THE GRANDMASTER STRATEGIST - THE GRANDMASTER STRATEGIST Volume 6, Chapter 23: Accents Unchanged
The Misty Rain Building in Jiaxing had always been a famous building in the southeast. It received the most scholarly visitors, especially during early spring in the second month. The willows covered the area like a green fog, and waves rippled in the clear lake. Dark figures of fishing boats sailed in the distance, shuttling back and forth. The scenery delighted people the most. Sadly, the people in the building were all deep in thought and knitting their brows even though it was the season to appreciate the landscapes. Days ago, rumors spread that the Yong navy had taken Dinghai, but this news didn’t overly shock them. The region of Wuyue rarely suffered from the devastation of war. In their eyes, the Yong navy would soon be beaten back by the Yuhang Navy. But the way the situation developed caught them off guard. In what felt like the blink of an eye, the Yong navy’s offensive became unstoppable as they swept through Wuyue. Yesterday, the Yong navy captured Pinghu and Haining, and according to news from the two regions, the Yong navy didn’t senselessly massacre people. They just imprisoned the soldiers and civilians in the regions into cities, not permitting them free movement. Though they didn’t understand the Yong navy’s purpose, the soldiers and commoners of Jiaxing could rest a little easy because of this. The Yong navy seized Yue Commandery simply by relying on the surprise factor. Once the Southern Chu army counterattacked, the Yong navy would be forced back out into the sea. As long as the Yong navy didn’t murder people, it wouldn’t be too serious to lose some money and military provisions.
The people in the building were all young sons of the major aristocratic families of Jiaxing. Also among them were the poor and renowned scholars of Jiaxing. The advance guard of the Yong troops had already reached the outskirts of Jiaxing. These gentlemen didn’t want to be cooped up at home, so they gathered at the Misty Rain Building. They hoped to learn of the newest situation reports of the war. Only these courageous young men still had the bravery to assemble at this time.
Among these young men was someone whose expression was a bit different. He was a young man twenty years of age. He wore black Confucian robes, looked handsome, and had a serene and reserved bearing. He sat at the window overlooking the scenery of South Lake, as if deliberately separating himself from the group. The building full of people also unconsciously avoided him, However, they all surreptitiously kept their eyes on his expression. This young man was Jing Xin, the eldest grandson of the Jing patriarch’s first wife, and Jing Changqing’s son.
Unlike the other regions where it was common practice to take cheap shots at Jiang Zhe, the aristocratic families of Jiaxing had a deep-rooted and intricate relationship with him. For the sake of the Jing family’s reputation and honor, most people kept their lips sealed. Moreover, deep in their hearts, these aristocratic families envied the Jing family for having a branch of their clan produce a personage like Jiang Zhe. In the eyes of these aristocratic families, the glory of the family clan was the most important among family, country, and the world. It may have been unavoidable to regard the Great Yong warriors as barbarians, and the families believed Great Yong was inferior to the charm of the southerners’ poetry, but the might of Great Yong still scared the families. As a result, to leave a way out, the aristocratic families of Jiaxing had never dared scorn the Jing family, the same Jing family Shang Weijun wanted to eradicate but couldn’t do it smoothly for that reason. Of course, the Jing family was not completely unaffected. Afraid of damaging the court’s prestige, the aristocratic families of Jiaxing pretended to give the cold shoulder to the Jing family. As the heir of the Jing family, Jing Xin knew the situation from extensive experience. If Great Yong went to war with another country, the young men in the Misty Rain Building would often encircle him when debating. If Great Yong waged war on Southern Chu, the men would unconsciously isolate him. This didn’t mean they turned a blind eye to him, however, as they would pay even more attention to his judgements. Over time, Jing Xin got used to this treatment, so he purposely kept a certain distance away from the group today.
Gazing at the lake beyond the window, Jing Xin was not as calm on the inside as the water. Regarding his first cousin once removed, he had never met Jiang Zhe before and didn’t have any impression of him. However, he did know a little about Jiang Zhe’s father, Jiang Hanqiu. When Jiang Hanqiu departed from Jiaxing years ago, he took along all his manuscripts, but in the Jing family’s study, he left behind several notebooks that contained his insight gained from reading. Ever since Jing Xin learned of the events surrounding Jiang Zhe, he specifically went to read the notebooks. Although Jiang Hanqiu was of no repute, his notebooks could be considered all-embracing and perceptive. Every time Jing Xin read them, he gained a new understanding. It made him sigh. It was no wonder Jiang Zhe’s reputation reverberated through the world with a father like this.
