“Bonum commune communitatis.”
--The Neighbourhood Watch Alliance, ‘Hot Fuzz’
Chapter 299 – Good intentions
When Huang Ming’s report arrived, the court of Chuwu was thrown into a hubbub. The various gathered officials were in various minds about the proposed loan of Tigertrap Fort to Ran Wei.
There were those who fiercely opposed to the very idea of ceding an important strategic location, while others saw the immediate need of destroying Jin’s weapon facilities.
“We could do it ourselves!” a senior minister insisted passionately. “There is no need to invite a wolf like Ran Wei into our lands.”
“Easy for you to say,” a bureaucrat snorted. “When Jin comes with weapons that can shatter the city walls, it will be all too late.”
“What a wonderful opportunity! We must seize this heaven-sent chance that Marquis Huang had engineered for us,” another countered.
“Are you so dismissive of our ability to fight off the Jins? Let them come!”
“You are completely ignorant of the winds of war! You do not understand, one light of the fuse is enough to launch an explosive ordinance far beyond anything we have imagined in the past. That is why we must destroy this threat as soon as possible.”
“Hear, hear! And why stop there? We should take the initiative to work with the Wei people and end the Jins once and for all!”
“You are so eager for bloodshed! How barbaric!”
Such were the various arguments among the lesser ministers. Tempers began to flare and their voices became louder even in the presence of their monarchs. The king and queen of Chuwu watched on dispassionately as the upper echelons of power of the kingdom wrangled with each other.
In contrast to the unrest below them, the four senior advisors Meng Jian, Bai Mu, Lu Wei and Zhou Zhong kept their counsel. The very four men Huang Ming had recommended did not add their voices to the cacophony, patiently waiting for the monarchs to make a sign.
Just when the argument threatened to turn physical, King Chu Xiong coughed once. Immediately the disputes were silenced, and the various officials were shamed into contriteness. They meekly took up their positions and kept their heads bowed as the monarchs and four senior ministers looked at them coolly.
“We have heard your discourse,” Queen Wu Liying said dryly, and a few of the officials could not resist a chuckle.
“Rest assured that we have taken your concerns to heart. We will make our decision after meditating on your words,” she said.
The officials bowed and retired, satisfied that their monarchs had not dismissed them out of hand. To them, the matter was far from over, and many would gather in private to marshal their thoughts to reinforce their view of point for the next assembly.
The four senior ministers remained behind.
“What are your opinions?” King Chu Xiong asked.
“It is indeed an opportunity. Not only to deal a blow against the Jins, but to make the Wei indebted to us,” Meng Jian said.
Bai Mu, his peer in the military agreed. “Even if we do not commit to a full conquest, it is imperative that we disrupt Jin from developing the weapons.”
“But is it necessary to rely on a wolf like Ran Wei?” Lu Wei mused.
King Chu Xiong then turned to Zhou Zhong. “You have remained quiet all this time, do you not have anything to say?”
Zhou Zhong smiled benignly. “But your majesties have already decided.”
His peers were greatly surprised. They looked up at their monarchs, and the grins on the king and queen confirmed that Zhou Zhong was right.
“What gave it away?” the queen asked bemusedly.
“Your majesties are known to be quick and decisive. Such a pressing matter would have already been decided long beforehand, and the earlier assembly was merely a ruse to confuse the loose-lipped and prying eyes,” Zhou Zhong said.
“Indeed, but there is one other detail,” Chu Xiong said slyly. “Huang Ming and Ran Wei had already attacked, and the Jin facilities have been destroyed.”
The smile on Zhou Zhong’s face disappeared as he bowed to offer his congratulations. The other senior ministers were also taken back but quickly recovered to give their felicitations as well.
“In fact, Ran Wei has already taken residence in Tigertrap Fort. Do not worry, Huang Ming will be keeping an eye on our erstwhile ally. For now, they will be working together to defeat the Jins,” the king continued.
Thereafter he decreed for the preparations for an expedition in the coming campaign season.
The four senior advisors obeyed, but later gathered in private to discuss. The four men were close friends, and thus they knew each other’s characters well. Upright and righteous, dedicated and loyal.
