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“There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison…”
--King Osric, ‘Conan the Barbarian’
Chapter 198 – Standing
The stately home of the Chu royal family was as large as the grand palace of Wu, but lacked its extravagant refinements. There was a distinct martial bearing to the complex: roaring dragons and pouncing tigers being the main motif.
Unlike the pretentious and gaudy uniforms of Wu’s palatial soldiers, the men guarding the Chu palace had murderous aura leaking from their pores, their eyes gleaming with killing intent as they glared at the Wu diplomats.
In contrast, the prince that they were protecting was a languid young man who lay sprawling on his dragon couch being casually fed slices of chilled fruit by a beautiful maid. It was a bubble of luxurious comfort, surrounded by menacing men who could strike to kill at an instant.
Liu Han, Huang Ming and the rest of the Wu delegation made their greetings, but Prince Chu Xiong remained aloof as his maid fed him; neither acknowledging nor caring at their arrival.
The Wu delegation still had their bodies bent in obeisance, unsure on how to proceed. They were beginning to sweat from the strain as well as the fierce pressure emitted by the Chu guards. Each were looking at the other nervously. Liu Han turned back to look at Huang Ming, and was shocked to find the younger man standing upright without a care, his lackadaisical attitude a mirror to the Chu prince. Because Huang Ming had trailed off at the very end, nobody in the Wu delegation had seen what he was doing.
‘This brat, he’s one causing the guards to stare at us with killing intent!’ Liu Han swore. A quick glance up at the guards confirmed his suspicions: the scarred and hardened men had all their attention towards Huang Ming. Before Liu Han could hiss a rebuke, Huang Ming stretched his arms upwards and yawned widely.
And it wasn’t just any casual yawn, but a magnificent exhalation of relief. In the pin-drop silence of the hall, one could even hear the crunching and popping sounds as Huang Ming stretched mightily.
“Impudent!” one of the guards growled. Liu Han’s heart leapt to his mouth and urgently signalled at Huang Ming to stop, but the young man ignored his desperate looks.
“Well, I think that’s the end of the tour. We should go back now,” he said loudly.
It took all of Liu Han’s self control and years of experience as a diplomat not to scream. He drew a deep breath but managed to clamp his mouth shut just before he unleashed a stream of invectives. Instead, the portly man kept his breath in, causing his cheeks to puff and his eyes to bulge.
The young prince lounging on the dragon seat clapped his hands and laughed, the first signs of liveliness that he had shown ever since the Wu delegation had arrived.
Huang Ming feigned a look of shock. “You’re alive!” he exclaimed.
“What do you mean?” the prince asked.
“Well, you have been quiet for so long that I have mistaken you for a carven idol,” Huang Ming answered with a shrug.
The rest of the Wu delegation drew deep breathes, their faces all mimicking the puffed look Liu Han earlier. The Chu guards all around them were immediately angered, their grips around their spears tightened so that the whites were showing on their knuckles.
The prince waved a hand to calm his guardians down. As if on cue, his maid retrieved the fruit platter and replaced it with a cup of tea.
“You have a glib tongue. What’s your name?” the prince asked and sipped at his drink.
Huang Ming sketched a bow. “I am just a lowly aide in this delegation.”
The prince smiled. “If the King of Wu have more ‘lowly aides’ like you, then the world would belong to him.”
“I’d like to think that if there are more of me, then the world will be trouble,” Huang Ming replied.
The Prince of Chu smirked. “Did you think we are completely cut off by the great river? I know who you are, you’re the one who had defeated that coarse lout Ran Wei and thus is the source of my brother’s vexations,” he said while peering over the rim of his tea-cup.
The faces on the guards changed at their prince’s words. Their severe glares of anger changed as they scrutinized Huang Ming, wondering if the stories that they have heard was true. Was this thin, unassuming dandy truly the one who had given the fearsome Ran Wei the first taste of defeat?
“If you guys keep staring at me so intensely, I would wilt like a flower,” Huang Ming said shyly.
Prince Chu Xiong guffawed and slapped his knee in delight, nearly spilling the contents of his cup. “You are just as frivolous as the stories say! A man after my own heart!”
That gave Huang Ming a pause. “What sort of stories?” he asked with genuine curiosity.
“That you’re a gifted in the literary arts as well. Why don’t you demonstrate your prowess?”
“I’m retired from poetry,” Huang Ming said with a grimace. This was partly true: there was not an ounce of originality in the ‘works’ that he had produced in this world.
The good humour vanished from Prince Chu Xiong. “Are you saying I’m not good enough to hear your poetry?” he asked coldly.
“Rather than poetry, why don’t you listen to advice instead?” Huang Ming said nonchalantly.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you really think you can defeat your brother while you’re whiling your time away like this?” Huang Ming said bluntly.
“You’re the one to talk,” the prince fired back. “What have you achieved since your victory over Wei? Why haven’t you been ennobled and enjoying your fame and riches?”
Huang Ming smiled wryly, finding his words to be so familiar. He had asked himself the same many times in the past, even in this life.
It felt like his tribulations in Beihai was just a diversion and an unnecessary detour. His efforts have not given him any return on investment. Now he was in Chu, yanked further away from the enemy Avatar. His family were physically distant, and he had sent away the women in his life.
What had he been doing? Where was his usual drive to build a base, recruit an army, introduce technological weapons and outlandish tactics to overwhelm his enemy Avatar?
The prince would never know just how profound his questions were.
Huang Ming raised an eyebrow at the prince, wondering if he really had the standing to criticize him.
A few simple words,
Causes one to be stirred.