“A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”
--George R.R. Martin, ‘A Game of Thrones’
Chapter 108 – Ill wind
Even a blind person could tell that there was some enmity simmering between Wu’s Prime Minister Tong Xuan and the kingdom’s newest hero, Huang Ming. Obviously Uncle Li Hong was frightened by this, he had no idea that things would develop into such extent right at his very home. Therefore he hastily grasped Huang Ming by the back of the head and forcibly pushed him to bow.
“My dear nephew, what rudeness!” Li Hong exclaimed as he gestured profusely towards the Prime Minister. “Hurry and apologize to the Prime Minister! I’m sure he won’t take it to heart!”
The comical antics of Uncle Li Hong caused Prime Minister Tong Xuan laughed uproariously.
“’Tis just but the fires of youth, and exactly what I wanted to see,” he said affably, brushing aside the earlier tension, as if it was all just a test. “I have heard many tales of you, and it pleases me that they are just tales,” he commented dryly, hinting at Huang Ming’s previously poor reputation.
Huang Ming chuckled, inwardly annoyed at the original’s lasting reach. “Still, I was too rude. I beg the Prime Minister’s pardon,” he said with a bow and put on a sufficiently chastened look on his face.
Li Hong saw that the situation had been diffused, and quickly urged for everyone to be seated. After a round of tea, the Prime Minister set down his tea cup and his mien became serious.
“It is good to see a young man with some spine, I have been disappointed by those who were just all talk,” he stated.
Huang Ming quashed a glib remark about Lord Fang La, the Prime Minister’s nephew who was the principal actor in the plot to seize military authority from his father. In the end, Lord Fang La revealed his cowardly nature and had disgraced himself. By extension, it reflected badly on Tong Xuan himself.
Tong Xuan took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. “The country is in disorder ever since Gao Fang’s misadventure in Wei. At least he has the decency to hide and not show his face in court,” he said, eyeing the young man meaningfully.
Huang Ming disguised his cynicism by sipping his tea, knowing full well that the marshal was already dead and buried. Tong Xuan probably suspected the truth and perhaps had even guessed Huang Ming’s involvement, but there was no reason to tip his hand.
“I have come here today for another reason,” Tong Xuan said bluntly.
“Does the Prime Minister have something to ask of me?” Huang Ming asked politely.
“It was not mere flattery when I say that the royal court is looking forward to see you. We have been distressed by the ill fortunes of war and only your exploits had provided any comfort to the king.”
“The court had given high honours to my father, it is enough,” Huang Ming replied neutrally.
Tong Xuan did not bat an eye at the mention of General Huang Zheng. “In my opinion, we did not do enough!” he said with a straight face. “Your father is a true patriot and we are fortunate that he remains an indomitable wall against Wei. But there are troubles brewing elsewhere, and regrettably your father cannot be everywhere at once.”
He sighed in lament, as if carrying a heavy weight of responsibility on his shoulders and grieving at his own lack of abilities. A person who had not heard of Tong Xuan before would have thought that the Prime Minister was a sincere man whose heart ached for the nation.
But Huang Ming was not fooled despite the Prime Minister’s excellent acting. Huang Ming nodded, but his heart was icy. It was almost a throwaway remark, an off-handed praise for his father. But the last phrase all but meant that his father the Great General Huang Zheng was not in the consideration for becoming the new Marshal of Wu. He was too important as a front-line leader against Wei, and thus he cannot be wasted to be in the capital. After all, the former Marshal Gao tried to play battlefield commander and failed miserably, thus it stood to reason that the future Marshal of the Armies would be confined to strictly administrative roles.
“What are these troubles that you speak of, Prime Minister?” Uncle Li Hong interjected.
“We have suffered heavily from the campaign in Wei, and now in the eyes of the world we appear weak. Though Wei too had suffered, we are now beset by the barbarians,” Tong Xuan said gravely.
Uncle Li Hong’s face turned pale. “Are we under attack?”
Tong Xuan shook his head. “No, but it is obvious that the Jins are ready to pounce.”
Huang Ming frowned. It was exactly the scenario that Qiong Ying had told him. Though he had tried to salvage the situation at Wei, it would seem that the drama would proceed as scripted by the Princess of Jin. Pushing aside his doubts about Tong Xuan, Huang Ming leaned forward.
“What is the situation in the north?” he asked.
Tong Xuan stroked his long beard, secretly delighted to have piqued the young man’s interest. “There are rumours that Jin are amassing a large army, ready to march next spring. Tomorrow, General Yin will arrive from the north to report directly to the king about the situation.”
Li Hong sucked a deep breath. “The White Star! Then things must be truly serious!” he exclaimed, invoking General Yin’s moniker.
Huang Ming had heard of this General Yin the White Star. He was the lead commander of the north, the first line of defence against the Jins who had descended from a long line of famous patriots. There were many similarities between the Huangs and the Yins, though there was no opportunity for their families to be acquainted due to their separate areas of jurisdiction.
“That is not all,” Tong Xuan continued. “He is also escorting a diplomatic mission from Jin to the capital.”
“The Jins are sending diplomats at this time?” Huang Ming asked, startled at the speedy action of the Jins.
“So they claim, but we all know that they are just glorified spies and fast talkers looking to shame us for what had happened in Wei,” Tong Xuan said with a sneer. “Still, protocol demands that we receive them. Though it is slim, perhaps there is a chance for peace.”
Tong Xuan’s eyes looked far off into the distance. “We cannot afford another war so soon,” he said softly, and once more conjured up the image of a statesman worried for his country’s future.
One could almost forget that he was partly at fault for starting a war with Wei in the first place.
Huang Ming had no patience to let the older man indulge in his play-acting. “Perhaps the Prime Minister came to tell me to postpone my visit to the royal court in light of these developments?” he asked. After all, Tong Xuan had heavily buttered him up earlier, perhaps to soften the blow of disappointment.
But Tong Xuan shook his head once more.
“No, we want you to attend tomorrow. The king wishes to have your presence and input when we receive General Yin and the Jin diplomats.”
Then he added, almost mischievously, “I heard the lead diplomat is a woman.”
Wu had erred,
Jin came to slur.