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Book 19 Chapter 2 - Distilling Spirits, Discussing Wine
This night, the Wu family residence put on a magnificent feast, in honor of Jing Jun's impending marriage. As a side-benefit, they also celebrated Xiang Shaolong's fierce defeat of Lu Buwei's vile schemes.
Aside from their own people and Qin Qing, the only outsiders present were Lords Changping and Changwen, w.a.n.g He, w.a.n.g Ling, Huan Yi, Li Si, Yang Duanhe, and a few others.
The most amazing thing was that Lu Dan'er managed to sneak out as well to join the celebration. Naturally, she and Jing Jun became the b.u.t.t of their good-natured jokes and added to the festivities.
Just as the festivities were reaching its peak, Wu Yingyuan joyfully shouted, "Recently, I won a large sum of money, and have been vexed as to how I should spend it all. Friends, do you have any suggestions?" w.a.n.g He laughed, "This is the vexation of all gamblers. When they have money, all they can think about is how to spend it. But when they lose and owe others money, they have to painfully sc.r.a.pe it together from various sources. But of course! Mr. Wu's wealth matches that of an entire nation. Naturally, he only suffers from the first vexation!"
Everyone roared with laughter, aside from Huan Yi, whose lips pursed.
Seeing the situation, Xiang Shaolong suddenly came up with an idea. "Why don't we spend this money by helping little Yi outfit his rapid-response army!"
Everyone unanimously acclaimed the idea, but also felt it was a bit inappropriate.
Lord Changping asked, "Little Yi, you haven't yet told us what happened when you met with Lu Buwei."
Huan Yi let out several sighs before speaking. "When it comes to playing tricks, how can I be a match for that slippery old bandit? Although I agreed to propose to the court tomorrow morning that Meng Tian and Meng Wu be made my a.s.sistant commanders, he still uses the construction of the ca.n.a.l as an excuse for only gradually increasing my rapid-response army's funding. This clearly is for the sake of pressuring and controlling me."
Everyone felt a ma.s.sive headache oncoming upon hearing these words. Lu Buwei was tightly grasping the purse strings of the kingdom, and using it to control the armies in a roundabout way. Any army setting out on an expedition or which required additional funding had to go through his permission and meet his demands.
Of the people present, Li Si was the most familiar with their national financial situation. He reminded, "Mr. Wu, why don't you offer this sum of money to the Crown Prince? The Crown Prince can place the money in his royal treasure and use it whenever an outlay of funds is needed, rather than needing to go through Lu Buwei and dealing with his blandishments."
Filled with a heroic aura, Wu Yingyuan said, "That's easy enough. I can add an additional sum of money on top of it as well and make the royal treasury very impressive indeed. As long as it causes difficulty for Lu Buwei, there is nothing that I, Wu Yingyuan, am not willing to do."
Everyone shouted in support.
As they were still discussing the details of the matter and were filled with optimism, w.a.n.g He let out a sigh. "All my life, I, w.a.n.g He, have only admired three people. Generals Bai Qi, Li Mu, and Lian Po. Bai Qi was ruthless and cunning, and Lian Po is unshakeable and profound. But when it comes to a divine-like ability to direct armies and unspeakably brilliant military tactics, Li Mu is the best. Even though the country of Zhao has lost Lian Po, so long as it has Li Mu, Great Qin will find it difficult to easily subjugate Zhao.
Curious, w.a.n.g Ling asked, "Everyone is filled with joy and happiness tonight. Ole' He, why must you suddenly be so gloomy?"
Under everyone's curious gaze, w.a.n.g He forced out a laugh. "Because I just received a message from the country of Wei. King Anli has fallen ill. This led me to remember that Lian Po's days are numbered as well, which saddens me."
Jing Jun didn't understand. "I've heard that King Anli was never willing to put Lian Po's services to good use. His pa.s.sing should only bring benefit to Lian Po. Why do you say that Lian Po's days are numbered as well?"
Also surprised, Tao Fang remarked, "Lian Po is currently residing at Lord Xinling's residence. Clearly, he has a very close relationship with Prince Wuji. If King Anli pa.s.ses away, Lord Xinling will become the most powerful man in Wei. When the river rises, the boat rises with it. Lian Po's situation will only improve, not worsen. Great General, why do you suggest otherwise?"
w.a.n.g He saw that all of the onlookers seemed befuddled. Only Ji Yanran alone seemed to understand his thoughts. A gloomy look shooting forth from his eyes, he mournfully said, "As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. Although I have always faced Lian Po across the field of slaughter as enemies, seeing him fall to such a state causes me great pain. As to why I have this view of things, I am sure Learned Lady Ji already knows. I'd like to ask the Learned Lady to explain to everyone!"
