Friday, July 26, 2013

Han Xin V

Xiao He sized up Han Xin suspiciously. Slowly, he said: ‘I heard from Xiahou Ying that you know every tome on military strategy forwards and back, is that correct?”

Han Xin smiled at that. That day, Xiahou Ying had used every military book he owned to test him: Six Secret Teachings, The Sima’s Methods, The Art of War, Wuzi, even the obscure and tangential Guiguzi. None of them had posed any challenge, and Xiahou Ying, overjoyed, had hurried to the palace to recommend him. Of course, that sort of test was laughable, and Han Xin had never regarded his knowledge as any true qualification for command. “To a general, the important thing isn’t memorizing books of military strategy,” he said, “but flexibly employing the principles behind the strategy in battle to attain victory.”

Xiao He took notice. “Please go into more detail,” he said, more respectfully.

Han Xin said: “Of the would-be generals of today, plenty can recite The Art of War by memory, but how many have achieved Sun Zi’s success in battle? In the end, their devotion to strategy ends at their tongue. They still rely on brute force on the battlefield instead of tactics and planning.

Xiao He nodded. “Yes, I’ve noticed it too. But why? If strategy is so effective, then why don’t people use it?”

Han Xin said: “There are two situations. The first occurs when the reader utterly fails to understand what he’s read. Some memorize The Art of War only to show off, when, in reality, they don’t understand a single sentence of it. In that case, how can they hope to apply it to the real world? The second occurs when the reader only partially understands what he’s read. All the very best strategies are widely used, and things widely used are often the most simple. Some take that at surface value and believe these strategies to be worthless prattle. They content themselves with a shallow assumption and never bother to look beyond. Isn’t Xiang Yu this way?”

Xiao He frowned. “I agree with your other points, but I can’t agree with your assessment of Xiang Yu. From the beginning, he’s never lost a battle or retreated in a campaign. This is common knowledge. Not to mention Julu, where he shocked everyone with his victory against a much more powerful enemy. He led the other lords to destroy the mighty Qin Empire in only two years! How can you dismiss his understanding of military strategy?”

Han Xin could only smile. So many people held that misconception about Xiang Yu; ever since he deserted the Chu army and came to Han, King Xiang’s many admirers had constantly approached him, wishing to hear more about their legendary hero. He sighed and explained patiently: “Xiang Yu didn’t destroy the Qin; its own rulers did. The First Emperor was cruel and brutal; the Second Emperor was incompetent, his laws harsh and his taxes heavy. Discontent had built up amongst the people like dry tinder-- one spark could set the land ablaze. Then Chen Sheng rose in rebellion, and most of the east followed him. He may have failed to take Xianyang, but he’d pushed Qin to the brink of toppling. To finish the job in these conditions wouldn’t take much skill. That’s why even someone as shortsighted as Xiang Yu could succeed. What’s so impressive about his victories? If he slew a giant, it was a giant already diseased to its marrow.”

As he spoke, a thought came to Han Xin.

Why had the once-mighty Qin Dynasty decayed so quickly from the inside? This wasn’t normal. What dynasty before it had gone from rise to fall in so short a time? Did that mysterious Gentleman of the East Sea-- whom he’d known as the Guest of Canghai-- truly engineer it? If so, what for? How would a land in chaos benefit him? And what was that deal from twelve years ago for? Was there some connection between it all...

Xiao He didn’t notice Han Xin’s inner speculation, too caught up in his words. He’d never heard an analysis of the situation anything like it. Fascinated and impressed, he urged Han Xin to continue.

Afterwards, they discussed army management. Afterwards, they discussed governance...

When their discussion at last concluded, long after the sun had set, Xiao He couldn’t contain his delight. “With a talent like you under our kingdom’s employ, what do we have to fear? I’m going to the palace to see His Highness!”

Xiao He enthusiastically hurried off. Han Xin watched his silhouette, shaking his head. He sighed. It won’t be of any use.

Xiao He had reacted the same way Xiahou Ying did after their conversation, and he knew it would accomplish equally little.

The King of Han had despaired of returning east. He’d long since dropped any pretense of being a virtuous ruler in search of talents to promote. He wouldn’t show a bit of interest if Han Xin were Guan or Yue reborn.[1]


“Old Xiao, can’t you shut it already?” The King of Han stood with one foot on the table, throwing down his dice without bothering to lift his head. “I don’t want to promote him! Isn’t the rank of Quartermaster after three months enough? I’m stuck in this shithole and no one’s there to promote me... ai, whose turn is it? Keep playing!”

Xiao He said: “Your Highness, he has ten times my ability. Having him count bushels and write ledgers is a waste of his talents--”

“What talents? Haven’t you heard the story of how he crawled under someone’s crotch while he was in Huaiyin? And you’re asking me to promote him? I’ll be shamed by extension!” The King of Han grabbed the dice and threw them again. “Bah! Just your talk of him has ruined my luck! Can’t you leave me alone?”

