“What’s in the box?!”
--Detective David Mills, ‘Se7en’
Chapter 295 – Offer
“You are not what I imagined,” Ran Wei rumbled as he eyed at the scholar opposite him.
“I am not as handsome as the stories say,” Huang Ming replied airily, “On the contrary, you are every bit as I have heard.”
Ran Wei snorted derisively.
“I suppose they describe me as some sort of monster who would drink the blood of my victims with their very own skulls?”
“No, no,” Huang Ming denied. “Skulls make terrible cups; the blood would just leak from the eye sockets.”
Ran Wei laughed at the unexpected reply. Others would blanch and recoil in horror at such description.
The two men were meeting at the foot of a forested hill, their escorts stationed a short distance away and eyeing at each other warily. As a precaution, each man was allowed a single guard at the meeting place. But Ran Wei himself was alone, eschewing the privilege. Perhaps he was acting the gracious host, or showing that he did not require one. This was his turf, after all.
Besides, Ran Wei’s imposing stature would make the idea of him needing any guards at all laughable. Even Huang Ke and Liu Xiang who were tall and powerful men themselves had been taken aback by Ran Wei’s size.
Min Guang was not present. Huang Ming did not ask for him immediately, as that would be a personal matter and right now, they should get the official business out of the way first.
Huang Ming naturally brought along Sunli, and Ran Wei’s thick eyebrows rose appreciatively when he noticed her.
“Please stop leering at my wife,” Huang Ming said mildly.
“Your wife?” Ran Wei was surprised, and he could not resist taking another glance at the Amazon. She was still standing at attention a few steps away with spear in hand, her posture straight and alert. If not for glowering eyes watching over them vigilantly, one would have thought she was a statue.
“Then she must be the redoubtable Zhao Sunli, the Fire Goddess,” Ran Wei said admiringly, “How did she end up with you?”
Then he frowned disbelievingly at Huang Ming. “Did you push her down?”
Huang Ming sat up a little straighter and grinned proudly.
Ran Wei was not about to give him the satisfaction, and followed up incredulously: “Did she push you down?”
Huang Ming was surely about to say something ridiculous, but he suddenly stopped. For some reason, he could feel the eyes of Sunli boring a hole into his back.
Thus, he instead said: “It is because I convinced her of my unending love, it is like the great river that flows on endlessly and unbroken...”
Ran Wei was genuinely puzzled. “What does love have to do with it?”
“Love is more than a second hand emotion,” Huang Ming quoted faintly. “One can be confused by it, dazed by it, makes one abandon her protection and go in a new direction.”
Ran Wei shook his head. A warlike military man his entire life and not formally married, the notion of ‘love’ was never a thing. Whenever the fires of desire rose, there were many who could quench it for him. When he was still the marshal, his residence had plenty of nameless concubines to fulfil his needs.
“But I am sure you have called me here to discuss more pressing matters,” Huang Ming reminded him. “Let us not beat around the bush. I know you are in dire straits. What are you offering?”
The Wei men that came with Ran Wei to the meeting were handpicked; but the battered armour, sunken eyes and unshaven faces were evidence of the hardships they had suffered. Yet, their eyes were still bright and fierce, their stance proud and their weapons still sharp.
“I want food. Supplies. Weapons. Horses,” Ran Wei said bluntly.
Huang Ming chuckled. “It is customary for negotiations to offer something before demanding payment.”
He folded his arms as he continued, “Let me guess, you are going to offer yourself and continue to rebel against the Jins on our behalf. You want our backing and help so that you can rally the people of Wei to rise up and rally behind you in order to take back your kingdom.
“You assume we would accept, because it would be beneficial to us as you bleed the Jins dry. Whether you win or lose, we would profit from a distracted Jin. Am I close enough?”
“As expected as the man who had compassed the only mark of defeat to my name,” Ran Wei praised. “Close, but you are looking too far in the future. I know you can see the possibilities, but I am sure you would want something more concrete.”
“That would be nice, yes.”
“How about the location where the Jins are manufacturing their fire-spears?”
“At first you had my curiosity, but now you have my full attention,” Huang Ming admitted.
The corner of Ran Wei’s lips tugged upwards sardonically. “There is a reason that I have not taken into the field directly against them. I have seen first hand the devastation those weapons can cause when massed together. There is no way my troops can stand against them in open battle. You have aptly demonstrated it at Tigertrap,” he said humourlessly.
