The Divorcee is a Wicked Black Belly Chapter 94: The White Tiger
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The emperor, as it turned out, was not joking. He did start an investigation on the matter of the injured tiger, which, surprisingly enough, turned out to be a different breed from the bait the ministry of animal protection had let loose in the jungle for the games.
Truth to tell, the ministry was rather embarrassed by the irony its name carried since what it does actually was capture rare and exotic animals offered as brutal prey to officially close the Battle of Talents. But it had always been in charge of the bait every year and it has been doing its duty splendidly until called by the emperor to explain the presence of another tiger hunted down for the same reason.
The minister, who took over his boss after he lost his head under the empress' orders, was terrified. He didn't know of any tiger roaming the garden around the pond. In fact, he didn't know there was even a pond in that wretched plains. He very much wanted to ask the emperor about it but he held his tongue, conscious of the probing stare her majesty the empress threw at him when he started to stammer his innocence.
Oh heavens, he didn't want to lose his head. He was just a minor government official with no power really to make changes to the ministry. In fact, he didn't even know why everyone kept insisting he was next in line to the ministry position when in fact, it was another powerful person above him. But that ostensibly powerful person had also lost his head and...If it weren't for the fact that he was newly married and he didn't want to disappoint his wife, he would have chucked this job a long time ago. The pressure of keeping one's head on one's shoulder was not worth it. Not worth it at all.
"So, you don't know anything about how this animal got in this pond at all?" The empress was saying. "Then who does?"
"Your grace, I don't really know," he was forced to confess. "All I know is that the white tiger came to us from a sale nearly two years ago. The ministry was in charge of maintaining and keeping the bait for the hunt each year. Last time was a black dragon that was killed by someone from Zhengyi. Previous to that was a wild boar and..."
"What about this red tiger?" asked the emperor. "No record of it in your files at all?"
A subordinate suddenly hurried forward and handed the minister a thick file. He looked at it somewhat confused then hurriedly read what was inside. His eyes bulged and when he finally lifted his eyes to the emperor, a somewhat embarrassed look had replaced the fear and panic on his face.
"Your...your majesty," he said, stammering. "Forgive your poor servant. Your poor servant is wrong. There is a record of the red tiger in our file but...," here, the poor minister's face blushed scarlet.
An Ning who was already expecting what was coming, started to laugh in pure amusement.
The minister looked at her, then at the emperor, then he swallowed painfully.
"It says here that a tiger cub was indeed given to your late grandfather by a...ahem..a princess when he visited the kingdom of Tanhui shortly after his marriage to his majesty's late grandmother the empress. He...that is, the tiger cub...erm...his majesty's grandfather came back with the tiger cub..and...ahem...the princess...the empress was not amused and vanished the princess in the lodge to live where the emperor would often visit her...," the minister's voice ended awkwardly. "Your majesty, I am not repeating gossip. It's all here in the report. In the report," the minister explained fearfully. He could almost feel the soft breath of the executioner's sword against his neck.
The empress fell on her chair laughing hysterically. The emperor looked reprovingly at her, trying to intimidate her into silence but it was just too preposterous that he ended up in hysterics as well.
"What the heck was that princess thinking giving my grandfather such a vicious animal for a gift?" Gu Sheng said, wiping his streaming eyes. "I mean, what were they doing to that poor animal all these years? Pretending he was their baby or something?"
An Ning laughed.
"Imagine your poor grandfather's face when he saw that tiny cub grow into the size of a small house. I can imagine him calling it a monster and insisting they kill it or something. But someone must have been taking good care of it all these years. The animal looked well-fed, considering it was mean and vicious," she chuckled.
"Any record of that in your file, minister Si?" the emperor asked.
Minister Si turned to his subordinate who shook his head.
"No, your majesty."
"I want you to investigate this matter thoroughly after the hunt is over. Someone deliberately hurt that poor animal so it would attack zhen and the empress. Investigate and give me a report in three days' time. Okay that's it. Everyone dismissed."
