Volume 5, Chapter 15: Heartened Even in Defeat1
On the fourteenth day of the third month of the first year of Longsheng, the fifteenth year of the sixty-year cycle, ranking general Jing Chi penetrated Baixing of the Taihang Mountains leading thirty thousand horsemen and forty thousand Zhenzhou garrison troops. He rapidly attacked Hu Pass. Its defender, Liu Wanli, sent urgent messages to Jinyang and Qinzhou. On the twenty-fifth day of the third month, Hu Pass fell. At the head of his army, Jing Chi charged directly for Qinzhou with irresistible force.—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three
With the sun obscured by the reddish clouds, the sky grew gloomy, almost like rain would begin to fall at any moment. On the main road, over a hundred horsemen galloped melancholically. The hoofbeats sounded like rolling thunder. Each of the horsemen had heavy expressions on their faces. Their black battle gowns were covered with dust from their long journey, making all of them cut sorry figures. At the center of their formation was an extraordinary thoroughbred. Mounted upon it were two people—Jiang Zhe and Li Shun. This group of horsemen had galloped for sixty to seventy li2 all at once without stopping to rest.
Jiang Zhe’s horsemanship was quite poor. In order to accelerate the journey, Li Shun rode with Jiang Zhe. This black thoroughbred was a rare, spirited colt. Although its body was foaming with sweat, it still seemed full of energy.3
Both sides of the road were choked thick with vegetation. As he carefully helped Jiang Zhe, Xiaoshunzi paid attention to the activity around him. Fleeing after defeat, and within an enemy country’s borders, he had to be exceedingly wary. At this moment, the sound of horse hooves and rustling vegetation cracked from the forest to the right. Xiaoshunzi lifted his right hand, causing the entire troop of horses to simultaneously come to a stop, keeping still and silent. This unit of horsemen deserved its reputation as one of the most elite formations within the Yong army.
It wasn’t long before Su Qing appeared from the forest atop a black steed. Arriving before everyone, she spoke clearly, “Daren, this general has already found tonight’s lodgings. Ten li4 after passing through this forest is a nameless hamlet that is quite far from the road. It is extremely secluded. I circled it and did not find any signs of inhabitance. The villagers probably left long ago to avoid the war. Even if there are any who remain, based upon our strength, we will be able to take care of them at once. However, in order to avoid inadvertently alerting the enemy, I did enter the hamlet to investigate.”
“When my army arrived at Anze, we immediately began the siege,” I replied tired, “And have not had the opportunity to implement the scorched earth policy. However, once news from Jishi arrived here, the commoners in this area either fled or retreated to hide in Anze. It won’t be strange if there is no one present in that hamlet. However, everyone still need to be careful. In a while, have the hamlet surrounded. If there is anyone within, lock them up together. Everyone should best be careful. My army has just suffered a defeat and regrouping will take several days. If the Northern Han army has some strength leftover, they will definitely search the entire countryside to hunt and kill the officers and soldiers left behind by my army. These few days are the most dangerous. We must be extra vigilant in our hiding place and ensure that nothing is leaked.”
Urging his horse forward, Huyan Shou replied, “Daren, do not worry. General Su, lead the way. We will first surround the hamlet before conducting a door-to-door search. We will definitely not allow a single person to slip through our net.”
I nodded my head lightly. They would definitely not make a mistake regarding this matter. A small hamlet, ignoring the case it was unpopulated, even if inhabited and had one hundred eighty inhabitants, would still be easy for these elite soldiers to handle. Leaving behind several bodyguards to stick to my side and continue to protect me alongside Xiaoshunzi, Huyan Shou led the Stalwart Tiger Guard ahead.
After thinking it over, I had Xiaoshunzi slow our pace and advance slowly. The path through the forest was rugged, preventing us from speeding along. The pathway on either side was lined with withered grass, almost suffocating the entire path. It was clear that the hamlet ahead had few contacts with the outside world. Were it not for the need to flee the Yong army, the villagers would likely still be present. This was good. If there were too many inhabitants, it would be extremely troublesome to massacre all witnesses. Besides, killing innocents violated the Heavenly tenets.
