The wind most oft the hugest pine tree grieves:
The stately towers come down with greater fall:
The highest hills the bolt of thunder cleaves.
--Sir Phillip Sydney, after Horace II:10
I have many talents. I don't at all mind saying it; false modesty was never one of my weaknesses. I can conduct an army to victory and converse with hostile ambassadors; I can smooth a king's temper and spot a clever underling; I can prepare a good meal with my own hands and amuse small children. (And those last two, let me say, are quite as useful as the others. Maybe more. Men think with their bellies more than their heads, and it's amazing what children pick up from the adults around them. That's why one cultivates women too. You talk to the people who are everywhere but are never supposed to speak. They'll tell you everything you need to know.)
Military strategy, political strategy, assessing the strength of an army or an opponent and finding where both conceal their weak points-- that's what a king's counsellor does. But the thing is to enjoy yourself doing it, and oh! how few counsellors can manage that. I think you do, in your own way. I probably wouldn't be talking like this to you otherwise.
It's a game, you see. If you start thinking it's serious, you're lost.
(Of course, if more people realized it's a game, *I'd* be lost. One has to be outside, doesn't one? Well, yes, of course all foreign counsellors are outsiders basically, but I mean outside even the assumptions of our own class.)
You don't agree? Come now. What does it matter in the long run whether Wu allies itself to Yue or subdues it utterly? They're much of a muchness in the long run- Wu and Yue, Fu Chai and Gou Jian. Certainly I'll argue the point if you want me to, but I'll argue that alliance is best. Killing people-- killing their families, destroying their temples, driving them from their land-- that gets you only hatred and long-lasting grudges and a desire to kill you in turn. I had enough of that in my youth, and it's made me careful about who I offend and how I offend them. You'd think my esteemed colleague might have taken the lesson to heart as well, but did he? Of course not.
Or maybe he did. Wu Zi Xu doesn't really enjoy his position as chief minister, I've observed. He has no interests, no hobbies, no human interactions except for those that further his plans for Wu. Well, yes, statesmanship can be a hobby, I don't deny it, but that's not what stirs Wu Zi Xu's heart. Forget the 'loyal servant of Wu' image that he spreads about so assiduously (or has his underlings spread about for him. I've never been able to decide which.) You only have to listen to him for five minutes to see what it is.
Hatred. Hatred is the thing that brings fire into his eyes and energy to his soul; hatred is all he had to live for when he lost everything as a young man in Chu, and now it's what keeps him warm in age. Ping of Chu is long-dead and long-humiliated. I'm not big enough to consume all his bile. Wu Zi Xu needed a new enemy, a great enemy, and Yue is close to hand. So now he lives to hate Yue and make Yue hate him.
Naturally it's my job to stop him, as much as I can. Balance, you see. Balance is what it's all about. One can't enjoy oneself reasonably in the middle of violence and chaos, and enjoyment is what life is for.
You think me frivolous. I can see it in your eyes. Call it frivolity if you like. But I'll tell you something, my friend. I'm a soldier as well as a courtier, which you'll agree is more than you can say? Yes. I've seen both sides of service. When you go into battle you know you may well be dead before the sun sets. That doesn't stop generals from going into battle. No, wait, I'm not finished. It's this-- when a counsellor walks into the morning audience, it's no different. He may be dead before he walks out. It's not safer, being an advisor. The danger is just less intense-- more spread about, so to speak. Instead of five hours of face-to-face combat when an arrow may fly straight through your eye and into your brain, it's twenty-four hours of behind-your-back politicking when your enemies may be poisoning the king against you or your rival preparing a false charge with plenty of supporting evidence, or maybe the king is testy and tired of your voice and doesn't want to hear it another moment.
That's it, you see? Death is everywhere, for all men. It will come, likely sooner than later, for you and me as much as for the generals and common soldiers. Doesn't that put things into perspective? Yes, yes, of course the future of our countries matters-- one doesn't rate them at nothing, one takes the necessary risks to further the king's policies and doesn't complain. But since we're probably heading for the gallows as we do it, doesn't it make sense to enjoy ourselves along the way? Our soldiers drink and sing the night before battle. I've never notice them to fight any the less ferociously for that. I enjoy my table and my ladies and my objets d'art (and I thank you for this one-- it's truly magnificent and I shall treasure it always.) That doesn't make me any less able to advise any king who asks for my opinion.
And I shall, of course, speak to my king on the matter of yours. No, no, don't mention it; I'm always happy to make myself useful to my friends.