“Your Highness, I’ve seen him,” Xiao He said. “His ideas are original and deep. If he endured humiliation, it was because he saw the greater picture and didn’t consider it worth his while to defend his honor from a small-town lout. Besides--”

“Are you still not done yet?” The King of Han slammed down his bet and straightened. “I’m warning you: from now on, don’t talk to me about that brat!” he snarled. “If you bother me again, I’ll have you locked into the animal pens, where you can promote him to the pigs!” Threat given, he dove headlong back into the throng of fellow gamblers. “What are you looking at? Keep playing!”

Xiao He could only stare at his king, stunned.


In frustration, even saints tear off their masks without hesitation and reveal their hidden inner natures.

Perhaps the loyal, good-natured Xiao He didn’t realize this, but Han Xin knew it well.

For that reason, he didn’t plan to wait any longer.

He was still young, and needed to escape this mountain-bound little kingdom while he still had the energy for such a long, harsh journey.

He straightened out his affairs, left a letter of farewell next to Dust-cross, and rode away on the horse he came here on.

But where should he go next? He considered this as he rode.

With his sharp eyes, he’d seen early on that the current most powerful force under heaven was the Hegemon-King of Chu, Xiang Yu; while the force with the greatest potential for growth was the King of Han, Liu Bang. The rest couldn’t compare. Now, he’d deserted Xiang Yu and fled Liu Bang. The land was vast, but where could he seek refuge?

He didn’t know, truly didn’t know.

Leave! Leave first and plan the rest later.

On horseback, he crossed the rough mountainside forests. The sky was dark, and from every direction came strange bird-cries and the howl of wolves. Wind moaned through the steep-sided valleys, at times high, at times low, at times a roar, at times a thin whisper, as if it were the chill voice of ghosts wandering in the wilderness.

None of it could stop him. He urged his horse forward.

Until a river cut across his path.

The river wasn’t wide, but its waters surged with abnormal speed. He saw that it extended to either side of him, like a vast python, with no end in sight upstream or downstream. It tossed and roared, as if to flaunt its impassibility.

He could only stare.

When he’d come here, this had been a gentle, shallow stream. Cold Creek, the locals called it. The water had indeed held a hint of chill, pleasant for drinking. But how had it turned so treacherous and terrible? He only now remembered-- there had been a storm two days ago!

For all his calculation and planning, he’d failed to anticipate that this mountain stream would flood. Now what? He couldn’t advance and couldn’t retreat.

His horse, receiving no orders from its master, idly pawed at the ground.

The river tumbled endlessly on under the hazy moonlight. Distractedly, he thought of the first days of the rebellion, the rise of all the heroes of the land to arms.

He’d been so confident then! His vow to his master had run its course, he’d thought, and the time had arrived for him to employ his talents.

Ah, he’d truly been too idealistic.

Time passed, day flowing into day, and his initial hot-blooded joy slowly cooled. His enthusiasm faded, but the petty drudgery of his existence remained constant. And his pain only sharpened with the old empire’s fall. Before then, he’d had nothing to compare himself with, no way of knowing his own worth. But now, he could see only too clearly that no one in this era was his match. All those opportunistic new lords and kings relied on nothing but brute force, knew nothing of finesse or strategy. Their battle plans were crude, laughable child’s play to him. He could destroy them in one blow. With an army of modest size and tolerable training, he could sweep the land clean. The problem was, where could he get even a second- or third-rate army?

If he were a princeling from one of the six fallen states, he could use the prestige his name to recruit local loyalists. If he belonged to one of the great clans, he could draw upon its influence to gather warriors. If he held a government position, he could raise an army under its name.

But he had none of that. He had nothing. He was a common-born, penniless peasant with no background. His pride had even kept him from currying favor with the local gangs. He was completely alone in this world, and because of it, completely cut off from any chance at authority.

Oh, talent? What was talent worth? If he were willing to flatter and ingratiate, he could get his hands on a few scraps of power regardless of talent. If he were unwilling, no amount of talent could save him.

He was like a peerless swordsman watching talentless show-offs earn the adulations of the crowd with a few clumsy tricks, unable to join in himself and show them what swordmanship was really like because he had no sword.

Did he truly have no sword?

No, not truly. He’d had one, and its name was Dust-cross. That had been a good sword. It was power, power second only to one and above ten thousand. It had been handed to him, but he didn’t want it.

No, he’d wanted it, but knew it was useless even if he had it.

What could he have done with the power?

Fix the plankways and use them to invade the Three Qins?

As if! Such a vast and slow undertaking would give Zhang Han and the rest more than enough time to catch on and fortify their end of the valley, then wait for him to throw himself into their trap.

And yet, it was the only way. He’d thought about it before; if it truly came to that, he would strain himself to the limits of his abilities to minimize casualties: sowing dissent amongst the enemy, false surrenders, bribes, alliances... every tactic he knew. But there was a limit to what any human could do. No amount of ability could change the ruthless facts of geography.

Battles, in the end, came to physical clashes. He couldn’t use intelligence alone to allow a toddler to knock down a warrior.