After traveling for some time, the path before us suddenly widened. In addition, the path leveled greatly, revealing a smooth soil surface. This was definitely someplace the villagers frequently came and went. Looking ahead, we had reached the edge of the forest as expected. Urging the horse forward with spurs and whip, Xiaoshunzi guided the horse out of the forest.
I felt the light reaching my eyes brighten as we came to a wide clearing.5 Behind the forest was a valley. At the center of the valley was a small lake that was several mu6 in diameter. The bottom of the lake was clearly visible. From the surface of the lake, steam rose. I could sense that it was a lot warmer here than elsewhere. Presumably, this lake was where several hot springs converged.
On the side of the lake were over thirty homes arranged in picturesque disorder. Between the homes crisscrossed numerous paths. There was a faint aura of elegance. I surmised that, during peaceful times, this was a tightly-knit7 hamlet, a paradise disconnected from the mundane world. It was only that this era was one of war.
Over forty Stalwart Tiger Guard surrounded the hamlet on all sides. From within one of the farmhouses, the sounds of struggle could be made out. I was startled. Each and every one of the Stalwart Tiger Guard was a dominant expert. How could they have run into well-matched adversaries in such a small hamlet? My curiosity was aroused, and I promptly gestured for Xiaoshunzi to quicken the pace. Probably also worried that a slip-up had occurred, Xiaoshunzi quickly spurred our horse to the front of that farmhouse.
This farmhouse covered half a mu.8 There were three buildings. The two side buildings each had three rooms. The buildings were all built from limestone, and were extremely spacious and bright. There wasn’t much fencing around the farmhouse. Within the courtyard was a small vegetable garden, growing some bok choy. There were also two rows of chrysanthemums. It was clear that the master of this farmhouse was not an ordinary individual. Although the weather was still a bit chilly, probably because of the high ambient temperature from the hot springs, the bok choy had already broken out of the ground, while the chrysanthemums had grown green leaves.
At this moment, within the courtyard, two Stalwart Tiger Guard were exchanging blows with a young peasant. With his hands behind his back, Huyan Shou stood at the entrance. The farmhouse was tightly surrounded by over a dozen Stalwart Tiger Guard. Seeing us arrive before the entrance, Huyan Shou promptly and hurriedly came over to welcome me. He reported, “Daren, the hamlet has already been cleared. It seems the villagers here had left long ago. Only this home has inhabitants. In addition, he’s an expert.”
I nodded my head before scrutinizing him. That peasant was twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old. He had a handsome appearance with good features. His build was heroic and large. With one look, everyone could tell that he was not ordinary. The peasant obstinately defended the entrance to the main building, a single saber in his hands. Even though he was defending against two Stalwart Tiger Guards, he did so with skill and ease. However, his complexion was somewhat pale, making it clear that he had fallen into a desperate situation.
Seeing this scene, Xiaoshunzi frowned and asked, “Why haven’t you had someone enter through the window and pincer him to quickly bring him under control? The young master needs to rest.”
Blushing with shame, Huyan Shou replied, “This subordinate noticed that the structure of this farmhouse was the most spacious within this hamlet. The scenery is also elegant. Originally, I wished to invite the young master to rest here. As such, I did not want to damage the building.”
I was touched. Sure enough, this farmhouse was beautiful and secluded. It was fortunate that Huyan Shou was so thoughtful. At this moment, probably because he had seen the ugly look on Xiaoshunzi’s face, Huyan Shou promptly said, “Daren, wait a moment. This subordinate will undertake the task personally.”
Finished speaking, he retreated several steps before turning around. Drawing his saber, he walked towards the entrance of the main building with a grave countenance. Despair flashed across the peasant’s face. The peasant’s moves became somewhat chaotic. After all, Huyan Shou was one of the top two experts within the Stalwart Tiger Guard. His saber techniques were firm, ferocious, and fierce, forcing the peasant into desperate straits.
