Apologies for missing out last week. The rehab is more taxing than I thought, and there are times when I simply would just crash onto my bed afterwards and fall asleep, messing up my schedule.



I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!

--Howard Beale, ‘Network’ (1976)

 

Chapter 270 – From the other side

 

Let us turn back the time and focus to a certain region in Wei.

 

“Morning, Bitter Man,” Ran Bing greeted, using the moniker without malice.

 

Nangong Xie turned his head to look at the warlike woman.

 

“Lady Ran,” he returned politely, not wanting to antagonize her despite the unflattering nickname. He had to crane his neck upwards as she approached, her height and stature looming over him.

 

It was such occasions that Nangong Xie felt the true disadvantage of his maimed leg. It forced him to sit in a wheeled chair most of the time. Any average person would tower over him simply by being nearby, and Ran Bing was a very well built and powerful woman.

 

A lifetime ago, he would be simmering with discontent, resentful of those who had full mobility. He could feel the scalding looks of scorn from the Wei people as he pushed himself on the wheeled chair. It was the same sort of contempt the Jins had for him.

 

And just like with the Jins, he had to start all over and earn the respect of the Wei people. Even the wheeled chair was given to him because they could not stand the sight of him limping along. Things had changed however. Now they viewed him with fear and loathing, because he was someone who had General Ran Wei’s ear. Or so the rumours say.

 

Nangong Xie had once considered the possibility of future historians researching his life being stunned to learn that he, a native of Wu; had defected to Jin and but also secretly served Wei. Perhaps he would be criticized or condemned for generations to come.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Ran Bing interrupted, displeased that the strategist for their faction had drifted into his own world.

 

Xie smiled but did not answer her question. “Where is the great general?” he asked instead.

 

Ran Bing’s nostrils flared. “My brother,” she stressed, “is waiting for you.”

 

Without waiting for Xie’s reply, the powerful woman went to the back of his wheeled chair and pushed. The hapless man from Wu could only try to remain calm as she wheeled him to meet the formidable general Ran Wei.

 

“Advisor Xie,” the general greeted with a smile that reminded Nangong of a shark.

 

Nangong Xie himself smiled wryly in return, knowing that the title ‘advisor’ carried no actual weight and he was at the total mercy of Ran Wei’s whims and fancy.

 

The sense of being disposable was reinforced when Ran Bing wheeled him before the general’s desk and then leaving him there to join her brother on the other side.

 

It was a stark reminder that despite all he had done for the Ran siblings, he was still an outsider.

 

“Does the general want me for something?” he asked cynically.

 

Yes, Nangong Xie was the advisor of Ran Wei, a tactician when it comes to political matters. The West Wei, like the North Jin; were a martial people who valued strength highly and considered tricks, stratagems and ruses to be petty and insulting. It was the reason Ran Wei remained a general despite the merits he had achieved. Despite being the man responsible for driving off Gao Fang’s invasion in recent memory, the way he had lured the Wu marshal into defeat was accused as unsavoury.

 

Yet it was this scorn that spurred the general to fully embrace the dark arts, so to speak. It was why Ran Wei had readily accepted the underhanded and despicable methods proposed by Nangong Xie to subdue his rivals in Wei.

 

In quiet corners and with hushed whispers, there were talk that Bitter Man was responsible for the series of unfortunate events that befell on those who were against General Ran Wei. Certainly, nobody disputed such speculation, and Nangong Xie himself did not discourage it.

 

He knew better than to do so, for to remain weak and vulnerable was to invite disaster.

 

Besides, the general only used him to shield himself from such criticism. Who else but a foreigner could up with plans for blackmail, coercion, kidnapping, murder, subterfuge and so on that cowed and persuaded many to join Ran Wei’s faction?

 

But while Nangong Xie did offer advice when asked, the general was already implementing such devious tactics long before Nangong Xie arrived. The scholar from Wu merely provided a convenient figurehead to take all the negative connotations away from him.

 

Not that Nangong Xie mind. He was in Wei to fulfil a mission given by the princess, why would he care for the opinions of these horse-lovers?

 

And so Nangong Xie and Ran Wei worked with and used each other for their own mutual benefit.

 

“Things are progressing well,” the general said. “There are only a few stubborn holdouts at the royal court, and soon I will have the full control of the army in my hands.”

 

“Then we are on schedule to head east?” Nangong Xie asked sharply.

 

“You are in such a rush,” Ran Bing sneered.

 

“I have already told you my honest desire,” the scholar replied.

 

“But Huang Ming is not even at Tigertrap Fort. We know he is now based in the Wu capital.”

 

“It would be the perfect time to embarrass him,” Nangong Xie said. “A simultaneous attack from Wei and Jin, right when they are busy organizing the royal wedding. He cannot be everywhere at once.”

 

“That is, if we can get past Tigertrap Fort,” Ran Bing said, frustration in her voice.

 

“The Princess of Jin ‘gifts’ should see us through,” Nangong Xie said confidently.

 

General Ran Wei smiled coldly. “If they work as you described.”

 

“If they work at all,” Ran Bing snorted.

 

“They will,” Nangong Xie insisted. But it was surety without substance, for he had never witnessed the special weapons in action before.

 

But Princess Jin Hua would not lie to him.

 

Would she?

 

From the west the traitor plots,

From the north the princess taught.