“It's awful, awful, awful, awful, and then something incredible happens. And then it's awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful and then something incredible happens again.”
--'The Backup Plan'


Chapter 99 – I have a plan

By the time Huang Ming and Huang Ke returned, the second battle of Tigertrap Pass was already over. The dead were being buried, the wounded were being tended to and the survivors were making makeshift preparations to camp for the night.


The battle did not yield too many prisoners. The defeated Wei soldiers were allowed to flee after their leaders were slain. Huang Zheng did not order a vigorous pursuit as he feared a follow-up force from Ran Wei.


“Where the hell have you two been?” Huang Zheng demanded as soon as they entered his makeshift tent. With him were Zhao Tong and Sunli. The tanned woman’s eyes flashed when she saw Huang Ming and looked away when he smiled at her in greeting.


Huang Ke nudged his younger brother with an elbow, signalling for him to speak. The unsavoury business regarding Gao Fang was his idea after all.


“Just wrapping up loose ends,” Huang Ming said enigmatically, and Huang Ke couldn’t resist a grin.


Just looking at the two scheming brothers was enough to give their father a headache. Zhao Tong who was in attendance chortled at the sight.


“I’m glad that you lot can still find humour in this situation,” Huang Zheng grumbled. “Now see if you can find a way to open the gates to Tigertrap Fort!”


“Calm down, let’s have some tea,” Huang Ming said.


“Will you please be serious!” his father fired back.


“Relax. I have a cunning plan…” Huang Ming murmured placatingly.


Huang Zheng clutched his forehead to ease the throbbing headache. Ever since his youngest son’s change of heart, he had grown wary of his slyness. Previously he only had a silver tongue to tell lies, a cast-iron stomach for drinking and a brain filled with lust. But now… now it seemed that his new attitude had a tinge of duplicity and manipulation.


He was glad that his son had found maturity, but he was not sure that he liked the sarcasm and lackadaisical attitude that came with it. Huang Zheng had the impression that his youngest son was becoming quite insidious.


“Well, what is it?” the general asked with a sigh.


“Tomorrow we’ll march to the fort and publicly demand for the gates to open,” Huang Ming replied.


“And?”


“And we’ll see how Qin Lang reacts,” Huang Ming said blandly.


One could almost see the veins on Huang Zheng’s forehead pulsing. “Is that it? Your cunning plan is to run to the walls and talk?” he growled through clenched teeth.


“It’s for our benefit as well. Surely by now his scouts would have reported the battle with the Wei pursuers. At the very least, he would realize that something has gone wrong with the marshal. Maybe he’ll even open the gates if we ask for it,” Huang Ming said.


Zhao Tong snorted. “And if he should answer our request with a hail of arrows? What then?”


Huang Ming smiled faintly. “He will not risk doing something like that in public. Even if he hates our guts, he could hardly ask the ordinary soldiers to attack the Great General Huang Zheng.”


Zhao Tong scratched his short beard in a show of reluctance. “I’m not going to risk becoming a porcupine solely on one person’s good name, even if its your father’s,” he rumbled.


“Don’t worry, we’ll take it slowly and cautiously. We have all the time in the world,” Huang Ming said easily.


“Have you forgotten about Ran Wei?” Zhao Tong asked, raising an eyebrow. “He had scored a huge victory at Dashan Plains but we have given him a slap in return. There’s no way that he’ll take this affront so calmly, he must be furious.”


“Why?” Huang Ming smirked.


Huang Zheng glared at him. “What do you mean ‘why’. We have killed two of his leaders. Surely he would press on and retake Tigertrap Fort itself.”


Huang Ming laughed. “And then what? You all have placed too much importance on the fort, there is no reason for Ran Wei to take it at this point of time.”


“If not now, then when?” Zhao Tong asked.


