THE GRANDMASTER STRATEGIST - THE GRANDMASTER STRATEGIST Volume 6, Chapter 25: Sailing a Skiff
As the Yong navy retreated, news of Zhe visiting Jiaxing to pay his respects to his mother leaked. Everybody learned of it and said Zhe advised the sacking of Wuyue. Everybody blamed him for maiming their hometowns. Then, after the Yong navy looted and pillaged without torturing the masses to death, everybody occasionally talked of Zhe’s accomplishments. Jiaxing’s elders feared the Yong navy would come again, assisting the return of Zhe’s flesh and blood, and dared not take over the Jing family’s plot of land.
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
While the Southern Chu navy and Great Yong navy were locked in a stalemate on the high seas, I was on Zhenze Lake, drinking in the endless scenic beauty. Though the main culprit behind the intensifying situation in Wuyue, I didn’t feel any remorse. War had been the inevitable outcome. The more intense the state of war was in Wuyue, the more the attention of Southern Chu’s court would shift there, and the more the campaigns in Sichuan and Xiangyang would advance. As for me sneaking away on the eve of battle, ahem, the Eastern Sea didn’t really need me right now, now did they?
I sat in the forward cabin of the pleasure boat, fluttering my folding fan. I wore a brocade robe and a belt of office. I rolled up the bead curtain and tasted some fragrant tea, closing my eyes in contentment as I basked in the spring sunshine. I exuded the panache of a young Southern Chu aristocrat. If not for the lack of dancers and songstresses on the boat, it would have looked exactly like a spring cruise for a young aristocratic gentleman. I had also deliberately dyed my gray hair black and touched up my appearance to avoid being identified because of my gray hair contrasting with a youthful face.
Although Wu Commandery had descended into war, the ripples hadn’t yet spread to the provinces neighboring Zhenze Lake. The submissive nature of the people of Wu Commandery let these regions retain peace and happiness. After all, Grand General Lu had arrived in Wuyue, which let them rest easy. I had lived on the lake for three days and had seen no indications the war was close by. On these bright and lovely spring days, visitors crowded onto the thirty-six thousand qing2 of the lake, inside the eight hundred li3 comprising the territory of Zhenze. Lakewater and mountains stretched as far as the eye could see.
The bead curtain quivered as Huyan Shou entered. He looked terribly unhappy. He walked over to me, then bowed and saluted. “Young master, we cannot stay in this dangerous location for long. Please, young master, tell us when we should depart.”
I looked up at him, laughter filling my mind. He had a plain and honest appearance. Although he’d had high status and importance for years, it hadn’t gone to his head. However, his handsome, nearly eight-chi-tall4 frame stuck out like a sore thumb. Coupled with his intense and animated eyes and his bulging, knotted tendons in his hands, he clearly looked like a majestic general, but I’d forced him to wear servant apparel. It truly looked weird. It was no wonder Huyan Shou was the Vice Commander of the Stalwart Tiger Guard, an imposing first-rank general. No matter what he wore, he just didn’t look like a normal servant. And of the other four bodyguards he’d brought along, I just couldn’t see how they looked like servants. However, as long as the five of them didn’t stand together, it wouldn’t be eye-catching. Their northern accent was rather strong, but it’d be fine as they wouldn’t normally talk. There was always a way to get by. Although, if not for Huyan Shou speaking of the emperor’s orders and me not wanting to make Li Zhi unhappy with him because of this, I wouldn’t have let him stay by my side. And it wasn’t strange for him to press me to speed up the journey. After all, the longer I stayed in Southern Chu’s territory, the greater his responsibility became. Furthermore, we brushed past Lu Can on the way to Zhenze Lake. While the Jiujiang Navy was hurrying south, I was on a tributary of the river and taking things easy, watching the Southern Chu navy’s cowhide-clad warships. I didn’t feel anything, but Huyan Shou’s face was ashen.
