“I believe it is peace for our time.”
--Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, 1938
Chapter 115 – Aftermath
The eunuch led Huang Ming and Sunli to an annex where Princess Wu Liying was waiting.
“Greetings to the princess,” Huang Ming and Sunli said with a salute.
“Dispense with the ceremony,” the princess stated and gestured for them to be seated with her. The eunuch then served them tea before quietly withdrawing.
“Is there something troubling your highness?” Huang Ming asked.
“What did you do with the rings?” Princess Wu Liying demanded.
Huang Ming smirked. “It’s a kind of magic.”
The princess then took out the box and waved it, causing a rattling sound to be produced. With indifference, she then tossed the box onto the table. It was a stark contrast from the hesitation that she had shown before.
“I am not an idiot,” Princess Wu Liying said curtly. “From the noise, it is obvious that the broken pieces are still in the box.”
“You are right,” Huang Ming said. He opened the box and retrieved the interlocked jade rings. Then he shook the supposedly empty box, but once more there was a rattling sound.
A look of recognition dawned on Sunli’s face. “A hidden compartment!” she exclaimed.
Huang Ming nodded. “One of the oldest tricks,” he said. He ran his fingers over the sides of the box and pressed gently at several points.
There was a soft click, causing Sunli and the princess to lean over to peer into the box. Now they saw that the box had a false bottom which could be lifted, revealing bits and pieces of broken jade within.
“So that’s it! There were two sets of rings!” Sunli gasped.
The princess leaned back, her curiosity satisfied. “I thought so,” she said to herself. Then she frowned at Huang Ming. “How did you discover it so quickly?”
“I have some experience with magic tricks,” Huang Ming said with a faint smile.
When Lord Aidi first opened the box in the banquet hall, it was all perfectly normal. But Huang Ming had paid extra attention when the Jin ambassador placed the rings back into the box before opening it a second time to present them to Princess Wu Liying. The additional step seemed superfluous, and Huang Ming realized that the box itself was a trick too, and memorized the ambassador’s method of opening the secret compartment.
“And the rings?” Princess Wu Liying asked, arching a brow at the jade rings. Whereupon Huang Ming held them up and demonstrated the trick. There were small groove openings that allowed the rings to pass into each other, to conceal them was a simple matter of covering them with one’s palms after the trick. It would be difficult for an audience to detect the openings from a distance. Enlightened by Huang Ming’s slow demonstration, it was a simple matter for Princess Wu Liying and Sunli to understand how it was done.
“This set works normally; they are designed to be unlocked in the way I showed you. But the other pair, the ones that I had broken; that really was carved out of a single block of jade. There was no opening at all. The ambassador deliberately presented them so that we would fail,” Huang Ming explained.
“Despicable!” Sunli said in anger.
The princess of Wu turned towards Huang Ming. “Still, you could have handled the situation with a bit more tact,” she criticized. “You have offended Lord Aidi and who knows how the Jins would retaliate.”
“Would you prefer if I said nothing and let our country be publicly humiliated?” Huang Ming replied tonelessly.
Princess Wu Liying sighed. “What is humiliation compared with lost lives? After your heroics in Wei, do you really want another war?” she asked.
Huang Ming did not back down, he gave her a stare of his own. “The Jins were deliberately provoking us. I did not start it. I did not even volunteer myself to solve it,” he said.
“But you certainly relished it. I saw the look on your face while you were sparring with Lord Aidi’s fighter. You enjoyed yourself,” Princess Wu Liying said accusingly.
Huang Ming saw no reason to deny it and merely shrugged.
Princess Wu Liying’s eyes fell onto the jade rings. “Still, I do not understand why they have deliberately provoked us,” she mumbled.
Huang Ming gave her a shrug. “They have heard of our campaign in Wei, perhaps they wanted to see if our country is weak.”
Princess Wu Liying’s eyes flashed. “That Wei campaign has brought us nothing but trouble,” she said frostily. “That Marshal Gao Fang is a true traitor for causing that particular disaster. It seemed that the military is filled with glory-hounds who think nothing about the cost of war.”
“Not everyone,” Huang Ming interjected, and Sunli nodded in agreement.
Princess Wu Liying narrowed her eyes. “You know of my letter to your father?” she asked quietly.
“Yes, it was quite impressive how you had written it in blood,” Huang Ming replied mildly, remembering the letter that was hidden in his father’s belt.
The princess was in no joking mood. “Why then did Generals Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong not come to the capital immediately? Instead they went to join Marshal Gao into that ill-fated campaign in Wei. One might think that the generals preferred to go to Wei rather than to the capital,” she demanded.
Huang Ming’s expression turned cold. He did not like her insinuation at all; she was basically accusing the two generals of being greedy for battle honours instead of obeying her summons for help.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he growled. “Marshal Gao was the leader of the armies; what can the generals do? To disobey would bring accusations of rebellion and that would not help anyone. And it was true that Wei was amassing their forces right at our doorstep. We went along with Marshal Gao’s foray into Wei with the intention of nipping the problem in the bud. But he still plotted for our demise every step of the way, and it is only with hardship that we managed to extricate ourselves.”
