“Not just this,” Xiang Yu gritted out. “Foster Father, you didn’t see the way he was talking just then. He was downright lecturing me! He has no respect. If I don’t beat the arrogance out of him--”
Fan Zeng cut him off. “Ah-Ji, no matter what Han Xin wrote or said, I have only one question for you: can you forgive him?”
“No, I can’t! Foster Father, you have no idea how infuriating he was--”
“Well and good,” Fan Zeng said. “Just execute him, then!”
“Execute him!” Xiang Yu exclaimed, shocked. “But... but his crime doesn’t warrant execution.“
Fan Zeng sat down, placing his hand on Xiang Yu’s shoulder. “Ah-Ji,” he said patiently, “do you know the saying ‘you can kill a talent, but you can’t humiliate him?’ With that sort of person, you either don’t touch a hair on his head, or you put him to the sword. If you humiliate him and let him live, it’ll only be a matter of time before he takes revenge!”
Fan Zeng’s words and attitude were serious, but Xiang Yu, looking at him, suddenly laughed. “Then how come he hasn’t taken revenge on that lout who made him crawl through his legs?”
“The opportunity hasn’t come to him,” Fan Zeng said. “Ah-Ji, this is no laughing matter. Have you made your decision yet? How will you deal with him?”
Xiang Yu said helplessly: “Fine, then. I’ll spare him this time for your sake.”
Fan Zeng seemed disappointed. “Ai! So be it, then.”
“What?” Xiang Yu asked, puzzled. “Foster Father, are you still not satisfied?”
Fan Zeng shook his head, sighed, and walked towards the doors.
“Foster Father, didn’t I do as you asked?”
Fan Zeng paused in his steps and turned his head. “For your sake, I would have preferred that you killed him.”
High above the ground, a series of interlinked walkways connected the vast palace buildings like bridges spanning the Milky Way.
Fan Zeng and Han Xin strolled on one lofty walkway. From there, they could see all the way south to the Wei River, to the park at Shanglin, to the still-unfinished, grandiose sprawl of Epang Palace. Beneath the walkway flowed unending streams of treasure-laden Chu soldiers. They rushed between the palace buildings, shoulders laden and hands full, packing all the treasures of the empire into boxes and baskets to their commanders’ shouted specifications.
Fan Zeng spoke as he walked: “I agreed with every word you wrote. Ah-Ji was truly too careless when he distributed his titles and territory, and it will leave us problems in the long run. Same with his choice of capital. You have every right to hold grievances against him today, but please, for my sake, don’t turn them into a grudge.”
Han Xin gazed into the distance at the rows upon rows of palace buildings. He smiled faintly. “Foster Father, what’s past is past. Don’t worry.”
Fan Zeng paused in his steps, examining Han Xin. Then he sighed. “You hide your thoughts too well; I can’t see through you. But regardless of whether you meant that, are you willing to listen to an old man’s heartfelt advice? I know you’re a talent among men. But a strategist’s job isn’t to voice the most accurate advice, but the most effective. If you know your ruler can’t accept what you want to tell him, or if your ruler has made a grave mistake but lacks the means to fix it, then you shouldn’t say anything. A strategist is only useful if his ruler trusts and is willing to use him. If he angers his ruler and loses any opportunity to put forth suggestions, then there’s no point in possessing even the most brilliant of insights.”
“You’re right, Foster Father,” Han Xin said respectfully.
Fan Zeng’s brow darkened. He distrusted this young man’s deferential attitude but could see nothing to support his suspicions. He could only say: “I don’t know what you’re thinking. If you won’t listen, I can’t do anything about it. Ah-Ji is very young, and so are you. You two could truly have benefited from each other. I don’t know how it all ended up like this. I’m growing old, you know, and I’d hoped you could replace me... ai!”
Fan Zeng shook his head and sighed, slowly hobbling ahead.
Han Xin suddenly felt a certain sympathy for this white-haired old man. He had too many burdens to carry: a minister’s duty to his ruler, a foster father’s duty towards his ward, even something akin to a fatherly love for his son or grandson-- perhaps Fan Zeng himself hadn’t realized the last one. All this pressed down on his aged body, too heavy to bear.
But he couldn’t stay just because of his fondness for an old man-- stay, and spend all his effort and passion on someone who didn’t deserve it. That petition had been his last test for Xiang Yu. Now, he’d abandoned all hope.
Fan Zeng continued: “Han Xin, have you felt that Ah-Ji’s changed lately?”
Han Xin said: “Huh, a little, it seems. Ever since we came into Xianyang, he’s been less willing to listen to others’ advice. And he’s killed so many people. Executing captives is wrong-- he shouldn’t have killed Ziying.”
