Back from Chinese New Year. Celebrations were muted this year. It has been a very somber event, with the corona virus scare. It really didn't hit home until I went to the hospital for my rehab, and seeing people wearing masks everywhere planted fear and doubt in my mind. I was without one, and I felt strange and naked, wondering if I should have gotten one.



I have only two wishes in my life. The first is to reunite the realm and let my name live down in history. The second is to acquire the two Qiaos of the Southland to entertain me in my old age. If both my wishes are fulfilled, I will die without regrets.

--Zhuge Liang quoting Cao Cao, Three Kingdoms (2010)

 

Chapter 272 – Reckless provocation

 

“Preposterous!” a bearded old man exclaimed.

 

All around him were similarly well dressed peers, as befitting the nobles from Wu’s aristocratic families. Some were more restrained, preferring to wait and see from the shadows. Others echoed the elder’s sentiments, adding their voices to the outrage.

 

“This is all too much! The princess had sidelined us when she placed all those incompetent upstarts in charge. And now she openly ignores all the traditions and rites for her own marriage!” someone added.

 

A cynical bystander would have pointed out that these nobles were displaced because they were incompetent and had nearly run the country into the ground with their corruption. A less forgiving ruler would have chopped off all their heads, but she had allowed them to ‘retire’, as they were appointed to their posts one way or another under her father’s lackadaisical reign. Of course, that was after Huang Ming had appropriated a large portion of their ill-gotten wealth to help fund the kingdom of Wu’s various projects. The princess may have spared them, but these nobles felt as if their limbs were torn off by Huang Ming seeing their money being spent for nothing in return for themselves.

 

Now they gathered for a celebration, supposedly feasting the upcoming marriage of Princess Wu Liying and Prince Chu Xiong. But once the servants and dancers were dismissed, their true agenda surfaced.

 

 The problem of nobility wasn’t their arrogance. No, the true problem with these nobles was the fact that they did not see what they had done in the past as a mistake. They were born into influence and thus it was natural for them to wield it as they please. To whip a peasant to death for some trivial offence was normal, to lie and break promises to someone they did not respect was perfectly fine; even if she was the princess.

 

They had been cowed into submission and forced to lie low as the princess took the reins of the kingdom, but even their desire for self-preservation was forgotten by her latest decision. No doubt it was the idea of that nefarious Huang Ming. Remembering how he had squeezed their lifeblood made these fatuous nobles ground their teeth in fury.

 

“It must be his fault! He must have planted such outlandish ideas in the princess!”

 

“Hear, hear!”

 

“A mass wedding, who else could have thought of such a monstrous thing? The very notion of sharing a wedding with commoners… it disgusts me!”

 

Yes, the idea that Huang Ming came up with was a modern style mass wedding. It would involve opening a large square in the capital, and participants would be allowed to post their marriage officially in a new registrar. The very notion of a government-sanction body keeping track of marriages was completely foreign: after all, marriages were supposed to be private affairs and entering names into one’s family or clan register would be sufficient as evidence of marriage. Similarly, striking off names from such books would be enough as divorce.

 

But what Huang Ming was proposing was a government authority to do such things.

 

“Why?” the princess had asked.

 

“Money, of course,” Huang Ming smirked. “You can charge them for the government to officially approve their marriages and divorces.”

 

“What makes you think they will come forward to do so? Right now all they need to do is to enter their names into the family book and it is already enough to be official,” the princess pointed out.

 

“Make it a holiday and a new tradition,” Huang Ming said. “Who could resist from joining it? Just invite everybody. And I mean, everybody.”

 

“Wonderful. I only hope that we won’t end up looking like idiots if nobody shows up,” Chu Xiong said.

 

“You underestimate the value of your prestige,” Huang Ming said. “Registering or dissolving a marriage seems like no big deal, but it is like the kingdom is officially recognizing it. There will be those quick to recognize the value of such a document. Besides, this is only the first step. One year from now you can make another organization specifically to register children and families. This is especially useful once the kingdoms of Chu and Wu are united.”

 

“Whatever for?” Chu Xiong asked.

 

“Money,” Huang Ming repeated, and laughed when Chu Xiong gave him a look of disgust. “Look, you need to know who your citizens are, how many people you have, where they live, whom they marry, how many children they have. Then in the future, you or your descendants could reform the tax code, military draft and civil service and plan the economy appropriately. You and your line will need to incubate feelings of loyalty and belonging in the people towards the new kingdom, that they have something to believe and put their trust in. This is called citizenship.”

 

The two royals were stunned by the scope of his vision.

