“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
--Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’
Chapter 205 - First lesson
Under the subtle guidance of Huang Ming, Prince Chu Xiong began to change his ways. His attendants and maids were stunned to see their prince go to bed early and rise at the crack of the dawn. It took all of their self-control not to gasp in shock when they saw their master actually taking the initiative to study and take interest in government affairs.
Huang Ming smiled wryly at their reaction, he had seen the same looks of disbelief before in his own family when he had first arrived in this body. It seemed like a lifetime ago when he was just a degenerate son of a military household, instead of being his country’s leading diplomat interfering in the succession troubles of a foreign nation.
That was not to say it was easy for Chu Xiong. Huang Ming was different, he had done it before. The prince on the other hand was like a drug addict unceremoniously thrown into rehabilitation. The first few days went fine, but by the third day the prince was visibly suffering from withdrawal. He had beads of cold sweat, his face was pale and his hands were shaky.
“What are you doing here? I did not summon you,” the prince asked.
“I am here to give you your first lesson,” Huang Ming answered. Then he stopped to gaze frankly at the prince’s pallid outlook.
“Are you done staring at this prince or are you going to offer actual advice?” the prince asked coldly.
“I did offer you advice,” Huang Ming reminded. “I told you to get closer to your royal father.”
“I am working on it,” the prince replied stiffly. “You cannot expect me to barge into his royal quarters and act the sobbing, filial son so suddenly.”
“Actually you should do it soon. Have your men spread the word that you are restraining yourself in this time of heartache at your royal father’s illness.”
“You are so cynical,” the prince said through gritted teeth.
“You already look the part, so you might as well take advantage of it. But why did you completely stop drinking?”
The prince gawked at him. “You’re the one who told me to!” he exclaimed as he pointed accusingly at him.
“I told you to rein it in, not to completely turn clean at one go. It’s admirable, but you’re silly in making it harder on yourself at this time,” Huang Ming stated.
The prince stared at him for a few pregnant seconds before mustering his dignity to lower his finger slowly.
“If I’m doing something, I might as well do it all the way,” he coughed to cover his embarrassment.
Still, Huang Ming could see the immense sense of relief on Chu Xiong’s face. Perhaps at the moment the prince would like nothing better than to rush to retrieve his stash of alcohol.
It was amusing, but Huang Ming was troubled by what he saw.
“Are you sure you’re not taking in other substances?” Huang Ming had asked.
“Like what?” the prince asked waspishly.
Huang Ming furrowed his brows as remembered General Li Jing of Beihai’s expensive habit. “What about srih leaves? I heard they are addictive.”
Prince Chu Xiong shook his head. “And ruin my teeth? That is disgusting,” he sneered.
Huang Ming saw that the prince’s teeth were indeed pristine. Speaking of which, when Huang Ming had first arrived in this world he had wondered on how the native people had maintained their personal hygiene. The lack of toilet paper aside, he was relieved that they had similar habits to those of the ancient Chinese. For example, chewing on willow twigs and gargling with thickly brewed tea for oral hygiene. It seemed the fantasy trope of Chinese dramas that had jade-like beauties and dashingly handsome men with perfect teeth were not far off…
The prince frowned when he saw Huang Ming drift off in thought.
“What is wrong?” he demanded impatiently.
“Your symptoms seem much more severe than just a craving for alcohol. I am just wondering if there is something else at play here.”
“What is that supposed to mean-” the prince started to say, but then paused when he realized the implications. “You think someone is tampering with my food?” he whispered instead.
“Always nice to see a man who is quick on the uptake,” Huang Ming nodded approvingly. “When is the last time you seen a doctor?”
“I have never been sick,” the prince declared.
Huang Ming arched a brow. “Never?”
“Never,” the prince repeated emphatically with pride.
“Then it might be disease-related. You indulge in the flesh quite often, correct? With different partners each time?” Huang Ming asked casually, as if he was talking about the weather.
The prince was horrified. “B-b-but that only affect the lower classes!” he shuddered.
“Do you really think a disease would stop to check whether if you’re highborn or not before entering your body? What, you think the microbes and viruses would say ‘Right, this guy’s a prince, lets not infect him!’?” Huang Ming scoffed.
Even though the prince had no idea what microbe or a virus was, he could grasp what Huang Ming was saying. Now he was truly trembling from fear and not from a lack of alcohol.
The prince was not completely ignorant and naive: he had heard of the deadly disease that would waste away a man in a few short years. Ironically, that was one reason he was such a homebody: he was fearful of the houses of pleasure where such complications were said to originate.
“The women of the palace are clean! They are checked regularly!” the prince insisted.
“What are they checked for, and how?” Huang Ming asked with a faint smile.
“For… well, you know…” the prince stuttered.
“No, I don’t. Do tell,” Huang Ming drawled, his smirk becoming wider as the prince’s face turned redder.
“Are you suggesting that my royal brother would stoop to such lengths?” the prince said instead, his heart chilled by the thought.
“You’d be surprised by the lengths people go to to achieve their aims.”
“Like you,” the prince shot back.
“Yeah, like me. Look at me, pulling myself down to slum around with you to secure the safety of my country,” Huang Ming sighed exaggeratedly.
Just when the prince was going to explode, Huang Ming clapped his hands and laughed.
“I’m just joking, don’t worry!” he said.
“Joking? You planted this seed of doubt in me, how am I ever going to relax my guard from now on!” the prince scowled.
Huang Ming snapped his fingers. “That is exactly the point. You’re a prince, you’re going to be surrounded evil plots. You have to find people that you can trust, but also people who would trust you. And that, dear prince, is my first lesson.”
Against devious device.