“Yes, and the matter of choosing a capital,” Fan Zeng said. “All those people couldn’t persuade him otherwise. He wasn’t like this before. The power’s going to his head, ai!”
Inwardly, Han Xin thought that it couldn’t all be blamed on the power. But he couldn’t say what else was at fault, and so chose to keep silent.
At the end of the walkway was a richly decorated temple with carved rafters and painted beams. Inside, people noisily bustled back and forth. The door frame had been pried off to allow the horse carts better access, and they left laden with countless bolts of silks and brocades, every imaginable type of bronze- and lacquerware. The gold and jewels had been neatly arranged in rows on a massive lacquer table, and a clerk was painstakingly taking inventory. When he saw Fan Zeng approaching, he hurriedly knelt.
Fan Zeng waved him back to work. He walked along the lacquer table. Golden toads, coral trees, jade scepters, cylinders of delicately carved elephant ivory... a dazzling array of colors. Fan Zeng’s face showed no signs of appreciation, only of concern. He idly picked up a handful of pearls, then loosened his fingers, watching as they fell, gleaming, one by one. “Han Xin,” he said. “Do you feel that there’s something missing from these Xianyang palaces?”
Han Xin said: “The valuables are all here, just not the archival materials.”
Fan Zeng nodded and said worriedly: “You alone noticed this. The treasures and women have dazzled the rest of them blind. Who amongst them cares about dusty scrolls? I tried telling Ah-Ji, but he didn’t take me seriously. Ai! Liu Bang will become a great danger to us sooner or later.”
Han Xin remained silent.
They had left the temple and walked down a length of path before Fan Zeng suddenly stopped and spoke again. “Besides the archival materials, I feel that there’s something else missing, something important. But I can’t put a name to it. Han Xin, can you help me think? One’s mind grows muddled with old age.”
Han Xin said: “There shouldn’t be anything. The ruler’s seal, the tallies, the sacrificial vessels for the temples... I think we found everything important.”
Fan Zeng shook his head. “No, there has to be something else. I can sense it. You go to the army registrar and look through the Qin inventories we found. Maybe they’ll help you think of something.”
The Qin Dynasty truly possessed too many treasures; the inventories alone resembled a small mountain.
Han Xin sat and flipped through them, book by book. He was a quick reader, but finishing all the books still took him nearly six hours. When he’d closed the last scroll, he shut his eyes and began to think.
Puzzled, the registrar asked: “Halberd-Bearer Han, are you looking for something? Have you found it? Do you need help? The Foster Father told me to give you all possible aid.”
Han Xin said nothing. A while later, he opened his eyes and smiled. “No, it’s fine, I’ve figured it out. But I thank you for your offer.” He stood, rubbing his numb legs, then left.
The registrar could only look at his retreating silhouette, baffled.
“You’ve figured it out already?” Fan Zeng said, surprised. “This soon? What are we missing?”
“The Nine Tripods,” Han Xin said.
Fan Zeng said, realization dawning: “Ah, of course... I’d thought it was something important, but I just couldn’t put a name to it. Yes, that treasure of kings!” Worry came into his eyes. “The Nine Tripods, the Nine Tripods. They’ve said since ancient times that he who holds the Nine Tripods holds all under heaven. But now Ah-Ji doesn’t have it...ai!”
Zhong Xiu greeted Han Xin with surprise.
“Haven’t I told you everything about your master?”
Han Xin said: “No, I came because of something else. Sir, your scholarly knowledge is vast, and I wanted to ask you something: why do they all say that the Nine Tripods are so important? Aren’t they, well, just nine tripods?”
Zhong Xiu said: “The Nine Tripods isn’t nine separate tripods, but one single tripod called ‘Nine Tripods’. According to legend, the Great Yu, founder of the Xia Dynasty, collected metal from each of the Nine Provinces of old to forge it. It symbolized the Nine Provinces under heaven, and from there comes its name. It became a symbol of supreme authority for that reason, as important as the ruler’s seal. In the past, King Zhuang of Chu did no more than ask how much the Nine Tripods weighed, but that simple question sent the ministers of Zhou trembling in outrage. They saw it as a challenge to the Zhou Dynasty’s right to rule, you see.”
“So that’s it,” Han Xin said. “I’m too ignorant in these matters. Can I ask: was the Nine Tripods very big?”
“This, I’m unclear on. But according to the records, they’d used even the barbarians’ tribute gold in the forging of the Nine Tripods, so it should be considerable in size.”
“Wait, sir, you’ve never seen the Nine Tripods yourself?” Han Xin asked.
Zhong Xiu said: “No.”
Han Xin said curiously: “Weren’t you a court official? If the Nine Tripods is such a powerful symbol of authority, then surely you would have seen it?”
“Not just me. No one else in court has ever seen it.”
