“And I even like the colour.”
--Sultan of Hatay, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Chapter 121 – Greased
“Why don’t you eat shit?”
And then, pandemonium.
The officials and attendants who came from a higher class of upbringing have never heard of such vulgarity before: their ears and faces flushed red as they erupt with anger and embarrassment. Their colleagues who had humble origins were shocked, never dreaming that they could hear such marketplace talk in the august chamber of the throne hall.
Some of the maids and eunuchs who were brought up on palatial etiquette simply froze, one or two even fainted. All were stunned, some had their mouths hanging agape; others resisting the temptation to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
The King of Wu looked dazed when the coarse language entered his ears. Seeing the strange look on the king’s face, Prime Minister Tong Xuan seized the opportunity to take centre stage.
“Huang Ming, how dare you defile the palace with such uncouth words!” he thundered in his deep voice.
Huang Ming in return only smiled. He folded his hands behind his back and jutted his chin towards Official Shen He who had accused him.
“This official accused me of having improper relations with an animal; having him eat shit for his slander is the very least he could do for his slander,” Huang Ming said mildly.
The swollen jowls of the rotund Shen He quivered with rage and humiliation, he never expected such strong language from the scholarly-looking Huang Ming. Let alone, hearing it twice in the presence of the king and all his peers in the bureaucracy. Worse still, some scribe would probably record this incident for all of time, and being a mere minor official with little accomplishments when compared to Huang Ming; Shen He knew that his only note to fame in the history books would be about being the receiving end of a huge insult from the young man.
Thus he sputtered with fury and pointed fingers at Huang Ming. “You little upstart! You do not know the meaning of the word respect!”
“On the contrary, I absolute do know the word respect. It is just that you don’t deserve any,” Huang Ming said calmly, infuriating Shen He even more.
“You, you, you-!” the official blustered, his face turning an even darker shade of red.
“Enough!” Prime Minister Tong Xuan interrupted. “Huang Ming, please observe some decorum. We are in the presence of the king.”
“Then I beg the king’s pardon,” Huang Ming said lightly. He cupped his hands and saluted the king. In a firm voice, Huang Ming appealed, “Your Majesty, I see redress for the slander that was unjustly smeared against me.”
The way he stood tall and defiant, coupled with his handsome features made Shen He’s allegations all the more preposterous.
The king shook himself out of his stupor and gave Huang Ming a nod. But before he could say anything, the prime minister interjected himself once more.
“Of course, we will get to the bottom of this. But you only responded to the, er, accusation of deviant sexual behaviour. What do you say to his other charges?” Prime Minister Tong Xuan asked, steering the talk back to more weighty subjects.
“What were they? I was not paying attention until he insulted me,” Huang Ming replied, challenging the prime minister to repeat Shen He’s claims.
Tong Xuan narrowed his eyes. “We will go through them one by one,” he said slowly, his intonation promising all sorts of dark intentions.
“Then let’s get on with it, we’re all on the king’s time here,” Huang Ming fired back quickly, waving a hand impatiently.
The prime minister was piqued, the same sort of annoyance an orator would feel if a dramatic pause was rudely interrupted by a heckler. Tong Xuan who was so used to commanding the stage with theatrical delivery and holding a captive audience within the palm of his hand felt needled by Huang Ming’s irreverent speech.
“Did you associate with bandits?” the prime minister asked.
“Yes,” Huang Ming answered without hesitation.
The chamber erupted once more; even Tong Xuan was surprised. The prime minister and his clique had prepared forged documents and false witnesses to implicate the young man, who knew that he would willingly jump into the fire?
The King of Wu was disturbed, he quickly rapped his armrest to silence the hall. “Huang Ming, what did you say?” he demanded.
“Your Majesty, there is spate of bandit occurrence across our country. Unlike the raid on Tianxin City which was a Wei secret operation, these incidents are caused by actual brigands who were previously ordinary citizens of our kingdom,” Huang Ming began, recalling the first meeting he had with Tian Zhu and his marauders.
“Yes, I have heard of such reports,” the King of Wu said gravely.
“In fact, on my journey to the capital I was waylaid by a group of bandits,” Huang Ming said conversationally.
“What? How could such a thing happen?” the king asked, genuinely astonished.
“Like I said, they were ordinary citizens, forced to resort to illegal means to survive,” Huang Ming continued, shrugging nonchalantly. “Fortunately, I was able to talk them down and to repent. If Your Majesty wishes, I can have their former leader present himself at court,” he added, pleased that he was able to fulfil his promise to Tian Zhu to air his grievances to the king.
“What do you mean, ‘forced’? We have heard that our people were in difficult times after the ill-fated campaign in Wei, and we have ordered that relief measures be given,” the King of Wu said sharply.
“Your Majesty, they told me that they were forced out of their lands due to the collusion between local officials and unscrupulous merchants. Of the relief that Your Majesty have ordered, they never saw a single cent. On the contrary, taxes were raised,” Huang Ming answered.
The King of Wu slammed a fist down in anger. “We have been blinded!” he exclaimed.
