“Silver tuna tonight!”
--Marv Merchants, ‘Home Alone’


Chapter 90 – Blood spilled at night

Marshal Gao Fang’s headquarters,
Tianxin City,
Wu

Marshal Gao was distracted. There was a single decorative flower on his desk, and this simple item caused his mind to wander as he gazed at it.


For the past few weeks, he had tried to find opportunities to visit Madam Li privately. But Cao Tianyun’s scheme meant that there were innumerable amount of people thronging the Huang residence, and whatever plans he had of harassing Madam Li behind closed doors were spoiled. Every day, there were people seeking an audience with her to ask for financial assistance and work. Once, he went through the commoner’s custom of queueing to see her, but he soon found himself dazed and unable to bear the commotion and hubbub. He thought of using force to disperse the crowd, but that would only invite criticism and ridicule from the public.


On other days the Huang residence became a regular place for tea parties where women compete in the arts. Matrons from prominent and rich families brought their daughters to promote themselves socially. Some had powerful relatives elsewhere in the country and the marshal did not want to make himself into a laughingstock by barging into a women-only event.


It was as if the entire city was conspiring to keep Madam Li away from him.


To add to his vexations, he has been virtually flooded with reports from Huang Zheng. Every single village and township that he had attacked was reported back. Every single skirmish, every single maneuver was meticulously written down and sent for his perusal. At first he was suspicious and thought that Huang Zheng was making them up, but the sheer level of detail and the factual way the reports were written soon dispelled that notion. The general even had the amount of supplies used and seized from the Wei population areas recorded. A zealous bureaucrat or some future historian might appreciate such dreary paperwork, but to Marshal Gao Fang the missives were needling reminders of Huang Zheng’s pesky existence.


Far from being surrounded and annihilated by Wei as the marshal had hoped, Huang Zheng managed to confound the enemy by moving erratically and rampaging through the countryside, rather than attacking the walled cities directly as per the usual customs. The marshal had thought of ordering Huang Zheng to launch a direct and suicidal attack, but with the general’s name on everyone’s lips these days it could very well backfire on himself. The marshal had no wish to be accused of directly causing the death of a hero.


The thirty days limit was coming up soon, and the marshal could only wish fervently that some sort of calamity would visit upon Huang Zheng in Wei.


“Is there something troubling you, my lord?” a voice interrupted his dark musings.


Marshal Gao Fang turned his gaze away from the flower and saw that it was a smiling, handsome fellow who had spoken.


When Lord Fang La returned to the capital after the disastrous attempt to seize military authority from Huang Zheng, he brought along Nangong Xie with him. Nangong Xie was quick to use his connection with the prime minister’s nephew to ingratiate himself into the elite circles of the capital city. When the marshal made known of his plans to temporarily base himself in Tianxin City for the invasion of Wei, Prime Minister Tong Xuan quickly recommended Nangong Xie as his observer and representative.


Marshal Gao did not care for this man, there were salacious stories surrounding him. Something about an ivory idol? But he also knew that Nangong Xie too disliked the Huangs, and for that reason the marshal had tolerated his presence.


“Nothing to do with you,” the marshal said curtly.


“My lord, I have seen you go to the Huang residence multiple times, and each time you have returned with a displeased demeanour. Are you looking for something?” Nangong Xie asked.


“Begone, I have no use for you,” the marshal snarled in reply, covering his embarrassment with an outburst of anger. Despite his infatuation with Madam Li, the marshal still had some sense of shame and was not about to admit it to the scholar.


Nangong Xie smiled. He knew the rumours, but there was no reason for him to antagonize the marshal. Instead, he said, “I have heard that General Huang has a very rare treatise of war written by an ancient sage. It is said to be the source of his military might. As the marshal of our country, it wouldn’t be strange for you to borrow it.” ‘I know what you want.’


The marshal nodded slowly, appreciating the lie that Nangong Xie was spinning. “Yes, you are right. But they have refused my request,” he said. ‘What are you going to do about it?’


“I am a little familiar with the Huangs. Do you want me to approach them on your behalf?” ‘Do you want me to take action?’


The marshal arched an eyebrow in question. “Oh? You would do this?” ‘Can you?’


“I can have some mutual acquaintances to persuade the madam to come see you,” Nangong Xie said. ‘I know certain people, I can arrange for them they to bring her to you.’


“Really?” the marshal demanded, sitting up a little straighter. Then he frowned and said, “But I don’t want anyone to be inconvenienced. I do not wish to cause a public incident over a book.” ‘Don’t make a mess.’


Nangong Xie bowed. “Of course. I’ll make sure you have what you want in your hands this very night.”



The Huang residence,
Tianxin City,
Wu

Night. The moon was hidden by the clouds, casting a gloomy atmosphere over the Huang residence. A group of men dressed in black were gathered in a nearby dark alley.


“Grab the women, kill anyone who discovers us,” one of the shadowy figures said. The others nodded in silent acknowledgement.


Marshal Gao had no way of knowing, but Nangong Xie had taken his tacit approval to accomplish his own desires. The Handsome Scholar reasoned that since he was reaching into the pot to grab the pickle, he might as well go elbow-deep for the best pickings. Marshal Gao can have Madam Li, but Nangong Xie wanted Cao Tianyun and Liu Yuchun for himself.


