The demoralising effect of Huang Zu’s retreat was compounded further by
two pieces of news from the river. Firstly, Huang Zu’s sons were dead and his naval
fleet had been decimated; secondly - and no less serious militarily - Liu Hu’s
attempts to sneak around the Jiangdong fleet had been foiled by Han Dang and Hè
Qi, and Hu had been killed as well.
“White clothes, white clothes,” Huang Zu mumbled as Liu Pan tried to rouse a more useful response from him. “White clothes… we’ll both need… white… to mourn… but what do I tell my wife…? What do I tell the lord…? How do I face my ancestors???”
“You must evacuate your family from Shaxian at once,” Liu Pan implored. “I will get the white clothes, just-!”
“It’s not your place to do such mundane things,” Huang Zu said. “Is there not a man that can do it for you…?”
“That’s what I meant!” Liu Pan cried desperately.
The sudden outburst broke Huang Zu out of his semi-trance: he shook his head briefly and said, “You… yes, yes, I know. Forget white clothes: if we all don’t want to end up in coffins, then I need to be the man that I am! Who is in command of the defences? Where is Sun Ce? Any word from Lord Liu…?”
“Su Fei commands our forces while I am here,” Liu Pan replied. “Sun Ce has come here personally, bringing with him most of his forces. The rivers are blockaded, and we have yet to receive word from Uncle.”
“…But can he spare Cai Mao when Cao Cao looms large…?” Huang Zu said. “It… it is simply the case that in my complacency I have not acquired any heroes lately, while Sun Ce has them by the bushel. But I still have Zhang Shuo, Chen Jiu, Su Fei, tens of thousands of men and my own wits, and that is enough.”
“…Su Fei continually speaks well of Gan Ning,” Liu Pan said apprehensively. “Perhaps he-”
“Gan Ning is a cutthroat, a man that cannot be trusted,” Huang Zu insisted. “He’d sell my head to Sun Ce for a jar of cheap wine.”
“…Perhaps it is as you say,” Liu Pan replied. “I’ll go and reassume command and try to calm the men.”
“I shall join you shortly,” Huang Zu promised.
In nearby Yuzhang Prefecture in southwest Yang Province, the reappointed
Administrator, Hua Xin, observed the reports on the battles between Liu Biao and
the Sun clan with contempt.
“I was made to surrender, but I don’t see why I should have,” Hua Xin said to his court, which now largely agreed with him. “Sun Ce and Huang Zu are surely the enemies of Heaven, with all of their pointless wrangling for things that aren’t theirs!”
“We should watch our words,” one official suggested.
“I’ll be silent no more!” Hua Xin replied. “Any sane man can now see that Sun Ce is a violent hegemon, and Liu Biao is little better.”
“What can we do…?” a second official asked.
“My only thought now is to appeal to the Han court,” Hua Xin said. “I intend to write to His Excellency Cao Cao, stressing that the madness in this region has gone on long enough! And if that doesn’t work, I’ll write to His Majesty!”
The majority of the officials voiced their agreement with the decision: one of the few men that did not agree was anxious to leave the meeting and report Hua Xin’s intentions to Bofu as soon as possible.
“…Aiee… All is lost.”
Huang Zu let his weathered battle helmet fall from his hand: Bofu’s forces had surrounded Shaxian’s main settlements, blockaded every road and water supply and started to pressurise the gates of the camp.
“Then aren’t we fools to stay here…?” Liu Pan asked.