general?” Huang Ming asked as he refilled their cups.

 

The general took a deep breath and an air of calm returned. He presented a small wooden, hinged box like the kind used to store a board game.

 

“I thought we could play a game,” he said. “We have so much misunderstanding between us, maybe we can know each other better by battling our wits.”

 

Huang Ming groaned internally. ‘Is this the scene where the game is a metaphor of us fighting for our ideology, philosophy, our ambitions and hopes and dreams? Because if it is, I wish this stone table was made of wood instead, so that I could flip it over afterwards…’

 

He plastered a fake smile on his face, suddenly tired of the farce.

 

“I thought you are here to debate about our princess’s marriage,” Huang Ming said. “What game is this?”

 

“It is something I picked up in the north,” Yin Yanzhao said. One might think that he meant Beihai, because the general was now living in the capital. But, how would one know how far north he really meant?

 

“Is this your favourite game?”

 

“It is actually not, but I think you would appreciate it,” the general replied and proceeded to open the box.

 

Huang Ming was about to refuse as he was no expert on Chinese chess. Despite his numerous experiences, he did not find the need nor the opportunity to play the game. Neither had the original host of his body.

 

But then he saw the pattern on the playing board, and that the pieces had familiar ranks inscribed on them. It was like a bang had went off in Huang Ming’s head.

 

It was not Chinese chess with plain squares and a river dividing the two sides… it was the black and white chequered pattern of western chess. The game’s wooden pieces were familiar disk shaped pieces, but they had names like Bishop and Queen…

 

Suddenly Huang Ming felt his throat go dry.

 

“From the north, you say?” he managed to ask as the general arranged the pieces correctly.

 

“Earlier, you said something about a life-changing encounter? Mine taught me this,” the general said. He raised his eyes to look at Huang Ming, but found the younger man frowning and studying the game board.

 

“Let me explain to you the rules,” the general said.

 

Huang Ming nodded every now and then as he listened. When the general had finished, Huang Ming exhaled, for even the rules were the same.

 

General Yin did not know it, but he had all but confirmed Huang Ming’s suspicions.

 

“I understand, let’s begin,” Huang Ming said.

 

It was the general’s turn to furrow his brows. The rules were indeed simple, but even he took several days to digest the them. He narrowed his eyes.

 

‘Still trying to pretend? I will tear down that façade soon enough.’

 

“You can make the first move,” he offered coolly.

 

“Thank you. You are indeed a true gentleman,” Huang Ming said with a straight face.

 

The game proceeded, and soon the general realized that Huang Ming was not bluffing. He was indeed playing the game properly, as if he had known of the game long ago; to the extent of even avoiding his traps.

 

‘But that’s impossible. She said she had not taught anyone else except me and the Prince of Jin. Is he really a genius?’

 

Whatever thought of assembling a psychological profile of Huang Ming from the game soon disappeared from his thoughts. He had wanted to see how Huang Ming would adapt to an unexpected situation, but now the general was not even sure of a victory.

 

The general’s face became a mask he redoubled his efforts. To crush Huang Ming in a game of his own choosing was turning out to be more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

 

“Are you sure of that move?” Huang Ming suddenly asked, causing the general’s hand to pause.

 

“Oh?” the general managed to keep his voice level.

 

“You will lose in three more moves,” Huang Ming told him.

 

The general looked at the board, and realized that it was true.

 

He looked back up at Huang Ming with genuine astonishment.

 

“You learn very fast,” he praised sincerely.

 

“It is all about planning ahead,” Huang Ming said lightly. “Sometimes you have to take calculated risks, even if it does not seem like a palatable choice.”

 

“Are you talking about the game, or about this proposed union with Chu?”

 

Huang Ming was relieved. ‘Finally!’

 

“Both,” he said. “But I have to correct you there.”

 

“What?”

 

“This is not a ‘proposed’ union. It is a matter of fact,” Huang Ming said confidently.

 

The general stared back at him. “That seems to be premature.”

 

“The princess has decided and the king agreed, what is the point of further objections?” Huang Ming shrugged.

 

“There are plenty of opposing voices to this union. It would be wise to hear them before proceeding-”

 

“Too late,” Huang Ming interrupted.

 

“No, it is not,” the general said coldly.

 

“Of course it is. The invitations for the grand wedding has already been sent out to the various kingdoms.”

 

The general was thunderstruck. “What?”

 

“In fact, I already have a reply from one of them,” Huang Ming said as he retrieved a letter from his sleeves and waved it flippantly.

 

General Yin Yanzhao the North Star felt his stomach churning.

 

“From who?” he demanded even as he dreaded the answer.

 

Huang Ming grinned.

 

“From the north.”

 

A single letter,

Proof of his great caper.