Day/Theme: April 5. 'trying to build a tower out of custard'
Character/Pairing: Fu Chai, Fan Li, various ministers
Fu Chai interrupts his ministers in their daily wrangles. "We wish to capture a city," he says without prelude. "How do we go about doing that?"
Wu Zi Xu raises quizzical eyebrows. "Your Majesty sends the army to attack it. With the advantage of surprise you can be within the walls before they know it, or with only a minor battle."
"They know we're coming."
Wu Zi Xu's eyes narrow. The king has spoken of war against the north, against Qi or Chu, as a project for the distant future. Relatively distant future-- when the canal is built, after Yue is pacified. What city is he thinking of?
"A siege then, though those take time."
"Yes, they do. The people grow weak and die so their army can live, and then we fight the army and kill its men, and then we have the city."
"Yes, your Majesty. Is there a problem with that?"
"We want a living city, not a ruin inhabited by scarecrows. How do you capture a city without destroying it?"
"Diplomacy," Bo Pi says at once. "Find out the factions within the city's ruling class and make friends with the less powerful. Send them gifts and guarantees of goodwill. Persuade them they'll do better under your rule than under their present king. Who *is* their present king, by the way?"
"That needn't concern you. Call this a future contingency. So we suborn one faction and kill the other?"
"Suppress the other until it sees its own advantage in the situation."
"What if there are no factions within the city? What if the citizens are all united against their common enemy?"
"There are always factions," Bo Pi says with conviction.
"Really? So if you were going to undermine the present government in Yue, how would you do it?"
Bo Pi's eyes fly automatically to Fan Li, standing modestly silent behind the chief ministers and generals. Fu Chai cuts in.
"This is a theoretical question, minister. It seems to us that Yue is a country without factions, its people united in hatred of Wu. We wonder how you'd bring them to our side."
Bo Pi rubs his nose. "The case of Yue is a little harder. It was conquered by Wu and that always causes bad feeling. Here we must treat the whole country as one faction. We bring it to our side by good treatment and gifts and promises. And so we show them that Yue does better as Wu's ally than its enemy."
"And when we've set the country back on its feet, it sends its army to attack us," Wu Zi Xu counters at once. "Majesty. The prime minister is right that you must bring one part of the country to your side. There was always a faction that distrusted Gou Jian and believed he'd bring ruin on the nation. He's done that, and now they'll want a new king. So kill Gou Jian-- and his son, naturally-- and let the nobility pick someone more to their taste."
"Who will either be a nonentity, useless for governing, or a man of purpose who'll come and attack Wu in *his* turn," Fu Chai says.
"I doubt it. Most men don't have Gou Jian's ambition and crookedness. Your Majesty can't have the good will of Yue, but you can have a king who knows enough to leave the stronger nation alone."
"So we must always lose a part of what we wish to keep? The only way to hold power is to weaken others?"
"Yes, your Majesty. As the only way to build a house is to fell the trees to make it. You cannot have the house and the grove both intact," Wu Zi Xu says meaningly.
"The best one can hope," Fan Li says suddenly, "is to lose the fewest number of trees necessary. But those trees and the birds who sang in them will always be gone."
Fu Chai turns his heavy regard on him.
"I see. You may go, gentlemen."
Fu Chai sits looking at the chess board, with last night's game lying unfinished on it. A few black stones lie dead within the surrounding lock of white ones, but more black warriors sit waiting on the other side, prepared for battle. Fu Chai should go on the attack himself. Black will respond ferociously. And we'll both lose players till one of us is weakened past recovery. Maybe he could draw black out with a feint, moving in two different directions to create two separate fronts. Then, when the black stones are trailing across the board, cut them off from each other, so that black has to concede the impossibility of continuing. No, that won't work. Black has learned from the past; he won't make the same mistake twice. He doesn't respond to feints and overtures now, only to direct incursions on the territory he's marked as his. And where does that territory lie?
His wife and family, of course; but Fu Chai has no intention of touching those. His country and people, which Fu Chai has sworn to leave unharmed. From what Fan Li says, Ku Cheng. And Fan Li himself, in a way Fu Chai doesn't quite grasp. We take his body and his service and Gou Jian remains unmoved. Until we say Fan Li loves him and not us, and then he flies into a rage. Because a man who truly loved him would never have come to us?
He shakes his head. What good do these thoughts do in the end? We know where Gou Jian's raw spots lie. We want to do the *opposite* of flicking them, if we knew what that was.
"Majesty, Fan Li craves an audience."