Maybe he could still make it to Guanzhong at the cost of horrific casualties, but he was unwilling to resort to that. His master had taught him that war was an art, and winning without fighting was the greatest triumph one could achieve. A victory won with a mountain of corpses was any true general’s shame. Using such methods to conquer the land left foundations that doomed the whole edifice to fall sooner or later.

Even if he were willing, the King of Han lacked the patience. To the fifty-odd year old King of Han, the necessary preparations before such an advance would take too long. He would rather stay in his little kingdom and pass the remainder of his life in peace.

He felt as if some great, invisible hand were pressing him down, blocking every opening that fate gave him, trying to smother the ambition in his heart.

All his effort had come to naught. Every road he’d seized led to failure, and he couldn’t blame anyone for it.

Could he blame Xiang Yu for rejecting his suggestions? Xiang Yu had already done things his own way, and was vindicated by his successes. Why should Xiang Yu have listened to him?

Could he blame Liu Bang for lacking sufficient ambition? Who was willing to spend his entire life fighting for some nebulous goal he might not even live to see?

Could he blame Zhang Liang for advising that the plankway be burned? That had been the only option; doing anything else could very likely have doomed the King of Han to utter destruction.

Ah, no one could be held responsible for his failures. Maybe the only one at fault was he himself. Maybe he’d been delusional from the start, maybe he simply didn’t deserve it all, maybe he’d never been anything like the person he imagined himself to be... ah! No! No! He couldn’t think like this. The only thing that had sustained him all these years, kept him living on in this pleasureless existence, was that iron belief in the core of his heart. Belief in his abilities, belief that his abilities would one day bring him triumph. If he dismissed that belief as illusion, what did he have left to live for? What had he endured everything for?

Ah! Face reality already! he told himself. Look at all the chances that heaven had granted him: he’d bemoaned that his abilities would find no use in a time of peace, and then the empire fell into chaos; he’d held Xiang Yu in contempt for his shortsightedness, and then he found Liu Bang; he’d thought it impossible to advance in the ranks, and Zhang Liang had given him Dust-cross... yet, despite it all, he’d accomplished nothing.

It was he, in the end, who was useless! He’d wasted one opportunity after the other, and still sighed of an era not meant for him. Such a pathetic excuse! Who didn’t struggle in this era of chaos? Why did so many others succeed while he, alone, failed?

Give up, give up, stop scrabbling for excuses to live, stop drowning in your fantasies of greatness, reality mocks your airy dreams! Bury your broken delusions beside your worthless life in this desolate wilderness, in the endless waves.

He smiled a little, wretchedly, and urged his horse forward. But the horse stopped after a few steps, refusing to move.

He dismounted, stroking his horse’s thin, bony back.

Did this weathered old horse still crave life?

Of course. Even ants craved life, never mind horses, a hundred times more intelligent than ants. Never mind men, a hundred times more intelligent than horses.

From the moment he came to this world, he had never experienced a single day of true happiness. Why should he end his pathetic life yet?

He did have talent! His master’s wariness proved it, Fan Zeng’s desire to kill him proved it, Zhang Liang’s trust proved it, Xiahou Ying and Xiao He’s wholehearted recommendations proved it... how could he ignore them all?

But he had too few things to live for! In this unsympathetic world, he’d never felt any joy at living. All he’d endured were unspeakable humiliations. His extraordinary intelligence brought him nothing but sharper awareness of his pain. Ai, to hold jewels in an era of chaos that couldn’t appreciate it-- was it all that could be expected, or his misfortune?

“Have you despaired?” The voice came from behind him. Han Xin turned.

It was the thin, cold-eyed man in black: on the banks of Huaiyin’s creek, he’d called himself the Guest of Canghai; in the palace of the First Emperor, he’d called himself the Gentleman of the East Sea; when Han Xin had needed him, he failed to come; now that Han Xin didn’t need him, he was here. Han Xin sighed. “Does it matter?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Do you now believe my words from before?”

Han Xin said: “What words?”

The Guest of Canghai said patiently: “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.”

Han Xin startled. From the start, he’d never taken this occultist seriously. But with that reminder, all his buried memories rushed to the surface of the mind. Suddenly, he found that all the things he’d mocked as impossible in the beginning had become reality-- “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.”

“What do you mean by that? The present me? The future me? Do you think you understand me better than I understand myself?”

“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...’“

“The will of heaven, the will of heaven,” Han Xin said, his voice tinged with melancholy. “If the will of heaven is so difficult to disobey, then what’s the point of bringing it up now?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Twelve years ago, I told you: the will of gods can alter the will of heaven!”

Han Xin said: “No one can help me with this. It’s not something within the power of men--”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Not within the power of men, perhaps, but within the power of a god.”

Han Xin smiled uninterestedly.

The Guest of Canghai said: “You still don’t believe my master truly holds the power of a god?”

Han Xin turned, gazing towards the rushing waters of Cold Creek. He sighed quietly and said nothing.

