“ In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”
Chapter 233 – Wind of change
Huang Ming and the two women approached the campfire. The two princes of Chu were meekly turning the spitroast while Duke He and the King of Chu were toasting each other.
The two looked more like rough bandits than noblemen. Duke He was a stocky, swarthy man that reminded people of a butcher, while the King of Chu was a broad-shouldered man with a bearded square jaw and twinkling eyes. The King who had been rumoured to be deathly ill was the very picture of rude health.
Judging from their flushed faces and the empty bottles littered around them, the pair had been drinking for some time.
Huang Ming was wondering if he should bow to greet them as it might be a mood-breaker, considering the casual atmosphere.
“Ah, so this is the fellow that had been poisoning my sons to fight each other,” the King of Chu said accusingly as he peered at Huang Ming from the top of his wine bottle.
“I am sorry, Your Majesty; but they have been fighting long before I ever stepped a foot into Chu,” Huang Ming replied with a lopsided smile.
“He is right, y’know,” Duke He drawled.
The King of Chu gave him a sidelong glare and the Duke hastily avoided it by shouting at his nephews instead.
“Keep that hog movin’ or there will be hell to pay if it got burnt!”
The two princes mumbled in dissent but their complaints were covered by the crackling fire.
The king turned his attention back to Huang Ming. “Still, you are the one pushing them to fight,” he insisted.
Huang Ming shrugged. “Had I not assisted Prince Chu Xiong, it would have been a one-sided beating instead,” he said, looking pointedly at the two princes who were preoccupied with moving the roast on a steady rotation.
The king grimaced and followed his line of sight. Then he blinked. The hog on the spitroast was a magnificently sized specimen and the sovereign had not expected the wastrel Chu Xiong to be able to keep up with the martial Chu Feng.
“We have heard that you have whipped that rascal into shape, but I did not truly believe it,” the king murmured.
“He only needed some motivation, your majesty’s ‘illness’ played a big part as well,” Hung Ming said.
“Are you not going to ask what we had planned?” the king asked in a low voice.
Huang Ming tilted his head slightly. “I am guessing that all this is all a ruse? To let your sons compete and see who would rise to the occasion? Thereby you can honestly tell your Queen or the Concubine Yang that the losing son had only himself to blame?”
“Well, you’re no fun,” the king grumbled.
“Fear of death is a no laughing matter,” Huang Ming said, looking pointedly at the busy Chu Xiong.
“We wouldn’t have let it go that far,” the king said softly.
“So you say,” Huang Ming replied.
The red flush on the king’s face turned a darker shade. “Are you accusing this monarch of being casual with the lives of his princes?”
“No, but surely you can understand how others could have taken advantage of your hands-off approach.”
“Like you,” the king fired back.
“Yes,” Huang Ming admitted freely. “I am in service to my kingdom and it is in our interest that Chu be a friendly power in the future.”
“No doubt,” the king said derisively. “After your misadventure in Wei and antagonizing Jin, you Wu curs need all the help you can get.”
“I’d say we’re still doing pretty well,” Huang Ming replied.
“For now,” the king interjected.
“For now,” Huang Ming agreed. “Still, things can change drastically in the near future; and that is why we are seeking an alliance with your kingdom of Chu.”
The king looked at him dubiously. “For someone seeking an alliance, you are painting yourself pessimistically. How would befriending a doomed kingdom benefit us?”
“Your Majesty, have you heard of the saying, ‘when the lips are gone, the teeth will cold’?” Huang Ming asked conversationally.
“Of course,” the king replied and smiled cynically. “But this hardly applies to the situation between our two kingdoms, we do not have a symbiotic relationship. Whatever happens across the great river, the kingdom of Chu will not be affected.”
Huang Ming shook his head. “That is not the case for very long. Do you know what has been happening in Jin?”
“We know they tried to invade you but failed miserably,” the king said.
“That is because they were unprepared. Had the invasion been commanded by someone more competent, I would not be standing here before you today.”
The king barked in laughter. “Do not be so modest. We might be divided by the great river, but that that does not mean we are deaf of your deeds. We know who you are, son of General Huang Zheng. You defeated that redoubtable Ran Wei with a ruse, and you used a single letter to delay the Jins for three whole days in the north. And now you are here, wagging your silver tongue to buy respite for your kingdom once again. How much time do you think you can get this time?”
“As long as possible, of course,” Huang Ming replied glibly.
The King of Chu roared with laughter. “Decades ago your father thwarted our own invasion, how ironic that his son should be here seeking our help.”
He slapped his knee in glee.
“We will indulge you,” he said. “Tell us, what is happening in Jin?”
“No doubt that you have heard of the massive development in that kingdom. Would it surprise you to know that in addition to their swelling strength, they are also creating new weapons of mass destruction?”
“Are you talking about those fire-breathing instruments?” the king snorted. “Don’t look at us like that, we are not completely blind. Your own father is spending his days in the cul-de-sacs of Tigertrap Pass, and there have been rumours of thunderous booms in the valley even though there weren’t a single cloud in the sky. Combined with stories of your own experience in Beihai, it would not take too much to guess.”
Huang Ming nodded grimly. “Then you should know the potential of such weapons. Imagine being able to lob balls of iron and smashing city walls, imagine multitude of spears launching arrows of iron capable of piercing through armor and flesh. Hundreds… thousands of them. At once. Repeatedly.”
The king of Chu was unimpressed. “Can they fire from your side of the great river to our shores?” he asked sarcastically.
“Ships do exist, your majesty,” Huang Ming said dryly.
“Don’t be facetious. We are masters of naval warfare. The north have the edge in horses, but they will never match us on the water,” the king said confidently.
“And if the day comes when they could build ships made of iron?” Huang Ming asked cryptically.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the king scoffed.
“As ridiculous as making thunders boom, even without a cloud in the sky?” Huang Ming smiled. He glanced at the spitroast, which was still being attended to by the two princes even though their eyes and ears were glued to the conversation.
“Does your majesty remember what he ate yesterday?” Huang Ming asked.
“What about last week? Or the month before?” Huang Ming continued.
The king frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Does the king know when the first steel swords were made? When did they start replacing bronze swords? What about the first catapult? How great was the change of the rudder over the steering oar?”
“Get to the point,” the king grumbled, annoyed at his ignorance.
“People often forget when the moments of change occur, because it was so gradual over time. I am telling you, that you should not feel too secure in your superiority. What the Jins are achieving can be measured in years, not decades.”
For a few moments, the king’s head was bowed in silent contemplation.
Then he looked up, and Huang Ming could see a twinkle in his eyes.
“That is a problem for the future,” the king said cynically. “You painted a possible future of doom and gloom, but what can you offer us? Your kingdom needs us more than we need you. We could easily accept Wei’s offer for an alliance instead, and in that scenario we would be the dominant partner.”
Huang Ming remained unconcerned. “Well, what have they offered?”
“They say they could send over a few princesses,” the king said.
“For Prince Chu Feng, I presume, since he is known to be well disposed towards Wei,” Huang Ming said.
The king nodded, and Chu Feng’s expression became ghastly. He stared urgently at Huang Ming who ignored him.
“Unfortunately, Prince Chu Feng already found his loved one at the temple.”
“Would you like to meet her?” Huang Ming asked blithely.
As if on cue, a large figure rushed towards them, the footfalls pounding the soft grass and leaving large footprints in its wake.
“What the hell is the hold up… Are you guys cooking!?” Bian Qing roared incredulously.
Thunder in the distance,
Reasons to seek assistance.