THE GRANDMASTER STRATEGIST - THE GRANDMASTER STRATEGIST Volume 6, Chapter 24: A Cunning Escape
The family heads of all the aristocratic families and numerous famous scholars of Jiaxing had been summoned to the Misty Rain Building. They had been forcefully invited by the Yong troops and had believed the grand general of Yong had summoned them. To their surprise, the host was a young man around seventeen. These family heads were indignant initially because they felt slighted. To their surprise, the young man’s words suited the occasion, for he knew every Jiaxing citizen here inside and out. He showed his admiration in his speech, and in just a few moments, he made the group set aside their hostility. Then the young man ordered a banquet set out and asked the group about the terrain and populace of Jiaxing. As the group was being provided hospitality, they felt they had to answer. Further, they intended to dampen the young man’s spirits, so they sought opportunities to ask difficult questions. As a result, the Misty Rain Building transformed into a place of sophisticated, eloquent debate. The young man may not have been all that clever or sagacious, but he was easygoing and spoke well. He was surprisingly good at creating the right atmosphere, making the building overflow with cheer and joy. By the time the sun set and dusk fell, these family heads and famous scholars still wished to continue. The young man gave another order, this time for candles to be set out so they could continue the banquet. Unexpectedly, no one tried to overtly decline the invitation.
Jing Xin may have been a well-known figure among the young heroes of the Jiaxing aristocratic families, but he wasn’t qualified to attend these sorts of talks. However, the Jing family declared their family head was bedridden and couldn’t come. The one who had followed orders to come here was Jing Xin’s third uncle, Jing Xunqing. Jing Xunqing had worried that coming like this would make it hard to avoid offending the Yong military, but when he saw Jing Xin was here and that Huo Cong seemed to think highly of Jing Xin, Jing Xunqing got a bright idea. He passed on a fake order from Jing Changqing to have Jing Xin attend the banquet in place of the family head. Huo Cong was overjoyed at the news and specifically had Jing Xin sit next to him. If considering the Jing family’s status, they were rather illustrious in Jiaxing, but they were mentioned on equal terms with two other families. Huo Cong treating Jing Xin like this was, without a doubt, an honor, but Jing Xin felt the group was looking at him with eyes full of suspicion. Under their watchful eyes, he found it difficult to sit still, so he stayed silent during the banquet. But the more he watched, the more surprised he grew. Though Huo Cong was modest and gentle, he secretly controlled the situation. The aristocratic families of Jiaxing had already come under his control without realizing it.
As the night deepened, the family heads began to grow uneasy. The banquet had dragged on for a bit too long. However, when they looked at the host’s seat, the young man surnamed Huo was still in glowing spirits and had intense interest. These family heads began to be concerned. They also realized the Yong soldiers acting as attendants were all eyeing their prey like tigers would, and they couldn’t help but worry. They knew this young man had to be relying on someone else for support to summon them. But no matter what he wanted, he should have announced it by now. Why was he dragging it out and refusing to end the banquet? As such, the group couldn’t stop their imagination from running wild. However, a majority of the people here were wily old foxes and wouldn’t have the atmosphere turn awkward. They spent a lot of effort searching for topics to discuss, so tired they were constantly yawning but too afraid to let it show.
Finally, at dawn of the next day, Huo Cong stood up and smiled. “All the prominent gentlemen and I took part in a long discussion that lasted all night. It was of great benefit, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.2 Though the night may be long, there is always an end.”
A rather rich and famous prince and family head among the aristocratic families of Jiaxing was forcing his bleary red eyes to stay open as he rose and declared, “It is our good fortune to be able to drink with Adviser Huo. The adviser is a young hero. If you have any advice, feel free to speak your mind. We shall do our best to heed it.” He couldn’t hold back and failed to appreciate Huo Cong’s kindness in waiting for the Yong troops to settle back down. He decided it was better to ask about the price first. In his eyes, if they gave money or some form of tribute, they should be able to avoid the misfortune of being killed. The Yong military couldn’t possibly stay for long in Jiaxing.
Huo Cong had long since received reports back that his master had already left Jiaxing. In the span of one night, the Yong troops recorded the entire population of Jiaxing, the commoners and aristocrats, in the books. They were only waiting for his order, so he didn’t bother to sugarcoat his words, stating with a grave complexion, “On the orders of the Marquis of the Tranquil Sea, I’m taking the population of Wuyue to replenish Dinghai. As all the gentlemen here are prominent personages of Jiaxing, please unite and help.”
