Friday, July 19, 2013

Han Xin IV

The sword was power, power an arm’s reach away, the power he’d once craved. But if he couldn’t get this army out of the passes, then what use was it?

He sighed and stood, preparing to leave and walk off his low spirits.

Nearby, another man passed out, drunk.

Someone turned towards him and yelled: “Han Xin, how about you take Li Yang’s place? He can’t get up!”

Han Xin said: “I don’t know the rules.”

“You’re joking! Who doesn’t know how to play liubo[1] in this day and age?”

Several of the others joined in: “Right! You’re so quick with the accounts normally. How could you not know how to play?”

“Hey! Don’t... don’t ruin the night for us! We nee...need another player.”

“We’re only gambling with wine, not money. We’re not breaking any rules. What are you scared of?”

Han Xin said: “I really don’t know how to play. You can find someone else.”

A few of the others came over and forcibly dragged him towards the game.

“Hey, help us out, we’re all friends here! It’s pitch dark outside--where are we supposed to find someone else? Come! You’re so smart, you’ll figure out the rules at a glance. Oh, pick one: zhishi, qianyu, dama. We won’t make you drink for the first three rounds you lose.”

They shoved Han Xin down by the game board.

He truly didn’t know the rules, and this was a game of chance, not strategy. He kept getting low rolls, one after the other, and before long they’d forced him a couple dozen cups. The wine was cheap and viciously strong; Han Xin could feel his head beginning to spin.

Someone, already flushed red from face to neck, said: “Han... Han Xin, you don’t look... look like an idiot. So why do you like an amateur?”

Han Xin said: “I’m not playing like an amt... amateur. I just don’t... don’t like t’ play.”

Another player laughed. “Oh, stop being so defensive! An amateur is an amateur. You can’t win if you played for all your lifetime.”

Han Xin lost again; the other players held him in place while they poured two more cups down his throat, splashing wine all over his neck and clothes. He sat up, wiping his chin with his sleeve. He felt even dizzier than before. “I’m n... not your match gambling at liubo, but when it comes t’ gam... gambling for all under heaven, none can match... match me.

The crowd roared with laughter.

“Gambling for all under heaven? Never... never heard of it. Who are you gambling against? King Xiang?”

Han Xin slurred: “What’s King X...Xiang worth? One game... one game, and he’ll lose his shr...shirt! He’ll hang... hang himself from shame.”

Again, the crowd laughed.

Someone else asked: “Wh...What about our King of Han?”

Han Xin eyed him slantwise. “I... I won’t gamble with him.”

“Why? Oh-- you know... you know you can’t win agag... against our king. You’re af... afraid!”

Han Xin said: “Who... who are you calling ‘f... afraid? No... no one can go against me, not ev... even the King of Han. I just don’t want t’ play against a sore... a sore loser. ‘Motherfucker,’ he’ll say, ‘I... I didn’t get a good grip last time, it d... doesn’t count!’ “

The crowd laughed even louder this time. It was common knowledge that the King of Han loved gambling and hated losing, and would shamelessly make excuses for every loss.

Han Xin giggled drunkenly with them. Another player asked him something else; he answered, still giggling, although he wasn’t quite sure what he was saying anymore. His body felt lighter and lighter even as his head felt heavier and heavier, and the crowd’s laughter got louder and louder, until he finally drifted off, unconscious.

When he woke, he found himself bound in rope and slated for execution.

His crime was simple: sedition.

He had little room to defend himself and no intention of trying to figure out who tattled. All those people had heard him mock the Hegemon-King of Chu and the King of Han. He was going to conquer all under heaven, make himself supreme king. That sort of terrible boast, even voiced while drunk, deserved execution. He could acknowledge that much.

He’d thought about dying before, even if he’d never imagined he’d die like this. If he met an unnatural death, he’d thought, it would be on the battlefield, or in a treacherous court, or from an assassin’s dagger.

What sort of death was this? Kneeling on the execution platform, trussed up like a pig, all for the sake of a few drunken words. He thought it funny, but couldn’t bring himself to laugh.

Laughter couldn’t save him. The sun crawled up the sky, inch by inch. Once the hour arrived and his head hit the floor, it would be all over.

He could calmly face the barbed selfishness of the petty, calmly face humiliation at the hands of the town bully, calmly face Xiang Yu’s insults and mockery, because he knew he’d prove his worth sooner or later. But he couldn’t calmly face death, because in death there was no more room to plan for the future.

Noon came, and the executions began.

