The day was grimly cold, without a trace of impending spring.
A young man sat alone on the banks of the creek, fishing rod in hand. The cold cut through his thin clothes; he was curled up tight, legs pulled to his chest, knees tucked against his chin. He seemed to be gazing fixedly at the fishing float bobbing on the water, but at the same time, seemed to be gazing at nothing.
Distantly, from the shadowy cover of the woods, a black-robed man inspected him with icy eyes.
The youth knew this. His gaze never wavered towards the woods, but he did not need to look to sense that cold stare upon him.
But he neither cared, nor wondered why.
His luck couldn’t worsen more than it already had, after all. No one could peel another scrap of gain off of him. He didn’t even know how he was going to eat tonight-- the returns from his fishing, of late, had been dismal.
Will you beg another meal from Town Marshal1 Yao?
He sighed to himself and shook his head no.
He could face Old Yao just fine, but how was he supposed to face the man’s wife? That day, she’d cooked a veritable feast, purposefully early, then had the family eat while they were practically still in their beds. By the time he went, that woman had cleared every morsel out of the pot, leaving him with nothing but a frosty glare.
What was he supposed to do? Still try to hang around until they chased him out with a broom?
To tell the truth, he hadn’t felt particularly angry or frustrated then. An idle hanger-on like himself learned to brush off others’ contempt sooner or later. If he’d felt anything, it was pity for Town Marshal Yao, for marrying such a shortsighted woman. He had planned on rewarding him lavishly, eventually, but his wife cost him any such goodwill. Old Yao would get only what he deserved when the time came.
It’s their fault for dismissing me as nothing more than a waste of food, he’d thought with cold satisfaction then.
Repay gentlemen like gentlemen, and petty men like petty men, he believed.
He’d always trusted that, with his talent, he would one day achieve power and wealth enough to richly repay those who’d helped him, awe those who’d held him in contempt, take revenge on those who’d mocked and humiliated him. Ah, yes! He’d make sure to properly reward that old laundress from the east side. She’d fed him, a complete stranger, for ten straight days at his most desperate2 ...
But now, cold and starving, he was forced to wonder: would he really reach that day?
He’d never seen a single sign of any opportunity, any omen of greatness to come.
In the eyes of those around him, who was he? A useless, pathetic beggar of scraps, who didn’t even have the money to bury his mother and father properly when they died, who’d at one point crawled between the legs of the local bully in full view of the townspeople3... what right did someone like him have to the sympathy of the heavens?
He didn’t consider himself useless, but really, what abilities did he have? He thought it beneath him to be a farmer, some bumpkin bending his back over a plow; he lacked the merchant’s aptitude for haggling over pennies; he loathed the idea of being a scribe, writing out the same documents day after day; he despised the fawning, flattering ways of government officials. Hah! He didn’t have even one of the skills needed to get ahead in his world, and he dared to think...
The bobber dipped. A fish!
He hauled in the line. The hook was bare-- he’d gotten distracted and missed his chance yet again. He sighed, jabbed a new piece of bait onto the hook, tossed it back into the water.
He gazed at the rippling rings that spread across the surface of the creek.
Did he truly have no abilities?
No. Not truly, and that was the problem.
He’d learned some extraordinary skills. That, of course, had been long ago...
“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, teaching you this.” The old man looked at him with sad eyes. “This may only hurt you, child.”
“How could it, master?”
“If you’d never learned these things, you could live out an uneventful life, a normal life, with no regrets.”
“But now... ai!” The old man patted his head, sighing.
The old master’s predictions had been correct as usual, it seemed. Before, he’d been so content! Grubbing for food in the creeks and ponds, shouting with joy whenever he found a snail or winkle bigger than the usual. He could never know that sort of mindless happiness again. Why did his master have to teach him, if he knew it was going to be like this? Why couldn’t he let him live out this wretched life with peace in his heart?
“It’s hard to say, though. Heaven has granted you too much talent. Even without me, perhaps you’d sooner or later...”
Heaven-sent talent, was it? He wished he’d never had such a thing. It had brought him nothing but pain, knowing he was meant for something he’d never see happen. He could have been another ignorant peasant, content to live a humble life in poverty, finding happiness amidst the hardship.
“…You are a truly matchless sword. They could bury you in the deepest reaches of the earth without hiding your shine.”
No, master, here you were wrong, he thought. If a sword remains buried for too long, it will rust. It will die. He would rather be a piece of coarse rock. At least rocks didn’t rust. Even if a rock was thrown into the worst filth, to be stepped on by everyone, it wouldn’t feel pain or curse its fate.
