“It's a joke in the zoo business, a weary joke, that the paperwork involved in trading a shrew weighs more than an elephant, that the paperwork involved in trading an elephant weighs more than a whale, and that you must never try to trade a whale, never.”
--Yann Martel, ‘Life of Pi’
Chapter 158 – Paperwork
Huang Ming yawned and stretched mightily and resisted the temptation of rubbing his ink-smeared palm over his eyes. It was smeared from perusing the myriad of scrolls and papers on his desk.
After the short but horrifying briefing by General Li Jing, Huang Ming went straight to his assigned office to start pouring over the documents. Everything therein seem to confirm Li Jing’s words. Beihai looked outwardly imposing, but in reality its defences were in precarious straits.
Adding to Huang Ming’s irritation was that every piece of document was done properly: General Yin Yanzhao had kept meticulous and accurate records of what he had done. On the face of it, every decision and order he had made was based in logic and carefully weighted considerations. The former commander of Beihai could very well say he had done everything to the best of his abilities, that he had not been derelict in fulfilling his duties to solve the problems of Beihai.
Unfortunately they were solved in a way that everything was dependent on Yin Yanzhao’s presence. Huang Ming felt like he was entering an organization which had been dominated by a single, powerful personality who had just departed it.
The absence of Yin Yanzhao the North Star had left a huge void in Beihai, and his shoes were too big for his successor Li Jing. It was Huang Ming’s job to help him fill it.
“‘Observe and report’, my ass,” Huang Ming muttered, recalling the King of Wu’s breezy words.
A soft feminine chuckle drifted to his ears.
“I think it looks fine indeed,” Qiong Ying drawled playfully.
If there was a stranger present in the office, he or she might be fooled into thinking that the newly appointed Royal Inspector Huang Ming had a male lover, for Qiong Ying was in her Quan Lu persona. Not that there was anything wrong with that, for ‘Quan Lu’ was an absolutely beautiful man…
“I appreciate your approval, but there are other things to worry about,” Huang Ming said.
“Pity,” Qiong Ying replied with a faint smile. Then her forehead creased. “The entire city seems listless. People are still working and living here, but there is a sense of inevitable decay,” she said.
“Like a local hero had just gone away, or died?” Huang Ming asked sarcastically.
“I told you to keep an eye on him,” Qiong Ying reminded him.
Huang Ming sighed and his eyes drifted back to the documents. Qiong Ying went around the desk to lean over his shoulder, her emerald eyes scanning the scrolls that had grabbed the attention of her man.
“There is something wrong here,” she declared a few moments later.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Huang Ming commented dryly.
“I ran a business, I know what to look out for,” Qiong Ying said, ignoring the unfamiliar term he had used. “But this is… too clean. See, here and here,” she pointed at different parts of the scroll.
Huang Ming looked… and saw nothing too improper.
“They seem in order.”
“It’s all too perfect,” Qiong Ying insisted. “This amount coming in, and the same exact amount going out. It is as if someone is going out of his way to ensure a constant level of resources in the city.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Huang Ming asked, playing the devil’s advocate.
Qiong Ying shook her head. “Yes, but in this case it is unnatural. This is a frontline city, its growth should be actively encouraged to be self-sufficient. As it is now, it seemed stagnating to the point of declining.”
Huang Ming nodded, concurring with her assessment.
“I have gotten the gist of your problems. What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I am going to ask for some help,” Huang Ming answered and gave the documents on his desk a baleful look. He started to clear the desk and took a sheaf of unused paper and reached for the writing materials, causing Qiong Ying to frown.
“That is enough paperwork for one day,” she admonished gently.
“It’s not so bad. It’s just a lot of paper. And a lot of work,” Huang Ming muttered. He started to pick up the block of inkstone, but a hand from Qiong Ying stopped him.
“Enough. I can think of a few other things for you to work on…” Qiong Ying murmured as she loosened her hair.
Capital of Jin
Jin Hua the Princess of Jin removed her golden headdress and sighed with relief. The head gear was very bejewelled, encrusted with a variety of precious gems and exquisite pieces of carved jade. It was very ornate, very beautiful… and very heavy.
Her handmaidens fell over themselves to surround her and held their breath, for they knew what was to come next. As expected, the princess carelessly tossed aside the priceless headdress, causing their hearts to leap to their mouths. Fortunately it landed into the hands of a perspiring servant, and they let out a collective sigh as the recipient gingerly placed it into its rightful container.
Jin Hua ignored the little drama that she had caused, she had already seated herself to immerse herself in the pile of documents on her desk. Her pretty head bowed over the documents and she completely ignored the handmaidens who busied themselves to loosen her raven hair and straighten it with a phoenix-themed comb made of ivory.
A senior maiden coughed gently and Jin Hua obediently raised her arms so that the servants by her side could remove the heavy outer robes. Next they removed the inner layer so that her pale, flawless jade-like skin of her arms and neck could be seen. They were only observable for a brief moment as the servants quickly replaced it with a thinner robe for comfort.
All the while, the Princess of Jin remained seated, her eyes still focused on reading the scroll on her desk. It was as if she was unaware or did not care about the smooth transition of her change of clothing.
It was decidedly unprincessly behaviour, yet the handmaidens could not help but sigh with admiration as Jin Hua tirelessly read page after page, scroll after scroll. They had trained in the arts and had expected to accompany their royal charge in domestic endeavours such as painting or gardening, but the princess was no mere weak, decorative flower that everyone first thought.
Over time, the entire court realized that the Princess of Jin was a formidable woman of fearsome intellect and indomitable will. There were voices of dissent when the heir of the Jin Empire decided to marry her, the sole survivor of a disgraced clan; but they were soon swept away by her displays of intelligence. Indeed, she proved herself time and time again to be worthy of the Prince of Jin, the leading man of the day by ably assisting her noble husband to advance their realm.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and the handmaidens frowned. This was the private study of their princess, only servants and subordinates would knock. The Prince of Jin would hardly need to, he would easily walk in without impediment. Considering the approaching hour for dinner with the prince, it meant it was someone who was potentially bringing even more paperwork to burden their beloved princess.
Still, they knew the princess did not look kindly on those who presume to make decisions for her, even if they thought they were doing it for her own good. A handmaiden who had loudly blocked a servant from bringing a report during a meal was herself angrily rebuked and dismissed by the princess.
Thus, one of them quickly went over to the door to check before nodding back to her senior. The leader of the handmaidens coughed gently, causing Jin Hua to frown and look up in askance.
“Your highness, there is a report coming,” the senior handmaiden said.
Jin Hua nodded, and the door was opened. As per custom, the incoming male servant kept his eyes on the ground at all times to avoid laying his uncouth eyes on the princess.
“Your highness, a letter from Wu,” the servant said and presented the envelope, crumpled by the rigours of travel.
“Bring it here and reward him,” Jin Hua said, her eyes widening with eagerness. She paid little attention to the servant’s obeisance and profuse thanks, dismissing him with a simple wave.
Her handmaidens saw the way her eyes glinted as she read the letter, and already they knew that dinner was going to be delayed...
Two separated sisters,
For each other,
Affection no longer glitters,
A relation torn asunder.