The Jing family treated Jiang Zhe with two tendencies. One was to simply go to Great Yong like Jing Shunqing and rely on the businesses Jiang Zhe rebuilt, while the other was to be indignant like Jing Changqing and to regard Jiang Zhe as a traitor and villain. Jing Xin understood at heart that after all these years, his grandfather had gradually tended to Second Uncle and was even unhappy with Father, as he’d wanted Second Uncle to succeed as family head. He was just hindered by the fact Second Uncle was a traveling merchant in Great Yong, so he didn’t want to make it public. In Jing Xin’s mind, he naturally didn’t approve of his father’s stubbornness and lack of familial love. However, he was not willing to cast his lot with Great Yong and depend on Jiang Zhe. Why should the Jing family require outside support? This was what he thought.
At this moment, a young man ran into the building and shouted, “Bad news! The Jiaxing garrison is too afraid to sally out of the city to meet the enemy. They’ve already broken ranks and fled! Yong troops have entered the city and are enforcing curfew along the way! Residents are not permitted to walk on the streets. In just a few moments, they’ll reach Misty Rain Building.”
These young men burst into an uproar. Dread rose in all of them. Although there was still no news of the Yong troops massacring everyone in the city, this hammer and anvil situation was not a good one. A young man with a martial appearance said in anger, “It’s all because that knave Shang Weijun only knows how to amass wealth by fleecing the populace. He took bribes in exchange for granting all the civil and military positions in Wuyue. Prominent personages filled humble posts, whereas mediocre persons gained wealth and rank. How else could Yong troops have entered the interior of Wuyue?”
The young men cheered in unison at the words. They usually begrudged Shang Weijun’s governing, even if they weren’t happy, as they could only talk a little about it in private. Today, these young men criticized him in public as Jiaxing experienced social upheaval again. Everybody felt carefree. But it didn’t help things now. Everyone couldn’t help but sigh sadly. A squat young man looked at Jing Xin, seeing calm on his face. He couldn’t stop himself from quipping, “Brother Jing can sleep in peace. Even if the Yong troops slaughter Jiaxing, they won’t harm the Jing family. Even your esteemed father, who was caught in the turmoil of war, safely returned to Huaidong. Do we need to mention the present?”
Jing Xin had always been a meditative person, but he flew into a rage at the words. Jing Changqing had fallen into danger in Chuzhou, and it was fortunate someone secretly saved him and sent Jing Changqing and his entire family back to Jiaxing. If Jing Xin had not stayed at home to attend to his grandfather’s needs, he would have suffered the same fate. The smuggler hadn’t revealed any hint of their face or voice and came and went without a trace. However, it was clear that someone who could rescue Jing Changqing from amid the turmoil of war in Huaidong was no ordinary person. The Jing family never wanted to make this matter public, but they never expected the governing ministers in the court to investigate the case so closely and imprison and interrogate Jing Changqing, even ordering his beheading. But then, news of the Yong navy breaking through Dinghai arrived. No matter how much courage the Jiaxing officials mustered up, they still wouldn’t behead Jing Changqing at this time. Instead, they hid the document and released Jing Changqing on bail. Others may not have known about this, but the major aristocratic families of Jiaxing all knew.
As this matter was a Jing family secret, as well as a taboo for Jing Xin, the squat young man felt he had put his foot in his mouth. However, when he saw the sullen expression on Jing Xin, he felt he wasn’t wrong in what he said and put on an indomitable look.
At this time, a different, calm-looking young man said, “What’s done is done. Jiaxing has already been taken by the Yong navy. We should return to our respective homes now, I suppose. And it’s good to go through thick and thin with family.”
The group of young men knew they had no power to reverse the situation, so they left the Misty Rain Building one by one while there was still no curfew.
Jing Xin, however, stood on the upper floor, silent, his head lowered, his expression ice cold. He thought of the humiliation his father suffered in Chuzhou and how his flight was exceedingly difficult. But the aristocratic sons of Jiaxing saw it only as a pretentious gesture. He loathed and detested them. He suddenly got an idea. If he joined the army and fought in battle, then chased the Yong navy out of Wuyue, nobody should continue accusing the Jing family for collaborating with the enemy. Once this idea took root, it spread like wildfire and got out of hand.
