The Divorcee is a Wicked Black Belly Chapter 86: The Ministry of Public Works Foils a Plo
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An Ning left the banquet immediately after Ling Wan was revived. Ling Nam wanted to rush to the emperor and tell him what happened but An Ning pulled him back angrily.
"You do that and everyone will know the capital is not as secure as everyone believes. Shut your trap until we've figured out what this is all about."
An Ning then ordered Ling Nam to inform his majesty that the empress was going somewhere to take care of some matters and that he mustn't worry. She will be back before the banquet ended.
"Don't tell anyone and behave as you would normally. And tell them to serve dinner about half an hour from now."
With that, An Ning and Ling Wan along with the men rushed outside the school grounds and walked the few blocks to the ministry of public works' headquarters. The courtyard was already filled with people when they opened the gates and went inside. They seemed to be waiting, tense and nervous and eerily silent.
When they saw An Ning, the tension almost magnified into unspoken dread. An Ning was still wearing her emerald green dress, still looking as immaculate as a highly pampered young woman about to enjoy her expensive dinner with her rich fiancee. But her eyes gave them pause. They were chilling and cold, deadly as a rattlesnake's bite. The cold orbs raked over their faces and they swallowed.
The two words were a command as were the implacable tone of the imperious voice.
A young man separated himself from the group and bowed. He had medium-length hair that streamed around his shoulders in a black cloud, direct eyes that never wavered from her gaze, and somehow he seemed more solid and taller although the men around him looked even bigger and meaner.
"Your grace, my name is Xiang Yu. We were outside, with permission from Master Ling to...erm..," at this point Xiang Yu stopped and a tide of red suffused his cheeks. "Well, we were at this place doing our own...er...business when this young gentleman came in. He was very drunk and was making quite a raucous."
As Xiang Yu put it, they recognized the young man as a student of the Zhengyi sect because of the distinctive Taoist yin and yang symbol on his robe. The young man took a seat at a table not far from them and ordered a drink. The proprietress wanted to protest but the man flung a bag of silver on the table, which made the the proprietress' eyes popped out. She hurriedly left and came back with a big jug.
Attracted by the young man's money, a couple of beauties in Xiang Yu's group's table left and sidled closer to the next table and started talking to the inebriated young man. The attention seemed to flatter him because he started to boast about a big job which he said, if he and his friends did splendidly, will make them not only famous but rich beyond their wildest dreams.
The beauties were not interested in his ramblings but encouraged him anyway so he would start throwing his money about. With such an engaged and enraptured audience, the beauties by then were wrapped around him like snakes, the young man said that it was supposed to be a secret. But Chang Chang was very angry and humiliated and she wanted revenge. She already had some men with her hidden somewhere anyway so why not do it tonight? Wasn't that the reason why they participated in the games? To destabilize and sow dissent in the capital?
The beauties laughed off his story. They didn't know who Chang Chang was. They didn't understand big words such as 'destabilize' and 'dissent' especially when it referred to the capital. All they had interest in was the clink of silver in the young man's bag. As long as that bag was still full of silver, then they were deaf, blind and mute to whatever the young man was talking or inferring about, whatever it was. All the beauties cared about was that clinking sound and nothing else.
The young man's tale, however, effectively removed the drunken haze clouding Xiang Yu's and his companion's fuzzy brains. They looked at each, suddenly alert and vigilant. Without saying a word to each other, the group stayed put, intending to follow the man when he leaves the establishment.
Suddenly, another group wearing the same Taoist design on their robes entered. Unlike the young man, each man in the group was not drunk, was not disorderly, was not even looking for a good time when they entered the brothel house. When the group saw the young man, they immediately pounced on him, their eyes wandering about at the same time before settling for a second on Xiang Yu's group's table, which had returned to its raucous drunken state.
The men carried the young man out. The young man protested and screamed but somebody clipped him on the head and he went out like a light. Xiang Yu and his comrades waited then followed them outside.
The men carrying their friend walked for about half an hour then entered a house. Xiang Yu was
surprised to see the location of the place, in the lower market district, where gangs and ruffians and low lifes usually hang out. What where reputable students from the Zhengyi sect doing in a place like this?
Xiang Yu and his group decided to wait. They didn't wait long. A steady stream of people started arriving soon after the Zhingye students entered the house. Big men, muscular men, burly men, strong men, men who look like soldiers out on a mission. Xiang Yu signaled to a comrade who immediately scaled the walls of the house to listen in from the roof. Another guy circled around the back for a closer look.
Xiang Yu and the rest of the men waited where they were, watching the comings and goings in the house from a distance. When the spies came back, they learned that the sect was planning an attack that night during the banquet. The army was not in the capital and the emperor was only relying on a small number of guards to defend the palace. The capital was left vulnerable after the previous attack, which meant it was the best time to strike the blow when it was on its knees while barely hobbling on a crutch.