 

“Why don’t you do it now?” Chu Xiong asked.

 

“Are you kidding. I already have my hands full. Find someone else to do it. There is no rush any way,” Huang Ming said crabbily.

 

Thus, the irony. The nobles that were disparaging Huang Ming had no idea just how close he was to take charge on affecting the lives every single person living in Wu and Chu. They accused him of appropriating too much power, not knowing that he had just declined to reform their way of life.

 

“A son of a mere general, yet somehow he wormed his way up,” one of the nobles sneered, conveniently ignoring the various merits Huang Ming had accrued.

 

“The princess used to be more… receptive to our words. But ever since this Huang Ming appeared, we have been in disfavour. Who else is to be blamed but him? The cheek of this upstart!”

 

“If only there is some way to bring the princess to her senses…!”

 

The atmosphere of the feast turned dark and the complaints died down. All knew in their hearts what needed to be done, but none had the guts to actually say it. These nobles who lived their lives in luxury and accustomed to have their whims catered to… had neither the conviction nor the will to actually do something. Their tongues wagged and their bellies were full of venom, but there was only cowardice in their hearts.

 

“I… might know someone who could help us,” one of the younger nobles spoke up timidly.

 

***

 

“Pathetic,” General Yin Yanzhao said coldly. He folded the letter that he had just read and then burned it using the candle that was illuminating his room. The flames reflected in his eyes danced for a brief moment before turning into ashes.

 

The general rubbed the fingers that had held the letter into the candle’s flame, as if trying to remove some invisible stain. He could imagine the faces of the men who had pressured the young noble who had written the letter. Such a matter of grave importance, and yet they didn’t have the fortitude to even put pen to paper themselves, relying on someone expendable in case it was intercepted. The poor noble who had written the letter would be the scapegoat in that scenario.

 

He leaned back in his chair, a sardonic smile on his face. Those worthless nobles that he had carefully selected and had fanned their rebellious tendencies finally found the anger, but not the resolve. He wanted them to act, but here they were writing for him to move first, promising their support and financial assistance.

 

How insulting,’ he thought. Perhaps he should meet a few of them, and incite them to action. Certainly, some of them have enough hanger-ons and private guards that could prove useful…

 

Still, Huang Ming’s idea was quite novel. A mass wedding would be the talk of the ages. The very idea of commoners being in the presence of the usually unseen rulers of the kingdom would be a great, irresistible attraction.

 

Frivolous, but he could see the appeal.

 

He pushed his thoughts aside and looked down at his desk.

 

There was another letter.

 

The general frowned when he saw it was from Huang Ming.

 

Annoyingly, Huang Ming had written a very long missive in a flowery language.

 

General Yin, my appreciation of you is just like the great river flowing endlessly. It is like the annual flooding, never ending…

 

General Yin Yanzhao impatiently scrolled past the thick, superfluous fluff; his annoyance growing with every cloying word from Huang Ming. It was all empty flattery and platitude, but when he imagined the young man’s voice, he could only hear sarcasm and mockery.

 

…by now of course you would have learned that the royal wedding will be a unique event. It will be a mass wedding where anyone, absolutely anyone can participate so long as there are no objections. The royal couple will be married witnessed by their beloved people, and in turn the princess and prince will officiate the mass wedding of those who decided to participate, myself included. Of course, the Princess of Jin would be in attendance to this spectacle.

 

General Yin, you should not remain as an iron flower. Please take this opportunity to bloom and find a new partner to serve you well for the rest of your life. You are no longer young and you have a responsibility to continue your family’s prestigious line. Should you find it too difficult, please do not hesitate to seek my help. After all, I have been labelled as a shameless wastrel and debauchee, and I readily admit that there is fire beneath the smoke, if you know what I mean…

 

General Yin snarled, somehow imagining Huang Ming ending the letter with a brazen wink-wink nudge-nudge. Did he just insinuate that the general needed his help to find a bed warmer? Besides, the wording was ambiguous. What difficulty? Did he meant courting women, or more likely, to perform when needed? How dare he!

 

General Yin clenched his fist… but that was all the anger he showed. After taking a deep breath, he re-read the infuriating letter.

 

…It will be a mass wedding where anyone, absolutely anyone can participate so long as there are no objections…the Princess of Jin would be in attendance…

 

His eyes widened like a predator.

 

Was this it?

 

Such an obvious bait.

 

Still… it is quite tempting. He could obtain everything he want in a single throw of the dice.

 

Should he risk it?

 

General Yin Yanzhao sunk into deep thought.

 

 

Fishing without a hook,

Waiting to catch the crooks.