Soundlessly the men scaled the walls into the Huang courtyard. It was an expansive residence with carefully tended gardens and trimmed lawns, and that meant plenty of dark shadows to hide. From their hiding place, they spied patrols of maids and servants walking around in pairs, each carrying a lantern and a gong. In addition, there were stationary guards at every visible doorway.


The hearts of the dark-clad men grew cold when they saw all these security measures, this was not going to be the easy kidnapping job they thought it was. This was no ordinary household, this was almost like a military camp! Even if the sentries were just maids and ordinary servants armed with nothing but sticks, it would still be a challenge to accomplish their task without alerting the residence.


The men looked at each other warily, wondering if they should proceed. Even their leader was having doubts, and he was about to call the job off when fate intervened. One of the pair of maids wandered too precariously close to their position. The men reacted quickly without waiting for their leader’s order: they clamped their gloved hands over the mouths of the maids and dragged them into the bushes to slit their throats. It was not unusual for them, it was a tactical disabling action that they have done many times.


However, having maids that wander around with a gong was unusual. None of the men managed to prevent the maids from tossing their gong away, it fell with a tremendous crash that shook the souls of the thuggish men. They barely had the time to stare at each in aghast before cries of “Alarm! Alarm!” went up.


Almost immediately the sound of thunderous running feet filled the air. More torches arrived, illuminating the night and leaving no place for the would-be kidnappers to hide. They were quickly surrounded by nervous servants brandishing wooden sticks, and the kidnappers were cut off from the avenue of retreat.


They did not even have the time to cut the throats of the two maids that they had taken, they could only unsheathe their short swords and daggers and held the two maids as a shield. It was an effective deterrent, the servants that were surrounding them did not know what to do.


“Yu-er? What’s going on here?” a childish voice demanded sleepily. All eyes turned to see that it was Zhao Hongqi who was rubbing her bleary eyes. She had recognized one of the maids that was being held by the kidnappers, it was Huang Ming’s personal serving girl Yu-er.


Zhao Hongqi’s sudden appearance distracted the servants, and the leader of the kidnappers seized the small window of opportunity.


“Grab her!” he yelled, pointing at Zhao Hongqi. His men shouted loudly and frightened the servants and maids who could only step back in fear.


Just as it seemed that the half-sleeping girl would fall into their hands, a crossbow bolt flew through the air and struck the chest of the closest kidnapper. The man shrieked before tumbling lifelessly away. His sudden death stunned the rest of the kidnappers, and they saw that his killer was yet another female.


It was Liu Yuchun, and in her hands was a crossbow-like weapon. The men were indeed familiar with crossbows, but the one in her hands was slightly different: it had a wheel crank on top. Military crossbows required physical strength, soldiers had to pull with both feet holding the weapon down. However, this addition meant that even women and young children could operate the weapon, all they needed to do was to turn the crank to ready the crossbow.


On Earth, the crossbow in Liu Yuchun’s hands was called the cranequin. Huang Ming had drawn up the design and given it to her to build. It was one of the strange implements that he had requested of Liu Yuchun, urging her to try improve on his rough sketch herself so that the Huangs could better protect themselves while the men were away.


She was delighted by her craftsmanship and had trained in its use extensively. When she pulled the trigger and launched the bolt that killed the kidnapper, she did so without thinking; acting on impulse when she saw the men was about the grab hold of Zhao Hongqi. The enormity of what she had done now slammed into her: Liu Yuchun was panting heavily, her eyes were frantic and her hands trembled at the sudden realization that she had actually killed someone.


But by now, Zhao Hongqi was fully awake and aware of what was happening. She snatched a wooden stick from one the servants and twirled it above her head. It whistled ferociously through the air, proving that the girl was adept in its use. Eventually she brought it down and pointed at the slack-jawed kidnappers who were still reeling at the death of their comrade.


“This place, I protect! Protect with my life! You evil-doers! Die!” she roared.


Fearlessly she lunged forward and stabbed the stick towards the throat of a kidnapper who was holding one of the maids hostage. The man could not evade in time, he died with a whimper as his windpipe was crushed by the thrust. The freed maid quickly scurried away.


Zhao Hongqi continued to attack. She swung her stick mightily and smashed the kneecap of another man, causing him to howl hideously in pain. In the commotion, Yu-er who was the other hostage suddenly drew a dagger from her sleeves and stabbed at the thigh of her kidnapper, causing him to scream and drop his own weapon. She then ducked and rolled away into safety, just like how she had learned from Zhao Hongqi before.


Seeing that the kidnappers no longer had any hostages, the other servants quickly rushed forward with their sticks. With their longer reach and bigger numbers, it was easy for them to subdue the rest of the kidnappers. Soon the men were captured and tied up.


Then Madam Li and Cao Tianyun arrived. Cao Tianyun went over to comfort Liu Yuchun, gently prying the crossbow away from her shaking hands.


Madam Li motioned for her daughters-in-law to withdraw, and she smiled at Zhao Hongqi who was standing proudly with her bloodstained wooden stick. She was not affected by the carnage at all, she placed one foot on the corpse of dead kidnapper, like a hunter showing off a kill.


“What big rats we have caught,” Madam Li said coldly as she glared at the bound kidnappers.


The eyes of the kidnappers shook with fear.


This was no ordinary household!

 

Black hands plot a grievous scheme,
They sneaked in like a bad dream.
But the evil-doers made a wrongful assumption,
Thinking that it was an easy abduction.
The men of the house were absent,
But who knew that maids could be so valiant?
The plot was defeated by the women warriors,
And now they are all the sorrier.​