Sima Yi set out the tray of food and couldn’t help wondering yet again if this was a ploy to get rid of him. “My apologies for the chains, Zilong, but I could not persuade my lord to remove them from you.”
Zhao Yün picked up the silver-rimmed chopsticks and dug in with relish. “I must confess,” he said between mouthfuls, “they’re a hindrance, but I suppose I’ll just have to think of it as training.”
Sima Yi faked a laugh, feeling cold sweat form down his back. Convincing the Little Dragon to fight for Wei would be a long, uphill battle.
Zhao Yün noticed his host’s nervousness. “Relax, Zhongda, I bear you no ill will.” He stabbed his chopsticks into a piece of chicken. “Just don’t get in my way when I fight my way back to my master’s side.”
Sima Yi picked at his own tray, having lost his appetite. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“My, I’m not a very popular man around here, am I?” Zhuge Liang remarked, keeping his voice light as he scanned the room of scholars who had appeared to receive him.
“We are all on the edge, sir,” Lu Su replied, trying to play the gracious host.
“Yes, it isn’t every day that a ragtag band of refugees comes crawling to Wu and asks us to do their fighting for them,” the man at the head of the table remarked with an acid tone.
So much for the polite approach. He would have to destroy these small-minded men of Wu if he were to have any chance of gaining an audience with their young Lord. It would earn him their eternal hatred, he was sure, but that was a small price to pay for his plans to help Shu.
Zhuge Liang gave the man a half-lidded smile. “Then, gentlemen, since you have raised the topic, let us debate on an open forum, instead of speaking in riddles as you learned men of useless books tend to do.”
They rankled at his display of arrogance. The man spoke again, anger marring his features: “That I do gladly.”
So the first battle of Chi Bi raged, not on land or sea, but in a small room full of angry Wu officers and one calm, smug Crouching Dragon.
Zhou Yü poured Zhuge Liang a cup of tea. “I must apologize for my colleagues’ atrocious behavior.”
Zhuge Liang accepted the cup with a nod. “No, Gongjin, perhaps I did deserve some of their censure. After all, I am here to instigate war.”
Zhou Yü chuckled. “You give yourself too much credit, Kongming. Mengde has coveted the lands of Wu for many years, but this is the first time he has the manpower to take it. The fact that your master has taken refuge here is just a convenient excuse.”
Zhuge Liang raised an eyebrow. “You speak as if he has already won.”
“The battle ahead will certainly be difficult,” Zhou Yü admitted, a light frown crossing his features. “My Lord is in the unenviable position of deciding whether it would be better for his people to surrender or resist. And with his advisers divided, his mind is in that much more turmoil.”
“From my initial talks with him, I believe the King of Wu is leaning towards a stand against Wei at the Great River, but he lacks reassurance.” Zhuge Liang took a sip of the tea. Light, with a hint of almond. So his rival was not without a twisted sense of humor. “It would be a great help if you were to explain the true odds.”
Zhou Yü tilted his head towards the other man. “And what part do the forces of Shu play in those odds?”
Zhuge Liang hid a smile behind his fan. “That, I’m afraid, must remain a secret for now.”
Zhou Yü stepped into the circle of musicians, taking in their melody. He had not allowed himself to drink since Wei sent that most ungracious letter, nor had he danced since Sun Ce passed away.
Oh, the stories he could tell of their drunken exploits! Sun Ce might have teased him nonstop about his love of elegance, but the Little Conqueror could also dance with the best of them. And Buofu made a ravishing woman, too; his widow still laughed whenever she spoke of that particular incident.
Zhou Yü made a mental note to thank Jiang Gan for bringing such pleasant memories to mind later. After he apologized to his old friend for pulling such an awful trick on him, of course.
He cleared his throat and raised his voice.
A man lives to make a name,
that name made, I am satisfied.
Sated, I give myself to drink.
Inebriated, I sing mad songs!
The whole scheme did seem like sheer insanity. Everything had to work just right, or it would all backfire and all of Wu would fall under the thumb of that eunuch’s foundling.
It would take a miracle.
Or, perhaps, the machinations of a few geniuses.
He danced on.
Zhao Yün woke from a fitful sleep, shivering as a breeze blew the cold night fog into his tent.
He sighed. Just across that river lay freedom and, perhaps, his master as well. He didn’t know how much longer he could take this. With each day, Cao Cao’s boasting grew more arrogant, claiming how he would smash the ships before him, subjugate all of the provinces, and humiliate their leaders before sending them all to a painful death.
He was determined to not show in public how much those words bothered him, but alone, he couldn’t help but worry. The Wei forces were immense and fresh off several decisive victories that began at Guan Du. Shu was on the run, homeless and scattered. Wu had the manpower and resources to put up strong resistance, but did they have the resolve to face such an army? Would they be able to win?
His thoughts were interrupted by the rolling of war drums from the direction of the river. He felt his heart begin to race and his blood pound in his ears. Had the battle begun already? The fog provided excellent cover, but it was impartial to whose sight it obscured. Was the alliance serious about an attack tonight?
All around him, the camp exploded into action. Repeated cries for archers could be heard rousing the soldiers from slumber.
He braced himself for a summoning. He prayed that this force would not fail, but he knew that if they did he would be dragged before Mengde and be forced to watch the man gloat.
Wait. Fog. Boats. Arrows. His mind began to turn. There was something familiar about this, but he could not quite make the connection.
“Cease fire! Stop, by the order of the Prime Minister!” The urgent command now arose. “Damn it, halt!”
He sat bolt upright and almost bashed his head against a bar as he recalled the memory that eluded him. A ruse! The drums were a ploy to draw fire!
“Thanks for the arrows!” Came the jubilant cry as the wind picked up and corresponding angry curses shouted back as realization dawned too late for the Wei camp.
He felt as if he would burst with joy. Kongming must have been the one commandeering such an expedition. What a way to gauge enemy forces, gain enemy ammunition, and strike a blow to enemy morale at the same time!
This was a sign of things to come, he was sure. The alliance would win, and he would have his chance.
For the first time since he was captured, the Little Dragon slept well and had pleasant dreams.
Unnecesarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
Style names guide, in order of appearance -
Zhongda = Sima Yi
Gongjin = Zhou Yü
While I’m not certain whether Sima Yi was serving Cao Cao at this point in history, if he were he’d probably just be some minor officer. Cao Cao would later express doubts about Sima Yi’s loyalty to him, so I’ve put Sima Yi in charge of guarding Zhao YÃ¼n both as a future plot hook and a way to make him nervous.
I’m also not following Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the characterization of Zhou Yü. While he had his reservations about Shu, he bore no personal hatred for Zhuge Liang and certainly wouldn’t have held such bitter feelings.
As for Sun Ce (and possibly Zhou Yü) crossdressing while drunk, you just know that had to have happened at least once, especially given their personalities in the Dynasty Warriors games. Whether that implies any hot Sun Ce/Zhou Yü action I leave up to your imaginations.
Finally, in the matter of “borrowing” arrows, similar tricks were used a few times in earlier history; in fact, historical records confirm that Sun Jian used this ploy while fighting Yellow Turbans, and the account attributed to Zhuge Liang may have been inspired by that.