I smiled as I sipped my fragrant tea. I languidly said, “Huyan, don’t be so anxious. It’s rare to come to Zhenze Lake. It would be a terrible shame not to admire the beautiful scenery of East Mountain and West Mountain. What’s more, the Southern Chu navy is currently maneuvering down the Yangtze to Yuhang. If we set out now, we’ll run the risk of bumping into the Southern Chu navy. It’s better to wait a few days for the waterways to calm down. It still won’t be too late then.”
Huyan Shou was taken aback but also felt it was rather logical. However, it wasn’t safe to stay long in Southern Chu territory. Thinking of how he hadn’t been able to stop Jiang Zhe’s actions, it would be difficult to avoid being condemned upon returning. If something happened to Jiang Zhe now, he feared he’d be too disgraced to return to Chang’an. With these thoughts, he was about to try to persuade Jiang Zhe again when the sound of a pipa rang out on the lake. It was clear, melodious, and touching, playing a call and response with the waves of the lake. The music spread everywhere.
Once the pipa music started, I was moved. I closed my eyes and listened closely. The plaintive, regretful notes seemed to come from right next to me, telling of endless sorrowful partings and talking of endless torment. The pipa piece was breathtaking, a great rendition of “Sorrow of Zhaojun.”5 After listening to half, I opened both my eyes and sighed gently. Although the lyrics for the “Sorrow of Zhaojun” spoke of parting from the anguish of the harem, it held an undercurrent of longing for the Han Dynasty. In the melancholy was a grief stemming from homesickness upon leaving one’s homeland. The end of the flourishes sighed with feeling. Although the person who played this piece brought out the tenderness, there was a faint presence of a destitute scholar. It was presumably a talented person concerned with affairs of the state. Who knew how much talent existed in prosperous Southern Chu and amid the mist of Jiangnan. It was just that the Southern Chu court used lyrical poetry to test ability, but even if one devoted a lifetime of study to the literature, it sadly would still be difficult not to fail the examination. And even if someone started on their career as an official, if no aristocratic family regarded said person as important, it would be impossible to display one’s outstanding skills. Not even Lu Can, known for always recruiting talent, could cast off this influence. Most of the officers and adjuncts in his army had forged unbreakable bonds with the Lu family over generations. If one wanted to depend on one’s own talent, it would not be easy to establish oneself in Southern Chu. The masterful musician playing the pipa was presumably one of those who had no opportunity to serve Southern Chu, which was why the piece contained so much grief and indignation.
I flicked my eyes over and caught sight of Huyan Shou also listening and standing enthralled. I found it strange. When did he learn to appreciate the pipa? It was quite rare. Then I remembered and almost laughed out loud at myself. Everybody knew the Marquis of Cheng, Su Qing, was excellent at the pipa. As Huyan Shou was her husband, he was most likely influenced by it and also appreciated the piece a little.
Now the mood of the pipa changed, becoming more impassioned and heroic, sounding just like heavy cavalry charging and destroying silver bottles. With the music, I felt my heartbeat grow faster and my qi and blood writhe. Blood immediately drained from my face. The bead curtain flew aside, and Xiaoshunzi suddenly appeared at my side, flying over from the aft cabin where he had been meditating. He pressed his palm into the middle of my back and sent in a pulse of internal energy. After a moment, I finally exhaled a long breath and calmed down. At the same time, Huyan Shou’s complexion grew cold and he went outside, clearly to search for traces of the enemy. Xiaoshunzi swept his chilling gaze across our surroundings, gazing at the direction the sound of the pipa came from. A vague killing intent permeated his whole body.
Then a male voice belted on the lake:
“Drunk, I contemplate the sword under the lamp,Awakened, bugles ring through the camp.Recalling a scene of soldiers drinking and savoring roasted beef in their widespread camps,With military music played out by various instruments they are entranced,In the autumn cool a grand parade advances.Warriors on coursers speed by, with bows fully drawn, hotly after their enemies’ end,On the twangs of bows into dismay the enemies sank.I vow to restore His Majesty to sovereignty with my morale greatly enhanced,Earning myself renown and success that never end.Deplorably old I’ll be before any achievement attained.”