Sounds of turmoil came from the lower floor. He walked to the other window and gazed out. Confused and frightened commoners filled the streets. The Yong troops were surging in from all directions like a blue-gray river of molten metal. Under their powerful intimidation, the powerless and self-preserving Southern Chu commoners closed their doors and returned home. The entire city of Jiaxing was gradually falling under the control of the Yong troops.
When Jing Xin was about to turn around and head down to take advantage of this opportunity to return home, he saw several soldiers in black uniforms with heavy gaits guarding a black-robed young man walking up the stairs before he could walk down the stairs. Jing Xin was surprised. Before he could react, one of the soldiers pushed him aside, grabbed the hilt of his saber, and asked, “Who are you? Why are you lingering in the Misty Rain Building at this time?” The soldier’s killing intent lurked. It was obvious he would kill Jing Xin in one blow if his answer wasn’t found to be suitable.
“I had been enjoying the scenery of the lake from here. It was too late to hide when your troops entered the city. Even if you all injure me for this reason, I won’t be able to say anything,” Jing Xin said in irritation.
“You’re very haughty for a scholar,” the soldier said with a smile. He looked back and asked, “Young master Huo, should we take him into custody?”
The young man in black robes walked forward and said with a smile, “This is a breach of etiquette from us. The Misty Rain Building has always been a famous scenic spot where anybody can come to enjoy the scenery. Brother being here is nothing strange. This one is Huo Cong. May I know brother’s esteemed name? I can see brother looks distinguished. Since you’re still out and about at this time, I believe you’re a young hero of Jiaxing.”
Jing Xin focused his eyes on the black-robed young man who couldn’t be more than seventeen. He had plain looks, nothing special, but his expression was indifferent. And Jing Xin could tell the soldiers in black uniforms were exceptional. Although Jing Xin didn’t understand much about military affairs, he did know the black uniforms of Great Yong were expensive. Those who could wear black uniforms and black armor had to be brave soldiers of Great Yong. Considering the youth of this young man and his command over these soldiers in black, he was bound to be an important person among the Yong troops. Although Jing Xin knew this man was a formidable foe Southern Chu had great enmity with, he couldn’t feel any disgust or hatred when he saw the youth’s kind and pleasant countenance. And when he looked at the youth’s graceful and indifferent features, he couldn’t bring himself to slight him. He bowed and saluted the youth. “I am Jing Xin and do not deserve the title of hero.”
Surprise appeared on the black-robed young man’s features. He laughed and said, “So you’re a talent from Jiaxing’s Jing family. I heard Brother Jing was selected for the imperial examinations at the age of fourteen. If you hadn’t been studying behind closed doors for the past few years without seeking scholarly honors, you would likely have scored high on the imperial examination and become a pillar of Southern Chu.”
Jing Xin could hear from the young man’s tone that he didn’t seem to care for his Jing family’s status and was actually sympathetic. However, when Jing Xin heard the praise, he felt a tinge of cold. The two countries had constantly been campaigning against each other. When facing a talent from the enemy country, they would either take them for themselves or kill the talented person and feel happy. Although the young man only said a few insipid words, he may have delivered a verdict on Jing Xin’s life. However, when facing these circumstances, Jing Xin could only smile and say, “Young master Huo is this young, but you are clearly deeply respected by your warriors. I believe your status and position must be critical. A personage like you should rightfully be called a pillar of the state. I have no interest in scholarly honors and merely study while drinking on most days. I usually scan the scenery of South Lake, with no lofty ideals and high aspirations. How can I be called a pillar? Young master Huo has flattered me.”
The black-robed young man gave a thin smile at the words. “Now Brother Jing is flattering me. I’m just riding on another’s coattails to success. There’s nothing commendable about it. Today, I had a chance to meet young master Jing. I would like to invite you to drink several rounds together. Would you like to?”
Seeing the soldiers standing with their hands on their sabers, Jing Xin smiled wryly. “How could I not?”
