The young man coughed several times. He looked at me, filled with hope. With no alternative, I had Xiaoshunzi bring him into my room. There, I asked, “This official is untalented, but is still an educated scholar. I can say with confidence that I have never stolen any married women. I wonder why you believe that your honored wife is here with me.”
The man looked at me, unconvinced. He replied, “Although this lowly commoner,2 Han Zhang, is a citizen of the Kingdom of Shu, I am neither an official nor a soldier. I am an ordinary farmer. This lowly commoner’s wife hails from a prestigious house, possesses a beautiful appearance, and a noble status. Three years ago, because she was unhappy with her betrothal, she left her home. By chance, she married me. A few months ago, my humble wife learned her mother was ill and returned home to visit her family. Because this lowly commoner was busy with the fall harvest, I could not stay long and returned home early. Who knew that Great Yong and Southern Chu would invade Shu? My humble wife’s father was the garrison commander of Ba Prefecture, Tian Wei. He was unfortunate to perish. My humble wife and my mother-in-law were captured. When I heard that Ba Prefecture fell, I traveled day and night. I learned that they had been rewarded by the Prince of De to his military retainer, Jiang Zhe. As a result, I have followed you all the way.”
Confused, I turned to look at Xiaoshunzi. With a look of realization, he responded, “Daren, you were ill at the time. The Prince of De saw that Tian Wei’s daughter was elegant and beautiful. He rewarded her to daren because of your proposed strategy. At the time, daren was in a coma, so I accepted her on your behalf. She is currently staying with Army Supervisor Wang. Over these last few days, because daren only recently regained your health, this lowly servant wished to attend to you for a few days. I saw that Lady Tian was quite thoughtful when attending to Eunuch Wang, so I decided to allow her to attend to him, allowing everyone to be happy.”
I finally understood why Xiaoshunzi was always by my side. I asked, “How have they been treated by Eunuch Wang?
Respectfully, Xiaoshunzi replied, “Be at ease, daren. Lady Tian is ingenious and nimble. Eunuch Wang even wishes to adopt her as his daughter. As for the elder Lady Tian, she has been mourning the death of General Tian, so she is not too well.”
When Han Zhang heard this news, he exposed a look of unrestrained happiness. But not before long, that expression was replaced by one of suffering. Thinking it over, I realized that Han Zhang was not a Shu agent. But he had heard what I had said earlier. Should I still silence him? Having thought it over, I realized there was no need to do so. It was unlikely that he would inform the Prince of De what I had said. While I was hesitating, Han Zhang was at death’s door. I quickly took out a small case filled with needles. I took out a golden needle and performed acupuncture before I helped him take some medication. Under the medicinal effects, he fell asleep. Towards Xiaoshunzi, I observed, “I could do nothing to avert the death of Tian Wei. With the two countries in a state of war, casualties cannot be avoided. But his wife and mother-in-law are innocent. Go arrange matters. When we have captured Luocheng and the roads are free of obstacles, release the three of them and allow them to return home.”
Xiaoshunzi replied, “Yes, when the time comes, I will explain everything to Eunuch Wang. He will not be unhappy. But it’s a pity … Han Zhang’s martial arts are quite good. This lowly servant does not underestimate himself. Even among the skilled martial artists in the royal guards, few can take my attacks and live. It would be good if we could keep him by your side as a personal guard.”
Thinking that it was unlikely, I stated, “I am an official of Southern Chu. He is a family member of a general of Shu. In addition, he has a wife and mother-in-law. How can he become my personal guard? You are indulging in fantasies.”
Xiaoshunzi answered, “This is not impossible. His wife is now daren’s servant. If you allow him to remain and reunite with his wife, he must surely be grateful. But I understand that daren requires someone loyal. It won’t be good if we force this man to stay behind.”
I nodded my head and replied, “That’s right. It would be better to be without rather than accept someone substandard.3 If he is disloyal, it would be useless to have him remain. But for us to capture Luocheng, it will require at least two more months. We can use this time to figure out a way to leave. We can allow him to remain at my side as a personal guard and prevent anyone from being suspicious at our relationship.”
Xiaoshunzi agreed and said, “That’s good as well. This will prevent me from being always worried about daren’s safety.”