The more Han Xin heard, the stranger he found the tale. “Why? Isn’t the Nine Tripods a sacrificial vessel? Wouldn’t they need to take it out during ceremonies?”
Zhong Xiu shook his head. “The Nine Tripods isn’t an ordinary ritual tripod. I don’t even know myself what purpose it was meant for. I only know that it curses all who come into contact with it, all but the ruler.”
Han Xin startled. “What do you mean?”
Zhong Xiu said: “Forty-nine years... yes, forty-nine years ago, I remember it well, that was the fifty-second year of the reign of our King Zhaoxiang. The Qin armies conquered the Zhou capital, Luoyi. Thus fell the Zhou Dynasty, which had stood above us all for more than eight hundred years.”
“Strangely enough, when they captured Luoyi, they’d found the Zhou royal seal and the ritual vessels easily enough, but the Nine Tripods was missing. The troops, unwilling to let it go, interrogated the Zhou palace women and servants to find its whereabouts. They all answered the same way: only the ruler could touch the Nine Tripods. Besides the reigning King of Zhou, no one else had ever seen it, not even the most favored servants. But King Nan of Zhou had died, and the troops could hardly question a dead man. So the army split up to search. They went over the whole capital like a fine-toothed comb, back and forth, back and forth, nearly turned the place upside down. They finally found the Nine Tripods in a hidden underground labyrinth. Overjoyed, they hauled it up and carted it to Xianyang to gift it to King Zhaoxiang, who ordered a ten-day feast and a promotion of one rank for all of them. And what do you suppose happened to those soldiers next?”
Han Xin said: “They would have been heavily rewarded, of course.”
“Heavily rewarded?” Zhong Xiu said. “Once they’d returned to Xianyang, every soldier who had come into contact with, helped transport, or simply seen the Nine Tripods was invited to a banquet at the palace. Not a single one of them came out alive!”
Surprised, Han Xin said: “Finding the Nine Tripods should have been a huge merit. Why were they killed instead of rewarded?”
Zhong Xiu said: “Who said they weren’t rewarded? They were. King Zhaoxiang gave those soldiers’ families three times the normal reward for a battlefield merit! And as for the soldiers, they died painlessly. The undertakers said that their bodies were unmarked, that they most likely died from drinking zhen-feather wine. But no one knew why the king found it necessary to kill them even as he rewarded them so.”
Han Xin asked: “After that... what happened to the Nine Tripods afterwards?”
“After that, the Qin kings copied the rulers of Zhou and kept the Nine Tripods carefully hidden, away from anyone else,” Zhong Xiu said. “Only, when King Zhuangxiao passed away and the palace was engulfed in the chaos of mourning, an eunuch took advantage and snuck into the hidden room where the Nine Tripods was kept. When the First Emperor succeeded his father as king and heard of what happened, he immediately ordered the eunuch killed. Lu Buwei was Chancellor then, and he advised the First Emperor that ordering an execution so soon after ascending the throne would bring ill fortune to his reign. But he refused to listen-- ‘As long as I am King of Qin, I demand it!’ he even said. In the end, Chancellor Lu could only obey. Can you believe it? The king was only thirteen years old then!”
“Why? It was no more than a glimpse.”
“That’s why they say the Nine Tripods is cursed,” Zhong Xiu said.
After some thought, Han Xin said: “After that eunuch saw the Nine Tripods, did he tell anyone about it before he was killed?”
“He did-- just two sentences. He whispered them in secret to his elder brother, and it spread from there as rumor. But no one understood them.”
“What two sentences?” Han Xin asked.
Zhong Xiu said: “The first was ‘The Nine Tripods isn’t a tripod.’ The second was ‘That thing draws ghosts to it.’”
“What does that mean?” Han Xin asked, puzzled.
Zhong Xiu shook his head. “I don’t know. I fear that no one living knows the meaning of those two sentences anymore.”
Han Xin said: “Did everyone who’s seen the Nine Tripods really die afterwards? Besides the ruler, I suppose.”
A peculiar expression suddenly came over Zhong Xiu’s face. “No,” he said.
Zhong Xiu said slowly: “Do you still remember me telling you about the Gentleman of the East Sea?”
That took Han Xin by surprise. “Him? The one who claimed to be immortal?”
Zhong Xiu nodded. “Yes, him. As far as I know, he’s the only one who lived after going into that hidden chamber. The First Emperor himself took him. They were in there for a long time, for whatever reason.”
Han Xin said: “Why would a charlatan be so interested in the Nine Tripods?”
“Who knows?” Zhong Xiu said. “Maybe he thought it had something to do with making an elixir of immortality. Right, coincidentally, the Gentleman of the East Sea disappeared the day after he went into that room. Maybe the higher power of the Nine Tripods suppressed his bag of low tricks, and he couldn’t keep up his games anymore. Perhaps it isn’t such a cursed object after all.”