Xiang Yu listened to the report with a conflicted heart. Someone was planning on doing the same thing they did except this group might actually succeed where they failed. He raised his head and was not surprised to see the question in his comrades' eyes.
"Let us go back," he said, with something like a regretful sigh. "We have to prepare to foil an attack."
They made their counter plans then fanned out to every entrance and exit, ready to defend the city they once brutally assaulted and raped. The palace had disarmed them when they surrendered but they have their axes, their hammers, all the tools they use to rebuild torn buildings and houses. They also have their hands and their skills in bashing an enemy's head against a rock until he lies bleeding on the ground dead.
The assault came fast and furious but the enemy was pushed back hard. They were clearly taken aback, expecting a futile resistance then the eventual defeat of the monarch. The fighting went unnoticed since everyone was in the temple, watching from higher ground the hiss and crackle of hundreds of fireworks lighting the skies like a bulb.
Ling Wan listened to the voice narrating the tale and nearly died from shame. He sank to his feet and touched his forehead to the ground. These brave men undertook a deadly task without even telling him, risking their lives while he was enjoying a quiet time at home with his wife and son. He felt deeply ashamed by his ignorance.
Xiang Yu finished his story and met the empress' still glacial eyes. She had shown no expression while listening to his tale. She had stood there quietly and regally without moving. Now, her eyes roamed the faces watching her with fearful yet hopeful expressions. An Ning's lips curved in a gentle smile.
"You did well. Thank you."
The praise, unequivocal in its sincerity, flustered the men. Their faces blushed in embarrassment, their shy eyes glancing away from each other.
An Ning looked down on the still prostrate figure of Ling Wan.
"Don't blame yourself, Ling Wan. Your men were just trying to protect you. What do you know of fighting anyway? You'll only get yourself killed or get somebody killed because you were on the way."
Her unconscious use of the words 'your men' stunned Ling Wan speechless. So did the men who could only gaped at her. Xiang Yu opened his mouth to say something when suddenly a loud scream was heard inside.
"My brother, your grace," Xiang Yu said, turning his head in the direction of the sound. "He's badly hurt."
"It's his arm, your grace. It's...it's bad," Ling Wan stammered.
Another scream rang out, more guttural this time. Xiang Yu flinched then hurried inside without another word. An Ning hesitated and followed him.
On a bed, in a room cramped by a number of frightened people, a young boy was lying in a pool of his own blood. He was twisting and turning, whimpering and groaning wretchedly as a middle-aged man in a bloodied robe prepares to cut his right arm off with a saw.
"What are you doing?" An Ning barked angrily, hurrying forward.
The middle-aged man eyed her doubtfully and turned questioningly at Xiang Yu.
"Your grace, we need to do something to stop the bleeding. His arm...the doctor said we can't save it anymore."
"Get out!" An Ning commanded, searing the cowering doctor with her glance.
An Ning pushed him out the door with one hand. She turned and looked at the other people inside the room.
They scrammed, dragging their tails hanging between their legs.
An Ning walked to the bed and stared down at the dying boy. He looked very young, his round face still retaining the chubbiness of baby fat. He screamed again, his eyes clouded and hazy with pain.
"Give me your knife," An Ning said, holding her hand out to Xiang Yu.
"Your grace? What...?"
Xiang Yu reluctantly pulled out his knife from its sheathe and handed it to her.
An Ning didn't even look at the blade before cutting her own hand with it. The blood flowed, red and fresh. Ling Wan was so scared that he jumped to his feet but before he could reach her, An Ning had already turned her palm downwards, allowing the blood to flow then drop on the nearly severed arm of the boy on the bed.
She watched without expression as the blood did its magic and immediately healed the ugly gaping wound. Then she fed the boy some of the red liquid, watching as the pallid face slowly regained its color, the lines of pain on the tender young brow gradually easing up. An Ning took a clean cloth and wet it with water from a jug standing nearby then wiped the blood on the arm and the tears on the boy's young face. She then tucked the blanket around him, brushing the hair from his brow with a light touch from her fingertips before straightening up.
"He's going to be alright now," she said.
But the two men were no longer listening to her. They were looking at her hand, the smooth pale palm where she injured herself. She didn't seemed to be in pain, she wasn't bleeding anymore, and she was looking at them and behaving like it was the most natural thing.
Xiang Yu gaped at her like she was a ghost, a phantom who suddenly appeared in front of his eyes to bedevil his soul. He blinked. He didn't want to think about it right now. She was the empress and she was also his brother's savior. The two were complete opposites, incomparable extremes but perhaps it was as it should be.
