The Grandmaster Strategist is a web novel created by Follow The Crowd, 随波逐流.
This lightnovel is presently Ongoing.
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Volume 6, Chapter 28: Happiness Lies in Intimacy
The cargo s.h.i.+p I would be a pa.s.senger on would be departing from Zhenze Lake and would sail north to Jingkou by taking the Jiangnan Ca.n.a.l. It was a vessel to s.h.i.+p provisions and fodder from Wuxi to Huaidong. The battle that took place in Huaidong last fall happened right at the advent of the fall harvest. Because the Yong army launched a border invasion, not a single grain was reaped. After Southern Chu recaptured Huaidong, the two militaries fell into a standoff and needed provisions even more desperately. Before the summer harvest at the least, Jiangnan had to supply provisions and fodder to Huaidong. As a result, since the end of last year, s.h.i.+ps transporting grain from Wuyue to Huaidong began to sail in an endless stream. There were national s.h.i.+pments as well as private s.h.i.+pments. Of the supply s.h.i.+ps, over sixty percent of them began their journey in Wuxi. The aristocracy held majority control over businesses like grain retailers, but this didn’t hinder the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets from using the trading companies they controlled to play a small role. They bought up to ten s.h.i.+ps’ worth of provisions in Wuyue and transported them to Huaidong to sell the stock. This was a quite normal act. Vessels sailed the rivers in an endless stream, so n.o.body knew that inside one of these, a purpose-built cargo s.h.i.+p, several stowaways who shouldn’t have been aboard were.
Nothing about this cargo s.h.i.+p looked special on the surface compared to normal cargo s.h.i.+ps, but during the design stage, a secret compartment was added to the middle of the hold, which valuable private goods could be loaded into. Right now, I was the stowaway who’d been slipped in, while Xiaoshunzi had become the manservant of the supply s.h.i.+p’s manager, Shanzi. Xiaoshunzi just needed to change his appearance, after which very few people in the world could see his true depths, so there was no need to worry that someone might discover his true ident.i.ty. In addition, Xiaoshunzi had sealed around eighty percent of the martial arts of Huyan Shou and the other four bodyguards. Then they were put to work as coolies aboard the s.h.i.+p. After they put on clothes made of hemp fibers and the glow of their eyes dimmed, n.o.body could tell they were soldiers skilled in martial arts except for the fact that they were a little tall. During the time they’d accompanied the Eastern Sea Navy south, they’d gotten past the difficulty of seasickness. This time, I specifically a.s.signed someone to train them for a long time on how to sail a s.h.i.+p. As long as they didn’t speak carelessly, they could just barely pa.s.s as part-time boatmen. These bodyguards were all dedicated, shrewd soldiers, as they wouldn’t have been selected for the Stalwart Tiger Guard otherwise. If they put in the effort, they would become some of the best boatmen by the time they disembarked from the s.h.i.+p. In reality, it wasn’t that I didn’t consider Huyan Shou’s honor when I had him work as a boatman. It was just that the secret compartment was a little small. One person staying in it was fine, but any more would be too crowded.
This secret compartment was only two square zhang.1 The compartment contained only a bed, a table, and a chair. Besides this furniture, there was just a small patch of clear ground I could use to exercise my body. Although the ventilation was fairly good, and there was even a connected small room for was.h.i.+ng up, it still wasn’t comfortable, especially for me, who’d gotten used to luxury. But I had no choice. Huaidong was no better than Wuyue. If I showed my face and made some blunders, I couldn’t run away even if I wanted to. As a result, I had to suffer this indignity and hide in the secret compartment. This was the condition on which Xiaoshunzi had agreed to let me sneak into Southern Chu. When I thought of how I needed to stay cooped up here for at least ten days, I complained to high heaven. Huyan Shou and the others might have been rather miserable, but at least they got to see the sun and the sky. And Xiaoshunzi could freely roam about. With his martial arts, he could stroll around the sh.o.r.e and return without anyone finding out. Such a sharp contrast was truly depressing.
I gazed at the luminous pearls inlaid in the bulkhead, and a feeling of gratefulness arose inside me. Although the ventilation in this secret chamber was fairly good, it would be unbearable to have lamps lit for a long time. But there was no sunlight here. If I didn’t light lamps, I wouldn’t even see my fingers up against my face. If others hid in here, they would have no choice but to endure it. But Shanzi was smart to the extreme and temporarily added a small switch to the wall that could insert several luminous pearls. In this way, the chamber was lighted by the bright glow of the pearls. Although it wasn’t the same as sunlight, my vision wasn’t hindered. If I wanted to read some books, I wouldn’t feel that the light was too dim. If not for this, how could I have endured these dozen days of torment?