Really, why did his master even feel the need to teach him such things, and teach them with such pitiless passion? Didn’t he understand that the times that required such knowledge had passed?
The six states had fallen, and the future had settled with their ashes. The Qin empire had tidily organized what remained-- filled every position and planned every development, perhaps to the third or fourth generation to come. Those in power didn’t need to recruit amongst the peasants and rabble for talents anymore; now, their main goal was to consolidate their own ranks.
Which made the promise all the more strange.
Before he left, his master had made him vow: he would never use what he had learned, unless the world truly fell into chaos.
His master had taught him such extraordinary things, yet seemed to hope they’d never be needed. Why? Had his master truly intended to forge him into a matchless sword just so that he could be buried away, never to see daylight, watching the years corrode at his keen edge bit by bit?
His master, the enigma. He’d never even told him his real name. Once, he’d actually claimed that his name was Wei Liao4 , astonishing his pupil. Admiration for his teacher’s bravery soon mingled with the astonishment. He may have been in hiding, but he’d still dared to take the name of the emperor’s own advisor for a pseudonym!
But what was the point of thinking about such things now? The youth violently shook his head, forcing his thoughts away from his memories: those surreal encounters were meaningless to his life now, and the sooner he could forget about them, the better. He needed to save his attention for his fishing if he didn’t want to go hungry today.
He focused on the fishing float.
Was all that truly meaningless?
Yes, he thought.
Those hopes you’d had...
Laughable self-delusion, and nothing more! Toss it all out of your mind.
And you would be content to silently endure your life of poverty?
Yes. he thought stubbornly. Yes, I would!
But if he’d been so fated to waste his life, why had Heaven seen fit to grant him such talent? Why had it let him learn such skills? Why had it inflamed his already abnormal hunger for success...
No, no, he couldn’t keep on thinking like this. Give into your fate! Heaven may have crafted him with its infinite care and artistry, but, buried so deeply, couldn’t he let himself return to the dust from which he came?
But what about all the past contempt he’d already endured? All the generosity and kindness he’d never be able to repay? And that time, that unforgettable humiliation.
Ah, humiliation! It beat at his chest, carved itself into his heart with the sharpest knife.
How could he forget it? And even if he could, could anyone else? All of the town of Huaiying had heard, and laughed at him. If he’d preserved his own life only to be unable to prove anything with it, what point was there in enduring that? He should have put up a fight, then. With his sword technique, he could have killed that bully easily enough...
Heaven had made him, had given him life, but for what?
He raised his head, gazing towards the sky, hoping for an answer.
The sky was starting to dim-- the sun had set. He sighed and pulled in his line.
Another useless day.
He stood up, rubbing his numb legs. He picked up his rod and empty fishing basket and began the walk home.
“Please wait,” someone called out from behind.
He knew who it was without turning-- that man in the woods, who’d been spying on him-- but he had no interest in him. Certainly not now, when he had to get back to town before the gates closed. “Are you talking to me?” he asked, turning without enthusiasm.
“What, is there a third person here?” The other man sauntered over. He was a thin-faced, middle-aged man with an air of world-weary indifference that contrasted with his apparent age.
“Who are you? What do you want with me? I don’t think I know you.” He made as if ready to leave.
But the black-robed man didn’t seem to notice his attitude. “You can call me the Guest of Canghai5,” he said by way of introduction, unruffled. “I am a divine messenger from the East Sea--”
“What?” he said, unsure if he’d heard right.
“I am a divine messenger from the East Sea, obeying my god’s command to seek out a certain person...”
It wasn’t his ears that were at fault, apparently. The youth laughed, and said “Sir, you have the wrong person. I live on the left side of Huaiying Gate.” He turned to leave. Really, he hadn’t expected anyone to play that sort of game with him!
The self-proclaimed Guest of Canghai stared blankly at him. “The left side of the gate? What are you talking about?”
“The left side for the lowly, the right side for the rich. You don’t even know that? Go find someone from the right side. They’re the ones who’ll be your clients.” Exasperating, to have to waste his breath on this sort of person.
“Wait! You think I’m one of those incense-waving frauds?”
The youth didn’t bother to respond, continuing to walk away.
“I really am a divine messenger. Perhaps you aren’t the sort to believe in ghosts and gods--”
“Let’s say you’re right,” the youth tossed back.