Everyone present knew that Ji Yanran had lived in Daliang for a long period of time, and was clearly informed as to the going-on's of that place. Everyone's eyes turned towards her.
A lost, chilly look had already appeared in the eyes of this learned, world-famous beauty. Her fragrant lips gently sighed. "If King Anli is about to die, Prince Xinling will not long survive him. After Lian Po loses his source of support, the only option he will have is to flee Wei and depart. Although the people of Chu have Li Yuan, they are too satisfied to simply hold their current territories. It is likely that Lian Po will never accomplish anything ever again.
Only now did everyone understand.
Based on King Anli's temperament, in the days before his death, he would come up with vicious ways to murder Lord Xinling or force him to his death somehow. Otherwise, the Crown Prince of Wei would find his position difficult to maintain. When it comes to a struggle over royal power, there would be no mercy or humanity.
Xiang Shaolong suddenly thought of Lord Longyang. He would naturally be a member of the Crown Prince's clique. With King Anli's illness, Lord Longyang would naturally now be in the middle of a fierce, ferocious life-and-death battle. This was a battle of either total victory or total defeat. There wouldn't be the slightest bit of gray.
Huan Yi respectfully asked w.a.n.g He for more advice. "Elder General w.a.n.g, earlier, you said that Bai Qi was a hair inferior to Li Mu. Might I ask why you say this? All know that he has never lost a battle. Over thirty seven years of war, he had conquered over seventy cities and displayed his power. He understood his enemies and was extremely adaptable, filled with endless stratagems and never once tasting defeat. At the battle of Changping, he feigned a retreat to lure the opponent in, then encircled and cut them off. This strategy resulted in victory in a single swoop, causing Zhao to be dramatically weakened. Who can compare with his accomplishments in that single short battle?"
Huan Yi clearly held a tremendous amount of esteem for that elder, now-deceased general, Bai Qi. He couldn't resist from speaking in Bai Qi's defense.
A nostalgic look appeared in w.a.n.g He's eyes. He slowly said, "Bai Qi was the princ.i.p.al commander at the battle of Changping. I was the subordinate commander. At this time, that was a highly cla.s.sified secret. The late king had actually issued an order: 'Anyone who reveals the presence of Bai Qi, the Lord of Martial Peace, is to be executed.' The people of Zhao did not know that the commander of our army was actually the Lord of Martial Peace. This was a tactic which Bai Qi often employed. In order to use it successfully, he would refrain from nothing."
Xiang Shaolong felt a very peculiar sensation in his heart.
For a man of the twenty first century to return to the ancient Warring States period and listen to a famous general like w.a.n.g He slowly narrate that most critical, most pivotal of battles, was a difficult-to-describe feeling.
The battle of Changping could be said to be the most commonly-discussed battle by people of this era. Aside from the people of Zhao, who were unwilling to discuss that heart-breaking event, everyone else talked about it nonstop. But as they listened to w.a.n.g He, who had actually partic.i.p.ated in the battle as an important general on the Qin side, everyone present felt a sense of awe towards him, and felt all the more interested and thrilled to listen.
w.a.n.g He sighed. "Lian Po really did grow even more unyielding with age. He knew that I was in a strong position and he was in a weak one. He diverted all of his efforts into defending, with the goal of exhausting my armies. It appeared to be a conservative decision, but actually it was an entirely wise one. You must understand, Changping is surrounded by natural barriers. It really is an un-paralleled defensive hub. Before the battle of Changping, Bai Qi and I came to a strategic agreement. First, we would attack the country of Han. Bai Qi would take the lead in occupying the border between Han and Wei, a strategic point, while I would attack from the north and charge towards Changping. But the opposing general, Lian Po, had already foreseen our actions and made preparations. He had already ordered that defensive structures be emplaced and stockpiled large amounts of food. He was prepared to engage with us in a long, grinding battle.
