The other player
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
--Inigo Montoya, ‘The Princess Bride’
Chapter Seventy Three – The other player
“Because the architect of this scheme killed my father and destroyed my clan,” Qiong Ying said coldly.
“...” said Huang Ming, because he was speechless. He had a similar worry when he had first arrived, but as the days and weeks passed he had soon settled into a leisurely pace and had completely forgotten that such things were possible in this world.
“It is fine to talk about it, it had happened many years ago,” Qiong Ying told him, thinking that he was leery of opening old wounds.
“I think you want to talk about it,” Huang Ming replied.
“You are right. But let me start from the beginning,” Qiong Ying said as she refilled his tea cup. Huang Ming wordlessly drained the cup, and she refilled it yet again. This time he left it untouched, and she took it as a signal to begin.
“My father was the previous Prime Minister of Jin,” she said nonchalantly, as if she was discussing a hobby.
Huang Ming frowned as he searched his memories. “The previous one? That was… ten years ago?” Huang Ming asked hesitantly, cursing the original’s lack of detailed knowledge.
She nodded. “Ten years ago, yes. He wasn’t the best of fathers, he was away most of the time and did not know of the troubles at home.”
“What do you mean?”
Qiong Ying closed her eyes as she narrated: “I told you that I am the second daughter, I have two other sisters. An elder, Qiong Yue; and a younger, Qiong Hua. We grew up together and our relations were fine, until one summer the Prince of Jin took notice of little Qiong Hua, even though she was a little slow in thought.”
Huang Ming’s face scrunched up. ‘Ten years ago… How old were they back then?’
“The Prince of Jin proposed courtship with marriage in mind, and my father was of course delighted. But not our matriarch, she hated Qiong Hua because she was the daughter of a concubine. I did not find out until much later, but the matriarch had killed Qiong Hua’s mother with poison, but Qiong Hua survived it. Because of the effects of the poison, Qiong Hua grew up simple-minded, cute and innocent.”
Qiong Ying smiled sadly. “Little Qiong Hua… who would have thought…”
She shook her head and continued, “You can imagine the matriarch’s fury when her own daughter was passed over for a royal marriage. Elder sister Qiong Yue too became blinded with jealousy. From then on, Qiong Hua suffered terribly from their vicious plots. The clan members sneered at her and did nothing.”
“And you?” Huang Ming prompted.
“I was not home, that summer I had been away and staying with my relatives. If not for Madam Xu, I would have remained ignorant. Sometimes, I wonder if it would be better not to know,” Qiong Ying said wistfully.
“What happened next?” Huang Ming asked softly, even as his brain was pulsing with danger as he recognized the tell-tale signs of a familiar revenge story. If his suspicions were correct…
“Finally they went too far. The matriarch had Qiong Hua beaten and left for dead. But Qiong Hua did not die. She miraculously survived. To hear Madam Xu tell it, it was as if Qiong Hua was a completely different person from that fateful day onwards. She no longer cried easily, no longer dull nor slow-witted. It was as if that final beating gave her a new lease on life.”
The buzzing sensation in Huang Ming’s mind grew louder, as if dreading her next words.
“Thereafter, Qiong Hua always managed to turn the tables against them. The matriarch imprisoned her when the Prince of Jin came to visit, but Qiong Hua escaped from her room and caught his eye once more. Then the matriarch tried to sell her into slavery, but Qiong Hua was able to find father in time. But he listened to their lies and did not punish them.”
Qiong Ying sighed. “Looking back, I think that was the turning point; for Qiong Hua became merciless. Later, there was a plot with an aphrodisiac, but somehow it was elder sister Qiong Yue who was caught with a lowly servant. Father was furious and disowned her then and there. Qiong Yue could not bear the shame, she committed suicide by drowning herself. The matriarch was sent packing to a monastery, but during the journey her carriage was accosted by bandits and she was killed. The investigators found her corpse with her eyes forced open and her tongue cut off… and they never found her arms and legs.”
Qiong Ying shuddered, her hands trembled. Huang Ming reached out and placed his hand over hers, and she smiled wanly at his gesture.
“Qiong Hua then married the Prince of Jin and became the Princess, but father was removed from his position as Prime Minister. He had been reprimanded for failing to prevent the princess from being bullied in the past. Father asked Qiong Hua for help, but she reminded him how he had turned a blind eye and deaf ear to all the troubles at home. She gloated that it was her who had caused Qiong Yue’s disgrace, it was on her instructions that the matriarch was killed, it was her instigation that led to his censure. She discarded the family name and swore to destroy the clan, and she was proud to have done it. She let my father live so that he could witness all that she would do next.
“My father returned home a broken man. One by one his friends abandoned him, and the household became empty as the servants mysteriously disappeared. Those who had previously obeyed the matriarch ended up dead or disfigured… or worse. Only the few who had pitied Qiong Hua survived; Madam Xu was one of them. My father had her deliver the last of his wealth and a final letter telling me all that had happened and warned me not to return. My absence during her troubles was enough of a reason for her to bear a grudge against me as well. In her mind, I was just as negligent as our father.
