The adviser Kuai Liang - who was noticeably more frail than usual -
coughed uncomfortably and said, “My lord, I suggest that you leave this to
Huang Zu initially. As you say, we have to be concerned about the current row
that’s brewing between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, and also our squatters in Nan
“…And at what point might I get involved…?” Liu Biao asked.
“Hopefully, never,” Kuai Liang replied. “Huang Zu’s got a lot of capable men. But if Huang were to lose any encounter - no matter how small - we would probably have to launch everything that we have at Sun Ce in a show of strength.”
Liu Biao turned to Admiral Cai Mao and said, “I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you this, but… ready your men to go north or south.”
Cai Mao bowed silently.
“…Mister Kuai, tell Mister Huang Zu to take this absolutely seriously and send only his best,” Liu Biao continued. “Liu Xun must regain what he has lost, and Sun Ce must be smashed.”
Kuai Liang bowed slightly and said, “I shall send word at once.”
Huang Zu’s court in the southern prefecture of Jiangxia was quite
different to his lord’s courts in Jiangling and Xiangyang: many of the
attendees were former pirates and hired mercenaries, and the tone was far more
informal. The ageing magnate laughed as he read the instruction letter from Liu
Biao and said, “He must be so embarrassed, that Liu Xun! Sun Ce’s robbed him of
Many of the courtiers laughed derisively.
“…But I suppose that I shouldn’t be laughing,” Huang Zu sighed. “Sun Ce’s growing stronger… stronger than the father… but can he beat the great son of a better man…?”
Huang Zu turned his gaze to his son Huang Shè, who said, “I would willingly take the fight to Sun Ce, Father.”
“You are best placed to lead this of all my sons and kin,” Huang Zu suggested. “You’ll take five-thousand men and as many hundreds of ships and boats as are needed. General Han Xi will accompany you, and the lord’s nephew Liu Hu will provide support. The lord’s other esteemed nephew, Liu Pan, and I will become personally involved should the need arise.”
“I will not be bested by Sun Jian’s runt of a cub,” Huang Shè promised.
“I shall make you proud, Father.”
“No heroics,” Huang Zu insisted. “Don’t let Sun Ce goad you into anything. Keep it simple: smash him, and then come home. The amazing Liu Xun is currently headquartered along the flats near Mount Xisai: go and rendezvous with him at once.”
Huang Shè and Han Xi bowed respectfully and left the court with their retinues; Huang Zu noticed that a scruffy man in his twenties was staring at him and asked, “Something to say, Gan Ning…?”
“I jus’ wondered why you never asked me or none o’ me lads t’go along… s’all, boss,” Gan Ning replied. “I thought that we might be kinda useful, y’know, wi-”
“I’m not so desperate as to need you at this moment in time,” Huang Zu said. “In fact, you shouldn’t even be here! Su Fei!”
The world-weary officer Su Fei exhaled loudly and replied, “My lord, Gan Ning is-”
“Don’t make me tell you again!” Huang Zu barked.
Su Fei looked at Gan Ning, who shrugged indifferently and left the hall with his allies.
“…My lord, Gan is a future talent,” Su Fei pleaded. “He’s an expert shot, a master of scare tactics, a-”
“He’s a faithless cutthroat!” Huang Zu said.
“Yes, my lord, he was, but not anymore!” Su Fei protested. “He’s learning the classics! He’s-!”
“He’s what…?” Huang Zu chortled. “Gan Ning, reading books???”