“--But does something necessarily not exist if you don’t believe in it?”
Seeing that the youth showed no signs of halting his steps, the Guest of Canghai continued: “If I really were a fraud, what would I have to gain from someone as penniless as you?”
The youth walked on.
The Guest of Canghai said, idly: “Young man, have you given up your quest to become a conqueror, then?”
That gentle voice hit him like a thunderbolt. He froze, his fishing basket tumbling to the ground from paralyzed hands.
No, no. He’d hidden away his most lunatic thought deep in his heart. He’d never dared to reveal his terrible ambition to anyone. This stranger couldn’t know something like that.
The Guest of Canghai caught up to him unhurriedly. “Your talent would be sufficient, but the time is wrong. If you’d been born a hundred years earlier, your achievements could have rivaled that of Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin6 . But in this age, what a pity, you’re doomed to live and die a commoner, huddled amongst the weeds and brush. Unless you had my master’s help...”
“Bullshit!” The youth turned around slowly, eyes fixed on the Guest of Changhai. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.”
“You can deny it,” the Guest of Canghai said. “Whether I spoke truly, your heart knows better than mine. But don’t worry, I’m not a court official.”
No, he wouldn’t be a court official. The court of today guarded against its people and administered its punishments with unprecedented ruthlessness. If he were a court official and had the slightest doubt about his loyalties, they wouldn’t be standing here talking. But who was he, then?
“Are you working for one of the six fallen states?” he asked, an idea flashing into mind. He’d heard stories recently about underground resistance groups hiding amongst the commoners, plotting to restore their states. They supposedly made use of wandering fortune-tellers and charlatans to find talents for their cause.
The Guest of Canghai shook his head. “No, I work for my god.”
“Are you serving the Chu cause?” Of the various stories and rumors, the most infamous was: “If Chu has but three households left, it will destroy the Qin Empire7 !” And this had been Chu territory before the unification. To the youth, this seemed the most likely.
“I serve my god.” The Guest of Canghai sighed. “Is it really this hard for you to believe? I can see that you’re intelligent, quick to deduce the most probable answer from the information you’re given. But some things under heaven won’t submit to that sort of logic. There are limits to what humanity can know, after all. Why must you try to explain away what you don’t understand with your incomplete prior knowledge?”
“Fine.” The youth hugged his arms in front of his chest. “Then use what I don’t know to explain all this. Why do you claim I’m so ambitious? Do I appear to be that sort of person?” He looked down self-deprecatingly at his feet, half-exposed in tattered shoes.
The Guest of Canghai hesitated before saying: “I know from your behavior. From your deeds.”
“My deeds? What did I do?”
“Nine years later, you will join a rebellion. Your behavior then is enough to prove that you’ve long harbored great ambition.”
“Nine years later?” He stared, then laughed. “You can see the future.”
The Guest of Canghai said seriously: “Not me, but my master. I am only another ordinary person.”
“A rebellion, nine years later?” the youth said, still laughing. “Interesting. With Qin Shihuang’s governance skills and a crown prince as capable as Fusu, the Qin Empire will know at least fifty years of peace and prosperity. Nine years? Ha!”
The Guest of Canghai didn’t smile. His face remained impassive, cold.
“Fine, then. Your master is a god who can see the future. If he knows that there will be a rebellion in nine years, then surely he knows how it will end?”
“Yes,” said the Guest of Canghai.
“Then does it succeed or fail?” He realized suddenly that his heart was speeding. Why? When had he begun to believe in this charlatan’s nonsense?
“I’m sorry.” The Guest of Canghai shook his head. “My master has said before, revealing too much will cause unpredictable changes...
“It would twist the course of heaven itself. And regardless, that’s not why I came here.”
To his surprise, the youth felt a pang of disappointment at his answer. “Then why are you here?”
The Guest of Canghai said: “To make a deal with you.”
He hadn’t been expecting that. “A deal?” Was the man trying to get money out of him after all?
But as he’d said earlier: what could he take from someone as penniless as him?
The Guest of Canghai said: “You’re a rare talent, but not everyone with talent can get a chance to use it, as you’ve seen. Twelve years later, you will meet with a difficulty that no mortal power can overcome, a crisis that will drive you to despair and doom your quest. The only one who can save you from it will be my master. You’ll need my master’s help, and coincidentally, my master needs your help for a certain task.”
“A difficulty?” he asked curiously. “What kind of difficulty? And what does your master want me to do?”
“I cannot tell you now, and there would be no purpose in telling you now. You will understand when the time comes.”
