“Why won't those stupid idiots let me in their crappy club for jerks?”
--Homer Simpson


Chapter 117 – The dark hands

Within the Prime Minister’s residence, there was a secret gathering. In attendance was Prime Minister Tong Xuan, his nephew Lord Fang La and finally, the Handsome Scholar Nangong Xie.


Nangong Xie briefed them about the acrimonious meeting between Princess Wu Liying and Huang Ming. The scholar could hardly contain the glee off his face as he described their collision of ideals.


“The princess does not trust Huang Ming at all, she ignored his warnings about Jin and did not approve of his methods during the campaign in Wei. Prime Minister, your prediction was right,” Nangong Xie concluded, bowing deeply in flattery.


The Prime Minister smirked, immeasurably pleased at being validated.


“Haha! But it was also partly due to your efforts, Sir Nangong! The princess was always suspicious of me, but with your help we are able to nudge her way of thinking,” he said.


Nangong Xie beamed and bowed once more.


At the side, Fang La curled his lips cynically as he watched his uncle and the scholar congratulate each other. He never liked Nangong Xie, having only took him on as a hanger-on to deal with the Huangs while in Tianxin City. But the plan to seize military command from General Huang Zheng went awry, and Fang La had to bring Nangong Xie to the capital with him so as to corroborate and explain the failure.


Who knew that Nangong Xie would worm his way into his uncle’s inner circle? At first the scholar would stand attentively like a lowly clerk.


Having known about the Prime Minister’s conflict with Marshal Gao Fang, the scholar volunteered himself to be attached to Marshal Gao’s ill-fated expedition into Wei to act as the Prime Minister’s eyes and ears. The botched kidnapping job on the Huangs was also planned by him. Had it succeeded, Nangong Xie and the marshal would have benefited. But it failed, and despite Marshal Gao marching away into Wei right after; there were still salacious rumours about the entire affair. Yet, Nangong Xie himself was not implicated. Nobody knew the true extent of his culpability.


Later when Marshal Gao went into battle, Nangong Xie managed to slip away unscathed once more. He had remained in camp while the Wu army was being slaughtered by Wei’s General Ran Wei, and managed to retreat safely. In the height of irony, it was Huang Ming’s strategy to retake Tigertrap Pass from Marshal Gao’s lackeys and allow the defeated Wu soldiers home that had saved Nangong Xie.


Far from being grateful, the Handsome Scholar felt a burning jealousy. How was it that the wastrel Huang Ming became a strategist hero? Why did he keep emerging from the ashes and come out all the better?


From then on, Nangong Xie worked actively against the Huangs. Once more he volunteered himself, this time to influence Princess Wu Liying. Prime Minister Tong Xuan had already laid the groundwork, and the presence of a ‘neutral minor official’ giving pacifist advice was enough to turn the princess around.


In a way, Marshal Gao Fang had harmed the country in more ways that he could possibly know: the way he had moulded and utilized the army into his personal domain was enough to make the princess mistrustful of any military officer, good or bad. When Nangong Xie presented the idea that the royal court should centralize military command from the powerful generals such General Huang Zheng to prevent another Marshal Gao from rising, it was music to her ears.


This was what Prime Minister Tong Xuan had wanted as well, and so Nangong Xie became crucial in his plans.


As the Handsome Scholar’s star was ascending, Fang La’s own was descending.


Fang La was initially dismissive of Nangong Xie, but no longer. The Handsome Scholar was no longer just a subordinate, but had elevated himself to be a valued advisor of Prime Minister Tong Xuan. At first he was just a sycophant. Now? Now he was a trusted strategist… and dangerous. Fang La did himself no favours with his failure at Tianxin City. His uncle began to distrust him more and more, especially since his uncle found out about his admiration towards Huang Ming’s poetry. Nangong Xie had merely narrated the events at the Lichun as part of his detailed report, but Fang La now saw that it was a deliberate and subtle sabotage.


Thus, Fang La could only sit back and stew in his disgruntlement as Nangong Xie played up to his uncle.


“Nephew, why do you look so sour?” Tong Xuan asked, noting the glowering look on his face.


Fang La took a deep breath to compose himself. “I am worried about Huang Ming. He has proven himself to be quite resourceful,” he said.


Tong Xuan stroked his beard. “Yes… I did not expect him to embarrass the Jin ambassador at the royal banquet,” he murmured.


Fang La clenched his teeth at the mention of the royal banquet. He was present and saw everything that had happened there… from the minor seats. His uncle did not even want to exert his influence to give Fang La a better placement at such a high profile event. The only consolation was that Nangong Xie was not even invited to attend, but being relegated to the peanut gallery was still akin to a slap to the face. His uncle had explained that it was to prevent him from being recognized by Huang Ming, but Fang La took it as a subtle rebuke and a sign of his declining importance in his uncle’s eyes.


“Princess Wu Liying mentioned this as well,” Nangong Xie helpfully interjected himself into the conversation. “She fears Huang Ming might be promoted further by the king for upholding the country’s honour during the banquet.


Prime Minister Tong Xuan grunted. He had already dissuaded the king from appointing the father General Huang Zheng as the new Marshal of the Army, but he couldn’t use the same arguments when it came to the son.


“Perhaps we should distract Huang Ming while he is here in the capital. Give him an impossible task, and then use his failure to ward off the possibility of advancement,” Fang La suggested.


“A very good plan, but what if he succeeds?” Nangong Xie said, his forehead creasing with worry. Fang La could barely contain his rage, it was obvious that the scholar was already pouring scorn over his idea.


“If it needs be, we can simply have him removed permanently,” Fang La growled.


His uncle the prime minister nodded and Nangong Xie brightened, pleased at the thought of Huang Ming’s demise. But to Fang La, the happy look on the scholar’s face was infuriating, why was he trying to justify his plans to Nangong Xie? It made him feel all the smaller in the presence of his uncle. It lit a fire in Fang La, and he felt the need to prevent Nangong Xie from stepping over his head once more.


“I think I have just the problem for our young strategist to choke on,” Fang La said, his eyes glinting.


Upon reflection later, even Fang La was unsure whether he had meant Huang Ming or Nangong Xie.
 

Dark conspiracies,
Preying on insecurities.​