“Today's topic doesn't concern vassals. I have found seven individuals I identify as my kingdom's pillars."
There were three people lined up on either side of the room. One in the centre wore a smile. The seven of them were loyal to the imperial court from the bottom of their hearts in body and soul. It was perfectly normal for them to be jubilant when acknowledged by the Emperor. However, he didn't commend them individually; instead, he applauded them as a group. Five among the seven were discontent. They looked left and right, coldly snorted and looked away. They took a small step back to signal they refused to be on the same page as their foe. Nobody noticed they segregated themselves, since they stepped back in unison, thereby nullifying their disconcerted attitude.
It was supposed to be a morning conference, yet the Emperor met with them exclusively. The seven were cool as cucumbers; nothing suggested they were flattered. That demonstrated they were used to turbulence. The seven of them wielded tremendous power and influence in the imperial court.
From left to right, they were there two who led the reformist faction in the imperial court, Secretary of Ministry of War, Lie Jingchan, and Secretary of the Ministry of Work, Lu Boan. The two viewed the Secretary of Ministry of War as their leader; the Ministry of War always was the reformist faction in the imperial court.
In terms of foreign threats, the two kept the Northern border and Western Region in check through warfare and expanded the nation's domains to ensure peace once and for all. In terms of internal challenges, they worked with the three law enforcement government offices, assisting them with military might, stripping the Seven Champion White Princes of power one by one by one and taking back territory. They wanted to empower the imperial court with the ability to rule the pugilistic world. In terms of national policies, they encouraged the Emperor to innovate. Part of this innovation included encouraging engineering studies. They advocated pursuing extra skills outside of martial arts, a creative idea the Emperor loved.
The only problem the Emperor had with them was their obsession with fighting. The Seven Champion White Princes' foundations were solid. Trying to take any of them down would be an arduous struggle. But let's focus on the Western Regions and Beijiang, the Northern Border.
The Western Regions' seven kingdoms were always united. Beijiang's two big kingdoms were home to countless valiant figures. By no accounts were they inferior to Emperor Yuansheng's kingdom. If Emperor Yuansheng's kingdom was to go to war with them, they'd most probably be locked in an eternal battle. The Emperor conducted a detailed analysis on the idea before. If the two vassals were to actually implement the thought, it would likely cost more than the founding Emperor's living expenses for a century. Evidently, the idea was preposterous.
The two from right to left were Secretary of Personnel, Zhang Chunfeng, Secretary of Rites, Kong Duan, and Secretary of Ministry of Revenue, Qian Wuque. The three were the imperial court's peace advocates' faction representatives. They were strongly against resorting to military might unless absolutely necessary. They were experienced and steady, especially since they had Secretary of Personnel, Zhang Chunfeng, as their leader. They encouraged the Emperor to rule with benevolence and to respect relationships. They strongly promoted ruling through culture. They were of the opinion that the Seven Champion White Princes and the three law enforcement government offices were able to rule the pugilistic world.
The Emperor agreed with their experience and steady approach; he wasn't eager for more war. Unfortunately, they were against his desire to send in his forces to wipe out the Demon Sect when the latter was facing internal strife. That led to the Emperor believing the three were far too conservative.
The dynasty always promoted martial artists as being integral to the imperial court ever since its establishment. As such, despite there being relatively lots of peace advocates, the ratio of martial artists to scholars in the imperial court was even. It became commonplace for them to engage in verbal warfare every daily conference.
On gentleman stood right in the centre. He looked as though he was asleep, thereby sticking out like a thorn. The honoured gentleman would be none other than Prime Minister Li Si. He had to wake up earlier than usual in the morning, which was why he struggled to stay awake. In just two sentences' time, he was nodding off, looking to play a game of chess with Duke of Zhou.
Next to the Prime Minister was a middle-aged man. Said man was Secretary of the Ministry of Justice's Leng Ming, Secretary Leng. He was charged with enforcing justice not partaking in politics. He wasn't fond of forming factions, either. He kept to himself, which was one of the reasons the Emperor respected him.
