“Take what you can, give nothing back.”
--Joshamee Gibbs and Jack Sparrow, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’
Chapter 301 – Return policy
There was an uneasy air in Tigertrap Fort ever since Ran Wei and his men moved as part of the deal struck with Huang Ming. More than a few defenders of the fort were questioning the decision, and the idea of working with the Wei was not universally popular.
“We defended the walls for so long only to invite them in,” one Chuwu soldier grumbled.
“It was theirs in the first place,” an older veteran chuckled.
“Well, yeah, but we took it! This fort is ours!” the younger soldier insisted.
It pricked the ears of a few Wei soldiers nearby, and they glowered resentfully over.
“What do you mean, ‘we’? As I recall, you only transferred here a few months ago,” the older veteran colleague teased, and the younger soldier flushed as the rest of the unit laughed, and the atmosphere relaxed.
The small exchange did not escape Huang Ming’s attention. With him were his brothers Huang Ke and Huang Lang, the brothers looking over the scene from a nearby battlement.
“He is right, y’know,” Huang Ke said, “there have been some talk about how you have given up the fort too easily.”
“What do they mean, given up the fort? I am right here, aren’t I?” Huang Ming rolled his eyes.
“It is the same talk back at the capital,” Huang Lang added calmly.
His youngest brother shrugged. “There is always such talk. What was given away could be taken back.”
Huang Lang shook his head. “I wouldn’t be here if it was the usual. But from what I’ve heard, the complaints are coming from the very top echelons of the imperial court.”
“Heh,” Huang Ming snorted. “Let me guess, those barking dogs say I am a warmonger. Arrogant and making arbitrary decisions without royal consent. Building my own powerbase and harboring ambitious dreams.”
Huang Lang turned to look at him in the eyes. “Are you?”
Huang Ke was aghast. “How can you even ask that?”
“Our little brother has secrets of his own,” Huang Lang replied as he waved a bundle of letters.
“I know you have been corresponding with Prince Chu Feng in the south. It does not look good for you to be writing letters to the brother of our king, especially one who was a rival to the throne not so long ago. What exactly are you planning?”
“I was only writing letters of introduction for our relatives. They are taking my advice to strike out as pioneers. Some are going south, others are heading out to sea and expand their horizons,” Huang Ming said defensively.
Huang Ke was mystified. “Why?”
“To seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man have gone before,” Huang Ming grinned.
“It sounds like you’re telling our relatives to pack up and leave,” Huang Lang said quietly. “You are fortunate that I’m the one who got wind of this. If it was someone else, you would have already been summoned back to the capital for an interrogation.”
“Don’t worry, it is all according to plan.”
“Well, don’t keep us in the dark,” Huang Ke said peevishly. “And I still don’t like working with Ran Wei. The man is a wolf and would turn around to bite us the first chance he gets.”
“This is just a business relationship. It will be done once our mutual goal has been accomplished,” Huang Ming stated.
“And how do you plan to do that? And when?” Huang Ke demanded.
“Later,” Huang Ming declined, for he could see the figure of Ran Wei approaching. The three brothers fell silent as the Wei marshal swaggered over. The victory over Jin and being inside Tigertrap Fort had done much to restore Ran Wei’s magnificence.
He stood before the three Huang brothers confidently.
“Finally, to see all three of the famous Huang brothers in one spot. Now the only one missing is your esteemed father,” Ran Wei smiled.
“We are famous?” Huang Ming asked jokingly.
Ran Wei spread his arms wide. “Of course! All three of you are the young men of the day, and your father is the great marshal who upholds your country. Without your family, we would have swept into your lands long ago,” he laughed wolfishly.
More than a few Chuwu soldiers who overheard his boisterous voice frowned and tightened their fists. Similarly, the Wei men who were their guests were on their guard.
“How fortunate that we are still here then,” Huang Lang said dryly.
“Indeed. The irony is not lost on me. To have tried so many times to get here, only for it to given me to me like this without a fight. It does feel disappointing,” Ran Wei sighed exaggeratedly.
“I’ll give you a fight,” Huang Ke snarled.
But Ran Wei merely laughed, and instead asked to talk to Huang Ming privately. He agreed, despite the misgivings of his brothers.
“I did not expect you to keep your word,” Ran Wei admitted as the two men walked side by side along the parapets.
“I have never lied,” Huang Ming lied.
“Very accommodating of you. I should be glad to have a rival like you. First Min Guang and then a fortress,” Ran Wei chuckled maliciously.
Huang Ming stopped and raised his head so that he was looking directly at the taller man’s eyes.
“This fortress in on loan, and the lady’s choice is not of my doing,” he said evenly.
“That is right, it’s her choice,” Ran Wei leered triumphantly. It was obvious that Ran Wei was revelling in the fact that he had somehow conquered Min Guang and prised her away.
“I know you two have been friends for years,” he gloated. “Too bad you never discerned her true gender. Did she hide it so well? Or perhaps, she never wanted you to find out.”
He smacked his lips. “Sorry for taking her away,” he mocked. Then he turned his palm upwards in a conciliatory gesture. “Feel free to meet her if you wish. I have not placed any restrictions on her,” he offered in mock generosity.
“If she could be taken away, it meant she never belonged to me,” Huang Ming said calmly, knowing what the marshal wanted.
All according to plan.
Thus Huang Ming kept a solemn face, but allowed his eyes to narrow the tiniest of degrees. The extremely slight movement was enough vindication for Ran Wei, the Wei man threw his head back and laughed.
…Aren’t you enjoying this too much? Geez…
“Perhaps we should talk about more pressing matters,” Huang Ming suggested frostily to further feed the illusion into Ran Wei’s ego.
The chilly tone delighted Ran Wei even more, but he eventually sobered up to focus on the subject.
“I have heard rumours from my partisans. The Jins are already mobilizing, and this time the Jin royalty will be leading the expedition,” he said.
“The princess?” Huang Ming arched an eyebrow.
“It seems even the Princess of Jin could not resist to deal with you herself,” Ran Wei quipped, but Huang Ming could hear the tinge of jealousy in his words.
Ran Wei was a man who coveted those of others. It was not the desire for the subject in question, but the need to feel superior over others in all aspects.
But before the talk could go further, there was a shout of alarm from the watchmen.
A rider from Jin was sighted in the distance, waving a flag of truce.
“Looks like she can’t wait to see you,” Ran Wei muttered.
“Then it is time to give her what she wants,” Huang Ming uttered.
Even if it was taken,
It did not mean it was forsaken.