A happy Vesak to all.

So ... you call me evil. But unfortunately for you, I'm a necessary evil.

--Yuri Orlov, ‘Lord of War’


Chapter 250 – Duplicitous


When Huang Ming made his way to the audience hall, there was a group of Chu civil officers and bureaucrats waiting for him. Some of them he had never seen before, others he had only seen in passing and heard of their reputations. Their leader was Minister Jun, who came into prominence after the fall of Tong Xuan.


Courtesies were exchanged and Minister Jun wasted no time in going directly to the reason of their visit.


“Sir Huang, why have you not been attending the court sessions?” the older gentleman asked directly.


“I was not called,” Huang Ming replied honestly.


“Still, you are a valued source of counsel, you should be present whether you are called or not.”


Huang Ming smiled. “But I have heard the rumours. I have been reviled as someone who sold out the country to Chu, that I have manipulated the princess into a loveless marriage to their prince. I have been called a traitor, a coward every rude name imaginable by those who prefer to fight everything out. Therefore I should not sully the royal court lest it be tainted by my presence. I would rather spend my time exploring new hobbies.”


The elder statesman drew to his full height, his brows bristling with righteous anger. “Is that why you have been hiding here? Preposterous! How dare those warmongering idiots slander you so? What do they know about our princess, as if anyone could have forced her into a marriage that she does not want!”


Huang Ming spread his palms and shrugged. “It is better for me to bear their accusations than to blame the princess. This union was the only viable solution that I could come up with. I am sorry that I could do no better.”


The officials were very moved. Minister Jun grasped Huang Ming’s hands emotionally. “Sir Huang, you must not pay attention to those narrow-minded fools! They fail to see the many kingdoms that have disappeared into footnotes of history, with their entire citizens completely wiped out. What you have done is to ensure the survival of our people and culture!”


Huang Ming sighed. “I have only set the stage, what happens from now on is up to loyal officials like you to uphold Wu’s pride so that we are not completely engulfed in this union with Chu. Rest assured that tomorrow I will go to the palace to help the princess in this endeavour.”


The officials nodded vigorously in agreement and departed in good humour.


“Sir Huang Ming is indeed a far-seeing patriot,” they said to themselves. But Minister Jun was silent as he was preoccupied with his own hands.


“Is something wrong, sir?”


“Nothing, nothing. Let us be on our way, there is much for us to do,” the minister said quickly. He was not about to tell them that for some reason his hands smelled of smoke and coal.


‘Sir Huang must have been keeping himself busy with trivial nonsense just to avoid the vicious slander. We would do well to emulate his humbleness and steadfastness!’ Minister Jun sighed.


After the civil officers have left, Huang Ming soon had another group of visitors. This time it was a party of military officers, some of whom were his father’s peers.


“So you are the one who came up with the idea of pawning off our princess?” one of them asked bluntly.


“You have a better idea to deal with Wei and Jin?” Huang Ming asked just as caustically.


“We are ‘dealing’ with them just fine. You yourself have defeated each in turn!”


Huang Ming shook his head. “Our armies are spent after the excesses of Tong Xuan, we cannot afford to make enemies of Chu as well.”


“Young man, we have served the country long before you were your father’s wet dream,” the veteran snorted. “Your esteemed father must be furious as well to see you being the architect of this shameful proposal. To think that the Great General’s son would pair our valiant princess with that dandy looking prince!”


“My father have seen enough slaughter to last him a lifetime,” Huang Ming said coldly.


The gathered officers were enraged, as they thought he was belittling their military record. They glowered at him, and the younger warriors looked ready to lynch him.


Then Huang Ming laughed.


“What the hell is so funny?” the officers demanded.


“I laugh because I am glad to see that we have still so many brave and loyal officers in our kingdom.”


“What the hell do you mean? Do you think we are afraid of death?”


“Of course not!” Huang Ming then beckoned them to come closer and lowered his voice as if he was about to reveal a huge secret.


“Do not tell others, but this is a stratagem,” he said in a low voice.


They stared at him in surprise.


“I assume you are all willing to fight to the bitter end?” Huang Ming asked.


“We would rather die than to surrender!” they shouted unanimously.