"Where did you put the prisoners?" An Ning asked, turning to Ling Wan, who looked as if he was still in shock.
"In a room in the back, your grace."
An Ning nodded before turning to Xiang Yu.
"How old is this boy?"
"Twelve, your grace."
"Twelve and he's already fighting this stupid cause brought on by your resentment?"
Xiang Yu flushed but said nothing.
"Why isn't he in school?"
"Your grace?" Xiang Yu asked, confused.
"He should be in school learning about other things than how to kill people."
Xiang Yu hang his head without responding.
"What is the boy's name?"
"Xiang Cai, your grace."
"I want this young boy attending school when he has rested. I'll speak to the principal about it."
Ling Wan, who was listening to this conversation in total silence, gaped foolishly at her. Xiang Yu stared at the empress like he was about to disgrace himself by crying. Instead, he dropped to his knees and prostrated himself on the ground.
"Thanking, your grace," he mumbled hoarsely.
"Enough of that. Let's go and look at the prisoners now."
The room where the prisoners were held was actually a large empty barn where wood used for winter was stored. About two hundred men were milling about, guarded by a large number of tough-looking men armed with plows and heavy hammers. Both were eyeing each other with murderous intent, the guards' faces alert and vicious.
When An Ning entered, the temperature dropped to almost frigid zero. The prisoners turned to look at her, staring at her body in the emerald green dress with lewd, unclean eyes.
Xiang Yu flushed angrily then took his outer robe off and handed it to An Ning with an incoherent mumble. An Ning looked at the robe uncomprehendingly then laughed. She took the robe and put it on. The robe fell about her ankles, shielding her body from the crude, salacious stares.
"What did you do with the corpses?" she asked.
"Throw them into a ditch we dug just outside the walls," Xiang Yu answered.
"What are we going to do with the prisoners, your grace? Should we let them go?" Ling Wan asked nervously.
"Let them go? Of course not. We kill them all," An Ning answered, without turning her eyes away from the prisoners, who paled when they heard her words.
"Kill them all?" Ling Wan stammered. "But..."
"Execute them before dusk tomorrow," An Ning ordered. "But I want it done quietly. The capital is hosting an event that will show the world its continued strength and power. I don't want this miscreants ruining that. They're traitors deserving of punishment not mercy."
The words rang like a death knell. From somewhere in the back of the room a strangled cry was heard then a young man rushed forward and glared with frightened eyes at the empress.
"You can't! Zhengyi will attack the capital if you do anything to us!"
"Like I care," the empress mocked.
"What do you want us to do with the young woman, your grace?" a burly man bowed then addressed An Ning.
"Young woman?" she asked, frowning.
"The young lady with them, your grace. She led the attacked from the west entrance."
"Don't you dare do anything to her!" the young prisoner screamed frantically. "I'm warning you!"
"Chang Chang?" An Ning's eyes widened in comprehension. "She's here?"
'We don't know her name, your grace. But she killed many of our men."
"Where is she?"
"We had her locked up in chains in the next room, your grace."
An Ning nodded then turned to Xiang Yu, her expression difficult to read.
"Are you willing to see this through to the end?" she asked slowly as if weighing her words.
Xiang Yu was surprised but nodded his head.
"Your life and your men's life in exchange for peace?"
Xiang Yu finally understood but hesitated, looking over at his comrades, who gazed back at him with grave, unclouded eyes. He gave a deep sigh then met the empress' unwavering stare squarely and without fear.
"Yes, your grace."
"Then take some of your men and form a barricade within the perimeters of the walls. I don't want anyone entering the capital without us knowing anything about it. Kill everyone that tries to stop you. Ling Wan, take him to Yi Hai and give him this," the empress said, giving Ling Wan a flat jade with some symbols written on it. "This gives Xiang Yu permission to take everything he needs from the armory. Explain to Yi Hai if you must but do it quietly."
"The sect is known for their martial arts, your grace," Xiang Yu said.
"Martial arts can't do shit against the awesome power of a firearm. You should know that better than anyone," An Ning said, smiling wickedly.
Xiang Yu's corresponding smile was feral.
"Go now. I'll catch up with you after I've seen this young lady," An Ning said.
Ling Wan and Xiang Yu left while An Ning followed the burly man to the next room.
Chang Chang was chained to the wall, her robes bloodied, the once immaculate hair falling messily around her shoulders. Chang Chang looked up when she heard the door open, her eyes freezing with cold hatred when she saw the young girl standing there.
"You should have done what you're told and left the capital. Now, you've put me in a very tight spot. Kill you or let you go. Either way, your father won't be happy about it. What do you think?"
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