Title: That story is not true.
Day/Theme: Feb. 16 - "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss"
Series: Woxin changdan/The Great Revival
Character/Pairing: Gou Jian, Fan Li, Wen Zhong
"Majesty, General Xia has sent a messenger to say that Fan Li was recently seen in the vicinity of---"
The King raised a tired hand. Zhu Ji Ying stopped.
"We're not interested in Fan Li's whereabouts or his actions. Tell General Xia as much."
"Your Majesty!" Shi Mai protested. "Fan Li is a disloyal minister and rebellious subject. If he takes service in another country--"
"Fan Li does what he feels he must to protect his lady. We do not fault him for it. And we doubt he'll serve in another country when he wouldn't serve in ours."
Wen Zhong looked away, from natural delicacy as much as his own painful memories, and noted that all the others did the same. Shi Mai bowed his head and fell silent.
"Ye Yong," the king said. "About the new irrigation canal---" The council meeting continued with its detailed business: reports, discussion, the king's brief commands. It was a while later that Ku Cheng came hastily in, wide-eyed and tight-mouthed, and bent to whisper in the king's ear. Gou Jian's face went still and Wen Zhong's heart sank. Oh dear, what now?
"Send him in," the king said.
The messenger's step sounded on the wooden floor behind the councillors. Wen Zhong's head jerked round. Fan Li walked between them with his old composure, flipped his sleeves aside with his old panache- the one that looked so close to impertinence- and kowtowed with deliberate grace. Wen Zhong wanted to stamp his foot and bellow.
Mad-- the fool is mad. Does he think there's no limit to the king's patience?
The king spoke. "Get up."
Fan Li got up.
"Why are you here?"
Fan Li's hands lifted outwards in patent surprise. "Where else is there for your servant to go?"
"Wherever he was going when he left us in Wu."
"Ah. I went there," Fan Li said happily, "and now I'm back."
"Fan. Li." Wen Zhong closed his eyes as the quiet syllables dropped into the silence. Don't try him, you *imbecile*. You must have heard what happened. "Where were you?"
Fan Li took a deep breath and let it all out suddenly. Some of the jauntiness of his manner went with it. "I went to a valley between the mountains, somewhere near the border of Wu and Yue. A small valley, off the main roads, and so remote I'm not even sure which country it belongs to, if either."
"If either?" The king cocked a mildly disbelieving head.
"Ah." Fan Li looked away. "It's a long story. Do I have the king's permission to tell it?"
And make it good, Wen Zhong thought, clenching nervous fists. Your neck may depend on it.
Fan Li took another breath and began, perhaps unconsciously falling into an easy story-teller's style: "Many years ago your Majesty sent me to find all the most beautiful women in Yue. I travelled through the country, following the gossip and people's tales. Someone told me of a notable beauty who lived near the mountains and I set out for her village. But I couldn't find it- either the directions were wrong or I lost my way unnoticing. I came to a stream that took me into a small valley, very green and apparently empty; but at last I came across an old man sitting under a cherry tree, drinking from a gourd and looking at the blossoms. I asked if he'd heard of this woman. 'I know no one of that name,' he said. 'Why are looking for a beautiful woman here in the rough countryside?' He wasn't a farmer or a rustic, but he didn't have the air of a scholar either. But he seemed a man of intelligence and education, so I told him that the king was looking for the most beautiful woman in Yue to send as a present to the King of Wu.
'The most beautiful woman of our country as gift to a powerful king,' he said, and smiled oddly. 'One like that can't just be found, good sir. She must be created.' I said that of course the woman would receive the best training the court could offer, to be a proper companion and solace to so glorious a king." Fan Li smiled briefly- "Since I wasn't entirely sure which country I was standing in just then, it behooved me to be tactful. But he shook his head. 'Men may be distracted by the charms of the flesh, but it takes more than that to captivate and solace a man's heart, and a king most of all.'
'Well,' I said, 'one does the best one can. Our country has suffered much these last years and we need the good will of the king of Wu.'
'That's true,' he said, nodding. 'Drought and flood, fields withered or drowned; sons killed in battle and their parents and own children starving at home. The land needs healing. Therefore,' he said, as he stood up with the aid of his staff, 'let the land heal itself.'
'Easily said,' I began, but he cut me off angrily. 'You talk too much. What was the king thinking, to send a light fellow like you on this work? Hold your peace and watch.' He raised his staff in the air." Fan Li stopped, eyes going distant with memory. "I don't know how to describe this. The petals of the cherry went whirling up in the air, but I could see the petals still on the tree. White mist drew up from the valley and hazed a portion of the sky, but I could see the sky still warm and clear through it. The dark water of the brook rose above me in a great sheet, but I could see the brook flowing undisturbed by my feet. And the pale red and the white and the black came down together on the land, and there suddenly was a woman, dressed in a green robe the colour of the grass she stood on. And I looked at her, and... And--" Fan Li stopped again. It was clear his eyes no longer saw the hall about them. He said, very simply, "And that was the woman Xi Shi that I brought back to your Majesty."
The courtiers were staring at him, but the king only said, "And where is Xi Shi now?"
