Volume 6, Chapter 30: Lavish Bugle Horns

Volume 6, Chapter 30: Lavish Bugle Horns1


In the second month of the eighth year of Longsheng, Yang Xiu obeyed General Lu Can’s orders to oversee Huainan and lie in wait for an opportunity to take Huaibei.

Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Four

The Zhou brothers bade farewell to Gu Yuanyong and headed downstairs. However, the atmosphere on the upper floor of the restaurant had changed greatly. All non-employees had already left. The four young men who had been sitting at the outermost table were standing guard in pairs on either side of the leftmost bamboo screen. They were as still as deep waters and towered like mountains, their demeanors grave. Zhou Ming and Zhou Hui only felt their icy gazes brush across their body and were already sweating through their overrobes. The four men were formidable and were definitely not normal people.

The two brothers glanced over and caught sight of Du Lingfeng standing outside the screen, his expression respectful, cautious, and slightly wary. So they knew the dark-robed man behind the screen was the gray-haired, hoary-templed noble Gu Yuanyong had mentioned. They just didn’t expect it would be this kind of person. The two brothers were too afraid to peek in and hurried downstairs. For some reason, Zhou Hui thought of the chilling eyes of the dark-robed servant. But strangely, he couldn’t remember the servant’s appearance.

I stood at the window and gazed downward, watching the Zhou brothers call out to the elders on the street and ask them to help arrange Zhuang Qingpu’s funeral. I couldn’t help but point at them and say, “I interfered a bit too much. In reality, Southern Chu has countless heroes. Once the country is ruined and the people are starving, as soon as one hero falls, another rises. There’s no need for me to take the trouble to warn the Emperor. He also knows the difficulties in pacifying Southern Chu. Southern Chu people are like water. They look weak and gullible, but if one actually enrages them, one will face an all-pervasive counterattack. Today, we got the upper hand, but we have not yet approached the bottom line of the Chu citizens. If we can’t break the Chu populace’s confidence in the Southern Chu royal family, even if heavy cavalry tramples all the land south of the Yangtze River, we will just gain ruins where only buckwheat grows.”

“Young master’s intention is also to leave behind some Southern Chu heroes, lest they damage the aura of the Heavens and the Earth,” Xiaoshunzi responded. “With a heart full of compassion, the Heavens will take pity. How could they blame young master for meddling?”

I sighed softly, thinking of how I lived like a shut-in in the ship cabin for days. After arriving at Guangling, taking a boat to make landfall, I ate on the road and slept outdoors. It was extremely arduous. And the Huaidong army of Southern Chu couldn’t be underestimated either. If we didn’t have the Secret Camp disciples leading the way through territory they were familiar with, our large group would never have silently arrived at Chuzhou by crossing through the army’s heavy defenses. However, even though the path we took was arduous, the secret agents of the two countries also traveled it. We encountered quite a few secret agents passing by during our journey. We relied entirely on Xiaoshunzi’s indications to avoid the eyes and ears of the spies.

To enter the city of Chuzhou, we used the Stalwart Tiger Guard tokens of command Huyan Shou and the other bodyguards had brought with them. The toil I suffered on the journey made Huyan Shou seek out Pei Yun, while I found a roadside restaurant I planned to rest at for a bit. I didn’t expect to see such scenes, however. When Zhuang Qingpu ascended to the upper floor, I saw his life was already hanging by a thread. Even with my medical expertise, he was beyond saving. Unable to bear it, I offered a pill. Although it could not stitch his life back together, it would allow him to live a half dozen hours longer. However, Zhuang Qingpu stuck to what he thought was right and actually refused to take it. It may have been just the difference of a half dozen hours of life, but didn’t everyone fear death and want to live? But I greatly admired his refusal in the face of death. It was unfortunate the Heavens were jealous of heroic genius and that he was too far gone.

Then, from beyond the screen, came Pei Yun’s sonorous voice. “Military Commissioner of Huainan, Commander-in-Chief of the Xuzhou Barracks Pei Yun requests an audience.”

I smiled and beckoned at the screen, replying, “Come in, all of you. There’s no need for such courtesy.”

Pei Yun had gotten rid of the smell of alcohol on him by this point. Hearing the reply, he straightened his clothes. He didn’t dare act irreverent towards a personage even his own respected master revered, to say nothing of the favor the man had shown him in the past. At Jiang Zhe’s instruction, he led both Gu Yuanyong and Du Lingfeng past the screen.