At first, everyone was at a loss, then their eyes expressed fright. Tongue-tied, they stared at Huo Cong, all of them showing disbelief. This good-natured and ordinary-looking young man turned into a predator right before their very eyes. Huo Cong said with a smile, “My fellow men, everything is packed for the journey. All forms of transportation—carriages, horses, boats, and ships—in Jiaxing have been commandeered by our troops, so the journey won’t be hard for all those here.”
Jing Xin had been silent all this while, but he swelled with fury at the words. He stood up and raised his voice. “The Yong military calls itself an ‘Army of Justice,’ so why is it acting unjust? Pressing people into service is the type of action pirates would take. Why are you uprooting people?”
“The two countries are waging war and will resort to every conceivable means to win,” Huo Cong calmly replied. “If the entire populace of Wuyue were slaughtered, the same effect could be achieved. However, our Great Yong Emperor is benevolent and does not wish to massacre the populace. It has already been decided that we’ll take Wuyue’s populace to Dinghai. Brother Jing should understand which is the lesser of two evils to choose.” Though his tone was calm, coldness shone in his eyes, as if demonstrating killing intent.
Jing Xin froze. Jing Xunqing had gently tugged on his sleeve to stop him from continuing the argument. Jing Xin had no choice but to slump back down into his seat.
The Yong military’s invasion of Wuyue came as a surprise to the court of Southern Chu. But even though Dinghai had been captured, the aristocratic families and officials in the Commanderies of Wu and Yue still didn’t believe the Yong military would land, as the army didn’t have any bases in the region of Wuyue. If they copied how pirates came ashore for plunder, they wouldn’t be able to avoid losing the air of a great power. How could they have known the commander of the Eastern Sea Navy had once been a pirate and had the Marquis of Chu, who ignored etiquette, as a strategist? They had already made the strategic decision to take Wuyue’s populace to Dinghai for long-term resistance against Southern Chu. If a different Great Yong general were in charge of Dinghai, he might switch to a different strategy to wage war, but Jiang Haitao had been convinced by Jiang Zhe. Haitao had also led a pirate lifestyle, and in addition, the Yong emperor had enfeoffed him as a marquis after he surrendered to Great Yong. Yet he followed in his father’s footsteps and didn’t establish any military achievements. This was unique even in Great Yong, so he really wanted to use military success to prove himself. As a result, he spared no effort in carrying out this potentially reproachable strategy.
After a few moments, a clamor came from the entrance of the Misty Rain Building. Hearing it, Jing Xin ignored the Yong troops moving their hands to their blades and walked over to the window to see what was happening downstairs. He watched Yong troops enter homes on both sides of the street and tie up a bunch of young and middle aged men and women with rope and harry them out of their houses according to census records. The elderly and weak women and children followed them out, wailing, but they were forced to retreat by the Yong troops brandishing blades at them. It was chaos inside the city of Jiaxing. Jing Xin was at a loss. Then someone called his name loudly. He looked back and saw on this floor of the Misty Rain Building only Yong troops and forlorn aristocratic family heads. The black-robed young man, Huo Cong, was nowhere to be seen. The man who’d called his name was a soldier, who was prodding him to get ready for the journey ahead.
In the twelfth year of Southern Chu’s Tongtai era, the eighth year of Great Yong’s Longsheng era, calamity befell the aristocrats and commoners of the region of Wuyue. Yuyao, Zhenhai, Jiaxing, Haining, and Pinghu were seized of five hundred thousand young and middle-aged men and women. Among them included all the kin of aristocratic families, poor and renowned scholars, and various craftsmen. The Yong strategy could be described as very decisive and ruthless. The population of five provinces nearly reached three million, and the Yong military had captured one-sixth of them. Among them included nearly fifty thousand aristocratic family members, nearly fifty thousand poor and renowned scholars, and ten thousand craftsmen. The rest of the people were all young and middle-aged men and women, all of whom were taken according to population records. None were left out.
