Enemies at home
“What this country needs is a short, victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.”
--Vyacheslav von Plehve
Chapter 82 – Enemies at home
The Prime Minister’s residence,
The capital of Wu
The two most powerful men of Wu glared at each other. The dislike between Prime Minister Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao Fang was mutual, only mitigated by their shared ambitions and greed.
They were in the Prime Minister’s residence, an opulent and palatial home that housed countless works of art. If the King of Wu were ever to visit, he would find himself entranced and envious of his prime minister’s wealth: multi-coloured coral tree decorations, sculptures of jade and gold, famous paintings and tapestries that hung on the walls and on self-standing panel screens.
The Prime Minister was a dignified looking middle-aged man with a long beard and clear eyes. He had all the airs and mannerisms of a distinguished gentleman, someone who seemed perfectly accustomed and suited to such wealth. A stranger might even dismiss him as a nobleman who spent his riches too easily, and Tong Xuan would be more than happy to lead him on and swallow the insults if he felt it was to his advantage.
It was with this sort of patience and cunning that Tong Xuan flattered the King of Wu, eventually rising to the position of Prime Minister over the objections of the distressed court. Alas, as the saying goes, ‘good medicine is bitter’, and thus their concerns were not pleasing to the king’s ears.
“What is the use of being the king if I can’t even appoint my own friend as my advisor?” the King demanded angrily.
The officials who protested withdrew, and Tong Xuan was made their immediate superior in the court. Very quickly those officials soon found themselves suppressed. Those who did not resign voluntarily were demoted and transferred. Eventually, much of the court and bureaucracy fell into the hands of Tong Xuan and his lackeys.
His counterpart was Marshal Gao Fang the Wave-Qualler, the commander-in-chief of the kingdom’s military forces. Decades ago, he had led the defence of the country from a massive Chu invasion. Endless streams of messages flew from his hand towards the capital during that crisis, each proclaiming his deeds and taking credit for masterminding the successful counterattacks.
In reality, he merely sat safely in the army headquarters while the generals who did the hard work were too busy with matters of life and death to quibble over merits. By the time the Chu invasion was beaten back and the weary warriors returned home, it was too late to change Gao Fang’s version of events. He was made marshal, and the generals were given token rewards to appease them and sent far away from the capital so that he could seize the military academies and training grounds. A new crop of officers were raised, a cadre of cronies whose loyalty to the new order was more valuable than their actual abilities.
Tong Xuan felt that the older, obese marshal was pompous man with an inflated ego, while Gao Fang thought the prime minister was fatuous and corrupt. But they had worked together to ensure their mutual survival, each propping the other in front of the king and combined to suppress those who would dare to criticize them. After years of collusion, both found the other indispensable, their fates entwined tightly despite detesting each other.
The two men had worked very well together to dislodge those who would oppose them. Only a very few still dared to be openly hostile to them, such as the Great General Huang Zheng.
But once these obstacles were removed...
As the saying goes, ‘the hunting dog becomes food as well after it is used to hunt game; a good bow is discarded when there are no birds left for shooting’. The two men shook hands in cooperation but secretly sharpened knives, readying themselves for the final confrontation. Each dipped into the other’s sphere of influence: Gao Fang secretly persuading wavering bureaucrats to prepare for a coup while Tong Xuan luring ambitious generals to bolster his own armed forces.
It was all going according to their respective timetables; only for recent events to throw a wrench into their plans. Suddenly, Governor Cao Yuan who was grateful to the marshal became silent and uncooperative. Next, Tong Xuan’s scheme for his nephew to steal the military authority from Huang Zheng failed spectacularly.
The harried Lord Fang La reported a daring raid by Wei, shocking the two strongmen. The target of their suppression, the Great General Huang Zheng; had ignored an edict to return to the capital. Gallingly, he personally defeated the incursion and ordered a retaliation on his own initiative, capturing a Wei fort in Tigertrap Pass. The edict that had ordered for his return was now looked upon as a fallacy, a muck up caused by incompetents who were too far away to know what was happening in the front lines. Indeed, there were already rumours that his recall was a Wei plot to weaken the borders, that there were traitors who had given the King of Wu such ill advice…
“I told you that your nephew was unsuitable. His failure has made us look ridiculous,” Gao Fang grumbled.
Tong Xuan’s eyes flashed, he was boiling within. “You are in charge of external matters. How is it that you are unaware of a Wei invasion being prepared?” he demanded.
