Ah, I see you’re a man of culture as well.

--Last Samurai, ‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’

 

Chapter 297 – Poisoned apple

 

Huang Ming could only look upwards in exasperation as Min Guang’s sobbed in his chest, her tears dampening his clothes.

 

His face was of exasperation and his heart filled with resentment towards the Patron that surely was responsible for this prank. Having encountered and not recognizing one cross-dresser in Qiong Ying was cliché enough. But two…?

 

Min Guang’s sobs had turned to quiet weeping, and so Huang Ming placed his hands on her trembling shoulders and gently pushed her back. Her delicate features, watery eyes and with her hair down, Huang Ming wondered how it was possible for him to be duped in the first place. It was as ridiculous as Clark Kent wearing a pair of glasses to hide his identity as Superman.

 

Maybe the gods were joking with him. More likely, the Patron had given him some sort of reverse plot-armor, cliché generator just for her own amusement.

 

“How did it end up like this? Why are you here?” he asked softly.

 

Min Guang wiped away her tears with the back of her sleeves. “Ran Wei sent me here tonight.”

 

“He knows you are a woman?” Huang Ming frowned, not liking what she was implying.

 

Min Guang nodded. “He saw through me at first glance,” she said, unaware how it pricked Huang Ming. He pushed aside the irritation.

 

“Did he… use force?” he asked in a low tone.

 

This time, Min Guang shook her head. She looked away and said in a tiny voice: “Not yet.”

 

It had enormous connotations and Huang Ming’s discomfort only grew.

 

Min Guang continued: “When I first met him, he was at the peak of his powers. He was the marshal of the armies and on him, and there were no shortage of women by his side. I have seen them. Ran Wei has… peculiar tastes in his harem.”

 

“Let me guess. He particularly enjoys seizing the women of others,” Huang Ming said bluntly.

 

Min Guang flushed, and that was enough confirmation for him.

 

“Many of them were the wives and concubines of his defeated foes. When the fall of Wei happened, he did not take them with him. He could have any untouched woman as easily as one would pluck hair, so I don’t particularly understand this…” she said in embarrassment.

 

“Ran Wei is the sort who not only enjoyed being victorious, but also humiliating those he had defeated,” Huang Ming shrugged. “He could not defeat me in the battlefield, so he wants to lord it over me from a private aspect. Well, I suppose you can call that a ‘battlefield’ too, I guess…”

 

“What is?’

 

“The bed, of course,” Huang Ming answered with a snort. “He was probably provoked when he saw Sunli. He will try to seduce my wife while you are here distracting me.”

 

“Are you not worried for her?” Min Guang wondered.

 

“I know every inch of my wife,” Huang Ming leered, “Sunli can fend off anything he can muster. In his heart, Ran Wei probably knows this as well, but he couldn’t resist trying. Besides, it would be a win-win for him. Either he succeeds with her, or succeeds with you.”

 

Min Guang cheeks became a deeper flush of red. “B-but that would mean…”

 

“Um,” Huang Ming said brilliantly. Yes, that would mean Ran Wei had sent Min Guang to him, perhaps hoping the reunion would kindle some sort of intimacy. Then Ran Wei would take her back by force and thereby proving his dominance in a primal sort of fashion.

 

“That is so… weird,” Min Guang shivered.

 

“Well, if it could be stolen, it wasn’t yours to begin with,” Huang Ming said offhandedly.

 

She looked at him strangely.

 

“Your family is still in his hands, aren’t they?” Huang Ming changed the subject, even though he could guess the answer. “Rather, they truly believe in Ran Wei, and would support him in any event.”

 

Min Guang nodded miserably, and the tears threatened to spill once more.

 

“Even if I offer to take you away, you would not want to leave them,” Huang Ming stated.

 

She shuddered. Then she sighed. That exhale seemed to drain all the strength that she had, and her knees wobbled. Huang Ming grabbed hold of her before she collapsed into a heap. The reality of her situation had come crashing down all at once.

 

“What should I do…?” she mumbled hopelessly as Huang Ming guided her to sit beside him on the edge of the bed. She felt like jelly and boneless, and subconsciously leaned to rest her head on his shoulder.

 

“What can I do…?” she continued in a daze.

 

Huang Ming mentally counted the possible scenarios and concluded that every choice that involved helping Min Guang to escape Ran Wei’s clutches would end unfavourably, either on a personal level or a national scale; or both.

 

“It is what it is,” Huang Ming sighed.

 

It was a simple phrase, but something within Min Guang sparked and she came back to life. She jerked herself away from his shoulders and took a few deep breaths.

 

Huang Ming was surprised at her sudden recovery, but did not interrupt as she composed herself.