It didn’t take more than a few attacks before the peasant was gasping for breath. Probably because he had been exhausted by the long battle, the peasant slipped and tumbled to the ground. Huyan Shou hacked downward with his saber. Leaving such an expert alive would be problematic down the line. As a result, he was not lenient, resolved to eliminate him entirely.
At this moment, a loud shout echoed from within the main building: “Spare his life!” Huyan Shou had always suspected that there was someone within the building, otherwise why was this peasant obstinately defending its entrance? However, the voice of the individual within was steady and dignified, causing Huyan Shou to waver. The saber in his hand came to a sudden stop, the edge suspended at the peasant’s neck. The peasant had already closed his eyes. However, once he sensed that the saber had come to a stop, even though he felt the gust of wind, his skin was not penetrated and no blood flowed. Opening his eyes, the peasant gazed in a daze at Huyan Shou.
At this moment, the door to the main building was pushed open. An elderly man in gray robes stood in the doorway. He had a haggard appearance to the point of near emaciation. In his hand was a cane. It seemed he was between fifty and sixty years old. However, even though this man had an emaciated appearance, his look and bearing was outstanding, carrying the aura of someone at the top of society.
Gazing frigidly at the elderly man, Huyan Shou sternly shouted, “Who are you? Quickly speak of your origins! If you attempt to hide anything, don’t blame my saber for being merciless.”
The elderly man smiled apathetically, as his gaze fell upon the scholar with an azure cloak draped around his shoulders and seated upon a thoroughbred. That scholar’s expression carried a faint exhaustion. His temples were speckled white, his hair the color of ash. It seemed like this scholar was not young. However, the scholar’s delicate and scholarly appearance was as white as jade. This kind of contradiction made him exude an indescribable bearing. There was another youth in azure clothes who had a complexion white as snow and a look as cold as ice. With the thoroughbred’s bridle in his hands, he stood in attendance to the side. However, his clear and towering bearing had a dense, awe-inspiring aura. Although this man’s expression was deferential, he was definitely not an ordinary servant.
Heaving a sigh, the elderly man answered, “You gentlemen must be distinguished personages from Great Yong. Surely, there is no need to make things difficult for us commoners? My young disciple resisted the gentlemen because of your tumultuous arrival. Daren, please forgive us.”
The youthful peasant shouted, “If you want to execute someone, execute me alone! Uncle is aged and has been confined to bed ill for many years. Surely, you cannot willfully slaughter innocents?”
Huyan Shou extended the saber in his hand. The youth felt a stinging at his throat. Huyan Shou frigidly said, “I’m not asking you. Do not speak.”
Flames of anger raged in the youth’s eyes. However, he could only shut his mouth. Huyan Shou once again glanced at the elderly man. In a grave voice, he demanded, “Name, origins. I do not wish to ask this question again.”
The elderly man nodded his head slightly and replied, “This elderly one is Ji Xuan. General probably hasn’t heard of me.”
I was originally a bit tired. However, when I heard the name, Ji Xuan, I felt my spirit roused. In a clear voice, I stated, “Ji Xuan, Ji Zicheng. Before Northern Han was founded, once the Aide to the Taiyuan Magistrate, Liu Sheng. Proficient in the study of the classics and histories, and a master of the Book of Changes and mathematics, he garnered Liu Sheng’s deep trust. After Liu Sheng founded Northern Han, Ji Xuan was discontented by Liu Sheng’s treasonous actions, and cast aside his rank and departed, causing Liu Sheng to wring his hands without end. Presumably, you are that gentleman.”
Finished speaking, I dismounted. I slowly walked into the courtyard. After bowing deeply, I said, “Junior Jiang Zhe pays his respects to Venerable Sir Ji. This youngster has oft heard of the depths of Venerable Sir’s knowledge, as well as your noble character and unquestionable integrity.9 It is truly a great fortune to meet you today.”
