Day/Theme: April 15: 'how long have I been walking down this road?'
Character/Pairing: Gou Jian, Fu Chai
Possibly approaching a fork in the trousers of time, or possibly this is the end.
Fu Chai no longer summons Gou Jian to wait on him. A servant comes to request Gou Jian's attendance on the Great Lord. Gou Jian smiles sourly. All Fu Chai's avowals of good will and friendship never led to any change in Gou Jian's state. A ten-day of Fan Li's persuasive ways and the king of Yue goes from being a low-ranked servant to-- well, on the evidence, some kind of unofficial guest.
And Fan Li or no Fan Li, he'll go back to being a servant, or a slave, or possibly a corpse, the moment Fu Chai tires of this game as well. But there's no other course for him except to play the king of Wu's games. Gou Jian's mouth hardens at the reminder. However. At least a guest lives more comfortably than a servant, so for now he'll happily be the king of Wu's guest.
Happily... more or less. This new position puts an indefinable distance between himself and Fu Chai, and that worries him. Gou Jian is no longer the king's daily companion, his presence taken for granted, no more worthy of remark than the eunuchs and serving women in Fu Chai's apartments. It's that which kept him safe. Wu Zi Xu pours his poison into Fu Chai's ears every morning about how dangerous Gou Jian is alive, and Gou Jian undoes it every afternoon by the simple ordinariness of his conversation over the chess board. Fu Chai can see with his own eyes that Gou Jian is no scheming snake, no monarch insane with ambition. He's a man who accepts his defeat without bitterness, a man who easily serves his conqueror with no show of hostility or malignant looks.
In short, a man who is no threat at all.
Gou Jian hopes he hasn't lost that weapon thanks to Fan Li's intercession. And hopes, more obscurely, that the new order *is* owing to Fan Li's intercession. Because if it's not-- if it's all Fu Chai's own idea-- Gou Jian may find that the weapon has turned about in his hand and the blade now faces towards his own heart.
"Great Lord, the king of Yue is without."
"Show him in." Fu Chai puts aside the memorial he's been reading and sits back, waiting with a small anticipation to see how Gou Jian responds to his new state-- or rather, *if* he'll respond. Fu Chai half thinks there'll be no change in him at all. Gratitude isn't in Gou Jian's nature, as well Fu Chai knows-- and anyway, Gou Jian still has that grudge over Fan Li. In fact, if he thinks the alteration in his condition is owing to Fan Li's good offices, he'll be even more cross-grained than usual. To bewilder Gou Jian may well be an impossible undertaking, but Fu Chai is determined to try. What Fan Li could accomplish shouldn't be beyond the king of Wu, even given the advantages Fan Li possesses-- possessed? No, possesses, surely-- as Gou Jian's favourite.
Fu Chai frowns at the chance reminder of what he'd prefer to ignore. The rustle of silk happily interrupts his thoughts and Gou Jian walks into the room. Black robe, white under-robe, hair oiled and bound back under a black brocade cap.
Fu Chai's heart stabs him with an almost physical pang. What have I done? he thinks, stricken. I've let the tiger within my gates.
The name of his distress rises unbidden to his lips.
"King of Yue."
"King of Wu." Gou Jian cocks his head at Fu Chai's tone. Fu Chai can only stare at him, numb with dismay and a sourceless desolation.
Gou Jian. To Fu Chai 'Gou Jian' is a man in a simple hempen robe, feet bare and hair bound with a strip of cloth. A man at his ease in Fu Chai's company, someone who plays chess with the king while playing at being the king's servant, someone who understands the shared joke even if he occasionally wearies of it. Gou Jian is somebody Fu Chai *knows*: under his gaze Fu Chai can give himself over to the vulnerability of sleep with a tranquil heart. Of course it looks dangerous, to have his old antagonist sitting by his bedside while he slumbers, but the danger is no more real than Gou Jian's servitude. They both know that.
But the man in front of him now....
This is the king of Yue. *This* is the king of Yue. Yue's king is not, as Fu Chai had thought, the weary figure dimly seen down in the shadows of Yue's royal hall, nor the distant figure viewed up above from among those same shadows. He's not the abstract enemy who waged war on Fu Chai's country, the one Wu Zi Xu insists is too dangerous to live though he proved so easy to defeat. He's not even the ghost that occasionally flashes from the eyes of Fu Chai's servant. The king of Yue is this man here now-- burning purpose and determined enmity beneath his cool exterior, like the lava below a volcano's stony face. He's always been here. Fu Chai just didn't see him under the servant's clothes.
Or rather, Fu Chai didn't want to see him, preferring the Gou Jian that his fantasy painted for him. He curses himself for his blindness and folly, while his heart mourns like a child for the loss of the almost-friend he thought he might have.
