Volume 6, Chapter 33: Boundless Seas
In the tenth year of Longsheng, the twenty-third year of the sixty-year cycle, people of exceptional talent helped the volunteer army in Wuyue, building tunnels and forts at the coastal villages and towns to stop the Yong navy. Although the Yong military held the upper hand, they failed to find a way in, and Wuyue slowly grew peaceful.
—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Four
The tide was rising on the sapphire sea; the sky was filled with dark clouds. It looked like rain. But a young man sitting with his legs out on a beach rock had a heavy expression on his face, with entirely no inclination to return to avoid the rain. He was a man from Zhenhai, Wuyue. In the twelfth year of Tongtai, the Eastern Sea Navy landed and pillaged. His father and elder brother were both outstanding blacksmiths, the weapons they forged famous throughout Wuyue. As such, they were seized, leaving behind only his mother, his brother’s wife, and two nephews. He wasn’t at home at the time, so he escaped by the skin of his teeth. Afterwards, he enlisted in the volunteer army, hoping to prevent the Yong navy from landing and pillaging again. His deeper desire was to see his father and elder brother again, but he didn’t know if his father and brother were still alive. Thinking of this, he grieved and lamented.
As his vision was blurring, he unconsciously blinked and saw several light vessels on the sea braving the wind and waves and coming toward him. All those on the ships were Yong troops wearing light armor. Paling in fright, he stood up and cried out, “The Yong navy is coming, the Yong navy is coming!” However, because today looked like rain, the volunteer soldiers who were supposed to patrol this section of the seaboard slacked off and didn’t come. Although the young man shouted and screamed, nobody heard him.
Only a short distance away from where he began running, the young man heard something cut through the wind and leapt to the side. A surprised gasp came from behind him, and a blade sliced through empty air. The attacker took the opportunity to make a horizontal cut. The young man dodged to avoid the attack, but a different Yong soldier kicked him to the ground. The soldier who attacked with a blade seized the chance to point his saber at the young man’s throat and coldly asked, “How many volunteer soldiers are in the fort? Where is Yun Zishan?”
The young man kept his mouth shut and did not speak, his eyes shining with obstinance. The Yong soldier gave a small smile and didn’t ask any more questions. He flourished his saber and was about to cleave downward when the young man suddenly asked, “Who forged your saber?”
The blade came to an abrupt stop, leaving only a bloody scratch on the young man’s neck. Besides the soldiers still on the seaworthy ships sailing the vessels, the rest of the Yong troops had landed on the shore by this point. Among them, one person’s armor was slightly different, clearly marked with the status of leader. When he heard the young man’s question, he went up and said with a smile, “Don’t you know that our military carted off many craftsmen? Those people were incorporated into Dinghai’s manufacturing camp. His saber was forged by the most famous bladesmith in your city of Zhenhai, Gongsun Mo.”
Joy that was hard to restrain glowed in the young man’s eyes for a moment. He asked in a trembling voice, “He’s still alive. Then, what about his son?”
A knowing look shone in the eyes of the soldier wielding the saber. “You’re talking about Gongsun Ban, right? The blades he forges are pretty good too, but he’s more skilled at crafting crossbows.”
The young man couldn’t stop himself from crying. His father and brother were still alive. The joy from finally receiving news of his loved ones made it difficult for him to control himself. He heard the soldier say in a frosty tone, “What does Gongsun Mo have anything to do with you? How many volunteer soldiers are in the fort? If you confess honestly, I’ll pardon your death.”
A sharp light glittered in the young man’s eyes, and he replied, “You people took away my flesh and blood and invaded my homeland. Even if this one dies, this one won’t give you intelligence on the volunteer army.” He stood up, straightened his back, then threw his neck toward the edge of the saber.
The soldier was quick of eye and deft of hand. He swiftly sheathed his saber, but it still sliced open a huge wound on the young man’s neck. Torrents of blood gushed out. The young man’s vision began to blur, intense regret welling up inside him. If he could tell his mother the good news that his father and brother were still alive, there would be nothing wrong with dying. However, his mother would suffer even more grief today.