Finished speaking these words, an astonished look flashed across the young peasant’s eyes. Except, he had a saber at his throat. As such, he did not dare to speak. As for Ji Xuan, serenity appeared in his eyes. He replied, “So it actually is Southern Chu’s zhuangyuan, Great Yong’s Imperial-in-Law, Marquis Jiang Zhe of Chu. Although this elderly one has lived in seclusion in my home village, I have heard of Your Lordship’s illustrious name. Who would have thought that Your Lordship would arrive here?”
I could hear the hostility in his tone. Since this Ji Xuan had been discontented with Liu Sheng establishing Northern Han in the past and left directly, it was enough to understand that he was someone who scrupulously abided by the tenets of loyalty. Although my scholarly reputation was there, I had first served Southern Chu before serving Great Yong. In addition, I had taken Princess Changle as my wife. This Ji Xuan probably regarded me as a turncoat and traitor. I could sense that if it weren’t for the youthful peasant’s life, this elderly individual would probably have greeted me with mocking and ridicule.10
As a result, I tactfully did not express any sentiments of admiration. Changing the subject, I asked, “That brother hails Venerable Sir as uncle. Could he be your nephew?”
In a mournful tone, Ji Xuan answered, “This child is named Zhao Liang, styled Wenshan. He is the son of this elderly one’s close friend, Zhao Yi of Daizhou. My old friend and his wife died in the chaos of war. From a young age, this child has been raised at my side. His father and I addressed each other as brothers. As such, this child hails me as his uncle. In reality, we are as close as father and son. A few days ago, when we heard that the Yong army had attacked Qinzhou and massacred the common people along the way, the villagers were deeply frightened and all departed north to take refuge. Only because this elderly one fell seriously ill and could not endure the tribulations of the road, I had to stay behind to face death. This child is extremely filial and refused to escape on his own. Your Lordship, please spare his life based upon his reckless ignorance and filial piety.”
I glanced at Zhao Liang, feeling respect for him. This man was truly filial. For the sake of his uncle, he disregarded life and death. Having witnessed his obstinate efforts in guarding the main farmhouse, I knew he was probably worried that we would harm his uncle. In addition, since he had grown up by Ji Xuan’s side, he was bound to be familiar with the classics and histories. Besides, his martial arts weren’t bad, meaning that he was a talented individual who would make both a fine soldier and literati. Although they hailed from Northern Han, Ji Xuan should not have any loyalty to the royal family of Northern Han. So influenced, Zhao Liang would surely not go so far as to reject Great Yong. This Zhao Liang was a talent worthy of being recruited. Thinking of this, I revealed a smile and replied, “So it turns out that younger brother Zhao is a filial individual. General Huyan, withdraw. My subordinates have been quite rude. I hope that younger brother will forgive them.”
Huyan Shou withdrew and sheathed his saber. Zhao Liang rose to his feet and promptly went to Ji Xuan’s side to prop him up. Having just walked back from the gates of hell, Zhao Liang’s features were extremely pale. He respectfully declared, “Your Lordship is magnanimous, Zhao Liang can’t thank you enough. Your Lordship, please be lenient and not harm Uncle’s life.”
I unflinchingly stated, “Venerable Sir Ji is an influential Confucian scholar. Although Zhe is an uneducated junior, how can I have any malicious intent? It is only that my army was recently defeated which requires that we reorganize here for a period of time. Younger brother Zhao, I hope that you will remain within the hamlet and not leave on your own initiative. When I depart, I will definitely return your freedom.”
Delight shone in Zhao Liang’s eyes. Seeing him beam with joy, I knew that he was not a subtle individual. Feeling increasingly fond, I continued, “From the start, there have been plenty of empty residences within the hamlet. However, most of my subordinates are military men. I’m afraid that they did not know proper etiquette and disturbed Venerable Sir Ji. Besides, I am also fond of this farmhouse’s elegance. I wonder if Venerable Sir Ji is willing to allow me to reside here?”