"What is the great lord's will?" the great lord's enemy asks, with an intonation that suggests he's tired of being kept standing.
Those words break through Fu Chai's whirling thoughts. The reality he's suddenly glimpsed wars with the reality his brain assures him is true. Gou Jian, king of Yue, whatever that man may be, is still the prisoner of Fu Chai, and cannot even take a seat unless Fu Chai gives him permission to do so. He's tempted to withhold that permission just to demonstrate that it's true.
"Sit down," he says. Fu Chai recognizes cowardice when it whispers to him, even when it presents itself as kingly arrogance.
Gou Jian settles himself across from Fu Chai as he has so many times before. The eyes are watching him, gauging his weakness. They were always watching him like that, measuring his enemy, when Fu Chai thought Gou Jian was only trying to fathom his purpose and his soul.
"The Great Lord looks unhappy," Gou Jian observes. "Did no one tell him that favourites come at a cost?"
"What do you mean?" Fu Chai grunts.
Gou Jian waves a silken sleeve, indicating his own robes. "Fan Li's request. There'll be more after this one."
"You're wrong. This was our idea. And Fan Li is our counsellor, nothing more."
"Your idea?" Something in his face suggests a cat switching its tail. "The Great Lord favours his servant beyond his deserts."
"It's time this game ended." Fu Chai's tone is brutal, to cover the death of his hopes. "You're not our servant, king of Yue, are you?"
Gou Jian shakes his head.
"Then what are you?"
"We are your prisoner."
Fu Chai says nothing. He feels bars closing about him. Yes, Gou Jian is his enemy and his prisoner. He can never be anything else. Back to where we were. Back to the game our fathers played: the one with the moves all laid out in advance so that it always ends the same way.
"Unless you were intending to make *us* your favourite." Gou Jian's voice is a slap to the face.
"What?" Fu Chai gapes, poleaxed. "Are you mad?"
"That wasn't your intention in all this?"
"No, of course not! You? We'd as soon embrace a spider!"
His mouth thins fractionally. "Ah. We misunderstood."
"You most certainly did." Fu Chai is still shaking with shock and anger. "What do you think we are?"
"A man who kept his enemy alive against all policy and advice from his ministers."
Fu Chai lets loose a breath of sheer exasperation.
"We kept you alive because we had no other choice! We need you in Yue. Who'd be king there if you were dead? Your son, ruled by your father's ministers who hate us from years past? Or some old statesman who feels the same way? If we wiped out your line and made Yue a tributary, our troops and energy would be tied up in pacifying the land for years to come. Yue enfeebled is a drain on Wu, pure and simple. Why can't you understand simple facts? We need Yue as our ally, and you're the only man in the country with the intelligence to see the advantages of an alliance. *If* you'd use your damned head for once! But no--" Fu Chai rages on, spurred by disappointment after all these months of frustration. "You think like your father did, you think like your generals do, you refuse to see anything beyond your own horizon and your own petty concerns. How did you people ever stop fighting between village and village long enough to become a nation? No, damn it-- how did you ever stop fighting between villager and villager! Fine! Go back to your country, king of Yue-- go back to your ancestral feuds and your ancestral grudges and your peasant thinking. *We* will conquer the north, and we'll do it alone!" He turns away from Gou Jian, hands shaking and mouth a furious line.
The king of Yue's voice is cool and clipped. "And why must you conquer the north?"
Fu Chai swings back.
"Because somebody must! The north is wasting its resources and strength on petty wars, inside and out. Its countries become enfeebled while the kings and nobles jockey for pre-eminence-- the fields burn, the people starve, and nothing is ever accomplished. You *must* have seen it for yourself! None of them is strong enough to put an end to the squabbling-- and anyway," he snorts, contemptuous, "they aren't interested in peace, only in war. The prosperous countries have fools guiding them-- like Chu, or Jin, or Qin; the weaker ones are pushed about like pawns. And meanwhile the land itself bleeds."
"And you'll end all that?"
"*We* could end that, together. Wu and Yue united are strong enough to keep the north in line."
Gou Jian leans forward, and his eyes blaze with unexpected rage. "To keep the north subdued and resentful. What you won't do to Yue you'll do to Qin and Qi and Jin and Song and Wei. Bully them, dominate them, force your will on them, only because you can. *You* think like your father did and like your generals do! As long as you go on repeating King Helu's mistakes over and over again, nothing will ever change-- not for your country or for ours or for anywhere else."
Fu Chai feels a little dizzy, as though the floor isn't where it was a moment ago. "What other way is there? What would you do to bring order to the land, if you won't wage war?"
"We," says the king of Yue hotly, "would wage peace."