The youth looked at the Guest of Canghai for a while, and suddenly laughed. “If your master is so powerful, able to help me overcome a challenge no mortal can defeat, why does he need a mere mortal like me to aid him? Surely that’s too much of a stretch?”
The Guest of Canghai didn’t anger, and simply said: “Who says that gods are omnipotent?”
“Everyone in the world?”
“And which of them have seen a real god?”
The young man paused. Then, slowly, he said: “How can you prove that your master is a real god?”
The Guest of Canghai said: “I don’t need to prove it, when time will prove everything for you. I only want to arrange this deal with you...”
“And if I refuse?”
“Refuse?” The Guest of Canghai looked taken aback, but at the same time, looked as if he’d expected that answer. He nodded. “My master was right, it seems, when he said you wouldn’t be easy to persuade. You’re too outstanding a talent, and outstanding talents always think they can do everything by themselves, always dismiss others’ offers of help...”
“It’s not a matter of dismissing others’ help, but a matter of preventing others from having power over me,” the youth said. “A debt of gratitude is just like any other debt-- that I know only too well, and I despise that feeling. My future is mine alone, and I’m not selling it to anyone, not even a god.”
A strange look drifted into the Guest of Canghai’s cold eyes, but it was hidden in an instant. “Very well,” he said in the same cool tone as before. “Your youth and talents are your capital, to invest as you wish. You have twelve years to consider the deal I offered you. After the twelve years have passed, I will find you again, and you can tell me your decision then.”
The youth said in equally chilly tones: “Don’t bother. I’ve made my choice already, and I don’t think I’ll be changing it.”
The Guest of Canghai slowly turned in the direction of the shadowy woods, and said, equally slowly: “Young man, don’t vow such things so quickly. Who you are in the present isn’t necessarily who you’ll be in the future; what you decide in the present, too, is not necessarily what you’ll decide in the future.”
His words left the youth feeling oddly uncertain. To rid himself of his discomfort, he called out towards the retreating silhouette: “What do you mean by that? The present me? The future me? Do you think you understand me better than I understand myself?”
The Guest of Canghai was almost invisible against the backdrop of the darkening woods, but his voice floated out like that of a spirit’s: “In the present, you believe that you hold your fate in your own hands. In the future, you will know what they mean by ‘the will of heaven is difficult to disobey.’ “
Silence fell again. The heavy darkness enveloped him, accompanied by an all-pervading chill in the air. Though he stood on open ground, the youth suddenly felt as if he was suffocating.
“The will of heaven... the will of heaven...” he muttered. “If my unfulfillable quest really is the will of heaven, then doesn’t that mean I’ll still lose everything a god can help me gain, in the end?”
NotesAlthough the youth is never explicitly named in this prologue, there's enough hints to show that it's Han Xin. I don't believe his birth year is recorded in history, although the adaptations I've seen tend to portray him as fairly young-- if anyone has more information about this, I'd appreciate it.
1 "Town Marshal" is the way I've chosen to translate the title of 亭长. A 亭长 is a village official in charge of local police, the implementation of corvees, lodging for travelers, and the like. While Town Marshal Yao is probably fictional, a different ex-Town Marshal of Chu to be introduced later is very much historical.
2 This story, along with the story about the Town Marshal's wife, comes straight from Records of the Grand Historian While Han Xin was fishing at the creek, an old laundress at work nearby gave him food. When a grateful Han Xin swore he'd repay her someday, she dismissed him, saying that she was taking pity on him, and didn't expect any sort of reward from a healthy young man who couldn't even feed himself.
3 Another historical story. The town bully saw that Han Xin liked carrying around a sword, and challenged him to either show he actually knew how to use his fancy sword by killing the bully with it, or crawl through his legs like a coward. Han Xin, deciding the bully wasn't worth it, crawled through his legs.
4 Wei Liao was historically an adviser of Qin Shihuang's. He also wrote Wei Liaozi, a famous work of military strategy. Little is known about him besides this.
5 This is how I've chosen to translate 沧海客. "Canghai" literally means "vast sea" or "cold sea".
6 Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin are two of the Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BCE), who brought their respective states to regional dominance. Their title is "Duke" and not "King"; the rulers of each individual state wouldn't be titled as kings until the Warring States Period that followed.
7 My translation is, sadly, not nearly as pithy the original: 楚虽三户， 亡秦必楚. Another interpretation of this saying is that the "three households" refers to the three great noble families of Chu.