Inside the partition, Pei Yun got down on one knee and said, “This general has come to pay his respects to the marquis. I didn’t know the marquis had come here, so apologies for not welcoming you after your long trip. Please forgive the discourtesy, Your Lordship.”

I went over and helped Pei Yun up by the arm. “You’re a dignified military commissioner now,” I said with a smile. “Why should you be so polite? I traveled here of my own accord. The Emperor most likely still doesn’t know.”

Pei Yun thought to himself, No matter how you came here, if you weren’t here, I wouldn’t have lightly dismissed Gao Bing from his post to rid internal threats. If not for Luo Jing being assassinated, I could have relieved Luo Jing from office with you here. When I learned you arrived, many difficult things are no longer troublesome. He was perfectly happy to kneel to Jiang Zhe.

I vaguely surmised what was on his mind and smiled. Shifting my gaze to Gu Yuanyong, I saw he was terrified. He had probably figured out my identity and was wondering why I was in Chuzhou when I was supposed to be in Dinghai.

I saluted him and said, “I presume this is Gu daren. This marquis’s elder cousin holds office in Chuzhou. This one is grateful for daren’s consideration and thanks you on his behalf.”

Gu Yuanyong blanked and didn’t know what to do. Huaibei in Jiangnan was cut off from news, so the little affair surrounding Jing Changqing didn’t reach the area.

Seeing him at a loss, I gave Xiaoshunzi a look. Xiaoshunzi walked up and evenly said, “The Jing family in Jiaxing is the young master’s mother’s family. The current family head, Jing Changqing, is young master’s elder cousin. He used to serve as the Chief Clerk of Chuzhou. He admires with extreme gratitude the daren’s good graces. On young master’s way through Jiaxing, Chief Clerk Jing asked young master to send his thanks.”

Pei Yun, Du Lingfeng, and Gu Yuanyong all felt like their heads were pounding. They didn’t know if Xiaoshunzi’s words were true or false. There had always been a rift between Jing Changqing and Jiang Zhe. On the journey through Jiaxing, the two men had never even met.

Gu Yuanyong was the first to regain his senses. He wasn’t like Pei Yun and Du Lingfeng, worried they had already offended Jiang Zhe, and could look on with a cool eye. Seeing a smile in Jiang Zhe’s eyes and no blame to be had, and since the man had an illustrious reputation, he had to be an undemonstrative person. If he truly grew resentful because of this, how could he have spoken so bluntly and assuredly? Today, Gu Yuanyong had received Pei Yun’s order to be the acting Governor of Chuzhou. For better or for worse, his family and life were mostly tied to Pei Yun. As a result, he didn’t want to see him embarrassed and spoke, “Chief Clerk Jing is honest and supremely loyal. This one has always respected that. Even General Pei, though imprisoning him to build prestige, greatly values him as well.”

Pei Yun had finally returned to his senses and rejoiced at the fact he hadn’t killed the stubborn chief clerk at the time. Seeing that Jiang Zhe was not angry and remembering how Jing Changqing disappeared in an odd way, he couldn’t help but smile. “I had thought my subordinates were so negligent they let the man be stolen out of prison. Now that I think about it, even if they hadn’t slept a wink, they likely couldn’t have found a way to keep an eye on the criminal.”

These words contained implicit flattery, but they didn’t reveal any clues. Even I thought they sounded pleasant. I had planned to scare Pei Yun a bit, lest he regularly borrow my influence, but now I thought nothing of it. I pointed at the jug of green plum wine. “It’s all right, forget it. This wine really is not bad. I leave Chuzhou tomorrow, so have the proprietor bring another two jugs up. How does you and me drinking a little sound?”

Pei Yun was relieved. He knew the affair hadn’t displeased Jiang Zhe. His eyes shining, he saw Du Lingfeng’s uneasy expression and said, “The marquis has such refined taste. How can this general refuse? Lingfeng, fetch two jugs of green plum wine.”

Du Lingfeng was ecstatic. He hurriedly saluted and withdrew, vowing in his head that he would never take another step closer to the Marquis of Chu before Jiang Zhe left the next day. His fear of Jiang Zhe didn’t stem from the myriad rumors. For vigorous young men like him, no amount of authority could deter them.