Ji Xuan snorted severely. If he wasn’t worried about Zhao Liang’s life, how would he allow such a disloyal and unjust individual to stay in his home? However, he had to bow his head to the current circumstances. Without a choice, he frostily replied, “How could this elderly one dare to disobey Your Lordship’s command? My humble abode is simple and crude, garnering My Lord’s ridicule. Liang’er, gather our belongings. We will reside elsewhere.”
I almost let out a laugh. This elderly scholar was truly amusing. Was he really ridiculing me for stealing his home? However, I was actually quite happy. At the very least, Ji Xuan understood the need for concessions. I deeply disliked those who were unwilling to compromise. Unfortunately, these individuals were all capable and had resounding reputations. If I were forced to kill Ji Xuan, wouldn’t it be quite shameful if this news spread? However, among the masses, the majority were mediocre. It was very rare to run into such someone with such a firm and unwavering will who was not moved by outside events and had such superior intelligence, even though I had run into several such individuals.
One was Xiaoshunzi. Ignoring the slippery character of his youth, he had finally revealed his true colors. His will could not be shaken by anyone. Fortunately, with the Heavens’ blessings, he was single-minded in his efforts to protect me, treating me as his intimate friend and kin. He would absolutely not permit anyone to harm me, myself included. Otherwise, that day when Qiu Yufei tried to assassinate me, Xiaoshunzi would definitely not have been so indignant about me falling into danger and caused me to suffer several days of abuse.
Another was Lu Can. This former disciple of mine was determined in his loyalty and devotion to Southern Chu. A few days ago, spies in Jiangnan reported that Lu Can had abandoned plans to attack Great Yong because of the edict that Shang Weijun had issued on King Zhao Long’s behalf. To me, this was something unfathomable. However, he had actually done so. Moreover, he willingly allowed himself to be detained under house arrest in Jianye by Shang Weijun. It seemed that he would definitely not do anything that would usurp the integrity of a subject. Although I was happy that the pressure from Southern Chu upon Great Yong was reduced because of this, I did not have any hopes that Lu Can would surrender to Great Yong in the future.
In fact, there was another individual in the Prince of Qi, Li Xian. He was also an uncompromising fellow. The only reason why he took my advice was simply because he found me agreeable. From his original behavior, it could immediately be seen that once Li Xian had made up his mind, it could not be changed by anyone. Speaking of this, I was extremely fortunate that this man had never had thoughts about seizing the Yong throne. Otherwise, even if Li Zhi were victorious, the costs would have been devastating. With Li Xian’s temperament, he was definitely someone capable of completely toppling the Yong court. I fiercely cursed Li Xian a few times in my mind. Although I already discovered some warning signs, there was no way that I could have Li Xian retreat without cause. If I had done so, he would definitely not have listened. As a result, I did not speak of it, causing me to fall into such straits.
Controlling the distracting thoughts in my mind, I called Zhao Liang, about to enter the main farmhouse to pack belongings, to a stop. I apologetically said, “Younger brother Zhao, hold up. Venerable Sir, please do not speak thusly. Zhe is a student of a later generation. How can I drive Venerable Sir from your home? Zhe has seen that there are rooms in the two side buildings and will borrow a guest room to temporarily stay in. What is your respected opinion?”
Ji Xuan’s complexion eased. It was difficult for him to respond with ill words with me being so accommodating. In an amiable manner, he replied, “If that is the case, then many thanks for Your Lordship’s magnanimity. The guest room in the eastern building is frequently cleaned by Liang’er. Your Lordship, please trouble yourself by residing there.”
I smiled as I voiced my agreement. Having ridden for half a day, I was finding it difficult to support myself. Massaging my temples, I said with difficulty, “This youngster’s health is poor and cannot stand the hardships of travel, and will first bid my leave. Venerable Sir, please return within to rest as well. Tomorrow, Zhe wishes to ask Venerable Sir for guidance.”
