Why don't you come with us? Try terrorism-for-hire. We'll blow some shit up! It's more fun!

--Castor Troy, ‘Face/Off’

 

Chapter 282 - Punctured

 

The two women watched silently as Huang Ming retreated. Only when the door was closed behind him that they locked eyes again.

 

To tell the truth, the time she had spent since knowing Huang Ming had made Qiong Ying put thoughts of her sister far behind. For many years, she had fled hither tither, planting seeds and growing her own network of information to keep herself safe.

 

By the time she met Huang Ming, Qiong Ying had already reaped the rewards of her efforts. She was established as a personage and clad herself with the rich and powerful as her patrons and protectors, a web of connections and resources…

 

There were days when she thought it was all futile. After all, Qiong Hua was now Jin Hua, the Princess of Jin. She could but whisper in the ears of her husband, and unleash entire armies. Certainly Jin Hua had hired trackers to hound her before she found sanctuary in Wu.

 

Would there ever be a day where she would confront Jin Hua again?

 

She had finally dug herself out of desperation, only to feel despair because she couldn’t see the end of the climb.

 

It was in one such melancholy mood that she came across Huang Ming. How did this famous wastrel suddenly reform himself and achieved so much, so quickly?

 

Qiong Ying felt motivated and intrigued by him. She allowed herself to be charmed by him, to feel free for a while. When she revealed her identity to him that night, she felt liberated. And then relief, because there was someone who supported her. She saw Huang Ming rose higher and higher in ranks.

 

Suddenly, standing before Jin Hua did not seem impossible…

 

And so she had dreamed and planned for the day she would stand before her. Of course, there have been a few scenarios where she would just stab Jin Hua and be done with it.

 

Little did she know that Huang Ming had the very same idea at times.

 

But standing before Jin Hua now, such thoughts for a quick resolution were dispelled. Qiong Ying had so many questions, and time and time again she wondered what she would lead with.

 

“You probably dreamed of this moment for a long time, sister,” Jin Hua drawled preemptively.

 

Qiong Ying’s eyes narrowed, but Jin Hua looked back her without concern.

 

“Why did you do it?”

 

“You have to be more specific, dear sister,” Jin Hua drawled.

 

Qiong Ying exhaled heavily. “Why did you have to destroy the entire family?”

 

Jin Hua blinked, as if not expecting the question. “That’s the first question you have?” she demanded waspishly with angry disappointment.

 

The tone did not sit well with Qiong Ying. How dare she. How dare she be indignant?

 

There was a long, drawn-out sigh from Jin Hua.

 

“Angry?” she asked lightly.

 

“You killed them all!” Qiong Ying accused.

 

“They had it coming!” Jin Hua exploded.

 

The two sisters glared hatefully at each other.

 

Jin Hua pointed a finger at her. “You. You were not there. You were not there when this body was poisoned. Starved. Beaten. Whipped. Left to die! You… you went away. On a vacation! You left this body at the mercy of a vicious sister, an evil stepmother and a clueless father! You could have taken me with you!”

 

Her nostrils flared angrily as she regained her breath. Her eyes had a faraway look.

 

“I was your younger sister. I was young and addled. Our mothers were both concubines. When we needed you the most, when we could have stood together… you left me alone. Who killed who?” Jin Hua spoke slowly, as if she was in a trance.

 

“I have every right to seek vengeance and wreak havoc on those who had wronged this body,” she said. Her eyes refocused back on Qiong Ying.

 

“Who are you to judge me?”

 

“And father?” Qiong Ying asked, even as she was wondering why her sister kept referring to ‘my body’. “Was it not enough you made him fall from grace? Why did you also drove him to take his life?”

 

“If he was unfit as a parent, what makes you think he can run a country?” Jin Hua demanded. “He was weak and feeble in the mind.”

 

“He was your father too,” Qiong Ying whispered.

 

“He was no father of mine. He never did anything to prove otherwise,” Jin Hua sneered.

 

Then Jin Hua sighed.

 

“I don’t know why you are so hung up about them. They do not matter in the grand scheme of things, lacking in every way and only fit to be mere footnotes in our biographies. That is their entire legacy.”

 

“Who are you?” Qiong Ying whispered, no longer able to recognize who this woman was. How did the naive Qiong Hua become a megalomaniac?

 

Jin Hua smiled cynically. “We are much a like, you and I.”

 

“We are nothing alike,” Qiong Hua shook her head.

 

“Come now,” Jin Hua giggled. “Are you still trying to hide the truth at this point?”

 

Qiong Ying frowned, having no idea what she was getting at.

 

“Let us dispense with the falsehoods. We both know why we’re here. Why else did you think I had people try to hunt you down?”

 

“You tell me,” Qiong Ying said, masking her honest curiosity with feigned disinterest.

 

Jin Hua snorted. “I had been given a second chance, and there was no way I would let the ridiculous baggage of this body to hinder me. I repaid her by settling all her grudges. Everything else belonged to me,” she said, much to Qiong Ying’s confusion.