Minister Si almost ran from the room. His head was still intact, he thought, sighing in relief. But then he remembered what the emperor said. Investigate in three days' time and give him a report. What if he couldn't find anything to report? Off with his head then? Minister Si gulped and almost stumbled. Luckily his subordinate caught him by the arm and pulled and half-dragged him away from the room.
Gu Sheng looked at An Ning speculatively.
"What?" she asked, smiling a little.
"Another hidden assassin?"
"Probably," she shrugged.
"This is getting to be too tedious," he complained.
"Little Gu, the kingdom as it is now, stands at a crossroad. Your enemies will not stop unless you're dead and they take over the kingdom," An Ning said bluntly. "This is the extent of the imperial power you hold. You stand at the apex of the center of the universe. It's only natural that people will have ideas. Look at this Battle of Talents, for example. It's nothing much at first glance. Just a friendly competition between friends and neighbors. But it's actually the capital imposing and showing its power to the world. The hatred is natural. So does the envy. You can't do anything about it, even if you try."
"I wanted to leave but you won't let me," Gu Sheng complained bitterly.
"And go where? Even I don't know where I'm going when I leave here. Or if I'm ever going to leave. Go back to my father? Who is he? There's only one father I know and it's not him. Go back to my world? How do I do that? I am as trapped in this world as you are, Little Gu. I can't seem to get out even if I wanted to."
"So, you're staying? Here? With me?" Gu Sheng tried to keep his voice at a level pitch and not make it sound as relieved as he felt.
"You know what I think? I don't think Yuqui is the end for both of us. Both of us don't live in a vacuum, you see. There are forces at play which haven't showed their hands yet. Until they do, then we stay here and wait," An Ning said, thinking of the conversation she had with her grandparents.
Maybe now, they finally figured out how to get to her and were on their way to rescue her back. This world was infinite and the infinite was always filled with surprises. The door to an entrance always had its opposite in an exit. And an exit always lead to a door of other possibilities. Time was just a concept. It can be turned and molded to anyone's will. Until time reaches its patience and the entire universe goes back to its starting point then they will have to be patient. There was nothing they can do about it anyway.
The hunt continued into the night. When Minister Si came back to report on the dead and wounded, the numbers were astonishing: 49 dead and 180 wounded. The dead and the sick had been pulled out of the hunt, leaving behind more than half to continue the hunt.
"Are we going to wait this out until everyone is dead and only the winner makes it out there alive?" An Ning was furious. "This is a fucking massacre. What kind of monster was this tiger anyway? Minister Si?"
"Your majesty, the white tiger is...erhm...," the subordinate again came to the minister's rescue with another thick file. "It says here that it weighs twice the red tiger, has black and white stripes, and...," here the minister looked at the two people staring at him with fear on his face, "and two giant tusks."
"What?" An Ning exploded. "Do you mean to tell me that we sent out those kids with nothing more than their puny swords and their equally puny magic to capture and kill that monster?" An Ning was incensed. "What the hell were you people thinking? Why didn't you tell us?"
Minister Si quaked with fear.
"I'm sorry, your grace. I didn't know..."
"You didn't know. It's your fucking responsibility, damn it! I'd better go out there and do something or else those kids are all going to die."
The emperor, who had been quietly watching and thinking in silence, finally spoke.
"What?" An Ning was stunned.
"There's nothing you can do to help them, An Ning."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because the rule of the contest is 'winner takes all'. It's another way of saying you live or die by the skin of your teeth. Winner takes all means you do just that, you live or die, you compete and fight till the last breath is left in your body. Everyone knows what they were in for when they joined this tournament. They fall or they die. It's a matter of honor, An Ning. That's why you can't interfere with its outcome."
"Minister Si, send some men out and tell them to help out as they can. Get the injured out quickly and give assistance to those still capable of fighting. That's all," the emperor said, watching as Minister Si almost ran to do his bidding.
An Ning was angry and didn't look at him.