Gazing at the young man losing consciousness, a grim light appeared in the commander’s eyes. “A good man. Give him a quick death.”
A light flashed in the swordsman’s eyes. He whispered a few words into the ear of the commander. The commander pondered these words for a moment: “Let’s do this instead. His injury isn’t serious. Dress his wound and allow him to fend for himself.”
After a little thinking, the commander replied, “Good idea. Let’s do that.” Then he strode across the beach. In front of him was the seawall. Not far past the seawall was the volunteer army’s barracks. Landing sneak attacks was a battle tactic the Eastern Sea Navy was well-versed in. Even though the volunteer army was brave and skilled in warfare, there was not much they could do about the landings. Behind the commander, the Yong troops were falling into formation and walking forward, the atmosphere bursting with a dense killing intent.
When the pouring rain awoke the young man, he felt his neck throbbing with pain. He struggled to get up and looked around his surroundings but didn’t see any human figures. He was lying on the seawall by himself, his neck properly bandaged up. He staggered to his feet and started running toward the camp. He fell an untold number of times, mud covering his entire body. When he reached the camp, he was petrified. He saw corpses scattered all around and inside of the camp. The heavy rain had pooled into rivers, and the rainwater mixed with blood and flowed out of the camp. He fell forward, torn up by grief.
After a long time, he stood up and circled around the inside and outside of the camp, inspecting it. Although blood and tears covered his face, some light had returned to his eyes. He muttered, “They’re not all dead, they’re not all dead; that’s good.” He counted just over thirty bodies here. There were originally a hundred soldiers stationed here, so it looked like most of them likely escaped. Even in the worst-case scenario, the Yong navy would just have captured them and taken them back to Dinghai. Based on the knowledge he gained today, his brothers-in-arms wouldn’t be bound to die. Thinking of this, he was comforted a great deal.
But he suddenly remembered the questions the Yong soldiers had asked him. They were aiming for Sir Yun. If his comrades fell into the clutches of the Yong troops and confessed under cruel torture, divulging the whereabouts of Sir Yun, it would be catastrophic. Sir Yun had managed the construction of the tunnels between coastal fortified villages. He’d worked hard and performed a valuable service. How could he be allowed to come to harm? Thinking of this, the young man pulled himself together and resolved to report the events that happened here to Sir Yun to have him hide for the time being.
Thunder boomed in the sky, lightning struck again and again, heavy rain pelted. Showers of mist enveloped the air. Many zhang away, nearly invisible, the young man’s staggering figure receded into the rain and fog and soon disappeared. But he didn’t know that two dark figures were following him.
Waves billowed on the sea, crashing violently at the foot of a sheer cliff a thousand meters high. Stormy waves beat against the craggy rocks strewn about at the bottom of the cliff, the foam thousands of piles of snow. The sapphire waves concealed inexhaustible killing intent. Right after the rain cleared, Jing Xin stood atop the cliff, sighing softly in his mind. He had been away from Jiaxing for a full three years. Thinking of how crossing the vast blue sea would lead him to the homeland he missed every day, sorrow weighed even heavier on his heart.
Spry and steady footsteps reached his ear. Jing Xin didn’t look back, merely stating calmly, “Brother Huo, how do you have time to come today?”
Huo Cong smiled. Jing Xin never stopped resenting him for the past three years. Huo Cong didn’t mind and stood by Jing Xin. “Sir gave an order, telling me to go to the Jiangnan Command Post to see him.”
Although it was just a brief sentence, Jing Xin shuddered. A long while later, he finally said in a slightly mocking tone, “Congratulations, brother Huo. Brother Huo has been trapped at sea for the past few years, likely no freer than me. Now, the flood dragon is coming out of the sea,1 no longer trapped on this shoal. I presume the young master is overjoyed?”
A hint of laughter glowed in Huo Cong’s eyes in response. “Brother Jing flatters me. This one only stayed behind in Dinghai because the sea lanes were blocked and the land routes were difficult to cross. In addition, the Duke of the Tranquil Sea counted on this one to be here, so this one stayed behind in Dinghai. Moreover, the Duke of the Tranquil Sea placed over five hundred thousand commoners captured from Wuyue on the hundreds of big and small islands around Putuo. The region is vast with many islands and a dense population.
