“You're it, quitsies!”
--Lloyd Christmas, ‘Dumb & Dumber’
Chapter 118 – Official
Again Huang Ming was summoned to the palace, this time in an official capacity. This was no banquet he was attending, but an actual session of the royal court. He had barely enough time to digest his less than cordial encounter with Princess Wu Liying, and here he was, already ordered to face her father the king once more.
‘She doesn’t seem like someone who would cry and complain to her dad, so I think this has nothing to do with that,’ Huang Ming thought to himself, and he had cheerfully accepted the summons despite Sunli’s misgivings. Besides, it was not as if he had a choice in the matter.
As for Qiong Ying, who knows? The woman who was still disguised as Quan Lu had been going out regularly, escorted by the two burly men that Huang Ming had recruited. From their reports, it seemed that ‘Quan Lu’ had been visiting many different places in the capital. Huang Ming was at least gratified that she was putting in effort to search for his brother Huang Lang, though he was dubious when they mentioned places like gambling dens and other places of vice…
Huang Ming was led to his designated seat in the throne room where the royal court was held. His seat was nestled within the ranks of the minor officials who were still assembling before the king’s arrival. Due to his high profile display at the banquet, Huang Ming received odd looks from the various attendants. A few deigned to smile and nod at him, grateful that he had stood up and foiled the Jin ambassador’s effort to embarrass their kingdom; but there were also cold looks of envy and distrust.
Huang Ming could only smile wryly. He recognized the looks. As the saying goes, the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. There will always be those who cannot bear the success of others.
“Do not mind them, they are just petty little people who are jealous of you,” a guttural voice cackled. A few bureaucrats who were giving Huang Ming the evil eye looked past him and hurriedly shuffled away, like rats frightened away by some bigger animal.
But when Huang Ming turned around, he saw that the one who spoke was a wrinkly old man half his size, hardly someone who could inspire such fear. His back was bent, his hair was snow white and fraying and he required a walking staff to aid his movement. Yet his eyes still gleamed with vigor, and his stately robes and headdress indicated his high rank.
Huang Ming bowed deferentially to the old man. “You are..?”
The old man nodded in return. “This one is called Yuan,” he said as he rocked the end of his walking staff on the polished floor, making imperfections on the surface. Huang Ming imagined that the eunuch or servant who was in charge of cleanliness suffering a twitch if he saw what the old man was doing.
“Sir Yuan,” Huang Ming greeted with another bow.
“Do not be so stuffy,” the old man grumbled and rolled his eyes. “I lament the amount of time we have wasted bowing to each other, when there is so much work to be done!”
Huang Ming chuckled, liking the old man already.
“Old Man Yuan,” he tried again, and this time the old man smiled with approval.
“Much better. Don’t go around giving bows to simply anyone,” the old man said.
“I am but a junior, and all organizations have their hierarchy and proper places for newcomers,” Huang Ming said modestly.
“Pfaugh. A junior in age, perhaps. You have achieved far more merit for the country during the banquet than these bags of fart despite their lifetime of service!” Old Man Yuan snorted.
“It is but some trifling tricks,” Huang Ming replied, struggling to prevent a smirk from rising on his face due to the old man’s language.
“Hold your head high, you have done well for our country. Young man, you should have more pride in yourself,” Old Man Yuan said. Then he added with a sly smile, “Besides, you won’t be a junior much longer.”
Before Huang Ming could ask for clarification, a gong was rung three times to signal the imminent arrival of the king. The officials hastily took to their seats, and Huang Ming could see Old Man Yuan shuffling his way to the front. Not at the same level as Prime Minister Tong Xuan, but still quite prominent. Huang Ming’s inference was right: Old Man Yuan really was a high ranking official.
In fact, Huang Ming could see the prime minister exchanging glances and murmured greetings with Old Man Yuan. He was too far away to make out what was being said, but from the looks on their faces and body language it was obvious that the two men harbored no great fondness for each other.
‘So he’s someone from the anti-Prime Minister faction,’ Huang Ming mused.
Then the king entered, guided by discreet eunuchs. Huang Ming aped the officials all around him by bowing to the king.
“Long live the king! Long live the king!”
The king nodded in acknowledgment almost wearily. Looking as pale and sickly as before, the king slowly sat down and with a wave of his hand, began the court session.
Then Huang Ming discovered the mind-numbingly slow and boring nature of courtly affairs in the Kingdom of Wu. Each official would shuffle forward, bow, give the usual long-winded salutations before the actual memorial. Accounts of the treasury, the military, agriculture, irrigation and civil works…
Each spoken report was delivered ceremoniously at a snail’s pace and Huang Ming wondered how anything got done. The King of Wu himself barely said a word the whole morning, merely nodding in dismissal after the end of every report. There was no sign of the king wanting to question the memorials. He acted and behaved in an aloof manner, utterly detached from the day-to-day affairs of his kingdom, that such dreary details were beneath him.
‘Who is actually running the country?’ Huang Ming thought.
Just when the sensation of pins and needles on his kneeling legs were starting to become unbearable, there was a change of pace..
Old Man Yuan laboriously moved forward, his walking stick making dull thumps on the floor. ‘The person in charge of polishing the floor must be tearing his hair out,’ Huang Ming thought bemusedly.
The king stirred, the first sign of actual involvement in the court session.
“Grand Tutor Yuan, do you have a proposal?” the king asked respectfully. It was a simple question, but considering that it was the first time the whole session that the king actually asked instead of just listening passively; it was a powerful statement to Old Man Yuan’s influence.
“Your Majesty, I propose that Huang Ming of Tianxin City to be rewarded for his efforts,” Old Man Yuan said. He purposefully left out explaining the actual ‘efforts’, there was no need to officially sanction Huang Ming’s less than delicate handling of Lord Aidi the Jin ambassador.
The king nodded, and his dull eyes lit up with life.
Huang Ming realized that this was planned: the king was waiting all morning for Old Man Yuan to make the proposal. ‘Grand Tutor Yuan,’ Huang Ming mentally amended, now that his true rank was revealed.
“Indeed, We are very pleased by his performance in the banquet,” the king said in approval. “But what sort of reward would suit him?”
“Your Majesty, my bones are creaking and my skin is drying, my eyes are dimming and my breathing is shallow. I am old, and I fear I can no longer keep up with the princess,” Grand Tutor Yuan said. He coughed to add emphasis to his words.
“Grand Tutor Yuan, what are you saying? Do you wish to retire?” the king asked with concern.
Grand Tutor Yuan nodded. Then he stood a little straighter and thumped his walking stick on the ground to command absolute attention. Once more Huang Ming pitied whoever had to clean the floor later.
“Huang Ming has demonstrated his skill in the arts of war and diplomacy, I feel he is a suitable candidate to be the new Grand Tutor for Princess Wu Liying!”
There was an uproar in the court, and there was nobody more aghast than Huang Ming himself.
Such a succession,
Not his decision.