“How did you really find out about our rulers’ disposition?” Lu Wei asked.
“Surely you have heard how our king had rode all the way to Tianxin City just to meet with Huang Ming. It is obvious that our king takes the advice of the marquis very seriously,” Zhou Zhong replied.
“Indeed. The marquis is very resourceful and daring. And they are quite close in age as well. It is not far-fetched to imagine that our young monarchs would look up to him,” Meng Jian said.
Bai Mu narrowed his eyes. “Choose your words with care. I understand where you are coming from, but to others; they might think the marquis has an undue influence on our rulers.”
“And yet, is that not true?” Zhou Zhong sighed. “I expected a swift decision, but for the marquis to have actually taken action without waiting for permission…”
“The matter was urgent,” Meng Jian reminded him. “And we were not there. Perhaps the king had already given him all the authority to act.”
“That is precisely my point. Do you not feel that the marquis is being too presumptuous? Of course, he has a track record full of merits, yet to allow him so much leeway would set a dangerous precedent,” Zhou Zhong said.
Lu Wei chuckled. “You sound almost envious.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I too admire the young marquis. But I fear for the future,” Zhou Zhong said.
“Are you overthinking it?” Bai Mu frowned.
“Perhaps. We all know the story of Tong Xuan and Gao Fang,” Zhou Zhong said.
His words were met with stares.
“I do not like your insinuation,” Meng Jian snorted.
“I am not accusing Marquis Huang of anything. But think about it. The king and queen places utmost trust in him. His father the Great General holds sway over our strongest army, and his brother Huang Ke is second-in-command. His elder brother Huang Lang are related by marriage to the governor of Tianxin City, and his mother’s side of the family are among the richest in the entire kingdom,” Zhou Zhong recited.
The other three men around the table shifted uneasily in their seats.
“The marquis and his family have not done anything wrong. If anything, they should be commended and be held up as paragons of virtue. However, I firmly believe that it is not appropriate for so much power and influence be in the hands of one single family,” Zhou Zhong continued.
“And with this latest cooperation with Ran Wei, he had earned some modicum of debt from the people of Wei as well. And remember, there were rumours about how the Princess of Jin had approached Marquis Huang directly,” Zhou Zhong added. “If you think about it, the marquis has contacts with all the royal families of the continent.”
“That is true. Even in Chu, he had the ear of the former King, and it is said that even Prince Chu Feng is awed by him,” Lu Wei murmured.
“We must not allow the likes of Gao Fang and Tong Xuan to rise again. The marquis and his family are beyond reproach, but what of their descendants? You know as well as I do that our monarchs value meritocracy. Allowing a powerful family to command such respect and deference would cause an anomaly in the future,” Zhou Zhong said righteously.
“You are essentially accusing the Huangs of a crime that they may or may not even commit,” Bai Mu said with distaste.
“I rather err on the side of caution,” Zhou Zhong said coldly. “Let me ask you this: should Marquis Huang asks for a favour from the king and queen, do you think they would ever deny him?”
The table fell silent as they contemplated.
Meng Jian squinted at his colleague. “What exactly are you suggesting then?”
“I am not suggesting to sabotage the Huangs or to cause problems directly. But to magnify their faults whenever they appear, and diminish their influence when possible. They must not appear to be infallible nor irreplaceable,” Zhou Zhong said.
Lu Wei sighed. “The marquis once suggested that the reason the corrupt are the way they are is because they wanted more and more, and said one way to combat it was to give generous pensions and lavish gifts upon retirement.”
“That is true. We could we should test the waters. Great General Huang is already in his advanced age, and perhaps it is time for him to retire and have a life of leisure,” Bai Mu conceded.
“I still do not like this,” Meng Jian grunted.
“It does not matter,” Zhou Zhong said. “Marquis Huang laid the framework that serves as the foundation of our kingdom. It is also in his best interests that he does not fall foul of the very laws that he had promoted.”
He looked at his peers who nodded in agreement. Meng Jian remained non-committal, but he did raise any further protest.
“This is all for his own good,” Zhou Zhong concluded.
He did his mission and showed his vision,
But even saints could not escape suspicion.