w.a.n.g Ling nodded. "Lian Po really is full of schemes. Not only did he cause our grand army to be faced a fortified region against which an army would be useless, he also constantly sent people out to hara.s.s and attack our supply lines, causing our armies to run short on rations and supplies. At the time, I was in charge of providing our reinforcements with their supplies. In the meantime, Lian Po was waiting at his ease for us to collapse of exhaustion. He had built that st.u.r.dy defense line as well as a solid line of communication between him and their capital, Handan. This put us in an extremely unfavorable position. The Zhao king, Xiaocheng, was young and brash and thought that Lian Po had grown timid in his old age. He fell prey to rumors of dissension which we sowed. He underestimated us and arrogantly replaced Lian Po with Zhao Kuo. If he hadn't done those things, it most likely would have been we who would have been defeated. Thus, the Battle of Changping was determined by King Xiaocheng's erroneous decision in replacing generals. The military strategies of the Lord of Martial Peace played only a secondary role."
w.a.n.g He continued to explain, "This old warrior is still filled with the utmost admiration for Great General Bai. But a formidable ruler will have formidable ministers. The late king relied heavily on Bai Qi from the very beginning. Starting from the rank of senior minister, after two years, he ascended to the rank of supreme commander of our forces. And the Lord of Martial Peace never let the late king down. In his second year of commanding the army, he used his world-shaking armored mounted chargers at the battle of Yique to shatter the combined Han-Wei army of over two hundred and forty thousand troops with barely a third of their number and capture their general, Gongsun Xi. The country of Wei lost all five of its western provinces. The next year, he successively attacked Wei's former capital, Anyi, as well as sixty one nearby cities. This is why Wei, formerly the most powerful of all the states, has now been reduced to tottering on its last legs."
A look of deep respect appeared in Lord Changping's eyes. Sighing, he said, "Such amazing exploits are rarely seen indeed. Why is it that you still believe him to be inferior to Li Mu?"
w.a.n.g He shook his head, smiling bitterly. "The reason that the Lord of Martial Peace was able to enjoy such unprecedented success was because his tactics and stratagems were also unprecedented in their ruthlessness. After every victorious battle, he would slaughter every single captured enemy soldier so as to weaken his opponent's strength. Although this is the most formidable of tactics, it isn't a tactic which others are incapable of carrying out. In addition, it goes against the laws of heaven. It's far inferior to Li Mu's calm magnanimity. Compared to Li Mu, he is still slightly inferior.
Only now did everyone understand why it was that in w.a.n.g He's heart, Bai Qi still could not match Li Mu.
Li Mu was able to cause his enemy's leading general to be filled with admiration towards him. From this alone, one could tell how formidable he must be.
Li Si sighed. "The Battle of Changping really was the critical pivot point where Great Qin swung from a position of weakness to a position of strength. Who would have thought that the son of Zhao She, who had inflicted such a dramatic defeat on our armies in years past, would prove to be so useless. The battle which Zhao She won was the only defeat which the Lord of Martial Peace ever suffered."
Blushing, Huan Yi said, "I never considered that battle to be Bai Qi's defeat."
w.a.n.g He said with great sincerity towards Xiang Shaolong, "The reason this old warrior suggested to the Crown Prince that you be promoted to the rank of Great General was for you to serve as a counter to Li Mu. When I look about me at the generals of Qin, only you and w.a.n.g Jian could give Li Mu a good tussle. Although w.a.n.g Ling and I both have a high reputation, we lack the ability you have of making soldiers willing to give their lives for you.
Deep inside, Xiang Shaolong laughed bitterly. He might be able to deal with others, but with Li Mu? Even if he could harden his heart to do so, the chances for success were slim. But hatefully, this was something which would happen sooner or later.
Lord Changping nodded. "The Great General's words are like an arrow that flies straight to the mark. Recently, Li Mu has annihilated over a hundred thousand Xiongnu hors.e.m.e.n, then forced several barbarian tribes in Donghu and Linhu to surrender. He has forced Chanyu [the traditional t.i.tle for the Xiongnu leader] w.a.n.g of the Xiongnu into a very difficult position. In the short term, he won't be able to infringe upon Zhao territories. In a time of chaos and danger such as we are in now, no matter how suspicious and jealous Empress Jing and Guo Kai might be of Li Mu, they'll be forced to recall him and have him defend the eastern borders."
Li Si calmly said, "Aside from General Li Mu, the country of Zhao have two other major generals as well; Pang Yuan and Sima Shang. For the moment, Guo Kai is still suppressing Li Mu with all his might. But once Pang Yuan and Sima Shang taste the sting of defeat, the time for Li Mu's return will draw near."
Xiang Shaolong's admiration for Li Mu increased even more. Even such a ferocious general such as w.a.n.g He seemed to turn pale when even mentioning Li Mu's name. From this, one could tell that he really was an extraordinary hero.
