VII: Specters on the Water
My heartfelt thanks to all reviewers! Enjoy!
On the opposite side of the Chang Jiang, a solitary figure on horseback meandered at a mournful crawl across sand and surf.
The rider in question was Lu Xun – bareheaded, dressed in a plain gray tunic, wrapped in a black cloak. The sleek black horse he rode – named Sunbeam, ironically – was actually Sun Quan's, stolen as part of a dare from Sun Ce.
Now, hours after his infiltration into the Sun family stables, Lu Xun felt his initial euphoria and excitement at a heist well accomplished (which he had originally agreed to perform out of the sheer need for distraction) dwindling into nothingness. Ennui and hollowness racked him like pangs of hunger. A lingering feeling of stress had made him unable to read, swim, or indeed do anything that he formerly enjoyed.
It was all because he was still waiting for a reply from Shu.
It had been two months since he had sailed down the river to offer Sun Shang Xiang's hand to Liu Bei. Ever since that inconclusive (and rather awkward) meeting, not a word had come from Shu about the proposal – not one ship or messenger; not even a letter. It was as if Liu Bei and all his followers had vanished off the face of the earth. The silence tortured Lu Xun to no end: though he'd originally dreaded a very short wait (which would have indicated impulsiveness on Liu Bei's part), he found a wait of this length worse – it could not mean anything good. Sun Jian had even been contemplating sending Lu Xun back to Caisang, if only to "reassess the sentiments there," as the former had put it. And Lu Xun dreaded the prospect: he would have preferred being reassigned to the front lines at He Fei instead of being made to endure another mortifying round of diplomatic acting, or being dissected by Zhuge Liang's surgical gaze.
That also was it – the parting look from Zhuge Liang. It lingered in his eye like the dark afterimage of the sun, robbing him of sleep and concentration. Lu Xun had no idea why it bothered him so much – and though his head hurt every time he attempted to find a reason why, he nonetheless spent most of his waking hours doing just that.
What is it about that look? Zhuge Liang has figured out what's behind this proposal – or is acting like he has. What was he trying to do? Reassure me? Intimidate me? Does he think I'm part of the conspiracy? Or, God forbid, that everyone in Wu is in it, Sun Jian included?
What will he tell Liu Bei? Everything, probably. Then Liu Bei will refuse us – no man in his right mind would not. Is this why nothing has come yet? Does he think he even doesn't have to refuse in writing?
But wouldn't Liu Bei react more…strongly? Wouldn't he be furious and call Sun Jian out on his "treachery," and break off relations with Wu? Why would he ever continue an alliance with a family that plotted against his life – unless he thinks that an open split between us would embolden Cao Cao? But he seemed so honest and outspoken with me when I interviewed him. Won't he be honest now?
Here Lu Xun's train of reasoning invariably hit a dead end, and always for the same reason: he did not know Liu Bei. In spite of the image of honesty and outspokenness that Liu Bei had conveyed, Lu Xun was forced to question it after hearing Zhuge Liang so nonchalantly admit to eavesdropping on their "private" conversation. It's my job to make sure he isn't being conned, ambushed, betrayed, or done in by trickery – it said something about the level of influence Liang exercised with his lord. All of Liu Bei's actions and words had to be products of his strategist's influence – not honest reflections of his own character - and Zhuge Liang, Lu Xun knew, was beyond comprehension.
It's less of a mystery now why Zhou Yu hates him. If a single five-minute conversation had set Lu Xun on edge for so long, he did not know how Zhou Yu had been able to handle working with Zhuge Liang for two whole months prior to Chibi. Granted, Zhuge Liang had been all charm and courtesy in the court of Jian Ye, as many courtiers and generals had testified; even the intractable Sun Quan had called Liang "a gentleman with a first-rate mind." But Lu Xun – even in his brief five-minute encounter with the strategist- had detected a hidden edge beneath Liang's charming exterior, and edge made crueler and keener by the frightening confidence with which Liang conducted himself. And Zhou Yu had definitely felt that edge, that winter.
If only they'd gotten along – I can't help but think that Gonjin wants to kill Liu Bei to one-up Zhuge Liang – not really for the sake of politics.
Lu Xun straightened up on his horse and gazed into the distance. Massive clouds – leaden gray and menacing – stretched from river to sky like cosmic pillars, floating silently over the distant line that connected river and land. They reminded Lu Xun of ship's sails in their breadth and soaring height, and for a moment, the gray, wet riverbank slipped away from sight, and Lu Xun was indeed standing before a forest of tall sails, a report in his hand and the surf tickling his feet, listening to two men conversing in the distance with growing irritation.
