True facts wrote: Commander Zhang Wenyuan was staring at the one officer in the meeting tent, the tent with the map in it. That officer was sitting in the back chair of the map table, reading a book about the political situation during the time that the Lao Tzu was written and its consequent influence on how Taoism was conceived. Commander Zhang had walked in, his bearing as sensational as ever, and, predictably, wasn't even spared a glance.
Wenyuan was always irritated when his presence was not acknowledged, and so he attempted to elicit a response from the reader. "Heaven forbid a lieutenant tear his eyes from a completely irrelevant book for two seconds to salute his commanding officer when he walks into the strategy room."
He received a grunt and a nod -- or maybe his lieutenant was responding to something in the book. Wenyuan decided that further oration was futile, and so he walked over to the table. He leaned his hands on the table-top, looking across the table at his subordinate.
His lieutenant was in here waiting for the return of a scout, and Wenyuan had come in to check if the scout had arrived with the information about the mountain’s terrain. He'd been inspecting his troops to get a general feel for the amount of fatigue the march had caused, as well as to gauge the current morale of the troops, especially upon hearing of Yu Jin's mistake. The results of his assessment were not exactly optimal, so he had returned to the map-tent with the hope that the scout had arrived with good news. If the scout hadn't arrived, he'd kick out his subordinate and mull over the current state of his troops to see what he could do about it while he waited for the scout to arrive himself.
It seemed like the scout had not come, so all Wenyuan had to do now was to kick out the lieutenant. Since lieutenant Zhang was not responding to commander Zhang's visual or auditory presence, Wenyuan would, much to his guilty pleasure, have to resort to tactile methods.
He leaned over the table, eyes on lieutenant Zhang's head, right hand stretching to grab a piece on the map. He picked up a little carving of a foot soldier, squinted his eyes to improve his accuracy, bent his right arm at a 90 degree angle, and threw the little soldier.
The tiny soldier, flag on his back with the character for "Zhang" on it, flew through the air with breakneck speed and precision, with hardly an arc in its trajectory, testament to the thrower's years of target practice.
Bull’s-eye. His little soldier attacked his lieutenant with a smack on the side of his head. It bounced off and landed on the ground. His lieutenant hissed an "aiyou" while he cringed; grabbing the left side of his head with his left hand, while holding the bound book in his right.
Zhang Wenyuan finally received a greeting from his lieutenant.
The lieutenant had not found it necessary to turn his head from his book in order to curse his superior, however. Wenyuan's objective changed. If he could not get his officer to look at him by throwing small, carved pieces of unpolished wood at him, he could at least chase him out with them.
He looked down at the map, hunting for a particularly large piece to hurl at the man. It was then that he noticed that the pieces on the map were rearranged.
He stared at it, noting the slight position changes, the additions made via both figures and writing on the map, and the fact that he had, to his own amusement, thrown himself off of the map.
His lieutenant turned his head -- finally! Unfortunately, Wenyuan would not get to fully experience this momentous event because he was staring at the map. Lieutenant Zhang Junyi noticed that his superior was looking at the changes, and found that reason enough to put down the book. He stood up, arms behind his back, hands grabbing his elbows, and he walked around the table to stand to the right of the General.
"Yes, sir?" Junyi moved his eyes, lids heavy with either tiredness or ambivalence, to look at where Wenyuan was looking.
"The map has changed," Wenyuan declared.
"Yes," Junyi replied with a curt nod, before leaning over the table to point at the spot on the map that read "Commander" in ink, right next to the small figurine that had "Zhang 2" carved on its flag.
Junyi turned his head to look up at Wenyuan with a face that would have been blank, had Wenyuan not been especially talented at reading faces. To the untrained eye, Junyi's face was completely straight, serious, and solemn -- almost like it was sinking. To a master of human expression, his eyebrows were ever-so-slightly high; his eyelids were ever-so-slightly lower than they were when his face was actually straight. Most importantly, the corners of his mouth were ever-so-slightly raised that even Wenyuan barely noticed. This face was the face of a jackass.