When Han Zhang woke, it was already late in the night. He could feel the qi in his four limbs and hundred bones was vigorous,4 and could not feel any of the heavy internal wounds that would have cost him his life. He didn’t move, but he could sense that he was in a small room. He couldn’t sense anyone nearby. Just as he was about to sit up, a cold hand gently pressed down on his chest. Then he saw a spark as someone lit a candle. Under the faint light of the candle, he saw the young man who had injured him earlier stare coldly at him, his eyes filled with killing intent. Han Zhang smartly ceased to move. He did not want to die without reason, especially when he had learned the news about the safety of his wife.
Seeing that he was completely calm, Xiaoshunzi revealed a humorless smile, and said, “I am named Li Shun. The Jiang Zhe that you wished to find is my master. Master has already decided that once the battle for Luocheng is concluded, he will release your mother-in-law and wife. Until then, you must remain and serve as his personal guard.”
Han Zhang hesitated for a moment. He was ultimately a citizen of the Kingdom of Shu. He was a bit reluctant to serve as the personal guard of an official of an invader.
Retracting his palm, Xiaoshunzi smiled faintly before departing.
The next day, he led Han Zhang to meet Eunuch Wang. Eunuch Wang was more than happy to fulfill them. The Ladies Tian were my servants and agreed to allow Han Zhang to remain by my side. Of course, I also informed the Prince of De of this matter, to prevent him from thinking that Han Zhang was a Shu spy. Thinking it over, especially as there were undoubtedly quite a few individuals surreptitiously monitoring me, I told Xiaoshunzi to keep away for now.
Of course, this was the first time that I had the opportunity to meet the servants awarded me by the Prince of De. Lady Tian was named Tian Suying. She indeed possessed an elegant appearance, and a vigorous and heroic spirit—definitely the daughter of a family of generals. From Han Zhang, I learned that Tian Suying also knew martial arts, and that her skills were not below that of Han Zhang. This time she did not escape because of her mother. I took a cold breath. What could I do if Tian Suying were to assassinate Eunuch Wang? When I asked Xiaoshunzi, he did not hesitate to tell me that Eunuch Wang was protected by numerous guards. In addition, he had already warned Tian Suying. If she dared act, her mother would not survive. It wasn’t as if they could escape Fushui Pass.
I immediately looked at Xiaoshunzi in a different light. This little fellow was tight and cautious. If he were willing, he could easily become the top ranking eunuch supervisor. When I suggested such a course to him, he replied with contempt, “What good is there to attend to the King? One has to be servile and fawning. If one is even the slightest bit careless, he will be beheaded. You are different. If you really got angry with me, all you would do is scold me. You have to be careful that I will bite back.”
Under his aloof and distant gaze, I felt afraid. I immediately began to think back to whether I was too excessive with him. Thinking it over, I didn’t think that there was any such occasion. However, regardless of that, I had to remember that this little brat was a skilled martial artist.
At the same time, Chengdu had erupted into chaos. The Shu Prime Minister, Shen Jun, led Grand Generals Fan Hu and Meng Da to defend Jiameng Pass. Great Yong frequently attacked the pass. The defenders at Jiameng Pass found it difficult to sleep.5 In addition, Grand General Long Bu and General Wei Xian were defending Ba Prefecture. They did not dare relax. The center of Sichuan did not have a single soldier. Over the last few months, the King of Shu, Meng Yun, saw his black hair turn white. He deeply resented Southern Chu for breaking the alliance, but also hated himself for offending Great Yong. Thinking it over, he could think of no solution to pushing back this invasion. Then, an important official suggested that as the Hanzhong region was already lost, why not negotiate a peace with Great Yong. If Great Yong were to withdraw its troops, then Southern Chu would not continue to attack Shu by itself. Although the King had adopted this strategy, he could not decide who to send as envoy. The Prince of Yong, Li Zhi, was famed throughout the land. If they were to send someone ordinary, then they could hardly say much. Later, the Kingdom of Shu’s wild scholar, Yang Can, nominated himself. Yang Can traveled day and night, arriving before Jiameng Pass. Jiameng Pass was brightly lit by flames. Calm and unruffled, Yang Can rested one night. The next day, he left the pass and proceeded towards the Yong encampment, handing over his credentials. Not long afterwards, he was invited into the marshal’s tent by the Prince of Yong.