“You do not seem overly distraught at losing your men,” Huang Ming commented delicately.
Ran Wei growled. “Those were not my men that tried to attack Tigertrap Fort.”
“Of course,” Huang Ming nodded. There was no need to dispute the warlord’s statement and cause him to lose face.
“It is in your own interests that the Jins are not allowed to continue developing such weapons,” Ran Wei said plainly. “They are already making cannons that reach further. Further than what you have at Tigertrap Fort.”
“I suppose you would be glad to lead us the way and offer to destroy the facilities.”
Ran Wei clapped his hands once in sarcastic delight. “Of course, we will need a new base of operations for this endeavour. The hills and caves are hardly ideal for a rebellion.”
Huang Ming sighed as Ran Wei grinned wolfishly.
“You catch on quick. Yes, I want Tigertrap Fort. It is the ideal location for me to base my forces, and we will be able to sally out from an easily defensible position and fan out across Wei, whilst continuously supplied from the rear by your kingdom.”
Ran Wei spread his hands apologetically. “Of course, once we have captured a suitable city, we would be more than happy to return the fort to you.”
Huang Ming looked at him with a bland expression on his face to make it obvious that he did not believe the warlord.
“Are you sure this isn’t just to strike that mark of defeat?” Huang Ming asked casually.
The grin on Ran Wei’s face froze. He glared at Huang Ming and one could feel the atmosphere turning darker. Then laughed harshly, and the ominous aura lightened somewhat.
“Very perceptive,” he admitted. “This rebellion is fruitless. You would extend just enough help so that we would still be in the fight, but not enough for us to achieve decisive victory and overthrow the Jins. You would rather swoop in for the kill after I had wounded them enough.”
Huang Ming kept quiet. It would be an insult to Ran Wei’s intelligence to deny it.
Ran Wei continued: “I would never win against Jin, because you won’t allow Wei to rise up again.”
“In the firs tplace, you don’t even want to win,” Huang Ming said cynically.
Ran Wei glared at him, his innermost thoughts exposed unhappily.
“Yes. I don’t care any longer. Everything had gone wrong for me when you had appeared and taken the fort. I was the marshal of Wei. MARSHAL!” he roared, startling the men and horses in the distance.
Swords were drawn, but Ran Wei and Huang Ming ignored them.
A few steps away, Sunli’s grip on her spear tightened. She raised her back foot so that it was resting on its toes, ready to kick off the ground in an explosive dash forward should anything happen.
“I commanded tens of thousands of soldiers. Nobles kowtow and scraped their heads when I walk past. The king depended on me, the court feared me. Mothers used my name to hush their unruly children, men trembled and piss their pants when I approach.”
His voice dropped to a low whisper. “Now… Now I’m here in the ass-end of nowhere. Hounded… hunted! All of this… because of you.”
He turned his eyes towards Sunli. “Don’t worry, I am not after your husband’s life,” he said disdainfully. “To kill him would garner me no glory. That is not what I want. I am not that vain. All I want now is to assuage this wound in my heart, this thorn in my side. This nail in my soul.”
“Very poetic,” Huang Ming remarked. “Not exactly what I had expected from you.”
“I learned some phrases here and there,” Ran Wei bared his fangs. He snapped his fingers, and emerging from the trees, a figure appeared and slowly made its way to join him.
“For now, I have something a token as a sign of my sincerity,” Ran Wei said.
It was an ashen-faced Min Guang, and in his hands was a neatly wrapped box held at arms length. He nearly stumbled due to the awkward way he was carrying the box. Clearly, whatever inside was something completely disturbing to him.
“Min Guang,” Huang Ming called out in concern but it garnered no reply. The younger man’s lips were tightly pursed to suppress a gag reflex as he placed the box on the ground.
“Open it for our guest,” Ran Wei ordered pitilessly.
Min Guang mutely did as he was told, and he quickly turned his pale face away.
Huang Ming peered down into the box and he saw the blood-splattered face of Nangong Xie. The features were still familiar, the face was gaunt and worn but otherwise unmistakable. The eyes were still wide open, a frozen look of horror and unwillingness.
“I spared you the agony of executing him for being a traitor to your country, as I heard he was a personal friend of yours,” Ran Wei smiled. “So, do we have a deal?”
Dyed in red,
The friend had gone ahead.