"As you can see, sir," Junyi continued, "our army is no longer located at the base of Qian mountain. You threw it at me."
Wenyuan nodded thoughtfully, right hand grabbing his chin to stroke his goatee in contemplation. "This could pose a problem to the campaign."
The co-commander nodded in solemn agreement, but he was unable to stop his mouth from twitching into a grin. He walked around the right of the table to retrieve the fallen unit as Wenyuan continued to look at the map.
Mei Cheng and Chen Lan's pieces - little fat blobs carved with stupid-looking, simple faces - were now right next to each other on Qian Mountain. Written next to them, in Junyi's signature illegible scrawl, was "Joined, fortifying on Heavenly Pillar peak." A line pointed to a particularly sharp-looking peak on the mountain. Next to this peak read "20 li, one path, one man at a time."
"Well, that's lame," Wenyuan announced.
By this time, Junyi had returned with the piece representing half of their unit. He placed it back to the south of the mountain -- behind the little infantry soldier with "Yu" crudely carved on its flag.
Yu Jin was back in his starting position now -- in front of them -- and Wenyuan nodded to himself. This was not so bad, now that Mei Cheng was also on the mountain. Wenyuan turned to his lieutenant, picked up the figurine that had gotten the most action today - "Zhang" - and moved it straight up the mountain, in front of Mei Cheng and Chen Lan.
Junyi raised his eyebrows for a split-second. He was adept at communicating via eyebrow, as the officers under his command, the soldiers under his command, his friends, his superiors, his ruler, and his wife all knew.
This particular movement meant "Gee, what a surprise" in the Eyebrow Language, and Wenyuan smirked. It grew into a grin as he picked up the "Zhang 2" soldier, and pushed it up right next to "Zhang". It was a given, but he did it anyway for the reaction. He received a long, drawn-out groan as Junyi rolled his eyes upward and pinched the bridge of his nose with his left hand. His head slowly leaned towards his right shoulder, threatening to fall off of his neck.
"It won't be so bad," Wenyuan chided with his huge, wide, white-toothed grin, an instant charmer that endeared all strangers to him. Junyi was no stranger, and knew that smile was mockery. Though not as good at reading faces as his commander -- well, co-commander, really, just with a higher rank -- he still clearly understood the sass behind the smile. It was as clear in Wenyuan's narrowed eyes as it was in his own eyes just minutes before. Junyi knew he was going to have to scale the mountain's peak, too, so that wasn't the problem. The problem was that Wenyuan knew that he was acrophobic and took great pleasure in being a punk about it.
"Of course it won't be so bad to a man who's too stupid to fear anything!" Junyi's tone was sharp, much sharper than a sub commander’s voice should be. His face tightened into a bitter scowl, the bottom lids of his eyes raised, lips protruding up while the corners of his mouth dragged sharply down.
"Wuss." Wenyuan continued to smile. When he could make Junyi's tone anything besides calm, he counted it as a victory.
Another man walked into the tent on cue. His face was solemn, if not slightly ashamed, until it broke out into a smile upon the first word he heard.
Junyi smacked his face with the hand that was previously on his sinuses. "Not me," he hissed into his hand as it dragged down his face, pulling his head down with it. He looked back up at Wenyuan, face seriously serious, head tilting slightly to the left. "The troops. We don't have that many, and the path is very, very dangerous. It'll be incredibly difficult to get through to the bandits. How are you going to get them to pull this off?
Deep in the pit of his stomach, Junyi knew that Wenyuan was going to pull it off flawlessly. Wenyuan was famous for his complete disregard towards military tradition, and for his irresistible charisma. This had become clear when he climbed a mountain straight into his enemy's house, without guards, and charmed his way to a victory without any bloodshed. He met the guy's wife, the kids. . . had a chat, got him to surrender. That was unheard of, and that's why Wenyuan was one of Cao Cao's most valued commanders.
Yu Wenze, victim of a fake surrender for the first time in his life, turned to the two. . . bickering Zhangs with an amused smile on his face. He gave them both a salute, left fist in his right palm, and received two salutes in return.