The treasure convoy set off from Xianyang.
Ji Bu at the front, Heng Chu at the back, Yu Ying at the Left, Yu Ziqi at the right. You couldn’t see one end of the convoy from the other. Interspersing the troop ranks were the occasional train of tear-stained women, bound together in long chains.
The commoners of Xianyang clustered at each side of the road, pointing and muttering amongst themselves. Chu soldiers with horsewhips patrolled between the peasants and the convoy, watching the civilians like tigers watching their prey. Occasionally, people were squeezed into the road by the crowds, and the soldiers herded them back with flicks of their whips.
From his distant platform, Xiang Yu watched the proceedings with satisfaction. He said to Fan Zeng, standing beside him: “Foster Father, I think I know why so many people want to become kings or hegemons. It does feel good to rule.”
Fan Zeng said worriedly: “Ah-Ji, Han Xin is a dangerous man. Use him if you’re can, but otherwise, hurry and kill him! Xianyang is a mess right now, full of lords from the other kingdoms. If he takes advantage of the chaos to join another ruler, we’ll have no end of trouble.”
Xiang Yu frowned, turning his gaze back to Fan Zeng. “Foster Father, do you have nothing to talk about besides Han Xin? What’s so special about him, that you have to fuss about him all day long?”
Fan Zeng said: “His capabilities are too terrifying, far beyond mine. Once he puts them to use... Ah-Ji, I dare not think of it.”
“Foster Father, can you not...” Xiang Yu hesitated. “Can you stop calling me Ah-Ji, as if I were still a child?”
Fan Zeng startled, taken unawares. Slowly, his eyes lost their brightness.
“Yes, Great King,” he said with effort. He sounded older than usual.
The King of Han Liu Bang’s main camp remained at Bashang.
The King of Han raised his head, examining the enormous object in front of him with a frown. “What is this thing, exactly? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Zhang Liang, standing at his side, shook his head. “I don’t know, I fear. The army engineer came over to look at it, but he’s never seen anything like it either. But he says there’s burn marks on it, so he believes it’s activated by lighting a fire.”
“No shit!” the King of Han said. “I already knew that from all the ash in that room. They were practically wading in it. But what do you do with it after you light the fire? Smelt ore? Boil rice? Roast a pig? And where are we supposed to put it, anyway?”
Zhang Liang said: “I don’t know, but I doubt it’s used for anything ordinary.”
“Then what is it for?”
“I don’t know,” Zhang Liang said.
The King of Han said: “What do you mean, you don’t know? How could someone as smart as you not know something? If you don’t know, then who would?”
Zhang Liang said with a smile: “I’ve never claimed to know everything.”
The King of Han paced in a circle around that massive object, hands behind his back. “A hundred and twenty people died for it, and we don’t even know what it’s for. And am I supposed to haul this thing to Hanzhong with me? From what I’ve heard of the plankway, I don’t think it’s even possible!”
Zhang Liang said: “Your highness, you must bring it with you for the precise reason that so many people died for it. Think about it, your highness. Would anyone hide something so carefully, behind such horrific traps and mechanisms, if it were anything ordinary?”
The King of Han nodded. “Mm, you have a point! I’ll listen to you. You always have the strangest notions, but they do seem to work out every time.”
By the time Han Xin returned to camp, the sky was dark. It had been two days since he’d had a good night’s sleep; he lay down without taking off his clothes, pulled the blanket over himself, and closed his eyes.
Exhaustion failed to deaden the chaos of his thoughts. Immortality, the heart-searching mirror, the Nine Tripods, the First Emperor, the Gentleman of the East Sea... all those absurd stories tangled together in the churning sea of his mind.
It was a long time before he fell asleep.
In his dream, he saw the Gentleman of the East Sea in a huge, shadowy room.
He thought the Gentleman of the East Sea looked familiar, as if he’d seen him before, but he couldn’t remember where.
The Gentleman of the East Sea talked and talked, an unceasing torrent. Han Xin knew he was saying something important, but though he tried frantically to listen, to remember, the words all slipped out of his grasp.
The Gentleman of the East Sea smiled darkly and handed him a mirror. In it, he saw a skeleton, its bones stark white and still moving. When he turned the mirror over, he saw a pool of thick, newly-shed blood. The blood patiently engulfed the shining surface, patiently seeped out of the mirror, patiently stained his hands... in horror, he thought: this is a dream, this is a dream, this isn’t real.
But he suddenly realized: If I’m in a dream, I shouldn’t have realized I was dreaming.
“Fire! Fire!” someone shouted in the middle of the night, startling him from his nightmare. He opened his eyes, exhaling slowly.
The whole camp had woken at the din, soldiers scrambling out of their tents and hastily pulling on clothes. Only then, outside, did they realize they’d been misled.