I hope I did not put you through too much anxiety? It was rather terrible of me to ask this of you.
Nonsense, replied a voice laughingly. All tasks are but as easy as turning one's hand over – that is, if they are planned and executed properly.
Lu Xun looked over at Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, who stood about ten paces off on the sand, and wondered for the third time what was taking his superior so long to put an end to this conversation. He could not see the expression on Zhou Yu's face – Gonjin had his back to him – but Zhuge Liang's face was plainly visible, wearing the placid and gentle smile it always wore.
What sort of payment would you like, sir?
Oh, none at all. Cao Cao's defeat is the only compensation I look forward to. I trust you will no longer stand in want of arrows?
Zhou Yu's voice was strangely tight. Certainly not, he replied. Not at all.
"Sir," said Lu Xun very loudly, throwing caution to the winds – the report in his hand was a very urgent one, and Zhou Yu had been away from his office far too long. "The scout reports from Xia Kou – "
Very well, very well!
With a very stiff bow to Liang, Zhou Yu started back along the riverbank, toward the road that led to Jian Ye. Lu Xun ran after him and waved the report at Zhou Yu, hoping he'd read it on the spot so they could discuss it back at the office; but Zhou Yu barreled on wordlessly, refusing to look even once at Lu Xun – something entirely unlike him to do.
And when they reached his office Zhou Yu was still not himself: he tossed the report aside after a single glance, without comment, and when Lu Xun handed him a pen to sign a few approval forms, Zhou Yu, instead of putting it to paper, seized it by both ends and broke it cleanly in half.
Later Lu Xun inquired around about what had happened between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang. The answers he received were, in truth, a little hard to believe. Zhou Yu had asked Zhuge Liang to procure a hundred thousand arrows for immediate use against the Cao fleets – there'd been a supply shortage, apparently - and Zhuge Liang had done just that. Some told Lu Xun that it hadn't been a request, but a bet – a bet calculated to deflate Liang's reputation for superhuman genius. Why else was Zhou Yu so upset? Ordinarily such a swift end to an ammunition shortage would have overjoyed him.
Rubbish, Lu Xun had thought then. He didn't know Liang well enough yet, but certainly Gonjin was above stirring petty rivalries…
How naïve and ignorant he'd been.
The first drops of rain began to fall from the sky, and the forest of tall ships, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang's distant forms, and the haze of impending battle vanished from Lu Xun's eyes. Briefly, as he shivered under a new onslaught of coldness, he thought – not without bitterness – about how far he had drifted from Zhou Yu since that momentous winter. While preparing for Chibi, basking in the afterglow of a recent promotion and burning with patriotism, he was practically Zhou Yu's right arm – knowledgeable at very moment of his thoughts and whereabouts, as open and frank with him as he'd ever been with anyone, and in possession of his full confidence, even respect.
Not any more: he hardly saw Zhou Yu anymore, and even when he did, his superior's eyes and countenance were utterly blank – cold. Lu Xun knew Zhou Yu was plotting, plotting, plotting – thinking of ways to ensure the success of his plan, perhaps to counter Zhuge Liang. But what was he thinking? He could no longer know.
A glimmer of color roused Lu Xun from his reverie, and he stopped and narrowed his eyes at the massive storm front stretching before him. There was nothing but a wall of gray – his eye had tricked him.
He sighed and plodded on.
A second later he stopped and stared again.
The silhouette of a single ship – a sizable one, even in the distance – floated into view between the column-like clouds. It was almost faint enough to blend into the storm front itself, but a thin ribbon of green kept it from dissolving entirely into the gray sky.
A pennant, thought Lu Xun, admiring its vivid color.
A warship, he thought next, judging the length of the pennant.
Not just any warship, he realized, as the silhouette swelled. A ship-of-the-line.
Then Lu Xun went cold all over – and not because it had suddenly begun to pour.
Is this really who I think it is?
Oh God - Liu Bei?
What on earth – he's really come?
Without another moment's thought, Lu Xun dealt Sunbeam a sharp kick in the ribs and fled at top speed in the direction of the nearest watchtower.
Liu Bei opened his eyes a crack and winced at the sudden stab of light that greeted him. His head felt as if it had been repeatedly bludgeoned by a dull weapon. His first thought was to wonder where on earth he was, for the gray wood ceiling that sloped above him was not that of his bedroom. His second thought – or rather, realization – was that the mat he lay on pitched and rolled rather uncertainly.
