'I know it well, the nakedness of truth'
Wu Zi Xu and Bo Pi enter the king's cabinet at the usual hour to give the daily greeting. The king is at his desk, immersed in a memorial.
"So, your Majesty," Wu Zi Xu begins. "I hear Gou Jian conducted himself unforgivably last night--"
"Wu Zi Xu."
The chancellor stops, bridling a little. Senior statesmen are not addressed by their names, even by kings.
"Have you business that requires our attention?" The king's face is like a wall. Anyone but Wu Zi Xu, Bo Pi thinks, would know to back off at once.
"I suppose there's nothing that can't wait if the Great Lord is busy," Wu Zi Xu says, to suggest that Great Lord should never be too busy to speak to the mainstay of the realm.
"We are. Good day to you."
"Good day, your Majesty." Wu Zi Xu intends his tone for a rebuke. The king responds with a look like winter. Just like his brother, Wu Zi Xu thinks. We'll have to speak to him about that-- later, when he's ready to listen to reason. He turns to collect the prime minister. "Bo Pi."
"There's a small matter your servant wishes to discuss with the Great Lord--"
"Mh," Fu Chai grunts. "Stay. Chancellor." He nods farewell, a nod that's an inch short of dismissal. Wu Zi Xu contemplates them both, snorts gently but audibly, and takes his leave. He's half way down the corridor when he hears a bellow from the king's chamber. Turning his head, he sees Bo Pi making an exit that's far too hasty to be dignified; and smiling inwardly he proceeds back to his own office.
Bo Pi doesn't see the Chancellor. He stands, frowning to himself. Better summon him to my office. No. Faster to go myself, and dignity be damned.
"Great Lord," Fu Chai's aide says, "Fan Li requests the favour of an audience." Fu Chai looks up, mouth open to snarl refusal. "A matter of the northern campaign, he says."
Fu Chai hmphs andstares suspiciously for a moment, but at last says, "Show him in."
Fan Li's showy reverence does nothing for the king's temper; he waits in thunderous silence to see what the man will say.
"Your Majesty, your servant has been considering the practical problems of a campaign against the north. The chief one, he thinks, is the most basic-- the terrain of the land. To march a large army north is a major undertaking. However, Wu has a navy--"
"Which can't sail to the plains." The 'fool' is unstated but audible.
"It almost can. Majesty, be pleased to look at this map. Here is the Long River, and here the Huai, and between them Lake Sheyang. If there were a canal dug to join these various waterways--" his finger traces the route. Fu Chai leans forward, suddenly engrossed. "--from here to here, and thence to the north-east here--"
"--Our ships and troops could sail to Song. We'd be in the northern heartland before they know it." He smiles in excitement.
"If your Majesty thinks the plan has merit, Fan Li will speak to the engineers and gather more exact information on what will be necessary to carry it out--"
"Yes, do. Be prepared to explain your idea to the Chancellor as soon as possible. This is brilliant!"
Fan Li bows. "I thank the Great Lord for his kindness."
Fu Chai signals over his shoulder. "You. Bring wine for the counsellor. We will drink to celebrate his proposal."
Servants pour wine. Fu Chai gestures permission. Fan Li salutes the king, raises his sleeve and sips. Excellent wine: the royal cellars of Wu are better than Yue's, and he says so. Fu Chai looks gratified and drinks in his turn.
"So, Fan Li, are you content in our service,?"
"I thank your Majesty, it's good to be busy again."
"At least you'll find Us less temperamental than Gou Jian."
"Temperamental? The king of Yue?" Fan Li sounds as though the idea is utterly foreign to him.
"What else would you call that?" The bad-tempered look creeps back into Fu Chai's eyes and crooks his mouth.
"I'm sorry, your Majesty-- call what?"
"His behaviour to us last night. We tried to open our heart to him-- to show him our good will and sincerity-- and you'd think we'd spat in his face. He nearly spat in ours! We've been too easy with him-- he's forgotten that we conquered his country, that he's our prisoner. He insulted us, he spurned our overtures from spite and pique over yourself-- Fan Li?!"
Fan Li is smiling, unable to control himself. He shifts to his knees, raises joined hands, and bows deeply to the king.