"I took her back to the valley that birthed her. 'Return her to this place when her work is done,' the Immortal told me. 'It will hurt the land's spirit to be too long in an alien form.' I did that, and before my eyes she--" His mouth moved for a moment without sound. "--she went back to mist and water and flowers."
"I see." The king paused, eyes moving over Fan Li's downturned face. "You've suffered much in our service, Advisor. Are you willing to stay with us still?"
"Where else is there for your servant to go?" Fan Li said, and sighed. "But your servant-- Your servant is very tired. I would ask to be allowed to rest for a little while."
"Certainly. Rest and refresh yourself and come again to see us when your strength has returned."
"I thank your Majesty." Fan Li clasped his hands before his head, bowed, and took his leave. Wen Zhong watched his friend's departing back and bit thoughtfully at his lower lip.
There was a small silence as Fan Li's footsteps faded. Then the king spoke again.
"Find where Fan Li is staying and send the royal healer to see what can be done for him."
"General Zhu. Tell General Xia to investigate and find out what happened to Xi Shi." General Zhu bowed obedience, but Wen Zhong stepped forward and held up his tablet.
"Your Majesty, Fan Li just told us what happened to Xi Shi. Why do you not believe him?"
The king gave an unhappy snort. "Fan Li's grief has sent him mad." There were subdued murmurs of agreement from the others. "It's not like you to deny facts, Wen Zhong. It's no help to us if you deny them now."
"It's not Wen Zhong who's denying the facts here, but your Majesty."
The king said, with dangerous mildness, "You think this... fairytale... you think it true?"
Wen Zhong nodded decidedly. "Of course it is. If your Majesty wishes, I can prove it."
The king sat back. "Do so."
Wen Zhong bowed and turned to Ye Yong. "Councillor, please describe Xi Shi's appearance."
Ye Yong looked doubtfully at the king and then back at Wen Zhong. "Describe her? Well, ah, small, plump, with a round face like the moon, but rosy, not pale--" There was a gasp from Ku Cheng. Ye Yong turned in surprise. "What's the matter?"
"Ku Cheng?" the king said.
"Your pardon-" the king's servant stammered. "This person thought her tall for a woman- almost as tall as the Advisor- and middling in form, not plump..."
"She was thin!" Zhu Ji Ying exclaimed. "A man's hands could go easily around her waist--"
"Ji Ying, you speak out of turn."
"Your pardon, Majesty-" Zhu Ji Ying bowed in confusion.
"Go on, Ku Cheng. What about her face?"
"Y-yes, Majesty. With respect, Councillor-" he bowed to Ye Yong- "I found her face oval-shaped, with the cheekbones high and sharp, but delicate. Her colour- her colour was pale- but there was the slightest blush to her cheeks, like a peony blossom..." His voice trailed off and his gaze went inward, unaware of the shiftings and confused murmurs of the courtiers around him. Wen Zhong smiled placidly to himself. The king's eyes flicked to him and away.
"Zhu Ji Ying. Describe Xi Shi," the king said.
"Majesty-" he stepped forward, fist to palm. "She was small, as the councillor says, but slender. My fingers could have gone about her arm with room to spare. Her face was rosy, yes, but she had wide cheekbones and a pointed chin. Her eyes-" he stopped a moment and looked down at the floor- "her eyes were long and sparkling. They always- they always seemed to smile at you, even when she wasn't smiling herself..."
The king shifted sideways, not looking at him. "Describe Xi Shi."
"Yes, your Majesty. She was middling tall, a little below my own height, and her form was middling too, neither thin nor plump, but exactly right. And her face-" he paused in spite of himself as memory turned sharp.
"Was middling as well," the king suggested.
Wen Zhong frowned outraged reproof. "Her face was smooth-skinned and small featured, and alive with sincerity and intelligence," he enunciated.
"Mmh." The king nodded his head once or twice. "How did you know that every man saw her differently?"
"*I* listened to what every man had to say."
The king snorted in brief amusement.
"I see." He tapped his fingers together in silence. "Very well. Ku Cheng, Zhu Ji Ying, I rescind those orders. We must be happy that the Advisor has returned to us-" he let loose a long breath like a sigh-- "and hope in time I can persuade him to act as our advisor again. The council is over. You may go." They bowed in unison and turned to take their leave. "Wen Zhong, stay a moment."
Wen Zhong turned back. Silence pooled about them until all the rest were gone.
"I saw Xi Shi once or twice," the king said. "I thought her beautiful enough, I suppose. Beautiful enough to charm Fu Chai, which was all she needed to do. Yet you and Fan Li would have it that she was-- what? A piece of our country, the spirit of our land. Yue itself. Why was I not king enough that she could charm me?"
"Majesty, Xi Shi charmed not just kings, but almost every man who laid eyes on her. She was a dream given flesh: a dream of beauty and happiness and all that a man loves most." In spite of himself, Wen Zhong stopped and thought of the water-clear soul that looked from Xi Shi's eyes into his own heart. He sighed. "The only thing stronger than a dream like that is to have the real thing by one's side. Very few men are so fortunate, but your Majesty was one of them."
"I see," the king said after a moment. "Thank you. You may go."