A plum tree for a peach tree
“It’s a trap!”
--Admiral Gial Ackbar
Chapter Eleven - A plum tree for a peach tree
“Moron! Imbecile! Nincompoop!” Governor Cao Yuan raged.
Cao Shuang could only lower his head.
“Do you know what you have done? You half-wit!” his father berated.
They were in the privacy of the governor’s study, but Cao Shuang still burned at with the shame of grown man being taken to task like an errant child. The governor had eyes and ears in the city, and they told him how the Huang brothers had turned Liu Xiang.
“Shuang admits his wrongdoing, please forgive this lowly son!” he said, not daring to meet his father’s eyes.
Cao Yuan sat heavily on his chair and exhaled, his fury spent. “You tried to be too clever and had overcomplicated matters,” he said.
“It is the fault of that Nangong Xie, he couldn’t deliver what he had promised,” Cao Shuang replied bitterly.
“Don’t waste my time with your excuses! I told you to curry favour with the Lius, instead you antagonized them because of that perverted scholar’s lust. Now all three legions are lost to us!” Cao Yuan lamented.
“Father, you’re still the governor. Can’t you issue a decree to strip their authority?” Cao Shuang asked.
“And give it to who? You?” Cao Yuan sneered.
Cao Shuang reddened.
Cao Yuan sighed. “I thought so. That is why I wanted to bring over Liu Xiang, he has the respect of the soldiers, capable to do the job and yet malleable enough to follow our orders. Now everything has gone askew.”
The governor had sent gifts to Liu Xiang in order to placate him. While the Iron Tiger did receive the gifts, it was done so with minimum politeness. It was clear that relations with the Lius remained frigid.
“The old General Huang might not succeed in wiping out the bandits,” Cao Shuang pointed out.
“You think that makes me happy? I want those bandits destroyed! What’s the point of being the governor if I’m beset by hordes of robbers and murderers?” his father said testily.
Governor Cao Yuan was a man in his late 50s. In the uncertainty of this era of strife, the dreary duties of an administrative official often go unnoticed. Many of his fellow officials were simply overshadowed by the dramatic exploits of the military. If you weren’t connected to someone, there was little chance of promotion to rise from being an anonymous cog in the bureaucratic machine. He was on the path of an unremarkable career, like many of his peers.
It was by pure luck that he came to be under the patronage of Marshal Gao Fang. He had previously served Prime Minister Tong Xuan. One day, the Prime Minister assigned Cao Yuan work with the marshal on some routine matters.
Cao Yuan was only doing what he was told, but he made such a favourable impression that the two strongmen decided to nurture him as one of their own and thus promoted him to be the governor of Tianxin, an important city. His meteoric rise from obscurity earned him the cognomen of the Unearthed. In return, Cao Yuan was told to make life miserable for General Huang Zheng, which he did over the course of several months.
“Can we ask help from the marshal?” Cao Shuang asked.
“You want me to write to Marshal Gao Fang and tell him that you all but gave away 30,000 soldiers to his personal enemies?” Cao Yuan replied incredulously.
Cao Shuang shrank, wishing he could simply sink into the stone and disappear.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. “Your Excellency, a secret message has arrived,” a voice announced.
“Wang Hao, is that you? Quickly, come in!” Cao Yuan’s anger faded immediately and he beckoned for his son to open the door. A man with weasel-like features and dangling, thin moustache entered the room, holding a tiny sealed scroll that was delivered by courier pigeon.
He bowed and handed over the missive.
The governor cracked the seal and slowly read the small letter. His mood became increasingly dark towards the end.
“Father?” Cao Shuang asked worriedly.
“Another message by Marshal Gao demanding results,” his father answered despondently.
“It looks like the marshal can’t wait much longer,” Wang Hao murmured.
This Wang Hao was a confidant of the Caos. He became an indentured servant to pay off his family’s debt. Wang Hao was relatively anonymous in the Cao household until recently.
It was Wang Hao who had came up with petty ideas to irritate the general. Cao Yuan implemented his suggestions such as insisting on proper bureaucratic processes for every single request made by the general, causing delays in the distribution of wages and supplies.
The governor was delighted and had rewarded Wang Hao, giving him higher status in the Cao household. His calm advice and suggestions made him a trusted person to the Caos.
“Wang Hao, have you any schemes?” Cao Yuan asked.
“Sire, it is presumptuous of me to ask, but are you sure you want to continue on this path?” Wang Hao said.
“What do you mean?”
Wang Hao face was solemn. “Sire, let’s not beat around the bush. We all know that Prime Minister Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao Fang are trying to seize the country, but the seeds of resentment have been sown. There will be forces that would resist their ambitions. At this juncture, you have two choices. Sire, I can only give advice, it is up to you to choose.”
“Tell me about the choices,” Cao Yuan ordered.
“The first is to stop antagonizing General Huang, maybe even seek his help. He is most likely aware of your connection to Marshal Gao, and the general is not the sort to seek revenge against you personally since you were only doing what you were pressured to do. However, this means severing your relationship with the marshal and earning his animosity. When the country is in chaos from Marshal Gao’s power grab, General Huang is sure to be part of the resistance.”
“You want us to beg the Huangs for mercy? Impossible!” Cao Shuang howled.
“Silence, you block-head!” his father angrily rebuked. He motioned for Wang Hao to continue.
“The second option is to continue serving Marshal Gao. This means doing everything in your power to suppress General Huang. Including underhanded means,” Wang Hao said grimly.
“Underhanded means?” Cao Yuan repeated quietly.
“I will be very frank with you, sire. If General Huang returns victoriously after defeating the bandits, your task of wresting military command away from him by official means would be hopeless.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Since the general is away, take hold of his family as hostage.”
Cao Yuan turned pale at this suggestion. How vicious!
Cao Shuang was considerably less hesitant. “A grand idea!” he cried out in praise, “I can arrange some men to assault their home and kidnap them!”
“Huang Lang is a known swordsman, and he is friends with that hero Muge Jian. I fear none of your men can stand up to them,” Cao Yuan said and shook his head.
“Invite the Huangs to a gathering of scholars and noble heirs, ostensibly for a poetry competition. Thus they have no reason to be armed. Thereafter you can find some suitable excuse to detain them,” Wang Hao suggested.
“They are sure to be cautious, they may not come,” Cao Yuan objected.
“How about if we offered a substantial reward?” his son proposed.
“That is no guarantee. Their family is already wealthy, they have no real need for monetary rewards,” Cao Yuan said doubtfully.
Wang Hao hesitated for a moment before saying, “Then you can make the competition to find a suitable match for your daughter. Based on his coarse reputation, Huang Ming is sure to come. His brother would have to follow in order to watch over him.”
“What? How dare you suggest such a thing!” Cao Yuan erupted. His daughter Cao Tianyun was the apple of his eye. She was a great pale-skinned beauty, diligent in study and clever in the arts.
Cao Tianyun was present during her father’s governorship inauguration festivities and her poem in his celebration drew acclaim. However she remained reclusive most of the time, much to the sadness of her suitors. Her admirers call her the Clouded Moon.
“Outrageous!” Cao Shuang interjected. He too dearly loved his sister. Despite his many faults, he was very caring of her. In fact, one could say his domineering attitude towards others stemmed from his youth. He had zealously protected her from childhood bullies while their father was still a lowly bureaucrat. As the some would say, ‘bullying begets bullying’.
“It is only as enticement to inveigle the Huangs here so that you can accomplish your goal,” Wang Hao reminded them.
Cao Yuan shut his eyes as he fell into deep thought.
A suggestion, a plum tree for a peach tree,
In desperation, he cannot disagree.