The black-robed young man invited Jing Xin to take a seat. Trembling with fear, the waiter in the building served food and drink under the supervision of the Yong troops. Jing Xin was tense and uneasy, but after a few cups of wine, he began to calm down when he realized the black-robed young man wasn’t going to bring up the relationship between the Jing family and Jiang Zhe or try to recruit him. Although Jing Xin couldn’t help making fun of himself a little, he had full control of his speech and deportment. But it looked like his intelligence and scholarship still weren’t worthwhile. The black-robed young man claimed to be in Jiaxing for the first time and asked Jing Xin about the famous sights of Jiaxing.
Jing Xin was slightly tipsy now and pointed at the lake in front of the building. “Jiaxing’s South Lake has always been called the Strange Beauty of the Southeast. That’s Biao Lake. A famous and elegant river in the southwest of Jiaxing joins this lake with Mandarin Duck Lake. The two lakes together are called South Lake. Biao Lake is the confluence of a host of streams, where they pool and circulate. Embracing the terrain, some truly beautiful landscapes, Mandarin Duck Lake was separated in the middle by a long dike, upon which is a stone bridge called the Five Dragons Bridge. The lake to the east of the bridge is called East Lake, the one to the west of the bridge called West Lake. The ancients penned the verses ‘The two lakes, East and West, / Look like mandarin ducks. / The mandarin ducks on the lake, / Have silky and long wings.’2 just to describe the beautiful landscape of Mandarin Duck Lake.
“West Lake is also known as Inner Lake, as well as Li Lake, so later generations drew the wrong conclusions and called it Fanli Lake and constructed a Temple of Fan Shaobo next to the lake,3 offering sacrifices inside the temple to the able and virtuous man.
At Fanli Lake in south Zuili,4Wild peach blossoms fall onto thick green grass.Poplars and lotus roots planted in the lake,Seem to have produced no arms of Xi Shi.5
“This poem sings of the beautiful landscape of West Lake. ‘Arms of Xi Shi’ refers to the name for lotus roots in West Lake.”
Huo Cong was entranced by the words. He smiled and looked at Jing Xin, seeing him in high spirits with a charming bearing. He thought of the man, He’s proved himself a relative of Sir. Huo Cong raised his cup and toasted, “Brother Jing is brilliant, as expected. This little brother also remembers several poems from the ancestors that give a full description of the wonderful scenery of Misty Rain Building. Has Brother Jing heard them before?” So saying, he recited in an unhurried tone:
“Drizzle falling on the shoals,Water caltrops bloom past broken duckweed flowers.Guests near the balconies grow tired,Distant rain looks like distant mist.Fishing songs are sung slowly on light punts beyond the willows.The wind blowsAnd mandarin ducks scatter and fly.Not a soul can be seen.”6
At the end of the poem, a thought flashed into Jing Xin’s mind. Deep in thought, he furrowed his brows and went silent. He had seen a vertical scroll in his grandfather’s study that had these lines on it. It was signed with the name “Qingyuan7 Hermit,” a pseudonym for Jiang Zhe’s father, Jiang Hanqiu. This poem was not widespread, or at least Jing Xin hadn’t met anyone in Jiaxing who knew this poem. Yet this young man recited it, so could it be the man had a connection to Jiang Zhe? Suspicions grew inside him, and his expression gradually changed.
The black-robed young man asked him three questions, and he found it difficult to answer one. In an instant, the atmosphere in the Misty Rain Building grew awkward.
At this time, a middle-aged general walked upstairs and gave the black-robed young man a fist and palm salute. “Adviser Huo, Jiaxing is fully under our control. Please give orders, Adjunct.”
The black-robed young man stood up and replied, “There’s no need for formalities, General Fang. I, Huo Cong, am merely a nominal and temporary leader.”
The middle-aged general still put on a respectful expression and said, “The Marquis ordered us to obey the adjunct’s orders this time. Please, Adviser Huo, don’t hesitate to give instructions.”
The black-robed man smiled and said, “Since I can do as I wish, please invite all the prominent scholars and family heads of the aristocracy of Jiaxing to the Misty Rain Building, General Fang.”