"I'm as upset as you are," the emperor said quietly. "But it would be like you telling me to stop trying because you don't want me hurt or anything. This is a different age from where you came from, An Ning. Here, young people value courage and bravery. They would have hated you if you had embarrassed them by pulling them out of the field like that."
An Ning was silent, turning around and meeting his eyes with a furious look.
"I know," he smiled. "I'll change the rules next time. Maybe a hand to hand combat with a much smaller animal. But it will not change the outcome," he warned. "People are still going to die just because they want to achieve glory in the battlefield."
An Ning turned away as if disgusted by the brutality of it all. Gu Sheng let her go, watching her stare out the window still deep in thought.
In truth, An Ning was feeling saturated by all this talk of death and courage and honor. What's honorable about dying at the hands of a beast anyway? It's not as if there was any honor in killing a beast who doesn't feel let alone think. It was ruled by instinct nothing more. Beasts like that were better off destroyed with a gun than killed in a hand to hand combat, which was bloodier and more costly anyway.
"No hand to hand contact next year. Fight the bait with a gun," she said, turning to the emperor.
Gu Sheng was surprised.
"You want to share our secret weapon with the outside world?"
"No, in a controlled environment here during the games. We'll teach the contestants how to shoot then let them loose with several baits to kill. This way, they'll have a better chance of winning instead of doing it like this. Fighting a monster with a bow and arrow or a sword. What's fair about it? I know," she added, anticipating his argument, "where's the honor in that? But we'll make it fairer for both bait and pursuer if you like. I'll think of a way. But not this way again. I will not condone it next time. Forty nine kids dead. That's too costly even for the time where I came from. You teach them honor. I'll teach them how to even the odds."
It was early morning of the following day when the white tiger was finally captured and killed. The sound of a gong being banged repeatedly woke everyone up in the camp. An Ning, who had not slept a wink, was the first out in the yard when the tired and worse for wear combatants arrived.
No one said a word. The silence was more painful than anything. This time, another twenty-one had perished and an additional fifty-five injured. Most of the kids who started showing up at the lodge looked shell-shocked and terrified.
An Ning's eyes roved around the yard, hoping selfishly that she wouldn't recognize anyone. Her gaze suddenly focused on someone familiar, Xiang Yun, who was standing looking aghast at her compatriots with Mu Xing's arm holding her tightly to his side. Mu Xing's face was pale from shock and his hold on his wife's arm was more to give himself the assurance that she was here safe, being held by him in his arms, and not out there being torn to pieces by a wild animal.
It took them a while to learn who the winner was because everything was in total chaos by the time dawn arrived. It was one of the kids from Chengdi, not the boy with the mask, but someone even younger. When everybody was circling the beast trying to pull it down, the kid jumped up high on its back, scrambled up high on its neck and brutally pierced its eye with a spear. The beast tried to bucked him up but the boy held on, clinging to its thick mane until the other eye was plucked out. The boy then stabbed the tiger's dead eyes again and again, the last blow piercing the skull which toppled the beast to the ground where it shuddered and finally laid still.
An Ning, however, was not interested in the winner. She went to the field and saw for herself the beast itself. Twice as big as the massive red tiger. The giant paws as big as a van. The terrifying ivory-colored tusks hanging down from its mouth as tall and thick as electric posts. She stared at it and could imagine the fear and terror those kids must have felt face to face with this monster.
What kind of society would condone this kind of massacre? All for the sake of a forgotten-code of honor even the modern world no longer aspires to? What happened to safe and campy bivouacs where the worst thing that could happen was for anyone to end up being cannon fodder for a colony of mosquitoes?
When she went back to the courtyard, it was to find Gu Sheng missing. He was not in his room nor in the room she last saw him enter, the study where just yesterday they heard the report of the ministry of animal of protection about the red tiger.
No one saw him. Neither was he in her room, where he would always spend his mornings eating breakfast with her by the window.
An Ning felt the world stopped. And she was back in Li Cheung's maze that night when Richard pulled her from her world and flung her screaming and fighting into the past.
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