Title: Had we ne'er lov'd sae kindly
Day/Theme: February 9th/ Yet let me kiss my lord before I die
Series: Woxinchangdan/The Great Revival
Character/Pairing: Fan Li, Gou Jian
For three nights in a row the magnate Fan Li dreamed his shop in the city was in ruins. The pillars leaned cracked and crazy, the shelves were broken and empty, half the roof had fallen in and showed great rents of open sky. On the fourth day Fan Li assembled his sons and all grandsons of age, and in their company arrived at the ancestral temple of Yue just as the sun touched the horizon.
With his clan at his back, Fan Li knelt and bowed his head to the floor three times. He straightened and looked at the great bronze cauldrons that enshrined the spirits of the kings of Yue- the spirit of his own king, dead these many years and unseen for many years before that. He motioned with his hand, and his oldest son crept to his side.
"Take the others and go. I'll stay here."
"Father, we must keep you company--"
"I want to be alone. Leave your oldest son outside. He can see me home afterwards."
There were rustlings and murmurs as the other withdrew. Fan Li's eyes remained on the ranks of bronze vessels. They glowed darkly in the torchlight as the light of day gradually faded behind him. There was no sound now but the occasional noise of the guards at the door shifting position.
Sweat ran down his face. The hall was hot and airless in the summer mug, which the heat from the torches made well nigh unbearable. His knees hurt from the stone floor and his back ached from staying in one position. He waited. There was a sound behind him. A guard's voice.
"Master Fan, we must close the doors now. Please leave the hall--"
"I'm staying the night. You may close the doors on me."
"I will stay and watch with the king my master." Mild consternation as the guards looked at each other. He knew they'd go. He was one of the foremost citizens of the country and his voice had long since acquired the power of command. They went. Fan Li waited.
Thoughts came. Memories came. He watched them pass before his eyes, not seeking them out or examining them closely. Sometimes they overwhelmed his inner eye and it was with a little start that he returned to the here and now: the dark hall, the flickering torches, the gleaming bronzes, and the constant pain of knees and back and hips.
He shivered. The night had gone chill in the last hour before dawn. Cold as winter; his hands had no feeling in them. There was a step across the floor, the new guard coming to take their place. Coming towards him, not from behind. Fan Li looked at the black shoe in front of him and dared not raise his eyes.
"So you're back, finally."
The king's voice. Resonant, low, no different than in life. Which meant angry. Hurt. And therefore dangerous.
"What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Fan Li-" his own voice was high, the cracked voice of age. "Fan Li repents his error."
"Error? What you did was a crime!"
"Fan Li repents his crime, but he was in error as well." The weakness of age, the exhaustion of pain, sent tears sliding down his face and made his voice shake.
"Fan Li forfeited-- the company of--" His voice wouldn't obey him. He finished in a whisper. "--the one man who knew his heart." He looked up at last.
The king was as he'd been when young. Before he'd gone to Wu, before he'd aged and changed with suffering. Dark eyes in a carved face, stone mouth below a dark moustache: torchlight flickering on the high cheekbones, the smooth brow, the black eyebrows like wings of night.
"And now Fan Li comes crawling back to us, hoping to gain our forgiveness one more time. How well did you know our heart, Master Merchant?"
The last word was a blow. He bowed his head again.
"Fan Li is a man of small talent and little ambition. He could not accompany the eagle to the upper air, so he chose to remain with the dove near to the ground. He regrets his limitations more than he can say."
The king snorted his impatience, turned, paced a few steps, came back. Fan Li watched the dark robe swing against the dark air.
The king loosed a long breath. "You were always from my side, one way or the other," he said, looking away towards the ceiling. "And no telling if you'd ever come back. I got used to it."
"I'm back now," Fan Li said.
"Yes." The king turned to face him. He took the sword from his belt, unsheathed the blade, and tossed the empty scabbard to Fan Li. Fan Li caught it lightly, no fumbling or dimness of sight now, and held it tight in his gnarled fingers. The king's right arm followed through with the movement. His blade slid into Fan Li's heart, easily and with an enormous shock of pain.
In the morning the guards found Fan Li's body stretched on the ground before the altar to the kings of Yue. His eyes were open and his mouth turned up a little at the corners. "Father's heart," his son said. "It's troubled him for many years. At least he's at peace at last."