“Ah! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”
--Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne, ‘Firefly’
Chapter 152 – Disparity
“That was enough excitement to last me a lifetime,” Ma Jun the Wine Barrel commented as he surveyed the carnage in the courtyard.
“Mmm,” Huang Ming mused distractedly.
Ma Jun heard the non-committal sound and turned to look at his friend. The sight of seeing Huang Ming standing aloof, his eyes staring into the distance, his straight posture and handsome face framed by the bloody backdrop painted a lofty, heroic picture in Ma Jun’s mind.
For a moment, Ma Jun felt he that the Huang Ming before him was a total stranger. Was this really the same person who had whiled countless hours with him drinking and partying?
Ma Jun had never truly believed the words of their mutual friends who said that Huang Ming was mysterious and deep.
Until the day he received the secret letter from Huang Ming, bidding him to carry out the plan that eventually led to the demise of Commander Wang Hong.
Every step proceeded exactly as planned. Yet, the barrel-chested man shivered when he saw the pensive look on Huang Ming’s face. It was as if his friend was not truly satisfied at the outcome even though it resulted in the death of their target.
“Is something wrong?” Ma Jun ventured to ask.
Huang Ming shook his head and smiled faintly. Ma Jun glanced at the direction he was looking and saw the profiles of General Yin and Zhao Sunli in the distance. The two military officers were discussing animatedly, pointing to this or that corpse on the ground and exchanging critiques regarding the massacre that they had committed.
A mischievous smile appeared on Ma Jun’s face.
“Ah, afraid of your fiancée being stolen, eh?” he taunted.
Huang Ming pulled a face. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed.
“I’m not sure whether you’re not worried that it could happen, or that you actually wish for it to happen,” Ma Jun grinned.
Huang Ming gave him the evil eye. “What do you mean?”
“I won’t be surprised if it’s the latter. The way she killed all those men… She’s… ferocious,” Ma Jun said and shivered, recalling the ease the tanned woman had so easily dispatched Wang Hong and his men.
“Well, they had it coming,” Huang Ming said blandly, as if he was talking about something as mundane as the weather.
Ma Jun was rendered speechless by the way he had defended Sunli’s warlike tendency.
“You’re taking this engagement seriously?” he asked.
“It concerns our marital life, of course I am,” Huang Ming replied.
“But what about-” Ma Jun started to say, and then swallowed the rest of his question.
Huang Ming frowned. “What?”
“I mean, what about another candidate? That woman frightens me,” Ma Jun admitted.
“All women are frightening,” Huang Ming replied and rolled his eyes.
“That is very true” a voice drawled lazily. Ma Jun looked over and saw a mysterious stranger approaching. It was a man so unbelievably beautiful that Ma Jun had to make sure that he wasn’t looking at a woman.
“This is…” he muttered uncertainly.
“I am Quan Lu, a close friend of Huang Ming,” the beautiful man answered and cupped his hands in greeting. “I have heard so much about you from him,” Quan Lu continued in his melodious voice.
“Ah, yes, hello,” Ma Jun hurriedly returned the gesture. He glanced questioningly at Huang Ming’s bemused face. ‘A close friend? I never heard of you until today,’ Ma Jun wondered.
“You shouldn’t be walking around,” Huang Ming said, giving Quan Lu a stern look.
Quan Lu arched a bewitching eyebrow. “And whose fault was it that my hips were about to give out?”
Huang Ming’s face became ashen. “You-”
‘What…’ Ma Jun was gobsmacked. He looked back and forth at Huang Ming and Quan Lu and saw that they were quite familiar.
‘So that’s why he’s changed so much!’
“I, ah, we’ll talk later, I need to collect my wine jars and write a report,” Ma Jun said hurriedly.
“Wait, this isn’t what you think!” Huang Ming said crestfallenly, but his friend had already scampered off.
‘All women are frightening indeed,’ Huang Ming thought.
Qiong Ying’s soft laughter in his ears did not improve his mood.
“Are you having fun?” he demanded, scowling at the cross-dressing Qiong Ying.
“The look on his face was priceless,” she smirked. Then it faded when she saw Zhao Sunli and General Yin together in the distance. They were still debating about the finer points of martial combat.
“You really need to keep an eye on that,” Qiong Ying murmured.
Huang Ming nodded, knowing that her advice was for Sunli or the general… or both.
They say animals possess a gift when it comes to detecting a natural disaster. Some note that certain beasts would behave strangely and flee in terror hours before an earthquake or flood, that their senses are far superior than those of men.