However, when Du Lingfeng was practicing martial arts at the Shaolin Temple, there was one time Great Master True Compassion brought his last disciple, Jiang Shen, back to the temple. While Great Master True Compassion was busy discussing the Buddhist martial arts curriculum with the temple elders, Jiang Shen was handed off to the younger generation of disciples to take turns watching over. At the time, Jiang Shen was no more than four years old, but he was mischievous to the extreme, which gave everyone a splitting headache.

One day, it was Du Lingfeng’s turn to take care of Jiang Shen. Jiang Shen was particularly impish that day. When Du Lingfeng took his eyes off him for less than a second, he didn’t even know where the child had gone. Du Lingfeng was rather quick-tempered, so when nobody was paying attention, he gave Jiang Shen a hard spanking. After that, Jiang Shen behaved for a long time, as expected. However, once Du Lingfeng woke up from his noon nap and carried Jiang Shen to give him back to Martial Great-Uncle, Great Master True Compassion, everyone was looking at him with jaws hanging, then they covered their mouths and laughed in secret.

Realization dawned upon Du Lingfeng, and when he looked in a mirror, he discovered his eyebrows had been shaved off. For the next half a year, he was too shy to leave his room. The next time he saw Jiang Shen, he kept a wide berth. In his opinion, like father, like son, so with Jiang Shen such a little devil, his dad was not to be trifled with. He just offended Jiang Zhe, so the farther away he stayed, the better.

A moment later, Du Lingfeng personally carried up two jugs of green plum wine, then took the opportunity to withdraw. Gu Yuanyong saw that Pei Yun and Jiang Zhe seemed to want to talk privately, so he tactfully retired as well.

After three rounds of drinks, Pei Yun began to get to the point. He asked, “Didn’t Your Lordship follow the navy to Dinghai? The spy report that came the day before yesterday still said the marquis launched a night attack on Zhenhai along the mouth of the Yong River and burned over a hundred Southern Chu naval vessels.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” I responded with a smile. “The harbor at the mouth of the Yong River in Ming Prefecture2 is blocked by silt. Vessels over a thousand piculs3 can’t enter. Lu Can at most left some fast vessels behind to keep an eye on movement from Dinghai and pass on intelligence. If Lu Can allowed the Eastern Sea Navy a chance to gain a major victory right now, he wouldn’t be the formidable grand general.” Then I turned my head to Xiaoshunzi and said, “Cong’er still isn’t prudent enough. He even has to appear for such a trivial matter. This doesn’t suit my personality at all. I’m afraid that, with one or two more times of these actions, Lu Can will know there’s an impostor in Dinghai even if I don’t leave a trace.”

Xiaoshunzi briefly said, “Even if he knows, he’ll have to convince the others.”

Pei Yun heard Jiang Zhe had left a body double in Dinghai. Though he didn’t know who the “Cong’er” Jiang Zhe mentioned was, it was likely one of Jiang Zhe’s best disciples. When he thought of how Jiang Zhe directed the gazes of the ministers and monarch of Southern Chu to Wuyue while he himself escaped to Chuzhou, such elusiveness and misdirection made him truly admire Jiang Zhe.

Layer upon layer of doubt clouded Pei Yun’s mind. The court hadn’t made a decree, and he himself hadn’t received a spy report related to this. Although he wouldn’t believe there was an issue with Jiang Zhe, the currently most critical task was the protection of Jiang Zhe. The second most important task was sending a written statement to the emperor explaining this matter, but Jiang Zhe just said he would be leaving the next day. If he allowed Jiang Zhe to go free and an accident happened in the future, the emperor would be sure to blame him, so he asked, “Your Lordship can emerge from danger unscathed, sneaking into Chuzhou from Wuyue. This general admires that. Till now, fighting has gone on unbroken. Although Huaibei is still controlled by our military, Southern Chu spies have already infiltrated. Should Your Lordship not stay in Chuzhou for a period of time?”

I smiled humorlessly. “If I stay in Chuzhou, I fear I may be captured alive by the enemy army. Does General Pei trust the defenses of Chuzhou so? I’m afraid that not even Xuzhou may be able to keep me safe.”