By the time Lu Can led the Jiujiang Navy through the Jiangnan Canal and arrived at Jiaxing, the Yong navy had been gone for just under twelve hours. Lu Can sent another unit commander to go assume control of the Yuhang Navy, while he led his navy in pursuit of the Yong navy. Unfortunately, the Yong navy had planned well in advance and moved rapidly. Lu Can could only chase them to the town of Yanguan, watching as the Yong navy leisurely sailed into the sea. All that remained was Lu Can sighing and wringing his hands. He couldn’t help marveling at the ruthless and brilliant method employed by the commander of the Yong forces. After all, the Yong navy hadn’t withdrawn lightly. They carried off the looted money in the form of grain and the commoners they’d coerced into coming along. How could Lu Can not be amazed that the Yong navy didn’t drag their feet while retreating into the open sea.
Standing on the shore and watching the Yong navy sail into the distance, Lu Can scoffed hard, but he was helpless. The Yuhang Navy that had received his order finally arrived at this time, long overdue. Lu Can knew the Yuhang Navy had always been independent and had indulged in bliss, so had long since lost the nerve for naval warfare. But he could only say a few words of admonishment. Since the war had come to this, he required these generals’ assistance to reform the Yuhang Navy.
Over the next several days, Lu Can reorganized the troops while reconstructing the coastal forts to prevent the Yong navy from coming ashore and looting and pillaging once again. The region of Wuyue was crippled, with countless broken homes. The bereaved people of Wuyue who had lost relatives and worried for loved ones being retaliated against would not make for a good volunteer army. If not for Lu Can’s illustriousness, and persuading the surviving aristocratic families of Wuyue to protect themselves, as well as wulin warriors issuing a call to action and doing their utmost to help, the raising of the volunteer army would have taken twice the effort for half the result.
Right as Lu Can set about to work on Wuyue’s coastal defenses, news that made him furrow his brows reached his ears. The surprising news was that Great Yong’s Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe, was in Dinghai, and he had personally visited Jiaxing to pay his respects to his dead mother.
The news made waves, spreading like wildfire, circulating everywhere within just a few days. Although Jiang Zhe coming to Jiaxing to pay his respects was a secret, it wasn’t like water flowing by without a trace. After he’d left, some people spotted clues, and upon further investigation, they discovered this event. Furthermore, hidden Southern Chu spies knew all about Jiang Zhe’s whereabouts and movements. However, they didn’t dare appear to stop and assassinate him. After all, the Yong military was powerful, and Jiang Zhe’s bodyguards were quite formidable.
Although all parts of Southern Chu society denounced and reviled Jiang Zhe, there hid, in truth, several different points of view. Some regarded the traitor a turncoat official with no lord or father, while others secretly envied his wealth and glory. But in the end, few people knew of Jiang Zhe’s competence. First, the elites of Southern Chu purposefully covered up Jiang Zhe’s competence. Second, even though Jiang Zhe held the title of marquis, most people believed the Yong emperor had rewarded him for helping him win the succession struggle or believed it was because of Princess Changle. Even with Southern Chu’s wise scholars, they couldn’t properly evaluate Jiang Zhe’s skill because they didn’t receive enough intelligence reports. But the core members of Southern Chu’s military and government would never underestimate Jiang Zhe. Even Shang Weijun, who was determined to keep the masses ignorant, would not look down on him.
Now that Jiang Zhe had appeared in Jiaxing, it was clear he was advising the Eastern Sea Navy’s strategy. From this, the Yong navy’s main attack had to be Wuyue, or else Jiang Zhe wouldn’t be in Dinghai. Not even Lu Can believed Jiang Zhe went to Dinghai just to pay his respects to his dead mother.
When the news broke, the various factions in Southern Chu’s military and government weren’t immediately convinced, of course. They all spared no effort to collect relevant intelligence. Jiang Zhe was an extraordinary person. If he had appeared in Dinghai, it demonstrated the Yong navy’s next step in their strategy. Everyone understood that Jiang Zhe’s reentry into the military had to be the will of the Yong emperor. If not for the war against Southern Chu, what could have dragged Great Yong’s aloof Cold Courtyard hermit to Jiangnan?