The fire wasn’t there, but at Epang Palace to the south, a couple dozen li away. Nothing to worry about.
“What does the fire at Epang Palace have to do with us? Shut up and let us sleep!” some raged, crawling back into their tents.
But some found themselves unable to sleep and simply stood there, watching the blaze. Pointing, they spoke of the suffering they’d experienced those years ago, forced into Xianyang for hard labor. A certain vengeful satisfaction filled their words.
Han Xin stood alone to one side, silently watching as the horizon bloomed dark red with firelight.
A while later, a voice at his side asked softly: “What are you thinking?”
Han Xin couldn’t help but sigh. “Why bother burning it? People bled to build it either way.” Suddenly wary, he followed the direction of the voice. “Who are you?”
A man walked out of the darkness. “We’d parted so few days ago at Hong Gate. Have you forgotten me already?”
Han Xin recognized him as soon as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The strategist from Hong Gate, with a face like a woman’s and a mind like an old fox’s.
“Sir Zhang,” Han Xin greeted. “Forgive my poor manners. But you’re a minister of Hann and a trusted adviser of Han. What brings you to look for a lowly Chu Halberd-Bearer in the middle of the night?”
Zhang Liang tugged at his hand and whispered: “I’ll tell you once we find somewhere more private.”
Han Xin, understanding, took him to the back of the camp.
Behind the tents were the supply carts. In silence, Han Xin and Zhang Liang wove their way among them. They climbed on top of one of the larger carts, where, sitting on the sacks of grain and feed, they could keep watch on their surroundings.
Zhang Liang said: “I’d wanted to visit you ever since we parted at Hong Gate, but then the Duke of Pei was named King of Han, and we had so much work to do before we could leave for Bashu. I didn’t have the time before tonight.”
“Why look for me in the first place?” Han Xin asked. “Surely our one chance meeting at the Feast at Hong Gate couldn’t have left that strong of an impression?”
Zhang Liang looked at him, smiling a little. “ ‘Guanzhong is an advantageous location to hold, has the security of the passes, mountains and rivers as natural defenses. It is a place to realize the ambitions of ten thousand generations of rulers, and should not be lightly abandoned.’ ”
Stunned, Han Xin said: “You... you saw my petition?”
“A fine piece of writing,” Zhang Liang sighed. “Such a pity that it went wasted.”
“Where did you see it?” Han Xin asked.
Zhang Liang said: “From Xiang Bo. You’re a formidable one! Do you know, when I first read your petition, I broke out in a cold sweat. If King Xiang had listened to your advice, the King of Han wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“Don’t worry, King Xiang nearly threw the petition in my face,” Han Xin said, sighing as he gazed at the inferno of Epang Palace to the south. “Giving up Guanzhong and making his capital Pengcheng was his worst mistake. That one misstep doomed everything. There’s no point in discussing it now.”
Zhang Liang said: “No, failing to make use of a talent like you was his worst mistake.”
Han Xin, still gazing at the fire on the horizon, smiled faintly. “Lucky that he didn’t. He’s completely changed since he entered Xianyang. He refuses to listen to advice, intent on doing as he wishes. If he stays like this, he’ll lose his power to someone else within the next five years. Fan Zeng’s loyal to him on behalf of Xiang Liang, and Xiang Yu’s going to exhaust him to death sooner or later.”
“And what about you?” Zhang Liang said. “You have to extricate yourself from it all somehow. What do you plan to do? Surely you don’t plan on being a Halberd-Bearer your whole life.”
Han Xin shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe this is the will of heaven.”
Zhang Liang said: “How could you think something like that? With your talent, who wouldn’t want you? Why don’t you look for a different master? A wise bird chooses the right tree to perch upon; a wise minister chooses the right ruler to serve. This is a time of chaos, after all. No one will force you to stay with one master to the bitter end.”
“It’s not just this,” Han Xin said. “I’ve thought about it before. With my personality and philosophy, I want either no influence or all the influence. I don’t want to accept, and won’t accept, a halfway role. I need great power, but I won’t jump through hoops for it, and I can’t endure an endless meander of promotions. And who would give great power to someone nameless and without experience like me?”
Zhang Liang said: “Perhaps one person could.”
“Who?” asked Han Xin.
Zhang Liang said: “The King of Han.”
“The King of Han?” Han Xin raised an eyebrow. He’d expected Zhang Liang to bring up Liu Bang; in fact, he’d considered him before. Liu Bang’s position amongst the lords of the land was second only to Xiang Yu, but...
Zhang Liang continued: “I know, some call him greedy and lustful and contemptuous of scholars. But you’ve seen his behavior since he came to Xianyang. Does he appear to be that sort of person?”