"Lord Zhang, Lord Zhang," he greeted. He had a little bit of humor in him, too, though he was not in the highest of spirits.
General Yu was charming in his own right, and, despite this little mishap, was a very successful commander, and had greatly contributed to the victory over the Yuans. Wenze sat down at the map table, like any normal commander would do, so the other two also sat down at the table. Wenyuan sat at the head, Junyi to his right, and Wenze to his left.
Wenyuan stood up after about seven seconds, pushed in the chair and held his hands behind his back. His posture was perfect as he started pacing in front of the other two men. He turned to face them and cleared his throat. "If the bandits could do it, we can do it, no problem. How does this sound? 'There's a statement we have to make, and the longer we wait, the weaker we look. If we can't defeat some bandits, then how can people trust us to reunify the fractured land?'"
Junyi curled his top lip in mild disapproval. His eyebrows were slightly furrowed, and his head rocked from side to side, eyelids halfway down his eyes. Wenze's lips thinned into a line, and he shifted in his seat, crossing his legs and sliding downward. There was silence.
Wenyuan's eyes went wide as his own brow furrowed upward. His mouth was stretched to the left, and he shrugged his shoulders forward for a second. The face was the epitome of disappointment: He liked that line -- what was wrong with it?
"I like it. What's wrong with it?"
Junyi answered the question written all over Wenyuan's face with "It's too insulting. You're calling them cowards straight to their face."
Wenze certainly thought that Junyi's analysis was a bit blunt, and gave his own review. "Yes, well, by saying it like that, you're belittling the situation. The path up the mountain to Heavenly Pillar is incredibly steep, narrow, and rough. The ruffians have an advantage of a head-start -- assuming that you can't be convinced to wait until they run out of supplies instead of advancing."
Wenyuan nodded and started to pace again, trying to modify his speech. He was trying to be inspiring, and he usually got it on the first try. He wanted to convey that the men would be displaying their bravery by scaling the Heavenly Pillar peak and fighting the rebels, that the soldiers were just as good as the bandits. It would be one-on-one fighting, a narrow cliff, only one passageway to the top . . . they didn't have too many troops, but they were stronger. He could spin this as a heroic battle, an epic, like the stories and legends from the Warring States period over 400 years ago. The men would be heroes, fighting atop a mountain in the sky -- a peak that was the subject of many a surreal painting, impossibly steep, piercing through the very clouds to point to heaven. If he could articulate this, who wouldn't fight this epic?
"Before I try anything else, it would be best to get Zang Ba and Niu Gai in here. We need to hear their opinions on the situation, too." Wenyuan waved his hand in a dismissing motion, causing an annoying "scrutttttt" from the chairs of the two sitting generals as they stood up. Wenze gave a tight, formal salute, and Junyi followed suit, oddly enough. The man would go in and out of relaxation level with Wenyuan, which made him annoyingly hard to read. Wenyuan didn't know if Junyi was mainly a serious person or a relaxed person, because he could be either at any time with no reason. Wenyuan was figuring it out, though, after nine years or so -- Junyi had slipped into what Wenyuan had dubbed "officer mode". "Officer mode" was sort of like Junyi's evil twin, where his eyes were sharp, his face was solemn, his posture was straight, he sat in chairs as opposed to sprawling on them, he saluted, he followed orders and he commanded legions of loyal young men into battle. It was admirably eerie, and incredibly useful. Though Junyi would backsass him constantly, he was the perfect soldier when it counted.
Junyi left to get the two Zhangs' junior officer, Niu Gai, while Wenze went to gather Zang Ba, whom he had brought along with the suspicion that Wenyuan would decide to advance up the mountain. Alone in the tent, Wenyuan took a blank bamboo scroll, not wanting to waste expensive paper for this, and plopped it on the table in front of the chair he had previously sat in. He walked over to the center of the table, picked up the bamboo cup of water with a brush in it, and clicked his tongue when it left a water-ring on the map. He reached over the table, stretching to his limit, and placed the cup in front of the scroll. Then, he picked up the rectangular jade piece with black powder on it. He carried it over to his seat, placing it to the right of the scroll, and he pushed the cup over to the right, too. It was easier that way. Taking the brush out of the water and dipping it into the black powdered ink, Wenyuan started to formulate a motivational speech.