I was a little surprised. I had written this lyrical poem in Jiangxia when I saw Lu Xin training troops. Afterwards, I awarded it to the Prince of De. He loved it and would sing it every time he was among the troops. My poem did not at all give priority to heroics, but it was still vigorous and forceful. However, ever since the Prince of De died and I submitted to Great Yong, very few people spread this poem through singing, even though all my poems still circulated throughout Southern Chu. Perhaps people didn’t think I didn’t deserve to pen the lyrics “I vow to restore His Majesty to sovereignty with my morale greatly enhanced, / Earning myself renown and success that never end,” especially now. I was brazenly leading an offensive on Wuyue. It was truly rare for someone to dare sing this poem aloud. Thinking of this, the anger I felt from nearly getting taken advantage of by the pipa dissipated.
Before the song finished, Huyan Shou returned to the cabin and reported, “Young master, there’s a pleasure craft three li6 out. The music came from there.”
I gazed out through the bead curtain as I listened. With my eyesight, I saw a punt without roofing bobbing up and down with the waves of the lake. Only two people were in the punt. One was a man wearing Confucian robes made of hemp, while the other was a Daoist priest wearing a yellow hat. The priest was holding the bamboo pole used to scull the boat. He stood at the stern of the boat, facing the wind, and both his arms were fairly long. The other man sat tall at the bow of the boat, holding the pipa and wearing a sword on his back. He was looking up at the priest and saying something. From my position, I could only see their profiles, but I could tell they both looked distinguished. Wuyue was Jiangnan’s prosperous region, a remarkable place that produced outstanding people, that gave birth to generations of heroes and talent. However, they could not all be used by Southern Chu. These two could damage souls with songs. I feared I would have gotten injured if not for Xiaoshunzi’s protection.
Thinking of this, I said in excitement, “Individuals skilled at both brush and sword must be met.” Before Huyan Shou could oppose my words, a disdainful snort came from behind me. I trembled and looked back at Xiaoshunzi with a smile. “Please let me do it just this once.” I gazed at him longingly, afraid he would reject my plea. It had taken me a great deal of effort to convince Xiaoshunzi to leave the navy. I put forth all sorts of reasons before I finally forced Xiaoshunzi to grudgingly nod his head. But the entire trip, he was sullen. The entire time I was staying on the pleasure boat, he was in the aft cabin meditating. He was at odds with me, as before he had always been by my side attending to me.
Xiaoshunzi had been very upset and wasn’t willing to let Jiang Zhe stir up trouble again, but then he saw his master’s radiant expression and the free and self-indulgent look on his features. He also thought of the dull tiredness his master couldn’t cover up when living in the Yong capital, even though it was extensively flourishing and he had a happy family there. Only by temporarily casting aside earthly trifles could he be this joyful. Xiaoshunzi didn’t have the heart to say no. “You might as well meet them,” he sighed.
My heart burst with joy at the words. I ordered Huyan Shou to go out and tell the crew to have our pleasure boat approach the pleasure craft. I brushed the curtain aside and walked out of the cabin. Raising my voice, I said, “My good gentleman, you play the pipa well. And the Daoist priest startled the resting gulls and herons on Earth with this loud song. This one is Yun Wuzong,7 from Jiaxing, and would like to invite the two gentlemen aboard to drink a cup of tea. Would the two of you be willing to honor me?”
The Daoist priest wearing a yellow hat turned his attention to me and sneered. “We’re poor, so aren’t suited to be guests of a young aristocrat. As sire’s hometown is Jiaxing, sire should know of the sacking of Jiaxing that took place a few days ago, but this poor Daoist doesn’t see any grief or hurt on sire’s features. Instead, sire is pleasure cruising on the lake in the middle of spring, truly a heartless man. How can such an inhuman talk with us.”
Huyan Shou was infuriated by the words, and he stared at the priest with burning eyes. He clenched his fists, his knuckles cracking. He was like a tiger picking out someone to devour.
The priest smiled contemptuously and met Huyan Shou’s gaze with piercing eyes that showed no weakness. A suppressed killing intent permeated his entire body.
