The Divorcee is a Wicked Black Belly Chapter 72: Into the Dungeon
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Unlike other dungeons in human history, the dungeon under the palace of the emperor of Yuqui was actually pretty well-lighted. Torches light the pathways, the stairs, even the musky corners. It was not saying though that it was not a pretty scary place. After all, the last visitors in this labyrinthine underground dwelling were the enraged prime minister and his entitled daughter who bled like a pig when the executioner sliced her head off.
Vice general Sei Sei was an attractive woman and one of the top commanders of the Yuqui army so there were concessions. She was not strung up like a pig, she was not tortured, she was not hurt, there were clean water and food on the table. That's right. She was given a table inside her dungeon cell. A table with food and clean water without poison. Most importantly, she was given a perfectly nice futon with a blanket on which to rest. So, compared with the PM and his tiresome daughter, one might say that the vice general was lucky.
Looking at Du Lu and the Min brothers' dour faces though, one would think that vice general Sei Sei was anything but.
The empress dowager, who was unusually jovial and was even whistling under her breath, gave a pshh sound when she saw these green, I've-just-swallowed-a-bitter lemon expressions. She was tempted to laugh but of course did not first, because it was an inappropriate place in which to display a certain friskiness, and second, because she was a woman and can read at a glance how utterly pathetic yet oddly cinematic the three men's suffering faces were right now. Were they thinking perhaps of starring in an ancient world version of the Three Musketeers by any chance?
Vice general Sei Sei was standing on a corner with her back straight as an arrow when they arrived. She was thankfully not in hysterics, near to it or might not want to be in it, which was a blessing as far as the empress dowager was concerned. It was no fun torturing frightened people. No challenged at all.
A guard clicked open the cell door and they all walked in. Nobody spoke. The three stooges were still wearing their long faces, with Min Ling the saddest sad sack of the three.
"Sei Sei," the empress dowager greeted. "I heard that your family is from Laniang?"
That was An Ning, straight-to-the-point gut puncher. Du Lu and the Min brothers sucked in painful breaths. The emperor coughed. Kang Jun was wide-eyed. Yi Hai wooden.
The vice general, whose smooth perfectly preserved white skin gave off a dramatic pearly sheen, looked at the empress dowager like she was, huh?
An Ning stepped closer. She was dressed in one of those military fatigue outfits she found in one of the boxes hidden inside Enxuo's ring. Dark green slim-fitting trousers and jacket. A dark, leather belt encircling a trim waist which exposed the shape of a pert derriere and shiny leather boots, which made her look totally out of place and alien-like in this perfectly garish setting. In looks, An Ning was merely average compared to the pearl-like shine of the vice general's beauty, still, she dominated that tiny cell like a fascinating venomous cobra whose real power lies not on its poison but its ability to kill its enemy by a simple sting from its deadly tail.
She smiled and Du Lu visibly swallowed.
"Laniang has such a fascinating history, I'm told," the empress dowager continued lazily. "No government or imperial supervision, just a tithe each year. Pretty cool arrangement. Your parents were born there, I take it?"
Sei Sei was silent, her confused gaze falling on the three men she was closest to. Min Ling took an impetuous step as if to reach her side but the empress dowager barred his progress by flicking a riding whip in his direction. Min Ling stopped and gave the empress dowager an ugly look. The empress dowager sneered.
"True love. How fascinating," she drawled, watching Sei Sei's expression like a hawk.
"Your majesty, I'm not..." Sei Sei stammered in confusion.
"The address of your home in Laniang," the empress dowager clarified. "One might go for a visit and surprise the Sei father and mother."
"The courtyard in the south side, your majesty. The one with the big acacia tree."
This time, Sei Sei knew what was expected of her.
"Seventeen this year, your majesty."
"Military or civilian?"
"Yes, your majesty."
"One wonders why one chose to embrace the military life."
"For the glory of protecting Yuqui's freedom, your majesty."
The empress dowager smiled.
"And have you?"
"Protected Yuqui's freedom, that is."
"What is this all about, your grace?" Min Ling's anger and impatience could not be contained anymore. His voice was angry, the look he threw at the empress dowager was furious and could curdle mud. He looked at her like he wanted to strung her up and dangle her at the highest peak of the Sierra Mountains. He was fast losing control, which sharpened Du Lu's eyes into snake-like slits. "Why did you order vice general's arrest? For what crime? She's done nothing wrong. She's innocent!"
The empress dowager didn't raise her voice. Her eyes, when they settled on Min Ling's red and angry face, was calm. But the way she held herself, her military-clad body fully facing Min Ling, was a threat. Du Lu could see it on the seemingly relaxed way she tapped the riding whip on her leg. She didn't look at him but he could feel her displeasure. Du Lu restrained the urge to curse then finally issued an implacable command.