That was not to say that men were completely oblivious to impending catastrophe.
Take for example the current predicament of Prime Minister Tong Xuan. When word came about the death of Wang Hong in what appeared to be a drunken brawl in public, Tong Xuan’s influence shrunk rapidly. Disparaging rumours and theories about Wang Hong’s less than glorious demise soon tainted him as well, for it was his strong recommendation that elevated Wang Hong in the first place.
The King himself was nonchalant about the death of his Commander of the Imperial Guard, brushing aside Tong Xuan’s memorial for a thorough investigation.
“We are dismayed by his death, but are also displeased by the manner of his passing. An investigation would only reveal embarrassing facts and diminish the dignity of his post. Let us not speak of this any further,” the King of Wu said in court that morning.
Tong Xuan could only withdraw. In years past he would have stood to his full height and used his bombastic voice to cow the king into listening. His chosen subordinates that filled the court would bow simultaneously and repeat his words so that the King had no choice but to obey.
That was how it was, but times had changed.
Even that feeble, decrepit old man Grand Tutor Yuan seem to wallow in Tong Xuan’s reduced powers, walking around the court with a spring in his step. Suddenly that side of the royal court became more vibrant and active, while those on Tong Xuan’s side seemed so dull in their reduced numbers.
Reduced… because those subordinates that he had chosen to prop himself in court, those who used to bow and scrape with respect and fawn over him now avoided his looks and melted away into the shadows with fear. They gave a wide range of excuses, from early retirement due to illness; to attending a funeral somewhere in the distant countryside…
That was why Tong Xuan was forlorn in his study, staring at the memorial on his desk. It was his list of nominees for the new Commander of the Imperial Guard, the handful of men that Tong Xuan could still call upon. He planned to present it to the king before that meddling Grand Tutor Yuan could interfere.
It was a very short list, and Tong Xuan felt it was a stark reminder that his number of reliable allies and servants were becoming very small indeed.
‘Rats abandoning a sinking ship,’ he seethed.
There was a polite knock on the door, shaking him out of his murky thoughts.
It was his nephew, Fang La.
“Uncle, I have made my enquiries about Wang Hong. There was a disturbance at a wine merchant, that is for certain. But nobody knows the full story. Some say he went to stop it, others say that he was the one who actually caused the riot. Most agree that he somehow lost control of the situation and was killed in the panic,” Fang La reported solemnly.
Tong Xuan’s face twitched involuntarily. “He couldn’t resist drinking, even though I had warned him. I know his sort, they always give in to their desires in the end,” he sneered disparagingly.
Fang La kept quiet as his uncle complained about the recently departed Wang Hong. Was this really his uncle Tong Xuan? His eyes were sunken, the lines of worry more numerous, his complexion yellowish.
‘He looks so… old…’ Fang La thought dispassionately.
“Idiots! I am surrounded by idiots!” Tong Xuan muttered, his fingers trembling.
Fang La blinked as the once powerful man before him now appeared so frail and shaken.
“Uncle…” he said softly.
“What is it?” Tong Xuan asked irritably.
“Perhaps we should… we should consider retiring,” Fang La said.
At first Tong Xuan was in disbelief, then he was furious. He glared at his nephew, the shock of anger seemingly giving him a burst of strength.
“Utter nonsense!” he barked and slammed his fist down on the table. “What manner of a man are you, to give up at the first sign of trouble?”
Fang La’s face turned red at the stinging rebuke.
“Fang La, I know you have been less confident ever since… ever since you returned from Tianxin City,” Tong Xuan sighed. ‘Ever since you failed to wrest command from Huang Zheng,’ he had wanted to say.
“I am sorry, uncle,” Fang La apologized, his eyes downcast.
“I know things might seem unfavourable, but we are not completely helpless,” Tong Xuan said. He gestured at the memorial on his table. “Look, we still have allies left. The King has trusted me for many years, and even though that trust has eroded lately; he is still suspicious of the military after what had happened with Marshal Gao Fang. He has no choice but to listen to my advice.”
Fang La bowed. “I understand, uncle. And I apologize once again. I… I was just worried that we are surrounded by enemies,” he said.
“Enemies?” Tong Xuan scoffed. “We will always be surrounded by those who covet what we have gained. Remember, we did not get to our high position by being kind and soft. To get what we want, we must be clever and decisive!”
“You are right, uncle,” Fang La agreed and a look of determination appeared on his face.
“We must be decisive.”
The persons involved,
Are full of resolve.