Pei Yun was rattled. “What does Your Lordship mean? This general has blocked the Southern Chu military’s northern routes in Chuzhou and Sizhou,” he cautiously said. “Southern Chu’s Huaixi army may have triumphed last time, but they suffered massive casualties. General Cui, Cui Jue, is also defending Suzhou. Why would Suzhou also fall? In addition, Lu Can is tied up in Wuyue due to the marquis’s strategy. Do they still have a way to divide their forces and head north to attack our armies?”

I sighed gently. “The Emperor and the Prince of Qi, even I, have all underestimated Lu Can. Last year, after our armies were defeated in battle, Chuzhou’s, Sizhou’s, and Suzhou’s defenses were still solid. Huaibei still had your and Cui Jue’s two armies, as well as over a hundred thousand elite troops. In our minds, this was more than enough to defend Huaibei. For the moment, regardless of whether the Southern Chu monarch and ministers had the bravery to provoke a war, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, could lead an army south and establish the Jiangnan Command Post in Runan.4 He would oversee the Southern Campaign and coordinate with Nanyang and Xuzhou. So although Huaibei was short on manpower, we didn’t consider it an issue.

“Who could have expected that Lu Can would be this bold? When I went north through Huaidong on my journey, I discovered the Southern Chu military was requisitioning more grain than the Huaidong army normally needed. And Yang Xiu has assumed personal command of the Guangling garrison. Guangling is the gateway to the north, and now he’s grooming the horses and drilling the troops in preparation for battle. I didn’t take it seriously at first, as with only the army in Huaidong, he could never take Sizhou and Chuzhou in one fell swoop. Once I reached Chuzhou, however, I realized the civilians and military were at odds, popular discontent running high. No wonder Lu Can had the courage to attack Chuzhou. If my expectations are correct, as long as Yang Xiu attacks, the Huaixi garrison will accompany the Flying Cavalry north and seize Suzhou and approach Xuzhou. Once Xuzhou falls, they could head north to threaten Qing Province or head west to threaten Nanyang. The Southern Chu military would not only securely occupy Jianghuai, they could also take the initiative to attack Great Yong.

“Now that I think about it, the Heavens truly blessed Great Yong. The Eastern Sea Navy’s offensive in Wuyue damaged the taxation base of Southern Chu. Lu Can had no choice but to personally run to Wuyue and take charge of the army. Although Yang Xiu is also talented, he lacks decisiveness. Playing it safe, he delayed the offensive. Otherwise, if they had begun ten days ago, I’m afraid the Chuzhou commoners would’ve risen up in arms. Then Chuzhou would have been dangerous.”

Pei Yun was pallid by this point. He regretted he cherished his future career prospects and indulged Luo Jing’s recklessness. With careful consideration, he grew colder the more he thought. At present, Zhangsun Ji was once again besieging and attacking Xiangyang. Although a majority of assaults were feints, he didn’t have any spare time to attend to the fighting in Jianghuai. Meanwhile, the Huaibei defenses seemed secure but were actually in danger. If the Southern Chu military intended to march north, their objective would surely point to Xuzhou.

I saw that Pei Yun had grasped the grim situation at hand and added, “This has nothing to do with you. The Southern Chu military has never taken the initiative north before. Now that you’ve heard the news, arrange the defenses as you see fit. As long as Chuzhou is not lost, it won’t count as our army’s defeat even if Sizhou falls.”

Pei Yun stood up and saluted. “This general thanks the marquis greatly for his warning. Please don’t worry, Your Lordship. As long as I am in Chuzhou, I absolutely won’t let Chuzhou fall.”

I nodded. “That’s good. Although the Jiangnan Command Post still hasn’t been established, I have already been appointed advisor. You don’t need to worry about any guilt falling on you; I can take responsibility for everything. Huaibei is in jeopardy, so I should remain here. However, if the fighting in Xiangyang continues according to the original plan, it will be a bit too conservative, so I must go see Zhangsun Ji. Give me travel documents and a guide. Also, you must be cautious and vigilant about any soldiers and civilians who know I came to Chuzhou. I still don’t want others to know my whereabouts.”

Pei Yun nodded and replied, “This general shall obey. Just now, Your Lordship met Du Lingfeng, who is my martial nephew. He’s very familiar with the route and can guide Your Lordship. This general will contain everyone who saw the marquis today and definitely will not allow this intelligence to leak.”

