“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”
--Terry Pratchett, ‘The Truth’


Chapter 91 – The marshal moves

Marshal Gao Fang trembled with rage when he heard of the failed kidnapping attempt. Already, news of the assault on the Huang residence had spread throughout the city, and just as quickly there were rumours swirling about his own complicity in the matter. He summoned Nangong Xie to vent his anger.


“Tell me why I shouldn’t hang you out to dry,” the marshal snarled.


Nangong Xie’s was unperturbed. “I apologize for my incompetence, but there is still a way out of this.”


“Speak!”


“We can say that the men were actually Wei collaborators. Who doesn’t know the recent successes of Great General Huang? Perhaps Wei was desperate enough to use this underhanded scheme to demoralize the one who is rampaging through their country?” Nangong Xie asked rhetorically.


The marshal was not entirely appeased. “What a flimsy explanation. The entire city is talking about this, your suggestion would only make us look all the more suspicious,” he said gruffly.


“You have to act quickly, sire. If we tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth,” Nangong Xie urged.


“I suppose there is no other choice,” the marshal admitted grudgingly. He was about to call for a messenger when an aide rushed into his room.


“Apologies for the intrusion, Lord Marshal, but I think you should read this,” the aide said and presented a scroll.


One glance at the wax seal was enough for the marshal to know that it was yet another report from Huang Zheng. He impatiently took the scroll and tore it open, his eyes scanning through the document.


From the sidelines, Nangong Xie paid close attention to the marshal’s countenance, silently grateful for the interruption. The Handsome Scholar hid his smile when he saw that the face of the marshal was beginning to redden. The aide who had presented the scroll had quickly escaped, and that was how the Handsome Scholar knew that it was a piece of news that would distract the marshal. He was sure that the troubles with the kidnappers would soon be forgotten, or at least be pushed away.


“The man has the devil’s own luck!” the marshal swore as he slammed down the scroll in anger.


“What is it, sire?” Nangong Xie ventured to ask.


“Huang Zheng managed to defeat Wei in the field of battle,” the marshal spat.


“Then the path into Wei has truly been blasted open,” Nangong Xie said.


Marshal Gao Fang rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Those Wei fools are idiots. How could seventy thousand lose to a mere forty thousand? If I knew that they were so incompetent, I would have gone there myself. Now they have become mere fuel to brighten Huang Zheng’s name!”


“Perhaps you should do so now, sire. Take advantage of this news and march into Wei with your forces and leave the troubles behind you. This coincides very well with the excuse we have formulated earlier,” Nangong Xie suggested.


“And if those men you hired should babble?” the marshal demanded.


“Please rest assured, I used many intermediaries. There is nothing to connect us to this matter,” Nangong Xie replied. “Besides, it is plainly obvious that such rumours were part of an enemy plot to sow discord between you and General Huang.”


The mere mention of the general’s name deepened the marshal’s ill humour. Nangong Xie saw this and quickly added, “There will be plenty of opportunities for the general to ‘distinguish’ himself. Since you will be directing the war hereafter, you may position wherever you wish during the decisive battle.”


Marshal Gao nodded in agreement. His appreciation for Nangong Xie grew slightly. Even though the marshal had been furious at his earlier failure, he saw that the Handsome Scholar was quick thinking and useful. The men and subordinates that the marshal had raised in the military were an unimaginative lot. He could not share his concerns and make schemes with them. Nangong Xie, for all his faults; had some measure of intellect and the viciousness to use it.


The marshal was aware that Nangong Xie came from Prime Minister Tong Xuan’s camp. Previously, he had discreetly sent men to investigate this particular relationship and was informed that the Prime Minister had only recommended Nangong Xie to follow Marshal Gao Fang’s expedition to sever the link between the scholar and his nephew, Lord Fang La. Apparently, the Prime Minister was not impressed with the weird stories surrounding the scholar.


This eased the marshal’s doubts somewhat, and perhaps this was why he readily agreed to Nangong Xie’s plans.


Within the same day, news of Huang Zheng’s dramatic victory over Fei Yue resounded in the city. People were cheering and honouring the Great General’s name. Then rumours came about Wei’s vicious attempt to harm the general’s family, and it soon drown out conspiracy theories about Marshal Gao’s own involvement just as Nangong Xie had predicted. Furthermore, the marshal announced that he was marching into Wei with a hundred thousand men to reinforce Huang Zheng. How could anyone not see that the terrible rumours were part of a Wei plot?


When she heard this, Madam Li curled her lips. She had the captured kidnappers thoroughly interrogated by a very wrathful Cao Shuang who acted as a law enforcement official. The governor’s son was enraged to learn of the attack on Cao Tianyun’s home, and was more than willing to use extreme methods, but it yielded nothing, just as Nanging Xie had promised the marshal. Though they were delighted at the news of Huang Zheng’s victory over Fei Yue, the timing of the marshal’s decision to march into Wei personally was much too coincidental for her liking.


Still, she and her daughters-in-law kept their suspicions to themselves. They had no evidence, and furthermore such accusation would do nothing but harm the military enterprise that Huang Zheng and his sons were part of. What they fervently wish for now is for the men of the Huangs to return safely.


Very quickly, Marshal Gao assembled his men outside of the city. The sight of a hundred thousand men gathered was a sight to behold: Governor Cao had no choice but to allow the citizens access to climb the city walls to witness the grand event and send them off.


The soldiers were smartly dressed in their uniforms, their weapons gleaming in the sun. All had been bolstered by the successes of Huang Zheng. Marshal Gao may been feuding with him, but he was not beneath to using his rival’s name to boost the morale of his own troops. News of Huang Zheng’s successes had encouraged the men and they became eager to make their own mark.


The marshal himself was in full battle attire. The gorgeous scaled armour with its flaring, winged shoulders and a helmet with stylized horns were impractical in actual combat; but it served as a flamboyant reminder of his presence. Its appearance demanded attention and it was what the marshal craved. Besides, he would be very safe in the middle of the army, there was no danger of him being in direct physical action.


With dramatic wave of his hand, the entire army shouted as one. The drummers began to play a marching beat, and the earth itself trembled when a hundred thousand Wu soldiers marched towards Wu. Those who saw it could not help but be thoroughly awed by the sight, and the rumours and ill news about the marshal were quickly forgotten. The citizens cheered lustily, throwing flowers and their handkerchiefs as the soldiers advanced. Some of the older folk were in tears as they feared for their sons and husbands; but the majority was enthusiastic and supportive of the war.


Marshal Gao sat straighter on his war horse and saluted his army, creating an inspirational moment. He drank in the euphoric atmosphere, his very hands trembled with excitement. It had been a very long time since he had actually led men into war.


He cast one last look at the city walls, where he imagined Madam Li would be spying on him. In the back of his mind, he thought she could be among those who are admiring him.



‘When I return…’ he thought darkly, imagining a scenario where he had to gallantly step in to comfort a grieving widow…


With a self-satisfied smirk, he turned away and urged his horse forwards.

 

A hundred thousand men shook the ground,
A sight that was sure to astound.
Dreams of glory did they yearn,
Yet how many of them would return?​