In the thick of it
“I don't even have time to explain why I don't have time to explain.”
--The Exo Stranger, Destiny
Chapter 197 – In the thick of it
Capital of Chu
In the annals of history, the balance of power had rotated between the four powerful states of Jin, Wei, Wu and Chu.
Chu was the land of vast rivers, great mountains and tropical jungles. These majestic geographical features formed natural barriers that deterred serious attempts of complete subjugation, but they also hindered any permanent outward expansion by Chu.
Like their northern counterpart the Jins, the Chu often raid towards the central plains throughout history, only to be beaten back to their traditional territories time and again.
Whereas the Jins were known for their horses, the Chus prided itself on its ships. In times of peace they ply the trade routes up and down the network of rivers, in times of war they were used to conduct raids and acts of piracy.
Huang Ming’s destination was the source of these ships, the city of Xuzhou. The capital of Chu sat on an estuary where several rivers meet, an ideal focal point for its harbours and shipbuilding yards. It smacks of arrogance for Chu to situate their capital so openly. From their vantage points on the other side of the Great Southern River, the leaders of Wu and Wei watch on helplessly; knowing that they could not challenge Chu’s mastery of sailing.
The ship that was currently ferrying Huang Ming seemed puny and lacking when compared to the mighty Chu vessels in Xuzhou. It was a calculated intimidation when his vessel was guided to berth in between two particularly large ships that cast a looming shadow over his.
Indeed, Huang Ming arrived almost anonymously; the Chu officers of the day almost bored and dismissive as they escorted him to the Wu embassy.
“Well, about time you got here,” one of the Chu officers had growled. “The rest of your diplomatic party have been asking for you almost every day.”
Huang Ming shrugged. “What can I say except that my ship is lacking and the captain is not used to these waters?” he said depreciatingly while silently apologizing to the jovial captain that had ferried him.
“I don’t know what you people are doing here. Aren’t you guys busy fighting with Jin?” one of them asked.
Huang Ming sighed. “Some fool saw that your warships were coming too close to our cities and thought it was an invasion, and now I’m here bringing presents to your nobles to make sure our nobles are able to sleep well at night.”
The Chu officers laughed at his candour and left in a good mood.
The Wu diplomats were not as welcoming. The head of the embassy was a disgruntled, portly man called Liu Han who seemed to sweat unceasingly in the humid weather.
“You’re the new diplomat? Are the gifts all accounted for?” Liu Han asked, eyeing Huang Ming up and down.
“Yes. Here are my papers-”
“About time you got here,” Liu Han interrupted, echoing the earlier Chu complaint. “We had to postpone our plans repeatedly just for you.”
Huang Ming was mystified. “Why?”
“No time to waste, we need to make haste,” Liu Han said briskly.
“Eh?” Huang Ming managed to say intelligently.
“We’re going to meet Prince Chu Xiong.”
“What? But I just got here,” Huang Ming said even as Liu Han pulled him into the carriage.
“You have kept the prince waiting for too long!” Liu Han said as the carriage started to move.
“What prince?” Huang Ming demanded exasperatedly.
Liu Han was taken aback. “You don’t know?”
“There is a power struggle in Chu as the King of Chu is on his deathbed. The two princes Xiong and Feng are vying for the kingship,” Liu Han informed him.
“Ah. So we’re here to muddy the waters, and drag out the conflict as long as possible? To keep Chu distracted and weak?” Huang Ming asked.
“Were it so simple,” Liu Han shook his head. “Prince Chu Feng has the upper hand, he holds sway many influential officials and captains. It is rumoured that he had personally led some raiding fleets in the past, and he seems most eager to expand on his ventures.”
“And Chu Xiong?”
“Prince Chu Xiong is inferior to his brother in every way. It is said that he spent much of his youth in dissipation, and only the threat of being removed as a potential threat permanently had forced him out of his stupor.”
Huang Ming’s eyebrow twitched. “So… he used to be wastrel, a dissolute young master?”
“Yes. He spent money like it was water, and some say he beds a different woman every night,” Liu Han sniffed in derision. “But he’s the better choice compared to Chu Feng, at least for us. The last thing we need is for Chu to have a warlike ruler when we are already troubled by Jin and Wei.”
“You are assuming that Chu is targeting our kingdom, when they could easily strike at Wei instead,” Huang Ming said.
“Prince Chu Feng greatly admires General Ran Wei,” Liu Han said. “In fact, I heard the prince was depressed when Ran Wei was defeated by Huang Ming in that wasteful expedition into Wei.”
Huang Ming grimaced. ‘So this is my fault too?’
“Nobody benefited from that Wei campaign. Huang Ming only made the best out of a terrible situation,” he pointed out.
“A fat lot of good that did us,” Liu Han grumbled as he mopped his face with a handkerchief. “If that Huang Ming was so clever, he should have killed Ran Wei or found a way to avoid the conflict entirely. But Ran Wei is still alive and bearing a grudge, and somehow we have managed to antagonize his greatest admirer too. Now I heard that Huang Ming is even responsible for Jin’s recent hostilities as well? That name is a curse to diplomats such as ourselves, don’t you agree?”
When Liu Han did not hear an immediate agreement, he stopped wiping away his sweat and saw that the young man was looking at him strangely.
“What’s wrong?” Liu Han asked.
Huang Ming smiled wanly and stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Huang Ming.”
Straight into the mire,
Another baptism of fire.