About ten or fifteen minutes later, four men filtered into the tent. Wenyuan put the brush back into the water and stood up to give a salute. Everyone reciprocated. He swept his left arm in an arc above the table while his right arm remained folded at the small of his back. Everyone sat down - Junyi and Wenze in the same spots as before, Niu Gai one seat further down from Junyi, and Zang Ba sitting opposite of Niu Gai.
Niu Gai and Zang Ba looked at the map. Remembering the horse ride from his unit to theirs, Zang Ba snorted when he saw the distance between the Zhangs' figures and Wenze's figure. Niu Gai knit his brows together at this, thinking that Zang Ba saw something funny -- or worse, flawed -- in the layout. As far as Niu Gai could tell, his two commanders could do no wrong, nor did they seem to do any wrong -- Niu Gai changed his mind when he saw where their pawns were on the map. His eyes widened, and he turned to look at his two commanders with an expression of shock -- borderline hurt -- on his face.
"Don't you think this is a little . . . bold?" Officer Niu asked to the empty space between the two Zhangs.
Almost before his subordinate could finish speaking, Junyi replied, "Yes. It's rash and reckless. But do you see any other option?"
Wenyuan's lips twisted into a closed smile. Junyi was convinced. But, then again, he probably secretly was from the start.
Niu Gai, though under the command of the two Zhangs, was still the third in command; second if you count the two co-commanders as one commanding entity. This gave Niu Gai confidence enough to look down at the map and, well, try to see another option.
The only thing he could think of was maybe just waiting it out until the rebels ran out of water, food, or enthusiasm and came down the mountain. He had considered, for a split-second, surrounding the bandits, but that would require one of the armies to march around the mountain range to get to the other side, and that would take an inordinate amount of time. Niu Gai would be the first to admit that he was inexperienced compared to his two commanders. He knew that arguing would earn him some respect, but he probably should have looked at the map more carefully before he complained.
"There are other options. Unfortunately, and comically in a tragic way, this seems to be the most viable one," he offered.
"Contrary to popular belief, this is not what I would consider an ideal situation," Wenyuan leaned towards the map, casting a shadow over it, towering over the two sub commanders. He pointed to his own representative figurine on the map. "But as you can see, we've decided that our unit will go up the mountain first--"
Yu Wenze stopped the man mid-sentence by placing his slightly wrinkled hand on Wenyuan's. "No, Wenyuan," the man rasped. He didn't rasp because he was old; he rasped because he was offering retribution. "Mei Cheng is up in the mountain because of my mistake, and I insist that my men and I forge the path."
The commander nodded, and General Yu removed his hand. Hand freed, Wenyuan took Wenze's piece and moved it to the top of the Qian Mountain.
With a soft grunt, Zang Ba nodded, arms crossed. "It'll be nice to see Mei Cheng's face when we catch up to him."
Junyi's mouth was slightly parted, and he exhaled, the right corner of his mouth curved upwards. It was a chuckle. "Or even better, his head on your spear." He thought that it sounded like there was consent among the course of action that they would take. That meant it was time to gather all of the officers. Troops, too. If they could do it before too long, they might be able to attack immediately -- maybe even tomorrow.
Wenze decisively stood up. He bowed to Commander Zhang, Co-Commander Zhang, Sub-Commander Niu. "We march tomorrow."
Zang Ba took the hint -- time to go back and rally the troops. Now it was time to ride a horse for about an hour. But first -- time to bow to everyone. "Have a good evening, gentlemen."
First it was Niu Gai with a solemn bow, then Zhang Wenyuan with a very official bow, and then Zhang Junyi with a kind of gentle bow. It was serious, but not solemn -- more like "good luck".
Yu Wenze and Zang Ba exited the tent in a line. A cool breeze wafted into the tent when they parted the cloth, and the natural light was just starting to fade.