Smiling, the Emperor said, "I have a favour to ask of you seven."
Secretary Lie immediately took centre stage. As a soldier who fought in countless battles, he looked tough and had a dark, thick beard. He responded to the call with a flaming spirit in his eyes: "Your Majesty, I shall fulfil whatever favour it is! Consider it done!" He brushed his robe after he was done speaking, acting as though he was about to leave after giving a command in the barracks.
Secretary Zhang was dressed as a bright scholar. Courteously and clearly, he expressed, "Please give the order, Your Majesty. Your subject will provide advice."
Secretary Zhang snickered and directed a deriding comment at Secretary Lie right after: "How are you going to do what you don't know what the task is How is someone so brash supposed to achieve anything"
Secretary Lie glared back: "I just will! I can do anything. You have a problem with that"
"Not one. It is I merely feel sorry for the soldiers who have to serve under a commander with the temperament of a raging bull."
Secretary Lie didn't fire back - not that he could win even if he tried. He made a simple statement: "Old geezer, don't compete in silly topics here. Give me that bizarre attitude again, and I'll skin you."
Unafraid, Secretary Zhang placed his hands behind his back and scowled, "How unruly! Your Majesty, listen to him insult a minister in the imperial court. Please punish him according to our laws!"
Secretary Leng, who had his eyes partially shut, suddenly opened them fully: "According to our dynasty's constitution, insulting ministers of the imperial court is punished with eighty h-"
"Old Leng, can you stop reciting all that scripture stuff you read I'm illiterate; I don't understand a thing you're saying," griped Secretary Lie.
Meanwhile, the Emperor kicked back and laughed. He was used to watching his vassals go at each other. The leader of the two factions didn't have any grudge between them, yet they always bickered. They were a headache whenever they met from the time they were young and still were. Back when Emperor Yuansheng ascended the throne as a young man, the scholars and military personnel would quarrel. It certainly was nostalgic.
"Hahahaha, stop, stop for a second. Where is Leng Ming"
Secretary Leng responded: "Present."
Still laughing, the Emperor said, "If anyone bickers or curses again - raising their voice included - they'll be punished via caning. That applies for everyone."
Secretary Leng clasped his hands before his chest. With no expression on his face, he replied, "Yes, Your Majesty."
Secretary Zhang and Secretary Lie put an end to their bickering. Being caught by Leng Ming was just utterly silly.
Leng Ming was renowned for being impartial. He enforced laws with total disregard for empathy. Forget the two secretaries; he went after the Emperor one time. The Emperor once stayed at a civilian villa to get out of the sun. Secretary Leng chased the Emperor down for days to make him pay the owner of the villa. He even demanded the Emperor personally go there on his two feet and apologise to the denizen who was forced out of his home. The denizen never knew it was the Emperor; he was just a contractor at the villa. Still, the incident shocked everyone.
"I summoned the seven of you here today for both business and personal matters. In terms of personal matters, I want to fulfil an important wish I've held on to dearly for a long time. In terms of business, I want to promote those lagging behind in the imperial court. I am looking for your recommendations."
In reality, the Emperor just strung together a series of meaningless sentences. The ministers still had no clue where he was trying to steer it. Six of them looked at each other, seeing if the other knew how to answer. When they looked at the prime minister, they wanted to woefully thump their chests. His head rocked side to side. What was he doing Oh, just sleeping.