Huang Ming saluted them. “Then that is reassuring to hear. In truth, this marriage is not about submission, but a war strategy. We have received word that the Jins are preparing another campaign against us, but this time they are working together with Wei. They plan to pin our forces in the west at Tigertrap Fort, before launching a surprise attack from the north.”


The faces of the war party turned ugly.


“This proposal is just a show of deterrence. We are borrowing the might of Chu to fend off Jin and Wei. Going through with the marriage itself might not be necessary, the princess would delay any serious talk of such with as many excuses she could find,” Huang Ming continued.


“Is that the truth? But what if the marriage actually takes place?” they asked.


Huang Ming smirked. “You have said it yourself: the Chu prince is a dandy. Do you honestly think that our princess is not capable of wrapping him around her little finger? Why else do you think I have been here busy cooking instead of going to court? It is so that the prince won’t be able to pester me about the marriage.”


They stared at him with their mouths agog.


“You mean…”


“You think I dared to make this proposal without the approval of the king and the princess?” Huang Ming scoffed. “It is because she is confident in taking care of the prince that I even agreed to go to Chu.”


“She is willing to go so far?”


Huang Ming sighed loudly. “You underestimate her resolve. She knows there would be those who would oppose a female being the ruler, and thus she took this drastic decision. By latching on to Chu, she would ensure the survival of our people.”


The military officers were very much affected. Some of the grizzled veterans who saw a lifetime of slaughter even wept quietly.


“But as I had warned the princess, there is a chance that Wei and Jin would invade us anyway. Therefore you should continue to sharpen your weapons and train your men, hone their skills. Stock up on the military supplies and exhort your soldiers to be ever ready and vigilant. No matter the outcome of this marriage, there will be plenty of battles to fight,” Huang Ming said.


“You mean…”


“If this union is successful and fair, we could very well take the fight to them!” Huang Ming said fiercely. “We can finish the job that was aborted in Wei. My father is already preparing his warriors for a possible lengthy campaign. In the north we have certain plans in place ready to destabilise the disaffected tribes that were forced to submit to Jin.”


“We do? Why have we not heard of such things?”


“Secrecy is absolutely vital for military success, surely you gentlemen understand this. You have seen how some have enthusiastically embraced this union with Chu; there might be defeatists among them. It can be said that the princess is keeping an eye on everyone who voices an opinion on this union to find who is truly loyal, so do not give her reason to doubt you,” Huang Ming said with a raised brow.


“But… you just revealed everything to us! What should we do now?” they asked.


Huang Ming chuckled. “Continue as before, but do not go overboard with your objections. Be cautious and keep an eye on those who openly talk about giving up military authority to Chu. We may want this union to succeed, but there is no reason for us to be the one being swallowed. With loyal and brave gentlemen like you, why should we not be the one who would devour Chu from within? When this marriage has gone through...”


None of them reacted when Huang Ming switched from using if to when.


“When this marriage has gone through, there will be talk of unifying the command structures of Chu and Wu. It is up to you gentlemen to befriend your Chu counterparts and ensure that we remain in control of our soldiers, our horses and our provisions. They are more than welcome to send soldiers to fight our battles, but we must remain the masters of our weapons and resources,” Huang Ming said emphatically.


The mood of the military officers were considerably fired up by his words, and even the most boisterous of them rushed forward to shake his hands before leaving.


“To think that our princess and Huang Ming to plan so much in secret!” they said to themselves excitedly.


“Mm. I cannot wait to get started. We need to consult the great general and see what sort of things he has been doing so that we may emulate him!”


“I say… Do you notice how smoky and sooty his hands were? He was not joking when he said he had been busy cooking…”


“To think that we have ridiculed him… we should have known better. He had defeated Wei and Jin before, we should not have doubted his resolve in the face of adversity…”


How were they to know that Huang Ming was smiling cynically as soon as their backs were turned?


He looked at his hands and frowned. Now that the visitors had all gone, he finally at the time to realize that they were unclean from grilling the chicken earlier. Speaking of which, whatever happened to that?


But unfortunately, he had one more visitor.


“I had been expecting you,” Huang Ming grinned.


General Yin Yanzhao returned a smile of his own.


“Then I hope you have something prepared for me.”


He had the gall,

For a social call.