The Guest of Canghai said: “You only need a passage, nothing more!”

Han Xin shivered and slowly turned his head. “What... what did you say?”

The Guest of Canghai said with calculated slowness: “With the plankways burned, the King of Han has no way to return east, and no use for your military abilities. This is why you have despaired, no? But in reality, the Baoxie plankway isn’t the only path between between Bashu and Qin!”

Han Xin could feel his heart speeding. “There’s more than one passage, true, but only the Baoxie plankway is suited for transporting an army. Tangluo Passage is a tangled mess, and Ziwu Passage is long and treacherous. Neither of them--”

The Guest of Canghai said: “No, there’s one more path.”

Han Xin stared blankly. “Another? No, there aren’t-- Ah! You mean Chencang Passage? That road has been abandoned for centuries. How can it still be useable? I don’t even know where it is.”

A cryptic smile flashed across the Guest of Canghai’s emotionless face. “What if my master can restore it?”

“You say... your master could... could...”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Yes, my master can restore Chencang Passage for you!”

No! Impossible! Don’t believe him! Han Xin told himself. He was only an occultist-- good for tricks and illusions, but hardly reliable for great matters of state!

The Guest of Canghai said: “So? Are you inclined to make this deal now?”

No! He couldn’t allow himself to be fooled!

But this was his only hope. Maybe his master truly could...

No! Absolutely not. He couldn’t do something so absurd, become a laughingstock for future generations...

In his heart, logic struggled against powerful temptation.

He faced the torrent of Cold Creek, slowly forcing down his surge of emotions. “Sorry, but I’m not interested.”

The Guest of Canghai seemed stunned. “What?”

Han Xin said: “I don’t believe any of what you’ve said! Not a word!”

The Guest of Canghai looked at him as if he were some bizarre and incongruous object. It took a long while before he spoke: “No wonder my master said you were different from everyone else! Any other person in your desperate position would have accepted even the most blatant scam, made themselves believe in it. But you insist on making yourself disbelieve an honest deal.”

Han Xin said: “You can say that, but I still don’t believe any of it.”

The Guest of Canghai said: “What proof do you require?”

Han Xin looked at Cold Creek, tumbling endlessly onwards through the night. He smiled and said: “Stop the flow of Cold Creek.”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Such a simple task?”

A thread of light, like a meteor, streaked across the sky above Cold Creek. Han Xin felt his field of vision violently lurch, and the constant background din of roaring water ceased as if cut with a knife. When he refocused his eyes, he saw that the raging torrents of just a moment ago had disappeared. All that was left were the rounded pebbles of the river bed, gleaming a little in the moonlight. He could still see a few slow rivulets of water in the crevices.

Han Xin couldn’t breathe.

He abruptly turned his head. The Guest of Canghai said coolly: “See? This is the power of gods!”

Han Xin said: “No... impossible...”

“Nothing is impossible.” The Guest of Canghai’s voice remained as chilly as before. “Unreasonable events can happen at any moment. Don’t ever delude yourself into thinking you already know everything!”

A cold wind blew through the mountains, chilling him to the heart. The temperature seemed to have suddenly fallen.

Somewhere in the distance, wild pheasants cried: Luo! Luo! Luo! In the heavy darkness, the sounds became ineffably sinister.

Could this all be just illusion?

No, it was real. Immortality, that mysterious heart-searching mirror, the sudden destruction of an empire-- it was all real.

The proof had long been there, but he’d stubbornly refused to accept it! The masterful First Emperor, his brilliant teacher Wei Liao, the great scholar Zhong Xiu-- which of them was not a strong, willful hero among men? Which of them could be easily deceived? Which of them would have changed the course of their lives so without incontrovertible proof? Han Xin said, shaken: “How... how did you do it?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Mere mortals cannot conjecture as to the workings of the divine. I only ask you this: Will you agree to the deal now?”

Han Xin said: “But your master... what does he want me to do in return?”

The Guest of Canghai paused to enunciate his next words as clearly as possible: “Move mountains. Fill in the sea.”

“What?” Han Xin said.

The Guest of Canghai said: “Yes, move mountains to fill in the sea.”

Han Xin said: “Why? Why do I need to fill in the sea?”

“I’ve already told you, mere mortals cannot conjecture as to the workings of the divine. Simply do as my god says.”

Maybe he was dreaming right now. Maybe he’d never left Nanzheng, never seen the Guest of Canghai, never watched as Cold Creek vanished mid-flow, never had this absolutely insane conversation. He was about to wake up, surely, and this senseless dream would end...

He heard his own voice say: “Impossible. The sea has no boundaries. The manpower of kingdoms wouldn’t be enough to fill them in.”

The Guest of Canghai said: “I didn’t say you had to fill in the whole sea. All you need to take care of is a portion of the Gulf of Bohai.”[2]

“How big a portion? How far from shore? How deep is the water there?” Heavens! He was carrying on this ridiculous conversation. Couldn’t it all end already?

