Rest, rest, perturbed spirit
When the king lay wounded in Wu he battled death ferociously, clawing his way to consciousness again and again, like a drowning man fighting to reach the air. Ya Yu didn't remonstrate with him, though the doctors did. The king was doing only what the king had always done, in Yue as in Wu-- whatever it was that he found it necessary to do. No prayers or tears would stop him from doing what he thought had to be done; they'd only add to the burden he bore. And so Ya Yu did what she'd always done, in Wu as in Yue: stayed by his side holding his hand, talking to him when his mute eyes met hers with the demand to know what was happening, and making it as easy for him as she could.
He gained strength on the journey back, the rough jogging journey that could well have reopened his wound and threatened his life again. The sight of the skies of Yue, the sound of its people welcoming their lord back after three years, the knowledge that the hardships and humiliation of Wu were over-- he took them in like a cordial that put blood in his cheeks and strength in the grip of his hand.
But once back in Yue he became comatose. He slept for long hours, waking grudgingly to take, sometimes, a little nourishment from Ya Yu's hands before turning his head to sleep again. He wouldn't see his courtiers, wouldn't see his advisors, wouldn't talk even to Fan Li who'd come with him to share his imprisonment or Wen Zhong who'd stayed to secure his country's safety. He was indifferent to the state of his kingdom, indifferent to his people's fears, indifferent, it seemed, to everything. He no longer looked at Ya Yu, but turned his face from life in search of darkness and silence and oblivion.
"Majesty," Ya Yu said, "Ku Cheng has brought you dinner."
Gou Jian didn't open his eyes, but he half-raised his hand and flipped the fingers weakly.
"You may take it away, Ku Cheng."
"Yes, Madam." Ku Cheng bowed and turned with the stand. Ya Yu watched his back. She stood and slipped away from the king's bedside, and out the door which she closed behind her.
He turned. His mouth was stiff with the effort of controlling his features, but his eyes were wet. She went over to him.
The others were well enough-- Ye Yong and Shi Mai, even Fan Li and Wen Zhong. Courtiers, soldiers, foreign advisors, for whom the king was first and foremost and sometimes always, the king. But Ku Cheng had been a part of their domestic household for years before the Prince even became regent. It was more than loyalty to the king of Yue that had caused Ku Cheng-- as unaccustomed to hardship as she was herself-- to follow the king into slavery and suffering in Wu, and then sent him back to Yue on a journey even more grievous and full of danger. Loyal to the king he was, but he loved Gou Jian the man.
Ya Yu had always felt at ease with her husband's retainer, and thought little of the fact. It was natural: they'd shared the same house since he'd been a boy. Nor did she wonder why she lacked the same closeness to any of her own women. Now she saw what it was: Ku Cheng alone felt as she did towards her king and husband. But Ku Cheng, in his low rank and silent devotion, was denied the knowledge of Gou Jian's mind that he'd given to his queen and wife.
"Ku Cheng. It will be alright. You must believe that."
"Madam." The tears spilled over. Mutely he held up the serving table. "The great lord doesn't eat--"
"His majesty's gone without food before. He didn't die of it then and he won't now."
"But he's wounded--"
She nodded. "Yes, he's wounded, and the wound is poisoned." Ku Cheng went white. "The poison of defeat and humiliation, and of betrayal by his own men. He has to let it work its way through his system. In time, you'll see-- he'll cast the poison out and return to us."
Ku Cheng caught his breath, wanting to believe her and clearly afraid to do so.
"He's tired, Ku Cheng. Everything that's happened to him since the last battle-- everything he endured in Wu-- he's had to make use of it. To turn defeat to advantage, to make of his humiliation a means to keep himself alive and bring us back to Yue. He's fought, day and night, for three years, and with such brittle weapons. He's so tired. We must let him rest."
"Yes, madam." Ku Cheng bowed. He looked better. Ya Yu nodded her dismissal and went back to the king's bedchamber. She sat again by his side and looked at his sleeping form. His long hair, loosened about him, had streaks of grey in it now. She pulled the coverlet up over his shoulder.
'Rest,' she thought to him. 'Rest for as long as you need to. And then come back to us. Come back and make the world right again, so that I can have my rest as well.'