Apologies to the lyrical poets, past and present.

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”
--Michael Buffer

Chapter 123 – Verses

Jiang Gai the Drunken Poet. There was a story behind his epithet: he had a penchant for composing literary works while completely inebriated. Having learned of the names of the noted heroes since that fateful day at the Lichun Brothel, Huang Ming did spend some time looking them up. Jiang Gai was not a prolific poet, but what Huang Ming had found showed that Jiang Gai was someone with some ability.

“Let us not waste any more time, you may begin as you like,” Prime Minister Tong Xuan said impatiently, not even waiting for the King of Wu to put in a word.

Jiang Gai nodded and turned to face Huang Ming.

“I, Jiang Gai have read your ‘One Lifetime, One Dream’. Though we stand on opposite sides today, let me first say that as someone who is fond of the drink, I admire your words very much,” Jiang Gai said affably.

Huang Ming bowed in acknowledgement. “It was the product of one’s misspent youth, I feel embarrassed at someone as famous as Sir Jiang to have read it,” Huang Ming said. There was honesty in his words, Huang Ming did feel a little abashed at being lauded for a work that he had shamelessly plagiarised.

However, Jiang Gai saw his humbleness as false modesty. Having seen how Huang Ming was less than courteous in dealing with even someone as powerful as the prime minister, Jiang Gai thought the young man was somehow mocking him. Besides, the prime minister was his benefactor. No matter how much he personally enjoyed Huang Ming’s poetry, they were rivals today.

Who was this Huang Ming? Why did the Prime Minister call him out to deal with him? It was like asking for a butcher’s cleaver to slaughter a weak chicken.

“Your ‘One Lifetime, One Dream’ is very inspiring, but I wonder if you could accompany me in a little friendly competition,” Jiang Gai said casually, almost condescendingly.

Huang Ming saw the shift from respect to hostility in Jiang Gai’s eyes, and he knew that the lines were drawn.

“How are we to compete?” he asked.

“Let us make verses,” Jiang Gai replied.

Huang Ming smiled faintly. “I have heard that Sir Jiang does best with alcohol. I wonder if the King could bestow upon us some royal wine to loosen the tongue,” he said, causing Jiang Gai to raise his brows appreciatively.

The King of Wu nodded in approval and ordered some bottles of wine brought. The royal wine was an aged drink that was very potent, and that was why Prime Minister Tong Xuan did not stop him. He knew of Jiang Gai’s drinking capabilities and was sure that it was greater than Huang Ming’s.

“Let us only have the time to drain a cup before each verse,” Huang Ming suggested. Jiang Gai was of course delighted, already the sweet aroma of the royal wine causing his mouth to water.

Huang Ming then extended an open palm as a gesture of invitation, allowing Jiang Gai the first move. The dissolute scholar almost snatched at his cup of royal wine, savouring the taste as it poured down his throat.

“Good wine!” he exclaimed in praise, his cheeks already flushing with its effects. Jiang Gai then intoned slowly:

“Thou art a person steeped in blood,
Unsuited to nurture the royal bud.”​

Prime Minister Tong Xuan smiled as it was a direct attack on Huang Ming’s character and his militaristic involvements, just as he had said previously. Jiang Gai was crafty enough to reuse his own words, and it was pleasing to Tong Xuan.

Huang Ming emptied his own cup and replied:

“Clean and innocent hands, I have none,
Ninety-nine problems, but teaching won’t be one.” ​

Jiang Gai was a little taken aback by the speedy reply. Refusing to be awed, he polished off his second cup and recited:

“Good to be ambitious,
But no need to be so vicious.
See the gentle waves and its foam,
A filial son, think of home.”​

This was an undisguised send off by Jiang Gai, telling Huang Ming to go back to Tianxin City. If he refused, then he would be considered unfilial for putting a career move over his parents.

It was Huang Ming’s turn and in one quick motion he drained his cup and recited with a smirk and a silent apology to a certain prince from Earth:

“In Tianxin City born and raised,
Fooling around is how I spent my days.
Together with my friends, whiling our time,
Drinking and joking, but never a crime.
Then Wei came and they were up to no good,
They started making trouble in the neighbourhood.
I got in one little war and my mother got woozy,
She said I was to move in with my uncle in this city.”​

The implications were obvious: in one verse Huang Ming admitted his less-than-stellar youth but rejected any notions of ill-doing, and that he was in the capital city on his mother’s order. Thus, Jiang Gai’s reproach about filial piety was mistaken.

The rhythm of the verse was infectious, a few smiled and clapped in delight. Jiang Gai was a little nervous now, he did not expect the quickness and fluency of Huang Ming’s reply. He began to regret the way he had greedily drank the royal wine earlier, the alcohol combined with the pressure of performing made him feel the effects much faster. Jiang Gai was not used to this, he was a celebrated poet who had enthralled those who had heard his recitations.

He had thought of Huang Ming as a chicken waiting to be slaughtered, but now he changed his mind. Jiang Gai drank his third cup slowly, his eyes narrowed. He then very slowly set the cup back down as the words began to take form in his thoughts, and he recited:

“You are indeed a rare fellow,
A sharp tongue, what a hero!
But one should be cautious,
Too hasty will invite the noxious.
The sun beyond the mountain glows,
The sea is where the river flows,
Take your time to enjoy the sight,
And climb slowly to a greater height.”​

The more conservative officials and bureaucrats in the throne hall nodded in agreement. The Prime Minister had reminded them of Huang Ming’s young age, and thus Jiang Gai’s words were quite sound. Jiang Gai himself was satisfied. Once more he chastised Huang Ming for overreaching himself, that he should be more prudent and careful in his upward struggle. He simultaneously painted a picturesque scene of a high mountain, yet it harboured allusions to dangers of falling off it.

Jiang Gai thought Huang Ming would drink the next cup of wine slowly as he did to buy some precious time, but Huang Ming merely knocked the drink back without a care. Jiang Gai’s eyes bulged, was this young man inexhaustible?

The young man gave Jiang Gai an easy grin and tilted his head upwards slightly, as if he was looking down on the poet for time wasting earlier, and without skipping a beat he said:

“Your palms are sweaty, your knees weak, your arms heavy,
You are falling sick, an ache in your belly.
You better lose yourself in this levy,
The moment, is yours, you better never let it go,
You only have one chance, don’t miss the flow,
A once in a lifetime opportunity, you know?”​

It was as if a bang went off in Jiang Gai’s head, how could Huang Ming reply so quickly? His fingers twitched as his hand reached out for his cup.

The audience in the hall could see that Jiang Gai was trembling. Sweat lined his brows as his mind worked frantically to respond in some way.

When his trembling hands caused him to spill drops of the royal wine, someone sighed in pity. That one anonymous exhale caused Jiang Gai to droop his shoulders. He bravely turned to face Huang Ming and bowed deeply.

“I have lost,” he said, and Huang Ming silently breathed a sigh of relief.