The 13th year of Jian An was one of those years that started out really well and then ended really shitty.
The plan, by the end of the year, was to have reunited the empire after nearly 15 years of war and social disorder. High off of their defeat of the Wuhuan and the reunification (or, in the newly-minted General who Pacifies the Di's case, the re-reunification) of the North, inspired by Liu Biao's death, enabled by Liu Cong's surrender, and emboldened by Liu Bei's latest defeat, Cao Cao had brought everyone down to the edge of the Yangtze. Cao Chun had easily nabbed Jiangling, one of the two strongholds they'd need to conquer the South, and even though Jia Xu was not too thrilled with the lack of reprieve for everyone, Cao Cao's heavyweights were all chomping at the bit to go south.
What really should have happened was that Sun Quan should have surrendered. There was no reason not to, except just wanting to stay in charge of a huge chunk of land and the people therein. Apparently his advisers were conflicted about it, but he chose not to, partly because Liu Bei had weaseled his way into the picture again.
Everyone kinda knew that relying on numbers always backfired after a critical amount was exceeded: at about 100,000 troops, you always started to see plague and you were eventually going to see famine. It didn't matter how good your generals were, sick and starving men were ineffectual fighters.
But everyone also fell into the numbers trap at least once. The 13th year of Jian An was when they did. They probably should have cut their losses at Wulin, listened to Jia Xu, gone north of the Han River, waited for a while – but they didn't. They went to the south bank of the river and engaged Huang Gai, with Zhang Liao's unit fielded in front, naturally.
Didn't work out real well for them. When the unit's ships burned with the troops on board, Cao Cao decided it wasn't worth it, so then they cut their losses and ran – or tried to. The retreat through the marshland was the worst part of the failed campaign, because it rained. Some of the commanders were better than others at rationalizing that the troops they were sending to die by ordering to lay straw so the horses wouldn't drown were going to die of the plague anyway.
By the time they reached Jiangling, though, the Sun army was tripping over itself and the immediate peril was over. Cao Ren and Xu Huang were ordered to stay there; Yue Jin was dropped off at Xiangyang. Luckily for them, the Han River didn't flood and the rest of Cao Cao's army was able to cross it.
Look, the point was that it was bad. It looked bad, it felt bad, and it opened up lots of room for Sun Quan to try to wedge in up north, such as the ensuing attack on Jiangling or supporting rebellions at the border.
By the time everyone else was marching north of the Han River, word already spread that one such rebellion was taking place in Lu County, northern Jing, west of Lake Chao. It was led by two men, Chen Lan, former officer of Yuan Shu who had surrendered to Cao Cao, and Mei Cheng, a local bandit leader. Mei Cheng had a couple thousand followers at most; Chen Lan a bit more than that.
Sending Yu Jin and Zang Ba and Zhang Liao and Zhang He after these two men might, at first glance, have seemed like overkill, but there were a few factors at play: one, it had to be shown that this defeat was not destruction, nor did it threaten the stability of the land north of the Yangtze: rebellion would not be tolerated, and any attempts would be extinguished with great flair. Two, other than this the North was fairly quiet, and there was no reason not to send all of them. Three, Sun Quan had embarrassed all of them (except Zang Ba, who had been minding the business in Qing province as usual, to Yu Jin's permanent dismay) and Cao Cao was eager to flex his intact might by having some of his best embark on a morale-boosting punitive campaign. Four, as noted in Three, this was a proxy battle with Sun Quan, who was reveling in his victory and whose aggression needed to be nipped at the bud. Five, Lu County was in an incredibly important position. They could lose Jiangling and still be secure north of the Han River, but should they lose Lu County and the protective border mountain range within – well, they would be in the situation that Cao Cao was hoping Sun Quan would be in by now.
But that was not to be. Not now, anyway. And that was fine with the Chancellor; a lot of work needed to be done to stabilize the North: fix the battered infrastructure, feed the starving people, restore faith in a government imploded by its own corruption.
Of course it would have been really nice if nearly ten years ago Zhu Ling had gotten the message to chase after Liu Bei so that the vagrant warlord wouldn't have become a problem at all – not that Liu Bei had that much of a hand in Sun Quan's victory, but he did have a hand in convincing Sun Quan to fight back instead of surrender. Intellectually speaking, Cao Cao knew that Zhu Ling tried his best, but it seemed that doing what he was told was a simply a skill that the man did not possess. He was good at what he did when he actually did what he was supposed to, and the latter part was key. Also, Cao Cao found him to be somewhat of a tryhard, as well as simply irritating in general and he just—
–"My lord!" Came two frantic voices in unison.
–"My lord?" Came a two more a quarter of a moment later, not nearly as worried.
Cao Cao occasionally suffered from dissociative migraines, and they occurred without warning. Understandably, his officers and advisers, such as the three before him, got worried when they saw him hold his head, or rub his temples, or stare out into space – the latter of which he was currently guilty.
He shook his head and waved his hand at the two commanders Zhang Liao and Yu Jin, who had both stepped out of line from the right side of the tent with worry, before briefly making eye contact with the one officer who hadn't made a move towards him, whose arms were loosely crossed in front of his chest, and who had the dullest twinkle of amusement in his eye: Zhang He.
Cao Cao brushed off Xu Chu's hand on his shoulder where it was ready to catch him should he collapse. "No, no, I'm fine. I'm just thinking about Zhu Ling." This made the line of Zhang He's mouth curve upwards.
"I thought you looked annoyed, my lord," Jia Xu commented from the left side of the tent.
Eye contact was briefly made with Jia Xu as well. By now Zhang Liao and Yu Jin had reset themselves back into line; the former bright-eyed as if nothing had happened and the latter standing even straighter than before, arms folded behind his back, staring intently at the ground. A military officer was a . . . special breed of person, often compared to tigers because of their bravery and ferocity, but also bearing a likeness to their simplicity as beasts. That was not to say such men lacked intelligence by any means; in fact it was likely the opposite. But age did not beget maturity in everyone—insomuch as maturity was a real concept, anyway. Bless their hearts, these two men were at least forty.
"Gentlemen, Lu County is currently suffering from a rebellion," Cao Cao began, "led by two men, Chen Lan and Mei Cheng. You will subjugate them. Zhang Liao, you're the commander of this campaign; Zhang He, you will be his deputy. I've appointed Niu Fu's youngest son, Niu Gai, as your new major; he will arrive soon from Jiangling." Zhang Liao grinned wide and bounced on his heels before saluting, followed in the gesture by Zhang He who still looked like an entertained observer.
"Yu Jin, I am sending you after Mei Cheng who is closer to Xu County. A messenger has been sent to inform Zang Ba to join you against him."
Yu Jin bowed at his lord, but his already dour face visibly darkened, even if his expression didn't change outright. The Zhangs both caught this.
"Hey! Your buddy!" Zhang Liao snickered in delight, causing Zhang He to politely smother his widening smirk with his sleeve.
At least forty years old apiece.