Had a fever.

Three weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so.

--Maximus Decimus Meridius, ‘Gladiator’


Chapter 264 – Pricked


When Great General Huang Zheng entered the capital, he could not help but contrast the current situation with that of his past. The city felt more vibrant and lively. During his journey he had observed much more traffic to and fro from the capital, with regular patrols providing security to the many merchants and caravans carrying essential and luxury goods from all corners of the kingdom.


The general had travelled incognito with a small contingent and it afforded him the luxury of seeing firsthand the fruits of the kingdom’s rejuvenation process. The dark clouds that hung over the kingdom during the days of Tong Xuan and Gao Fang had been banished.


There were plenty of talk praising Princess Wu Liying’s vision and her bravery in accepting the marriage proposal from Chu, of course. But Huang Zheng knew that beneath it all were the designs of his son, Huang Ming.


No one was more aware of this than the actual King of Wu himself.


When Huang Zheng presented himself to the royal court, he could feel the eyes of the officials on him. He did not recognize many of them because they were newly appointed to their posts. The sycophants and unqualified ones chosen by the two tyrants had been cleaned out, replaced by true and talented loyalists. Some were so loyal that they were afraid of another Tong Xuan or Gao Fang, and so they stared critically at the father of Huang Ming as he prostrated himself before the king.


“Arise, my faithful general,” the king said graciously.


Huang Zheng thanked his monarch and stood.


His monarch… for now. Huang Zheng saw that despite his years, the king looked healthier and happier than he had ever known him. It pained him to think that what Huang Ming had told him could be true; the king was the sort that disliked responsibilities and only wanted a life of leisure. Perhaps that was why the king so easily decided to abdicate in favour of the princess, and did not object to the union with Chu.


“We have approved of your leave of absence from Tigertrap Fort and the temporary assignment of General Zhao as your replacement. Will you be staying in the capital for the time being?” the king asked.


“I wish to spend some time with my wife,” Huang Zheng said simply.


He was not about to tell the king that he had yet to coax his wife to return to Tianxin City.


Perhaps the king had the right idea. He was much older than the king, yet Huang Zheng remained in active military service on the border with Wei. Perhaps it was time too for him to retire and live out the rest of his life idly with his wife.


As if knowing what he was thinking, the King of Wu then asked: “What are your future plans, o’ general. You have served us well for many years, surely you wish for rest and leisure.”


Before Huang Zheng could reply, one of the ministers stepped forward.


“Indeed, Your Majesty. We should reward the Great General for his many years of service,” the man said.


Urgh. This was why Huang Zheng disliked going to the royal court. Where were the men with such vicious tongues in the past? They would have been helpful to keep Gao Fang and Tong Xuan in check.


Huang Zheng clasped his hand in a military salute. “Indeed, I plan to retire in a few years, after I have sufficiently trained my successor for my responsibilities.”


“You mean your son, Huang Ke,” the official said, barely concealing the insinuations in his tone.


Fortunately, Huang Zheng had learned a thing or two from his youngest son’s acerbic tongue.


“Yes, my son,” Huang Zheng said blandly. “The one who is serving with me in Tigertrap Fort at the border with Wei. Pray tell, where is your son serving?”


The official became pale and he withdrew shamefacedly back into the ranks. It was clear that none of his were in military service.


The King of Wu laughed and dismissed the court, but asked the general to stay behind.


“Forgive him, he is one of those who had been suppressed in the past,” the king said genially.


Huang Zheng suppressed his retort. So he wasn’t brave enough to stand against them, but dared to speak against me?


“Each has his circumstances,” he chose to say diplomatically.


“Well…” the king drawled as he shifted on his throne, feeling as uncomfortable on it as ever. “…Are you really retiring?”


“I am about to reach seventy and five, Your Majesty,” Huang Zheng reminded him.


“We are embarrassed to have retained you for so long,” the king sighed.


“It is my duty and my honour to serve, sire,” Huang Zheng said.


“We have to trouble you for a few more years then. At least until your sons have established themselves in the new… regime.”


Seeing that they were alone, Huang Zheng decided to ask the question that had hung over his heart.


“Sire… are you fine with all this?” he asked slowly.


The king merely waved a hand airily. “What is not to like? We are free from the burdens of kingship, and afforded great luxury. We spend our days as we please. We go hunting and feasting when we want, we tend to the gardens and have quiet days of rest whenever we wished. And plenty of pleasant company besides.”


The king chuckled and actually gave the general a wink.


“You should try it once you retire. You might like it.”


Huang Zheng left the palace in a daze.


Just why had he spent his years bleeding and watching his comrades die over the years, only to see his monarch throw it all away?


He angrily shook his head and his long white beard bristled.


“Something on your mind, Great General?” a voice asked.


Huang Zheng turned around to come face to face with a smiling Yin Yanzhao.


“General Yin Yanzhao greets Great General Huang,” Yin Yanzhao said as he gave a deferential military salute.


“Ah. At ease,” Huang Zheng replied, giving a salute in return.


“You seem troubled, Great General,” Yin Yanzhao commented.


“It’s merely my old bones, young man,” Huang Zheng said with mock sternness, hoping that by playing the genial old man would be enough to throw him off. He came to the capital to placate, ahem, to fetch his wife; the last thing he wanted was to be entangled in the conspiracy nonsense that he had absolute no interest in.


Yin Yanzhao laughed. “Then, may I have the pleasure to invite the general for a meal?”


Huang Zheng raised a palm to decline. “Apologies, but I have a prior appointment with my wife,” he said.


“Surely there would be time for a drink?” Yin Yanzhao insisted and the older general could sense a dangerous air slipping out of him.


“A woman’s wrath is nothing to sneeze yet, young man,” Huang Zheng joked. “I have faced plenty of terrors on the battlefield but a disappointed woman dwarfs them all. Don’t you agree?”


Yin Yanzhao’s smile froze.


At first Huang Zheng did not know why, but then he remembered the awful circumstances surrounding Yin Yanzhao.


“Sorry,” Huang Zheng sincerely apologized.


“It has been a long time, do not think too much of it,” Yin Yanzhao said with an ashen face. “I shall not detain you any longer, sir. Please, have a safe journey.”


Huang Zheng mumbled a few more words and quickly fled.


Yin Yanzhao straightened his posture and the stricken look on his face was replaced with a cold smile.


“Father and son are equally infuriating.”


The king had a laugh,

The aged general made a gaffe.