mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Love is like the lion's tooth

Trouble with these 31_days prompts is they need more time, and time is what one doesn't have. Mind you, that's their usefulness as well. No time to repine, one must write. An excellent remedy for the perennial foot-dragging, like myself.

Of course I've pretty much said all I had to say on today's subject, and this is written mostly for purposes of (admittedly petty) personal satisfaction. Zannen.

For no matter what is said
They had all that had their hate;
Love is like the lion's tooth

For all his faults- and historians will agree that his faults were many, nearly enough to outweigh his accomplishments- Wu Zi Xu was a great man. When he stood before the ancestral temple of Wu and called his dead benefactor to witness the calamity that now awaited the country the two of them had laboured over so long -- when he put the sword to his neck and opened the great vein there, and his blood gushed out to stain the soil of Wu-- it was fitting, nay, perhaps inevitable, that the very heavens should roar their outrage at the act and weep in despair at its consequences. But the storm that shook the walls of the city of Helu, the thunder that deafened its inhabitants and the lightning that blinded them, was only a pale reflection of the fury and despair that raged within Wu Zi Xu's own soul.

They cut off his head and put it on the walls looking towards Yue. They wrapped his body in a sack and cast it on the waters for the fish to devour. Wu Zi Xu himself however walked away from the reeking ground of his slaughter, climbed the sixteen stairs before him, and stepped through the great black doors at the top.

Oil lamps burned inside where the dead kings of Wu sat on three great steps, each in his place, each turned to polished bronze. The carved robes and moulded features gleamed softly in the soft light, from the oldest, gone green and brittle with age, to the most recent ones, still in the brown vigour of their casting. But King Helu stood out amongst them all, the last and largest figure on the bottom-most row.

He looked down at Wu Zi Xu from his great bronze eyes and slowly opened his great bronze mouth, and a bronze voice sounded in the night-time temple like the stroke of a bell.

"Man of Chu, what brings you into the presence of the Kings of Wu?"

Wu Zi Xu drew himself upright. "I was the servant of Wu all my life."

Helu's eyes bulged in anger. "Storm crow! White crow! Traitor to your country and my own! Look at the disaster your enmity brought on Chu that birthed you, how it went from greatness into obscurity after you sacked its capital and slew its best men!"

Wu Zi Xu was indignant, for the conquest of Chu had been Helu's desire as well as his own, and the first step on the road to the greatness of Wu. But he said nothing.

"Then you began the course of Wu's downfall by crowning that incompetent, Fu Chai, and letting him kill the true son of my spirit, Prince Lei!"

Wu Zi Xu grew angrier, for it was the king himself who'd hesitated to name Prince Lei his heir before he died. But still he said nothing.

"And worst of all, you let Gou Jian remain alive, though Fu Chai himself offered to sacrifice him to you. Cursed be the day that I took you into my court and my counsels! You have destroyed my country!"

And at these final words from his old lord and benefactor Wu Zi Xu felt his heart contract and shrivel in bitterness within his breast.

"Yes," he said, controlling his breathing and his voice, "that is true. Fu Chai offered to give me Gou Jian's head and I refused. I refused because I needed him to see for himself that Gou Jian was dangerous, that he must die for the sake of Wu and not just as a favour to me. Why should I trouble myself about Fu Chai's motives so long as Wu's enemy was dead? Because I knew that when another Gou Jian arose, Fu Chai would make the same mistake again. I thought I could teach him, since he has the ability to learn. Whereas Prince Lei- ha! A bully and a butcher-- a man to command armies into slaughter, not guide the fortune of a country." He gave the king stare for stare. "And you knew what he was. You cannot deny it."

Helu lowered his great head like a bull about to charge.

"Why do I listen to someone so twisted with anger and depravity? Who broke open the tomb of the King of Chu and had his dead body whipped in public? The nations were scandalized by the enormities that Wu Zi Xu performed and censured me for keeping you at my side. But I did, because you were clever and far-seeing. I forgot that a clever man has his limits and his blindnesses that make him more dangerous than a fool."

The world trembled in Wu Zi Xu's sight. "Yes," he said harshly, "I unearthed King Ping's body and had it flogged. I was loyal to my father and exacted the proper revenge for his murder. But you- you were a traitor to your king and cousin and brought about his death. I knew the enormities that Helu of Wu was capable of, but I served you faithfully to the end because you were a great king. I forgot that a great king can still turn to foolishness and rutting lechery, and his vices have more dangerous outcomes than a weak ruler's."

"Who are you to blame me for anything I did?" Helu roared. "You who gave me the weapon to kill my cousin-- and then ran off to the countryside to keep your hands clean? It was what you call my treachery that let you have your virtuous revenge. From the start you used me for your own ends and thought I didn't know it. How you despised me, Man of Chu-- how you sneered in your heart at the foolish barbarian king!"

"I did not despise you," Wu Zi Xu said, and his voice quavered in an old man's anger. "I did not. But now I see how you despised me. I thought you held me in your heart, but I was wrong. I thought your son apt to be a great king, but I was wrong. I thought Wu had become my home, but I was wrong. The one thing I know I was not wrong about is that Gou Jian will destroy Wu. Only Gou Jian, in his crroked ambition and festering hatred, turns out to be what I thought him. My lord and benefactor and friends and servants are all false; only my enemy has proved true to Wu Zi Xu."

And at that the hard bitter kernel of his heart split in two, and he knew no more.

In the morning the priests entered the great temple of Wu for the morning services. The ashes of the kings lay in their bronze cauldrons, from the oldest green and brittle with age, to the newest ones still in the brown gleaming of their casting. But the cauldron that contained the ashes of King Helu had a great crack down the front.

"The storm last night must have shaken the temple," one ventured, and another whispered, "No. King Helu was grieved and angry at his good servant's death. How shall we tell the king of this?" They took counsel among themselves and it was agreed in secret that they would turn the funerary cauldron around, so that the crack faced to the back of the temple. It took five of them to shift the great weight, and as they did so one of them struck something small with his foot and sent it rolling off to the side. Afterwards he went to see what it was, and found only half a walnut, small and shrivelled and dried up into acid bitterness.
Tags: fic, woxin
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