Chapter 4: Inquiries
Zhuge Liang crossed his arms and looked at the stars. As the Prime Minister of Shu and according to some, the sole reason the smallest of the three kingdoms had even lasted this long, it was only natural that he had a balcony attached to his room in the palace at Cheng Du. But there was a more practical reason for him to have an even better view than Liu Bei himself.
Some looked to the heavens at night to let a sense of wonder fill them as they took in through their eyes one sign of the vastness of the universe. Zhuge Liang, however, was one of those men who read the twinkling dots known as stars like the characters on a scroll.
Zhuge Liang did not like what he saw tonight, however.
It was subtle, but the constellations had definitely shifted, and shifted in a wholly unexpected way. Combined with the reports of Lu Bu making an unexpected appearance in Jian Ye only added to the feeling that something was horribly, horribly wrong.
According to the latest rumors, Lu Bu was in hiding in the Ji province, the lawless land to the north of Wei. Someone had to be dispatched there, but Shu was shorthanded on warriors as it was…
Zhuge Liang clasped his hands behind his back and bowed his head in contemplation. After a few minutes of standing like this, he turned around and walked out of his chambers into the hallway. After some more walking, he arrived in the castle's main courtyard, where he came upon Yue Ying, his wife, practicing techniques with her halberd Oblivion.
She noticed him instantly, and after completing the form she had been in the middle of, spoke. "What is it, husband?"
"The stars show signs of trouble in Ji. An investigation is necessary, but with Wei to the north and Wu growing increasingly impatient with us over the Jing issue, nearly all of our most competent officers are deployed at the borders. I do not believe it prudent to recall any of them, and thus I am at a loss as to who I should send on this mission," said Zhuge.
There was silence. Most were already asleep at this time of night, and not even the birds were chirping. Then, a wind blew and rustled the leaves of a nearby tree, breaking the silence.
"No, you know exactly who you should send, husband," replied Yue Ying.
The wind, and thus the rustling, stopped abruptly, and total silence hung over the courtyard once more.
"I do not wish to send you, my wife," Liang said.
"I am a warrior before I am a woman, and I am your subordinate officer before I am your wife. Of those present in Cheng Du, I am the most qualified for this mission. There is no reason not to give me this assignment. You knew this before coming down here, and have already made your decision. What you really asked me was whether or not I accept this assignment, and I do," responded Yue Ying.
The two stared at each other. Slowly, Zhuge turned around and walked towards the doors that would take him back inside.
"A horse and enough provisions to last you the journey through the lands west of Wei will await you in the morning. Good luck, Yue Ying," was all he said as he left the courtyard.
"These are troubled times, Ce," said Zhou Yu to his oldest friend. The two Wu generals sat in Zhou Yu's office in chairs by the table that faced the door. "The situation in Jing is deteriorating, and Lu Meng is drawing up preliminary plans to attack Guan Yu there if necessary. Cao Cao suffered a setback at Chi Bi, but it will not end him the way Guan Du ended Yuan Shao. He will invade again, it is only a question of time." Zhou Yu's face was serious, his eyes burning with intensity as he ran various scenarios through his head, playing them out to their conclusion and then mentally storing the results if they were deemed useful.
Sun Ce, on the other hand, looked downright bored. His jaw rested in the palm of his hand, and his elbow rested on the table. "Zhou Yu, you think I don't know all this?"
Yu raised an eyebrow. "You seem as relaxed as usual."
Ce sat upright in his chair and stretched his shoulders a bit. There were a few audible pops as he cracked his neck. He then put both hands behind his head and slouched. "Hey, there's nothing wrong with acting laidback. Besides, it's not like you haven't talked about all this before. What you're about to say next is that we should wait a little while before charging off rashly and getting ourselves into more trouble. That's all fine and well, but I'm getting tired of all this sitting around. I should go back to the border and start raiding the Wei or something."
"You're second in line to the throne of Wu, Ce, you should be more careful with yourself. We cannot risk you in raids," replied Zhou Yu.
"Aw, c'mon, pop has been through the Yellow Turban Rebellion, a duel with Hua Xiong, Hu Lao Gate, an attack by Liu Biao… The old man is gonna live forever, I tell ya! He'll be barking orders at my kids to 'eat their pork buns with the pride of a Sun' or some other rubbish when he goes senile or something, but he'll be there!" said Ce.
"Your kids? Have you and Da Qiao been hiding something?" asked Yu.
"Heh, nah. But don't try and change the subject, besides pops, there's my brother Quan around here too, and my sister Shang Xiang. There's plenty of Sun heirs running about, so there's no reason for me not to be employing my formidable fighting prowess in raids across the border that will be the tavern talk of years to come, right?" said Ce. "And anyway, I'm much MUCH too good-looking to die anytime soon." A big grin stretched across his face from ear to ear.
Zhou Yu just stared at him. Drops of sweat rolled down the backs of both of their heads.
There was the sound of bells ringing in the hallway outside, and the door to Zhou Yu's office swung open.
"The great Gan Ning has arrived!" stated the spiky-headed ex-pirate in a loud voice, and he struck a pose in the doorway.
"You know what, screw this mission, let's make him a eunuch. Maybe then he won't be so damned noisy," said Sun Ce.
"Something to be kept in mind. Shut the door, Gan Ning." He complied and Zhou Yu continued, "As you should be aware, a week has passed since the theft of the Imperial Seal and there has been no announcement from Wei or any land for that matter that it has come into their possession. I want you to infiltrate the Ji province and collect information on Lu Bu. We need to learn why he took the seal and who, if anyone, he is working with. Especially relevant, of course, is any information that may lead to our recapture of the seal."
"Should I try and get the seal back myself when I find it?" asked Ning.