“He also wrote that Qiong Hua had twisted the royal court into listening to her every whim and fancy. She had recruited eccentric people into her employ, making strange weapons and foreign medicine, building up her own loyal forces. It was as if her ambition was limitless, she wasn’t content to be just the Princess of Jin.”
Qiong Ying then twined her fingers with his, as if trying to distract herself. Huang Ming could not enjoy the sensation of her soft, graceful fingers; he was alarmed by her description of the Princess of Jin. Her deeds all but scream the tropes of a no-good daughter suddenly overcoming the odds… Had Qiong Ying’s sister actually died, was the current Princess of Jin really a transmigrated Avatar who had arrived before he did?
“My father then hung himself,” Qiong Ying said. “My cousins, afraid for my safety; sent me away. Alas, they did not escape her purge; they too were killed mercilessly. Root and branch were not spared. All traces of my clan was wiped out as if they had never been, and I am the very last. I went as far as I could, never staying at one place for too long, before finally winding up here.”
“Why here?” Huang Ming asked quietly.
Qiong Ying shrugged. “This city is central enough for me to pick up information from all corners of the continent.”
Huang Ming frowned. “Is that what you mean about being a spy?”
She smiled enigmatically. “Something like that, yes. I still have some friends here and there, and they told me that my sister Qiong Hua… excuse me, the Princess of Jin; she had convinced the Jins to prepare for war; and they have done so for many years. It was her idea to have Wei and your country of Wu fight each other first, before sweeping the field with her new weapons. It doesn’t matter who wins, so long as both sides become too exhausted to resist Jin.”
“What exactly is your plan then? Do you expect to tell my father and have him do something about it?” Huang Ming asked sceptically.
Qiong Ying shook her head. “According to my sources, it’s too late. Wei’s General Ran is already playing into her scheme, he is proposing for an invasion of your country due to Prime Minister Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao Fang’s power struggle in your capital.”
Huang Ming grimaced. “You already know full well of the troubles in our capital, what makes you think we can fight with enemies in the front and in the rear?”
“Those in the capital would not interfere when there is a foreign party threatening to steal their prize. The little drama your father had done with General Zhao Tong would give those crooked old men plenty to ponder on. Once Lord Fang La returns with his report, they will stop harassing your father, and even encourage him to take on the Wei invaders.”
“Thanks to you. And Sunli,” Huang Ming muttered.
She gave him a hard look and said harshly: “War will come. Wei and Wu will fight. The question is how the war will end.”
“I understand. You don’t want the fight between Wu and Wei to be a drawn out affair, it should be concluded as quickly and decisively as possible to deter Jin from taking advantage,” Huang Ming said, exhaling heavily.
Qiong Ying nodded.
“You are very optimistic,” Huang Ming commented. “What makes you think we can live up to your expectations? I’m not even a military man!”
She chuckled. “I have a hunch. I think you are a person who is hiding his talents.”
Huang Ming rubbed his forehead, suddenly feeling a heat all over his body. “This is all too much,” he grumbled. “Suppose you’re telling the truth…”
Qiong Ying pinched him. “You don’t believe me?” she demanded, her green eyes flashing dangerously.
“My dear lady, you’re the one who lied to me from the day we met,” Huang Ming reminded her. “Did you plan everything from our first meeting?”
“I was already here long before your family came,” she said with indignation. Then she added softly: “It might really be fated. I had actually planned to leave and head to the coast… maybe even sail into the unknown…”
“Well, why don’t you?” Huang Ming asked with a lazy smile.
“I’m tired of running,” Qiong Ying said, mirroring his grin. “How far would I need to go? Will she ever give up? I have heard too much about her acts to realize that she will never stop. That is why I have to find help. Then your family came, along with your two brothers; famous men with good reputations and ability. You were not my first choice,” she informed him mischievously.
“I’m flattered,” he said dryly.
She raised her hand and gently touched his face. He did not shy away and allowed her to caress him as he stared deeply into her eyes. Her fingers felt cool on his warm face.
“You were not my first choice,” she repeated in a whisper. “But you must know that it was still my choice. Ever since I saw you at Cao Tianyun’s competition, I had followed you as best as I could. I have seen the things you have done, heard the words you have said, the songs you sang… and I have found you very interesting.”
Huang Ming raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying you’re a stalker?” he asked in mock consternation.
“I’m saying that I like you, you dolt,” she said as she tugged on his earlobe.
“I have a fiancée,” Huang Ming said, the face of Sunli floating in his mind.
“A man can have three wives and four concubines,” she murmured.
“What you’re doing is not proper.”
“Stop saying that, it’s not helpful.”
“Fine,” she said, and pulled his face closer and kissed him once more.
It wasn’t like the fleeting brush of the lips earlier; this was fervent and fiery. It was searching, yearning.
And… it wasn’t just one-sided.
The senses united,
The passion ignited.