I will be the water for your thirst
Washed, hair oiled and bound, with new clothes on his back, Fan Li is brought before Fu Chai in the latter's study. He prostrates himself in proper fashion, rises when bidden, and accepts the gracious offer to seat himself before the king's table. There's a small silence as he and the king look each other over. Fu Chai is young, no more than Fan Li's own age perhaps, but his regard is heavier and more weighted than Fan Li would have expected.
"So you're the man whose tactics defeated us at Zui Li," the king says at last.
"No, your Majesty. What defeated you at Zui Li was the zeal of the men of Yue, that took your soldiers by surprise. Your servant can claim no credit for that."
"And what caused the men of Yue to show such zeal?"
"Desperation, your Majesty. A great army came to crush their nation. There was nothing to hope for from survival, so they determined to make Wu pay as much as possible for their deaths. There'd be at least one or two fewer men of Wu to occupy their country-- or three, or four, and so you had the slaughter and rout that followed."
"And the moral of that is-- what?"
"Your Majesty already knows. Never make your enemies despair. Desperate men have nothing to lose. Now, should Wu make war on the north, on Xi or Song for instance, those nation's determination will be undermined by your Majesty's merciful treatment of the king of Yue. That was a brilliant stroke, as any tactician must agree."
"Mh. My chancellor doesn't think so. He thinks I've doomed my country by leaving Gou Jian alive."
Fan Li takes a deep breath. "Wu Zi Xu sees Yue as a constant threat to Wu because of something he thinks it might do in future. Yue sees Wu as a constant threat because of something it did in the past- the constant demands for territory, the taking of its cities. The king of Yue was strongly inclined to a policy of peace, but men of your father's generation argued that Wu Zi Xu would never allow your Majesty to agree-- that nothing would satisfy him but the complete destruction of Yue's royal line, as nothing satisfied him but the destruction of Chu's capital. Those arguments prevailed, and can one wonder?"
"We are king in Wu, not Wu Zi Xu."
"That's why my king is still alive. But Wu Zi Xu has prestige among the nations and popularity with the people. They associate him with Wu's rise to prominence. He is someone in their regard, and your Majesty cannot ignore his counsels."
"You're a sensible man, Master Fan. So what should my Majesty do?"
"Increase Wu's prestige by your own efforts, so that people will say 'Helu and his counsellor brought us up from nothing, but it was Fu Chai who became hegemon of the nations."
The king strikes the table in pleasure, and smiles broadly. "We like your ideas. And are you willing to help us do that?"
Fan Li bows. "That is why your servant is here."
"You will not find us ungenerous in return."
"My humble thanks to your Majesty. But I wonder if your Majesty is generous enough to grant Fan Li's first request?"
"Mh. Say what it is."
"Give me leave to speak with the king of Yue."
There's a sudden chill on the air. That was expected, but the king's evident discomfiture is a surprise. Fu Chai looks away as he says, "You miss Gou Jian, I suppose?"
Fan Li's eyebrows rise. "The generals and courtiers have had no news of him for many months. We're worried, naturally, as to how the king and queen bear their servitude. Your Majesty was merciful to them, but so great a change from their previous state must have an effect."
Fu Chai gives an amused snort. "None that we've noticed. Very well. You may visit Gou Jian. Briefly." He pauses, looking Fan Li over; clearly there's something more that he can't find the words for. At last he waves a dismissive hand without saying anything more. Fan Li bows and walks backwards the proper three steps out of the king's presence.
A servant waits to conduct him through the palace grounds. Fan Li follows, heart uneasy. He can divine what that was about. Bo Pi has been gossiping, telling Fu Chai all he knows or suspects, and the king is plagued by curiosity and a jealousy he doubtless isn't aware of. He wants to know what's between the King and me. He'll be pressing me for details soon. And thinks, in sadness, how could I begin to explain? Even I haven't the words to say what it is...
...the conference went on and on. Ku Cheng lit the lamps and still the three of them sat over the table spread with maps and reports of their spies in Wu, reports from the border as to the present position of Wu's army, and Wen Zhong's own dispiriting assessment of Yue's manpower. Wen Zhong stifled a yawn and the king looked up, dark-eyed himself.
"It's late. Go to bed, counsellor. Maybe this will look different with some sleep."
"I thank your Majesty." Wen Zhong bowed and waited for Fan Li to make his own adieux.
"Have good rest, counsellor," he said. "I'll see you in the morning." Wen Zhong took the hint and retired. Gou Jian turned weary eyes on Fan Li.