"If you feel that you can make an attempt with a reasonable degree of success, yes," replied Zhou Yu. Gan Ning was cocky and coarse, but he was undeniably a highly skilled warrior, and a tough and resourceful man. In addition, his previous life as a pirate made him especially suited to be sent into a lawless land such as Ji.
"You're going to be basically on your own up there, so watch yourself. It would be great if you could get us back the seal, but your primary goal is getting us intel. Got it?" said Sun Ce.
The ex-pirate nodded.
"We're counting on you, Gan Ning," said Zhou Yu.
Sima Yi was extremely troubled by the latest news from the Ji province; or, to be more accurate, the lack of news from the Ji province.
He stared down at the pile of military letters littering his desk in the Wei palace at Xu Chang, each saying essentially the same thing, telling him that yet another group of soldiers had gone missing, leaving nothing but dead officers behind.
[Mass desertions? My agents within the army have reported no discontent or widespread cases of disloyalty, and not even the smallest shred of gossip escapes their ears. Guerilla assaults from Lu Bu? He lacks the subtlety for that sort of work, and besides, to eliminate or capture entire patrols repeatedly without a single survivor to report back to us? Preposterous!]
The strategist's eyes narrowed to slits, and he picked up a dried logan from a plate by his left elbow. Without taking his eyes off the letters in front of him, he tossed the morsel of food into his mouth and chewed.
[The townsfolk of the region are of no use to me either. They're nothing but a flock of ignorant peasants who wouldn't know Lu Bu from an ox! So then, what are my choices? I can commit more forces to the search in the hope of at least finding out what is going on. No, actually, I cannot, not with so many men needed in the south to combat Shu and Wu. I can continue with things as they are and continue to lose troops until some stroke of luck leaves a survivor who can tell me what is happening. No, that's not an option either.]
Sima Yi picked up another logan.
[I will withdraw the troops from Ji and strengthen the defenses in the area. This won't require as many resources as a full-scale search of the province, and this way, whatever is happening, if it is an attack, it will be stopped at the southern border of Ji. The situation can then at least be stabilized for the time being. Once either Shu or Wu falls, the region can be cleaned out, but as it is, Lu Bu is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.]
Fu Xi looked out at the countryside from atop his horse. It wasn't much to look at, not in this part of the country, so he threw a glance back at his troops. They were a motley mixture of "converted" Wei soldiers and his original troops, who wore the yellow turbans that identified them as members of the rebellion that had started the decline of the Han and followers of Zhang Jiao, the charismatic figure who swore that he would usher in a new era.
Xi paid special attention to the Wei soldiers, studying their eyes. There was a glazed, lifeless look in them. Fu Xi shook his head. On the one hand, it was amazing that Zhang Lu and Zhang Jiao had the power to cast spells of such strength, but on the other, it was disturbing to see the will of fifty men at a time simply overwhelmed by sorcerous might. It didn't seem possible, really.
Then again, a year ago, it would not have been possible. All that had changed when he and the Zhangs had formed the alliance with Lu Bu and concocted the plan that eventually delivered the Yellow Turbans the Imperial Seal. Although Zhang Lu's spells and Lu Bu's unparalleled fighting prowess had had a lot to do with the success of the theft, without Fu Xi's painstaking attention to detail when formulating the plan, the operation would have failed. But that was in the past. Now, the Imperial Seal was in their hands.
There was something most people were not aware of. In fact, the people who knew of it probably died in the chaos that had engulfed Luo Yang when Dong Zhuo had set fire to the city, or even earlier, when he first began his reign of terror. The Imperial Seal was more than just a symbol. Locked within the purest piece of jade in all of China was enough spiritual energy to change the course of destiny itself.
Zhang Jiao and Zhang Lu had been unable to unlock it all at once as they had hoped they would be able to when the idea was first thought of, so instead, they had begun to drain the vast reservoir of energy within the seal to slowly but surely amplify their powers. And it was working, too, of which the spell that had been used on countless Wei patrols was proof. They had begun to share the energy with Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang as well, and were still thinking of a way for Fu Xi to be tapped into the seal's power as well.
Fu Xi didn't really care if they succeeded. Magical might was not what he brought the Yellow Turbans. They had had that before, and the Imperial army had torn them to shreds and set them back years.
Fu Xi gave the Yellow Turbans the key element that they had lacked in the first Yellow Turban Rebellion; the mind of a military strategist. The illegitimate child of a now deceased general of the Han, he had traveled with his father's army all across China. He had been treated decently but never really recognized as a member of his father's family because he was well, a bastard. So, he was fed, he was clothed, but he was never given much attention. To alleviate his boredom and loneliness one night, he had picked up a copy of Sun Tzu's Art of War. The book had intrigued him so much that he devoured his father's library, sometimes even forgetting to eat or sleep as he strained his young eyes to make out faded characters illuminated only by the light of a dying fire. He wasn't a bloodthirsty man, but for some reason, the gigantic puzzle that was war fascinated him.
Just as he finished the last book in the collection, however, his father was assassinated, and he and his mother, a servant girl of his father's, were left to fend on their own. His father's family wanted nothing to do with them, so Fu Xi and his mother went to the village where she had been born. It was there that he met the girl that would change his life, the girl that when she joined the Yellow Turbans, was given the name Nu Wa…
[Nu Wa… the girl who I would die for and have already killed for… the girl for whom I sold my very soul…]
Since Fu Xi doesn't have a story in the Three Kingdoms or Dynasty Warriors, I made one up for him, since having him here as a god wouldn't fit into the story I'm writing. I originally wanted to keep the Yellow Turbans under wraps for a while longer, along with Fu Xi's history, but I was running out of ideas to fill the space between the theft and the big battles and duels up ahead.
I think this is the first chapter in which nobody died!