This chapter was nearly disrupted by unplanned renovation works in my house (a pipe embedded in the walls sprung a leak).

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.”
--Exodus 21:7

Chapter 125 – Masks off

Huang Ming hurriedly wiped his damp face and clothes even as the King of Wu looked on bemusedly.

“I’m sorry Your Majesty, but I do not have such interests. I am not worthy of such honour,” Huang Ming said.

“Oh? But I find you very intelligent and your wit to be pleasing. Is there something wrong with the princess?” the king asked, the smile on his face taking off the sting of the question.

Huang Ming squinted an eye at the king, wondering if he should tell him that his daughter had came across as several cards short of a full deck. The young woman had sent a missive to raise an insurrection against the Prime Minister, and even though she later retracted it, she still raised a fuss when the said rebellion did not materialize.

“The princess is heaven’s proud daughter, flawless and impeccable,” Huang Ming said instead in a neutral voice, keeping his face as straight as possible.

The king was not convinced.

“But?” he prodded.

Huang Ming spread his hands apologetically. “But I doubt she is one to be docile and homely. Besides, I’m engaged,” he said with a smile.

“Your fiancée can be the concubine,” the king suggested.

“I’m engaged to two women,” Huang Ming clarified.

“A man can have three wives and four concubines. Your fiancées can be the second and third wives. My daughter will be the main wife, what is the problem?” the king said impatiently.

‘My women might have something to say about that,’ Huang Ming thought waspishly.

“Your Majesty, did I offend you somehow?” he said aloud.

“Nonsense, we said we are pleased by you.”

“Then you might as well sentence me to death right now, I do not wish to die from a thousand cuts by my fiancées,” Huang Ming said.

“Now that is an interesting idea,” the king murmured, much to Huang Ming’s worry. He decided to change subjects.

“Your Majesty, may I ask, why are you hiding?” he asked, referring to the obvious change from the lethargic and sickly mood the king had shown in public.

The King of Wu sighed. “We are surrounded by creatures with terrible fangs and claws, how else can we survive?”

Huang Ming blinked. “You mean…”

“Do you take us to be completely deaf and blind? Of course we know what is going on in our court,” the king of Wu said.

“Then why…”

“Why not do something about it? Hah,” the king snorted. “By the time we realize the truth, our hands and feet were tied. The officials and guards were replaced, and there were no loyal ears to hear our voice.”

Huang Ming nodded. As a student of history, Huang Ming have read many instances of kingdoms, empires and dynasties crumbling due to the actions of an incompetent ruler. But were all of them truly incompetent, or were they hamstrung by powerful figures that had cut off the sovereign from the outside world?

“You understand,” the King of Wu said approvingly. “You are not like one of those sanctimonious idiots who think we can command the wind and waves with a simple decree. We want to affect changes, but we know that one word of wisdom from us will result in a sudden new ruler of our kingdom.”

Huang Ming rubbed his chin in thought. The King of Wu was not a mere sickly simpleton as everyone believed. What was that story about an ancient Chinese king who fooled around in dissipation for three whole years, before emerging to reign supreme over the entire country?

“There is a magical bird which lived on a lofty mountain, it is said to have been unmoving for many years. I wonder if you know of it,” Huang Ming said.

It was the King of Wu’s turn to blink. But then he slowly said, “It does not fly, but when it does, it will soar to the heavens.”

Huang Ming continued, “It does not sing, but when it does, it will be astonishing.”

The King of Wu nodded. “A good story, we needed someone to tell us that,” he said gratefully. It was the sort of relief one would feel after sharing one’s secret burden with another, and receiving consoling words in return.

He gave Huang Ming an appreciative look. “We did say we were pleased by your quick thought, and you have demonstrated it once more.”

Huang Ming shrugged depreciatively. “You are too kind. But what about Grand Tutor Yuan? He opposes Tong Xuan and has some say in court.”

The king sneered with derision. “Remember what we said about sanctimonious fools? He lectures us on and on, he is well versed in the theories but not in the practical. Our enemies were bought with gold and intimidated with weapons, how are we to sway them with just words?”

“You could try to appeal to their sense of loyalty,” Huang Ming said dryly.

The King of Wu narrowed his eyes. “We tried. Did our princess not send word for the generals Huang and Zhao to come?”

Huang Ming’s eyes bulged. “That was your idea? Why not write it yourself?”

“We could not risk it,” the king said sternly.

Huang Ming felt tingling running down his arms. The king had basically admitted to using his own daughter as a shield to avoid incriminating himself.

The king saw the flash of apprehension on the young man’s face, and smiled mirthlessly. “Do you find us to cold? But how much good can we do, if we suddenly end up being prematurely ‘buried with honours’?”

Huang Ming saw his point. There were just as many stories about rulers meeting an untimely end after all.

“By the way, is the princess’s favourable disposition for Tong Xuan part of your plans?” he grimaced.

The king chuckled softly. “Rest assured, it is but a ruse. She volunteered to infiltrate and earn Tong Xuan’s trust, to learn about his agents and plans. Did you find her behaviour puzzling?” the king queried.

“You mean the way she is blaming me for everything and bearing an unexplained grudge against me?” Huang Ming asked conversationally. “You mean she was just acting for Tong Xuan’s benefit?”

The King of Wu grimaced. “Not entirely,” he admitted. “When the letter failed to bring your father’s armies to the capital...”

“That was not our fault,” Huang Ming interrupted. “There was the little matter of the campaign in Wei.”

“We understand,” the king said, waving a hand dismissively. “As we were saying; when we saw that the letter did not bring armies to the capital to rid us of the evil-doers, we thought you and your father could not be swayed by mere words.”

Huang Ming stiffened, his nostrils flaring. Was the king accusing his father to be the same sort that flocked to Tong Xuan? That the Great Generals Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong were self-serving and ambitious cretins?

The king saw the bristling reaction and raised a hand to placate him. “This was before the campaign in Wei. From that ill-fated campaign, we now know that your father is a true patriot.”

“You have no idea. My father still carries the princess’s letter on himself… is that even her own blood on the letter?” Huang Ming grumbled.

The king ignored the complaint. “You asked why she had ill-feelings against you,” he said instead.

‘I don’t particularly care,’ Huang Ming mentally muttered, but held his tongue.

“As we said, we thought it took more than words to ensure your father’s loyalty. Thus we proposed to link our princess to the great general’s family. At first she was agreeable, but later on…” the king trailed off.

Huang Ming sighed. “Let me guess. She thought it would be one of my brothers, but when news came that they were both married, I was the only one left.”

The King of Wu tapped the side of his head with a finger and smiled. “You are indeed astute as we hoped,” he said. “Though you have achieved much during the campaign in Wei, the sordid stories of your past still persist, and she finds herself unable to stomach it.”

‘Not again!’ Huang Ming cursed the original.

“Part of the reason I allowed Tong Xuan to conduct that play in court earlier was so that we could see whether those stories were true or not,” the king continued. “Your display convinced me that they were much overblown, and you are indeed worthy.”

Huang Ming pulled a long face. “Your Majesty…” he began.

The king narrowed his eyes.

“Are you refusing us?”

Layers upon layers,
More and more players.​