The years had been harsh, but also generous with the ageing Confucian scholar. After a lifetime of danger, despotic feudal lords, and chaos, he had become the de facto governor of Changan. The northern barbarians had been driven back, the ancient capital was restored to its prosperity, and a hundred thousand soldiers led by General Zhao Yun protected the region.
And now, in the year of the Wood Horse (214 AD), three decades after joining the imperial service as a rural magistrate, the world of Ching Deng Tong was coming to an end.
It had taken several years for the dreaded warlord Cao Cao to make his move, but the pieces were finally in position for a full-scale attack against Changan. In the year of the Water Snake (213 AD), General Xiaohu Dun invaded Ye Valley, while Cao Cao himself massed his troops north of the River Wei. None had dared storming the walls that The Three Great Masons built for Ching Deng Tong in Tong Pass.
Ching Deng Tong fought Cao Cao to a draw in the North Bank, but was unable to remove Xiaohu Dun from Ye Valley. Hopes of receiving help were gone when Ching's feudal lord, noble prince Liu Bei, found himself fighting in two fronts against Liu Zhang and Sun Quan.
Winter gave Ching some time to assess his situation. It was obvious that Liu Bei would not come to his help, and that Cao Cao would continue his pincer attack as soon as the snows went away. The end was as predictable as it was certain.
In the War Room, Zhao Yun suggested escaping to Liu Bei's holdings through Ye Valley. The army would keep Xiaohu Dun in check, buying enough time for them.
Ching Deng Tong, however, had other plans.
During his many journeys, he had met the leader of an assassins' clan. As part of a deal with the Snake Master, Ching Deng Tong's first son, Zhi Jung, received a concubine from the clan: Lian Xin. She was the liaison between both families whenever something needed to be done.
Ching planned that his family would secretly escape through the mountains, with help from Lian Xin's clan. Meanwhile, Zhao Yun would take fifty thousand troops and, pretending to desert Ching Deng Tong, break through Xiaohu Dun's lines and escape--Liu Bei would certainly appreciate the reinforcements.
Twenty thousands troops, mostly peasants and wounded soldiers, remained in Changan... and so did Ching Deng Tong.
As soon as Cao Cao learned that Zhao Yun was gone, he prepared to assault Changan. A messenger was dispatched asking for Ching Deng Tong's surrender. Cao Cao wanted Ching's head, but he was willing to spare the rest of the city and the troops.
The old Confucian scholar agreed, with one condition...
Though he was the governor of a large region, Ching Deng Tong was also known as the best Xiang Qi player in all of Han. It was a title he had claimed in a tournament many years ago, back when the bloodthirsty tyrant warlord Dong Zhuo was neither bloodthirsty nor a tyrant (just a warlord). The only time that Cao Cao and Ching Deng Tong played against each other before had been an inconclusive draw.
Ching Deng Tong offered to surrender the city, but only if Cao Cao played with him one last time. For the former, it was the opportunity to see if he could beat the only opponent he had never defeated. For the latter, it was the opportunity to claim the title. The temptation was too big for both men.
And so, both enemies sat around a chess board in the palace, surrounded by their officers. Ching Deng Tong gave his best, and so did Cao Cao.
One hour into the game, Cao Cao was having trouble concentrating, but he noticed that his opponent speed of play had accelerated. This was unusual for Ching Deng Tong, so Cao Cao gave him a puzzled look. What he saw froze his blood.
Ching Deng Tong was sweating, slightly shaking, and breathed with difficulty. The governor's skin was also paler than usual. Cao Cao knew very well what that meant.
He looked at his own cup of bitter green tea...
"Guards! Bring me my doctors!" yelled in panic.
With his last energies, Ching Deng Tong made the final move, smiled at Cao Cao, and told him: "There is more than one way to win the great game."