“That’s why I’m hesitating,” Han Xin said. “He’s obviously putting on an act, and an expert act at that-- don’t try to argue. You don’t need to, when both you and I know this well enough. I didn’t say that acting is a bad thing-- after all, military strategy deals quite a bit with truth and deception, not to mention he did good things for the sake of his act. But someone so adept at fakery is hard to predict, and I don’t know what he’ll be like in time.”
Zhang Liang said: “He’s a commoner by birth. I don’t think he’ll treat the people poorly, at least!”
Han Xin eyed Zhang Liang, suspecting that he only pretended not to understand in order to dodge his point.
Zhang Liang looked not at Han Xin, but at some point in front of him, as if answering some inner concern of his own. “To people like you and me, it’s more important that we serve a ruler that allows us to put our talents to use. What point is there in thinking so far into the future? I’m from Hann, as you know, but he used every trick he knew to obtain me from the King of Hann on the basis of our one chance conversation on military strategy. In this area, at least, he’s more than sufficient. Is that not enough?”
Han Xin said: “I’m different from you. Your family has provided chancellors to five generations of Hann kings, and you nearly killed the First Emperor at Bolang Sands. You have both breeding and reputation. Everyone knows of you. But I’m only a common-born footsoldier. The King of Han won’t take me seriously.”
Zhang Liang said: “I’ve made arrangements with the King of Han. He’ll enter Hanzhong first to assume his title, and I’ll find him a military talent who can help him take back Guanzhong, and with it, all the land under heaven. This sword is our pre-planned signal.” As he spoke, he unfastened a sword from his belt and presented it to Han Xin with both hands. “Its name is Dust-cross, and it was forged by Ouzhizi, the great smith of the Spring and Autumn Period. The King of Han will bestow the rank of general without hesitation upon whoever holds this sword.”
Han Xin didn’t reach for the sword. “Let me think some more.”
“Then think at your leisure!” Zhang Liang said. “Deliberate until Fan Zeng kills you.”
“What... what did you say?”
Zhang Liang said: “Xiang Bo told me that Fan Zeng has told Xiang Yu ‘use him if you can, and kill him if you can’t’ a couple hundred times.”
Silent, Han Xin stared into the distance, melancholy creeping into his eyes.
“I’ll leave the sword to you whether you choose to go or not,” Zhang Liang said. “This sword deserves a true hero, and I see no one fit to use it but you.”
Zhang Liang gently set the sword beside Han Xin and climbed off the supply cart. He took a few steps, then turned back, looking at Han Xin. “Listen to me,” he said, his voice earnest and heartfelt. “You can’t afford to be picky any longer. We were born in this era, and only have this era’s lords to choose from. Of them, the King of Han is already the best option.”
Zhang Liang’s silhouette gradually disappeared into the night.
Han Xin sat on the pile of grain sacks, gazing in the direction in which he’d left.
Use him if you can, and kill him if you can’t!
Yes, this fit Fan Zeng’s personality. He understood Fan Zeng just as Fan Zeng understood him.
In the midst of indifference and contempt, Fan Zeng alone had ever comforted him, encouraged him, praised his talents. But Fan Zeng had done it not out of personal feelings, but for the sake of his Ah-Ji’s hegemony. For his Ah-Ji, too, Fan Zeng could kill him without a shred of hesitation or regret, he knew.
If he were Fan Zeng, he would do the same.
He couldn’t wait any longer!
He slowly picked up the sword Dust-cross from his side and pulled it from the scabbard.
A line of cool light leapt from its surface. A fine sword!
This sword deserves a true hero.
A true hero? Who’d ever called him that before? He felt a forlorn ache in his heart.
Han Xin caught up with the Han army at the plankway. To either side were vertical cliffs; the ground below was so distant as to strain the limits of visibility. The soldiers marched along a path of wooden planks set perpendicularly into one cliff face, feeling much as if they stood upon empty air. Few dared to look down.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the end of of the plankway.
Suddenly, someone towards the back of the ranks shouted: “Oh no, fire! The plankway caught fire!”
When the others turned, they saw the thick billows of smoke, the flames licking skywards.
The soldiers began to panic. “Hurry, put out the fire! We won’t be able to return without the plankway.” They scrambled into action.
“Stay!” A commander bellowed. “Says who we plan to return? The King of Han ordered the fires set so King Xiang can see we harbor no plans of usurpation!”
The soldiers looked at each other, stunned into silence. Suddenly, a soldier threw himself to the ground, facing eastwards. “Father, Mother,” he wept. “Your son will never see you again!”
His comrades soon joined him. All of them had come from east of Xiao Mountain. They’d expected to go home after the fighting concluded, only to find themselves trapped. Their cries of sorrow filled the air.
Han Xin didn’t join them.