"What is it you want to say to us out of Wen Zhong's hearing?"
"That Yue's situation is desperate, but in my opinion, not desperate enough. The old advisors think that all we need to do is make more concessions and Wu will withdraw-- just for the moment, just long enough to let us recoup our strength. It won't happen--"
"Of course it won't happen. Helu's no fool and neither is Prince Lei. They know we're weak and so they'll press us the more."
"Therefore we need to confront them now, to demonstrate to the troops just how bad things have become. We can't give them the morale of a victory but we can give them a defeat-- a defeat that makes them determined to fight ferociously before they die. And *that* may prove strong enough to overcome the odds."
Gou Jian was silent. "It's too risky. A defeat will discourage the men completely."
"I think we should take that risk. A man who thinks he has the possibility of safety will be chary of his own life. A man who knows he's going to die has nothing to lose. We need men who will go into battle knowing they won't come out. That's what will give us the edge we need."
Gou Jian rubbed at his eyes. "Possible, yes, possible. We will think this over. Because you're right--" he looked up suddenly- "Yue's very existence is at stake here. Yue could end as the result of a single battle, and it must not."
The sudden ferocity was like the roar of a forest fire. Without thinking Fan Li leaned forward, as if to warm himself at a real blaze. "No, your Majesty, it must not. And it will not. Fan Li guarantees it." Their faces were only inches apart. Gou Jian's eyes-- those elegant sardonic eyes-- looked straight into Fan Li's, and there was no coolness or distance there now. The king's purpose was writ plain: black as the night sky, incandescent as a comet, unresistible as a wall of flood water. Fan Li was shaken to his core. Too much-- he thought confusedly-- too much for one man.
He felt himself falling into darkness, pulled down by the huge weight of the king's will. His mind yelled his danger. He'd always been careful of himself-- light in his attachments, ready to leave off before any fancy became serious enough to hurt him. And here he was, tumbling into the heart of the fire, about to be burned alive. ...nothing left of me!! his spirit screamed, but even as his heart juddered in terror and his hands went to ice, a Fan Li he'd never known existed sang in exultation. Free, free-- no more cangue around my neck, no more chains on my feet---
What happened next was beyond his power to describe or even to remember. He never knew who reached out first to catch hold of the other or who first turned his head to find the other's mouth. The two of them fell sideways together to the cold wooden floor. The king's weight and heat filled his arms and pressed against his body as his body pressed against the king's-- grappling and thrashing, trying to find some release, trying to find where the other was beneath the layers of cloth-- Robes hiking up, hands at least finding a heat they could grab and stroke, face buried in a wilderness of black hair that slid beneath him like silk and into thicknesses of silk that slipped under his hands like hair, losing himself and lost except for the grip of fingers on his arms that left bruises there for days. The king's mark on his flesh-- the only proof he had that this impossible thing had happened.
Not that that was the last time, though afterwards was more decorous, the two of them stripped to nightclothes and underclothes within the hangings of the king's bed. But it was an event that lacked words: starting with an unvoiced invitation, consummated in near silence, and never spoken of afterwards. What the nighttime Gou Jian did with the nighttime Fan Li was kept scrupulously apart from the daytime king and his counsellor. Ku Cheng, who disrobed the king before and helped Fan Li robe himself after, showed no change of manner and expression when he ushered Fan Li into the king's apartments during the day. 'So this is the way of it,' Fan Li concluded, and put the matter from his mind. That was the way of it. He belonged to the king of Yue in a way he'd never expected, but it was, still, only the nighttime Fan Li: a silent unthinking someone, more a desire than a man, who was quite separate from the king's eloquent clever strategist of the day time hours.
But that Fan Li was in difficulties too. As the days went by, and especially after their first victory, Fan Li started to feel himself growing somehow stretched thin and pale. He was no longer what he'd been, Fan Li of Chu, a wandering advisor. He was chief counsellor to the king of Yue and the king's closest confidante, his fate now bound inextricably to that of Gou Jian. And Gou Jian was going places where Fan Li had no wish to follow. The war on Wu-- it was madness to plot war against Wu now. The old king dead, the new king raw in power, and Wu Zi Xu running the country as he wished. Now was the time to lie low and hoard one's strength, to give Wu not the slightest pretext for moving against Yue; but Gou Jian was set on war.