 

“That is why I never wanted you dead. I wanted you to be brought back so that we could talk face to face.”

 

“To gloat?” Qiong Ying asked coldly.

 

“To discuss, of course. Are you not curious about the forces that placed us here?” Jin Hua replied as leaned forward in the chair, one leg crossed over the other and her hands steepled thoughtfully.

 

“I don’t know why you are here,” Qiong Ying said truthfully. There was no reason for the princess to come into the tiger’s den, so to speak.

 

“Your acting grows tiresome, ‘sister’. We are alone here, there is no need for you to keep up the façade,” Jin Hua said impatiently. “I admit, it took me a while to realize who you are.”

 

Qiong Ying kept quiet and her face impassive, not committing to any reaction. It had been a whirlwind of emotions since they had been alone. It begun with cold fury, but now it became dispassionate curiosity.

 

“For some time, I wondered why you left suddenly that summer. We were not close as sisters, but it was also true that you did not mistreat this body like Qiong Yue did,” Jin Hua reminisced.

 

Qiong Ying allowed Jin Hua to talk uninterrupted. She realized her sister was finding the situation to be an outlet to pour her heart out. Perhaps Jin Hua knew what she was doing, but felt safe and secured to so anyway.

 

“At first I thought you had left because you were afraid of what had happened to me would befall on you too. After all, elder sister Qiong Yue was jealous of lil’ ol’ me, surely you too had to suffer at her hands? Hmm?”

 

Qiong Ying said nothing but Jin Hua did not mind it. Her silence was enough confirmation for her.

 

“You know, I resented you for that,” Jin Hua said wistfully. “That you abandoned me to save yourself. But after the… clean-up,” here she chuckled softly before continuing, “I had the time and luxury to think. You up and left so suddenly to visit relatives that we have never met, just before the Prince of Jin came to visit. Of course, Qiong Yue was more than happy to be rid of you and persuaded father to let you go.”

 

She chuckled once more, this time with a tinge of bitterness. “You showed no initiative before. You were like a wallflower, content to spend your days in blissful ignorance.”

 

Jin Hua’s eyes grew hard and her tone shifted to a sneering one: “Unlike me, you had all your faculties but did nothing to stop Qiong Yue. Yet, at the first opportunity, you decided to leave. What changed?”

 

Jin Hua levelled her eyes on her. “You changed. When you evaded my efforts to capture you, when you thrived in this kingdom, I finally realized that you were like me. The things you accomplished here… It’s unbelievable. Just as unbelievable what I had done in Jin.”

 

“I’ve done nothing,” Qiong Ying refuted stiffly.

 

Jin Hua was amused. “Please, you used that Huang Ming as a figurehead. A simple-minded wastrel, given advice and guidance by you. You propped him up while you hid in the shadows. It was you all along, wasn’t it? You sought to throw dust in my eyes.”

 

She leaned back, as if enjoying the reveal. “You must have ‘arrived’ that summer. You didn’t expect me to arrive so soon after you… and in such close proximity, didn’t you? The irony! That the two of us would be in the same family!”

 

Jin Hua clapped once gleefully. “You see now that we are the same. We have been brought to this world for a second chance, surely we are destined for greater things. We have accomplished so much while apart, think of what we could do if we are working together! We could change this world and drag it kicking and screaming to the future, a future moulded by our hands!”

 

Qiong Ying’s curiosity now gave way to shocked dismay.

 

Her expression must have been too obvious, because the triumphant look on Jin Hua froze.

 

“Why do you look like that?” Jin Hua demanded, even as her own face faltered. This was not the outcome she had expected.

 

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Qiong Ying managed to say.

 

“Haha… you…” Jin Hua stuttered with a stricken look of disbelief and denial. She collapsed back in her chair like a deflated balloon. She took huge gulps of air to calm down, and the pale ashen expression was slowly replaced by one of red embarrassment.

 

“You were not acting at all, weren’t you?” Jin Hua half-asked, half-stated.

 

Once more, Qiong Ying’s silence was the answer.

 

“Huang Ming is not a figurehead, is he? He really did all those things himself?” Jin Hua asked grimly.

 

The minute passed agonizingly slowly.

 

“I made a mistake,” she said at last. She gave Qiong Ying a glare. “I have made a fool out of myself. Leave.”

 

Qiong Ying did not move.

 

“Leave!” Jin Hua snapped, “I have humiliated myself enough, allow me to have some reprieve!”

 

Qiong Ying clenched her folding fan. How did things turn out this way? She came to get answers, but she was leaving with even more questions.

 

For reasons unknown, her sister had walked into Wu and expected things to turn out differently. Had Jin Hua truly expected her to be someone else entirely?

 

No matter.

 

Jin Hua was a like a turtle in a jar, unable to escape. There will plenty of time to find out the truth.

 

There was a burst of commotion outside, and Qiong Ying realized that General Yin was reaching the residence.

 

This will be over soon.

 

 

She awaited,

Thought it was fated,

She was elated,

But in the end, deflated.