 

“How are our friends?” she asked once she had dragged herself out of the melancholia.

 

Huang Ming then went into a spiel describing the fortunes of their circle of friends during her absence. Min Guang allowed herself to be regaled, her worries and burden temporarily forgotten.

 

“Zhang Ping is expecting a child?” she asked with disbelief, as the image of Zhao Hongqi the petite wahaha girl together with the lumbering stone mason came to her mind. “…But how? And how are you handling married life with two women at once?”

 

“Love will find a way, do not ask so much,” Huang Ming said airily.

 

Min Guang giggled, and he became very aware just how feminine his friend was at the moment. She had not moved away from his side the entire time.

 

Truthfully, Huang Ming had interacted only a few times with Min Guang. The original host body was more familiar with her. For some reason, Huang Ming felt annoyed when reminded of that. The original Huang Ming was really a piece of shit, how did he ever befriended the likes of Min Guang and the rest in the first place? Curse his alcohol-addled memories…

 

As if on cue, Min Guang grew solemn. Hugging her arms around her knees and resting her head sideways on them, she looked over at Huang Ming wistfully.

 

“It should have been me, you know,” she said.

 

“Been you what?”

 

Still in that posture, she reached on a hand to stroke his face with her knuckles. When he did not recoil from her touch, she became emboldened and turned her hand so that her palm was resting on his cheek.

 

“Ever since that day when you recited that birthday poem, you were in my mind,” she said softly.

 

“What birthday poem?” Huang Ming asked in an equally quiet voice. To others, it might sound like he was playing dumb, but he really did not remember. From what he had gathered, the first time their circle of friends met Min Guang was at a grand birthday bash. How were they to know that Min Guang had disguised herself back then to relieve her boredom, and was allowed to maintain that persona ever since?

 

Her family had been aghast and furious at first, but relented and even encouraged it when they realized it was the easiest way for her to cultivate relationships and infiltrate the heirs of the notable families of Tianxin City. One of whom was even Huang Ming, son of Great General Huang Zheng, the bulwark of Wu against Wei…

 

“You know what? I have forgotten the exact words too,” Min Guang revealed honestly with a grin. “I actually wrote them down later, but it was lost when we had to leave Wu.”

 

Huang Ming chuckled at the unexpected answer. The cliché would have the girl remembering every single dramatic detail. Take that, old Huang Ming! You were nothing after all!

 

“But I have never forgotten how I felt that night. You were drunk, but your words were honest.”

 

I take it back. What exactly did you say to her, you scoundrel?

 

“It was that moment when I felt the skies open up,” Min Guang smiled as she recalled. “My entire life, I was raised and taught to obey and to be loyal to the Wei cause. Every fiber of my being was for the glory of Wei. What I cared, what I felt did not matter.”

 

Her head rose as she chuckled wryly. “You changed me, even before we met.”

 

“How so?”

 

“My life was like that of a puppet, a doll. All my life, I was trained to prepare myself for my duty. When I finally get to read up on you and those who would be our friends, it was as if a new world of possibilities was open to my mind. My life up to then was like a pre-determined rigid line… but yours… You were reckless, aimless. Unrestrained and free.”

 

She was heaping platitudes on the old Huang Ming. Really, the words were too flattering, when all he really was a prodigal son.

 

“I was supposed to debut as the young miss of the family at that birthday event, but at the last moment I suddenly felt the urge to rebel and showed up as a boy instead. They were too slow to stop me, and the rest you know.”

 

Min Guang stood up and turned so that she was facing him, her hands behind her back.

 

“That poem of yours… spoke about how one should live freely and for oneself. They laughed at you. But your words resonated with me. The one you wrote during Cao Tianyun’s husband-searching event made it even more clear to me.”

 

She laughed hollowly. “All that… and here I am. In the end I could not escape my fate. I am still chained to the demands of my family, to be presented like some sacrificial offering to Ran Wei.”

 

“Teach me, what should I do?” she asked with a humourless smile.

 

“Make the best out of it,” Huang Ming said fatalistically. They were simple words that would condemn her.

 

“I suppose it would be easier now that there are no women around him,” Min Guang sighed.

 

Her eyes met his. “And you already have two.”

 

“Mmm,” Huang Ming said non-committally.

 

“Tell me something. Did Sunli push you down?” Min Guang suddenly asked.

 

“No,” Huang Ming said honestly.

 

“Good,” she said, and she placed her small hands on his shoulders and pushed him down onto the bed. Without waiting for him to protest, she was soon straddling across his chest, pining him.

 

“It is what it is,” she repeated his earlier words.

 

 

It was a flimsy excuse,

But she was not content to be used.