Two days passed; word of Yan Xiang’s death reached the Qian Hills, where
Chen Lan and Lei Bo - two of the leaders of the confederacy of bandits that
were named for the place and both of them former officers under Yuan Shu -
addressed their subordinates with glee.
“Yan Xiang’s dead now, which means we can get back to what we were doing,” Chen Lan said. “Sun Ce doesn’t seem to care about us: all the same, we’ll team up with Mei Qian’s lot. There’s still a lot of rewards to be had around the river, and we don’t want to miss out!”
The bandits cheered at the news.
“…What if Cao sends someone else…?” Lei Bo asked.
“Liu Xun…?” Chen Lan retorted.
Lei Bo laughed and said, “You’re right! Who can he send…?”
>“…This is intolerable,” Cao Cao growled as he absorbed the news that Yan
Xiang was dead and that any semblance of order in northern Lujiang and northern
Jiujiang was on the verge of collapsing altogether. The news could not have
come at a worse time, as Yuan Shao was advancing southward and Cao Cao was
looking to check his advance at the Yellow River; Cao slammed his palm against
his leg and cried, “Sun Ce didn’t even give me the chance to negotiate…!”
“You may go,” the adviser Xun Yu said to the messenger, who retreated immediately.
“…But it makes clearer the meaning of a letter that was brought here just a few hours ago,” Guo Jia said. “The letter - from Sun Ce, supposedly - says that he ‘apologises’ for the actions of his general, but that it is his understanding that Li Shu acted correctly when he followed the discretional notion that ‘an officer in the field should not always wait for approval, and act in a timely manner’ if he is faced with a need to ‘quell a perceived threat’. He hopes that you understand.”
“Oh, I understand,” Cao Cao muttered.
“Are we certain that Yan Xiang didn’t provoke this…?” the adviser Chen Qun asked.
“As a veteran of dealing with Yuan Shu’s advisers, I know what Yan
Xiang can be like.”
“Sun Ce’s in Jiangxia, fighting Huang Zu, and has had no time to ‘react to anything’,” Xun Yu scoffed. “This was planned.”
“I agree, Uncle,” Xun Yòu said. “And it has to be said that some interpret Sun Ce’s ‘requests’ - made in his own petition to His Majesty, which includes the suggestion that his friend Lü Fan should be or is in his opinion already appointed as Administrator of Guiyang - as belligerent, arrogant and, indicative of an ambition to rule the south.”
“Guiyang…?” Chen Qun exclaimed. “I didn’t know about that. Guiyang’s one of Liu Biao’s semi-autonomous prefectures in southern Jing.”
“Sun Ce’s famous father, Sun Jian, pacified a rebellion there twenty years ago or thereabouts,” Guo Jia noted. “And Sun Jian was also made the Administrator of neighbouring Changsha for a short time, so I suspect some further ‘claim of rights’ here.”
“The weight of evidence is considerable,” Xun Yòu said. “What, then, do we do…?”
“Li Shu isn’t the only general that can ‘act in a timely manner’,” Cao Cao replied. “I had pondered this course, but now I am pushed to it…”
“I suspect that I know what you’re going to do, Excellency, but that’s not going to help us restore order in northern Yang,” Xun Yòu said. “Who can we send now…? Who can be the Inspector of Yang Province and survive…?”