Ji Xuan could see my pale countenance and the beads of sweat on my forehead. In reality, he was also gravely ill. Having conversed, he had only managed to sustain himself using his vigor and spirit. As such, he saluted and retired, returning to his room to rest. With Xiaoshunzi’s help, I entered the guest room. The furnishings were elegant and did not require any tidying. Removing my cape, I collapsed into the bed, practically falling into a slumber as soon as my head hit the pillow.
When I awoke, I felt my mind and spirit clear and crisp. Opening my eyes, I saw Xiaoshunzi sitting before the window, reading a scroll with relish. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Being able to make Xiaoshunzi, who originally would sleep whenever he saw a book, willingly read on his own initiative meant that I was quite a capable teacher. Although I had only moved slightly, Xiaoshunzi had already discovered that I had awoken. Setting down the scroll, he poured a cup of hot tea and brought it over. After drinking it, although I felt myself further invigorated, I also felt hungry. Xiaoshunzi offhandedly remarked, “The kitchen has kept some food warm. I’ll have them bring it over.”
Rising out of bed, I draped my outer garments around my shoulders. Languidly, I replied, “Fine.”
Xiaoshunzi went out to pass along the instructions. It wasn’t long before Su Qing walked in with a wooden tray. Upon the tray were several light dishes. When I discovered that it was Su Qing, I couldn’t help being somewhat embarrassed. I complained, “Xiaoshunzi, why are you having General Su do such things? Isn’t this too rude?”
In a natural and unrestrained manner, Su Qing interceded, “When this general awoke, I discovered that General Huyan had continually refused to rest. After asking, I learned that he wanted to personally take the night shift. Thinking that we didn’t know when we needed to battle arduously, this general did not want to see him exhausted. As a result, I volunteered to take over. Daren, simply treat this general as General Huyan. There is no need to mind these trivial matters.”
I only relaxed when I heard her words. It seemed that, having spent so many years in the military, Su Qing had long since ceased to consider herself a woman. Just as I was preparing to eat and picking up the bamboo chopsticks, the sound of scolding came from the bodyguards outside. I could not help wavering with my chopsticks. Hearing the noise, Su Qing walked out to see what was going on. It wasn’t long before she returned to report, “Daren, it’s that Zhao Liang, young master Zhao. Probably because he learned that daren has awoken, he is requesting an audience this very night.”
Baffled, I said, “Let him come in.” In any case, it was impossible for Zhao Liang to cause any major problems. As such, I did not take matters to heart. After all, I had an expert of Xiaoshunzi’s caliber by my side. I would feel imperiled only if that Duan Lingxiao who had tried to assassinate Su Qing or Qiu Yufei appeared.
It wasn’t long before Zhao Liang walked in. Once he entered the room, he immediately kneeled down on the ground, repeatedly kowtowing. Perplexed, I was just about to advance to help him up. However, seeing Xiaoshunzi’s chilly gaze, I immediately stopped. I inquired, “Younger brother Zhao, why are you doing this? Please get up to speak.”
Zhao Liang did not rise to his feet, only raising his head to explain, “This commoner has a presumptuous request, asking of Your Lordship to save my uncle’s life.”
After thinking it over, I immediately understood his intentions. Ji Xuan was suffered from a serious illness. Although I had not checked his pulse, I knew that he was gravely ill. My identity as a disciple of the Medical Sage was likely well known. Zhao Liang had come to seek medical treatment. However, I very rarely saw patients. It was already problematic enough to attend to my own health. However, this was a trivial matter. Generously, I gave my consent, “Zhe is already indebted by younger brother’s hospitality. There is naturally no problem regarding this matter. When tomorrow arrives, I will personally check on Venerable Sir Ji. However, survival is up to fate. If it is a mortal illness, Zhe can only do my best. If there is any bad news, I hope that younger brother will forgive me.”
Delighted, Zhao Liang replied, “This commoner kowtows in thanks for Your Lordship’s benevolence. As long as Your Lordship is willing to treat Uncle, regardless of the result, this commoner can only be moved to tears. How can I complain?”