Clever! he thought, nodding almost imperceptibly. The fire would burn away both Xiang Yu’s suspicions and his army’s ability to hunt them down. The King of Han was safe now!
The army pitched a temporary resting camp in a slightly flatter area. A military officer took Han Xin to see the King of Han.
The king sat under a tree, talking to his chancellor and old friend, Xiao He. “Old Xiao, the more I think about it, the more I have to wonder. What if Zhang Liang’s playing with me? ‘Make Xiang Yu lower his guard,’ he says! But this is obviously cutting off my own path of retreat. Hmph! More likely, he saw that I’d been conned, tossed me in Hanzhong, and ran back to his King of Hann!”
Internally, Han Xin laughed.
Xiao He said: “Your Highness, don’t be so paranoid. Zifang isn’t that sort of person. And burning the plankway truly did us more good than harm-- perhaps it will prove a little inconvenient in the future, but not burning the plankway would have proved far more dangerous to us in the short term. The plankway can let us out, but it can also let Xiang Yu in! With our present army, could we survive any attack by Xiang Yu?”
The King of Han said: “But you saw the plankway. You can’t fix it in a day or two. Getting our hands on enough troops and horses, fixing the plankway, retaking the Three Qins, conquering all the other kingdoms-- how long will it all take? By now, I’m an old fart--”
Xiao He coughed. “Your Highness!”
“You and your etiquette!” the King of Han complained. “Fine, Fine! We’re past fifty by this point. Are we supposed to fight for a lifetime to play emperor for a day?”
Xiao He said: “Don’t be so pessimistic, Your Highness. Once Sir Zifang finds a suitable commander for us, the rest should follow from there.”
The King of Han said: “Suitable commander? Doesn’t he himself have the skills to be our suitable commander? Why’s he looking for another one? Hmph! He’s probably using it as an excuse to run off.”
Xiao He laughed. “Your Highness, be reasonable! He’s got a face like a woman’s, and his health is so poor he can barely ride a horse. How do you expect him to lead an army?”
The King of Han poked at a beetle on the ground with his whip. “Sun Bin was a cripple, and he was a commander all the same,” he muttered.
Xiao He said: “Sun Bin was only Deputy Commander to Tian Ji’s Commander-in-Chief. Sun Bin’s legs forced him to remain a behind-the-scenes adviser.” Seeing the King of Han remained in a mood to argue, Xiao He smiled and stood. He walked off to direct the pitching of the tents.
The military officer took the opportunity to drag Han Xin over. “Your Highness, this is the deserter from the Chu army.”
The King of Han looked him over. “What’s your name? What town are you from?”
“Han Xin, from Huaiying.”
The King of Han asked: “What did you do while in Xiang Yu’s service?”
“I was a Halberd-Bearer,” Han Xin answered.
The king said: “Oh, that’s a three hundred bushel rank. I’ll make you a granary clerk. That’s another three hundred bushel rank, neither promotion nor demotion.”
A granary clerk? Fussing over baskets and bushels? Han Xin found it a bit laughable. Dust-cross hung at his hip; if he took it out...
The military officer shoved him. “Hurry up and thank the king!”
Never mind, granary clerk would do for now. He might as well take the job first and find a better opportunity later. He hadn’t come up with a good strategy for invading the Three Qin yet; he preferred not to gain an exalted title because of another’s recommendation alone. So Han Xin knelt and said: “Thank you, Your Highness.”
The King of Han waved him away and continued halfheartedly jabbing at the beetle with his whip.
When Han Xin returned to camp, he found himself surrounded by curious soldiers.
“Were you really the Hegemon-King’s Halberd-Bearer? You must have seen him every day, right? What does he look like?”
“Ai! I heard the Hegemon-King has two pupils in each eye. Is it true?”
“You’re a lucky one! A three hundred bushel rank right off! My brother here came from the Chu camp too, and all he got was shangzao. A worthless civilian rank!"
“Hey, this is a fine sword! Where did you get it?”
“Don’t touch it!” Han Xin said. “My friend gave it to me.”
The troops reached Nanzheng with little hope of return and little energy to pursue self-betterment. Many muddled their way through the idle days, including the King of Han. The city of Nanzheng gradually filled with the sounds of cockfights and horse races, shouting and gambling.
Han Xin found running the granary easy enough with his excellent memory and quick mental arithmetic. The army imported and consumed its grain by the tens of thousands of bushels, but Han Xin didn’t even need counting markers. His eyes counted, his hands recorded, his voice called out values without a single error. He sorted through the messy older accounts in a matter of days, to the joy and praise of his colleagues.
With his routine work finished, Han Xin was left with plenty of free time. He often left camp by himself to ask various local elders and traveling merchants about the region’s terrain. When he returned, he would add a few lines and symbols to the map he’d drawn. At other times, he’d simply laze on Nanyang’s ramparts, chewing on a grass stalk, gazing at the mountain range that rose in the distance.