“And this one received orders to temporarily act as the county magistrate of Putuo. Government administration is busy work, no less than being an actual county magistrate. I manage five hundred thousand captives who hold suspicion and hostility, as well as needing to supply the army with rations, fodder, and gear. Such an important task, yet it was given to this one to shoulder, a young man who hasn’t reached adulthood yet. I’m already in an important position. How can you talk of a dragon being trapped in treacherous shoals?”
Jing Xin gave a humorless smile in return. “With brother Huo’s talent, you could be a prefect or a governor with room to spare, to say nothing of being a county magistrate. Being stuck in Putuo managing us captives is a waste of talent.”
“Brother Jing undervalues the position of county magistrate far too much,” Huo Cong said with a smile. “Over the past few years, brother Jing helped me with quite a few tasks. Reclamation of farmland, levying of land taxes—these duties may seem easy, but doing them comes with a host of complicated problems. Brother Jing, do you not remember my sorry state?”
Jing Xin couldn’t help chuckling. In an instant, the awkward atmosphere vanished without a trace. He thought of how this young man had led the Wuyue citizens who’d been captured and taken here for the past three years, constructing houses, reclaiming farmland, and hunting and fishing. It led to the desolate Putuo Islands turning into a paradise for them to live in peace and work happily. Although Yong forces were still on the outskirts and occasionally pressed the islanders into military service for Dinghai, at least nothing more terrifying occurred.
However, what Huo Cong said was indeed correct. Jing Xin hadn’t thought much of those trivial duties, but the young man dragged him off to handle government affairs together, and he was so busy he nearly blacked out. Only then did he learn that being a minor county magistrate wasn’t easy, especially for a county magistrate who had to start from scratch with nothing to their name.
Seeing Jing Xin laughing, Huo Cong felt slight melancholy. He may have been very successful in Putuo for the past three years, but that didn’t prove what Jing Xin said was true. In reality, Huo Cong was intelligent enough to realize long ago that someone in the Stalwart Tiger Guard was covertly monitoring him. He even saw some suspicion and vigilance in Jiang Haitao’s eyes. He’d long understood that Sir had confined him to Putuo, as expected. It was just that the vast blue sea was imprisoning him, instead of force of arms. The Dinghai Navy may have been blocking the way back, but as private naval commerce was booming, how could he not find an opportunity to return to Great Yong? Unless Sir knew something. Huo Cong had thought of this before, even abandoning himself to despair. If he deliberately did something or Sir ordered it, he could take his own life and avoid the shame he felt. However, the endless stream of letters that followed made him feel guilty.
Most likely because the roads were cut off, he sometimes didn’t receive a letter for ten days to a fortnight, and other times, he received a bunch of letters all at once. Some of the letters solved the dilemmas he brought up in his return letters; some letters explained the military and political strategy. Every letter contained a strong sense of friendship, which made Huo Cong feel even guiltier and uneasier.
Although Sir’s letters didn’t explain why he left Huo Cong behind in Dinghai and had Jiang Haitao appoint him as the County Magistrate of Putuo, they did request he be a dependable local official. Although he wasn’t governing normal commoners but Wuyue captives, the government work was even more arduous. He devoted himself to being county magistrate for three years, learning full well how difficult governance was. Huo Cong understood Jiang Zhe’s toil, but be that as it may, he still couldn’t forget how Jiang Zhe abandoned him in Dinghai and dispatched people to monitor him on the sly.
He flicked his gaze toward Jing Xin, laughing grimly in his head. Although the Jing family were nominally still captives, they had been appointed to a lot of internal affairs posts in Putuo. The elderly family head of the Jing family had already boarded a merchant ship belonging to Southern Fujian’s Yue family and gone to Chang’an to convalesce. And as long as Southern Chu was pacified, the Putuo captives would be sure to be the first assigned to positions once they returned to Wuyue. Their futures were promising. Although Huo Cong held power over their life and death right now, he didn’t know what would happen down the line.
After a short while, Huo Cong finally calmed down and said to Jing Xin, “I was ordered to meet Sir, so I would like brother Jing to take over the county magistrate post. What does brother Jing think?”