I set down the scroll and gave a gentle sigh. It was truly lonely. Perhaps I was no longer used to it. I used to love silence, but now I felt exceptionally unbearable loneliness. Xiaoshunzi was a real piece of work too, casting me aside and strolling alone. It was strange now that I thought about it. If he were by my side, I wouldn’t feel lonesome even if he didn’t say a single word all day. I tossed and turned on the bed and finally couldn’t stand it. Jumping off the bed, I paced on the floor, going in circles several times. I grew increasingly suffocated and itched to go out to get some fresh air, but I remembered that Xiaoshunzi had a prior engagement. During that time, I couldn’t leave the secret compartment. I could only feel dejected. While I was frustrated beyond belief, the small door to the secret chamber slid open without a sound, and Xiaoshunzi stooped as he swiftly entered. He held a food hamper in his hands.
I was overjoyed. When Xiaoshunzi was about to leave after putting the food hamper on the table, I tugged at him and said, “Eat with me, please. You still won’t be late if you leave after eating.” Xiaoshunzi glanced at me but ignored me. He just took out the cooked food, bowls, and chopsticks in the food hamper. I was overjoyed again at the sight. There were two bowls and two sets of chopsticks. Xiaoshunzi was, sure enough, quite loyal. He knew I was melancholic and suffocating, so he had decided to eat with me. Thinking of this, I hastily brought out two teacups and put them on the table, then graciously lifted the pot and poured the tea, trying to please him. I never noticed the smile s.h.i.+ning in Xiaoshunzi’s eyes.
After dining, I watched Xiaoshunzi pack up the bowls and chopsticks. Thinking of how he was going out again for a stroll, I realized I’d been hoisted by my own petard. An intense feeling of gloom welled up inside me, and I lay on the bed. I rolled inward to face the wall and stared at it blankly. Not long after, I heard the sound of Xiaoshunzi leaving the chamber. I cursed him harsher than before in my head. If he wanted to leave, he could absolutely do so without making a noise. Why did he purposely make such noise? Wasn’t he deliberately angering me? However, when I thought of how I forbade him from killing Dingming and Priest Bitter Bamboo without telling him the reason why, it was no wonder he wanted to anger me so. While lost in thought, Xiaoshunzi’s cold voice came from behind me. “How does playing a game of weiqi sound?”
I jumped at the invitation and quickly rolled over and sat up. I even forgot all about how I vowed I would never play him again when he beat me so badly last time that I was drenched in sweat. “No reneging, and at least three games,” I hurriedly said.
Xiaoshunzi smiled. A warm expression appeared on his face that had returned to its genuine form of fine, delicate features. This was a rarely seen expression on his face these days.
Halfway through the first game, I furrowed my brows and wryly smiled as I looked at the board on which Xiaoshunzi had slaughtered and smashed my pieces. I raised my head and saw kindness on Xiaoshunzi’s face. I plucked up my courage and said, “Playing weiqi is boring too. Why don’t we just talk?”
Xiaoshunzi’s eyes glowed, and he briefly replied, “About what?”
“Anything,” I said with a smile. “Whatever you want to ask, or whatever you want to say. It’s difficult to find such leisure, and there’s no outsiders with us either.” I thought to myself, As long as Xiaoshunzi asks, I can explain to him the reason for my reckless behavior over the past few days. It’ll also alleviate his unhappiness.
Xiaoshunzi gave it some thought, then said, “Back when young master proposed accompanying the navy south to the Emperor, the Emperor asked young master why. Young master only said he wanted to make the Southern Chu military wrongly believe that our navy’s main thrust of the attack was Wuyue. Thinking about it now, young master’s real reason wasn’t just this. First, he wanted to reconcile with the Jing family, and second, he wanted to share the burden with Marquis Jiang, correct?”
I picked up a stone and fiddled with it. With a smile, I replied, “Wanting to reconcile with the Jing family is true. Although someone else came, I could still show mercy to the Jing family’s subordinates. Unfortunately, I learned my maternal uncle, the elderly man, is stubborn and tough. If I couldn’t have resolved our differences, the Jing family would have been utterly useless to our military. It was just that the Emperor would never rest easy with me returning to Jiaxing, so I never brought it up. As for sharing Haitao’s burden, how should I put it?”