“A portion two hundred feet in circumference, three hundred and seventy li from the shore,” the Guest of Canghai answered. “The water is about one hundred and fifty feet deep there. Really, you’re trying to construct a small island. To keep the structure stable, you’ll want a base twice as large as the section above water.”

Han Xin pondered for a moment, then said: “The shape would be similar to Qin Shihuang’s tomb mound at Li Mountain, right?” What was he saying? What was he going to do?

The Guest of Canghai nodded. “Yes, roughly the same, although the sides need to be steeper.”

Han Xin calculated the numbers in his head. “That’s too difficult. Qin Shihuang’s tomb mound was built on land and took advantage of the existing mountain, but it still took seven hundred thousand convict laborers more than twenty years to build. You’re asking me to pile up a similar mound in the middle of the sea. Just constructing a dike from there to shore would cost a fortune. Finishing the whole project is an undertaking of outrageous proportions.” Why was he seriously considering this absurd deal? Had this demon beguiled him?

He thought of Zhang Cang’s plea: Officer, believe me, that demon truly brings ill fortune.

He shivered.

Was he walking down the same road as Qin Shihuang?

The Guest of Canghai said: “There’s some level of difficulty involved, yes, but my master chose you partly because of this. You’re the greatest talent in this world. You have the necessary ability.”

Why not? Han Xin thought. Regardless of where this road leads, you might as well take it. You have no other roads left.

Han Xin said slowly: “Looks like your master is helping me purely for his own sake. If I can’t unify the land, I won’t have the resources to undertake such a massive building project.”

The Guest of Canghai didn’t try to dissemble. “Correct. But from your perspective, without my master’s help, you’ll never attain power. This deal is mutually beneficial.”

Han Xin said: “Mutually beneficial? I doubt it. This undertaking requires huge expenditure, enough to rock an empire’s very foundations. The day construction ends may very well be the day my regime is toppled. If I’m going to lose everything your master will help me gain, why should I agree to the deal?

The Guest of Canghai said: “You don’t need to worry about that. My master can make your government as unshakeable as Mount Tai.”

“How?” Han Xin asked.

The Guest of Canghai drew something out of his sleeve. “See this?” he said. “Use it.”

Han Xin squinted. Between the Guest of Canghai’s thumb and forefinger was a thin square of silvery-white material, about an inch on each side, covered with irregular lines and grooves. He couldn’t help but laugh. “This is supposed to stabilize my government?”

The Guest of Canghai showed no signs of joking. “Yes,” he said.

Han Xin said: “What do I use it for? Killing people? Or sacrificing to gods?”

Patiently, the Guest of Canghai said: “You can use it to monitor all under heaven!”

Han Xin said: “What... what did you say?”

“Have you heard of the Nine Tripods?” The Guest of Canghai asked.

“Yes, but what does this have to do with--”

“This is the heart of the Nine Tripods,” the Guest of Canghai said.

Han Xin said: “You claim... this... the heart of the Nine Tripods?”

The Guest of Canghai raised his face skywards. “Everyone knows that ‘he who holds the Nine Tripods holds all under heaven,’ but how many comprehend the true meaning of these words? Only the supreme rulers of each generation have known that the power of the Nine Tripods lies in its ability to spy on the Nine Provinces! But even they may not know: all of the Nine Tripods’ magic comes from this Tripod’s Heart!”

Han Xin could feel his head spinning. With difficulty, he managed to focus on the important points. “You say the Nine Tripods could... could monitor the Nine Provinces? But they say that the Great Yu of Xia forged it to represent the Nine Provinces. How... how--”

“Represent the Nine Provinces? Hah!” The Guest of Canghai snorted. “That brat Wenming is one formidable liar, to be able to fool everyone for eighteen hundred years with a piece of ridiculous propaganda. I’ll tell you, the Nine Tripods was made for surveillance! It could monitor anything and everything within those Nine Provinces-- Ji, Yan, Qing, Xu, Yang, Jing, Yu, Liang, Yong-- and show them as if they were in front of your very eyes. Things as vast as mountains and the flow of rivers, as small as birds and beasts and men, far and near-- it saw them all, and heard them all.”

Han Xin’s thoughts were in turmoil. Eventually, he said: “Wenming... who was he?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “You worship him as the Great Yu. As his elder, I call him by his given name, Wenming, by habit. He proclaimed he was the one who forged the Nine Tripods to symbolize the provinces? Laughable, that he claims he has the ability! The Nine Tripods was designed and forged by my master! He only provided the necessary metal.”

Han Xin said: “The Nine Tripods... it truly has such power?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Haven’t you noticed that the lifespans of dynasties suddenly increased from Xia onward? Yu passed his kingdom to his sons, and their dynasty lasted four hundred years. Shang lasted five hundred years. Zhou lasted eight hundred. But do you mean to say the kings of Xia, Shang, and Zhou exceeded Yao and Shun in virtue?”

