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    While Joseon was bustling with various affairs, a thundercloud that would bring a storm was growing in size north of Mount Baekdu.

    Beile[Lord title]. We have captured the traitors.”

    “Is that so?”

    Upon his subordinate’s report, Mentemu rose from his seat and stepped outside.

    In the wide yard in front of the wooden house where Mentemu resided, four bloodied men were kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, surrounded by Mentemu’s personal guards who exuded a menacing aura.

    Seated on a chair brought by his subordinate, Mentemu addressed the captives.

    “Why have you betrayed your brothers?”

    At Mentemu’s question, the man on the far right protested loudly.

    “We did not betray anyone!”

    “Did not betray?”

    “That’s right! We merely wanted to enter Joseon because it was difficult to live here! It is our nature to leave when life becomes tough!”

    “That may be true. However, betraying and killing your brothers is unacceptable.”

    The man raised his voice again at Mentemu’s words.

    “He betrayed us! When we tried to leave, he attempted to take the furs we had collected at a dirt-cheap price! So, when we protested, he drew his sword first! We only resisted to survive!”

    Mentemu shook his head at the man’s protest.

    “Those who died at your hands were the Han who led you and his brothers who held the Ming Emperor’s decree. The Han deceiving the tribesmen? Who would believe that?”

    The man spat on the ground at Mentemu’s words.

    “Ptooey! Then kill us! Why waste time if you won’t believe us anyway? There is no Han who deceives the tribesmen? Hah! Look at yourself first, Beile! You took our well-living brothers to Kaiyuan and sold them as arrow fodder in the war between the Ming and the Mongols!”

    “Kill them!”

    Enraged by the man’s words, Mentemu immediately ordered his subordinates.

    As soon as Mentemu’s command was given, the subordinates beheaded the men without hesitation.

    “Throw their corpses in the field to feed the beasts.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    At Mentemu’s order, the subordinates tied ropes to the dead men’s legs and attached the ropes to their saddles. Holding the severed heads in one hand, the subordinates mounted their horses and rode off towards the plains.

    ***

    Returning inside, Mentemu sat on a chair and let out a long sigh.

    “Huu~”

    Mentemu’s face, filled with remorse as he gazed into the distance, seemed to have aged several years.

    “Was it a mistake…?”

    The cry of the man who had just died, accusing him of selling his kinsmen as arrow fodder, kept echoing in Mentemu’s mind.

    He was well aware that this was a rumor circulating among the tribesmen these days.

    Clutching his head with both hands, Mentemu muttered.

    “There was no other choice at the time…”

    ***

    When Mentemu met Yi Seong-gye, he had just started leading the tribe. As a young tribal leader, Mentemu had made a name for himself by cleverly trapping and killing the tribe’s enemies, and releasing survivors in exchange for ransom. As the tribe grew in size, Mentemu settled in Hoeryeong and became a subordinate of Yi Seong-gye, known as the “Tiger of Liaodong.”

    After Joseon was founded and Yi Seong-gye disappeared into history, the Yongle Emperor of Ming extended his hand to Mentemu.

    However, Mentemu refused the Yongle Emperor’s proposal.

    “I will live as a Joseon subject.”

    Despite rejecting the proposal, the pressure from the Yongle Emperor intensified. Moreover, the Taejong in Gyeongseong was Taejong, not Yi Seong-gye.

    Eventually, Mentemu had no choice but to join hands with the Yongle Emperor.

    Later, when Joseon discovered Mentemu’s alliance with Ming, a series of revenge attacks followed, and the conflict between the two could only be resolved through Ming’s mediation.

    However, knowing that Joseon could attack again at any time, Mentemu had to leave Hoeryeong and head west.

    Settling in Kaiyuan, where Aruktai had established himself, Mentemu was able to expand his tribe’s size with Ming’s support.

    “If I grow the tribe like this and return to the Ussuri River, even Joseon won’t be able to act recklessly.”

    However, Ming betrayed Mentemu’s expectations.

    -If ten thousand Jurchen gather, the world cannot withstand them.

    This was a common saying in Ming.

    Knowing how the Song Dynasty had suffered at the hands of the Jin Dynasty, a Jurchen state founded by Aguda, Ming prevented the Jurchen forces from growing too powerful.

    With this goal in mind, when Mentemu’s Odoli tribe grew in strength, Ming conscripted the Odoli warriors for conflicts with the Mongols or imposed the role of a first line of defense against the southward-advancing Mongols.

    On the other hand, they also exploited the weakness of the Jurchens living in harsh environments.

    The Jurchens had to trade with Ming merchants to obtain the necessities they needed. And the Jurchen merchants who wanted to trade with Ming merchants needed a permit issued by the Ming Emperor, known as the Imperial Decree.

    With this Imperial Decree, Ming controlled and manipulated the Jurchens. If they were even slightly displeased, they would revoke or refuse to issue the decree.(Note 1)

    In the end, Mentemu had no choice but to return to the Ussuri River once again.

    “At least I returned with a thousand warriors, unlike when I barely left with five hundred. I suppose that’s a consolation?”

    Comforting himself in this way, Mentemu, who had returned to the Ussuri River, immediately sent an envoy to Joseon to inform them of his submission.

    “I will live as a loyal subject of Joseon. If necessary, you may take my son as a hostage.”

    However, Sejong refused.

    “How could I take the son of one who has received an official post from the superior state of Ming as a hostage and have him reside in Hanseong? I do not permit it.”

