37: Wang Joaolong's Dismissal
We cannot manage the crops. All the men have left the farms to recruit in the army. Only young boys remain. Please send any spare men to assist in the harvest season.
Our water supply has become contaminated due to the damming of the river. We will have to abandon our homes if nothing is done.
The villagers of Kaim cannot afford tax increase. Please withdraw the proposal for higher tax collections.
Bandits have appeared in the outer villages near the border. Send officers.
The requests from villager officials scattered across the table. The problems seemed contagious. More men had left home for Weishan’s war cause – which Huli confirmed would continue – and those in power gave nothing back to sustain life. The kingdom would fall to ruin quickly.
“Councilman Xue. Report on agriculture and food production,” Joaolong said, conducting his role as the minister of agriculture and economy.
The middle-aged man grunted, clearing his throat before speaking. “Our land remains difficult to harvest, no matter the various methods employed. The reports for each section of Shanhe are the same as last week. We remain heavily dependent on Linlong’s resources but cannot continue to pay the expensive prices they request. Any negotiation with the kingdom has been banned by Hong Weishan, may he rest peacefully. The new demand for military training and army food supplies is also causing harm. Either, we have to increase the tax for citizens to meet the demand or continue relying on Linlong.”
“Any suggestions?” Joaolong asked, more out of respect than advice.
As predicted, the answers stated unreasonable solutions that disregarded the welfare of the people. Since majority of the councilmen at the meeting came from privileged families and never strayed far from the palace, they only sought benefits for themselves. It left them greedy and uncultured about the struggle of others around them. As for Joaolong, he lived in the slums as a child and had a better understanding of the crisis.
“What are you thinking, Master Wang?” Cheng asked, noticing Joaolong’s changing expression.
“The people will not stand to continue trade with Linlong if we are to go to war against them. Therefore, we must be able to support ourselves. To do this, we have to remove the dam from She River. The blockage is ruining the fertile farmlands closer to the border. Over the years, the soil has lost its richeness. We have no better option if Shanhe people are to survive the winter and possibly, a war. Anyone who objects—”
The new emperor’s grand entrance into the meeting room cut off the sentence. As always, he wore a mixture of maroon robes with parts of bronze armour. Supposedly, the style showed a constant readiness for battle despite the impracticality. When Disung first saw this, he had to run away so he wasn’t caught laughing at the ridiculousness of the clothing choice. Joaolong could only imagine what Disung would do if he was invited to the meeting and had to watch the emperor.
“Continue,” Huli said as he stalked around the table.
Everyone remained cautious. Since the crowning of a new emperor, no official meetings had been held. Huli would only take a handful of noblemen into the study, leaving dozens more to blindly continue their daily tasks. Hence, no one expected him to attend today but now that he watched them like a hawk, their worries changed from the kingdom matters to themselves.
Joaolong kept his voice calm and steady. “Emperor, we are facing a crisis for our people. Food is scarce and poverty has risen. War or no war, we need solutions but it depends on your intentions. We have no information on army size nor battle tactics to determine how much supplies, both food and other, are needed.”
“You do not need to know about that, Master Wang Joaolong. You, you and you-” Huli pointed at a few other councilmen, “-are dismissed from all future meetings regarding the imperial council. To speak bluntly, I have resigned you of the positions relating to agriculture and economy. Leave immediately.”
“Pardon?” Joaolong was in shock, along with the other councilmen selected.
There had been many changes since Huli ascended the throne but none so stupid as this. Joaolong had proved himself worthy of the position as minister of agriculture and economy, successfully aiding drought victims without jeopardising others through tax or supplies, and reducing poverty in villages. He knew he did his job well. To remove him could be compared to removing the heart from the body.
“I have proved myself valuable many times. Is there a specific reason for my sudden dismissal?”
“Anyone who dares defy the emperor shall be beheaded!” Huli roared with a smug smile on his face.
Cheng tried to intervene. “Emperor, this is too hasty. Master Wang is reliable and intelligent, as are the other masters. It would be unwise—”
“Do you wish to join him, Master Zhao?”
All councilmen felt a noose tighten around their own necks at Huli’s reply. No one was safe. Tai guided Joaolong silently outside before more disaster struck.
Under the sun, Tai started pessimistically discussing their peril and picked anxiously at his nails. “Master Wang, our situation is grim. The kitchen maid has gone missing and the allied seamstress has finished her time as a maid in the palace. If you are removed from a minister position, we have no informants. The slope we were climbing has become too steep.”
Joaolong continued to walk with his head down, fists clenching and unclenching. They lost everything they built to establish power in the palace. It took years to gather allies to stay alive but it crumbled into ash in a day. Even when spotting Disung, who had been beaten to a bloody pulp during his imprisonment, Joaolong couldn’t swallow his emotions like usual. Instead, he thought of every possible wrongdoing in his life to fuel the rage inside him.
The gods were not kind nor on his side. They took Yenay, the sweetest person in the kingdom, from the mortal realm. They forced Jiang to suffer deahth by injustice. They spared Disung’s life, helping every nobleman persuade the emperor to save him, only to reassign him as the emperor’s dirty laptop when called. They played with people like toys. Joaolong had enough. No longer would the gods treat him like a weak child.
“Has the meeting already finished? I often have more time to play,” Disung said and strolled over. This stride faltered at the grim faces. “I presume it is bad that you left early.”
“Train me,” Joaolong stated.
“Little Wu?” Disung questioned, seeking an explanation.
“The emperor dismissed Master Wang from a minister position,” Tai said, worry filling his voice. Behind him, more councilmen littered the stairs with miserable expressions; within minutes, Huli had destroyed his economy council.
Disung cursed loudly. “How can he do that?”
“The same way he made you into his slave.” Tai sighed. “He is the emperor. Power is in his hands.”
The kingdom, similar to the three men, felt the heavy weight of the new ruler. At first, they celebrated the dawn of a new age but recoiled as new regulations followed. Taxes increased, more men left home to train in the army and those in high positions cared little for the people. Poverty was the new lifestyle.
“Disung. Train me,” Joaolong demanded again.
“The only reason you learnt bow and arrow was because I insisted and even then, it caused Hong Huli to attack you. You have always believed brain will outmatch brawn. Do not change your mind impulsively because of this minor setback.”
“I cannot defeat them!” Joaolong snapped. “Not this time. Brain defeats brawn, but power triumphs over all. I need your help.”
“Disung, I order you to train me.”
The harsh clip in his tone stunned Disung and so, without hesitation he punched him. Joaolong was knocked to the ground in agony, his cheek throbbing relentlessly.
“Lesson one with Anshu: expect the unexpected.”
“I thought I had,” Joaolong remarked, his face scrunching into a scowl.
He should have known the enthronement of Huli would change everything but he still didn’t expect the new emperor to involve himself in mundane matters such as produce and economy. How many times had he skipped a war meeting requested by his father, over tiredness or servant wrongdoings? At least the past emperor was predictable and Joaolong foolishly got used to that. Today, he learnt his lesson.