The melancholy of Tong Xuan
“All the intellectuals and learned people have been recruited by the Qing dynasty. The only way we can defeat them is to use the remaining stupid people.”
--Chan Kan Nam, ‘Royal Tramp’ (1992)
Chapter 147 – The melancholy of Tong Xuan
Prime Minister Tong Xuan was not a happy man.
It was only a few weeks ago that he felt all-powerful, confident in his prestige and assured of his ability to do whatever he pleased. The King of Wu was sickly and weak, the Princess was spellbound by Nangong Xie and the royal court and ministries were led by men whom he had carefully selected for their loyalty to him.
His only rivals had been removed, leaving him all but in command of all the functionaries of the state. The upright Minister Jun of the civil office went missing after a mysterious fire at his residence, the corrupt Marshal Gao of the military forces suffered a reverse and disappeared.
The only one left was Grand Tutor Yuan, a decrepit old man who relied on his status of being Princess Wu Liying’s teacher. But how much power did he really have, when the princess herself was enamoured with Nangong Xie, a man who was also the Prime Minister’s retainer?
Then everything began to unravel. Prime Minister Tong Xuan had shared Marshal Gao’s concerns about the powerful generals in charge of their own legions in various parts of the country. Great General Huang Zheng was one of them, and in trying to removing this irritating thorn at their side, they only caused a grievous wound instead.
It would still be manageable had he been able to keep them far away from the capital. But suddenly the King of Wu seemed to come alive and actually displayed some kingship to summon Huang Ming for a reward, and to boost the morale of the country after the army’s misadventure in Wei.
Now the young man Huang Ming was the newest hero of the country, his dubious past now forgotten. Every attempt to stall and cast doubt on him failed, and there were even rumours of the Hero of Tigertrap Pass was to be given the hand of Princess Wu Liying.
Still, Tong Xuan was confident that this was not to be, for Nangong Xie had assured him that the princess intensely disliked Huang Ming who had made his fame with blood. Tong Xuan himself knew this to be true, did he not arrange for Princess Wu Liying to spy on the fateful day when Marshal Gao decided to to invade Wei for purely selfish reasons? Hadn’t he fooled the princess with his pacifist ways, warning her of the warmongers in the military?
So there was no reason for the prime minister to panic about the possibility of Huang Ming becoming the royal son-in-law…
Until Nangong Xie himself disappeared.
Tong Xuan had returned after his court duties, only to find a large part of his retinue had gone missing.
“What happened?” he asked his nephew Fang La.
“Sir Nangong Xie was provoked,” Fang La said blandly. “He took a group of your men to settle things with Huang Ming, I know not of the details.”
Tong Xuan was aghast, but decided to wait for the results instead of recalling Nangong Xie. But the hours became days and none of his men ever returned. It became apparent that something horrible had happened, for over the next few days Tong Xuan saw for himself that Huang Ming was still alive and well.
Once more the king had called Huang Ming to his private sanctum, one of the few places that still remained out of Tong Xuan’s reach. The relaxed way Huang Ming had followed the king told Tong Xuan all he needed to know: Nangong Xie had failed. There was no need to speculate the Handsome Scholar’s fate: either he had been killed by Huang Ming, or ran away to avoid being punished by the prime minister.
Tong Xuan could only return home in a terrible mood.
It did not improve when he saw the impassive attitude of his nephew, Lord Fang La. Recently the younger man only paid the most cursory of politeness to him and acting as if he was like a block of wood; unmoved and unconcerned with this latest crisis.
Tong Xuan admitted that his relationship with his nephew had deteriorated greatly ever since the debacle over General Huang Zheng’s military authority. But with Nangong Xie now gone, Tong Xuan needed him more than ever.
He tried to send some feelers for reconciliation, but his nephew rebuffed his attempt.
“I am sorry uncle, I have a prior engagement elsewhere,” Fang La said when Tong Xuan tried to invite him for a discussion. Tong Xuan by nature was a careful person: one of his minders later told him that his nephew did indeed went out to meet a lady.
That unexpected news lightened Tong Xuan’s mood somewhat, he was suspicious of Fang La unseemly interest with his youngest concubine and was therefore glad that his nephew was moving on from his scandalous infatuation.
Still, it did nothing to assuage Tong Xuan’s larger worries regarding Huang Ming’s growing closeness with the King of Wu. Suddenly, the prime minister felt quite alone, bereft of his left and right arms.
It was in this bleak atmosphere when the Imperial Guard’s Commander Wang Hong arrived to pay a visit. It was like a beam of sunlight had landed in the prime minister’s courtyard, he quickly told his servants to send him in and bring out the bottles of wine.
Wang Hong was a muscular man with rough features who looked more like a ruffian than an elite soldier. There were some disquiet about his appointment as the commander of the Imperial Guard, for he was all brawn and no brains. Indeed, it was only with Marshal Gao’s absence that Tong Xuan was able to push through Wang Hong’s elevation who otherwise would never be considered for the position at all.
Thus Wang Hong became one of Tong Xuan’s trusted creatures, for the new commander of the Imperial Guard owed everything to him. The brutish man was powerful but lacked finesse, therefore there was no danger of betrayal.
Wang Hong was not the most long-sighted of men, and would pick the simplest route to get what he want. Give him enough gold, wine and women and Wang Hong would have no reason to leave the prime minister’s side.
“Prime Minister, you don’t look well,” Wang Hong said coarsely.
“I am not well,” Tong Xuan sighed.
“Then I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” Wang Hong said without feeling. “Your Nangong Xie has vanished off the face of the earth. My men have found no traces of him.”
Tong Xuan grimaced. “I expected as much.”
Wang Hong snorted. “I told you, them scholar types are flaky,” he said and took a mighty swig from the bottle of wine.
Tong Xuan smiled, not wanting to point out angrily that he himself was a civil bureaucrat and not a muscle-head like Wang Hong.
Wang Hong belched and it took all of Tong Xuan’s willpower not to crack with disgust.
“You need to check your drinking,” Tong Xuan advised. “There are those who are covetous of your position, you must never give them a chance to catch you off-guard.”
“Catch me off-guard?” Wang Hong guffawed. “I am the Commander of the Imperial Guard! None are stronger than I!”
“Which is why you need to be careful,” Tong Xuan said sternly. “They might resort to underhanded means to harm you. Like using poison.”
Wang Hong paused, eyeing at the bottle of wine in his hand warily. Then he looked back up to see the Prime Minister of Wu watching him with amusement.
“Ha… ahahaha…” Wang Hong started to laugh and sweat.
“Now do you see? You must be ever vigilant,” Tong Xuan said genially like a kindly grandfather.
“I understand, I understand,” Wang Hong said while nodding profusely. But Tong Xuan noticed that his eyes never left the bottles of wine on the table.
Tong Xuan sighed, and wondered if the dearly departed Marshal Gao ever faced such headaches with his own collection of substandard subordinates.
Several days later his worst fears was realized, for Wang Hong had been killed.
Nangong Xie had disappeared, Fang La was distracted and now Wang Hong had been killed.
Tong Xuan could almost feel a noose tightening around his own neck…
The Prime Minister encircled,
His mind became garbled.