"Leave the room, soldier."
"General, surely you...." Min Ling's voice was outraged.
"Come on, I'll take you back," Min Song said, hastily steering his angry brother out. Min Ling left but not quietly. They could hear his angry curses, his incoherent threats and Min Song's soft responses as the sound of their voices finally drifted away.
"Love the water?" An Ning resumed her interrogation as if no interruption occurred.
"Oh? Any reason?"
"I nearly drowned when I was a child so it gave me a fear of water."
"No affinity for it, your majesty."
"Mother's favorite or Father's?"
The empress dowager's lips curved in approval.
"I am, too. Daddy's girl. Sports?"
"What does her majesty mean?"
"One must have an activity that one likes to do to keep the body strong and healthy."
"Swimming, your majesty."
This time, the empress dowager's smile was cold and deadly.
"But one fears water, doesn't one?"
"I...," Sei Sei stammered, her face flushing with the beginnings of panic. "There is a small pond in the mountains where one used to swim when one was a small child. One did not clarify that one is afraid of the vast ocean but perfectly happy to swim in a small pond."
"I see. That explains a lot." The empress dowager seemed satisfied. "We will now take our leave so vice general can rest. Benggong will be back to speak to vice general again after she has had her rest."
The empress dowager turned to leave but stopped when something caught her eye. It was a round stone, bluish in color and shiny. The empress dowager bent down and picked it up then held the stone up to the light.
"A blue agate. How surprising," she murmured then with a flick of her whip, she was gone.
Du Lu waited until the emperor and the rest of his companions left before turning to Sei Sei.
"Keep yourself safe. I'll have you out of here in two days time."
"General, what is this all about? What did I do wrong? And what did her majesty mean about my parents and Laniang? Did something happened? Is that why her majesty is accusing me of something? How could that be? I wasn't even there."
"I know that."
"Then what is it? Why am I here? Tell me. Please, I want to know. What have I done wrong?"
"I forgot to ask, do you have a brother?"
The empress dowager's lazy voice totally caught them by surprise. The empress dowager was leaning against the open gate, watching them with amused eyes. Du Lu's face turned a dark purple while Sei Sei's blanched in fear.
"I said, do you have a brother?"
"No. No, your majesty."
"What, your majesty?"
"I could have sworn you have a brother."
"You...your majesty?" Sei Sei's eyes widened and fear was reflected in them.
"Oh, well. I might have been mistaken. Coming, General Chen?"
Du Lu angrily swept past the amused empress dowager, who gave a soft laugh. The keeper of the gate appeared from somewhere. The key was turned with a snap. One by one, the torches went out and the dungeon settled back to its oppressive silence, trapping the people inside in its tomb-like darkness.
Five days later, the empress dowager and the surveillance team took the van and drove to Laniang. The usually one-day journey merely took four hours in Enxuo's state-of-the-art military grade vehicle. An Ning, who was at the wheel, deliberately evaded the civilian roads, not wanting to attract attention which could in turn travel back to Laniang.
They set up camp inside a chamber created by a giant crack between two mountains. The chamber was big enough to hide the van and the ceiling high enough not to interfere with the satellite and makeshift celfone tower.
An Ning and Yi Hai walked some distance away to a small slope then looked down. The smell of the salt water was fresh. The waves pure and gentle. The village living next to this vast blue wonder lay peaceful and still. Everything seemed to be as it should be. Other than the surprising presence of watchtowers around the edges of the trees and the gated entrance lined with people waiting to get in.
"Were those things here the last time you visited?" An Ning asked, turning to Yi Hai.
"No, your grace. They weren't." Yi Hai's voice was grim.
"A toll gate. They're actually collecting tolls to let people in. This is bad."
"A toll gate means money and that blue thing beyond ensures the steady flow of people since once must of course have its regular supply of fish. And if there's supply and demand, then the exchange of commerce is expected."
"Why can't we just go in and blast the damned village to smithereens?"
"I love the way you talk, Yi Hai," An Ning laughed. "Shoot and ask questions later, huh? My kind of man."
Yi Hai's face turned red.
"I just thought to get rid of them immediately before they reach the capital," Yi Hai stammered and refused to meet An Ning's amused eyes.
"They're already in the capital," An Ning's face hardened.
"The emperor's death. Gu Fang didn't die an easy death. He suffered, he screamed. He was so much in pain in the end I did what I had to do and put a knife into him," An Ning gritted the words through clenched teeth.
Yi Hai didn't say anything. Just waited calmly, his handsome face expressionless, his dark eyes unwavering on An Ning's tortured face.
"I loved him, you know," An Ning continued after a while. Compared with the force of anger that came out before, she was calmer, her rage under tight control. "There were close to twenty years between our ages, still I loved him. One of the best people I've ever had the pleasure to know. And I lost him."