Huang Ming elaborated, “Tigertrap Fort is just an inconvenient cork in the wine bottle. You’re assuming he wants to take the cork out to drink… but Ran Wei is no drunkard. Even if he were to take the fort now, the state of Wei is too exhausted to do anything more. On the contrary, for them to hold Tigertrap Fort at this point would be stretching their supply lines thin. Didn’t we spent a month rampaging their countryside? We had driven away their farmers, seized their crops and burned their lands. It will take at least a year or so for them to stockpile resources for a campaign, to say nothing about rebuilding the losses their army had suffered prior to Dashan Plains.”


His father’s brows creased with thought. “You mean to say that even if he wants Tigertrap Fort, there’s no real benefit for doing so? Because Wei won’t have the strength to continue after he captures it?”


Huang Ming nodded. “That’s right. And I’m willing to bet that the leaders you have killed here were jealous of Ran Wei. If they truly wanted to assault the fort, where’s the rest of their forces? Remember the information given by Qiong Ying, their military is riven with factionalism. We have seen this first hand when we were first confronted by Fei Yue instead of Ran Wei himself. If I were him, I would prefer to take this chance to claim my supremacy, rather than risking an attrition here. Though our soldiers are damaged in morale, the fact remains that we have many veterans still; and enough supplies to last us awhile. We could simply remain in the fort and it would be very difficult to dislodge us.”


“But we’re not in the fort,” Huang Ke pointed out the obvious flaw.


“A temporary situation,” Huang Ming replied confidently.


“It sounds very plausible, but you’re riding awfully a lot on assumptions,” their father said doubtfully.


Huang Ming shrugged. “Well, if you’re that worried then we can make some preparations for tomorrow.”


“What sort of preparations?”


Huang Ming then listed some items and asked for some men who were skilful with their hands. When Huang Zheng and the rest heard his demands, they gawked at him.


“What exactly are you up to?” they asked.


Huang Ming smirked. “This is just a backup. Actually, the backup to the backup. If all goes well we might not be using these things at all. My initial plan is far less dramatic. But rest assured we’ll be in the fort tomorrow, with or without Qin Lang’s blessing.”


Huang Zheng, Zhao Tong and Huang Ke were understandably curious, but sent orders to prepare the material and men that he had asked for. While waiting for them, Huang Ming took the opportunity to go away and find a quiet spot to rest, but hardly had he sat down when a shadow loomed over him.


He looked up and saw the glowering face of his amazon fiancée, Sunli. The dusky-skinned, athletic woman was scowling at him, her hands on her hips.


“What are you planning?” she demanded bluntly.


“I’m about to take nap actually,” Huang Ming replied honestly.


“Cut the nonsense, you know what I mean,” Sunli said testily.


“What do you think?” Huang Ming countered, staring back at her.


Sunli looked away. “I think you’re going to do something reckless again. Like the time when you first entered the fort and captured it on your own,” she said accusingly.


“You’re that worried?” Huang Ming asked.


“Your mother made me promise to keep you safe,” she reminded him stiffly.


It was an obvious cover-story, but Huang Ming knew better than to act like some flirty young master dealing with a prickly woman. Seeing her being so awkward made him aware that he could not put off the matter of their engagement forever, and he was not about to pretend that it didn’t happen… nor make a half-baked plan from a sappy love drama to drive her away.


Thus, he decided to take the direct approach.


“Do you want to talk about things between us?” he asked quietly.


She bared her teeth in a snarl. “Do you take me to be some love-struck fool? How did you make such a leap from me asking a simple question?”


Huang Ming winced. “I’m sorry,” he said in contrition, executing the Standard Male Response. He was experienced enough to know that he shouldn’t qualify the apology as it would imply that she was the one who had misunderstood him, however irrational that was.


Sunli opened her mouth, as if wanting to say more. But seeing the apologetic expression on his face ventilated her anger, and she merely exhaled heavily.


“Don’t do anything stupid tomorrow,” she warned him.


“If things go well, I shouldn’t need to,” Huang Ming said with a grin.
 

A small chore,
To open the door.​