Being mindful as he was, Secretary Zhang wanted to ask the Emperor to elaborate on what he was after specifically. Before he could, though, the Emperor added, "You and I have served the kingdom together for over two decades. Time sure flies…"
Secretary Zhang's heart figuratively cracked. The Emperor didn't say anything with substance. Instead, he immediately brought up their long-standing relationship. He, therefore, knew the favour wasn't hard, but very hard, maybe incredibly hard! Before he could ask to pull out, Secretary Lie started tearing up. Secretary Lie thumped his chest: "There is no reason for you to say that, Your Majesty. As long as I can still fight, I shall serve you in any way possible! You just have to say the world, and I shall sweep the Western Region's seven kingdoms! Men, prepare my steed and summon twenty-thousand elite sold-"
"Terrific! I was hoping to hear that from you. I assume the rest of you share his stance!" interjected the Emperor.
The other five ministers, including Secretary Lu, who was with Secretary Lie, were livid. They glared at Secretary Lie and silently cursed, "Lie Jingchan, Lie Jingchan, you impress in warfare, but why won't you learn to tell when someone means well and when someone is harbouring ill will! His Majesty is setting us up!"
Lie Jingchan was too straight laced to understand what their facial signals meant. He laughed heartily: "I will never shy away from an order, Your Majesty."
Said of the Emperor: "You'll dive into the ocean if I ask you to"
Said of Secretary Lie: "We shall jump into the fire if you ask!"
Thought of the remaining officials: "Wait, wait, wait, you're diving and jumping alone!!"
"Excellent. I'm glad to hear you all so determined; I was worried you wouldn't help me. I finally feel a weight lifted off my shoulders."
Thought of the wise vassals: "Don't put the weight down! Heave that weight back up! We didn't agree to anything! Oh, for crying out loud, Li Jingchan, you plague!!"
The Emperor sounded touched when he next spoke: "It's nothing major, really. I have three students I want to recommend to you. The three of them have exceptional prospects; they just haven't set foot into politics as of yet or understand the rules. I want you to take them in as students. You seven are pillars holding the nation together. It's good for everyone if any of you take them in."
There were precedent cases of ministers taking apprentices under their wing. They could be top-ranking scholars or martial artists. They could be recommended to high-ranking vassals or adepts from the three government law enforcement offices.
The reason they were made students as opposed to apprentices was owed to both parties serving as officials. Teachers and apprentices would make sense for scholars. However, in the case of martial artists, it'd be iffy. No apprentice would tell his shifu what to do. Identical scenarios were also applied to Fourth Rank Low-ranking Officials. Even the highest scorers in imperial examinations - in both scholar and martial arts examinations - were never recommended to Secretaries as students. Therefore, it begged the question, "Who was the Emperor promoting the idea for"
The secretaries weren't stupid. They needed to be elites to be where they were. Besides those with many war merits, such as Secretary Lie, the other five immediately realised who the three were.
The three individuals the Emperor referred were the three hottest names recently. They also hadn't set foot in politics. That much information was a dead giveaway: Liu Shan Men's three monkeys.
The Emperor was very close to Shen Clan and Liu Shan Men was one of the three longest standing law enforcement government offices. Since they were the weakest at present, he wanted to give Shen Yiren a hand with reviving Liu Shan Men. The issue was that it was excruciatingly troublesome.
Three were recommended; however, they were all from the same office. If the three were to follow the ministers around all day, the ministers might be diagnosed with a lethal case of irritation. They were busy gentlemen; taking care of the three would be overkill.
Secretary Lie was quite the slow one, so Secretary Lu quickly whispered the intricacies in his ear. They couldn't let the three monkeys prevent them from their competition with the peace advocates' faction, not to mention the headache they would be.
The vassals immediately rejected the Emperor.
The Emperor feigned ignorance and frowned: "Old Lie, what did you just say before
Secretary Lie instinctively replied, "We will dive into the ocean and jump into the fire"
Said of the Emperor: "Friendships"
Secretary Lie: "Are worth gold"
With a straight face, the Emperor asked: "When friends call"
In a historical moment, Secretary Lie was able to demonstrate literacy competence. He proudly exclaimed: "Show up!"
The Emperor slapped his thigh: "Perfect! Martial artists in the pugilistic world are men of their words. My imperial court's ministers can't be inferior, right"
Thoughts the vassals wanted to share: "Your Majesty, you're taking advantage of the idiot to set us up!!"