"Mh. Send him in." Fu Chai picks up a stone, goes to place it, puts it back in the bowl. Absently he gestures Fan Li to the place across from him.
"Does this look like checkmate to you?"
"If the great lord looks only to the end of the game, then yes."
"What else does one look to if not the end of the game?"
"The playing of it."
"But there's always an end."
"Of course. The question is which is more important to you, the play or the outcome. There's an end to every meal: one deposits it in the chamber pot. Is that what you think of when you eat?"
Fu Chai leans on an elbow, eyebrows knitting.
"But everyone *knows* games are for winning."
"Everyone knows games must have a winner and a loser, or end in a draw. For some that fact is as minor a consideration as the ultimate end of the wine you drink."
"And yet--" He gestures to the board.
"A common player thinks only about how to kill these stones," Fan Li says. "To maneuver them into an unfavourable position, to make them dead and useless. Your Majesty is reaching for a knowledge beyond that: how to enfold the stones within your own and make them one."
"Yes. But the game isn't set up to be played that way."
"It is if you decide it will be. Anyone can *play* to win, though the game may be lost or end in a draw. But do you know how hard it is to play so that the game is *never* won or lost? Not because your opponent is stronger than you, but because the two of you have decided to play to a draw. That takes mastery: and the exercise of that mastery is where the pleasure lies for the truly great player."
Fu Chai rubs both temples with his fists. His head hurts.
"I suppose that's well enough if you your opponent has agreed to those rules---"
"Oh no." Fan Li is smiling. "No, that ruins the fun. The true joy is not knowing when you start out which sort of game you're playing. Like facing a man with a sword and not knowing whether he intends a practice bout or to kill you, and only finding the answer as you trade strokes. Be prepared to kill and be prepared to play, equally, which means being prepared for nothing and responding only to what happens before you."
"Fan Li, that isn't how you won the battles you've fought."
"No, your Majesty. Not the battles against armies and kingdoms. It's how your servant won his battles against the king of Yue."
Fu Chai is suddenly stiff with attention.
"One can't go up against him with a fixed purpose. He's too changeable himself. He turns into a mist that floats around your fixedness as if it isn't there."
"Yes," Fu Chai says in heartfelt tones.
"But if you give him nothing fixed to flee from, if you're as pliant and evasive as he is, he comes after you. Retreat and he advances. Advance and he retreats."
"It's maddening how he does that!"
"Your Majesty is still thinking in terms of a final goal. Never mind that. Think only of the play between you-- the dance, if you will. In time you come to admire each other's movements, in time you come to move for each other's attention, and *then* you have a balance."
"Really." He looks down at the board. "Your lessons aren't easy, Master Fan."
"Your Majesty is not engaged in an easy battle. But if you wish to win without destroying the prize, you must fight as your opponent fights."
"True. Have them summon Bo Pi here." Fan Li goes to relay the message. Fu Chai's fingers drum absently on the table and his half-focused eyes look at the pattern of the stones. Not to cut them off but to take them in...
Bo Pi bows, hands together. "Your majesty, Bo Pi presents himself."
"Bo Pi. The king and queen of Yue are to be lodged in the palace from now on. We wish to have them near to our chambers; there must be a room or two you can turn to that purpose. See that they're given proper robes and chamber attendants." He grimaces. "And guards. Bring the king's servant Ku Cheng from the barracks to wait on him and find a suitable waiting woman for the queen-- someone whose character you can vouch for." He waves dismissal.
Bo Pi smiles in delight and bows again. "It will be my pleasure to carry out the great lord's orders." He gives Fan Li a look of triumph and goes.
Fu Chai sighs.
"Thank you for your counsel, Fan Li. And thank you for your company up till now. We will see you at audience, one supposes."
Fan Li bows irreproachably. "This minister thanks the great lord for the favour granted to one so poor in talent. He will do his best to show his gratitude in future."
"Mh." Fu Chai glances up at him. "I'm still not giving him back to you."
Fan Li smiles a little sadly. "Of course not. Fan Li never had him in the first place."
Fu Chai nods. "Unless I do. You may go, counselor."
Fan Li makes it out of the room with his expression intact. Well, well, well. Maybe Fu Chai can learn after all-- to a point. Maybe he can bring this off. Fan Li wishes in frustration that he could have the counseling of Fu Chai as he makes the attempt, and equally that he could counsel Gou Jian as the attempt is made upon him. But this round he must watch from the sidelines. No doubt- he smiles a little grimly- one or the other or both will be calling on his services in the course of time.