“Look at me. I'm the captain now.”
--Adbuwali Muse, ‘Captain Phillips’
Chapter 153 – Reckoning
The day began like any other. Prime Minister Tong Xuan ate his simple breakfast and then took a leisurely bath to cleanse himself. Then he quietly allowed his maids to assist him in putting on his official robes and headdress.
It was part of his daily routine before attending the royal court, a set of practices he had done for many years. Then he carefully placed his sealed memorial into the pocket of his sleeve, ready to be presented to the King of Wu. The memorial contained the names of his trusted men to replace the luckless Wang Hong, and Tong Xuan was eager to strike first before Grand Tutor Yuan or another party put forth their own candidates.
Though he had lost some favour with the king, Tong Xuan knew that the king mistrusted the military even more. Tong Xuan himself caused this to happen, allowing Gao Fang to rise in power and encouraging his excesses so that the king’s suspicions were aroused.
One reason Tong Xuan had collaborated with the former Marshal Gao Fang was to play the two against each other and deflect the king’s wariness away from him. He worked with Gao Fang to control the army, all the while whispering warnings to the king about the marshal’s ambitions.
Gao Fang had overreached himself and paid the price. Now the marshal was no more, and it was time again for a new puppet to fill his place to act as the lightning rod for Tong Xuan’s schemes. It was akin to propping up a painted target for the king to take aim at so as to hide his own deeds.
Thus, the Prime Minister was still quietly confident as he strode into the royal court. The assembled officials greeted him and bowed deeply as befitting his rank, though Tong Xuan noted the lack of actual respect in their eyes. No matter, they will be taught a reminder in due time…
The gong was rung to signal the king’s entrance. Tong Xuan hastily went to his proper spot at the head of the assembly and made sure his sleeves were straight and immaculate, ready to greet the king with a warm, grandfatherly face.
The smile on his face froze when he saw that the king did not arrive alone, for at his side was Huang Ming. The King of Wu had a healthy, rosy complexion as if he had just shared a laugh with the younger man. Indeed, the two men strolled into the court behaving not as ruler and subject, but akin to familiar friends entering a tavern.
“Then, I will withdraw,” Huang Ming said aloud.
“Mmm,” the king nodded in approval and Huang Ming duly retreated.
It was a simple enough event, yet the assembled officers and bureaucrats knew that they had just witnessed something earth-shaking. There was someone who had the king’s ear, and he did not come from their own ranks.
The moment Huang Ming left and the doors closed, a solemn mien came on the king’s face. The joviality was replaced with sternness as the ruler surveyed his officials. His subjects stared back at him in a daze, was the king always this imposing? As far as they can remember, the king lazed around while weighty matters were discussed and decided by the Prime Minister.
Some of the official could not help but glance at Prime Minister Tong Xuan. Was it their imagination or did the prime minister become weaker as the king became healthier?
“Begin the court session,” the king intoned imperiously and the officials hastened to bow. When had the king ever began a session? It was always the Prime Minister who would have the first word.
“Your majesty, our first order of business is the appointment of the new commander of your Imperial Guard,” Tong Xuan said in a deep, commanding voice to take centre stage.
“We do hope you have better candidates in mind this time round,” the king said dryly, a thin humourless smile on his face.
Tong Xuan gulped down the bile rising in his throat and willed himself to remain calm. The king’s increased stature coincided with Huang Ming’s own rising fame, surely it was due to that infuriating young man’s insidious influence.
First settle the succession of the Imperial Guard, then deal with Huang Ming later…
Tong Xuan coughed and affected a suitably chastened look.
“Please go over this list, Your Majesty,” he said and humbly presented his memorial. An eunuch reverently took the scroll and opened it for the king to read.
The minutes felt like hours as the king frowned over the scroll.
“Prime Minister, are you certain?” the King of Wu asked in a grave tone.
Tong Xuan nodded. “Absolutely, Your Majesty. I am confident in my judgement.”
The king slammed his palm on the table. “Audacious! Do you take us for a fool? You may be the Prime Minister, but you are not immune to the law!” the king thundered.
Tong Xuan stared at him, his mouth agape. “I, ah, I beg your pardon, Your Majesty!” he exclaimed automatically, even though he had no idea what had offended the king.
The King of Wu held up the scroll and waved it angrily. “Did you think that a confession and voluntary retirement is enough recompense for your crimes?”
Gasps of shock filled the court.
‘Confession?’ Tong Xuan’s mind exploded. “I… I do not understand,” he stammered.
“Look over your own crimes and decide if what you are proposing is too lenient or not!” the king stood up and flung the memorial back at him. The king shook his sleeves and turned away to show his displeasure.
The document landed at the prime minister’s feet, sprawled open. Tong Xuan did not bend down to pick it up for a better look as he was frozen in fear. One glance at the sheer amount of text on the scroll was enough to tell him that this was not the shortlist of names he had composed the night before.
Instead of a list of names, it was a list of his crimes, his confessions thereto and a plea to be allowed to retire into obscurity…
It was flawlessly forged, going as far as to include his personal seal’s stamp at the end.
“Switched!” Tong Xuan gasped, his eyes bulged with horror. ‘But who… how!? There was nobody-’
There was somebody.
Fang La had visited him. Tong Xuan remembered the expression on his nephew’s face. He had thought it was the look of a young man sobered by his harsh rebuke. Now Tong Xuan realized that it was a face full of resentment.
Betrayed… by his own flesh and blood.
What could Tong Xuan do? The entire royal court had witnessed him presenting the document to the king, and the king himself believed the words within.
“Hmph! We will investigate your confession thoroughly to seek redress for all those you have harmed,” the king said grimly.
How could Tong Xuan respond?
“Finished! I am finished!” he laughed bitterly.
The end has come,
The minister succumbs.