The world is full of suckitude. Therefore I fic: still running off December's prompts even as I consider February's.
'nevertheless, to be curious is dangerous enough'
Bo Pi obeys the king's summons. He enters the king's office and bows with hands together.
'Bo Pi.' The king looks up at him under his brows, showing too much white in the eyes; his mouth is tight with displeasure. A roiling sense of baffled anger surrounds him, nearly palpable. It recalls the king of a year or so ago, the one Wu Zi Xu kept in impotent ignorance. Bo Pi grimaces inwardly. He's found something out. There are a few of Bo Pi's own doings that the king might well, ahh, misunderstand. The stock excuses and arguments pop automatically into Bo Pi's head, waiting to be brought forth. He's thus caught off-balance at the king's next words.
'What's this story of the leftover peach?'
'The leftover peach? Mizi Xia, your Majesty means?'
'The favourite of the king of Wei. A sad tale.'
Fu Chai hunches his shoulders. 'Tell it to Us.''
'The king and his favourite were once walking in the orchard together. Mizi Xia took a peach and bit into it. Finding it sweet, he stopped eating and gave what remained to Duke Ling to enjoy.'
'Ling? You mean the present king of Wei?'
'Yes, your Majesty. I met Mizi Xia once: a talented man who deserved better than his fate.'
'At the time the duke was moved by Xia's gesture. 'How sincere is your love for me!' he said. "You forget your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!" But later on Mizi Xia lost his looks and the Duke's love for him turned to hatred. He was accused of some crime and Duke Ling chose to believe his accusers, saying, "After all, he's the sort of man who'd give his lord a left-over peach to eat."' Bo Pi shakes his head in true commiseration. A courtier's life hangs always by a thread. However, one should never waste an opportunity to point a useful moral. 'It's a lesson for the ages. A virtuous ruler should always be faithful to those who serve him faithfully.'
'It seems to *Us* a lesson that a king shouldn't choose his favourites for their faces!'
Bo Pi raises surprised eyebrows. 'Beauty is the common requirement in a favourite. Wit and grace are recommendations, but it's the eye that first decides what the heart feels.'
The king shifts uncomfortably. 'You make it sound the same thing as a concubine.'
'Well, what difference is there?'
The king hunches more and the air about him grows darker. That's not what he wanted to hear. What's this all about? Some young noble, ambitious or merely lovesick, dropping hints at the king? and the king, in his inexperience, not sure of what he meant?
'Might this poor councillor ask who it was mentioned the left-over peach to your Majesty?'
Fu Chai flashes a look at him. 'Wu Zi Xu.'
What? 'Isn't he a bit old for that?'
Bo Pi shakes his head to clear it.
'I meant, has the Chancellor been recommending someone to your majesty's attention?' Clever Wu Zi Xu, to have noticed how easily the king dispensed with the company of his concubines in consequence of his oath; and stupid Bo Pi, not to have thought of the reason for himself. Concubines are bad enough, but favourites can be truly dangerous.
'Wu Zi Xu has been telling Us of Gou Jian's... habits.'
'Gou Jian.' Bo Pi scratches his cheek in double perplexity. 'Gou Jian has a favourite?' he asks, broaching the problem it's safe to talk about. The other-- Wu Zi Xu's motives for gossiping-- he'll consider later.
'Fan Li,' the king growls.
'Ohh, yes. Yes, I suppose it would be. Clever, young, not bad-looking. A brilliant tactician-- I've been wangling to get him for our side. Now I see why my overtures came to nothing.' Bo Pi chews his lip. 'Hn- that's a problem I hadn't considered.'
The king's hand lands hard on the table, making Bo Pi jump. 'Don't you find anything odd about this at all?'
'About Gou Jian and Fan Li? Well, only the obvious. If *I* had the queen of Yue to wife I'd have no eyes for anyone else, man *or* woman. But--' he shrugs-- 'men are men and come all kinds, and Gou Jian has always had a special regard for Master Fan--' Bo Pi's mouth rattles on automatically because his mind has just kicked him, and hard. The king is in love with Gou Jian, remember? He just doesn't know it. And-- good heaven-- he may be finding out. But *Wu Zi Xu*-- does *he* know? I can't believe it. Then what's he doing, if he's not trying to make the king jealous of Fan Li? He pulls himself together. 'Or does your Majesty find something else odd about it?'
The king doesn't answer. He gets up, puts his hands behind his back, paces three steps away and three steps back. His mouth works silently, looking for words. He throws himself back behind his desk and beckons Bo Pi to the other side with an irritable gesture.
Bo Pi bows his thanks and sits down across from the King. Fu Chai leans over the table and lowers his voice.
'Bo Pi.' He swallows. 'Bo Pi. Do you know what men do together?'
'Generally, yes, though your councillor has always preferred the ladies.'
'And the idea doesn't disgust you?'
'Does it disgust your Majesty?'
'Of course! To- to put-- oneself in-- in so filthy a place--!'
'Oh.' So that's what Wu Zi Xu is up to. Anything he can find to turn the king against Gou Jian. 'There are other ways to do it, Majesty, and far cleaner.'
'There are? Wu Zi Xu said--'
'Wu Zi Xu is no master of the bedroom arts,' Bo Pi says sourly. 'He thinks everyone shares his own tastes, or ought to.' Certainly he was never one to consider his partner's preferences, not if the man was someone wholly dependent on Wu Zi Xu's good will.
Fu Chai looks pole-axed. 'Wu Zi Xu? He did--' he swallows-- 'that?'
Bo Pi sighs inwardly. How innocent he is. These men of Wu-- it's always news to them.
News indeed. Now to undo the Chancellor's work a little.
'Wu Zi Xu was very good-looking in his youth,' he says consideringly. 'Which is one reason, at least, why your father... favoured him.'
There's a stunned silence that lasts for several eons.
'Is this the custom of you men of Chu?' Fu Chai asks in a strangled voice.
'It's the custom everywhere. There's nothing unusual about it. The king of Chi, for instance--'
'Duke Jing?' Fu Chai asks in disbelief.
'The same. One of his servants fell in love with his beauty-- a minor man, not worth a king's regard. Duke Jing was furious at the impertinence and ordered him put to death. But his chief minister Yanzi pushed his way into the king's chamber and remonstrated with him. "To resist desire is not in accordance with the Way," he said "and to hate love is inauspicious." Yanzi was a man of deep understanding-- and I must say, it's a good thing for us that he's dead now, or the future of Wu might not look as bright as it does."
The king grunts.
'But Yanzi was right. If Fan Li is devoted to his king, if Gou Jian is attracted by Master Fan's parts and talents, it's virtue in them to give expression to those feelings. As for the mechanics of how they go about it-- well, I suppose it's like Wu Zi Xu to think the most outré mode is the most natural.'
'Yes, yes, we know what you think of our Chancellor, Bo Pi.' The king's dismissive grumble is reassuring: Fu Chai is himself again. 'Well, no matter. We knew you'd be able to put the matter ito perspective. Thank you. You may go.'
Bo Pi stands up and puts fingers together. 'Your servant is glad to have calmed the king's worries. He will take his leave.'
'Mh.' Fu Chai watches him go. His fingers drum on the table.
To resist desire is not in accordance with the Way, he thinks.
And what is it I desire?