When finally he realized that he was on a boat in the middle of the Chang Jiang, he leapt up from his mat – and promptly collapsed again as a bout of vertigo assailed him.
"Damn you, Zhuge Liang!" he exclaimed, pounding the wooden deck with a fist.
"Sir?" said a worried voice, and Zhao Yun appeared in the doorway of Liu Bei's cabin, dripping wet. For a moment Liu Bei eyed the puddle forming at the hem of Zhao Yun's cape with dismay.
"Zilong – what's going on?"
"We're on the Jolly Phoenix, sir. Sailing across the river."
Liu Bei groaned as another stab of pain caused his vision to blacken. "Did you fall overboard, Zilong?"
Zhao Yun looked genuinely concerned as he moved over to help Liu Bei into a sitting position. "No, sir – it's just raining outside. Pretty hard at that."
"Damn it," growled Liu Bei – the only thing he hated more than traveling on boats was pouring rain. "Remind me to throttle Zhuge Liang as soon as we return."
"That's an order, Zhilong – I don't care how much good this visit will do me in the long run; he has to stop treating me like an idiotic child!"
In the woods west of Jian Ye, two riders crashed through the wet undergrowth, trailed by a pack of yelping dogs. Twenty yards ahead of them, a terrified fox fled, zigzagging through the trees.
"I'm on him!" roared Sun Quan triumphantly, leveling his bow at the fleeing creature.
"Not so fast!" challenged Zhou Yu, riding abreast and aiming his bow as well.
Before they could shoot, however, a resounding crash and an explosion of leaves and branches startled them, sending their horses rearing and the fox scampering away into the undergrowth. A large black steed leapt out of the bushes, bearing a small figure on its back.
"Your Highness! Sir!"
Sun Quan and Zhou Yu gaped as Lu Xun barreled toward them.
"What the hell is going on? You scared our fox away!"
"And what the hell are you doing on my horse?" Sun Quan bellowed.
"Sorry - got to go!" shouted Lu Xun, galloping past them. "Liu Bei's coming!"
He raced off into the distance. Sun Quan and Zhou Yu turned to each other in shock.
"What? He's coming?"
"Not possible," said Zhou Yu, turning sheet-white. "I told the bastards on the watchtowers to notify me as soon as they saw a hint of a ship!"
Right at that moment a second crash sounded, and a messenger dressed in the uniform of the River Guard hurtled toward them.
"General Zhou Yu, sir!" he exclaimed, dismounting and kneeling on the wet grass before the riders. "Outpost Five reports sighting a warship sailing across the Chang Jiang in our direction!"
"What sort of warship?" demanded Zhou Yu. "Are you sure it isn't one of ours?"
"Begging your pardon, sir, it's not likely ours. The ship is displaying a long green pennant on its mainmast."
"The Wu navy never flies anything green," muttered Sun Quan, turning white himself.
"Damn!" spat Zhou Yu. "This must be Zhuge Liang's design!" He turned to the messenger. "Where is it heading?"
"We're not sure, sir. It's still too far away to tell."
Without another word, Zhou Yu and Sun Quan swiveled around and galloped for the riverbank.
On the topmost deck of the Jolly Phoenix, Liu Bei shivered as torrent after torrent of rain cascaded upon him. Zhao Yun stood at his side, trying his best to maintain an agreeable expression, and (uncharacteristically) failing. Both stared desperately into the grey distance, searching for a hint of a port on the southern bank of the river, and not finding anything – largely because the torrential rain made it impossible to tell where river met land, or where land met sky.
"The pilot says we're only a mile away from Jian Ye?"
"Yes," said Zhao Yun, furrowing his brow. "But I don't see anything."
"Neither do I. It's strange."
Zhao Yun cast his lord a bemused look. "Strange, sir? It's sort of hard to see anything in this weather."
"I mean it's strange we haven't seen any ships yet. I know Sun Jian – if he were receiving an important visitor, he'd send out a whole fleet of ships to accompany us into port. That's the sort of treatment Zhuge Liang received when he went there."
Then Liu Bei paused as a horrible idea entered his head. "Zhuge Liang did tell them we were coming, did he?"
Zhao Yun stared blankly back. "I assume they know we're coming."
"Then where is everyone?" cried Liu Bei, angrily sweeping his arm at the open (and empty) expanse of water before him. "I'm turning back if I don't see any ships soon!"