    Although he refused, Sejong provided Mentemu with adequate food and clothing.

    However, Mentemu, who learned of all this news through his son, could understand Sejong’s intention.

    “Yi Bang-won and his son still want my head!”

    In the end, Mentemu had no choice but to stay put in the Ussuri River.

    However, as Sejong carried out the reformation plan and strengthened national defense, Mentemu began to feel a threat to his survival.

    In particular, the news that Sejong had obtained a decree from the Xuande Emperor allowing him to reclaim the birthplace of Yi Seong-gye’s family was the worst news for Mentemu.

    After that, as the Orankhai tribes around Mentemu defected to Joseon, their territories became Joseon’s land.

    Moreover, Mentemu’s relatives, the Odoli tribes, began to surrender to Joseon one by one.

    The Mentemu tribe had become isolated.

    ***

    “Huu~. Where did I make a mistake?”

    Regretting his past actions, Mentemu soon shook his head vigorously.

    “No! I have always chosen the best course of action for the tribe! And the same goes for now!”

    Mentemu rose from his seat and went outside.

    “Chungseon! Chungseon! Where are you?”

    At Mentemu’s call, his son Chungseon came running and knelt down.

    “Did you call for me, Father?”

    “Gather your brothers by this evening and summon Pancha!”

    “Yes, Father!”

    ***

    That evening, Mentemu’s children and his half-brother Pancha gathered at Mentemu’s house.

    “The time has come for us to make a choice for the survival of our tribe.”

    At Mentemu’s words, the faces of his children and Pancha turned grave.

    After a brief silence, Pancha, representing those gathered, posed a question.

    “By choice, do you mean we will clash with Joseon?”

    “We strike them hard and retreat to Geonju. Or we can go to Kaiyuan.”

    “The fortresses built by the Joseon bastards are impregnable. And even if we gather all our warriors now, we barely exceed seven hundred. Of course, if we scrape together everyone, we can reach twenty-five hundred, but…”

    Pancha trailed off. That number of twenty-five hundred included boys who had just come of age. They knew how to handle horses, bows, and swords, but they had never experienced real battle.

    Mentemu nodded at Pancha’s point.

    “Scraping together like that will lead to great losses. But seven hundred is far from enough, so let’s at least reach a thousand.”

    “It’s still reckless.”

    “I’m well aware of that too. That’s why I…”

    Mentemu paused for a moment to catch his breath before continuing.

    “I will join hands with Manchu.”

    “You mean Manchu?” Pancha responded with an uncomfortable expression at Mentemu’s words.

    “Yes, Manchu.”

    “Beile, Manchu leads a large tribe of over ten thousand households. He won’t be easy to sway. If things go wrong, we will be the ones bleeding while Manchu reaps the benefits.”

    “I know. But there’s no other way. With the forces we have, we cannot face Joseon.”

    Chungseon, Mentemu’s son, posed a question at his father’s answer.

    “Then why don’t we simply leave this place?”

    “Regardless of the reason, our tribe is Joseon’s Fanhu (barbarians in charge of border defense). If we leave this place without reason, Joseon will pursue and kill us, claiming that we have betrayed them again.”

    “Even though you hold an official post from Ming?”

    “Joseon has the justification.”

    “…”

    Chungseon looked troubled by Mentemu’s words.

    “But will Manchu even agree to this?”

    At Pancha’s point, which he had been pondering, Mentemu provided the reason.

    “He has no choice but to agree. Since those damned Joseon bastards started cultivating ginseng, the number of Ming merchants visiting Liaodong has decreased, and they have been constantly losing out in trade. And…”

    Mentemu paused to wet his throat before revealing the most compelling reason for Manchu’s participation.

    “Manchu knows very well. That after me, it’s his turn. And that the place he is in now is closer to Joseon than to Ming.”

    At Mentemu’s words, Pancha and Mentemu’s children fell silent.

    They, too, were well aware that their tribe was now backed into a corner.

    The Orankhai tribes surrounding their tribe had already become Joseon’s faithful hunting dogs. And other Odoli tribes, who shared the same bloodline as them, were also defecting to Joseon.

    They could not be certain that even their fellow kinsmen would not slaughter them as Joseon’s spearmen and swordsmen.

    Allying with Manchu was not very appealing either. Although Mentemu said such a thing would not happen, it was almost certain that Manchu would use them as arrow fodder.

    However, there was no other choice.

    Eventually, Pancha spoke as the representative.

    “I will prepare the warriors. When do you plan to depart?”

    “We will depart tomorrow.”

    “Understood.”

    “Keep in mind that Joseon must not find out until we carry out the plan.”

    “I will bear that in mind.”

    The faces of those leaving Mentemu’s house after the meeting were filled with worry, concern, and unease.

    “Huu~”

    Pancha, who had been gazing at the sky with a long sigh, glared at the south and muttered.

    “Even when surrounding an enemy, one should leave at least a minimal path of retreat, as the military texts have taught…”

    It was a remark full of resentment towards Sejong, who forced them to choose between withering to death and dying in battle.

    ***

    The next morning, as soon as the day dawned, Mentemu set out with his escort warriors towards the Pazhu River, where Manchu’s tribe was located.

    ***

    Note 1: https://blog.naver.com/PostView.nhn?blogId=moonmogabi&logNo=70181087834&proxyReferer=https:%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

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