What hope shall we cherish, what pure premonition
Two days pass; three; four. No summons comes from Fu Chai.
"It's a woman then," Gou Jian says to Ya Yu. The obvious reason; what else could explain the king's abrupt loss of interest in Gou Jian? If he could just put from his mind that last meeting of theirs, and Fu Chai's We are not the enemy of Yue. That was subterfuge, of course, a lie to confuse Gou Jian into lowering his guard. It has to be subterfuge since it could never be the truth. But Ya Yu's belief has shaken Gou Jian's certainty. Fu Chai-- sincere. The idea is the wrong shape for Gou Jian's mind and he puts it from him angrily, as he has countless times these last four days.
"Or the Chancellor," Ya Yu says, a timely distraction.
"How, the Chancellor?"
"Wu Zi Xu knows that the King of Wu denied being our enemy. He can't have taken that well."
"No. So he's threatened Fu Chai. With what, I wonder, that he didn't use before to ensure our death? The only threat a minister can make, perhaps? Withdrawal, retirement. Fu Chai can't do without him. Or rather, Fu Chai doesn't dare let him go for fear of where he'd go to if he did."
"So perhaps the King has withdrawn his favour from your Majesty to pacify the chancellor and keep your Majesty safe."
Gou Jian snorts. "To keep us safe?? When has Fu Chai ever had a care for our well-being?"
Ya Yu says nothing. Her answer is obvious.
"Fu Chai can't afford to have soft feelings for us," Gou Jian informs her. "He can't trust us and we can't trust him. Our countries have been at war these ten years and more. What happened happened. Fu Chai's wishes and hopes can't change any of that."
Ya Yu lowers her head over her sewing. "It's true. What happened, happened. Yue was defeated and is tributary to Wu. But Wu didn't destroy Yue. Wu didn't kill Yue's king, or his family, or his advisors. Why not?"
Gou Jian lets out an exasperated breath. "Because Fu Chai wants to have things different. He wants to make them different. He wants--" the idea suddenly comes clear in his head-- "he wants to be victor, not just over Yue, but over the past itself. To undo what Helu did and to do what Helu couldn't." His eyes look ahead at nothing as he works it through. "He still wants to subdue us, but not with his father's methods or Wu Zi Xu's, not by conquest and slaughter. Fu Chai's always wanted to settle things another way-- his way." He taps the ends of his fingers together in thought. "But he still means to win. He still wants our submission in the end."
"And your Majesty means to win as well. For that, perhaps, your Majesty must use the same weapons as the king of Wu."
He nods. "It's a different kind of war. And whoever wins, it'll be a different kind of peace." He brings his hands together once more but this time with a decisive clap. "Tell the slave to bring writing materials. There are words we must send to the King."
Days pass. Fu Chai is kept busy with matters of court and diplomacy. Preparations for the war that will come against the northern nations. The north, rich and once strong, now subsiding into squabbles among itself-- minor bickering without basis, mere jockeying for prestige and position. A waste. Too much luxury, too many riches, and men forget what a nation is all about. He snorts. The barbarians of the south will have to remind their northern neighbours about basic virtues. There needs to be a firm hand on the reins again, guiding the nations in the Way.
The Way. To resist desire is not in accordance with the Way. The feather tickle between his shoulderblades, as if someone had a stretched bow aimed at his back. A constant sense of some danger just out of sight, uneasy, terrifying, exhilarating, paralyzing.
He sleeps alone. The women and eunuchs are in the outer hallway, their small coughs and shiftings background to the loneliness of his nights. No one watches his rest. A dozen times a day he thinks of giving the order, a dozen times a day the words never quite make it to his tongue before some secretary or minister or memorial or minor crisis comes opportunely to distract his attention.
And thus he feels the full mortification of Gou Jian's message. A slip of bamboo, a single sentence: 'The strong player plays straight, the weak diagonally.'
He puts it down. "Summon Gou Jian to us--" he takes a breath- "this afternoon." Coward, his mind says, and he protests: He wants to play against us. We'll play as we used to.
Gou Jian enters, bows as he ever did, and takes the seat the king motions him to on the other side of the board. Fu Chai wants to look at him sideways, this strange new Gou Jian-- no, this Gou Jian he sees with new eyes. The one who has-- who maybe has... And so he looks him straight in the face. He looks no different. The same hooded gaze, the same not-quite-smile under the silky black moustache, the same soft lips-- Fu Chai draws his breath in and focusses his attention on the board. He places a stone. Gou Jian places his. Black, white. Black, white. The stones begin to fill the board.
Fu Chai watches Gou Jian's hands. Vague images fill his head of things those hands might have done. He bats them away and looks at the stones.
"'The strong player plays straight, the weak diagonally.' So if a man plays straight, that means he's strong?"
Gou Jian smiles at him, genuinely mirthful. "It's also said, 'If you plan to live inside enemy territory, play directly against his stones.' One needn't be strong. Just determined."
"That's true." Play directly-- enemy territory-- "Fan Li."
Gou Jian's face becomes unreadable in a moment. Goes smooth and serene and as informative as the stone in his hand.
"Our counsellor. What of him?" His attention is entirely on the board.
"Your favourite too, wasn't he?"
Fu Chai stops the tell-tale swallow. Dry-mouthed he still manages to make his voice casual. "What's he like?"
"Clever. All counsellors from Chu are clever." Gou Jian places his stone. "They know to leave home."
Fu Chai is ambushed by amusement. He snorts. "That's because the kings of Chu are all fools. They trust the wrong men and suspect the true ones and never learn from anyone's mistakes."
"All kings do that," Gou Jian observes.
"Not all," Fu Chai objects heatedly, resenting the implication. "Did you?"
"Yes. We trusted ourself and failed to listen to our advisors from Chu."
The dry voice stops Fu Chai dead. After a moment he asks, "And do we?"
"Oh, no." Gou Jian looks up at him with that little smile, that glints in his eyes as well . "The Great Lord trusts himself and fails to listen to his advisors from Chu."
Fu Chai draws breath. "We listen to them when they have sensible advice to give us. But for other things--" His mind seems unable to think clearly. "For some things we have to trust what our own heart tell us."
"And that's the reason you spared our life?"
"Yes. We couldn't let you die. It would be too great a loss. Wu would be safer with you dead and my Chancellor would give me some peace at last, but--" directly-- "We would be diminished somehow."
"You...?" Gou Jian's face is blank with astonishment. "Diminished? How?"
Fu Chai shrugs helplessly.
"That's what we hoped to find out by keeping you alive."