An Ning's smile carried the memory of the past, those sweet fleeting moments that seem to now belong in her memory as it once before in that old An Ning's heart.
"We will avenge him, your grace," Yi Hai uttered the words like a vow. "I swear it."
An Ning released the drone when the village finally hankered down for the night. Yi Hai wanted to follow it but was persuaded not to when the images from the drone came back and revealed a troop of figures obviously patrolling the streets and toll gate.
The images showed a village with a clean and well-ordered layout. The streets were clean but the houses rundown. The largest building seemed to be some sort of temple in the middle. The largest house was in the northeast close to a wall protecting it from the waves. A tree stood in front of the house, large and flowering with branches.
"She said a large tree and there it is," An Ning said, watching the images on the monitor.
The drone hovered above the south courtyard of the complex. Compared with the nondescript, rundown houses in the middle of the town, the images showed a wealthier house with manicured gardens, fake mountains and a fishpond. A thick wall surrounded the complex while armored men stood in attention in all entrances and exits.
"They're well fortified like a goddamn bank," An Ning muttered under her breath. Her glance suddenly lifted to the faint outline of the mountains in the far distance. "The Sierra Mountains seems awfully close from this distance. What do you think?"
"They could be hiding their army in there? Hidden well within the mountains?" Yi Hai said.
"Possibly. They're too disciplined to just expose their army like that in the open. Besides, their presence will only attract attention. They need somewhere to hide them. What better place than the mountains? I wonder about their strength though. If big, we need to pull out half of the army to the capital."
"Wouldn't that cause too much attention as well, your grace?"
An Ning smiled.
"Pulling the army out is not an option. Besides, they've already figured that out in their plans. That's what they want us to do, so we won't do it. We have to find another way."
"What about his majesty's maternal family in the village? Should we send out word or something?"
"Little Gu is not close to them so based on that, I will doubt their loyalty," An Ning then flashed an impish smile at Yi Hai. "Don't worry. We will think of a way."
Yi Hai averted his eyes from her glowing face.
"I know her grace will always think of a way," he said softly.
"For now, let's all get some rest. We need to be up early and drive to the mountains tomorrow morning."
"The mountains, your grace?"
"Yes. To surveill their force. Then we'll think of a way to wipe them all out," An Ning said, a smile which was not a smile pulling at the corners of her lips.
Yi Hai didn't say anything, merely gave a command to his men to rotate patrol that night but in his mind was the sound of the strong resolve in An Ning's voice. He suddenly felt sorry for whoever it was that even thought of messing up with her. He or she will most likely not survive her wrath. They even ended their chance to reincarnate when they assassinated her husband. Really too stupid.
It was the whir of something unfamiliar that woke An Ning up. Her eyes opened in panic. She scrambled to her knees then opened the tent flap to peer outside. It was still dark. A thick fog obscured the trees and the mouth of the chamber from the inside. She left the tent and slowly made her way out, the sound of her boots softly tap tapping on the ground the only sound that broke the silence.
The soft mist of morning rain moistened her face when she reached the entrance. The world was bathe in mist and fog and the temperature was cool and light and facing her some distance from the slope where she and Yi Hai spied on Laniang that afternoon was an open doorway to another space and time.
And calling to her from that open doorway were the figures of a man and a woman. The man wore the formal robes of a high official. He was tall and had an aristocratic cast to his features that made his beauty very unusual. The woman was dressed in the high fashion of a European woman of the 19th century. The woman had long blue black hair which flowed silkily and naturally down her slim shoulders and back. She also had An Ning's face except that hers was a little older, her eyes deeper and more settled in maturity.
The woman smiled then beckoned An Ning to come closer. An Ning didn't move. As a woman whose original roots were steeped in 21st century lore, she of course was familiar with phantoms, and monsters, especially vampires who attack any innocent homeowner foolish enough to invite them to enter their house.
So, An Ning didn't move. Besides fearing an attack and being turned into a vampire against her will, she was also paralyzed at the spectral presence of this two couple whom everyone in her family assumed had died while in the middle of a really foolish experiment, which turned out to be not really that foolish obviously.
The man besides Hippolyta, of course it was Hippolyta, tore a leaf out of a notebook in his sleeves and wrote something which he then held up for An Ning to see. 14: 27. The numbers wavered as if a gust of wind suddenly passed thru the door and the two figures started to shimmer and dissolved. The last thing An Ning saw as the doorway finally closed was of Hippolyta sobbing in Li Cheung's arms.
Only then did An Ning take a small step forward but then she felt a hand holding her back, dragging her to rest on a chest which was heaving with fright and surprise.
"Your majesty...An Ning...wake up!"
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