“Congratulations, you played yourself.”
Chapter 257 – Second front
Ran Bing felt the scar on her nose twitch as she looked at the handsome young man before her closely. The Amazonian sister of the dreaded Ran Wei felt a sense of unease even though the man had walked with a bad leg and seemingly lacked the strength to even truss up a chicken.
A powerful, strapping woman like herself would have not paid any attention to such a scrawny figure, but things are changing. According to her brother, they needed to pay attention to these bookish, scholarly types; precisely the sort that had used all sort of tricks to defeat them in the past. Otherwise, she would have cut this thin and crippled young man down when he had dared to stop her horse in the city. She recognized the veteran merchant who had frantically pleaded on his behalf and stayed her hand. Yet even as the merchant bowed repeatedly to give his thanks, the young man he had saved remained upright and stared back at her fearlessly.
“Is this how Wei treat people bearing gifts?” the scholar had asked.
Once more Ran Bing felt the urge to decapitate him, but again she remembered her brother’s words. Thus she brought him back to await her brother’s return.
The scholar seemingly knew that he was untouchable and was very relaxed despite the stern eyes of the guards watching his every move. When Ran Wei himself finally returned, even his imposing presence and dreadful aura had no effect on the young man.
“You said you bear gifts?” Ran Wei asked bluntly once his sister had reported the matter.
The scholar was amused by his directness. They did not even ask for his name, because at that moment he was nothing to them. Shaking his head, he retrieved a scroll from his sleeve and casually tossed it over to Ran Wei’s desk. The sudden movement alarmed Ran Bing and her hand snatched towards her sabre, ready to lop off the scholar’s head.
Ran Wei opened the scroll and his thick eyebrows rose as he read the contents.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The scholar burst into laughter. Finally, they had acknowledged him as someone worthy to know of.
“My name is Nangong Xie and I come on behalf of Jin,” he introduced himself.
“You do not sound or look like someone from Jin,” Ran Wei said bluntly.
“I am a native of Wu,” Nangong Xie said depreciatingly. Immediately the atmosphere in the room turned colder. The bitter memories of the Wu invasion were still fresh. Ran Wei had brilliantly and ruthlessly crushed Wu but the setback at Tigertrap Fort lingered as a stain even though he was not present at that final battle.
“Yet you serve Jin. Curious,” Ran Wei said as he drummed his desk with his fingers.
“I have a feud with Huang Ming. When he ascended, naturally he would not allow me to live,” Nangong Xie said simply. It was the briefest of summaries: he could hardly tell them that he had actually served Gao Fang and Tong Xuan, the real architects of Wu’s invasion. And so instead he chose to carefully mention Huang Ming, knowing that would be Ran Wei’s sore point.
The drumming stopped and the atmosphere became tenser.
Despite the calm look on his face, Nangong Xie could feel sweat trickling down his spine.
“I see,” Ran Wei said simply, and Nangong Xie could feel his heart beating again.
‘All according to plan...’ he thought.
In reality, Nangong Xie would have never dreamed that he would be meeting someone as dangerous Ran Wei like this. He had been content living in Jin. All he had to do was to write everything he knew about Wu. His lodgings and meals had been improved and he even found opportunities to report directly to the Princess of Jin herself.
She would ask him to clarify some of his texts, or to interview him about certain persons of interest. The princess was most curious about Huang Ming, his family and his friends. Nangong Xie was not very happy about this, but at least such occasions allowed him to sneak a few peeks at her flawless beauty. He liked to think that he had become one of her trusted followers. He had heard how she had few friends of her own. Didn’t the rumours say that she had even lost her trusted agents in Beihai recently? How lonely she must be…
Then one day she bade the servants to withdraw and called for him to approach slightly closer.
Nangong Xie gulped, hoping against hope.
“You know full well about the dangers of this Huang Ming,” the princess said. “In your opinion, what are his weaknesses?”
Nangong Xie suppressed his disappointment and answered: “His family and friends.”
The princess nodded and favoured him with a smile. “Yes, we think so too. It is refreshing to find someone who shares the same thoughts as we do…”
Nangong Xie drew a deep breath and took in the subtle fragrance. The princess still had that bewitching smile on her face, and her eyes seemed to sparkle with diamond radiance.
“We have a mission for you. Perform well, and you will be rewarded…”
Nangong Xie did not really understand what had happened; only that he had agreed and days later he had joined a merchant caravan on its way to Wei. Looking back, Nangong Xie could only chuckle at the predicament he found himself in.
He who had seduced countless women had now found himself completely manipulated by the Princess of Jin. Not that he had minded it… she was a peerless woman. Such a shame that she was a married princess. Still…
‘Patience…’ he chided himself.
“Your princess is remarkably generous,” Ran Wei said, interrupting his reverie.
“Yes. Quite so,” Nangong Xie agreed even though he had no idea what he meant.
From the scroll, Ran Wei peeled off a letter and passed it to Ran Bing. “This is a delivery order given by our gracious new ally. Take our best men and retrieve the hidden goods from the caravan. Be discreet.”
She obediently took the document.
“What about him?” she asked, jutting a chin at Nangong Xie.
“He will be staying with us.”
Nangong Xie blinked. “My princess is expecting my return…” he began.
“No, you are not,” Ran Wei said dismissively.
Ran Wei was relishing the moment. The poor scholar had no idea what his precious princess had written.
“You will be with us until the day we march,” he told him.
“When you march… What?” Nangong Xie stammered weakly.
“Didn’t you know? Your princess had recommended you to lead the way to break the defences of Tigertrap Fort,” Ran Wei said.
He waved a hand and closed his ears to Nangong Xie’s protests as he was dragged away. Ran Wei turned his attention back to the scroll.
‘We bestow upon you some special weapons to smash the walls of Tigertrap Fort. The man delivering them is Nangong Xie and he should prove of some use to you, as he is a native of Wu and bears a grudge against our mutual enemy Huang Ming. On a so-and-so opportune time, strike from the west and we will act from the north. Once the dust has settled, we can divide everything under the heaven between us…’
Ran Wei smiled.
The Princess of Jin had offered an alliance in her own name. Not Prince Jin Bao, but on her own initiative.
Ran Wei wondered what the princess looked like.
Obviously she was a very scheming woman.
Good… he liked scheming women…
Sacrificing a pawn,
For someone with real brawn.