Yang Can was a famed wild scholar of the Kingdom of Shu, known for his conceit, contempt for others,6 and his condescension.7 But upon seeing the strict organization of the Prince of Yong’s camp—before the Prince’s tent, it felt as if there was a majestic tiger—he could not help but feel a chill in his heart. He tidied his appearance and entered the tent. He saw a man in martial attire seated behind the marshal’s table. The man had a poised appearance there. Although he seemed to have a gentle demeanor, one could detect a faint but awe-inspiring aura. The Prince of Yong was thirty-one years old. Although he had fought on the battlefield for years, there wasn’t a hint of bloodlust. He was wearing a set of light armor in black with a brocade gown on top. He had a natural and serene expression on his face, almost as if he was sitting idly at home and not leading an army on the battlefield. To his left stood a dozen or so generals, all of whom had steady, but fierce and tough auras. To his right stood a dozen or so individuals dressed either in the clothing of civil officials or in the plain uniform of a retainer. One could clearly see that he had many civil and military officials among his subordinates.
Yang Can entered the tent. He remained standing and did not kneel. In a loud voice, he announced, “The envoy from the Kingdom of Shu, Yang Can, greets Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong.”
The eyes of the generals widened and glowered at Yang Can. One general who looked particularly forthright shouted, “A mere envoy! Why do you not kneel before His Imperial Highness?”
Raising his voice, Yang Can replied, “Although Yang Can is but a commoner, I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Shu. Although His Imperial Highness is respected and honored, he is a subject of Great Yong. Today, Yang Can is here on behalf of the King of Shu. How can I kneel and bow?”
A refined looking adviser around the age of fifty replied in a cultivated voice, “The Kingdom of Shu is about to be destroyed. My Great Yong’s two hundred thousand troops are before the pass. Why does your distinguished country’s King dispatch an envoy instead of seeking victory?”
Yang Can politely answered, “My country’s King knows that he has offended Great Yong. At this critical juncture,8 how can we not be frightened? And yet, as long as the Kingdom of Shu does not fall, as a subject of Shu, I dare not dishonor our national prestige. If Great Yong is willing to forgive us, then the Kingdom of Shu is willing to become a vassal and pay yearly tribute. Although Yang Can may be arrogant, how dare I not be respectful to a greater country’s important official?”
A young adviser of ordinary appearance, but possessing of an aquiline nose and a deep-set pair of eyes, icily declared, “The Kingdom of Shu is about to be destroyed. Jiameng Pass is about to fall. I wonder what the Kingdom of Shu can offer to sue for peace. My country can soon achieve total victory; why should we allow you to continue your wretched existence?”
Upright and afraid, Yang Can explained, “Although the Kingdom of Shu has suffered a grave defeat, Jiameng Pass and Luocheng both remain in our hands. It is not if we can attain security. If your distinguished country is determined to destroy my Kingdom of Shu, my King is more than willing to offer the entirety of Sichuan to Southern Chu. Once Southern Chu attains the fertile land of Sichuan and continues to hold onto the lands of Jingxiang,9 no matter how strong Great Yong may be, you can only watch Southern Chu become stronger. If you are willing to suspend hostilities and call a ceasefire, my Kingdom of Shu is not only willing to become a vassal of Great Yong, but is also willing to cede the Hanzhong region. My King deeply hates the King of Southern Chu for betraying our alliance. Even if we were to bear a grudge, we can only avenge ourselves upon Southern Chu. Great Yong has gained half of the world, and can watch my Kingdom of Shu and Southern Chu mutually fight. Would this not be pleasing?”
Hearing this, everyone fell silent, muttering to themselves. These last few days, they had attacked Jiameng Pass repeatedly without success. Some of them even had the notion to retreat. But with the strategy already determined, everyone’s eyes turned to the Prince of Yong, Li Zhi.
Li Zhi smiled slightly, asking, “We wonder how the people of Sichuan are?”
Yang Can clearly replied, “My Sichuan possesses many talented individuals, with civil officials as talented as Xiao He,10 and military officials as valorous as the Hegemonic King11 and as conniving as Zhang Liang.12 My Sichuan has many talents, all loyal and righteous. Although this Yang Can is untalented, I am willing to emulate Tian Heng’s brave subordinates.13 There are others who are willing to emulate the actions of Nie Zheng and Jing Ke.14
Li Zhi’s eyes flashed an undetectable austere light, before he continued to inquire, “Currently, in the service of the King of Shu, how many are like you?”
