None But The Brave Deserve The Fair
Fu Chai gives orders for Xi Shi to receive him. Her women send to say that Xi Shi is indisposed. It's her moon time, she will be recovered in a few days, their excuses to his Majesty. Fu Chai is annoyed, but these things happen. He sends to Zheng Dan's quarters to expect him this evening. Her maids reply that their mistress is not able to see the King that night, the usual trouble of women, perhaps in a few days...
"What, are all the women indisposed today? How strangely convenient." Fu Chai glares at his secretary.
"Your Majesty's ladies from Wu and Xi and Jin..."
"We don't *want* my Majesty's ladies from Wu and Xi and Jin. We want the beauties from Yue, and they plot to keep themselves from Us!" He stands up in fury.
"If this person may speak..." It's the eunuch who keeps the King's bedchamber.
"This person has observed that women who are ever in each other's company will often be afflicted with their courses at the same time. A woman's maids are frequently indisposed when their mistress is, for example."
"Hnh. Then tell the ladies Xi Shi and Zheng Dan to stay apart from now on."
His secretary bows. "And for tonight- the lady Wuji of Chu..."
"Tonight we'll sleep alone. For this evening--" He looks away, frowning, then smiles suddenly. "Send for Fan Li."
Fan Li comes, sits at the king's invitation, pours wine at the king's command and waits for the king's permission to drink it.
"Here," Fu Chai says, "a toast. The beauties of Yue!"
Fan Li raises his glass in silence and drinks.
"Don't look so hangdog," Fu Chai says cheerfully. "We sleep alone tonight. The beauties of Yue are all of them touched by the moon, so We'll spend tonight in the company of men."
"Your servant can hardly hope to rival his countrywomen in the King's interest."
"You could if you put your mind to it, counsellor, and acted as our counsellor indeed."
Fan Li says nothing but pours himself another glass.
"We are generous to our friends. We reward talent where we find it. Men of learning and ability have always found a home and a welcome in Wu. But you know all that. It's a smallness in you, Fan Li, to sulk because the world's the way it is and not the way you want it to be. It's unworthy of your talents. It makes you ridiculous."
"Your servant dislikes being ridiculous. Most men do, I think."
"Then stop doing it! Accept the facts. It's right that the most beautiful of women and the wisest of men should belong to the most powerful of kings. There's no need for envy or ill-feeling. A large-hearted man, a man of intelligence like yourself, recognizes who most naturally should command their services."
Fan Li nods in silence.
"But you grudge giving yours to Us. You always have. You'd have died rather than serve Us, if the Queen of Yue hadn't persuaded you to save your own neck. Why do you feel such disgust towards Ourself?"
"Why indeed? Your Majesty is a great and powerful king. Your Majesty has conquered the kingdoms of the north; Wu is abounding in riches. Your Majesty is merciful to his enemies- see how he spared the life of the King of Yue and let him go peacefully home to his own land. Who may resist the might of such a man?"
"*Exactly!* So why do you keep trying to do it?!"
Fan Li looks at him with bleary eyes.
"Because your Majesty has failed in one thing. Your Majesty has failed in the one thing Fan Li would most wish to succeed in himself, and that being so, how should Fan Li revere your Majesty?"
"And what's that?" Fu Chai asks, intrigued and repelled by this glimpse into Fan Li's soul.
"All the beautiful women of the world, all the wisest men under Heaven, are compelled to give their services to your Majesty. Well, and so they do." He leans forward and breathes wine fumes into the face of the king of Wu. "But what of the wisest woman and the most beautiful man? *They* couldn't be turned to your Majesty's purposes. You did your best with them and you did your worst and they're still beyond your reach." He slumps back in his chair. "Or anyone's," he says, and drains off another cup.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Fu Chai says.
"You forget, I was there," Fan Li says, and the king's nerves jerk with the shock of being addressed as 'you.' "And I wasn't looking at him. I couldn't bear to. So I looked at you. And you thought-- Oh, never mind what you thought. I've thought the same thing, with better reason than you had. And I was wrong."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"We'll never be first, either of us. We'll never matter as anything more than a means to an end-- or an obstacle to that end, I suppose, in your case. You think he'll rebel? He won't. You don't matter enough for him to rebel against. How does that make you feel, Great Lord? After all you did to him, he doesn't care. Fu Chai means nothing to him, as a man, as a person, as an enemy-- just as Fan Li means nothing to him as a man, as a person, as a friend."
Fu Chai takes the cup from Fan Li's hand and throws it away.
"You're drunk. You're worse than drunk- you're maudlin weeping drunk. Be a man, for once." He calls for his servant. "Have the guards escort the counsellor back to his room."
Fan Li stands up, weaving a little on his feet.
"It's alright," he tells Fu Chai. "You matter to *me*. Fan Li won't forget you, King of Wu," and walks from the room.