"Congratulations, Great Lord! Truly, Fan Li hadn't believed it possible." He smiles even more at Fu Chai's confusion and outrage. "Great Lord, you're within a step of conquering Gou Jian. Not Yue-- Yue's king." Fu Chai frowns his puzzlement. "As long as Gou Jian was convinced your Majesty was his enemy, as long as he was sure that nothing your Majesty said was to be believed, he was at ease in your Majesty's company. 'Ah, the king of Wu spares my life? He's playing a deep game, trying to fool me into trusting him further. Let's see what he really has in mind.' But now he begins to think your Majesty means what he says, and that confuses and angers him. Tell me-- did your Majesty perhaps speak of peace between your countries?"
"Peace and friendship. We don't think that so impossible a thing."
"Nor did the king of Yue, when the succession here was still undecided. 'Duke Fu Chai is virtuous and sincere,' is what he said then-- 'it will be good if he becomes King of Wu.' But Yun Chang's old counsellors were afraid. 'The king of Wu will never forgive us his father's death. Wu is building a fleet with which to attack our country. We must attack Wu first,' they said, and the king put aside his hopes for what seemed to be common sense."
"Then we've given him his hopes back again. Why does he act as if he hates us for it!"
"Your Majesty is offering meat to a starving man, which all the world tells him has been poisoned. You may judge the depths of his hunger by his anger at the dilemma he finds himself in. He wants to accept and fears to do so; he kicks against his benefactor, hoping to have his fears confirmed so he may despair again. It won't happen. Your Majesty has breached his defences, and in time he must be conquered by your Majesty's good will."
Fu Chai looks half consoled. "But what are we to do in the meantime? He was trying to make us angry, and by Heaven, he succeeded!"
"Fan Li would counsel your Majesty to continue acting as he has until now. Be neither arrogant nor humble with him: be free and frank still so that the king of Yue will feel how unjustly he's acting."
Fu Chai nods. "You know him well." He stops, as if regretting the words. "Well," he continues doggedly, "you would. You love him, I suppose." It's half a question.
Fan Li looks away. "Sadly, yes."
Fan Li looks at the ground and his mouth crooks in bitterness. "How can I explain? What is it that kings call themselves? 'The one who is alone.' Kings must be apart from their subjects, even those dearest to them." He sighs, and smiles ruefully up at Fu Chai. "My colleague Wen Zhong is devoted to the king of Yue. He's undergone hardship and danger in the king's service, and done it gladly. He is the king's minister and the king is his master: both behave in accordance with virtue and the Way, and both are happy, knowing they act as they ought. But Fan Li loves a man called Gou Jian, who happens to be the king of Yue. Any man will want to have his love entirely in his own possession, but no man can have a king for his own. Any man will want to keep his love safe from harm, but what counsellor dare say, 'Majesty, keep from the battle, stay in your palace, do not endanger so much as a hair of your head or I will be grieved?' And what kind of counsellor would he be if he did? Much less may he say, "Majesty, do not send me abroad as your ambassador, for I can't bear to leave your side.' Or worse, 'Do not order me to the battlefield-- I fear the loss of your love if I am wounded or maimed.' No," he shakes his head, "the love of men is bitter; I would never have sought it if I'd had a choice."
"But we've heard it's been said," Fu Chai says carefully, "and by no less a person than Yanzi of Xi, that to resist desire is not in accordance with the Way."
"Duke Jing, your Majesty means? That proves my point. The man who fell so deeply in love with the king was a minor official, one who would ordinarily not even enter his presence. There was no harm in Duke Jing indulging the man's passion, for he had no great duties or obligations in the palace to be affected by his attachment; nor was he one who could ever be entrusted with high position, if the duke himself had become inafatuated with him. In fact, if I remember the details correctly, Duke Jing made the man his bathman, and so the story ended happily for them both. Fan Li's talents may be small, but they fit him for something better than that."
"They fit him for high position among the counsellors, young as you are."
Fan Li bows again. "I thank your Majesty. And I thank your Majesty again for his favour. It's a pleasure to be able to work with a whole heart once more."
"Ah." Fu Chai gives him a look of sympathy. "We'll let you get back to work, Counsellor. Take care of yourself."
Fan Li prostrates himself and takes his leave. 'Well,' he thinks as he paces the long hallway outside the royal apartments, 'that should discourage Fu Chai's suit for a bit; long enough, I hope, for the Great Lord to come to his senses again. Slapping a man in the face can have many results, but indifference is never one of them.' A finger of disquiet goes up his spine. He ought to know that himself. He does know it. Why then did he provoke Fu Chai?