Prime Minister Tong Xuan hastily stepped forward. “Your Majesty, I have already began my own investigations, and I was planning to report it once they are complete,” he said with a bow.
“Who knows how many would suffer while you’re still investigating,” Huang Ming commented softly with tiniest hint of a sneer. Softly, yet loud enough for the king to hear.
It took all of Tong Xuan’s willpower not to swat at Huang Ming’s face. Instead he drew to his full height and gave the younger man a stare.
“We must of course be thorough in our investigations,” the prime minister said calmly. “And speaking of investigations, you said you encountered these bandits on your journey here?” he asked, forcefully diverting the flow of conversation.
“Yes, I met these bandits on my journey here,” Huang Ming repeated in a bored manner, continuing his tactic to upset the Prime Minister.
“Then you misunderstood my question. Official Shen He met you in Tianxin City, long before the Wei campaign. Meaning, he suspected you of colluding with bandits long before you were even summoned to the capital!” Tong Xuan said emphatically.
“You only asked ‘if’ I ever associated with bandits, you did not ask ‘when’,” Huang Ming said coolly without batting an eyelid. ‘You’re not the only one who can mix up the facts,’ Huang Ming thought.
“Huang Ming, are you playing the fool?” Tong Xuan rumbled angrily. “I ask you again, did you associate with bandits, while you were in Tianxin City, before the campaign in Wei?”
Huang Ming barked a short laughter. “I thought I was clear enough, but maybe the Prime Minister find it difficult to understand, so I’ll say it slowly: No, I did not,” he said. Just as Tong Xuan was about to segue into presenting his trumped up evidence, Huang Ming launched his own spiel to press on the offensive.
“No, I did not,” he repeated, “Because that would be a stupid thing to do. My father is the Great General, my second brother his lieutenant. They risked their lives by personally patrolling the countryside, and they are professional enough to keep their official duties separate from personal relations. Thus I was never privy to their military planning, as I am a simple civilian. My mother is from the Li Clan, a wealthy family here in this very capital city. How can anyone believe that I would ever be in financial problems?”
Huang Ming turned to face Shen He who thought himself to be forgotten in this confrontation.
“Official Shen He said that he saw me at the famous auction hall of Tianxin City, however he had neglected to mention that I was only there to take delivery of an item on behalf of the Hall of Treasures and Antiquities,” Huang Ming said, deliberately naming Miss Lin Hua’s auction hall. He did promise to advertise for her after all.
“What?” Shen He blurted before he could stop himself. It was just one word, but enough to shred his own allegations.
Whereupon Huang Ming withdrew from his sleeve the music box that he had repaired. He rested it on the palm of one hand and raised it so that the King of Wu could see it.
“The Hall of Treasures and Antiquities knew of my maternal family’s background in the capital, and asked if I could deliver this item to the Li Clan so as to promote their business relationship,” Huang Ming said, fudging the details. It was not as if outsiders would know the exact details of who said what and when.
He lowered the box and gave it a wistful look. “Of course, the campaign in Wei interrupted everything.”
“If it is really for the Li Clan, why is it still with you now?” Tong Xuan demanded.
“Because this box is priceless and my uncle Li Hong thought it would be a fitting gift for the king instead,” Huang Ming answered smoothly, taking the opportunity to promote the Li Clan as well.
Of course, there were many flaws in his presentation, but Huang Ming opened the box and gently turned the mechanism within. Then he released the winding key and soon a tinkling music filled the air. It was an unfamiliar sound to everyone. The closest equivalent to them was the ordinary wind chime, but there was a strange sort of melody and rhythm from the box instead of the random results from a wind-blown garden ornament.
For a few minutes the entire throne hall was silent except for the music box. Everyone present stared at the box; some in wonder, others avariciously.
Like the King of Wu.
Huang Ming snapped the lid of the box shut, and the music stopped. He knelt before the king and presented the box humbly with both hands. “Your Majesty, please accept this gift from Tianxin City’s Hall of Treasures and Antiquities,” he said.
The eyes of the king lit up with delight, and he joyfully received the box. He opened the lid and immediately the music began to play. He closed it, and the music stopped. Like a child enamoured with a new toy, he repeated the action several times until the music stopped completely.
“Your Majesty only needs to turn the key within several times to start the device,” Huang Ming said helpfully.
The King of Wu nodded, and then suddenly realized that he was actually still in the middle of court. He coughed to cover his embarrassment, yet his pleasure was plain to see as he reluctantly placed the music box prominently on his table to stop fiddling with it.
“We are very pleased, and we will be sure to reward you and the hall,” the king said with a smile.
Huang Ming bowed in acknowledgement, glad to have accomplished Miss Lin Hua’s task.
The King of Wu then gave Shen He a baleful stare. “He has so easily given away such a priceless thing, your accusations seem far-fetched.”
Shen He’s face turned pale.
Prime Minister Tong Xuan seethed. It was as if Huang Ming had taken a page from his own playbook. The young man had just bribed the King of Wu in full view of all the highest officials in the country. Far from being suspected, he was even rewarded for it!
Against those who would detract.