Looking at the food on the table, I smiled and said, “It is already late at night. Younger brother, you probably have been waiting for some time and are probably feeling a bit hungry. It is boring to eat by myself. Younger brother, there is no harm for you to eat with me.”
How could Zhao Liang share a table with me? However, since I was determined, it wasn’t long before a second bowl and chopsticks were set. Zhao Liang only ate in a token fashion. While I ate, I conversed with him. Sure enough, as I expected, Zhao Liang was quite familiar with the classics and histories, and was also quite well informed about current events, not having any ignorance from living in seclusion in a hamlet. Our conversation was quite jovial. I did not notice even when Xiaoshunzi cleaned the table and served a pot of fresh tea. However, out of habit, I still picked up a cup of tea and took a drink. Afterwards, I said, “Younger brother Zhao is so talented and yet lives in seclusion here. Once my Great Yong becomes the master of Qinzhou, I wonder if younger brother Zhao is willing to serve?”
The look on Zhao Liang’s face changed several times until he finally uttered, “This commoner has one matter that I do not understand and so requests Your Lordship’s instruction.”
I sipped the tea, praising the fresh and clean taste of tea leaves from the wilderness. I inquired, “Wenshan, what matter do you wish to ask about?”
With a solemn expression on his face, Zhao Liang asked, “Now that the Yong army has suffered a defeat at Anze, why is Your Lordship not worried in the least? Almost as if victory is at hand? Could it be that the Yong army’s defeat was within Your Lordship’s reckoning?”
My hand shook, almost spilling the tea. In a brand new manner, I gazed at Zhao Liang. Originally, I had thought that he was simply talented. Now, it seemed like he was a prodigy, able to see so much from my conduct and words. Setting down the teacup, I unflinchingly stated, “This matter involves military secrets. Does Wenshan truly wish to know?”
Zhao Liang shook inwardly. However, he completely understood his current situation. Since Jiang Zhe had spoken of recruitment, it was likely impossible for him to disengage himself. If he did not make sense of all this, and the Yong army had truly suffered a grievous defeat to the point of affecting the rosy prospects of Great Yong’s unification of the world, if he did not understand this matter, then wouldn’t he bear the stigma of turning his back on his country for no reason? As a result, Zhao Liang resolutely nodded his head and answered, “This commoner truly wishes to know the reason.”
I thought, This wasn’t a trap that I set, but rather you taking the bait yourself. As such, I smiled calmly and explained, “Although there are some things that I can reveal to you, I have not taken this defeat seriously. The Northern Han army flooding Anze is a method that harms both sides. With this, it is clear that the Northern Han does not have any strength remaining to continue. Although my army suffered a defeat, because we retreated in a timely manner, our main force did not suffer grievous losses. In my view, the most likely course for the Northern Han army is to retreat to Qinyuan, seeking to lure my army deep into enemy territory. When the time comes, my army’s supply train will run into difficulties. With that the Northern Han army will be able to leisurely confront my army. However, my army, from start to finish, did not have any thoughts about prevailing in an easy manner. This crushing defeat will only raise the morale of my soldiers. In addition, although the supply train will be obstructed, my Zezhou fleet still has several dozen warships left. As long as we commandeer civilian ships, we will be able to maintain our supplies. As long as we advance steadily, it will not be difficult to capture Qinyuan. Besides, a second army of mine is already attacking Hu Pass. As long as Hu Pass falls, two hundred thousand troops will encircle and besiege Qinyuan. Qinyuan will fall sooner rather than later.”
