Masks and deceptions
“By universal custom, your enemy is never more polite than when he is planning or has planned your destruction.”
--James Clavell, ‘Shogun’
Chapter 174 – Masks and deceptions
Huang Ming’s face remained passive, as if he and General Yin were merely discussing about the weather.
“How veterans do I need to give up?” Huang Ming asked.
“All of them,” General Yin answered.
Huang Ming looked at the older man through hooded eyes. “I see. And since you only came here with a small entourage, I assume that I will not be receiving any replacements for them?”
“Of course you will. I am arranging troops from other districts to be sent over here. There will be delays of course, you know how it is. You will have your reinforcements in the coming spring, even if some of the military commanders are reluctant to give away their men,” General Yin said smoothly.
“Am I not one of those commanders?” Huang Ming asked with a smile.
The air was still as the two men stared at each other with a veneer of civility on their faces.
“Those veterans are my men to begin with,” General Yin said softly.
“They cease to be yours when you went to the capital to take over the Imperial Guards,” Huang Ming pointed out.
“And I am here to make amends. I want their final years of service to be a comfortable one. I plan to give them a grand send-off, by making them part of the Imperial Guard just for appearances sake,” General Yin replied.
“So, you want to reward them,” Huang Ming said flatly.
Huang Ming chuckled, allowing sarcasm to seep into his tone. “You want to reward the veterans at the cost of stripping Beihai of its strongest defence?”
“You are too modest,” Yin Yanzhao said genially. “I know what you have done recently. Recruitment is up, training is proceeding well. Besides, winter is coming. Beihai is in no immediate danger, the Jins have never attacked in the cold.”
“There is always a first time,” Huang Ming said. ‘It is precisely the best time.’
General Yin tilted his head incredulously. “The Jins are primarily a mounted force. Their horses require fodder, and their traditional doctrine demand that they travel light and live off the land that they are attacking. It has always been their way. Surely you should know this,” he said, with a hint of ridicule.
“I am young and inexperienced,” Huang Ming said blandly as he ignored the subtle jibe. “I never wanted to be here. Perhaps you can find someone else to replace me.”
The smile on General Yin’s face vanished. “You should not joke about military matters. You were appointed by the king himself.”
“Temporarily,” Huang Ming reminded him.
“And so it shall be,” Yin Yanzhao interjected. “I am sure you will be recalled in the spring. After you have settled the reinforcements in.”
“Then, perhaps I should resign,” Huang Ming said lightly.
General Yin’s eyes narrowed. “To abandon your duty would be tantamount to treason.”
Huang Ming wanted to laugh at him. ‘You should know…’
Instead he said: “By taking away the veterans, Beihai will be too weakened to even repel a raiding Jin warband. I am not a very brave man, General. You have seen this yourself, it was you and Zhao Sunli who defeated Wang Hong while I was hiding in the shadows.”
“I do not believe that,” General Yin said as he shook his head. “You sell yourself far too short. You are a very talented man, and I truly believe you are more than equal to anything the Jins can throw at you.”
He gave Huang Ming a look that was both reassuring and patronizing.
“I am not very talented, but I can tell some good jokes,” Huang Ming said self-depreciatingly. “But you are mistaken if you think they have nobody worth mentioning in their side. What about the Princess of Jin?” he asked mischievously.
“The princess? She is indeed a remarkable person, but what about her?” General Yin said, genuinely baffled.
Huang Ming pushed on: “I have heard that she is an unorthodox person, full of surprises and guile. What if she orders an attack in the winter? From what I have heard of her, she is anything but traditional.”
For a moment, Yin Yanzhao stared at him. Then he threw his head back and laughed uproariously.
“The Hero of Tigertrap Fort, afraid of a princess living in a gilded cage! You really know how to tell a joke,” he guffawed.
“Ha ha ha,” Huang Ming laughed artificially along with him. Then his face immediately straightened as he added: “You said it yourself. The Jins have never attacked in the winter. Yet, the princess is a remarkable person. Surely there is a possibility of her doing something unexpected.”
“She is still but a princess,” General Yin said easily. “You know as well as I do that she is famous for her domestic policies aimed at making the Jins prosperous; she is hardly warlike. Are you really that afraid of a female?”
“Of course. Women are the most fearsome of creatures. Have you forgotten about our own War Goddess?” Huang Ming reminded him.
The general’s jocular mood vanished. “She is a remarkable woman,” he said as he looked directly at Huang Ming’s eyes.
“I am very honoured,” Huang Ming nodded.
Yin Yanzhao did not react to Huang Ming’s insinuation of ownership.
“Perhaps I have a compromise,” the general said instead.
“What do you mean?”
“She, like you; are training new recruits. What if she were to bring those recruits here, in exchange for the veterans that I am taking away?” General Yin suggested.
“I am not sure if the weather here is agreeable to her,” Huang Ming said wistfully. “She did refuse to come with me after all when I asked,” he added. ‘Yet she came here with you,’ he left unsaid.
“Oh? I did not know about that. Did you two have some sort of disagreement?” General Yin asked.
“I guess you can say that,” Huang Ming said vaguely. ‘Not even bothering to hide your interest, eh?’
Sensing that Huang Ming was reluctant to explain further, General Yin switched the topic once more.
“Well, what about my suggestion?”
Huang Ming pulled a face. “I am not sure. I still think having those veterans here is far more important than any amount of fresh recruits you can send to replace them.”
“Your caution seems excessive,” General Yin criticized.
“My own life is at stake, of course I am afraid,” Huang Ming said flatly.
“I have been very accommodating already,” the general said solemnly.
“Are you? You will be safe in the capital, while it will be my ass in the wind,” Huang Ming insisted. “Your scheme to help assuage the politicians and officials in the capital for my sake is for naught if I end up being surrounded, besieged by a horde of Jin barbarians.”
“You do realize that I can take the men even if you kick a fuss,” General Yin said.
“And they will gladly follow you,” Huang Ming sighed loudly. “Yes, you are right. I guess I just need some sort of assurance that I will live a long life.”
General Yin laughed. “Who doesn’t? I too want a long life.”
He looked at Huang Ming in the eye. “Let me repeat: There is no danger of an attack.”