Distantly in the night, the sound of horse hoofs on the stony ground. Creaking and jinglings: a carriage as well as horsemen. Men's voices, rough and peremptory; eventually another voice, low and assured. The crack of a whip as the carriage leaves, with Fan Li in it.
In its wake, from the generals' prison, comes a silent noise of inward murmuring and deep distrust. Gou Jian hears it clearly with other than the body's ears. What game is the man playing now, he wonders, and silences the next thought-- And is he playing a game?-- before it can add itself to the croaking chorus of doubt.
Fan Li is a tactician. His king needn't know what strategies he's devising, here in the enemy lands, to bring them all home alive. It may involve a show of loyalty to Fu Chai; it probably does; and Fu Chai may be vain enough to believe it, even after Fan Li's very concrete demonstration that he'd rather die than serve Fu Chai.
And what game was he playing then?
Gou Jian still doesn't know. Maybe there was no game. Maybe his master strategist had simply slipped up for once-- misjudging the king of Wu, misunderstanding the king of Yue, choosing exactly the wrong moment to show Gou Jian the truth of his loyalty. His doubts of us must have been deep indeed.
He should know our mind better than he does. Close as we are--
'You should know his mind better than you do. Close as you are...' The traitor voice nibbles at his heart with sharp rat's teeth.
A foreigner, a stranger. The counselor to a king. A ruler must trust such men-- he can't govern a country otherwise-- but how close can a king and his servant ever be? (Ku Cheng, Ya Yu, like our right and left hands. But Fan Li...)
We know his heart. We know what he thinks. We *know*---
---the king's apartments are shadowy and cold always. The torches and braziers are jewels of red and pools of gold amid the dimness. Gou Jian likes it that way. Sunlight and warmth are for other places-- the queen's quarters, the women's rooms: a softer world from that where the king plans his country's future. By day he reads memorials in the barred shadows of the study; by night he sleeps dreamlessly in the calm coldness of his bedchamber.
Ku Cheng lays the bed coverings over Gou Jian that night. Being Ku Cheng, he answers the question the king hasn't voiced.
'Fan Li is still outside, Majesty. Asleep now.'
Gou Jian turns to his side. Cold and awake in the curtains of his bed, while Fan Li lies cold and asleep amid the drafts of the King's Corridor.
It'll do him no harm-- or his stubbornness either-- to spend the night on the floor. We'll pardon him in the morning.
He closes his eyes and drifts towards sleep. His drowsy mind sees Fan Li curled up outside his door, sleeping as easily as if in his own bed. Gou Jian sits up abruptly.
Tomorrow won't do. Tomorrow other people will be about, their watching eyes and busy thoughts a curb on the king's speech and actions.
The cold passageway to the outer rooms, wood smooth under his feet. The heavy door of his apartment, wood smooth under his hand. Fan Li, robes and hair spilled across the floor, and smiling a little, unforgivably, in his sleep. Gou Jian puts his sword to his counsellor's neck.
He should have known Fan Li would have the right words to hand. He did know Fan Li would have the right words-- words are the water Fan Li swims in. He just didn't know what the right words would be. Hearing them now his heart fills with the sweetness of triumph.
He puts up his sword.
'When king and ministers are of one mind, their strength can cut through metal.' And so we will, now-- shear through the iron might of Wu like grass. 'Get up,' he says in dismissal, and turns back to his rest. The soft swish of silk follows him. He glances over his shoulder in surprise. Fan Li is close behind him. Their eyes meet.
Fan Li goes to one knee and takes the king's hand in both his own. His hands are warm-- his hands are hot, even here in the outer corridor where Gou Jian can see his breath. Who would have thought the coals burned so hot within that cool measuring heart? Fan Li puts Gou Jian's hand to his forehead. Something strange is happening to Gou Jian, like dried bamboo when the fire touches it. A line of flame along the edges, almost invisible to the eye.
'We said, get up.' His voice has a tremor in it. Fan Li rises, or Gou Jian pulls him to his feet, and those hot, hot hands are still grasping his, and the fire is running through the dried bamboo that is Gou Jian. The outer offices, the king's study, fly past Gou Jian. Like being drunk, but Gou Jian knows he isn't drunk. He falls into the cold linen and brocades of his bed, and there he finds the fire's heart. Hot skin, layered cloth, sliding hair; a strength of arms and hardness of flesh different from anything known before. Here where he sleeps always in cold darkness there is fire and a brilliance that shatters his inner sight.
When the king and his counsellor share the same heart, their strength can melt metal
When they share the same heart...
Gou Jian lies awake on the straw of his hard slave's pallet, waiting for the jingling and horse's hoofs that will signal Fan Li's return from wherever he's gone. We know his mind, he tells himself. We know his heart.
And hears, still, the whisper under his mind's voice that says, But men's hearts change.