Yang Can responded, “Those versatile with both civil and military talent, wise and brave, number in the hundreds. Those with one, innumerable.”
Li Zhi questioned, “If that is the case, what position do you hold?”
Yang Can replied, “Under the King, we are rich and have talented citizens in abundance. I am but a wild person who belongs to the bucolic countryside, enjoying the pleasures of life all the time.”
Smiling faintly, Li Zhi said, “Your honored envoy has come from afar and must be tired. Please temporarily return to the pass. If there is a response, we will dispatch a messenger.”
Yang Can bowed and bade his farewell. Before he had gone far, a white-robed scholar quietly exited the tent. He had fine eyebrows and large eyes, and had a distinguished bearing. He called out to Yang Can, “Sir Yang is a wild scholar of Sichuan. Why did you switch from arrogance to deference?”
Yang Can replied, “I was first arrogant for the purpose of showing my unyielding resolve. I was deferential afterwards for the sake of the Kingdom of Shu.”
The white-robed scholar fell silent for some time before he stated, “This one is Xuan Song of Great Yong, styled Changqing. If you have any matters that need to be entrusted, you can send me a letter. As long as it does not pertain to matters of state, Changqing will spare no effort.”
Yang Can thanked him before returning to Chengdu via Jiameng Pass to report on the completion of his mission.
In the subsequent half a month, the Yong army did not attack, greatly reducing the pressure on Jiameng Pass.
It didn’t take long before the information was reported to the Prince of De, Zhao Jue, by Southern Chu’s spies. Zhao Jue grew irate. He did not have an easy time during this time period. Even after so long, he could not capture Luocheng. Long Bu definitely deserved his reputation as a Grand General of Sichuan, frequently taking advantage of circumstances to sally from the city and attack, forcing the Southern Chu forces to retreat in defeat. Wei Xian was adept at raiding encampments. A small raid would occur every three days, a major raid every five days, disturbing the soldiers’ rest. Long Bu and Wei Xian’s cooperation prevented the Southern Chu forces from making even an inch of progress in the last month. The supply line was constantly harassed by the earlier routed Shu army. Zhao Jue had run of ideas and was already distressed. At this time, he heard this astonishing bad news. If the Kingdom of Shu and Great Yong were to make peace, then the end of Southern Chu was near.
At this point, he remembered Jiang Zhe. The young zhuangyuan had a peculiar personality. Zhao Jue had forced Jiang Zhe to accompany the army. He did not show an interest when Jiang Zhe suffered a shock and fell ill, but one could not blame Zhao Jue. Regarding the first matter, Zhao Jue considered Jiang Zhe as a subject of Southern Chu. As he was talented, how could he not render services to the country? As for the latter matter, Zhao Jue was busy with military matters, marching, and fighting. How can continuously besieging cities be an easy thing? In addition, Jiang Zhe was quite indifferent to military matters after he had recovered from his illness. First, Zhao Jue believed that Jiang Zhe was slack because he had not fully recovered. Second, he had perceived the deliberate exclusion by his retainer, Rong Yuan, towards Jiang Zhe. Zhao Jue did not want to destroy the relationship that he had long cultivated with Rong Yuan, especially since Rong Yuan was extremely proficient in military strategy. Rong Yuan was his irreplaceable right-hand man. As a result, in comparison, he was indifferent to Jiang Zhe. Because of these reasons, relations between Zhao Jue and Jiang Zhe had become increasingly distant. However, today, finally, Zhao Jue once again realized Jiang Zhe’s importance. Jiang Zhe was far superior to everyone not only because of his analytical and organizational ability, but also because Jiang Zhe possessed a farsighted15 strategic sense. For the battle for Ba Prefecture, Jiang Zhe adeptly planned out the battle’s purpose in advance and could find the point of breakthrough from within a vast sea of information. Although his strategic planning required someone prudent and meticulous to enact, his abilities were already rarely seen. Now that he was facing a strategic decision that was difficult to deal with, he finally thought of Jiang Zhe. But what about Rong Yuan?