Already standing up, Niu Gai took a final look at the map, and then looked at his two commanders. "Well," he started, promptly sighing to indicate his intention to get moving, "We leave tomorrow, then? I'll gather the troops," Niu Gai gave a curt salute in the Zhangs' general direction. "I will be back in no less than an hour. Then it's up to you to convince the men to climb Heavenly Pillar."
Junyi held his hands up, disassociating himself with this task, eyebrows raised with his eyes wide. Then, he returned the salute. It was slightly more relaxed, but still had an air of command.
Wenyuan grinned in absolute confidence -- confidence that was not entirely unfounded -- while he saluted. His right palm gripped his left fist, but his head didn't bow down, Wenyuan instead keeping his eyes on his subordinate. "I haven't failed you yet, have I? Dismissed."
Niu Gai smiled slightly. Wenyuan was good at making people feel comfortable, once you got to know him. However, he caught the meaningful glance that Wenyuan shot at Junyi and that Junyi ignored. Wenyuan was the kind who would be wholeheartedly charming and amicable to a man's face, but while he may honestly like that man, he would be talking about him behind his back. Junyi, though not as warmly personable, would never, ever talk about another man behind his back, not even if he disliked that man. If Junyi disliked someone, that person would know it and know it well. Only a small handful of people were in that precarious position. But if the higher ranked commander didn't like him. . .
Little did Niu Gai know that the glance had nothing to do with him, but instead was supposed to be indicating that Wenyuan had something to show Junyi. Junyi had, however, made the same mistake as Niu Gai, hence his lack of reaction to the glance, and as soon as Niu Gai left, he turned to Wenyuan with a wide mouth, slightly down turned. His eyes were disapprovingly heavy.
"No, that's not what I meant!" Wenyuan preemptively countered whatever Junyi might be about to say, based on that look. His voice was loud, but not defensive; it was excited and enthusiastic as he reached over the table to the unfurled bamboo scroll. "I said that I haven't failed him yet," he said as he held the scroll with both of his hands, in front of his chest, displaying the text to Junyi.
Junyi misjudged. Who would know that Wenyuan would have an honest, even noble thought when he gave that look? He nodded, eyes half-lidded, arms folded across his chest, a wide but shallow grin on his face. He was impressed.
“The path on Mount Qian to its peak, Heavenly Pillar, is dangerously narrow. Only one man can go at a time, up or down. We don’t have any advantage over them, but they don’t have an advantage over us, either. We’re talking about one-on-one combat on a cliff: The only ones who have an advantage are the brave.
“Show the rebels who’s braver between us! I think I know the answer, but there’s only one way that it can be proven. Do you want to prove to them – and to the world – our courage?”
Zhang Wenyuan, master of rhetoric, evoked a deafening deluge of war cries and cheers from the mass of soldiers that were lined up in the night. There were thousands.
“These rebels are nothing but cowards at heart. Don’t think that they bravely scaled a treacherous peak when in reality they scrambled up the mountain in an attempt to get away from us! They’re hiding out like squirrels that ran up a tree to avoid a cat, hoping that we’ll go away. We have a lesson to teach them about trying to out-climb these cats, don’t we?” Wenyuan swept his right arm towards and over the crowd of troops.
The response was roaring din that almost made Wenyuan cringe. Instead, he smiled wider, got louder.
“We’re heroes, and we’re going to scale the Heavenly Pillar, one by one, and tomorrow on the steep cliffs, this battle will not be among foot soldiers: tomorrow, the Warring States foot soldier role you may feel that you play will fall off of the mountain along with your enemies. Tomorrow, you are in control, and you alone will decide the outcome of this battle. Tomorrow, you take over my role as commanding officer while controlling no one. Tomorrow there is no strategy where soldiers are grouped into positions, attacking as masses of expendable numbers. The outcome of this battle is in your hands – your own two hands, not the hands of your friends. Prove yourself as a one-man army to me. Prove to Lord Zhang,” Wenyuan stretched his right arm towards Junyi for emphasis, pointing with his index and middle fingers, “to Lord Niu, Lord Yu, Lord Zang, and Lord Cao; prove to your comrades, your family, your country, and the world that you are the courageous hero that you joined the army of the Han to be!”