The Confucian scholar in hemp robes furrowed his brows a little and set down his pipa. He also gazed at the pleasure boat. His sword qi surged through his body, but it wasn’t fusing with the killing intent of the Daoist priest. Instead, the two people’s auras were infighting and conflicting with each other. Though this was the case, Huyan Shou’s face was pale, as if he had taken a heavy blow. But his will was unswerving, as he had often faced the oppressive aura of grandmaster-level experts—special training from Xiaoshunzi. Barely any weakness showed on his features; rather, hostility was expressed. The priest’s sword qi was thwarted by his companion, and the priest always respected his companion, so he didn’t get angry. However, he saw Huyan Shou didn’t lose any might, which he also admired, and his features became much more relaxed.
The Confucian scholar in hemp robes warmly said, “Please do not take offense, sire. My friend has a frank character and often offends people. We are but uncivilized members of jianghu, so aren’t suited to make friends with an influential aristocrat. Please excuse us, sire.” Though his tone was gentle, it contained standoffishness and rejection. However, it didn’t sound harsh.
While speaking, the Confucian scholar also gazed with shining eyes at the gentleman wearing brocade robes on the pleasure boat across from them. He was mentally delving into the man’s history. This pleasure boat was owned by the largest embroidery workshop in Wu Commandery, Xiexiu Workshop. The Xiexiu Workshop dominated nearly fifty percent of the Suzhou style in Jiangnan. Of the seven great disciples of Southern Chu’s famous embroiderer Gu Xiuniang, the Xiexiu Workshop had invited and employed four of them. The surname of the proprietor of the Xiexiu Workshop was not known, and the workshop sprang up only within the last dozen years. Reportedly, the proprietor was just a young man not yet thirty. Was the gentleman in embroidered robes before him the proprietor of the Xiexiu Workshop? However, this man looked elegant and had a free and easy manner. Although his companion had insulted the man to his face, the man didn’t look the slightest bit angry. In fact, a tolerant and understanding look came over his face. This mellowness didn’t feel like a merchant’s cunning style, and he had none of the ruthless ambition of the proprietor of the Xiexiu Workshop, nibbling away or swallowing whole his competition.
The gentleman in the brocade robes smiled. His gaze shifted from the Daoist priest wearing a yellow hat to the Confucian scholar wearing hemp robes. The Confucian scholar was shocked, as this man’s eyes were somewhat dull, obviously lacking life. They had the look of a commoner’s, but if he focused hard on them, he could see the depths of the sea in the man’s eyes. They were placid and cold and expressed a quiet ability to see through the ways of the world. When his eyes roamed, his face immediately felt lively, matching his comely and fair complexion. It made it difficult to distinguish his actual age.
This Confucian scholar had been a preeminent personage of the Southern Chu wulin, his swordsmanship outstanding. He was also resourceful and full of political wisdom. Few people in Southern Chu could be mentioned in the same breath with him. Even more so, his far-reaching knowledge and experience were not something the average person could compare to. It took only a passing glance when their eyes met for the Confucian scholar to sense that the man in brocade robes was exceptional. From the corner of his eye, he could see his companion hadn’t perceived it yet, as impatience filled his face. The Confucian scholar grew more stunned, as his companion was many years older than him and had experienced much of the world yet hadn’t seen the true face of the gentleman. If he hadn’t acquired a certain level of wisdom, he wouldn’t have appreciated the gentleman’s veiled radiance, only revealed when their eyes met, showing the man’s bearing and character. Thinking of this, a sense of regret swelled inside him, and he felt he shouldn’t have immediately refused the offer, as it was quite rude.
While he was dealing with his internal struggle and hesitation, the Daoist priest impatiently said, “We’ve spoken, so we can leave, right? What a shame. Such a great mood was disrupted by these hedonistic sons of powerful parents.”
The Confucian scholar furrowed his brows, about to speak up to cut short his companion’s nasty words, when the gentleman in brocade robes on the pleasure boat suddenly raised his voice and said with a smile, “Wait!”