Just as Zhao Jue was feeling distressed, Rong Yuan came to see him. Upon catching sight of Zhao Jue, he kneeled on the ground, begging for forgiveness. Stunned, Zhao Jue hurriedly helped Rong Yuan up. Zhao Jue queried, “Why has Sir Rong performed a grand rite?”
Ashamed, Rong Yuan replied, “This subordinate is petty, deliberately excluding talented individuals. My crime cannot be forgiven. These last few days, this subordinate has racked his brain trying to think of a strategy to defeat the enemy, but could not think of any effective methods. If Jiang Zhe were here, he would likely thoroughly investigate16 and come up with a strategy. Your Highness, please allow this subordinate to go and personally beg the zhuangyuan’s forgiveness, so that we can unite17 and break Luocheng.”
Exulting, Zhao Jue declared, “Sir recognizes his mistake; this is wonderful. Zhao Jue was also mistaken, neglecting a famous scholar. The two of us should go see Jiang Zhe together to acquire his forgiveness, to ask Jiang zhuangyuan to come up with a strategy to break this stalemate.”
Speaking thus, he handed the intelligence report in his hand to Rong Yuan. Rong Yuan took a look, his face immediately becoming ugly. He naturally understood the dangerous situation that they faced. If the Kingdom of Shu were to become a vassal of Great Yong, once Shu were to recover, then they would definitely take vengeance upon Southern Chu. Thinking of this, Rong Yuan hurriedly urged Zhao Jue to go see Jiang Zhe together.
At this moment, I was a guest, immersed in the comforts of life. After learning that Tian Suying knew martial arts, Wang Hai agreed to return Tian Suying and her mother to me. Their entire family’s reunion was naturally joyful. Tian Suying treated me indifferently, as I was a ranking official of Southern Chu and was the prime offender who had come up with the strategy that defeated and killed her father. I did not know that Southern Chu’s sky was filled with black clouds.
Just as I was about to write down a verse, I heard someone ask from outside my door, “Is Jiang daren here?”
钩心斗角, gouxindoujiao – idiom, lit. to fight and scheme against each other
草民, caomin – lit. straw person; used by commoners to refer to themselves when facing those individuals holding an official position
宁缺勿滥, ningquewulan – idiom, lit. better to have nothing (than substandard choice); would prefer to go without than accept a shoddy option
真气蓬勃, zhaoqipengbo – idiom, lit. full of youthful energy; vigorous, energetic, a bright spark
目不交睫, mubujiaojie – idiom, lit. the eyelashes do not come together; fig. to not sleep a wink
恃才傲物, shicai’aowu – idiom, lit. to be inordinately proud of one’s ability; to be conceited and contemptuous
目中无人, muzhongwuren – idiom, lit. to consider everyone else beneath one; so arrogant that no one else matters, condescending
兵临城下, binglinchengxia – idiom, lit. soldiers at the city walls; fig. at a critical juncture
荆襄, Jingxiang – refers to one of the nine ancient provinces of China that is modern-day Hubei and Hunan
萧何, Xiao He was an adviser to the founding Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang. He was the dynasty’s founding prime minister
霸王, bawang – lit. Hegemonic King; refers to the Hegemonic King of Western Chu, Xiang Yu, who battled Liu Bang for control of the world after the fall of the Qin Dynasty
张良, Zhang Liang was the primary strategist in the service of the founding Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang
田横, Tian Heng was a member of the royal family of the state of Qi. After the fall of the Qin Dynasty, Tian Heng attempted to restore the state of Qi and served as chancellor before attempting to become king himself. After being defeated, he fled from the mainland. After the founding Emperor of Han Dynasty attempted to force him to surrender, Tian Heng refused and committed suicide. Tian Heng had five hundred loyal retainers who stayed with him till the bitter end. They followed Tian Heng and all of them committed suicide as well.
聂政, Nie Zheng and 荆轲, Jing Ke were famed assassins during the Warring States Period
远见卓识, yuanjianzhuoshi – idiom, lit. visionary and sagacious; farsighted
抽丝拨茧, chousibaojian – idiom, lit. to spin silk from cocoons; fig. to make a painstaking investigation; to come up
戮力同心, lulitongxin – idiom, lit. concerted efforts in a common cause; united and working together