“Though it isn't sure whether there is something that Yue Fei did to betray the dynasty, maybe there is. No evidence is needed.”

--Qin Hui, notorious Chancellor of the Song Dynasty

 

Chapter 296 – A mile away

 

            Ran Wei watched with gloating relish, waiting to see Huang Ming turn pale and blanch at the sight of the carefully packed gift he had given him.

 

            Unfortunately for him, Huang Ming merely raised an eyebrow as he inspected the head of his erstwhile friend Nangong Xie with all the aloofness of a jaded antique collector.

 

            Huang Ming then closed the box, straightened his back and returned Ran Wei’s look blandly.

 

            “He always did like to think that he’s head and shoulders above everyone else,” Huang Ming said.

 

            There was a deathly silence as Ran Wei stared at him in disbelief. As did Min Guang, his own queasiness momentarily forgotten as he gaped.

 

            Then the former Wei marshal sighed, his disappointment evident.

 

            “What, so you’re used to this sort of stuff?” Ran Wei grumbled. “I suspected as much. Otherwise how a weakling like you could have made such a fine specimen your woman,” he leered mischievously towards Sunli.

 

            The Amazon ignored him, but the grip on her spear tightened.

 

            “Your woman?” Min Guang repeated weakly.

 

            “Well, one of them. You disappeared when I was double-engaged,” Huang Ming reminded him.

 

            “I see much has changed,” Min Guang said with a wan smile.

 

            “Stop flirting,” Ran Wei snorted. “I trust you find my gift to be an acceptable sign of my sincerity. Or are you too squeamish to accept? Perhaps I should send you another favour.”

 

            “Of course I’ll take it. It would be prove quite useful,” Huang Ming replied.

 

            Ran Wei frowned. “Useful? What use is there for a rotting head?”

 

            “I am going to have a death mask of his face made, and then commission an iron statue of him. He would be depicted as kneeling for forgiveness, so as the common folk could be invited to spit on it to show their disdain towards him,” Huang Ming said, drawing upon a historical precedent from China.

 

            Even Ran Wei could not help but twist his face in grimace at the description.

 

            “How vicious,” he commented truthfully. “I suppose you did the same to Yin Yanzhao?”

 

            Huang Ming shook his head. “Nangong Xie is not comparable to the rogue general. Xie had no merits unlike the general before his fall, and thus warranted for his fate to be a target of disdain for all time.”

 

            He gave the box a glance before adding dryly: “He always wanted to be famous.”

 

            The temperature dropped a few degrees. “Are you mocking me?” Ran Wei asked in a low growl.

 

            After all, Huang Ming had earlier laid bare his vanity. The former marshal of Wei wanted a magnificent ending to his personal story, and there were many uncomfortable allusions in Huang Ming’s words.

 

            “Not at all,” Huang Ming said casually. “The two men tried so hard and got very far, but in the end they did not matter. They are not comparable to you. And besides, I would be helping you.”

 

            Once more Ran Wei was provoked into laughter.

 

            “Indeed, with my might and your wisdom, who can stand against us?” he smiled wolfishly.

 

            ***

 

            Ran Wei insisted on showing the Wu visitors some hospitality and they cautiously accepted. A makeshift camp was erected with tents and carriages. The men of Wei accepted the gift of rations from their Wu counterparts and there was a boisterous feast around a campfire to commemorate the alliance.

 

            There were a few other details to hammer out, but when it was all said and done, there would be a pact. The immediate concern would be the destruction of the firearms production site of the Jins. Thereafter, they envisage Ran Wei as a beacon of hope for the rest of the former Wei kingdom to rise in revolt and throw off the yoke of the Jins. And then… who is to say what would happen in the future?

 

            “You did what?” Huang Ke and Liu Xiang had chorused incredulously at Huang Ming once they had retired into his tent to discuss.

 

            “Yes yes, I gave away Tigertrap Fort in exchange for information,” Huang Ming confirmed.

 

Huang Ke’s eyes bulged as he turned to look at Sunli. “And you didn’t stop him?”