Everyone discussed this for a while longer before they all departed.
When he woke up the next morning, Xiang Shaolong first painstakingly practiced his sabre style for a while before leaving the manor with Ji Yanran. The latter was heading out for the sake of preparing for the Black Dragon's appearance during the Spring Sacrifices. If anything went wrong, they would become the greatest laughingstocks of the world.
Li Si had already informed Xiao Pan in advance regarding Wu Yingyuan's donation to the imperial coffers and Huan Yi needing financial support for the outfitting of his rapid-response army. Thus, he didn't need to see Xiao Pan immediately, and proceeded directly to the morning court, saving much time.
Xiang Shaolong suddenly felt incomparably relaxed. Ever since King Zhuan's murder, good things and bad things had come crashing forward in waves, starting with the imperial hunt, then the trip to the country of Chu, followed by the battle just two nights ago. He had been so busy that he hadn't even had the chance to take a breath. But at this moment, the pressure was greatly relieved.
For the near future at least, there shouldn't be anything particularly troublesome.
He could be considered somewhat pitiable. Aside from those few short days of bliss when he first arrived and lived with Mei Canniang, he hadn't been able to whole-heartedly enjoy this marvelous life in the past which had been given to him.
Just as his thoughts began to wander, the sound of hoofsteps behind him could be heard.
Xiang Shaolong and the Eighteen Guardians simultaneously turned their heads. It was Lao Ai. Behind him was Han Jie, and behind them was a large group of their followers, clearing a path for them.
In terms of style and air, Xiang Shaolong did appear a bit inferior.
Lao Ai turned in towards Xiang Shaolong. Laughing, he said, "Official Xiang, why did you leave out your younger brother and not invite me to last night's banquet?"
Xiang Shaolong felt extremely awkward. As he busily greeted Han Jie and the others, he suddenly managed to come up with an answer. Smiling, he said, "How could that be considered a banquet? It was just that Lord Changping spontaneously decided to throw me a congratulatory party, and forced the w.a.n.g generals to come as well. But the food and wine they drank all belonged to me, and they took full advantage of it! Official Lao, please don't blame me; if you must blame someone, blame that dratted Left Premier!"
Hearing his amusing words, Lao Ai, Han Jie, and everyone else present roared with laughter. The atmosphere became, at least superficially, much more friendly.
Lao Ai laughed so hard that he began to pant for breath. "Official Xiang's eloquence can perhaps match that of Su Qi and Zhang Yi. You make it impossible for your younger brother to blame anyone. By the by, I also wish to apologize to you. The other night, Qiu Risheng decided of his own accord to act so audaciously. Your younger brother has already severely scolded him. I hope that Official Xiang won't take it to heart."
Xiang Shaolong secretly cheered. He knew that Lao Ai had decided to focus on Lu Buwei as his principle enemy, which is why he had so humbly and courteously came to mend fences with him. Laughing, he said, "Sometimes, subordinates just aren't very obedient. Oh! Why hasn't Guo Xing come to report to me yet?"
Behind them, Han Jie laughed. "I'm the one who is the most familiar with this matter. Before ten days or half a month or so has pa.s.sed, none of his seals, stamps, or regalia will be ready. How could he dare to visit you before then?"
By this point in time, the palace gates could be seen. Catching Xiang Shaolong by surprise, Lao Ai said, "In short, the Drunken Wind Pavilion has recently been graced with the presence of a song-and-dance troop of world-cla.s.s beauties. Official Xiang, tonight, you simply must come to the Drunken Wind Pavilion with me and get drunk with me. If you refuse, it means that you do not consider me, Lao Ai, as your friend."
Xiang Shaolong secretly said, "b.a.s.t.a.r.d, I've never considered you to be my friend." But naturally, he couldn't reveal those thoughts. Forcing out a smile, he said, "If my wife, Ji Yanran, scolds me for not coming home and staying out late at night, then I'm afraid that you, the Inner Custodian, will have to bear the brunt of her displeasure."
Lao Ai couldn't help but laugh. "I never knew that Official Xiang was so witty! Alas! I wish night would come sooner, so that I might enjoy a few cups of wine with you. Tonight at dusk, your younger brother will respectfully await your honored presence at the Drunken Wind Pavilion."
Xiang Shaolong secretly grumbled to himself. His hope was the exact opposite of Lao Ai's. He hoped that it would forever be day, so that he wouldn't have to spend an entire night putting on a false, hypocritical display of friendship with Lao Ai.