One. Two. Three. The prisoners ahead of him in line were decapitated, one by one.

He suddenly felt a wave of terror. He wasn’t afraid of death itself, but this kind of death was such a waste-- he hadn’t the chance to display an iota of his abilities. How could he die like this?

What would future generations say?

No, future generations wouldn’t say anything. He was only a minor clerk, executed for violating military discipline. No one would bother to remember his name.

Ten. Eleven. Twelve. It was almost his turn.

His heart clenched. No! No! He couldn’t die like this! He had to live! He raised his head, frantically looking around.

Someone had once told him: at the worst crisis of his life, someone would help him. Who? Who?

A distant memory flashed across his mind like lightning. Ah! That strange conversation, that cold-eyed man in black, a second meeting to occur twelve years in the future... twelve years, twelve years, had it been twelve years? Had it? Where was the black-robed man? Where? Didn’t he need him to help his employer? Ah! That deal! He was willing! He was willing! He was willing to do anything, if the black-robed man would save his life. But where was he? Where?

Someone rode by, glancing in his general direction. It wasn’t the black-robed man, but a formidable-looking general: the Marquis of Zhaoping, Xiahou Ying.

Han Xin shouted: “If the King of Han wants to rule all under heaven, why is he killing his valiant men?”

Xiahou Ying reined in his horse and approached him.

Han Xin hissed a sigh of relief. He was saved!


Xiahou Ying had brought the startling young man to his own residence out of curiosity, no more. But once he started talking with him, curiosity turned to surprise, then respect.

“How many types of spies are there?”

“Five. They are: incidental agents, inner agents, double agents, death-bound agents, and returning agents.”

“What do you mean by incidental agent?”

“Recruiting natives of an enemy state to supply us with information.”

“Inner agent?”

“Recruiting members of the enemy court to supply us with information.”

“Double agent?”

“Recruiting enemy agents for our own use.”

“Death-bound agents?”

“Agents meant to be captured by the enemy, providing misinformation at the cost of their lives.”

“Returning agents?”

“Agents meant to scout out the enemy and return alive to report.”

“How do you employ each type of spy?”

After a full night and day of discussion, Xiahou Ying rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “I’m going straight to the king! You wait here. He’ll definitely give you a high post.” With that said, he hurried off.

The King of Han was in his palace, but he was busy.

Busy watching a cockfight.

“Up! Up! Stupid Bronze-Comb, are you sick? Up!” the King of Han hopped and shouted.

Xiahou Ying counted as an old friend of the King of Han’s, and was therefore allowed to briefly interrupt during such busy circumstances.

The King of Han kept his eyes fixed on the cockfight, only halfheartedly listening to Xiahou Ying’s introductions. “Give him a promotion, then. What’s his current rank?”

Xiahou Ying said: “Granary clerk.”

The King of Han said: “Make him Quartermaster, then!”

“Your Highness, Han Xin isn’t an ordinary...”

The King of Han leapt up. “Quick! Quick!” he yelled. “Peck his head! Good! Now kick! Right, be careful...”

Xiahou Ying stared at the King of Han. He prepared to say something, but, in the end, could only retreat.


When Xiahou Ying apologetically told Han Xin his new job, Han Xin only smiled.

What could he do but smile? The post of Quartermaster was a thousand bushel rank, a lofty promotion. What did he have to complain about?

Not long ago, his compatriots had looked admiringly upon his rank of granary clerk. He knew this stroke of good fortune would have them congratulating him for another year.

Thus he assumed the duties of a Quartermaster, though he greeted the work without much enthusiasm.

The one benefit to his promotion was that it allowed him access to the Chancellor’s archive collection for research. Chancellor Xiao He had swept the Qin palaces in Xianyang for documents and resources; they now rested in a spare residence, unvisited.

Han Xin found the Archives Keeper and asked him for permission to enter.

Zhang Cang, the Archives Keeper, was a tall, ivory-skinned man with the air of a keen scholar. Han Xin had heard that he used to be an Imperial Censor for the Qin Dynasty, well-versed in law and literature. Xiao He had chosen him to manage the Chancellor’s Archives for his experience.

“We get few visitors, officer,” Zhang Cang said as he unlocked the door. “Not even Chancellor Xiao shows much interest at these anymore.”

Han Xin said: “But didn’t the Chancellor collect these himself?”

Zhang Cang said: “Yes, but what use are they now? Trapped in this...” Zhang Cang swung the door open and walked in. “...this accursed land with no escape to be found between heaven and earth. They can only go to waste.”