This middle-aged general was Fang Yuanxin, one of the best generals of the Eastern Sea. He was good at warfare and previously wouldn’t obey a young man who was still wet behind the ears. However, ever since Huo Cong had arrived in Dinghai, he’d followed orders to organize Junshan, Dinghai’s abandoned documents, maps, and census registers. All these documents concerned confidential secrets of Junshan, Dinghai. Later on, Huo Cong learned the terrain of Dinghai and Wuyue like the back of his hand, which was why the Marquis of the Tranquil Sea also wanted to rely on him. He perfected the fort the Eastern Sea Navy built in Dinghai by using the maps, even knowing exactly where to construct the fortifications and sentry posts. In the end, the Marquis of the Tranquil Sea awarded him with the position of adjunct, and no one objected. Furthermore, he was a disciple of the Marquis of Chu, making him and the Marquis of the Tranquil Sea apprentice brothers. As a result, the officers dared not scorn him. As Jiang Haitao couldn’t prevent Jiang Zhe from coming to Jiaxing, he singled out Huo Cong to be responsible for looting Yue Commandery and had Fang Yuanxin lead the navy, all with Jiang Zhe’s safety in mind. Although Huo Cong had outstanding talent, Jiang Haitao wouldn’t let a young man take charge of these matters.
Off to the side, Jing Xin heard them and looked shocked. Though he had guessed the young man was important, he didn’t expect the lives of all the soldiers and civilians of Jiaxing to be under the control of this man. He thought he should bid farewell, but before he could open his mouth, the black-robed young man smiled and said, “Huo Cong has heartfelt admiration for Brother Jing’s talent. Please, Brother Jing, stay awhile longer. First of all, you can introduce Jiaxing’s talents to me. Second of all, I’d like to spend some more time with Brother Jing.”
He looked up and saw the calm look on the black-robed young man’s face. There was no trace of intimidation. Still, he was unhappy and found words difficult. How could Southern Chu survive for long when Great Yong had outstanding talents like this? Jing Xin sighed. What could he do when helpless?
A plum grove stood on the banks of the Mandarin Duck Lake. In the plum grove was a glade several zhang in circumference. The plum blossoms hid a tomb in their shadows. Before the tomb stood a blue limestone tombstone. The inscription had long since faded and was covered by moss, which made it difficult to make out the words. However, although the tombstone was unkempt, the tomb seemed to have a caretaker. The grass around the tomb was green, and fragrant flowers had been placed as an offering. A trail had even been trodden through the glade. It was clear that someone often paced around here reluctant to leave. Compared to the thick brush outside the plum grove, it was strange to the extreme.
As afternoon approached, the quiet of this place was shattered by voices. A man wearing a bamboo hat to block the sun and an azure cloak slowly walked over to the plum grove. Behind him meandered a black-robed youth with a snow-white face. All around the two men were several soldiers in black uniforms defending them closely. Before they arrived, several other soldiers wearing black uniforms and cloaks had surrounded the plum grove, crushing the green grass outside the grove in the process. The man wearing the bamboo hat slightly furrowed his brows at the sight, glad he’d ordered the warriors to stay outside the grove so they wouldn’t disturb the peace of the dead.
Walking to the plum grove, the black-robed young man entered without paying attention to where he stepped. However, the grass he walked on didn’t bend or break. He clearly had supreme qinggong. Not long after, the black-robed young man exited the grove and said, “Young master, you can enter to offer sacrifices to the late mistress.”
The man let out a soft and long sigh, then gently removed his azure cloak and the bamboo hat hiding his face, revealing gray hair and youthful features. Underneath the cloak were white clothes of mourning. He strode forward and walked into the plum grove. The black-robed young man took the incense sticks, candles, and paper money in the hands of one of the warriors and followed into the grove.
The bodyguards wearing black uniforms were all cautiously keeping a watch on their surroundings. Great Yong’s Commandant of the Attendant Cavalry, the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe, had personally come here to pay his respects to his dead mother. Even though Jiaxing had already fallen into the Yong navy’s hands, they couldn’t be careless. If they were tracked by Southern Chu’s secret agents, it would become extremely troublesome.
I gazed at the plum grove that seemed like a vague dream, remembering the sights of the day I bid farewell to my mother’s tomb. Tears spilled over onto the soil unbidden. I prostrated before the tomb, dropping my head to my knees. Tears rolled down my face without a sound. If my mother hadn’t died, my father wouldn’t have feuded with my uncle and left our hometown because of that and wandered through Jiangnan. If he hadn’t been weary from travel, my father’s old illness wouldn’t have relapsed. And he wouldn’t have mourned my mother’s death to the point his heart never healed, leading to me becoming an orphan. My father died heartbroken while I drifted aimlessly for half my life all because my mother passed away. My heart was torn apart by grief at the thoughts.