“If there was a Wei invasion. That nephew of yours is hardly reliable,” Gao Fang sneered.
“My nephew could hardly conjured up a legion of horse riders and paraded them before the walls of Tianxin City,” Tong Xuan said icily.
Gao Fang grunted. He had already received his own reports, there really was a duel between Huang Zheng and the commander of the Wei raiders that night. His own inspectors really did find a Wei fort in Tigertrap Pass… a fort that was now in Huang Zheng’s hands and rapidly being strengthened for Wu’s benefit.
Tong Xuan sighed, as if eager to switch tracks. “What do you plan to do about Wei?” he asked.
“If it’s a fight they want, they will get one,” Gao Fang replied.
“This is no light matter. A war is hardly ideal for our circumstances,” Tong Xuan said.
Gao Fang snorted. “On the contrary, this war will be a gift.”
“What do you mean?”
“We need to divert attention away from the capital; and from us. I am suspicious of the likes of Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong, for all we know they might be building up their own forces for a rebellion,” Gao Fang said.
Tong Xuan curled his lips. Of course the marshal was suspicious of those two, they have been thorns in his side ever since the Chu invasion days. He shared the same concerns, after all those two famed generals were in command of some fifty thousand men. If they did rebel, they could become warlords and tear the country apart. But Gao Fang’s mistrust was bordering on obsession, he had personal feuds with those two men.
“Don’t forget Cao Yuan. I heard that his daughter married Huang Zheng’s son,” Tong Xuan said, enjoying the twisted look on Gao Fang’s face.
“Yes… there will be a reckoning for that ungrateful cur in the future,” Gao Fang scowled.
“In the future, yes. Back to what you were saying? About the war with Wei being a gift?” Tong Xuan asked.
“What we need is a short, decisive war. Something impressionable, but not too drastic. Let Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong and those like them waste their strength against Wei while we prepare and mobilize our own.”
“You’re giving them enough rope to hang themselves,” Tong Xuan said.
Gao Fang grinned viciously. “I’m still the marshal, you’re still the prime minister. We hold power in the capital, we can divert troops and supplies as we see fit. Let them fight, but let us dictate how able they are able to do so. Let those two fools be the vanguard into Wei, we can make sure they never return. Once they are dead, we can arrange a truce with Wei. Perhaps the family of Huang Zheng can be handed to Wei as compensation. We can even return Tigertrap Pass to them. After all, didn’t he attack and capture it without orders, sparking this invasion? Isn’t he a warmonger, endangering our relations with Wei for his personal ambition?”
Tong Xuan nodded, somewhat in awe at the elderly marshal’s words in turning white into black.
“You want to get rid of Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong, but what if Wei wins?” he asked.
Gao Fang was displeased by the question. “Do you think I’m made of wood? I can defeat Wei by myself. Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong are merely braggarts. This country do not need so many heroes!”
“Then, we’ll do as you say,” Tong Xuan said, exhaling in relief.
The marshal smiled arrogantly, as if delighted to see the prime minister being so reliant on him. The two men made polite farewells, and the marshal left the residence.
“Now, do you understand?” Tong Xuan asked aloud, turning to face one of the very expensive screen dividers in the room. There was a slight movement, and then one could see the barest of shadows behind the screen. There was someone else in the room, one who had heard everything that was said between the prime minister and the marshal.
“I told you, these military men are like wolves. Greedy, ambitious, self-serving. Now you have heard for yourself. Was I wrong?”
“The marshal is prepared to waste tens of thousands of lives just to satisfy his own personal vendetta,” the prime minister said. “Not even the noble Great General Huang Zheng is immune from such illusions of self-grandeur. Gao Fang is right you know… the general did attack and capture Tigertrap Pass without permission.”
The prime minister steepled his fingers, his head bowed in thought. “I do not know what the general was thinking. Maybe he thought a pre-emptive strike would discourage Wei from invading.”
The figure behind the screen divider stubbornly remained mute.
“You can never trust those men whose spend their lives on the battlefield. A war with Wei was a possibility, but now it is a certainty,” Tong Xuan said fatalistically.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw the shoulders of the figure slump ever so slightly.
The prime minister turned away. Even though he knew the figure behind the screen could not see him, he still took the extra step of caution.
Because on the prime minister’s face, there was a triumphant, gloating smile.
The patriots bleed,
Their lives spent by traitor’s greed.