Han Xin followed him in. Standing in the room, looking at the countless silk documents and bamboo scrolls stacked almost to the ceiling in each direction, an unfamiliar feeling welled up in his heart. Here rested the most valuable military and governmental resources under heaven: all the regions’ important strongholds, population, resources, fortification strength, wealth... standing here, he could almost feel the heartbeat of the once-mighty empire. And yet these priceless documents had been carelessly piled here to gather dust.

“What are you looking for?” Zhang Cang’s question interrupted his thoughts.

“Maps,” Han Xin said.

Zhang Cang said: “Mm, maps... here. Of what location? These cover the east, these cover the southeast...”

Han Xin said: “I want maps of the southwest.”

“The southwest?” Zhang Cang turned his head. “Maps of the southwest, officer?”

“Yes,” said Han Xin.

Zhang Cang looked thoughtfully at Han Xin. “If you’re here to look for a path back to Guanzhong on behalf of the King of Han, I can only suggest that you not waste the time.”

Han Xin asked: “Why?”

Zhang Cang said: “It’s useless. Chancellor Xiao has been looking long before you. He’s given up long before now. He’s currently trying to figure out how to repair the plankway.”

Han Xin shook his head. “That’s not the way to go about it. Give me the maps. I’ll take another look.”

Zhang Cang sighed and pulled two rolled-up silk maps off a wooden shelf. “This is The Terrain of Guanzhong, and this is Map of the Bao Valley Region. You can match up the two.”

Han Xin spread the maps over a table and began to examine them inch by inch.

Zhang Cang watched him for a while, then shook his head and picked up a duster. He walked to one side to dust the scrolls, taking the opportunity to organize.

Han Xin pored over the maps for an hour before he rolled them up and returned them to Zhang Cang.

“So?” Zhang Cang asked.

Han Xin said: “You’re right. There’s nothing.”

“Of course not,” Zhang Cang said. “If there were a way out, would we still all be here? King Xiang has returned to Pengcheng; this would be an excellent opportunity to attack the Three Qins.”

Han Xin couldn’t help but glance at Zhang Cang; this minor official showed considerable insight. He wanted to talk more with him, but after some thought, decided to keep silent.

What would be the point? With his current status, he was hardly in a place to think about recruitment.

That thought in mind, Han Xin walked along the rows of shelves, drawing out a few scrolls to read at random, then returning them to their places. A few more steps brought him to a row of towering shelves filled with picture scrolls.

“What are these? Are they also maps?” Han Xin asked, unrolling the silk closest to hand, only to find a portrait.

Zhang Cang said: “These are probably the most useless things here-- the Qin government’s old wanted posters. I’d told the Chancellor to clear these away, but he didn’t want to bother and left them to me. Look at them! How am I supposed to move all these without help? So I kept them where they were.”

Han Xin pulled another portrait out at random. “Why are they useless? These people have all committed crimes. When peace is re-established, we still might need these to investigate!”

“Hah!” Zhang Cang said. “Committed crimes? No one ended up in the palace archives for stealing chickens! Of these, nine out of ten are portraits of the old nobility of the six states, who went into hiding after their states fell. Twenty years later, the wheel’s turned back ‘round again. Qin is no more, and these people have returned to power. Kings, lords-- a more spectacular showing than before, even. They’d throw hissy fits if they found out we still have their wanted posters.”

Han Xin nodded. “True.”

“Not to mention, most of these are just to keep up appearances,” Zhang Cang continued. “Completely useless in practice. Have you heard that story about Zhang Er and Chen Yu?”

Han Xin said: “No, what’s it about?”

Zhang Cang said: “These two used to be famous ministers of Wei; even the First Emperor had heard of them. After their state fell, they naturally ended up on the wanted list. The price on Zhang Er’s head was a thousand gold, five hundred on Chen Yu’s. They went into hiding in Chen County-- changed their names, even managed to find themselves jobs as city gatekeepers. Then the government sent in their warrants and images. Guess, what did they do next?”

“Hide for the time being, surely?”

“Hide?” Zhang Cang didn’t quite succeed in hiding his mirth. “They went door to door with their notifications and portraits, warning the locals them to keep an eye out for these two ‘wanted criminals!’”

“They dared to do that?” Han Xin said, surprised.

Zhang Cang smiled. “It was hardly a matter of daring. Their portraits looked nothing like them! Eyes and noses in the wrong places-- what was there to fear?”

“Surely they weren’t that bad,” Han Xin said, laughing. “Are the palace artists so unskilled?”