After crying for an indefinite amount of time, ice-cold qi invaded from the back of my neck. My entire body shivered, then I returned to my senses. I knew Xiaoshunzi had seen my excessive grief and used his qi to rouse me lest I mourn too much. I glanced at Xiaoshunzi, knelt behind me, a hint of warmth in my eyes. After that, I took the paper money, candles, and incense sticks in his hands and incinerated the money and lit the incense sticks and candles at my mother’s tomb. I caught sight of the moss blanketing the tombstone. My heart ached, and I reached out and removed the moss, revealing the elegant and refined engraving. The tombstone was inscribed with “Tomb of a Jiang and Jing” and signed with “Placed by a weeping Hanqiu.”
Seeing my father’s calligraphy on the tombstone, the rage that had risen inside me subsided. I heard vigorous footfalls approaching. Xiaoshunzi walked out of the plum grove and returned before long, asking, “The elderly family head of the Jing family has come but was stopped by Commander Huyan. Does the young master wish to meet him?”
I hesitated before replying, “Have Uncle come in, I suppose.”
Soon, an elderly man in finery and using a cane appeared. He was past seventy, and his beard and hair were entirely white. His stern face was aged. However, I could see from his posture that he was still physically fit and flexible. He walked into the plum grove and didn’t so much as look at me as he walked to the tomb and gazed at it. After a long time, he said, “Zhe’er, you’ve been gone from Jiaxing for years. This should be your first time coming back and paying your respects to your mother.”
I sighed. Eventually, I prostrated and said, “Uncle daren is as healthy as ever. Your nephew, Jiang Zhe, kowtows in greeting.”
The elderly man didn’t walk over and help me up, instead indifferently saying, “Your accent still sounds like Jiaxing’s. Come to think of it, you’ve never forgotten your hometown, but you need not perform these superficial courtesies. You should know of the hate I held for your father and you. The birth mother of your mother and me died prematurely, while our stepmother was bad and my father was obsessed with his career, leading to the two of us, brother and sister, to suffer dearly at home, alone and helpless. If my little sister hadn’t constantly consoled me, I would have left home long ago and wouldn’t have had the slightest chance to inherit the position of family head. Your mother didn’t have good health, so I didn’t want her to marry a fickle official traveling to seek employ. As such, I personally chose her husband. Your dad cared not for a government career and brimmed with talent; therefore, I settled on him and persuaded my father to betroth my little sister to your dad.”
I stood to my feet and quietly listened to him speak. His tone was emotional, obviously having buried these thoughts for many years, unable to recount it to anyone. Today he was telling me about it for the first time. I didn’t know much about these past events, and hearing my uncle speak of them today, I listened attentively. Finally, I chimed in, “When Father was still alive, he said he and Mother married all thanks to Uncle’s intervention.”
“At least he still had a conscience.” The elderly man snorted. “After my little sister and your father married, they respected and loved each other. And after a short while, she was pregnant with you. During the pregnancy, she frequently had fainting spells, so I called over a skilled doctor to diagnose and treat her. The physician said your mother had a feeble constitution, and if she gave birth, it would be risking her life. If we used a drug to flush the fetus, it still wouldn’t be too late. I advised your mom and dad to agree to it. If your father hadn’t worried about having an heir, I would’ve sent him some concubines at best. To my surprise, your dad wouldn’t agree, and my little sister came close to death giving birth to you. The next few years, she lingered on a sickbed. If not for this, how could she have been infected and died when a plague erupted? It’s all because you two, father and son, murdered her. You paying your respects to her today on your return is fine. However, if you want to send Jiang Hanqiu’s coffin here to bury him with her, it’ll have to be over my dead body.”
As I listened, my hazy memories gradually returned. I remembered seeing my mom and dad often singing and playing zithers together, yet my mother always looked pale and in poor health. I remembered my dad’s vague, revealing remarks. Tears sprang forth and fell to the ground. I sobbed, “Does Uncle not understand? This decision was mother’s. Dad just didn’t wish to defy my mother’s painstaking efforts.”
