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“Bad boss, bad fellows. I couldn't imagine that your fellows are more greedy than you.”
--Ling Ling-Chat, 'From Beijing With Love'


Chapter 122 – Gift of the gab

After seeing the King of Wu admonishing Shen He, the atmosphere in the throne hall shifted. Suddenly the accusatory glances of contempt from the assembled officials that were directed at Huang Ming disappeared, replaced by various looks of slyness and calculative greed. They were thinking about how to take advantage of the situation themselves, and inwardly weighing and judging the shifting winds.


As for Prime Minister Tong Xuan, he was livid. His cheeks were taut and his lips drawn in a thin line. He was still stroking his long wintry beard, but Huang Ming could see that his fingers were tugging just a little harder.


‘This is what you get for surrounding yourself with sycophants,’ Huang Ming smirked. He glanced at the King of Wu who was still distracted by the music box on his table. ‘And that goes for you too,’ Huang Ming thought uncharitably. This entire situation came about because the King of Wu placed his trust in the wrong man, who in return filled the court with his base creatures.


The prime minister coughed in an attempt to restore gravitas in the hall.


“Your Majesty, we are still in the middle of court,” he reminded the King of Wu gravely.


“Mm, yes, quite,” the sickly looking king muttered half-heartedly. It was obvious that the king was not really interested in investigating Huang Ming any further, but he couldn’t muster the effort to outright dismiss the matter entirely. Besides, Tong Xuan was right in that a potential candidate to be his precious daughter’s tutor should be vetted thoroughly.


Once more the ambiance in the throne hall shifted as the officials understood that the Prime Minister still had considerable sway over their sovereign. Huang Ming sighed but knew it was too much to hope for these hyenas to seize the opening to take down the lion that had cowed them for so long.


Prime Minister Tong Xuan turned his eyes towards Huang Ming once more.


“We have heard of your exploits during the campaign in Wei, and we are of course very grateful for your service-” he began to intone.


“As my own life was on the line, I was of course obliged to do my very best to survive as well as to serve the country. But you’re welcome,” Huang Ming interrupted with a grin, once more infuriating the older man with his irreverence.


Just as Prime Minister Tong Xuan was to open his mouth to reply, Huang Ming interrupted him again.


“Prime Minister is also someone who has selflessly served the country well for many years, I thank you for your service,” Huang Ming said with a fake smile on his face.


“It is my duty, please do not mention it-” Tong Xuan growled as he tried to keep his temper in check.


“Don’t worry I won’t,” Huang Ming cut in quickly.


Tong Xuan very nearly lost it, he jerked his beard so hard that a few strands of white came off. The sharp pricks of pain was enough to remind him of the delicate situation, and instead of roaring with anger he clenched his teeth and smiled.


Even the King of Wu couldn’t resist laughing, he had never encountered such a manner of speech before. It was the sort of delight that he had felt when he first saw the music box: a novel display that was simply unimaginable to someone who spent a lifetime in the palace observing the restrictive protocols and dreary ceremonies.


Tong Xuan’s eyes glowered at the young man before him. He knew he had to take charge of the situation quickly, or else Huang Ming could very well be showered with the king’s favour and put him out of his immediate reach. Thus he affected a laugh of his own, as if he shared the same taste in humour as the King of Wu.


“You have a glib tongue indeed, this old one find it refreshing indeed,” he exclaimed with a smile that was appeared to Huang Ming to be quite strained.


“We know what you mean,” the King of Wu said, pleased that he was not alone with the sentiment.


Tong Xuan smiled and nodded like some genial grandfather. “Putting aside the tales that official Shen He has heard, the court has also heard stories of your literary prowess in poetry,” he said swimmingly, in a manner that was not quite rejecting the ludicrous slander, but merely postponing it to be brought up later.


“A mere trifle, it is just a hobby,” Huang Ming said modestly, realizing that the prime minister was about to test him. Huang Ming wished he brought along one of the folding fans that was part of Qiong Ying’s Quan Lu disguise, he would have whipped it out and fanned himself arrogantly at that point.


He was not disappointed, for Tong Xuan immediately wondered aloud, “If you could demonstrate your literary skill to us, it would go a long way to convincing us of your scholarly capabilities.”


“Does the Prime Minister have a particular preference?” Huang Ming asked, as if the prime minister was the one challenging him directly. He privately pitied the older man: how was Tong Xuan to know that Huang Ming had multiple lives and experiences across different worlds and universes to draw upon?


The prime minister shook his head to deflect the challenge. “Everyone knows of my humble origins,” he said depreciatingly, invoking his lowly origins. Yes, everyone knew that the current prime minister began as a mere toady. He had no formal education nor a powerful background, he had serendipitously found the king’s favour and leveraged it to the maximum to get to where he was today. It was testament to his cunning and influence that nobody dared to sneer at the prime minister.


In a twisted sort of way, Tong Xuan was a true example of meritocracy: someone who had climbed to the top by hook or by crook. It was almost admirable, but Huang Ming had seen too much to know that Tong Xuan’s determination was borne out of selfish avarice and had harmed all who stood in his way.


“I am no scholar, but I am sure there are some here willing to step up,” Prime Minister Tong Xuan continued expansively, giving the assembled bureaucrats and scholars in the throne hall a smile that chilled the bones of the assembled. Who was the unlucky one to be singled out by the Prime Minister as a sacrifice?


Much to the relief of the lesser talented, one figure stepped out and bowed. A man in his prime, but his features were pale. There were dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks were sunken; all the signs of a dissolute life. Yet he walked with a confident swagger, his chin jutted with arrogance with a sense of self-superiority.


The man reminded Huang Ming of his own original condition when he had first arrived. Had the original Huang Ming continued to live, he would end up looking like this official.


Many of the assembled officials recognized this fellow, their brows rose with appreciation. The look on their faces told Huang Ming that they believed this fellow was up to the challenge.


“Official Jiang Gai would like to try!” the man said and gave Huang Ming the most haughty of nods.


Huang Ming narrowed his eyes, he recognized the name as one of the heroes of the day as discussed by Qiong Ying during their meeting at the Lichun.


‘Jiang Gai the Drunken Poet.’


Now Huang Ming really wished he had one of those folding fans, he would have snapped it shut there and then to show that he was looking forward to challenge.


Tong Xuan was confident in Jiang Gai’s ability, this was a famed poet that he had bought over to his side to show that he was no mere boor who did not appreciate the arts. It was easy to recruit the poet: an endless supply of gold to fuel the poet’s lust for wine and women, and the man was more than willing to be part of the prime minister’s entourage, a gilded road for the easy life.


Yet, Tong Xuan could not help but feel a little wary. Huang Ming was not affected, he was still grinning that infuriating grin of his.


‘Let’s see what you’ve got,’ Tong Xuan thought grimly.
 

A new challenger,
Stepping up for the chancellor,
A poet of some renown,
Yet the hero did not frown.​