“This is the very first battle for the Eastern Sea Navy ever since submitting to Great Yong, and a winning record is very important,” Xiaoshunzi coolly said. “Wuyue is the soul of Southern Chu. Even if the navy succeeds for a time, they will inevitably be defeated. And with the imperial army and the strategy of piracy, I fear it’ll be easy to censure Marquis Jiang. Even if no one speaks out now, by the time it happens, it will be for a capital crime. Young master went south with him and first suggested the strategy of pillaging Wuyue. This way, if someone in the future wants to reproach him for this, they will have to consider the young master’s position. Didn’t young master do this to share the burden with Marquis Jiang?”
I smiled without saying anything. Xiaoshunzi continued, “In reality, if the Eastern Sea Navy hadn’t been the most skilled at landing and plundering, they couldn’t have completed this strategy in a short dozen days even if the young master had planned this stratagem and prepared a precise map of Wuyue. If Marquis Jiang hadn’t prepared for these actions, he wouldn’t have been outfitted with so many coastal wars.h.i.+ps, and the plundering wouldn’t have gone so quick and clean. Although young master has the merit of offering the advice, Marquis Jiang’s execution of the strategy was so perfect it was otherworldly. Meanwhile, young master is taking the possibility of attack onto himself, not knowing whether it will be a blessing or a curse.”
Glancing at me, Xiaoshunzi added, “Young master has, of course, considered the consequences of such actions. If young master loses the Emperor’s favor in the future, it’s inevitable that someone will censure the young master for this. However, the young master would naturally not take this to heart. Instead, it would be Marquis Jiang. He is young and impulsive. If he were at odds with Great Yong due to this, this navy that rules the waves would go to waste. And as long as Marquis Jiang comes out unharmed, the Hai Family s.h.i.+pping Company won’t be affected. We’ll have a retreat route, so young master needs not care about his reputation; rather, you a.s.sume full responsibility for offering advice.”
Hearing all this, I couldn’t help but smile and say, “A crafty rabbit has three burrows.2 This is the way to self-sufficiency.”
Xiaoshunzi smiled and said again, “If you just wanted to leave a way out, young master, you could have remained at Dinghai. When the seas calmed, you could have returned north to the Central Plains. However, young master was determined to cross the Southern Chu realm alone to reach Huaidong.”
I blushed. “Haven’t I already explained this?”
“Young master has explained it to me before, true,” Xiaoshunzi said. “Back in the third month of this year, when the Jiangnan Command Post was being prepared for construction, young master was required to travel there to take up his appointed post. Once the Southern Chu army learned the young master was in Dinghai, the Ninghai Navy was sure to block the road north. Within a short duration, young master could no longer go north. Even with a naval escort, it was difficult to avoid raids from the Ninghai Navy. If the young master had stayed in Dinghai, it would have delayed the fulfillment of the military plan and caused the Emperor to become displeased with young master’s initial determination to go south. For the sake of speed and safety, it was better to travel overland. With the protection of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, it would be safer.”
“That’s the case. I didn’t lie,” I responded with a smile.
Xiaoshunzi gave me a look and said, “Young master didn’t lie but omitted the important points. You leaving Dinghai wasn’t related to the military affairs of the Jiangnan Command Post but for the sake Marquis Jiang.
I lightly sighed. “There’s another reason you haven’t guessed.”
Xiaoshunzi raised his eyebrows. “Young master is saying this is also to test young master Cong?”
I was a little taken aback. “You thought of this too?” I said with a smile.
“Young master Cong has a mysterious past, yet clearly receives the most love from young master. I’ve always held off against a forceful interrogation, as over the past few years, young master Cong has been highly regarded by the Crown Prince and the Prince of Jia of the second rank. He will become an important minister of Great Yong in the future. Based on young master Cong’s ability and talent, he could even gain overwhelming power in the empire without difficulty if he wanted to. This wouldn’t have been a problem, but young master worries he has a grudge against Great Yong. You deliberately left him by himself in Dinghai, no longer constantly constraining him to your side like before. Obtaining sudden freedom, he will undoubtedly reveal his true colors. Young master presumably left behind a spy among the Stalwart Tiger Guard to monitor young master Cong’s actions. Once they discover anything peculiar, they can request that Marquis Jiang put him under house arrest. With Dinghai isolated abroad, even if young master Cong does something untoward, it can hardly affect the overall situation. And even if something happens, you can order Marquis Jiang to help cover up the truth and not compromise anything. Young master acted this way both to probe young master Cong and to protect young master Cong just in case. I just hope young master Cong can empathize with the young master’s intentions and not do anything that saddens his friends and gladdens his enemies,” said Xiaoshunzi.
I heaved a heavy sigh in response. I had already procrastinated on Cong’er for many years, but I couldn’t keep turning a blind eye to it now. The crown prince was beginning to involve himself in the military and government. If there were truly things wrong with Cong’er, I had to figure them out before the crown prince put him in an important position.