Zhao Yun lowered his head and fell into deep contemplation. He honestly did not know how to reply to Liu Bei, or to calm him down – he could only assume that Zhuge Liang, of all people, would not neglect diplomatic protocol and fail to notify the Sun family of Liu Bei's arrival. Right now, however, he was just as much on edge as Liu Bei, and just as ready to turn back and go home – the rain was making him miserable. He prayed that something would show up soon…
The distant cry of a lookout startled him. "Sail ahoy! Dead ahead!"
"What is it?" bellowed the captain of the Jolly Phoenix.
"A merchant ship!"
Liu Bei and Zhao Yun rushed to the head of the ship and strained to see through the veil of rain. Sure enough, the dark shadow of a ship's stern hovered uncertainly before them. The lookout, however, had not been entirely correct: as if by magic, more and more shadows came into view – and entire fleet of merchant ships.
"Merchant ships!" exclaimed Liu Bei bitterly. "Not warships or dignitaries' ships. What on earth is going on?"
Zhao Yun shrugged, feeling just as helpless and lost as Liu Bei. As he pondered desperately about what to do, his thoughts drifted to the three little boxes tucked in his waist piece. Weren't they for emergencies just like this one now?"
Open these when you fall into a situation that you absolutely without a doubt cannot get out of, Zhuge Liang had admonished.
Oh well, thought Zhao Yun, we are all stumped now anyway. He felt around in his waist piece and pulled out the box containing Plan the First. The carving of the goldfish, oddly enough, emboldened him to open it: had Zhuge Liang meant it to be a symbolic coincidence?
"What is that?" asked Liu Bei, looking over Zhao Yun's shoulder as the general carefully undid the latch on the box and pulled out the oilskin pouch inside.
Within the oilskin pouch was a sheaf of parchment, bearing just the following words:
Follow the merchant fleet into Xia Kou.
"If that's what Zhuge Liang wants us to do," said Zhao Yun, "I guess we ought to listen to him."
If not for the seriousness of the situation, Liu Bei's expression would have been comical – it was a violent blend of relief and thunderous anger.
"All right, I suppose," he growled. "We'll listen to him just this once!"
Many miles away, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu stood atop the rickety wooden tower known as Outpost Five, glaring off into the watery distance, equally drenched and miserable.
"I don't see it," snarled the prince.
"There," said Zhou Yu, pointing to the faint impression of a ship floating far off to the east. "They were right. See the pennant?"
"No," said Quan sullenly – his eyes weren't as good as Zhou Yu's. "I guess I'll take your word for it."
"But I don't understand, Zhongmou – they're not heading for the city."
"What do you mean?"
"Jian Ye's only a mile east of us. Assuming they've been sailing east this entire time, they've passed it long ago."
Sun Quan raised an eyebrow. "Maybe he's not planning to call on us?"
"Sirs!" gasped a voice, and another messenger emerged on the deck, panting from having climbed the sixty-foot ladder as fast as possible. "New reports from the eastern shore watch – the ship is apparently headed for Xia Kou."
Zhou Yu rounded on him. "What? How do you know?"
"It's following the merchant fleet into port," explained the messenger, cowering as Zhou Yu loomed over him. "We can't but assume that it's calling on Xia Kou as well."
"Oh God!" exclaimed Sun Quan, horrified. "That's a huge port! Everyone will see them, and the generals, and the officials stationed there, and – "
"We have to control this," said Zhou Yu desperately. "My entire plan hinges upon Liu Bei's arrival going unnoticed. If your father finds out – "
"You don't have to tell me what'll happen," snapped Sun Quan, his rudeness betraying his fright. "Let's beat it to Xia Kou – "
"No - we need to find Lu Xun. Now."
Quan threw his arms in the air in exasperation. "What does that matter?!"
"If he goes to your father and tells all – "
"Begging your pardon, sir," interrupted the messenger timidly, "I passed General Lu on the main road east of Jian Ye. I think he was headed toward Xia Kou."
The two men exchanged a desperate look before scrambling for the ladder.
Next: Will Sun Quan and Zhou Yu manage to keep Liu Bei's arrival a secret, or will Lu Xun – or Sun Jian, or Liu Bei himself - blow their plan to bits? Drama and hilarity are in store.
Note on styles: Zhongmou is Sun Quan's "style name," just as Gonjin is Zhou Yu's and Kongming is Zhuge Liang's.