Jing Xin was first surprised, then calmed down. Putuo’s government had always been managed by the captive commoners themselves. It was just that Huo Cong served as the county magistrate and controlled the only armed force on the islands, which was used to suppress a possible revolt. Now that Huo Cong was leaving, somebody needed to fill the position. Although Jing Xin was a citizen of Southern Chu, he was quite competent after assisting Huo Cong for the past three years. Coupled with the actions of his paternal uncle-in-law, even if he still wanted to stay loyal to Southern Chu, it was likely nobody would believe him. After thinking for a long time, he finally said, “All right, I have no reason to deceive myself and others. I’ll take over the post of county magistrate.”
Huo Cong smiled. He knew that after three years, the Wuyue scholars and officials on the island were finally beginning to yield and soften. Jing Xin had been their leader, and with him succeeding as county magistrate, it would placate the captives on the island. Thinking of how he’d finally completed Sir’s order, his future prospects were boundless, and infinite joy filled his bosom.
Leaving Putuo aboard a ship, Huo Cong laid his concerns to rest. He had always been on friendly terms with the captain of this seagoing vessel. The captain, seeing Huo Cong standing on the stern of the ship and gazing at Putuo like he was terribly reluctant to leave, walked over and said with a smile, “Adviser Huo, why are you so sad? The Marquis of Chu has summoned you this time. I assume he’ll have an important position for you. We only have skirmishes over here. Over there is where the shining spears and armored horses2 and jubilation are.”
Huo Cong forced a smile. “I lived on the sea for three years. I’m just a little loath to leave, that’s all. No wonder Sir always keeps the Eastern Sea in mind.”
The captain didn’t know about Huo Cong’s concerns and simply found some interesting stories to tell him. Although Huo Cong responded offhandedly, his mind had flown thousands of li away.
After half an hour passed, Huo Cong returned to Dinghai. The current Dinghai was no longer as ruined as three years ago. The barracks on the island stood solemn and austere. He could see highways of traffic crisscrossing in all directions. Inside the manufacturing camp on the rear of the island, clanking and clanging reverberated all day long. In the dockyard, there were also Wuyue craftsmen working together with Eastern Sea craftsmen to repair ships.
If the commoners surrendered and obeyed, they would be treated well; if they resisted, they would be sentenced to death. Most of the captured Wuyue commoners had long since acquiesced to the rule of the Yong military. But despite numerous Wuyue captives submitting, those who could go to Dinghai were carefully vetted, lest they seize a chance to rebel.
The sweat of Huo Cong’s brow permeated every single one of the thriving sights. Pride welled up inside him, and he strode toward the commander’s tent. Four Stalwart Tiger Guards followed him.
Back when Jiang Zhe stole away from Wuyue, these Stalwart Tiger Guards were nearly all left behind in Dinghai. Later, when the battle lines were cemented, half of the Guard had the opportunity to go to the front lines of the Yong-Chu stalemate and protect Jiang Zhe. The other half were compelled by Jiang Zhe to stay beside Huo Cong. However, Huo Cong avowed he didn’t have a use for the status and necessity of the protection of the Stalwart Tiger Guard. Eventually, with the mediation of the Duke of the Tranquil Sea, the two sides reached an agreement.
Four Stalwart Tiger Guards would always stay with Huo Cong and protect him, while the other Stalwart Tiger Guards would go ashore with the Eastern Sea Navy and pillage Wuyue, lest their steel get blunted. This result satisfied everyone. With the Stalwart Tiger Guards highly skilled in martial arts joining in, it gave a lot more of a guarantee when going against the wulin experts in the Wuyue volunteer army. And Huo Cong didn’t feel like he was sitting on pins and needles anymore. Even if there weren’t anyone among the Stalwart Tiger Guard following Jiang Zhe’s orders to monitor him, how could he, a young man who still hadn’t officially become a government official, dare to use the imperial family’s Iron Guard as protection?