“How could it be this way?” Han Xin murmured. “This... was it really so?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “How could it not be? How many of the eighty or so kings of Xia, Shang, and Zhou were remotely competent, their founders aside? Do you really think they enjoyed power for so long because of their ability to rule? The real reason was their ability to spy on their people with the Nine Tripods!”

So. So this was the truth behind the Mandate of Heaven, the so-called divine protection of a rightful dynasty. This was the secret behind the corrupted regimes that nonetheless stood for centuries. Ah! No wonder everyone who saw the Nine Tripods had to die. No wonder the rulers had always hidden it so carefully. How could they allow their people to know the measures to which they stooped for the sake of power?

The Guest of Canghai said: “As of now, either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang holds the Nine Tripods, but without the Tripod’s Heart, it’s nothing more than a useless piece of metal! They won’t be able to figure out its real use, or even that they possess the Nine Tripods. Its shape is nothing like a tripod cauldron’s, you see. They called it a tripod because it needed to be hung over a fire like a tripod cauldron to power it. The Nine Tripods is large and bulky, and neither Xiang Yu nor Liu Bang realizes its importance; you’ll find it easily. Once you’re in power, seize it from them, whether by trickery or by force. Slot this Tripod’s heart in, and the world is yours. But do be prepared-- once the Nine Tripods is activated, shapes and people will appear out of it. Don’t panic or take them for demons. Some people become quite frightened their first time.”

That eunuch had said only two sentences about the Nine Tripods before his execution.

The first: The Nine Tripods isn’t a tripod.

The second: That thing draws ghosts to it.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I fear that no one living knows the meaning of those two sentences anymore.”

“Did everyone who’s seen the Nine Tripods really die afterwards? Besides the ruler, I suppose.”


“No? Who?”

“Do you still remember me telling you about the Gentleman of the East Sea?”

Impulsively, Han Xin asked: “Are you truly a thousand years old?”

Surprise flickered in the Guest of Canghai’s eyes. “What did you say?”

Han Xin said: “I heard that you proved you were a thousand years old to Qin Shihuang. Did you do it so you could steal the Tripod’s Heart from him?”

“What do you know of that?” the Guest of Canghai said, voice dark.

Han Xin said: “All of the Qin court knows what you did, and the wanted poster Qin Shihuang commissioned for you is still around. It’s no surprise that I know about all this. But only now do I know why Qin Shihuang searched for you so frantically after you disappeared, hated you so deeply-- you’d disabled his most powerful tool for governance.”

“He hated me?” the Guest of Canghai sneered. “What right does he have to hate me? He deserved everything. It was his fault, for...” Here, the Guest of Canghai suddenly fell silent.

Han Xin asked: “What was his fault?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “That has nothing to do with you. Young man, I know you’re very smart, but you’re still better off not knowing some things. I told you, mere mortals cannot conjecture as to the workings of the divine. Remember this! Now, I ask you again, have you decided whether you’ll accept the deal? What’s your answer?”

Han Xin said: “I accept.”

The Guest of Canghai said: “Very good. Here’s the Tripod’s Heart; take good care of it, and don’t get it wet. Remember! It doesn’t fear fire or impact, but water will destroy it. You must not get it wet. The Nine Tripods is square on the outside and circular on the inside, gray-green in color. It looks a bit like a jade cong[3], but much bigger. Twelve feet eight inches in height, five feet three inches in breadth and width. At the bottom is an opening for the fire, and six feet directly above that is a thin crevice, easy to miss if you don’t look carefully. Slot the Tripod’s Heart all the way in. When you use it, fill the round hole down its center with charcoal and light it from the opening in the bottom. Let it burn for an hour, and the Nine Tripods will activate. You’ll find it very simple when you try it.”

Han Xin took the Tripod’s Heart, looked at it, then carefully tucked it away.

“This will show you the route of Chencang Passage,” the Guest of Canghai continued, handing him a rolled-up map. “Listen carefully: this August, take your troops through this passage to leave Shu. During the journey, no matter what you see or hear, ignore it and keep going! You only have that month. Once August ends, everything will revert to its current state, and the passage will disappear. Because of that, your urgent task of the moment is to secure commandership and persuade the King of Han to advance at that time.”

Han Xin unrolled the map and examined it under the moonlight. Dimly, he could make out its delicacy of line, its depth of detail. He rolled it up, thought for a moment, then said: “Why August? I don’t know if we can gather enough supplies in time. Can’t you open the passage next spring?”

The Guest of Canghai said: “No, it can only be August. I don’t know why; my master made the decision. But he must have a good reason.”

Han Xin said: “All right, I’ll worry about supplies after I get to Guanzhong. I can capture food from the enemy.”

The Guest of Canghai nodded approvingly. “Very good, I believe you have the necessary ability. Remember, for this campaign, retreat is out of the question. You must gain a foothold in the Three Qins as quickly as possible. The rest will be easier. With your military talent, no one under heaven is your match. Afterwards, prioritize conquering Qi so you can begin the work of filling in the sea.[4] When you’re King of Qi, I’ll give you more exact project instructions.”