Lu Can first ordered people to search Jiaxing for clues, undertaking a painstaking investigation.3 Eventually, they determined that Jiang Zhe had, in fact, visited Jiaxing. Not only had Jiaxing’s Jing family completely vanished, some villagers had seen a group of black uniformed Yong troops coming and going. In addition, the waiter helping the shopkeeper of the Misty Rain Building had survived and told all about the events that transpired in the building. Although the waiter didn’t know who the young adjunct was, Lu Can got a vague picture of who the man was just from hearing about his actions. After receiving intelligence reports that named the young adjunct as Huo Cong, Lu Can understood. Huo Cong was still young, while Great Yong had plenty of talent. Only because Jiang Zhe personally came to Dinghai and Huo Cong followed along was the young man able to demonstrate his outstanding skill.
On another front, the intelligence Southern Chu gathered from inside Great Yong confirmed that the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe, had disappeared for a long time already. News of the Yong emperor personally visiting the Cold Courtyard was also being gossiped about. There was even news verifying Jiang Zhe went to the Eastern Sea. Upon integrating intelligence from every direction, Lu Can finally confirmed that Jiang Zhe had actually accompanied the Eastern Sea Navy and come to Dinghai.
When Shang Weijun received the same intelligence reports, he immediately sent down a secret order, temporarily assigning the Junshan in Ninghai to Lu Can, and requested Lu Can do everything in his power to annihilate the Yong navy occupying Dinghai. Naturally, he had another request. Shang Weijun strictly ordered Lu Can to eradicate his nemesis—Jiang Zhe. Although Shang Weijun usually criticized Lu Can overtly and covertly for his old relationship of master and disciple with Jiang Zhe, it was because of power struggles. In his heart of hearts, he didn’t truly believe it mattered. The Lu family had assisted the Zhao monarchs for generations. There was no possible way they would betray the state. And Shang Weijun was well aware of Jiang Zhe’s standing in Great Yong. Shang Weijun may have had selfish motives for fighting for power, but he wasn’t entirely incompetent. He knew exactly how formidable Jiang Zhe was. If not, he would never have shown mercy to Jiaxing’s Jing family. Although, if he could have still done something, he might have acted against the Jing family.
Since he now maintained that Great Yong’s main target of attack was Wuyue, he didn’t have the capacity to care about Ninghai’s military power. Although he merely permitted Lu Can to mobilize the Ninghai Navy and didn’t turn over complete military power to him, it was still an enormous sacrifice for Shang Weijun. Lu Can wasn’t allowed to disappoint Shang Weijun’s “kindness,” and he had the same outlook. When Lu Can thought of the Yong navy’s looting and plundering in Wuyue, it wasn’t like the Eastern Sea Navy’s previous reckless and careless methods. Rather, it was precise and ruthless. Lu Can also believed Jiang Zhe had to be in Dinghai, commanding the Wuyue naval battles. Since this was the case, they couldn’t follow the old plans that let the Yong military go unchecked in their occupation of Dinghai. If this dragged on for a few years, the Yong military might occupy both the Wu and Yue Commanderies before he could finish training his elite troops.
Because of Jiang Zhe, a colossal conflict began brewing around Hangzhou Bay, where previously it might have descended into a stalemate. Shang Weijun and Lu Can once again put aside their past differences and resisted as one. The Yuhang Navy and Ninghai Navy joined forces and began a fierce attack on Dinghai.
On the crystal blue sea, a terrible battle had just ended, leaving countless wrecks of warships in its wake. Bodies floated everywhere in the sea, bobbing with the current and drifting out to the open sea. Vessels from both sides rowed in separate directions. In the span of ten days, the two sides had fought battle after battle, but the victor was still undecided. In terms of naval warfare, only the Eastern Sea Navy, survivors of the angry sea, could oppose the navies of Wuyue.
Standing at the bow and feeling the icy sea breeze on his skin, Huo Cong was a little pale. His black robes fluttered. The rocking of the ship during battle as it raced to and fro was rather difficult for him to tolerate. After all, he wasn’t a Eastern Sea sailor who’d spent many years on the sea fighting naval battles and sailing. On the distant horizon, seabirds skimmed past waves. The waves rolled in, drowning the vestiges of the recent naval battle. Huo Cong was overwhelmed by emotion. When he thought about the unknown whereabouts of his respected master, endless worry welled up inside him again.
Sacking Wuyue was a very successful feat, but when Huo Cong returned to Dinghai, he received a severe blow and was nearly knocked senseless by bad news. Jiang Zhe should have long since returned, but he had vanished without a trace. Only the hundred odd Stalwart Tiger Guards returned to Dinghai with their heads hanging. Upon Jiang Haitao and Huo Cong’s interrogation, the two of them learned exactly what had happened.