Zhang Cang said: “The fault didn’t lie with the artists. Their job was truly too difficult. Imagine having to piece together the face of someone you’ve never seen from scraps of secondhand hearsay. The old nobility of the six states had plenty of sympathizers among their people, too. Some witnesses purposefully gave the officials faulty descriptions to throw the portraits off further.”

Han Xin raised an eyebrow. “If the pictures were so inaccurate, then why bother having them in the first place?”

Zhang Cang said: “They weren’t always inaccurate. Those whom the Qin court had seen before-- like the royal hostages we kept from the other states-- had portraits fairly close to life. And some were already famed for their appearances; the artists could capture their impressions well enough. Take Zhang Liang, a man famed for looking like a woman. How many others under heaven could fit the description? You could draw a good likeness from that alone.”

Han Xin nodded. Judging others on superficials costs you Ziyi.[2] That saying fit Zhang Liang perfectly. Few anticipated the fearless, crafty strategist that lay behind features as delicate as a maiden’s. His distinctive face had forced him to go into hiding for years after Bolang Sands, fleeing west and east. “Yes, Zifang must go through a lot of suffering for his appearance,” Han Xin sighed.

Zhang Cang stared at Han Xin, noticing that he’d used Zhang Liang’s style name. He’d read this new Quartermaster’s records; he’d only been a Halberd-Bearer in King Xiang’s camp, and had held no previous rank higher than granary clerk under the King of Han. How had he ended up on familiar terms with the famed Zhang Liang?

Han Xin noticed the surprise on Zhang Cang’s face and regretted his slip of the tongue. He wanted to think of himself as open with his past, but at the same time, he’d decided he didn’t want to reveal his deal with Zhang Liang yet. To change the subject, he continued his inspection of the shelves’ contents. The portraits on the shelves became sparser as he went on, even as their protective wrappings grew. He supposed they were of increasingly important personages. He took out a few and saw his suspicions confirmed: all dukes and princes, with bounties of thousands of gold pieces upon their heads.

The shelf at the end of the row was completely empty from floor to ceiling but for a wooden chest in the corner, its paint and gilt faded. “What’s in this? Another portrait?” He reached for a chest.

Zhang Cang slammed his hand down on the chest. “Officer,” Zhang Cang said, his voice odd. “Don’t look!”

Han Xin turned to look at him in surprise. “Why? What’s in there?”

Zhang Cang said: “A... a portrait.”

“So?” Han Xin laughed. “Whose image do you have to be so secretive about, especially now that Qin has fallen? Open the chest and let me see!”

Zhang Cang said: “No! Officer, listen to me, don’t look.”

Stranger and stranger, Han Xin thought. “Why?”

“Because... because he isn’t a person, but a demon.”

Han Xin said: “What?”

Zhang Cang looked straight ahead. “He’s a demon, a demon in the flesh,” he said, voice filled with a peculiar mixture of fear and loathing. “He brings a terrible curse. I... I don’t want to see him again, not even his picture. I’d wanted to burn it, before, but I didn’t dare in the end. He has the power of gods, and I feared that even his image held darkness...”

Han Xin watched Zhang Cang carefully. The laughing, knowledgeable scholar of a moment ago seemed like a completely different person from the pale, fearful man that stood before him now.

A thought surfaced in Han Xin’s mind. “‘He?’ What’s his name?”

Zhang Cang said: “No, I... I don’t want to speak of him--”

“What’s his name?”

“Officer, don’t ask me this--”

“Tell me,” Han Xin said, “what’s his name?”

Zhang Cang raised his head in astonishment. Han Xin looked back at him, and there was steel in his eyes.

“No one knows his real name,” Zhang Cang said with difficulty. He swallowed. “He used a pseudonym. He called himself the Gentleman of the East Sea.”


In the inner chambers of the Quartermaster’s residence, Han Xin sat before his desk, upon which rested the faded gilt chest.

He hadn’t opened it yet. Its key lay in his hand, given to him by Zhang Cang.

If you insist on looking, Zhang Cang had said earnestly, do it, then forget about it afterwards. Officer, believe me, that demon truly brings ill fortune.

Truly? Was this mysterious occultist truly so terrifying? Had he truly driven the First Emperor to negligence and madness? Was it truly his doing behind the empire’s fall?

