--Cowboy, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
Chapter 302 – Trolling
A few back and forth that wore out several riders later, a parlay was decided. The Prince and Princess of Jin had graciously granted an audience to Huang Ming and Ran Wei on neutral ground to discuss the terms of their impending conflict.
The place selected was a relatively flat area, within sight of Tigertrap Fort. On the opposite horizon was the Jin army arrayed in a wide formation. A canopy tent had been erected in the meeting place, and observers from both sides were allowed at a certain distance to prevent any subterfuge.
The Wei marshal Ran Wei had declined to participate in the proceedings. “It is obvious that they want to see you, not me,” he had snorted. “And I have better things to do tonight than talk,” Ran Wei added with a leer, unable to resist needling Huang Ming.
Ran Wei had been flaunting his closeness with Min Guang at every opportunity. It was obvious to all that she was his favored woman and would bring her along wherever he went. The veteran defenders of Tigertrap Fort could not help but feel a little disappointed when they caught sight of the figure that used to terrorize their side of the border. Once he had found the safety of Tigertrap Fort, Ran Wei seemed content to spend his days in drink and leisure with his new woman.
Ran Wei had been an ominous bogeyman to Wu in the past, but seeing him frivolous had shattered all their expectations. Even some of his Wei men grumbled in quiet whispers, questioning their leader’s commitment to liberate their homeland. This latest rejection towards meeting the Jins was another blow to his image. Dread had been replaced with disdain, fear slowly substituted with contempt.
Not all were taken in. Huang Ming had already predicted that Ran Wei would not want to attend the summit with the Jins.
“He would probably try something the moment I leave the fort. So you will have to stay behind and be on your guard,” Huang Ming said to his brothers.
“Let me go kill him now,” Huang Ke offered.
Huang Lang shook his head. “Not yet. He knows that we know.”
“Then why does he bother?”
“Because he doesn’t know that we know that he knows. Not for sure,” Huang Ming grinned.
“Uhhhh,” Huang Ke winced as he worked out the mental exercise. “Still, that doesn’t mean we should wait for it to happen.”
“If we kill Ran Wei, we risk inflaming the Wei people and turn them completely against us. He will die, but it must be in a way that would benefit us completely,” Huang Lang explained for him.
Huang Ming nodded. “And that is why he will decline to meet with the Jins, because he is fearful that I would design an ‘accident’ for him.”
“Well, what if you going without him is what he wanted? Maybe he planned something with the Jins. Maybe you will meet an accident there,” Huang Ke pointed out.
“Even if there is one, the Jins would not want to see me dead,” Huang Ming said confidently.
“You mean the Princess of Jin would not. Plenty of people would love to tear you apart, such as the Prince of Jin,” Huang Lang commented. “No husband would stand for his wife to be obsessed with another man.”
“What? You mean the princess is besotted with our brother?” Huang Ke exclaimed in disbelief.
“It is not what you think,” Huang Ming said helplessly. “She knows our family is influential, and wants to bring us over to her side.”
Huang Lang narrowed his eyes, not really believing him. But he did not press on the matter, and that was how Huang Ming was allowed to go the summit. Sunli went along with him with a score of bodyguards as prescribed by the negotiations. Thus far the Jins had kept to the promise of truce and brought an equal number of guards as agreed upon.
“I have not seen such a thing before,” Sunli said as she rode beside Huang Ming towards the tent.
“I have,” Huang Ming mumbled to himself, for the wide and low canopy with its carpeted interior was reminiscent of a traditional Bedouin tent. It seemed out of place in the temperate weather of the Wei country.
When Huang Ming stepped under the canopy, he could see
The royal couple bade their soldiers to retire. Sunli wanted to stay on, until she saw her counterpart in the Jin bodyguards glaring hostilely at her. If she did not leave, neither would him. And so they begrudgingly left the tent at the same time so as the summit could proceed.
“We meet at last,” Prince Jin Bao said as he laid eyes on Huang Ming for the first time. Indeed, the scourge of his fears was a handsome scholar. The late Nangong Xie had a devilish charm underneath his embittered shell. It was easy to imagine him to be someone who would go around seducing women. In contrast, Huang Ming was bright-faced and friendly. In a way, he was more dangerous, because it women would find his sort to be easy-going and approachable.
Thus, the Prince of Jin had already made up his mind to have Huang Ming killed despite the friendly greetings. The decision solidified when he could see his wife’s eyes lit up when Huang Ming entered her vision. Worse still, Huang Ming himself seemed perfectly aware of it.
“Yes, I wish we could have met under different circumstances,” Huang Ming said with a grin.
“We have met under different circumstances,” Princess Jin Hua replied waspishly. Still, she could not resist a smile of her own.
The fact that her smile was so… genuine absolutely rattled her husband.
His hostility vanished and was replaced by astonishment when Jin Hua and Huang Ming began conversing in a tongue that he had never heard before…
“English? Deutsch? 日本語? ” Jin Hua demanded and ignored the stunned look on her husband’s face.
Huang Ming was also surprised by her bluntness. “English is fine,” he replied and Jin Hua nodded in satisfaction.
“Is this wise?” Huang Ming asked as he glanced at Jin Bao warily. Indeed, the Prince of Jin was staring daggers at him.
“It won’t change anything. I am sure he wants to kill you already,” Jin Hua smiled evilly..
“Well, that makes it all the better,” Huang Ming said sarcastically.
Jin Hua chuckled, but hearing the bell-like laughter only made the prince even more discontent. She turned to him to reassure him with a whisper, and the prince leaned back in his seat to smoulder.
