Covid scare. Fortunately, nothing in the end.



I’m a man with a one track mind, so much to do in one lifetime.

--Queen, ‘I Want It All’

 

Chapter 304 – We’re leaving

 

“Your majesties must think twice! Our kingdom is still in its infancy, and the years past much of our strength had been sapped away by the corrupt and the indulgent. Now is not the time for war!”

 

The chorus from the bowing officials of Chuwu was in sync, as if it was rehearsed.

 

At the head of the assembled body were Zhou Zhong and Lu Wei representing the civil side, while Meng Jian and Bai Mu were on behalf of the military.

 

Facing them were King Chu Xiong and Queen Wu Liying, their faces impassive but the tiniest narrowing of their eyes were enough to convey their displeasure.

 

“You lot raised concerns about the Marquis Huang once before. Are you not tired of slandering against those who are meritorious?” Queen Wu Liying asked sarcastically.

 

When the officials kept their heads bowed, the queen continued her waspish rebuke: “We have even summoned his father the aged Great General back here, yet you are still not satisfied?”

 

She stood up and left in a huff. The officials did not dare to raise a voice to stop her, and continued to sweat even after she had disappeared.

 

“Gentlemen, now you see who wears the pants in the family. Hell hath no fury like a woman,” King Chu Xiong chuckled self-deprecatingly.

 

No one dared to laugh even though their monarch was now smiling.

 

“Do you know who bequeathed that piece of wisdom to me?” he asked.

 

“Who, sire?” Zhou Zhong asked, knowing that the king wanted someone to prompt him.

 

“It was Marquis Huang,” King Chu Xiong revealed, and allowed himself to smile at their silence.

 

He could see the officers tremble, and his smile was replaced with a harsh glare.

 

“You underestimate the Marquis. He has long since predicted your fears and jealousies,” he said. “You do not know that the marquis’s greatest desire is to retire into a life of leisure and luxury, and you have no idea just how much effort we have spent in order to retain him in our service.”

 

Zhou Zhong gave Lu Wei a glance, and his colleague understood and raised his head to ask, “But sire, why then did you recall Great General Huang to the capital?”

 

“Ha ha,” the king laughed mirthlessly. “You complained about the marquis acting without orders. So it is natural that the next decree be given in your presence, lest you lot have more excuses to grumble.”

 

He raised a hand to gesture towards the audience hall’s doors, and the assembled officers turned to look behind them. Coming into the hall in powerful strides was Great General Huang Zheng. The various officials parted to make way for him, but he ignored their astonished looks and made his obeisance to the king.

 

“It has been tiresome for you, o’ Great General, but it is time for you to act,” the king said.

 

“What are your orders, sire,” Huang Zheng asked solemnl.

 

The king casually tossed a military tally to the aged general who caught it deftly.

 

“Accept my order! Clear a path for me, and complete the conquest of Wei!”

 

“Thy servant hear and obey!” Great General Huang Zheng saluted hand over fist, wheeled on his feet and marched out as suddenly as he had arrived.

 

The king leaned back, savoring the stunned silence that reigned among the officers.

 

“You have questions?” he asked sardonically.

 

“Sire, you said there was an army in the field? What army…?” Bai Mu asked hesitantly. As one of the two controllers that would be in charge of military mobilization, he was perplexed.

 

There was no army in the field.

 

As far as he knew.

 

Bai Mu glanced at his colleague Meng Jian, but he too was puzzled.

 

“Do not blame Meng Jian,” the king said pre-emptively. “Why did you think we had recall Great General Huang? Was it really just to assuage your worries?”

 

“Your majesty had him return to organize the logistics and mobilize the army himself,” Meng Jian said admiringly.

 

“For two years we have lied in wait and gathered our strength. All this time we have agreed to your proposals to focus on domestic affairs, so as to divert attention from our preparations. Military matters needed to be a closely guarded secret,” the king expounded. “That is yet another lesson the marquis that taught me.”

 

The assembled officers were chastened.

 

Zhou Zhong ventured to ask: “Your majesty intends to command the main body following the Great General? But there is no need for you to personally venture into the field, sire.”

 

King Chu Xiong smiled cynically. “You were suspicious of Huang Ming, because his accomplishments far outweighed mine. My place on the throne was also because of him. When I asked him what I should do eliminate your fears, the marquis said that I needed to score a great merit and demonstrate my prestige. This is the opportunity that he has given me.”

 

“Has he really seen so far?” Lu Wei asked in wonder. “But the risks…”

 

The king brushed off his minister’s concern. “My personal involvement would not be too strenuous.”

 

Bai Mu had one last doubt. What about Ran Wei who was inside Tigertrap Fort?

 

“Oh, Huang Ming had left him a letter,” the king said, much to their puzzlement.

