256 – Talents
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“Opportunity plus instinct equals profit.”

--The Ferengi 9th Rule of Acquisition

 

Chapter 256 – Talents

 

Prince Jin Bao mobilized his personal army and immediately set off southwards in search of his wife. Even though she had been gone for a week, it should have been a simple matter for his experienced cavalrymen to whip their horses into a frenzy and catch up before she crossed the border into Wu.

 

Days passed before bad news were sent back to the prince. The steppes were indeed vast but to head into Wu meant eventually going through the city of Beihai, but the scouts found no signs of the princess.

 

The sight of armed horsemen looming towards Beihai alarmed the city’s defenders. Memories of the invasion the previous winter still fresh in their minds, the city immediately closed it gates, causing the adventurers, pilgrims and merchants travelling to and fro from Wu to Jin to be stranded outside.

 

This actually helped the Jin horsemen to round them up. Each travelling merchant, each goat herder in the region were questioned but none had seen her likeness.

 

The prince’s mood turned from dismay to fury.

 

He knew of Jin Hua’s temperament, but even a peerless man such as himself had limits.

 

“Have those eunuchs and servants her palace replaced! What use are they if they do not keep an eye on their charge?” the prince ordered.

 

Those present knew better than to point out that the prince had lost track of his own wife

 

“Your highness, perhaps the princess really did not go south into Wu?” someone ventured to ask.

 

“And where would she have gone then?”

 

“Perhaps... perhaps she had really gone on a tour of her various projects in the kingdom? Some of the places are very distant…”

 

What else could the prince do but stew at his own helplessness. He had his troops pull back from the border and dispersed them to the various corners of the kingdom to search for his spouse.

 

Prince Jin Bao could not help but think she had already slipped away undetected long ago.

 

She was very talented that way.

 

Several months later, the prince would have a terrible row with the princess over this matter. But for now, he could only brood and sink into a dark mood.

 

While the Kingdom of Jin brooded and Kingdom of Wu rejoiced, over in the west there was an atmosphere of stagnancy.

 

The Kingdom of Wei had fended off Gao Fang’s ill-fated venture, but the strategies of Wu’s Great General Huang and his sons had caused grievous wounds on swathes of their land, forcing them ever westwards. Those who were forced to abandon their scorched farms would bore a grudge against the kingdom of Wu and the Huangs for generations.

 

Still, there were those who braved the hostilities between the three kingdoms to ply the trade routes. When natural disaster struck one kingdom, they would transport food from another kingdom to be sold at a premium. When conflicts broke out, they would supply slaves, women and information.

 

These intrepid entrepreneurs would run the gauntlet of government levies, bandits, corrupt officials, bad weather, wild animals and everything in between as they moved from kingdom to another. Fellow merchants would join and drop off as they stopped at various destinations in Wu, Wei and Jin.

 

To them, the talents of gold was worth the dangers.

 

“Yeah, there is money to be found if you’ve got the guts for it,” a grizzled merchant remarked as he lazily swatted at the flies buzzing around his horse.

 

“Aren’t you afraid of being backstabbed somewhere simply for being from a different kingdom?” his young guest asked.

 

They were part of a long caravan of wagons, donkeys and oxen, each laden with various grains and dried foods from Jin. They were heading south, crossing the great plains towards Wei; eager to take advantage… ahem, to provide some much desired relief for the people there who had tighten their belts after the reduced harvests.

 

“Of course I’m afraid,” the merchant laughed jovially. “But the money is good, and I get to see women of every colour and body shape around the world!”

 

“But you, you do not look like a merchant,” the merchant then asked.

 

His young guest chuckled.

 

“Alas, I am the seventh son of a seventh son, my family did not want me to stay at home lest I bring them bad luck. They see my lame leg and thought of me as useless to work in the fields. So they gave me some money and told me to make my own living out on the world.”

 

The merchant gave him a frank look up and down. “I thought so, you look a little young to brave the winds and rains. You look more like a scholar, with all those books and scrolls you’re carrying.”

 

“I am indeed learned in some things,” the younger man replied with a smile.

 

“Then you have made the right choice by going to Wei. That kingdom is searching for new talents; should you prove yourself able you would easily find employment with them.”

 

“The warlike Wei are actually trying to recruit men of learning?”

 

“You have heard of Ran Wei, yes?” the merchant asked conversationally.

 

“Who haven’t? The Onslaught, the General of Thousand Horses!” the young man praised.

 

“Then you must know of his defeat by Huang Ming. He has been smarting ever since Tigertrap Valley. The greatest warrior of our age, defeated by a bookish scholar! And so he wishes to find a scholar of his own to devise strategies for him. So if you are confident in the ways of war, you would do well to sell your talents to him,” the merchant said jokingly.

 

“Perhaps I will,” the young man nodded in thanks.

 

There was confidence in his tone, and the merchant could only swallow his own doubts, slightly regretting in suggesting such a dangerous idea.

 

“Be careful, young fellow. Ran Wei’s reputation for brutality is well deserved. He does not suffer fools gladly,” he cautioned.

 

“Thank you,” the young man gave him a brilliant smile. “To tell the truth, I was heading to Wei for this very reason.”

 

The merchant looked back at the books on the young man’s backpack dubiously.

 

“This is no joking matter, young man! Ran Wei wants someone to give him the means to smash through Tigertrap Fort, not a poet to flatter him. He would not be kind just because you have a bum leg.”

 

“Don’t worry. I have something that he would want,” the young man assured him.

 

The winds began to shift,

In the midst of the rift,

Moved secretly and swift,

Bearing some gifts.

 

Attending follow-up tests.

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