“I told him that he can kill you once I am done,” she announced.
“How nice of you to give notice,” Huang Ming said dryly.
“I am certain that you have taken precautions, otherwise this will be a very anti-climatic finale.”
“Of course,” Huang Ming admitted.
Jin Hua gestured to the cushions laid on the carpeted ground. “Please make yourself comfortable, no need to inconvenience ourselves in the meantime.”
The two Avatars sat down facing each other, much to the further annoyance of Prince Jin Bao. He wished that he disobeyed his wife’s warning regarding an ambush. And more than anything, he wished he could understand what they were talking about.
It seemed utterly brazen for the two Avatars to be speaking in a Earth language in the presence of a native, but Jin Hua did not care.
“You made a fool of me last time,” she said, still smarting from her mistaken assumptions.
Huang Ming smirked. “You never asked.”
“You had ample opportunities to correct me,” Jin Hua grumbled.
He shrugged in return. “But why should I? There was nothing in it for me.”
Jin Hua shot him a look of grievance. “My words may have been mistakenly delivered to my sister back then. Let me make the offer again. Join me, and together we can rule the world.”
Huang Ming could not help but bark in laughter at the quote.
“I’ve seen a man in a black helmet once made the same offer, and it didn’t turn out well,” he said casually.
Jin Hua’s head tilted in puzzlement.
Huang Ming did not blame her, for it was his roundabout way of checking her origins. Perhaps she had quoted a famous story from a galaxy far away unwittingly.
“Where are you from?” he asked instead.
That gave Jin Hua pause. It seemed like the stone in her heart lifted and her gaze softened, and once more that aroused her husband’s suspicions.
“I had given up hope, you know,” she said softly. “To suddenly find myself in a strange new world…”
She looked into his eyes. “How did this happen? Do you who is responsible for doing this to us? Can we find them?”
Huang Ming shook his head wistfully. “What good would that knowledge do you?” he said, deliberately adopting the vagueness used by so many sage-like characters from isekai novels.
As expected, Jin Hua became annoyed. “You are just as bad as God. He only told me that I had been chosen, and the next thing I know, I was in this body.”
“Patron,” Huang Ming corrected her.
“We call them Patrons,” he repeated.
Jin Hua sat up straighter. “We?” she demanded.
Huang Ming frowned. “So you are new to this. This is your first game? Did your Patron not tell you anything at all?”
Jin Hua’s face scrunched up. “All he told me was to live my life and that one day…” she trailed off, and she gave Huang Ming an odd look.
“...That one day, we will feel an urge to accomplish things and soar to greater heights. To be one of the storied people like Alexander and Frederick,” she finished.
Huang Ming raised an eyebrow. “I recognize those names,” he stated.
“...I thought you’d be more excited,” Jin Hua stated, slightly disappointed at his subdued reaction.
“Because we are both from Earth?”
Huang Ming smirked. “What makes you think your Earth is the same as mine?”
It was the first time anyone had seen the Princess of Jin thoroughly stumped. Not even her husband Prince Jin Bao had seen such a face. The hostility that had simmering within him ever since he saw how casually his wife was chatting with Huang Ming was momentarily forgotten.
Huang Ming nodded. “Mm. And judging from what I know, you indeed have an eventful life.”
Jin Hua snorted. “Jealous sisters, love rivals, battling for the throne…” she counted. Then she froze. “You mean… this was all scripted? Did I ever have free will?”
“I don’t know,” Huang Ming shrugged. “All I know is that this was done to keep the Patrons amused.”
Jin Hua paused. Her face began to harden, but Huang Ming remained blasé.
“Even now, you feel that this situation is absurd. You probably had some sleepless nights recently. A nagging feeling that you must do something. In fact, nearly every day of your life is full of dramatic events and coincidences. Am I right?”
Her silence was all he needed.
“I am not going to tell you that to feel one way or another about it. Eventually you will come to your own conclusions,” he added. “I can tell you more, if you like.”
The annoyed look on Jin Hua’s face became more pronounced.
“You sound like you know a lot,” she accused.
Huang Ming folded his arms. “Well, I’ve been through a lot.”
He nodded in self-satisfaction, allowing her to stew in irritation.
“Well, shall we address the more urgent matter at hand? You brought your army to my doorsteps, perhaps we should discuss about resolving this immediate conflict first,” Huang Ming suggested lightly.
“What makes you think you can get out of this?” Jin Hua scoffed.
“Well…” he drawled.
“Where is your confidence stemming from? If you are depending on help from your brothers in Tigertrap Fort, then you should give up,” she demanded.
“Are you referring to Ran Wei?”
Jin Hua had a triumphant look. “If you think your friend Min Guang is enough to change his character, then you are sorely mistaken.”
Huang Ming remained unfazed.
“Of course you have made plans. But if you want to know what I know, you won’t be too reckless,” he said.
Jin Hua shot to her feet abruptly, obviously provoked by his smugness.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she declared.
Switching back to the native language, she then turned to her husband.
“We’re going to hold him hostage. Everything else can proceed as planned,” she said to him.
Prince Jin Bao had been startled by her sudden announcement.
“You promised that-” he began to protest as her words sunk in.
“I know,” she cut him off, “But he has information valuable to me. You can have him after I’m done.”
“Fine,” the prince grumbled.
“Hey, don’t I get a say in this?” Huang Ming chuckled.
The royal couple glared at him, but before they could retort, there was an almighty roar of thunder in the distance.
He added some bait,
And waited for the play.