In his mind’s eye, he saw the rugged terrain of Qin, eight hundred li beyond the mountains. He arrayed his troops and arranged his formations. He advanced, retreated, attacked, defended.
As time passed, Han Xin sunned himself on the ramparts less often and hunched over his map more often. His expression darkened by the day.
He’d found a serious problem.
There were too few roads linking Hanzhong to Guanzhong!
They’d burnt the Baoxie plankway, and rebuilding it would take years. Tangluo Passage was merely crooked for eighty li and practically coiled for another ninety-four, completely impassable for a large army. Ziwu Passage passed through endless, treacherous mountains. Any expedition through there would take too long; the enemy would have more than enough time to find out and send a devastating counterattack.
His mood steadily worsened.
One night, he sat and played the “game of eight palaces” with himself. None of the other soldiers understood its complexities, so he played alone to keep his mind sharp amidst the endless drudgery of camp life.
His fellow soldiers sat nearby, joyfully gambling and drinking and yelling.
They were getting louder and louder. One moment, they would roar with laughter in unison; another moment, they would chant “Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink it all!” to whoever lost a game; another moment, they would call out “Lu! Lu! Lu!” as the dice spun on...
Han Xin gave up his game and sat with his arms wrapped around his knees, watching his noisy, happy compatriots good-humoredly. They’re so carefree, he thought.
They have no ambitions. They’re easily satisfied. They won’t ever distress themselves over their low station in life or obsess over matters of state.
Someone, drunk, vomited all over the ground; someone was shamelessly refusing to drink, and the others forced him down and poured the wine down his throat. They let him go afterwards, laughing at his drunken antics.
Why couldn’t he lose himself in such uncomplicated happiness?
Really, amongst them, he counted as one of the fortunate few. You’re a lucky one! A three hundred bushel rank right off! didn’t they say?
Ai, he should be content. What was the point of complicating things for himself, secretly exhausting himself over maps and plans?
So that, one day, all the world would know his name?
But would that day really come? If he couldn’t find a good road between here and Qin, all his planning would go to waste!
Maybe his quest could only end in vain.
He looked at the corner of the barracks where he’d set Dust-cross.
Here's a map of the Eighteen Kingdoms that Xiang Yu created, courtesy of Wikipedia. The state/kingdom I'm referring to as Hann is the dark purple one.
All three of the Heroes of the Early Han have been introduced by now! They're probably my favorite figures of this era, with so much potential for fictional adaptations: the brilliant nobleman-turned-assassin-turned-adviser; the scruffy, ambitious soldier; the living proof that a friend will bail you out of trouble, but a true friend will persuade the local magistrate to your side, nearly get killed for his troubles, finagle your way into leadership of a rebel army, and generally put up with far more crap than you deserve. If anyone knows of a good work of historical fiction featuring them, I could use recommendations.
 A tripod, or tripod cauldron, is a type of ancient Chinese ritual vessel modeled after an everyday food vessel.
 A tripod, or tripod cauldron, is a type of ancient Chinese ritual vessel modeled after an everyday food vessel.
 "Nine Provinces" is used to describe the main territorial divisions of China during the earliest dynasties. Later, it became a term symbolizing China as a whole.
 The legendary zhen bird is said to have poisonous feathers that can be steeped in wine to lend their poison to it.
 Zifang is Zhang Liang's style name, a courteous way to refer to someone of similar or lower status.
 When Xiang Yu was assigning titles and territory, he divided the land that formerly made up the state of Qin amongst the three Qin generals who surrendered to him after Julu. Zhang Han became King of Yong, Sima Xin became King of Sai, and Dong Yi became King of Zhai. These three kingdoms are collectively known as the Three Qins.
 Sun Bin was a famous military strategist of the Warring States Period. After a jealous friend framed him for treason, the King of Wei ordered him crippled by removing his kneecaps. Sun Bin eventually fled Wei and rose to prominence serving the state of Qi. He would eventually avenge himself against Wei and the friend who betrayed him at the Battle of Maling.
 At that time, promotion or demotion across different areas of the government, each with their own rank system, was determined by the salary (in grain) associated with the rank.
 Shangzao was originally a civilian rank in the state of Qin, created during Lord Shang's Legalist reformations to reward military merit, but was adopted into the Han rank structure. The second lowest out of more than twenty ranks, a shangzao could still be recruited into corvees. The rank came with a small amount of property, but one would suppose that didn't count for much when one was in an army camp.
 The city of Nanzheng, located in Hanzhong, became Liu Bang's temporary capital.
 Baoxie is the name of the steep valley linking Qin and Shu that the plankway passes through.