He’d never been a believer in ghosts and gods. When he’d heard Zhong Xiu’s strange story, he’d considered the events nothing more than a clever scam. That occultist could trick the First Emperor, trick Zhong Xiu, even trick his master Wei Liao, but he certainly couldn’t trick him. He believed that, with enough resources, he could find the flaw in this charlatan’s act and pierce through his illusions. Of course, Xiang Yu had looted and burned Xianyang to ruins soon afterwards, destroying any clues that may have remained. Han Xin had thought that the truth would remain forever buried underneath the palace ruins.

Events played out contrary to his expectations, as if the will of heaven had somehow, nebulously, arranged them into place. A few months later, in isolated Nanzheng, he would once again approach the truth.

The opportunity came so quickly, so easily, it caught him unprepared. The gilt chest sat right in front of him, its painted patterns of birds and swirling clouds still crisp and intricate, if faded in color. The motifs were common to many palace objects, but at that moment, they seemed unearthly.

Maybe the truth lay in this chest. He held the power to access it his hand. No matter how powerful that occultist was, he couldn’t make this chest vanish into thin air, surely? And yet he found himself unwilling to act.

Why? Deep down, was he starting to believe in that Gentleman of the East Sea’s tricks too?

No! Definitely not! He’d never feared the so-called supernatural. He was calm, logical, firm in his belief that human intelligence could unravel all mysteries in the end. What was he afraid of?

He didn’t know.

At last, he slotted the key into the chest’s keyhole and carefully turned it.

The lock opened with a soft “ta”. He raised the lid.

In the chest was a silk painting, folded crisply. He could tell from a glance that the material was of the very highest quality, its luster and texture better than that of the silks he’d seen in the archives.

He reached for the painting. After a moment of hesitation, he pulled it out and spread it onto his desk.

It was a full-body picture, exquisitely true to life: a black-robed man, thin-faced, exuding an air of world-weary indifference. His cold eyes seemed to stare out of the picture to meet Han Xin’s gaze.

He licked his lips. His hands and feet felt like ice.

If you insist on looking, Zhang Cang had said earnestly, do it, then forget about it afterwards. Officer, believe me, that demon truly brings ill fortune.

Late, too late, he could never forget this man. The Gentleman of the East Sea was no other than the Guest of Canghai.


Chancellor Xiao He found the new Quartermaster highly unsatisfactory.

The young man showed no respect for his important position of Quartermaster. He wore a permanent expression of unenthusiasm, constantly arrived late to meetings, never paid attention during discussions-- in fact, at times, he would close his eyes and pretend to sleep.

He endured for as long as he could, but even his patience eventually ran out. He summoned the young man to his office and gave him a stern lecture.

Han Xin listened in silence. When Xiao He was done, he said: “Chancellor, can you tell your humble subordinate where he has failed in his duties?”

“With your attitude, how could you not have?” Xiao He was truly angry now. “Very well, I’ll find some examples for your benefit!”

Xiao He threw open the army supply ledgers. How hard would it be to find a mistake? He’d originally worked as a government clerk himself; he knew every loophole and sloppy shortcut in the book.

He’d never met a young man so unaware of whom he was facing!

Halfway through the ledgers, Xiao He looked up at Han Xin, surprised.

The young man still stood there with that expression of unenthusiasm. Head lowered, he was idly cleaning his nails.

Xiao He lowered his head and read on more carefully.

When he was done, Xiao He couldn’t believe his eyes. He returned to the first ledger to double-check.

He read on even more slowly this time.

And slowly, he finished his second readthrough.

Xiao He raised his head, looking at Han Xin in astonishment.

He’d never seen anyone so capable in his duties! The Han army’s supply system had always been a tangled mess, and experienced men had proved unable to manage it successfully. And yet the indolent young man in front of him had sorted everything out irreproachably in less than twenty days. He couldn’t find a single faulty number. How did he do it?

Han Xin, observing Xiao He’s silence, said: “If you have no other business, Chancellor, your humble subordinate will leave now.”

“Wait.” After a moment of hesitation, Xiao He continued: “Sit down, I... have things to discuss with you.”

Han Xin obeyed with a small smile.


Historically, Han Xin really was saved from execution that way. It almost makes you believe in the gambler's fallacy.

Also, only two footnotes this time!

[1] Liubo was a highly popular board game in ancient China around this time. According to archaeological evidence, there may, in fact, have been a drinking game version with special dice and everything. Eventually, it was displaced by go.

[2] Ziyu was a talented but ugly young man who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period. He admired Confucius's teachings and wished to study under him. Confucius disliked him because of his ugliness and only taught him halfheartedly, and Ziyu soon left, disappointed. After Ziyu made his way in the world on his own, Confucius came to regret judging him by appearances.

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