The princess looked away. “I cannot pretend to understand what happened in Wei. But now you had needled Lord Aidi. If a new war with Jin breaks out, we will need a new marshal and then we will have the same problem all over again.”
Huang Ming sighed, unsure on how to respond.
Princess Wu Liying saw the pensive look on his face and assumed that he was remorseful. “I know you tried to do the right thing by standing up for our country,” she said softly. “But if we can have peace, I would gladly bear the humiliation myself.”
“What makes you think appeasement will lead to peace?” Huang Ming asked cynically.
“We have to try. The Princess of Jin is famous for her forward thinking, surely we can all work together for a better world,” Princess Wu Liying insisted.
Huang Ming shook his head. How was he going to explain to her about the Princess of Jin being his enemy in this world? ‘Just so you know, war with Jin is inevitable because we are Avatars roleplaying in a game involving cosmic entities…’ he thought humourlessly.
“The world is not as clean as you think it is,” Huang Ming told her bluntly. “The Jins are building up their military, it is obvious that they are readying for war. Today’s provocation is just a way for them to see if there’s anyone in our country to stand against them.”
The princess gave him an odd look. “I have heard that you are a poet and scholar, but it seems you are quite willing to see war.”
Huang Ming frowned. “I do not enjoy it, but sometimes it is necessary to fight.”
“Necessary, like your methods in Wei? You chose to slash and burn their crops, and now their people face possible starvation,” the princess said, her lips trembling.
Huang Ming looked her in the eyes. “It was war,” he said, and the princess flinched from his harsh frankness.
‘You grew up in the palace, what do you know about the realities of war? It was us or them,’ Huang Ming thought.
“Well, in any event, the Marshal is gone, and now only Prime Minister Tong Xuan remains,” Huang Ming said instead.
“The Prime Minister is not all that bad,” Princess Wu Liying said slowly.
Huang Ming’s eyes goggled at her. “As I recalled, your letter called him and Marshal Gao as ‘tyrants’,” Huang Ming reminded her.
“After the departure of Marshal Gao, the Prime Minister has reined in considerably. I think he was acting the way he did to counter-balance the marshal’s influence. With him now gone, Tong Xuan seemed to be less forceful in court,” the princess explained.
“Are you sure that he isn’t just acting and biding his time?” Huang Ming asked sceptically.
“Perhaps,” Princess Wu Liying admitted reluctantly. “People accuse him of having too much influence, but he is the Prime Minister after all. The rumours about him came about during the time when my father was ill. But now the king is well again, and I think the rumours were simply fuelled by jealousy.”
Huang Ming smiled. “Well, if you trust him this much then there is nothing more to discuss, is there? Gao Fang is gone, and you have a change of heart regarding Tong Xuan. So all is well.”
The princess was annoyed by his tone. “It seemed that you wish the Prime Minister ill. Are you so bloodthirsty?”
“You’re the one who invited our fathers to capital to deal with him, and earlier on you complained about why they didn’t do so!” Huang Ming said indignantly.
Princess Wu Liying avoided his glare. “That was because I was too impulsive and did not know the full facts,” she said in embarrassment.
“Then, it is the prime minister’s good fortune that we did not actually follow through your highness’s summons and stormed the capital at your whim,” Huang Ming said sarcastically, causing the princess to flush.
He was thoroughly annoyed. Was this princess deceived by the prime minister? Or was the prime minister really a victim of malicious rumours? Was he really acting the tyrant to keep the former Marshal Gao in check?
He shook his head, remembering that his elder brother Huang Lang was missing while investigating the prime minister.
The princess saw his gloomy mood, and the atmosphere became awkward.
“Your highness, you must stay on your guard regarding the prime minister,” Huang Ming said at last.
The princess stiffened, but managed to nod in acknowledgment.
“You must be tired from the banquet, you may withdraw,” she said, bringing the meeting to an end. Huang Ming and Sunli bowed once more and left.
The entire occasion brought nothing but mixed feelings. The princess thought he was brash and eager for conflict, while Huang Ming felt utterly let down by the princess’s pacifist feelings.
But how was he to know the truth?
The princess sighed heavily. As if on cue, a hidden wall panel opened, and a young man appeared.
“I warned you,” the man said softly. “They only think about etching their names into the history books. They wage war because they think it is a game. They do not care about ordinary civilians.”
Princess Wu Liying gave him a sorrowful look. “I did not believe this at first. But the Prime Minister told me. I was there when the marshal outlined the truth behind the Wei campaign… and the prime minister was right. These military men are like wolves.”
Her eyes took a far away look. “But I expected so much more from this Huang Ming. I am disappointed that he is just as eager for war as they are,” the princess murmured.
“Though Marshal Gao waged war against Wei, it was General Huang who first attacked Tigertrap Pass. Now his son Huang Ming had provoked the Jins. You see that we did not lie to you, father and son are warmongers,” the man said.
Princess Wu Liying’s eyes hardened. “I understand now.”
She stood up to her full height and turned to face the young man.
“Nangong Xie, what do you think we should do?”
The hero’s candour,
Became open to slander.
The princess was cheated,
By layers of deceit.