Prompt: Feb 20 The gravitational constant
Characters: Fu Chai and his several ministers
"It's a good plan, your Majesty," Wu Zi Xu nods. "It will require patience from us while the canal is building, but when it's done-- yes, we can sail directly into the heartland of the north." He turns to Fan Li. "Well done."
Fan Li bows his thanks. Wu Zi Xu hrmphs meaningly.
"A pity you couldn't have seen your way to serving Wu earlier when we wanted you to."
"Ah, but the chancellor's desire for my services somehow resulted in the king of Chu turning my mother out of her house. How could her son agree after that?"
Wu Zi Xu is aware of Fu Chai's narrowed eyes on him. "Yet here you are," he says evenly, "serving two kings, which your excellent mother said was impossible."
"It *is* impossible, and would be still if the king of Wu hadn't shown us how the impossible is done. The Great Lord spared a defeated enemy and forgave him the wrongs done to Wu and to himself. That greatness of spirit conquered Fan Li. And now that the king of Yue serves the king of Wu, surely the king of Yue's servant is free to do the same?"
Fu Chai is smiling. "Well said, Fan Li. Chancellor, take this lesson to heart. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as they say."
"Well enough if you only want to catch flies," Wu Zi Xu observes. "When an adder comes to lick your honey, beware."
"We will, we assure you. Fan Li, stay a moment. We want a word with you."
It's dismissal, and Wu Zi Xu takes it in bad grace. He barely bows before turning on his heel to go. Bo Pi's satisfied expression doesn't escape him, and he confronts him in the hall outside the king's apartments.
"Nicely done, Prime Minister. An engaging young tongue to flatter the king's vanity and turn his head."
"That engaging tongue occupies a clever head, Chancellor. Fan Li's brain won battles for Yue, and I rather fancy his tongue won Gou Jian's surrender."
"Exactly! Gou Jian shouldn't have surrendered. He should have fled into Chu, whose king would have given him up to us for execution when we demanded it."
"Only he might not have. The king of Chu dislikes being Wu's lackey. We'd have had to invade them to get at Gou Jian. And frankly, Chancellor, sending *another* army to raze your homeland will do your reputation- and Wu's- no good among the nations. 'Wu is in the hands of a madman who is dead to virtue and knows nothing of the rites. Best to crush this poisonous snake before its fangs can find us.' Listen to the king, Chancellor-- he knows a thing or two."
"The king is young and inexperienced and susceptible to flattery."
"Youth and inexperience don't matter when talent is present. Fan Li has demonstrated that. Give it up, Chancellor. The king is closeted all day with old men like you and me. No harm if he prefers to talk tactics with a strategist his own age. He could be drinking with sing-song girls, and then what would we do?"
"You'd be providing the sing-song girls and the wine."
Bo Pi only laughs and turns off towards his own offices with a nod of the head. Wu Zi Xu heaves a deep sigh and turns his deep thoughts inwards.
"Fan Li, we have you to thank for many things. We're very glad you came to Wu."
Fan Li divines what's behind this. "The king of Yue is becoming more tractable?"
"Well, he's stopped glaring at us, in any case. And we win rather more games against him than we used to." A thought crosses his mind. "He wouldn't be *letting* us win?"
"I doubt it very much. His thoughts must be distracted."
"Ah. Good. Mh, Fan Li. About this matter of Gou Jian's servant--"
"His body servant, the one who followed him to Wu."
"Oh. Ku Cheng, your Majesty means?"
"We'd thought of bringing him from the barracks to wait on the king of Yue. We made the offer to Gou Jian but he didn't really answer. Is it because the queen would object to having him there?"
"The queen? Why would she? He's been part of their household since before the king was regent. The two of them work together to keep the palace running smoothly."
"They do?" Fu Chai looks puzzled. "Perhaps we misunderstood the man's position. Is he something more than a body servant?"
"He's the king's factotum-- aide, secretary, messenger, chamber servant, liaison. He does whatever needs doing." Fan Li's mind winces away from the memory of some of those things. "If you want to get a private message to the king, you ask the queen to deliver it to him. To convey your request to the queen, you ask Ku Cheng to take it to her. And if he won't, that's the end of it."
"Then he has a lot of power in the palace. Is he an honest man?"
"Yes, but not as your Majesty thinks of it. Ku Cheng has no official office. He's not a general or a counsellor or someone working his way up the hierarchy. He's just the king's man. He's Ku Cheng. It's an absolute position-- there's nothing higher to aim at, or lower for him to fear demotion to. I *suppose* he could use his influence to gain power or riches-- but if he thought like that, he wouldn't be where he is in the first place."
Fu Chai sighs in perplexity. "Gou Jian said Ku Cheng isn't a favourite."
Fan Li has to smile. "He certainly isn't."
"So our Chancellor was mistaken. He thought Ku Cheng's closeness to the king of Yue meant he shared the king's bed."
"I'm sure he does."
"You mean, like a minor concubine? There for pleasure only?"
"No. Not like that at all."
Fu Chai looks his confusion and impatience. Drums his fingers. Chews on his thought for a little and then says slowly, "Fan Li-- we were considering what you said the other day. That a king shouldn't take his favourites from among his officials and ministers, for both their sakes, but from a lower class. We'd like to try this kind of love you speak of but, well, obviously it requires someone experienced. So we thought, the king of Yue's servant might do, if he was such a one-- but it seems it's more complicated than that?"
Fan Li gives him a very odd look indeed. "Ku Cheng is the last man your Majesty should be thinking of in that fashion. Unless your Majesty is determined to confirm the king of Yue as your life-long enemy."
"What? But he's not Gou Jian's favourite--"
Fan Li is shaking his head. "No. He's a man of Yue and the king's right hand. The king, I'll wager, doesn't even think of him as a person separate from himself. Take him and you take part of the king's flesh. A mere travelling counsellor from Chu is nothing by comparison. You can have *him* and welcome--"
"Not welcome," Fu Chai snorts. "Gou Jian's still angry at that--"
"Annoyed. But in his heart he expected no less. It will be years before the king of Yue trusts Fan Li as naturally as he trusts even his old enemies at home, and I doubt he'll ever trust me as much. Foreigners-- you see, a foreigner can leave. He doesn't belong to the land and the people however long he stays. The men of Yue are part of the king's family, and you touch them at your peril."
"Ah. Mh. Like that, then."
Fan Li nods.
"But we can have you and welcome?"
Fan Li sighs deeply, silently, and nods.