 

“I assumed he had a plan,” the younger sister-in-law steadfastly kept a straight face.

 

All eyes turned back to Huang Ming.

 

“Well, Ran Wei did give me a gift,” he said nonchalantly.

 

The eyes turned to glance at the carefully packed box in the corner of the tent.

 

“Please be serious,” Huang Ke groaned. “We built up Tigertrap Fort all this while and you just gave it away? Whose side are you working for?”

 

“We’re not giving him everything inside. And by the time we are done with the Jins facilities, you will see why we shouldn’t be too attached with a fixed position. In the end, it’s just a small place in the middle of a tiny valley,” Huang Ming reminded him.

 

“Hey, I was the one who built most that small place,” his brother groused.

 

Huang Ming grinned. “I can take it back at any time, Ran Wei is just borrowing it for the time being while the Jins are taken care of.”

 

Before any of them could ask what he meant, the entrance to the tent flapped open.

 

“May I speak to you in private?” Min Guang asked.

 

Huang Ming nodded and the rest filed out and gave the newcomer brief forms of acknowledgment as they walked past. Sunli was the last, she briefly turned back to give Huang Ming a warning glance before she left. Huang Ming was bemused; did she think Min Guang was a threat? The poor young man looked so pale-skinned and frail, seemingly the sort that would topple over by a violent gust of wind.

 

            “Yo buddy, still alive?” Huang Ming quoted with a smile.

 

            Min Guang appeared a little taken back by the casual greeting. “I did not expect you to be so welcoming, since I went away so suddenly.

 

            “Good that you know,” Huang Ming pulled a face. “What happened to you? How did you end up here?”

 

            “My family is from Wei,” Min Guang said softly. “We are a family of spies sent to infiltrate the upper echelons of Tianxin City, preparing for the day when we would act in concert with an invasion force.”

 

Huang Ming had expected such a backstory.

 

Min Guang hugged himself as he trembled. “I have no choice in the matter even though I was born and raised in Tianxin.”

 

“Blood is thicker than water,” Huang Ming commented in a non-committal tone.

 

“When you defeated the actual invasion itself and took Tigertrap Fort, we were recalled to be punished for our failure to inform them about you,” Min Guang continued. “We took a long, circuitous route back into Wei, and by the time we reached our destination, the situation had changed once more. The people who had commanded my family had been replaced, and Ran Wei himself had seized me.”

 

            “To get whatever information on me?” Huang Ming asked.

 

            His friend nodded shame-facedly. “I did what Nangong Xie did. He informed on you to the Princess of Jin, and I did the same for Ran Wei.”

 

            “I suppose I should be flattered.”

 

            “You don’t blame me?” Min Guang asked with teary eyes.

 

            Huang Ming chuckled to diffuse his friend’s distress. “We all have our circumstances.”

 

            Min Guang bit his lower lip. “At first I thought Ran Wei wanted to use me as a lure to capture you. Maybe he did, but things changed since the Jins conquered the Wei kingdom. Now all he can think of is reliving the old days. He still has a grudge against you, but he hates the Jins more.”

 

            “It can’t be helped that I am the most interesting man in the world,” Huang Ming continued to be at ease.

 

            “Do not underestimate him. He is brutal and cunning,” Min Guang warned.

 

            “And I am cunning but brutal,” Huang Ming smirked, “You seem to know him quite well.”

 

            Min Guang had an anguished look.

 

            Huang Ming frowned. Was this friend of his so feminine before? The hair on the back of his neck began to rise. I seem to have experienced this before…

 

            And then Min Guang fell into his arms, sobbing.

 

            “Wha-”

 

            “I am sorry,” Min Guang cried. “I have lied to you all this time.”

 

            Min Guang then tugged at the scholar’s hair bun, and out spilled long and lustrous hair than went past his shoulders.

           

            His? What are these soft lumps pressing against me?

 

            Ah, I see. Not again, what sort of luck is this?.

 

 

                        The friend was a pretender,

                        All along, hiding her gender.