"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
--Don Corleone, “The Godfather”
Chapter 124 – Offer
Huang Ming sighed in relief, and immediately composed his breathing so as to lower his heartbeat and prevent the flush of blood rising to his face, as he was thoroughly cringing at what he had just done.
Jiang Gai was a noted poet of some skill, and Huang Ming felt some sympathy for the proverbial ‘hometown hero’. Verbally beating up the poet using plagiarised words from Earth was as they say, accidentally on purpose; but his skill left Huang Ming little choice.
Besides, it all ended well, and the way Jiang Gai admitted defeat without throwing a tantrum earned him a modicum of respect from Huang Ming. That was why Huang Ming did not extend a hand or made a conciliatory gesture towards Jiang Gai, it would be seen as pitying and thus insulting to the poet.
Instead Huang Ming merely nodded and turned to face Prime Minister Tong Xuan. The elder statesman were hiding his trembling fists in the long sleeves of his official robes, but his face was outwardly calm.
“I trust that this ‘demonstration’ is enough?” Huang Ming said with a touch of frost.
“It is not something I am used to,” the prime minister said unhurriedly. “Your style seems very unorthodox and straying from the classics.”
Huang Ming merely shrugged. “Well, can’t please everybody I suppose,” he said nonchalantly.
The prime minister’s face twitched, but the older man quelled his anger and instead threw his head back to laugh uproariously.
“How bold! New waves overcome the old! This old one stands in awe of your great talents, surely you’re are the greatest talent in our world today!” Prime Minister Tong Xuan exclaimed earnestly.
“Thank you,” Huang Ming replied with a smile.
Tong Xuan’s smile froze as he did not expect Huang Ming’s bald-faced acceptance of his praises.
“Enough, enough,” the King of Wu said with a laugh from his throne. “We have all witnessed Huang Ming’s literary prowess, let this matter be finished.”
“But Your Majesty, there is still the matter of his other faults,” Tong Xuan urged.
“Let it be said on another day, we are tired,” the King of Wu said dismissively and rose, signalling the end of the day’s session.
Tong Xuan seethed, he was not used to this sort of rejection. Was the king truly swayed? What made it even more galling was that the king then took Huang Ming’s music box with his own two hands instead of having an eunuch carry it, as if it was something dear to him.
Then, the King of Wu said, “Huang Ming, follow us. We can discuss further in private, we have some questions for you about this box.”
“Understood,” Huang Ming said and shuffled to follow the monarch. He couldn’t resist giving Tong Xuan a smirk as he went pass. It took all of the prime minister’s self control to not stagger from the shock of setback.
Grand Tutor Yuan merely chuckled softly before making his own exit, followed by his entourage.
Once the king was out of sight, Prime Minister Tong Xuan whirled around. His lips were bared in a snarl; daring the remaining officers and bureaucrats who were still present to look at him in the eyes.
Of course, nobody dared. His lackeys and subordinates kept their eyes low, only to breathe in relief after Tong Xuan stomped his way out of the hall.
In his blind fury, Tong Xuan did not even notice that Jiang Gai had slipped away long ago. The Drunken Poet still had the presence of mind to disappear as quickly as he could to avoid facing the Prime Minister’s wrath.
Huang Ming followed the King of Wu and his attendants deeper into the palace, to the inner sanctum. The king was led by a favoured eunuch who guided his had, while the others followed close behind, as if ready to catch the king if he should stumble.
Once more Huang Ming saw the luxurious splendour lavished on the king: priceless jewels and gilded furniture, the lingering smell of expensive incense and aromatics. Beautiful peacocks gracefully strut in the carefully manicured gardens while snow-white swans swam in the ponds.
It was a little piece of heaven on this mortal world, but to Huang Ming’s eyes it was such misplaced expenditure considering the poor condition of the infrastructure that he had witnessed on his way to the capital. The circumstances surrounding the former bandit Tian Zhu was a stark reminder.
The king dismissed his attendants, and though they withdrew silently Huang Ming could see the questioning looks on their faces.
Only when they have left did the King of Wu became more animated. He quickly removed his heavy headdress, revealing a simple bun that tied his long hair. Then he stepped out of his heavy golden robes, so that he was just wearing the ordinary and thin clothing that was more suited for ease of movement.
Huang Ming felt dread rising his heart when he saw the king stripping his outer garments. ‘Good god, did he take a fancy to me?’ he thought nervously.
The King of Wu tilted his head one way and then the other to produce a loud cricking noise which startled Huang Ming. The king sighed with relief, and then he stretched mightily, groaning in satisfaction as his muscles tensed and relaxed.
Huang Ming looked on with surprise and before his very eyes, what was a sickly looking, disinterested man who presided over the morning court session began to transform to someone more sprightly as he launched into gentle martial choreographed moves. The light exercise brought colour to the king’s face, and the ease of movement showed a high degree of familiarity and repetition. This was part of the king’s routine, not a burst of spontaneity .
“Do not just stand there, pour us some tea,” the king admonished as he continued to stretch his muscles. The genteel, tired-sounding voice he had shown during court was replaced by a deeper tone. Together with the grunts from the light exercise, the king sounded more regal and commanding.
‘So you’re hiding a secret too,’ Huang Ming thought wryly as he poured two cups of tea. Unceremoniously he drank first without being invited by the king, and it caused the monarch to raise an eyebrow at the young man’s presumptuousness.
Huang Ming paid him no mind, the king obviously had something more important to discuss with him than to dwell on tea etiquette. Therefore Huang Ming confidently helped himself to another cup.
“Haha, you are a bold one!” the King of Wu laughed as he joined Huang Ming at the table after wiping off his light sweat.
“I was really thirsty,” Huang Ming said honestly.
The king smiled, tickled by his frankness.
“Mmm, we can understand that. You did spout off some quick words earlier. Were they really yours?” the king asked curiously.
“At the very least, they are not of this world,” Huang Ming smirked.
The king was puzzled, but quickly banished it from his mind. As Huang Ming suspected, the king had bigger fish to fry.
“Huang Ming, what do you think of our country so far?” he asked, almost conversationally.
Huang Ming looked directly at the king and said, “I think the country’s rotten.”
One could imagine that the king of the country in question would react furiously, but instead the king laughed loudly, just like how Tong Xuan did earlier in the throne hall.
‘What’s with people covering their anger with laughter?’ Huang Ming thought idly as the king’s body shook from the reaction.
“You are indeed a bold one,” the King of Wu said once he had recovered. “We do appreciate your honesty, which is why we have called you here.”
“And that is…?” Huang Ming asked bluntly.
The King of Wu’s eyes glimmered. “With everyone focused on Grand Tutor Yuan’s suggestion for you to replace him, nobody thought to ask if you actually want the job. Do you?” he demanded.
Huang Ming shook his head as he poured himself another cup of tea.
“No, it sounds like too much trouble,” he said jocularly and began to sip.
“Mm, I thought so,” the king nodded sagely. Then, “How about being the Prince Consort then?”
Huang Ming was so shocked that he was barely able to turn his head in time to avoid spewing the tea all over the king’s face. Fortunately, only the floor and parts of the table became wet with his spittle.
On his part, the King of Wu laughed at Huang Ming’s display. An interesting young man, for sure!
Very nearly a mistake.