The Emperor was confident he had it in the bag, so he smiled: "In that case, please have a good think as to who you want to take on as your student. Needless to say, they would be delighted to be under your mentorship. Prime Minister… Umm, Prime Minister'
The Prime Minister was too busy snoring.
The Emperor brayed, "Prime Minister!"
The Prime Minister's bubble by his nose popped. He woke up and surveyed his surroundings with his shrewd eyes: "Hmm Where am I Who are you lot What do you want"
The Emperor desperately contained his fury: "Prime Minister, do you accept"
Prime Minister Li Si held his hands in a cupped-fist salute: "What is this about, Your Majesty"
The other secretaries saw an opportunity to capitalise on: "Exactly, Your Majesty. What do you wish to discuss"
In the Emperor's mind: "For real! I finally ensnared them! Do I have to ensnare them again!"
"Li Si!" exclaimed the Emperor, jumping to his feet. "Don't push it! How dare you sleep when I'm sitting right here…"
Secretary Leng indifferently dropped a word: "Arguing"
The Emperor suddenly recalled himself saying, "If anyone bickers or curses again - raising their voice included - you're going to be punished via caning. That applies for everyone." The key phrase was, "That applies for everyone." When he added Secretary Leng's stern character to the equation, he felt a chill down his spine.
Secretary Leng swept his gaze over everyone present. He emotionlessly asked, "Do I hear an argument" Then, he went and picked up a cane.
"No, no, no, no argument. There's no argument. Oi! Prime Minister Li, you did this on purpose, didn't you!"
Prime Minister Li innocently looked up to the ceiling right away, acting as though he was just inspecting the exquisite ceiling's painting. He even occasionally complimented it: "Tsk, tsk, who is the artist It is a magnificent painting."
"You've looked at the painting for decades, yet you're only discerning its magnificence now Who are you trying to fool!"
Secretary Leng picked up the cane and went over.
"Secretary Leng, wait, wait, wait! Calm down! Hey! Stop him! Leng Ming! You wouldn't dare! J-Just you wait!" exclaimed the Emperor, running off.
Secretary Leng picked up the cane and gave chase, eyes indifferent to the Emperor's pleas.
Meanwhile, back in the hall, someone casually remarked, "My, my, why is His Majesty absent I guess it's time to end the conference. I really am getting on with age. I didn't even realise His Majesty left. This old one shall take his leave."
The speaker placed his hands behind his back and leisurely walked out. The others watched him leave from behind. They thought to themselves, "There's a reason he's the prime minister. Not even I would dare to make a fool of the Emperor. What a sinister man."
*Apprentice versus student - This one is lost in translation, and that was the only way I could differentiate them in English, because they're the same thing in English. It has to do with the specific terms used in certain contexts in Chinese.
**Secretary Lie's historical moment - I completely made up the speech here, because it's nonsensical to begin with. It's the equivalent of using a passcode to find people in the same line of work. It's similar to the Morse code. It originated from Qu Bo's novel林海雪原 (Tracks in the Snowy Forest). Fun fact: it's now used as slang.
*Qian Wuque, Secretary of Ministry of Revenue - His name means "I don't lack money".
*Prime Minister Li Si's dream of playing chess with Duke of Zhou by sleeping reference is a reference to Duke of Zhou also being known as the "God of Dreams".
It wasn't meant in such a literal way when Duke of Zhou was first associated with dreams. It just began to be taken literally at some point, not that it makes the literal usage wrong.
It was originally quoted in "The Analects". Confucius was quoted for saying, "How I have gone downhill! It has been such a long time since I dreamt of the Duke of Zhou." If you know of Duke of Zhou and his expansion and codifying of his brother's feudal system, you'd know why he was famous. Confucius reference to him was him bemoaning that government ideals Duke of Zhou promoted had faded.
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