The priest raised his eyebrows and went to speak, but the Confucian scholar stopped him. He saluted the pleasure boat and said, “My companion is rash and quite impolite. Please be magnanimous enough to forgive his shortcomings.” This time, his features showed his complete sincerity and earnestness, utterly devoid of the recent aloofness.
The appearances of both men fell into my gaze. The Daoist priest was probably thirty-six or thirty-seven and was good-looking and elegant, but there seemed to be deep worry etched into his features. The Confucian scholar in hemp robes was slightly older than thirty, with bladelike eyebrows, big and bright eyes, a handsome and refined appearance, and a distinguished bearing. Both men were exceptional. Persons like these were always rather rude, and I couldn’t bear to give the order to kill them. My “wait” wasn’t to stop the two men from leaving, but to stop Xiaoshunzi, behind me on the boat, from acting. Xiaoshunzi had always loved and respected me, so when he saw the priest brush me off multiple times, his murderous intent grew stronger each time. However, he had learned how to freely curb his murderous intent long ago, leaking only a vague hint of it. Most people would find it difficult to sense, besides me, as I was familiar to the extreme with him.
Taking a step forward, I tranquilly and calmly said, “It was I who was impolite. I rushed to invite you. I have no fame to speak of and did not introduce myself. It’s just that I have always loved bold and distinguished gentlemen the most. Sire’s pipa music expressed worry for the state and people, while the Daoist priest sang the late Prince of De’s most beloved poem. When the country is troubled, one thinks of good generals. It’s clear what is on the priest’s mind. Although I am mediocre, I can still admire with gratitude your sincere feelings. Therefore, I came over to invite you two aboard. I never expected such harsh resistance from you two. From the priest’s tone, it seems he is not happy with the arrogance and pride of aristocratic sons. But as I see it, I believe that among the three of us, the proud and arrogant ones are the two patriots who are concerned with politics, not I, a citizen who simply loves peace and happiness.”
The two men listened silently. Embarrassment and shocked anger grew on the priest’s face before turning into gloom. In the Confucian scholar’s eyes, though, a strange light shone, and his face showed adoration. Then he clasped his hands and bowed, saying, “Sire speaks the truth. We were too stubborn. However, it is excusable for my friend. Grand General Lu has wanted to train the volunteer armies in Wuyue for the past few days and consolidate the coastal defenses, but he lacks military supplies. My brother and I wanted to persuade the aristocracy of Wuyue to offer aid to the armies, as yesterday we’d be traveling back from Wuxi,8 but most everyone we met declined to help, all of them walking away. After a great deal of effort, we only raised thirty percent of the requirement. As such, my brother and I were annoyed, so when we saw sire’s pleasure boat and brocade robes, we took out our frustration on you.”
I was a little surprised by the words. I didn’t expect these two to be supporters of Lu Can. Would the two of them lingering around divulge my identity? Getting an idea, I said with a smile, “I see. You two are truly chivalrous, working for the country and the people. From the looks of things, I presume you two are planning to head to Wu Commandery to fundraise? I am old friends with Proprietor Zhou, the owner of the wealthiest business in Wu Commandery, Xiexiu Workshop. He’ll always listen to what I say. If he agrees to lead the donations, it will most likely be of great help to you two. The two of you have no reason to reject my kindness again, now do you?”
Happiness glowed in the two men’s eyes upon hearing the words. The Daoist priest bowed, his face and ears red. He declared, “If this is the case, this poor Daoist apologizes to the young master. Young master cares for the country. This poor Daoist thanks you greatly on behalf of the Grand General for sire’s generosity.”
“There’s no need to thank me. If you two can respect me, then I’ll again invite you aboard for a chat,” I said with a smile.
This time, the two men did not refuse me. They didn’t need a gangplank either, as they lightly sprang onto the pleasure boat. After a boathand stepped forward and tied the punt onto the pleasure boat, I swept my arm out to welcome my guests, inviting the two of them into the forward cabin. As I followed them in, I signaled Huyan Shou with my eyes, indicating for him to return to the stern, lest he make a mistake.