To the new frontier
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.”
--Erich Maria Remarque, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’
Chapter 156 – To the new frontier
In the vast snow-laden landscape, the small line of carriages and horsemen seemed so insignificant. The light snowfall added a picturesque mood to the scene, but to the men and women of the convoy it was yet another element of drudgery to the journey.
There was no banter, no light-hearted exchange as the caravan made its way north, towards the source of the incoming chill.
Huang Ming stared out of his carriage, an expressionless look on his face. Despite the rickety motion due to the uneven road, the young man felt no discomfort.
The same could not be said for his fellow passenger though, buried under a bundle of warm clothings and blankets. Qiong Ying was asleep in the carriage, yet the frown on her face showed that her slumber was far from restful. She had begun the journey in her male persona of Quan Lu, but as it progressed she shed her disguise and remained in the carriage at all times.
One could easily think that the young woman was simply unused to rough travel, but Huang Ming knew better.
After all, they were travelling to the northern border and perilously close to the kingdom fo Jin, her country of origin. The country which she was forced to flee due to the machinations of her sister, the current Princess of Jin.
After the demise of Tong Xuan, the days passed easily. Huang Ming felt relaxed, knowing that the immediate dangers to his family had finally been eradicated. While waiting for the king’s summons, Huang Ming filled the days leisurely.
The King of Wu had adopted his suggestion and reformed the court to resemble a cabinet style of government. No longer was there a single man in control of the entire bureaucracy. Now the king was surrounded by officials in charge of various departments of equal ranks and importance, and he was always in touch with the concerns of his subjects.
Released from the need to fawn over a corrupt gatekeeper, the promoted officials eagerly put forth their suggestions to the king and prove themselves. The entire kingdom seemed rejuvenated by their energetic renewal.
When the King of Wu summoned him privately to the palace once more, Huang Ming expected to be conferred an ordinary reward and be allowed to return to Tianxin City, where he would continue his plan to train and upgrade the legions under his father’s command.
The king soon dispelled his hopes.
“We could use a good son-in-law,” the king had hinted once more. Once more Huang Ming shook his head, but this time the king was less affable to his refusal. The king can be forgiven for being annoyed, where else in history did someone dare to decline the hand of a princess not once, not twice, but thrice?
Princess Wu Liying herself was not present when the offer was made, but Huang Ming heard later that she was merely mildly miffed. She was more annoyed at her royal father, for she found herself more busy than ever and his meddling was but an unwelcome distraction. Without the spectre of Tong Xuan oppressing the court and encouraged by the king, the princess took an active role in the sweeping reforms the kingdom was going through.
Being a huge admirer of the Princess of Jin who was the leading figure of the day for feminine power, Princess Wu Liying set out to emulate her and took charge of the education ministry, advancing the upward mobility of women in her own kingdom.
But Huang Ming would not be present to see her efforts, for the king gave him a decree.
“We hereby promote you as a Royal Inspector. Congratulations,” the king said unceremoniously.
“Uh. Isn’t that what I proposed for Tian Zhu?” Huang Ming asked in an equally unimpressed tone.
“That does not mean we can have only the one Royal Inspector. He will the roaming the country to right the wrongs as you suggested, but we do require someone to do our bidding directly. Besides, we are thoroughly convinced that you would not abuse your new-found authority.”
“Of course sire,” Huang Ming deadpanned.
“Your first task will for you to go to Beihai.”
“What?” Huang Ming exclaimed.
“We have appointed General Yin as our new Commander of the Imperial Guard, and naturally we require a new bulwark to defend our northern borders,” the king intoned gravely.
“I thought General Yin is going back there,” Huang Ming said.
“He will be escorting the Jin ambassador back. Once that is done, he will make personal arrangements in Beihai and return to take up his new post here in the capital. You will take his place,” the king informed him.
“No buts,” the king interrupted sternly.
Huang Ming was flabbergasted, wondering if he had pushed the king too far with his disrespect. The look on his face must have been amusing, for the King of Wu smirked.
“Do not worry, this is not a permanent fixture,” the King of Wu said.
“Ah. Er… yes, sire,” Huang Ming mumbled.
“You might think of us ungrateful for sending you to the distant north, but you have a talent for solving things. And we require that talent once more,” the king said.
“General Yin’s absence leaves a void in the north. Though his successor is said to be reliable, we would feel much better if you are there to check on the succession. You will only be there until you are confident that the new person in charge is able to handle the responsibility,” the king explained.
“This is no light matter,” the king warned him. “Our relationship with the kingdom of Jin is not very cordial, to say the least.”
The monarch paused to give him an arched eyebrow. “You of all people should know why.”
Huang Ming grimaced. “But sending me up there could antagonize them…” he pointed out slowly.
“And you will see it coming,” the King of Wu finished the thought.
“Ah. Brilliant, sire,” Huang Ming said in a flat tone.
The king ignored him. “Go to Beihai. Observe, and report. Watch for any possible movements from the Jins, and foil them.”
“Oh, is that all?” Huang Ming muttered.
And that was the reason for Huang Ming’s journey to the north. There was only time for him to write a letter to his parents to explain his sudden ‘promotion’.
Qiong Ying was understandably less than thrilled to hear about it.
“You should stay here in the capital. Or in Tianxin City, whichever you prefer,” Huang Ming suggested.
“I am coming with you,” Qiong Ying interrupted.
“No buts. Do I look like someone who would wait at home while you disappear for who knows when?” she scoffed.
“What? No, I mean, it’s the north. You will be uncomfortably close to Jin…”
“You are adorable,” Qiong Ying rolled her emerald eyes. “But I cannot spend my life in fear. If I am to stand up to my sister, this will be as good a time as any to start.”
Huang Ming made some other feeble arguments, but eventually gave in to her wishes. To be honest, he was happy to have a friendly face with him to the northern lands, because Zhao Sunli did not follow him.
The War Goddess stayed on in the capital city.
Huang Ming knew the reasons, but he could not help but feel a little strange without the constant hovering presence of the tall woman around him.
His train of thought broke when he saw one of the escort horsemen coming over to his carriage.
“Sir, we are approaching Beihai.”
Huang Ming nodded.
‘Here we go…’
A new setting in the north,
The young man sets forth.