The elderly man shuddered and gazed at Jiang Zhe’s face. The beautiful image of his little sister, now dead, appeared in his mind’s eye, and he realized his nephew’s appearance and figure quite resembled his dead sister’s. His little sister had also looked like this at the time, tears rolling down her face, begging him, insisting on keeping the baby. After a long time, he finally sighed. “You’re right. If my little sister hadn’t insisted, how could I have yielded? It’s just that I miss her and can’t rest easy, so I have to take my anger out on your father and you.” Then it looked like the hatred he’d held for years crumbled. More depression lined his face. His posture also seemed to slump greatly.
I also found it agonizing to the extreme. Although my uncle had forced my father and me to wander the world, it stemmed from the sibling love he felt for my mother. Now it was clear that the trail trod in the plum grove was made by my uncle often coming to pay his respects to my mother, and he purposely let the tombstone erected by my father to get overgrown with moss, because the grudge he’d held against my father had never lessened. After I became zhuangyuan, some in the Jing family greatly desired to reconcile with me. In the end, however, nothing came of it. It was, in part, because I had no intention to reconcile, but most of it was because my uncle opposed it. This was also my uncle taking out his anger on me. Ultimately, it was because he couldn’t forget my mother, so I didn’t need to oppose him anymore. Thinking of this, I went forward, bowed deeply, and said, “Uncle, after my dad left Jiaxing, he missed my mother so much that he fell ill. Because I didn’t wish for my father to feel sad, I didn’t ask much about my mother. Since Uncle’s here today, why not tell your nephew stories about his mother? It’ll give Zhe some more memories to recollect.”
The elderly man burst with joy and smiled. “Your mother’s milk name was Meiniang,8 and she loved plums the most all her life. When she was young, if plum blossoms were budding, she would stay awake the whole night, waiting for the plum blossoms to bloom. Occasionally, some plum blossoms would bloom early, and she would insist on going to appreciate them, even if the ice and snow hadn’t yet melted. She didn’t care. One time, she was sick and overheard that the plum blossoms in the garden were blooming for the first time that year and ignored her maidservants’ dissuasion. She flung on a jacket and entered the garden, treading through snow to pluck a plum blossom. In the end, she got a serious cold from the chilling wind and was dizzy for days.
“After I married her to your father, she often played the zither with your father and sang together. They also composed the zither piece, ‘Falling Plum Blossoms,’ all about describing the plum blossoms’ proud loneliness in flowery language. Do you still remember it?”
I gave it little thought, as I had already recalled it. I softly sang:
“In the courtyard are many tree species,Yet only the plum tree is admired.Why, poets, must you praise the plum alone?I think it’s because it blooms in frost,Bearing fruit in winter dew.In the brisk spring breeze and charming springtime,You scatter in pursuit of the cold wind,With snow blossoms, but without the ability to resist the cold and harsh.” 9
The elderly man listened with his eyes closed. After the song finished, he said, “Jiaxing suffered a plague that year. Your mother was already in poor health and fell ill, sadly. As she passed away, I said to your father that though she wasn’t willing to leave, we were helpless to resist fate, after all. Although you were young, you had your father to look after you. You would be all right. However, she would never again see plum blossoms and swirling snow, but she deserved better than hate. Hence, after you mother died, I selected this plum grove to inter her. The sweet scent and scarce shadows of the plum blossoms would always accompany her beautiful soul.”
I remembered that when my mother passed on, I was still young. And because of the rampaging plague, I was sent to live in safety elsewhere. I couldn’t see my mother for the last time. I couldn’t hold back the tears and said, “In truth, Uncle, you needn’t grieve over my mother. My mother had Uncle caring for her during childhood, and after she married, Dad and she loved each other as husband and wife. Although she unfortunately died early, my mother presumably was at peace and happy, in fact. She had Uncle and Dad loving her, so she wouldn’t have believed this life was meaningless even though she died.”
At some point, the sun had begun setting. The glow of the sunset shone into the plum grove, tinting pink the mist bobbing on the lake. In addition to the faint smell of the plum blossoms, the plum grove felt just like Jewel Lake in the realm of immortals. The one sleeping in the tomb was our next of kin. All was silent in the plum grove. The atmosphere coalesced into one of harmony and tranquility, leading to the two of us unwilling to say a word. The elderly man seemed to sink into memory, a look of tender nostalgia appearing on his features.