The Guest of Canghai paused, then said suddenly: “Xiao He’s come looking for you. Return with him!”

Han Xin could hear only the “luo luo” of pheasants in the darkness, nothing else. He felt doubtful.

“I will leave now. Remember!” The Guest of Canghai’s voice had noticeably cooled in tone. “You cannot renege on a deal with a god. What he allows you to gain, he can also take away!” He turned to leave.

Han Xin felt a chill in his heart at the words.

As the Guest of Canghai receded into the distance, Han Xin suddenly thought of something. “What’s your real name, anyway?” he shouted in his direction.

The Guest of Canghai paused in his steps, but didn’t turn.

“My name is Qian Keng,” he said coldly, and disappeared into that boundless darkness.

Qian Keng? A name that gave him no clues.

A sudden roaring noise startled Han Xin out of his reverie. The roar continued-- Cold Creek, returned to its earlier volume and fury.

Han Xin turned to look at his horse.

If horses could speak, perhaps it would tell him that everything that had just happened was truly a dream. Didn’t they say that animals could recognize demons better than humans?

The horse again pawed at the ground, snorting. Animals couldn’t speak, in the end. He returned his gaze to Cold Creek.

Not long earlier, his hopes had been ashes; he’d considered himself the unluckiest person in the world; he’d wanted to end his life in these waters. But now, he had suddenly become the most fortunate person in the world, holding the secret to conquering and governing all under heaven.

But was it real? Was he truly going to rely on that dreamlike conversation to decide the course of a kingdom, the course of thousands of lives?

Distantly, he heard hoofbeats, and heard Xiao He call his name.

The sounds were getting closer.

The hoofbeats halted.

“I’ve finally found you!” Xiao He leapt off his horse and seized Han Xin’s arm, unable to conceal his joy. “I was frantic when you disappeared without even a farewell! I didn’t even have the time to tell the King of Han before I rushed after you! The things you put me through! Tell me, what did you mean by that letter? By that sword? By ‘I regret I was not worthy of Sir Zifang’s trust?’ By ‘the sword is a priceless treasure that I with my lowly abilities do not deserve?’ Were you trying to drive me mad? Who under heaven besides you deserves that sword? You would put so many people through injustice by leaving. You... you had this sword from the start! Why didn’t you show it to anybody? Your arrogance! You could have saved us all so much trouble if you’d...”

Han Xin slowly shifted his gaze from Cold Creek to Xiao He. “Chancellor, I did the wrong thing. I’ll return with you.”

Xiao He was beside himself with joy.


When they returned to Nanzheng, Xiao He insisted that Han Xin stay for the present in the Chancellor’s Residence.

Han Xin smiled and said: “Chancellor, I swear I won’t run away again. Don’t worry!”

“I can’t help but worry!” Xiao He said. “You’re a thousand-li horse, so fleet-footed that I won’t be able to sleep at night unless I leash you by my side.”

Han Xin, moved, said: “Chancellor, I only want a quiet place to stay and think.”

Xiao He said: “You can use my study. No one will interrupt you there.”

Xiao He’s study was normally off-limits to outsiders; he ran the army and the government from there, Han Xin knew.

“I’m going to the palace right away. Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long this time.” Xiao He hurried off without even changing his clothes.

In Xiao He’s study, Han Xin took out that intricate, unfamiliar map and gently spread it on the desk.


In the palace, the King of Han stormed back and forth like a trapped beast.

“You run off, he runs off, Xiao He runs off too. Hah! I finally see what friendship really means,” he spat. “It’s all shit!”

“Fine then! Leave! All of you, the further the better! Hmph! I don’t care. I don’t care! I don’t--”

Mid-curse, he hunched down and burst into tears. “Why you, out of all of them? Xiao He, Xiao He, don’t you remember how we vowed to share all riches and honor, all trials and tribulations? Back in Pei County, I was Town Marshal, and you were the County Magistrate’s chief clerk, and you’d always taken care of me even then. Now I’ve at least managed to become King of Han. Why have you abandoned me now? Where did I wrong you? If you were heading for greener pastures, you could have picked a better time! Xiao He, Xiao He, I need you... in Xianyang, while everyone was fighting over the jade and gold, you alone went and grabbed everything in the Qin archives, said we’d need it all someday... how do I use it all now...Bah! You liar! You bastard! You faithless, shameless bastard, I’ll kill you--”

“Your Highness, will you kill me?” The King of Han’s head snapped up. Xiao He respectfully stood at the palace entrance, smiling gently.

The King of Han jumped up, wiped his face with his sleeve, and rushed toward him. He grabbed Xiao He, looking him over for what seemed like an eternity, before his tears were replaced by laughter. He punched Xiao He on the shoulder. “Old Xiao, you’re heartless! Where have I wronged you? To run away like all the rest of them-- did you think about the injustice you were doing me?”

Xiao He, seeing the King of Han go from tears to laughter like a child, couldn’t help but smile. “Your Highness, you wrong me,” he said, rubbing his shoulder. “I wouldn’t dare desert you. I was only chasing someone who’d deserted.”