I nodded again. “Once Chuzhou is attacked, you must take strict precautions against a rebellion breaking out within the city. Gu Yuanyong is talented, so as long as you still have hope of winning, he won’t rebel. That man is quite reputable in Chuzhou. Your decision to have him replace Luo Jing was right. You must fully win him over to stabilize public order. That Gao Bing can’t do anything right, and I think he does more harm than good. If he does anything inappropriate, have him beheaded. Just don’t be lenient.”

“This general shall obey,” Pei Yun respectfully responded.

I stood up and said, “All right, have Du Lingfeng arrange our room and board. Your military duties are urgent, so you don’t have to see me off tomorrow when I leave, lest rumors arise.”

“The documents Your Lordship require shall be presented to you tomorrow by Lingfeng,” Pei Yun said. “This general needs to go to the barracks outside the city to muster the troops right now. Please forgive this general’s impertinence, Your Lordship.”

“Go already. I still want to drink a few more cups of wine here,” I said nonchalantly.

Pei Yun stood up and bowed out, walking downstairs without hesitation. Not long after, I heard the trotting of horseshoes downstairs start to fade into the distance.

I sighed gently. “We were truly lucky this time. If not for Huyan Shou noticing during the journey the number of supply ships far outstripping the proper scale, and you, such a skilled man, acting as a spy, we wouldn’t have discovered Southern Chu’s plan to feint east and assault the west. Speaking of, it’s hilarious. I attracted the Chu military’s gaze to Wuyue, but Lu Can made the best of the situation and took the opportunity to regain Huaidong and advance on Xuzhou. This time, the two of us are equals.”

Xiaoshunzi coolly said, “No matter how meticulous the plan, since it’s now leaked, it won’t be successful that easily. Otherwise, how could young master be so at ease to go to Xiangyang?”

I smiled at the words. “Pei Yun is a Shaolin Temple protector disciple. He is resolute and decisive in one aspect, as well as adaptive in another. For the past several days, he indulged Luo Jing, as he didn’t want to offend powerful officials, which destabilized the situation in Chuzhou. But now that he knows the Southern Chu military intends to go on the offensive, he will kill decisively. Even if rivers of blood run through Chuzhou, he won’t allow Southern Chu to take advantage.” I sighed at this point and added, “If I had arrived a day earlier, Pei Yun would likely have driven Luo Jing out and wouldn’t have felt today’s regret.”

With a sardonic grin, Xiaoshunzi said, “Young master is talking nonsense. I’m afraid Zhuang Qingpu was also connected to Southern Chu, as why else would he cross through the two armies’ defenses to return to Chuzhou? What’s more, he assassinated Luo Jing, which is also beneficial to Southern Chu. General Pei and Luo Jing had not yet reached the point where they were incompatible as oil and water. If the Southern Chu army attacks, an ironfisted governor might be more trustworthy than an official who capitulated. And if not for Zhuang Qingpu succumbing to his grievous injury, even if General Pei had pitied him, he would’ve had no choice but to capture him and sentence him to death by beheading. If that had happened, the scholars in the city would have resented Great Yong even more. With trouble flaring up within and without at the same time, I’m afraid the city of Chuzhou wouldn’t have been that easy to defend.”

I thought about his words for a few moments, then said, “What you say has merit. However, Zhuang Qingpu is already dead. Let’s not bring up this subject anymore. No matter how that man died, it is a pity. If Yang Xiu truly wanted to sacrifice a person like him, I would have to laugh at his shortsightedness.”

I heard familiar footfalls at this time and knew Huyan Shou was heading upstairs. I broke into a smile and said, “Huyan married Marquis Su. Not mentioning other advantages, the ability to monitor enemy activity improved by leaps and bounds. Otherwise, we would probably learn Southern Chu still had the courage to attack Huaibei only when Southern Chu troops were approaching the city.”

Xiaoshunzi was startled. Even with his stoic face and cold heart, he couldn’t help but smile.


Footnotes:

  1. Likely a reference to a poem entitled “To Yang Guihou in Tang Prefecture” by Tang Dynasty poet Liu Yuxi.
  2. Ming Prefecture (明州, Mingzhou) was an ancient prefecture that encompassed most of modern-day Ningbo and parts of modern-day Zhejiang and also administered the Zhoushan Islands.
  3. Around 79 metric tons (about 87 US tons)
  4. 汝南 – formerly a commandery, it is now modern-day Runan County in Henan Province, with territory much reduced from its historic governance
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