 

The Chuwu officials were not the only ones perplexed.

 

In Tigertrap Fort, Ran Wei was shocked by the alarm. Was Jin making a pre-emptive strike, which was expected all along? Since Huang Ming had been lured away, it was obvious that Jin would want to take advantage of his absence.

 

“What is happening?” Ran Wei demanded.

 

But even as the words left his mouth, Ran Wei could see the light from a distant source lighting up the night sky.

 

“It’s the Jin army, and they are approaching here!” came the reports.

 

Ran Wei’s face hardened. “Man your positions. And summon the Huang brothers so that we can ‘take counsel’.”

 

But he was to be disappointed. Huang Ke bluntly told him: “We’re leaving.”

 

Ran Wei could not believe it. “What did you say?”

 

“We got tired of being belittled by you everyday. But we’re feeling generous. You wanted this fort, you can have it,” Huang Ke smirked.

 

“Stop lying. How could you possibly give this place up?” Ran Wei growled.

 

“Why not? It’s a fort in the middle of a narrow pass, and we already have fortified cities on our end anyway. Why should we be so concerned about the bottle’s neck, when we have the cork?” Huang Ke reminded him, relishing the look on his face.

 

“If you leave this place, you will never be able to go into Wei again. And how are you going to rescue your brother?” Ran Wei snarled.

 

“What makes you think we have to go through this place ever again?” Huang Lang asked quietly.

 

Ran Wei blinked as he processed his words. “You are crossing over the Great River from Chu?”

 

The two brothers did not deign to explain further, and the Chuwu men began to leave the fort. There was nothing Ran Wei could do to prevent them, for the Chuwu garrison outnumbered the Wei men.

 

Gritting his teeth, the Wei marshal began barking orders to the startled Wei men. The Wei men were greatly astonished to see the Chuwu garrison marching out of the fort, and looked at each other doubtfully. Ran Wei always wanted the fort, and now he had gotten it just like that. But how is he going to hold it against the Jins?

 

A few of the Wei men slipped into the ranks of the retreating Chuwu soldiers. They had followed Ran Wei every since the fall of Wei, hardened by bitter experiences. When Ran Wei allowed them to enjoy themselves every night in order to provoke the Chuwu garrison into an incident, the Wei men happily indulged themselves.

 

Having tasted the sweetness of idle life in the fort, they would now need to gird their armour and fight against hopeless odds? Why? For the vanity of Ran Wei? Even Ran Wei himself had been fooling around with a woman all this while…

 

Looking down at the despairing scene from a window in her room, Min Guang allowed herself a faint, humourless smile.

 

“Are you ready?” Qiong Ying asked. Both women were in their male garbs for ease of movement.

 

“Yes,” Min Guang replied simply.

 

“It has been difficult for you,” Qiong Ying said plainly. There was no pity in her tone, it said matter-of-factly.

 

“No, it was actually the easiest time of my life,” Min Guang said. “I was doubtful when he told me that all I needed was to distract Ran Wei for several days.”

 

Qiong Ying gave her an arched eyebrow. “Was that the only doubt you had?”

 

Min Guang bowed her head. “When he said that he would think of something, I did not believe him,” she said softly.

 

“You can tell it to him in person soon. We have to go now,” Qiong Ying urged.

 

“And where do you think you’re going?” a menacing voice interrupted them. It was Ran Bing, Ran Wei’s sister who had been tasked to look over Min Guang.

 

“We’re leaving,” Qiong Ying said, unafraid.

 

Ran Bing cracked her knuckles. “Really?” she sneered, looking at the two slender women with contempt.

 

“You’re not Zhao Sunli, what makes you think you can get past me?”

 

“How about her father?” an older voice growled from behind her.

 

Ran Bing whirled around, only to be greeted with a fist that sent her crashing.

 

The fist belonged to General Zhao Tong.

 

For a long time, he had kept low profile. He had been so quiet and nothing had been mentioned about him that many thought he had long since retired.

 

“She’s out cold,” Qiong Ying remarked as she looked at the slumped figure of Ran Bing.

 

“Sorry, had no time for niceties,” Zhao Tong said unapologetically. “She looks like a sturdy person, and I could not afford to pull back.”

 

Min Guang smiled. “My time with her had been brief, but I think she would appreciate it. Perhaps we should take her with us.”

 

“You want to take this lass along?” Zhao Tong asked incredulously. “I thought you’re supposed to travel light.”

 

“Just in case Ran Wei does the unthinkable,” Qiong Ying agreed.

 

Zhao Tong thought perhaps Min Guang wanted some measure of revenge against Ran Bing and did not question further.

 

“Women are scary,” he muttered as he slung the unconscious Ran Bing over his shoulder.

 

 

He heard her voice,

And made his choice.