Once Jiang Zhe departed from Jiaxing, not only did he have no intention of returning to Dinghai, he had even planned to head north from Jiaxing. He would cross the Jiangnan Canal to get to Zhenze Lake,4 then cross the Grand Canal again to arrive at Jingkou. Then he would cross the river into the Southern Chu-controlled Huaidong region and rush to the Siege of Xiangyang via Xuzhou. How could the Stalwart Tiger Guard allow this? He would be traveling to a far-flung location, and most of the journey was through Southern Chu’s sphere of influence. If Southern Chu discovered Jiang Zhe’s presence, his life might be forfeit. Huyan Shou stepped in to remonstrate against this course of action, but it was to no avail. Jiang Zhe spoke in no uncertain terms that if Huyan Shou tried to forcefully stop him, he would have Demonic Shadow Li Shun take him alone on the journey. After arguing and debating for a long time, Huyan Shou finally realized he couldn’t stop Jiang Zhe. He was forced to make a concession and asked that they come along as well for protection. Only after much imploring did Jiang Zhe agree to bring along five Stalwart Tiger Guards. Huyan Shou had no choice but to pick out four bodyguards with excellent martial arts, along with himself, to accompany Jiang Zhe. The other Stalwart Tiger Guards were forced to return to Dinghai to conceal Jiang Zhe’s whereabouts.
After learning the particulars, Jiang Haitao and Huo Cong nearly fainted in anger, especially Jiang Haitao. The Yong emperor had already been rather worried about Jiang Zhe accompanying the navy south in the first place. Upon departure, a letter was delivered to Jiang Haitao. He was to ensure Jiang Zhe’s safety. He never imagined Jiang Zhe would make a fool of him upon initial arrival in Wuyue. If anything untoward should happen to Jiang Zhe, how would he explain himself to Li Zhi, Li Xian, and Princess Changle? Huo Cong was also exasperated, but he was still the disciple Jiang Zhe was proudest of. He felt that Jiang Zhe wasn’t the type of person to dive headfirst into danger. He definitely had a reason for making that decision, so he encouraged Jiang Haitao not to worry.
The Stalwart Tiger Guard who returned obeyed orders to remain by Huo Cong’s side for the time being. They had also brought back a letter from Jiang Zhe. In the message, Jiang Zhe charged the two men, Jiang Haitao and Huo Cong, with spreading the news that Jiang Zhe was in Dinghai and preventing the Southern Chu army from discovering he wasn’t actually in Dinghai. Moreover, he explained that after the news spread, the Southern Chu military would focus their attacks on Dinghai, and he told Jiang Haitao to be careful. After the two men pondered the letter over and over again, they realized they had to comply. In order to pretend that Jiang Zhe was still in Dinghai, Huo Cong even dyed his sideburns, disguising himself as Jiang Zhe and appearing on the ship.
The onslaught of attacks from the Southern Chu Navy made them suffer terribly. Fortunately, the more a double-edged blade was honed, the sharper it became. The Southern Chu navy didn’t have it easy in these several battles. After all, the Southern Chu sailors mostly fought on inland rivers. They weren’t as good at sea-based naval warfare as the Eastern Sea Navy. So both sides were now stuck in a stalemate, though the Yong navy had established supply bases in Dinghai on the Putuo Islands, and they had seized the grain money from Wuyue. The Junshan in Ninghai may have blocked their northern return route, but they still gave as good as they got.
Even though Lu Can wanted to take Putuo and rescue the people of Wuyue, there were three problems. First, Putuo was hard to attack; second, the Eastern Sea Navy repeatedly attacked from the rear during the battles; third, even if he captured Putuo, it was impossible to transport the five hundred thousand citizens of Wuyue back to the mainland with the Eastern Sea Navy lying in wait. So in the end, Lu Can abandoned this plan of action. He could only rely upon naval combat.
The vast blue sea turned into a bloodsoaked, fiery battlefield. The Eastern Sea Navy had them completely pinned down in the southeast. Even though Lu Can was skilled at warfare, he couldn’t split his attention to the battle in the region of Xiangfan. He had no choice but to entrust everything to Rong Yuan.