The cheer was unbearable. It was like torture, and there really weren’t that many of them. Still, a couple thousand people, convinced that tomorrow they’re going to be gods, would be expected to create quite a roar. The relentless barrage of harsh sound was the sound of success. Wenyuan knew the key to persuasion: he believed what he was saying, so it came out with honesty. Sure, the information about the nature of this particular battle was spun a little bit, but he didn’t say anything that could be argued against. It sounded like the troops liked him. Not bad for someone whose troops were recently incited to rebel against him.
As usual, Junyi stood tall with his arms folded behind his back, though the trademark serene, close-lipped smile was actually a grimace – a secret known only by those close enough to see it. For a man who hated loud sounds, Junyi was quite practiced in the skill of not giving a pained cry before collapsing into the fetal position with his hands covering his ears, whimpering. When the cheering calmed into excited chatter, Junyi turned his head to give Wenyuan a nod of approval.
Yes, Wenyuan had redeemed himself.
It was dark now. The ranks in the audience began performing their duty of separating the crowd into their units and herding them to the various “mess areas” – spots in the general vicinity of the tents that were big enough to allow the cooks to do their job – so that they could get a good meal in before participating in the final order of business for the night. Before the officers could silence their growling stomachs, though, they knew enough to return to where Commander Zhang had given his speech, expecting to receive further orders. They were right, of course. That’s why they were officers.
Niu Gai and the two Zhangs waited for the return of the officers. The speech was nice, and the response from the soldiers was terrific, but the cheers were never accurate. They were a result of the crowd mentality that always took hold of such a large group of people when presented with a triumph of charisma. Straightforward, personal, emotionally engaging words, confidently spoken in a pleasant cadence, enhanced by larger-than-life gesticulation never failed to temporarily inspire anyone. It was only after the listener had a chance to recover from the rally and absorb the message’s implications did they show how they were truly affected by it. In a normal situation, the crowd mentality would never even have to go away, because the soldiers would attack as a crowd against another crowd. Individual analysis – sometimes known as “doubt” – usually hindered the effectiveness of a unit. In this battle, however, the outcome would depend upon independent thought. Unfortunately, this independent thought had to come from naïve, immature, uneducated young teenagers who were used to depending upon others for their ideas, actions, motivations, passions, and morals. The very characteristics that made these children perfect candidates for soldiers might hinder the effectiveness of their attack.
It was almost a blessing that the battle could only be fought by very few soldiers at one time, because that less soldiers needed to qualify. If for some reason none of the soldiers were brave enough or passionate enough to volunteer, there were probably enough officers willing to fight. As Junyi knew, and Wenyuan had learned, the most important trait in an officer, or a soldier for that matter, was loyalty. The most powerful loyalty came in two parts; the first part a personal loyalty to and camaraderie with the officer who directly commanded him (or the occasional “it” who managed to not get discovered); the second part an idealistic loyalty towards the army’s commander, resulting from the commander’s reputation, his beliefs, the way that he treated the troops, his military history, and the way he made his first impression on the soldier while trying to recruit him. Sometimes the reasons for a soldier’s loyalty towards a man who they might never speak to were as petty as where the commander was born, or that the commander won a battle against someone that the soldier didn’t particularly like.
The first part of dependable loyalty was practical loyalty, the kind that counted during a fight and the kind that made soldiers trust their superior’s superior because their superior was as loyal to his superior as the soldiers were to him. This kind of loyalty alone, however, was dangerous, because without a central figure in common, one disloyal or discontent officer spread his dissent down his chain of command, and suddenly an entire unit had the potential to rebel. The second part of dependable loyalty, rational loyalty, ensured that when the soldiers were not fighting for their lives, their ideologically-based loyalty to the concept of their commander would always have priority over their immediate superior’s opinions or complaints, because the only time when humans didn’t base their decisions upon their esoteric beliefs was when there wasn’t time. A kid joined the army because of the commander, stayed in the army because of the commander, but fought in the army because of his comrades.
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