Hearing this, Zhao Liang felt his heart sink. Since the Yong army supervisor so firmly believed in victory, then the Yong army’s morale will naturally surge. Regardless of whether Qinyuan could fall, this battle had made Northern Han suffer disastrous losses. Although Jiang Zhe did not speak of a marvelous strategy, as long as sufficient military numbers were gathered, and with the leadership of someone like the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, there was no need for anything fancy. Although Zhao Liang was from Northern Han, since he had not taken up an official post and with Ji Xuan’s influence, he did not have any loyalty for the Liu family. As a result, it wasn’t difficult for him to accept surrendering to Great Yong. However, thinking of his fellow countrymen who became refugees, Zhao Liang asked, “Your Lordship, since Great Yong has the ambitions to unify the world, why has it razed and slaughtered during this attack upon Qinzhou, driving the common people north? This kind of situation is difficult for this commoner to understand.”
I thought, The scorched earth policy is highly confidential. I cannot inform you. As such, I simply played down the situation and answered, “The soldiers and civilians of Qinzhou have fought Great Yong for many years. Practically each and every family has had a child who has died upon the battlefield. My army does not wish to leave behind anything that would harass our supply train. That is why we have driven all the civilians north. In reality, aside from an occasional deterrence, my army has not wantonly massacred civilians. Once the war ends, my army will naturally calm the populace. At present, we can only inconvenience them.”
Although he was still somewhat puzzled, Zhao Liang understood that what he learned was already sufficient. As such, he rose to his feet. Kneeling again, he stated, “If Uncle agrees, Zhao Liang is willing to serve Great Yong. It is only that Zhao Liang is from Northern Han. Your Lordship, please forgive me and allow Zhao Liang to avoid participating in the war between Great Yong and Northern Han.”
I promptly pulled him to his feet and replied, “I can make decisions on this matter and will definitely not cause younger brother any embarrassment or awkwardness.” As I said this, I was already considering him as the best candidate in serving to placate the people of Northern Han once the war ended. Of course, before then, I could not allow him to be seen as a traitor in the eyes of the soldiers and populace of Northern Han.
The next day, I diagnosed and treated Ji Xuan. Fortunately, Ji Xuan’s condition was treatable. Except there wasn’t sufficient medicine. As such, I used acupuncture and what medicine available to consolidate and support his vigor. Once we had returned to the army encampment, I would be able to treat him fully. As for Zhao Liang entering into my service, Ji Xuan just sighed, not saying anything. In reality, he understood that even if I did not silence them when I departed, the Northern Han army would likely treat them as traitors and have them executed. Even if Zhao Liang did not surrender, there was no other path before him. I almost laughed heartily. With Ji Xuan in my hands, it would be much easier for Northern Han to accept Great Yong’s governance. My obtainment of these two individuals was a greater contribution for the emperor than capturing one of Northern Han’s fortified cities.
Over the next several days, I decided to stay here, having noticed the hidden nature of this hamlet. In addition, it was better to be still than to be moving. As long as we waited several days, we could rendezvous with Li Xian. I had no wish to go out and take any chances. Moreover, there were hot springs here. Hot springs had the power to help extend one’s life. Every day, I ate and drank plainly, enjoying the hot springs at my leisure. With an ancient scroll in my hands, I debated the classics with Venerable Sir Ji. This was truly the life of immortals!
Footnotes:败亦可喜, baiyikexi – the second half of an idiom, 胜固欣然，败亦可喜 (shengguxinran, baiyikexi) that literally means joy after both victory and defeat 32.4-37.8 kilometers (about 20-23.5 miles) 精神百倍, jingshenbaibei – idiom, lit. vitality a hundredfold; fig. full of energy, refreshed 5.4 kilometers (about 3.4 miles) 豁然开朗, huorankailang – idiom, lit. suddenly opens to a wide panorama; fig. to come to a wide clearing Thousands of square meters (several acres) 鸡犬相闻, jiquanxiangwen – idiom, lit. sounds of crowing chickens and barking dogs heard all around; fig. tightly-knit, close Around 260 square meters (about 2800 square feet) 高风亮节, gaofengliangjie – idiom, of noble character and unquestionable integrity, someone of exemplary conduct and nobility of character 冷嘲热讽, lengchaorefeng – idiom, lit. frigid irony and scorching satire; to mock and ridicule