The King of Han said: “Who?”

Xiao He said: “Han Xin.”

“Bah!” The King of Han reverted to rage. “You idiot, you can’t even come up with a proper lie! A couple dozen of my commanders deserted, and you didn’t go after any of them. But oh, you’re willing to chase down some coward who squeezed under someone’s crotch? Bullshit! Come up with a better lie! You’ll make me feel better that way.”

Xiao He said: “I didn’t lie, Your Highness. I really did go after Han Xin. He’s not a coward, but the pillar on which a nation can be built! The others made no difference by leaving, but you can’t find another like him if you searched your whole kingdom. I had to make him stay.”

The King of Han said: “Again with it all! My ears are going to grow calluses from all these speeches. Did you and Xiahou Ying eat something funny, to make you treasure this Han Xin so? I ask you, if he had any real abilities, how come he never amounted to anything under Xiang Yu?”

“If a priceless sword comes into the possession of an ignorant butcher, it will only be used to slaughter pigs and sheep, and perhaps do it less well than an ordinary butcher knife,” Xiao He said. “But in the hands of a swordsman, it becomes a weapon of unsurpassed deadliness. Xiang Yu’s inability to make use of Han Xin is his loss and your great stroke of fortune. Han Xin is the priceless sword that heaven has bestowed upon you. You must use him well!”

The King of Han chuckled. “Where did an honest man like you learn to speak so fancily? So if I don’t promote Han Xin, I’ll be a ‘ignorant butcher?’”

Xiao He said: “I wouldn’t dare. I only ask you this: do you want to remain King of Hanzhong for all your life, or do you want to conquer the world?”

The King of Han said: “You know perfectly well! Who wants to spend a lifetime in this shithole? Of course I want to expand east, but...”

Xiao He said: “If you want to expand, you must put Han Xin to use!”

The King of Han hesitated, then said: “Fine, I’ll do as you say! I’ll make him a commander.”

Xiao He said: “This isn’t enough. He’ll run away again.”

The King of Han said: “Then tell me, what will be enough?”

Xiao He said with iron decisiveness: “Make him Commander-in-Chief!”

“What?” The King of Han nearly leapt up. “Fan Kuai and Cao Can have fought by my side in countless bloody battles, but I haven’t made either of them Commander-in-Chief! And this brat is supposed to climb right over them? Are you crazy? I’m already doing you a favor by making him a commander--”

Xiao He said: “It’s not a matter of doing me a favor, but doing Zhang Zifang a favor.”

“Zhang Liang?” the King of Han said, stunned. “You’re saying... you’re saying--”

Xiao He said: “He has Dust-cross!”

The King of Han opened his mouth, but no sound came out. After a while, he managed: “Then... then... why didn’t he take it out? If I knew he had it, I wouldn’t have treated him like that.”

Xiao He said: “How do I know? He has an stubbornly prideful nature. Perhaps he didn’t want to gain promotion from someone else’s recommendation instead of his own merit.”

The King of Han said: “Very well! Call him over right now, and I’ll name him Commander-in-Chief!”

Xiao He said: “That’s not good enough.”

The King of Han once again nearly leapt up. “That’s still not good enough? What do you want me to do, kill myself to express my repentance?”

Xiao He couldn’t help but laugh. “Not like that, Your Highness. But naming a Commander-in-Chief can’t be done as informally as you’d call over a little child, even if Han Xin were the sort of person who can be summoned when you need him and waved away when you don’t. He deserted because he was tired of being belittled and dismissed. To make him stay for good, you have to take this seriously: choose an auspicious day and hour, fast and bathe, build an altar, clear a stage, go through all the formal rituals of naming a Commander-in-Chief. This is the only way!”

The King of Han said: “Fine, fine, I’ll listen to everything you say! But really, you know I hate these things the most.”

“Don’t worry, Your Highness,” Xiao He said comfortingly. “You just need to memorize a few lines of ceremonial speech. It won’t be hard.”



One of my favorite things about this author is her way of making all of prior history into her Chekov’s Guns. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Also, I freely admit that it’s really fun to translate Liu Bang’s swearing and bad attitude.

 [1] Guan Zhong was a renowned Chancellor of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period who greatly empowered his state. (Fun fact: he also started state-sponsored brothels to help with funds, and became a patron deity of prostitutes.) Yue Yi was a general of the state of Yan who led a coalition of smaller states against the powerful Qi and very nearly destroyed it.

 [2] The Gulf of Bohai is the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea, bounded by the Liaodong and Shandong Peninsulas in northeastern China.

 [3] A cong is a type of jade object shaped like a square tube with a circular hole down the middle. Found amongst Neolithic and early historic period artifacts, its purpose is completely unknown.

[4] Xiang Yu had divided the eastern state of Qi's territory into three kingdoms: Qi, Liaodong, and Jibei. However, the general Tian Rong soon reunited the three kingdoms by conquest and made himself King of Qi, although his reign didn't last long either.

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