Inside the commander’s tent, Jiang Haitao learned of Huo Cong’s arrival and was rather happy. The young man had helped him quite a bit over the past three years, though Jiang Zhe had ordered the Stalwart Tiger Guard to secretly send Jiang Haitao letters and had him take note of Huo Cong’s behavior and even ordered him to act suspicious. At the start, he believed Sir was just testing his disciple, but later, he received a letter telling him to confine Huo Cong in Putuo. It may have been an important task, but he’d be restrained to the islands and couldn’t return north. Even though Jiang Haitao was blunt, he knew there had to be a hidden meaning, but he couldn’t bear to ask too much. After all, he greatly appreciated Huo Cong. Thinking of how Huo Cong could return to Jiang Zhe’s side as of today, Jiang Haitao presumed Jiang Zhe had changed his mind. He was delighted, no less happy than when the emperor enfeoffed him as a duke in the ninth year of Longsheng.
Huo Cong entered the tent and after he saluted Jiang Haitao, Jiang Haitao gave Huo Cong a document and said, “If our navy ships sail north, it will be difficult to avoid interdictions from Ninghai. But as it happens, ships of Southern Fujian’s Yue family are heading north to Goryeo. This is your identification paper. You shouldn’t have a problem with safely sailing north.”
Huo Cong knew that though the two militaries engaged in frequent fighting for the past few years, many of the large aristocratic families of Wuyue had collaborated with the officers in Junshan, Dinghai to operate private naval commerce. But because the two shipping companies involved in the naval trade, the Hai family and the Yue family, had close ties with the Jiang family, Dinghai turned a blind eye to it, even profiting quite a bit from the trade.
For Jiang Haitao, the most important factor was that accessing this trade could allow them to receive goods and provisions they were short on. This was key to the Eastern Sea Navy, whose way home was cut off by Junshan, Dinghai. As for using the two shipping companies, there were also the unspoken benefits of sending intelligence and protecting traveling messengers. As for the aristocratic families participating in the trade, the colossal profits they reaped were enough to overlook the consequences of giving supplies to the enemy. If these aristocratic families had secretly spared no effort for the Wuyue volunteer army, someone would have targeted them long ago, if not for maintaining equal cooperative status.
After handing over some official business, Jiang Haitao said with a stern face, “There’s another matter that’s made things rather difficult for me that I’d like you to tell Sir about. For the past half a year or so, the many coastal villages of Wuyue invited capable people and dug tunnels in the villages to avoid our navy. I bribed some of them over and learned the tunnels are as complex as spiderwebs. If nobody leads the way, eighty to ninety percent of people will go astray and get incapacitated by the countless hidden traps and poisonous smoke. Before our troops can enter the villages, the villagers will hide in the tunnels, even hiding their food and money inside, making our troops toil in vain.”
Huo Cong hadn’t touched military matters in some time and was quite curious. “I wonder who came up with this idea. Do you have any clues?”
Jiang Haitao smiled wryly and replied, “We do have a small clue. I received news a few days ago, learning that the man is currently in the vicinity of Zhenhai supervising construction of tunnels and forts. I dispatched experts on a raid. After they went ashore, they first eliminated a patrol and kept one alive, then forced him to unknowingly guide them. As expected, they met Yun Zishan, but he had many skilled bodyguards with him, and they allowed the man to escape even under the encirclement of hundreds of our fine warriors. Truly, an utter humiliation for our military.
“According to the prisoner’s confession, he only knew that the man was a good friend of Wuyue’s best swordsman, Dingming, and wasn’t sure about his status, but that man is the most skilled at concealed mechanisms and weapons. After you meet Sir, explain my issue to him. If there’s no good way to counteract it, I’m afraid that if this continues, our navy will plunder less and less money and provisions in Wuyue. We don’t have enough provisions to sustain our navy right now. If we can’t obtain a great deal of food and money from Wuyue, it’ll be a huge problem.”
Huo Cong fell into deep thought. On the surface, it looked like a troublesome individual had only appeared in Wuyue, so why did he get a vaguely odd feeling about this?
- 蛟龙出海, jiaolong-chuhai – idiom, lit. flood dragon exits the sea; fig. a talented person has an opportunity to display their skill
- 金戈铁马, jinge-tiema – idiom, lit. shining spears and armored horses; fig. war, powerful army