Xiaoshunzi had another surprising thing to say. “These matters were very easy to understand. But the friends.h.i.+p between the young master and the pair of Dingming and Priest Bitter Bamboo made me perplexed no matter how much I thought about it. Only today did I suddenly understand, so I’d like to ask young master if I’m correct.”
I gained great interest upon hearing this. I’d believed that Xiaoshunzi had been mad about that event for the past few days. I didn’t expect he was actually thinking of a reason for my behavior. Longing to hear whether he understood my intentions, I sat up straight, and a look of rapt attention appeared on my face.
Xiaoshunzi evenly said, “At the beginning, young master was just thrilled to see people with the same interests and wanted to meet the talented men once. But after the two men boarded the s.h.i.+p and young master learned their ident.i.ties, you thought of relying on them for support. I originally feared for young master, as personages like you are few and far between in the world. If they carefully thought through things, they would inevitably realize young master’s real ident.i.ty, so I advocated killing the two of them. However, young master didn’t permit me to do so, instead hinting that I add sleeping medicine to the third infusion of boiling water. Then you personally refilled their tea and knocked out the two men, also leaving a token behind for them, alluding that young master was the manager of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets. Only now do I understand the young master’s purpose. The manager of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets is enigmatic, a legend. After they learn the young master is the manager of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets, any oddities can be explained away in their view, thus they will no longer realize young master’s real ident.i.ty. Young master personally refilling tea was to mislead them into believing young master personally drugged them. But as they couldn’t spot any clues, they’ll a.s.sume young master has gone into hiding. This way, they’ll be even less likely to realize young master is Jiang Zhe, Jiang Suiyun, for mortals all know the young master is a frail scholar. However, I don’t understand why young master bothered to keep them alive, unless it was purely because of Dingming’s heartfelt comments?”
I gave a small smile, cunning seeping into my eyes. I was both proud of the stratagem I’d come up with on the fly as well as laughing to myself that Xiaoshunzi had only seen the façade. Surprisingly, Xiaoshunzi also smiled and continued, “As a result, I’ve been racking my brain over the past few days and finally figured out the whole thing. Since they wanted to accomplish the same things young master wanted, and they could do twice as much with half the effort, young master preferred to let these two men go at the risk his revealing his ident.i.ty. However, the methods may have been the same, but the goals are a world apart. They want to protect the people and the state of Southern Chu, while young master’s goal is to weaken and eradicate the Wuyue aristocracy.
“Young master was born in Jiaxing, and forty percent of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secret’s industry is in Wuyue. Although young master has wandered about, he has never forgotten his roots. With young master offering the strategy of pillaging Wuyue, people are bound to criticize young master for not thinking of his hometown, not knowing how greatly it has pained young master.
“In young master’s mind, the Wuyue aristocracy is truly the greatest obstacle. One important reason for the decline of Southern Chu is the conflict between the royal family and the aristocracy. For young master, the aristocracy wielding power does more harm than good. Now that the other regions’ aristocracies have mostly withered away, leaving only Wuyue’s, the aristocracy’s power has grown larger because they are far away from the flames of war and profit from the sea trade. As young master has submitted to Great Yong, he naturally doesn’t want Great Yong to make the same mistakes in the future, thus Wuyue’s aristocracy must be purged. However, after Great Yong unifies the lands, the Wuyue aristocracy is sure to be on the lookout for switching allegiances, whether sincerely or deceitfully. If they were to be purged at this time, the people of Jiangnan may grow restless. The Emperor is a heroic ruler and certainly won’t indulge the Wuyue aristocracy. The Wuyue aristocracy will refuse to yield and will surely incite a popular revolt. If this happens, the beautiful land will become an abattoir of carnage, entertainment venues becoming broken tile and crumbled walls. The region of Wuyue might not even recover to its previous state within a few decades. So with much contemplation, young master decided on the strategy of pillaging Wuyue.
