“Everybody has a secret they don't want you to find. Find it!”
--Rankin Fitch, ‘Runaway Jury’ (2003)
Chapter 154 – Nail
“Finished! I am finished!” Tong Xuan laughed bitterly. Yet, he refused to give up without a fight. His laughter grew louder, its harshness echoing in the hall.
“Do you find it so amusing?” the King of Wu asked coldly.
Tong Xuan’s eyes hardened. He cupped his hands deferentially to the king, but remained at his full height and stature; giving the impression that he was an upright official surrounded by slander and forced to defend himself.
“Your Majesty, surely you can see this is an evil plot to harm your humble servant,” he expounded. Before the king could respond, Tong Xuan turned around to face the assembled officials and made a dramatic wave with his robe’s sleeve.
“In recent days we have heard strange happenings engulfing the capital like an evil fog. The recent disturbance at the capital, the death of Commander of the Imperial Guard… it is obvious that there is a nefarious conspiracy to harm our country!” he continued in his booming voice.
Tong Xuan was an accomplished speaker, knowing how to use his deep voice, sweeping gestures and a stern mien to maximum effect. With the addition of his cronies lending their voices of support in the background, he could hold an audience captive and bend them to his will, subtly guiding the course of discussion to his desired outcome.
But not this time. The ‘nefarious conspiracy’ conducted by the brothers Huang had slowly chipped away at Tong Xuan’s base of power. The chained plots removed the prime minister’s closest and most prominent of helpers, akin to cutting down the supporting pillars of a house. It was not surprising that the lesser cronies saw the danger of continuing to stay in the crumbling building.
Though Tong Xuan’s dramatic delivery failed to elicit the usual chorus of agreement, he was heartened by the fact that nobody rose to oppose him directly. Those who were giving him icy looks of contempt belonged to Grand Tutor Yuan’s camp in the first place, and Tong Xuan never counted on them. The other part of the assembled officers remained quiet, adopting a wait and see attitude.
‘There is still hope!’ Tong Xuan rejoiced. He raised his arms high and wide like a doom-proclaiming prophet.
“We have traitors here, aiding and abetting those who would harm the state!” he roared in unfeigned anger. His glare intimidated those who were still on the fence, and he could feel the odds beginning to swing back into his favour.
“So you deny this confession, that it is a forgery?” the King of Wu asked quietly, his eyes looking down on Tong Xuan with ridicule. The question was spoken softly, yet it was if someone had sliced through the thick atmosphere with a knife.
It was a chilling contrast to the prime minister’s fire and fury, and instantly commanded the attention of the assembly. Once more the pendulum swung, and Tong Xuan was cornered once more.
Yet, even a cornered rat will fight for its life. Tong Xuan still have theatrical cards to play. The prime minister’s arms fell back down as he resiliently returned the King of Wu’s stare.
“Of course! This is an obviously evil plot aimed at me. Any child could see that the confession is a laughable attempt at slander!” Tong Xuan exclaimed righteously. He then sighed loudly and allowed his shoulders to droop and his head bent, as if tired from carrying the weight of the world. This was a gamble to save his life and reputation, and Tong Xuan was pulling out all the stops.
“I am ashamed, Your Majesty,” Tong Xuan said sorrowfully, “I am ashamed that my enemies go this far and disrupted this august court by compassing the death of your Commander of the Imperial Guard and concocting this laughable play.”
One could almost admire the prime minister’s attempt to turn the black into white. However, the King of Wu was no longer the sickly, lazy monarch he once was.
“Your enemies must be very persistent,” the king said slowly with a thin smile.
Tong Xuan stroked his wintry beard in a dignified manner. “I have served Your Majesty loyally for many years. In the course of doing my duty unwaveringly I have offended many who wished for me to look away from their derelictions. But never would I have expected to be harmed like this, and I can only offer my abject apologies for this farce,” he intoned and saluted.
He turned to face the assembly once more, giving them a sweeping stare before resting his eyes accusingly on Grand Tutor Yuan. The elderly man had remained quiet the entire time, his face impassive at the Tong Xuan’s theatrics.
“Enough with this piece of falsehood,” Tong Xuan said contemptuously and stepped on the confession scroll. He twisted his foot to crumple the document in a show of defiance.
“Let those who would accuse me come out from the shadows. Who dares to make known his grievances to me, who dares to accuse me here and now?” Prime Minister Tong Xuan challenged, tilting his chin proudly.
It was his final throw of the dice. Let his enemy come forth so as to be crushed by his oratory skills… he feared no one in the court.
“I dare,” someone replied from the ranks of the officers. It was a voice filled with steely determination.
All heads turned to see who had spoken, and Tong Xuan’s face became ashen with disbelief. Gasps of shock filled the air as a dignified official slowly made his way forward.
“It’s Minister Jun!”
Indeed, it was the missing Minister Jun, the truly righteous and upright official who had opposed Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao vocally and fearlessly at every turn, the subject of Huang Lang’s investigations.
Unfortunately, his residence caught fire and the minister was thought to have perished in the blaze. Pitying the distraught family, Tong Xuan had generously housed them in his own home for their protection. Or so the story went...
With the disappearance of Minister Jun, there was nobody left to oppose the two strongmen from dominating the court. Even Grand Tutor Yuan only emerged from his shell after the disastrous campaign in Wei had ended with the death of Marshal Gao.
Tong Xuan could scarcely believe his eyes. He had ordered the arson at Minister Jun’s residence, yet he remained suspicious about his actual fate. Thus he had captured his surviving family to be used as a hostage lest the unthinkable happened.
And… the unthinkable happened.
Tong Xuan would find out all too late, but this was the result of Huang Lang’s search. He found Minister Jun who had survived the assassination attempt and gave him shelter. This was the reason for Huang Lang’s secrecy, to the extent of not even writing back to his wife Cao Tianyun.
While Tong Xuan was busy orchestrating his defence at court, Huang Lang had his friend Muge Jian and his compatriots from the martial underworld rescue the minister’s family. It would be a tale oft embellished in storytellers in the future, but that is a story to be told another time…
Thus emboldened by his family’s safety, Minister Jun put on his finest official robes and entered the court to deal the final blow to Tong Xuan. The prime minister staggered, reeling from the shock of seeing his nemesis alive and well.
“I dare to accuse you,” Minister Jun repeated, his voice growing in strength and anger as he recounted: “I accuse you of trying to have me murdered and of imprisoning my family. I accuse you of being a corrupt official, enriching yourself with ill-gotten wealth. I accuse you of endangering the country with your evil ways, crippling the government with incompetents and sycophants. I accuse you of being disloyal to the king and harming his dignity!”
The court was in uproar.
“Nonsense… nonsense!” Tong Xuan thundered over the hubbub. “We may have been disagreeable in the past, but we are both servants of the king! Your words are baseless, the whole world knows that I have given the roof of my very own house over your family!”
“Baseless?” Minister Jun sneered. “I have a key witness who would stand with me!”
He gestured grandly to the rear, and once more all heads turned to watch as a younger man appeared to join Minister Jun.
“I dare to accuse you,” the man said softly.
‘Finished! I am finished!’ Tong Xuan’s mind exploded, for he saw it was his own nephew who had come to put the final nail in his coffin.
Waves of discontent,
From those who resent.
They rise in dissent,
Adding to his lament.