Fan Li wrote a memorial to dissuade him from that path. When he came to present it, he meant also to ask permission to be absent for some days. The king would have no relish for his ideas: let Gou Jian digest them in peace while Fan Li dealt with his mother's desperate situation in Chu. But before he could do either the king said the words that ended everything. 'You're my advisor, but still, I want there to be no distance between us.' The nighttime Gou Jian had suddenly presented his face in the light. Fan Li's soul trembled. The king had broached their silent agreement; the king wanted all of him, and Fan Li would never be his own man again. The brief parting he'd envisaged became, in that instant, permanent.
His heart mourned as he left Yue but his soul knew there was no choice. How naïve he'd been, not calculating the forces ranged against him. His mouth twisted. Fan Li, a strategist? No one would believe it. He'd taken account only of Gou Jian and so thought himself safe. The king would let him go and never speak his name again; Gou Jian was deeply hurt by Fan Li's double betrayal and dangerously angry, but Gou Jian's pride would never stoop to calling his favourite back unwilling. The queen however felt nothing of that: the queen was that part of Gou Jian that acted calmly when the king's anger and pride held him paralyzed. It was Fan Li's turn to feel betrayed when he realized who it was had barred his mother's door to him. Ya Yu was the only person positioned as he himself was; obscurely he felt she ought to understand his position and have pity for him. But of course it was easier for a woman, natural even, for her to become one with the man she was married to. Fan Li returned to take up the burden of being the King's man, and never knew if he was sad or glad of it. But some part of him wept still in silence. Will I never be my own again? Will there never be someone who belongs to *me*?...
...The servant brings him to a small stone cottage beside the stables. The smell of horses and dung is strong, but in the thin soil by the door a flowering bush sends a thread of fragrance under the warm stink. The servant calls to the house.
"King of Yue! His Majesty gives leave for Fan Li to wait upon you."
It's Ya Yu who comes to the door, smiling in delight.
"Master Fan! Your Majesty, Fan Li is here!"
The king comes out much more slowly from the darkness of the house. He's clad in his homespun robe, hair tied back with a black length of cloth. Fan Li sees in relief that he looks rested and well, and no thinner than during the last campaign at least. He bows, hands together, painfully aware of his own new clothes and polished appearance.
"Your Majesty, Fan Li presents himself." The servant stands still at his back. They're slaves themselves here in Wu; no dismissing the man.
Gou Jian nods at him, distant.
"Fu Chai treats you well, counsellor."
"The prime minister has recommended me to the king of Wu's attention." Gou Jian waits for him to continue. "Fan Li will attempt to advise the king in what small ways he may."
"Good. Do that, by all means. Serve the king of Wu better than you did the king of Yue."
Fan Li bows, a man justly rebuked. "I will do as my sovereign says."
Gou Jian snorts and turns away, walking a little to the side. "How do our generals bear their imprisonment?"
"They are well treated by the king of Wu, and they endure the tedium and the minor inconveniences of their state for love of their king, as do we all."
Gou Jian nods, as if not much interested.
"Your Majesty is a great king," Fan Li says, with all the warmth and sincerity at his command. "He has the ability to draw men's love and devotion, sometimes indeed in spite of themselves. Your former enemies- older men, experienced warriors and statesmen like Shi Mai and Ye Yong, yielded in the end to the draw of your power. How could a young man inexperienced in the ways of the world resist?"
Gou Jian's eyes shift back to Fan Li.
"But your Majesty should perhaps have a care how he exercises that power. He is not king in Wu as he is in Yue, and the consequences here are likely to be much different than at home."
Gou Jian searches Fan Li's face. Suddenly he laughs, smiling in true amusement. But his voice is a whip.
"Counsellor, you are drunk, already at this hour. Lay off the wine, Fan Li- it was always your weak point and it makes you see phantoms."
"Fan Li is a diviner of mediocre talents. But the phantoms he sees have often proved true." He bows, hands together. "Your servant will take his leave. Let the Great Lord have a care to his health and his body."
"We thank you for your wishes. Good day. I think we will not see you again." Gou Jian turns and walks away. Fan Li sighs, bows a last time, and returns to the company of the servant.
Gou Jian walks into his cottage and sits himself down on the bed. Ya Yu comes to stand at his side. Through the window they watch Fan Li and the guard disappear around a corner of the stable.
Gou Jian eyebrows crease in thought. "Is it possible? How can it be possible? He must be seeing things."
"Fan Li usually sees facts," Ya Yu says. "Why would he imagine an attachment that isn't there?"
"Jealousy," the king says. "But I wouldn't have thought that of him either."
"If Fan Li were jealous, it would never be for no reason."
Gou Jian nearly groans. His face grows dark. "And this afternoon we must play chess again with the King. This game is looking to be very interesting."