“This strategy appears to only weaken the strength of Wuyue’s resistance on the surface and also allows for Dinghai to stalemate Wuyue for a long time. In fact, there are three other advantages. First, the Wuyue aristocracy will be forced to raise a volunteer army and private soldiers in the end to combat the Yong navy for fear of the Yong navy landing again. This will eliminate the military might of the Wuyue aristocracy in battle. Second, after the two sides fight for a long time, they will forge grudges from bitter fighting and casualties piling up. After Great Yong marches south, they can use the excuse of Wuyue’s aristocracy resisting the imperial military to carry out purges. How can eggs remain unbroken when the nest is upset?3 This deed would be just and honorable. Even if the Wuyue aristocracy tries to provoke a ma.s.s uprising, they won’t receive support from commoners weary of war. Third, young master kidnapping the Jiaxing aristocracy to the Putuo Islands will allow for the destruction of the aristocratic system within several years, making them a force that meets the needs of Great Yong. After Great Yong unifies the lands, s.h.i.+ft these people back to Wuyue, and they will become the foundation and support for Great Yong’s rule over Wuyue. In this fas.h.i.+on, young master can accomplish the goal of purging the Wuyue aristocracy, and protect the lives and possessions of millions of soldiers and commoners living in Wuyue. If not for considering his hometown, why would young master take such pains, not even hesitating to bear the notoriety?
“It’s due to young master intending for Huyan Shou to see the strength of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets and to alert the Emperor through him. Although the people of Wuyue are submissive by nature, they still have the quality of elite light infantry willing to die in their bones, with the most a.s.sa.s.sins and heroic swordsmen since ancient times. But even if Great Yong wipes out Southern Chu, it won’t be possible to stabilize Jiangnan without a decade of pacification and suppression. Young master is presumably worried the Emperor will adopt a tough policy because of the undercurrent of resistance in Wuyue, so he warned the Emperor, intentionally or otherwise. But by doing this, hasn’t young master given himself yet another grave, capital offense and revealed a hidden strength? This has made me feel uneasy this whole time. If the Emperor intends to eliminate people once they’ve served their purpose, how will young master react?”
I felt overwhelmingly carefree. Although I’d pondered these private worries in my mind thousands upon thousands of times, I couldn’t confide to the Heavens, Earth, my monarch, or my father; I couldn’t confide to my wife, children, relatives, or friends; I couldn’t tell my story to spirits and G.o.ds. I could only scheme strenuously by myself. Although Xiaoshunzi was a close friend, I didn’t wish to upset him. These past few days had truly been agonizing. Although we hadn’t seen many outsiders on the journey north, we’d vaguely heard people discussing the Yong navy pillaging Wuyue. Most of the people who brought the topic up considered me a traitor and turncoat, hurling vicious abuse at me. It made me miserable and uneasy. I didn’t expect Xiaoshunzi to know my mood without having to express myself. Outside of martial arts, he had always cared little for worldly affairs. He must have perceived my depression and racked his brains this time to uncover the source of my misery in order to comfort me.
Stamping down on the raging storm brewing inside me, I tried to say as calmly as possible, “It’s nothing much. After the lands are unified, the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets should become a thing of the past.4 In fact, their businesses were long since divided among the operatives of the Secret Camp. It’s just that the sign of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets still hangs over them. If the Emperor learns of these forces, it’s not a big deal. After Great Yong unifies the lands, can I triumph over the court even if I have an even stronger force? Instead of h.o.a.rding all the military might to protect myself, it’s better to disperse the forces. This way, I won’t attract the Imperial Family’s suspicion. What’s more, it isn’t in the Emperor’s nature to be harsh and merciless. Do not mention eliminating people after they’ve served their purpose from this point forward.”
I stood to my feet, folded my hands behind my back, and gazed upward. I felt myself gradually grow tranquil. Realizing there was always one person in the world who truly knew me, that person being Xiaoshunzi, who followed me day and night and was as close as flesh and blood, I grew ever more ecstatic. Even in this cramped and dark secret compartment, my eyes glowed bright as a palace hall resplendent with pearls. A smile forced the corners of my lips to curve upward, and I said, “All right, you can leave. If people realize you, a manservant, are always disappearing, Shanzi likely won’t have a way to cover for you.”
Xiaoshunzi’s eyes shone for a second. Lowering his eyes, he turned and exited the secret compartment. Before he closed the hidden door, he heard chuckling coming from behind him. It sounded like the young master’s depression had completely disappeared. He was delighted too. He thought the following days would no longer be a trying time for the young master. With this thought, he also found it difficult to stop a smile from appearing on his lips and walked at a brisk pace out of the cabin.
Approximately 12 square meters (about 130 square feet)狡兔三窟, jiaotu-sanku – idiom, lit. a crafty rabbit has three burrows; fig. a sly individual has more than one plan to fall back on覆巢之下，焉有完卵, fuchaozhixia, yanyouwanluan – idiom, fig. no one escapes unscathed from a catastrophe; if the country perishes, the people cannot enjoy freedom and independence明日黄花, mingri-huanghua – idiom, lit. chrysanthemums after the Double Ninth Festival; fig. obsolete, outdated, fallen out of fas.h.i.+on
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