A long while later, as the twilight of the sunset faded away, the elderly man came to his senses and evenly asked, “How do you plan to treat Jiaxing’s aristocratic families this time around? And how do you plan to treat the Jing family?”
I sighed softly. In the end, we had to return to proper matters. Between a grudge and the survival of the family clan, my uncle understood which was more important. Furthermore, we were relatives, after all. I raised my head and smiled. “Why say this, Uncle? Zhe simply took good advantage of his country’s seizure of Jiaxing to come and pay respects to Mother. As for military affairs, I can’t interfere.”
A cold light gleamed in the elderly man’s eyes. “With your status as Marquis of Chu of the first rank, how could you lightly enter Jiaxing? Even if you don’t fear the danger, the Great Yong Emperor wouldn’t rest easy. Moreover, if you only came to pay respects to your late mother, why dispatch a messenger to covertly deliver an invitation to the Jing family? I thought you were cutting ties with the Jing family, and if I didn’t come today, I feared the Jing family would vanish into thin air. Many days ago, the court handed down an official document, sentencing Changqing to death. I presume you already know?”
My gaze roamed about, and I said, “I do know about it. Today is the final opportunity before the Yong troops pull back, after which nobody can protect the Jing family. Does Uncle not consider the safety of his family members? And after today, Wuyue will become a battlefield. The Jing family will find it difficult to live safely in Jiaxing.”
The elderly man sighed. “It’s difficult to leave one’s homeland. However, I also know there’s no choice. Changqing lost heart going through those events. It won’t be hard to persuade him.”
I had long since expected this. With war between the two countries near at hand, I didn’t want to leave soft spots behind in Southern Chu. As it was difficult for me to completely forget the Jing family, I could only force them to pledge themselves to Great Yong. I lightly bowed to my uncle and said, “Zhe admires Uncle’s sensibility with gratitude, that he understands the Yong troops will be purging Jiaxing of all its young and middle-aged men and women, and scholars and craftsmen. They will all be seized. I’ve already delegated the task to the responsible general. He will take additional care of the Jing family. At a suitable time, Uncle can sail to Great Yong and live in peace.”
The elderly man quivered. Eventually, he said, “What a brutal measure, capturing Wuyue’s population and taxes to weaken the enemy’s resources. It may be a piratical tactic, but it’s supremely effective. Even if I didn’t agree to submit, you’d still have people take the Jing family to Dinghai as captives, wouldn’t you?”
Aware my uncle had seen through my intentions at a glance, I was impressed at heart. However, I didn’t say anything, simply bowing low. The elderly man softly sighed and strode out. I felt sorrow as I turned my back on him, unwilling to watch his aged figure leave. But the wind carried his old and strong voice over. “Zhe’er, don’t be embarrassed. You’ve already done your utmost for the Jing family and shown your love and duty. Thank you for supporting and aiding Changqing and Shunqing.”
I felt relieved by the words; a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. The Jing family’s affairs had finally been properly resolved. I could depart with peace of mind. I kowtowed once again to my mother’s tomb. I lingered for a long moment before parting reluctantly.
I had taken great pains to persuade Jiang Haitao to permit me to personally visit Jiaxing on this occasion. The most important task, other than wanting to pay respects to my mother, was to reconcile with the Jing family. After all, Jiaxing’s Jing family was my mother’s family.
There was already an innate potential of conflict. This time, I had suggested a scheme to seize the aristocracy and commoners of Wuyue and stuff them in Dinghai to weaken Southern Chu. However, I didn’t plan to slaughter the population of Wuyue. First, it didn’t suit my nature as I never carried out tasks with no benefit. Second, it would also damage Great Yong’s glory. Third, after Jiangnan was reunited, the region of Wuyue would certainly not submit for a long time because of that action. As a result, the best course of action was to handpick several people from the seized population of Wuyue and use them to manage the captives. This way, it would be a velvet glove in an iron fist. With the culture of the Wuyue population to gently endure, they wouldn’t create difficulties for Great Yong’s rule. And these people wouldn’t be rashly selected either. They needed to have skill at managing internal affairs. As a result, the aristocratic families of Jiaxing became my choice. Who wasn’t selfish? I was no exception either. However, I had only told half the reason to Haitao back then. I had another reason for visiting Jiaxing. I hoped he wouldn’t stamp his feet and beat his chest when he found out.