Zhao Yün watched the drills with an impassive face, but he had to admit to himself that the sight of several hundred thousand men moving with exact precision over endless rows of massive ships held together with thick iron chains was nothing to sneeze at. The alliance’s successful ploy to eliminate the most capable naval officers followed by a subsequent outbreak of illness had dealt a blow to their confidence, but now that the northern soldiers had solid ground to practice on morale grew again.
Distant shouts marked the approach of Zhou Yü, who lead a small strike force towards the Wei docks. Zhao Yün held his emotions in check as Zhou Yü dispatched of the token response with practiced ease.
When Cao Cao ordered the advance of the main fleet, an idea began to percolate in Zhao Yün’s mind.
“If this one may be so bold,” he began, taking an experimental step forward. When his guards barred his movement with their weapons, he stopped. Seeing that he now had Cao Cao’s attention, he continued, “Zilong would humbly request the Prime Minister to allow a demonstration of skill.”
Cao Cao’s eyes narrowed; this was the first time such words passed between the two. “What would stop you from rejoining Xüande on the other side of the River?”
Zhao Yün had anticipated this question. “Zilong has many strengths, but swimming is not one of them.” Seeing that the skeptical look on Cao Cao’s face had not diminished, he decided to take a larger gambit. “Zilong is willing to board the ships as is, and the Prime Minister may post archers if he fears Zilong’s escape.”
This took Cao Cao by surprise; after all, it wasn’t every day that a captured general gave permission to be shot if he tried to make a run for it. He forced a laugh. “Why be so serious, Zilong? I am not so stingy as to deny you armor.” He nodded at the men surrounding Zhao Yün, and they removed his chains. “Go. I look forward to seeing Zhao Zilong of Chang Shan in action.”
Zhao Yün bowed, noting that Cao Cao had made no promises regarding what other precautions would be made. “You shall not be disappointed, sir.”
Zhang Fei slammed a fist on the table, causing a few plates to fall off and shatter. “That traitor! When I get my hands on him, I’ll–”
“Do watch your temper, Yide,” Zhuge Liang interrupted, signaling the servants to leave the room and did not continue until but him and the sworn brothers remained. “The Wei forces must be convinced that the chained ships represent a great advantage. Zilong helped prove that with his actions.”
Zhang Fei sputtered. “But–but all this time he was right there and he didn’t even try–!”
Zhuge Liang shook his head. Was the man that blind? “Zilong is a man of high principles. He will not return until he feels he has atoned for the loss of our Lord’s child.”
“This is all my fault. If only I had been stronger!” Liu Bei began to cry anew. “Zilong, please return to me! I can always bear another son, but I shall never have a second Zhao Zilong!”
Zhuge Liang pondered the thoughts that surfaced. “Perhaps you should not be too hasty in receiving Zilong back to your side, my Lord.” Seeing everyone’s shocked reaction, he added with haste: “Permit me to elaborate. If Zilong can earn Wei’s trust, and yet remain loyal to you, then we have a means by which we can learn of Wei’s movements and curtail their ambitions at the same time.”
“No!” Liu Bei was resolute. “I cannot abandon Zilong to such a cruel fate!”
The same old argument again. Zhuge Liang did not wish to force his Lord’s hand, but time was running short. “If you truly believe in the good of the people, sir, then perhaps you should not have embarked on this adventure.”
The atmosphere in the room grew dangerous. “What did you say, Kongoming?” Guan Yü asked with a threatening tone, but remained seated when Liu Bei waved him down.
It was now or never. “Forgive my impertinence, but unless I have a clear understanding of our Lord’s intentions, I cannot be of much help to him. While his benevolence wins the admiration of the people, times as these require decisiveness–and, perhaps, a certain level of callousness as well.” Zhuge Liang leveled his gaze at Liu Bei. “Why is it that you oppose Cao Cao?”
The answer was immediate. “He seeks to usurp the throne.”
“Perhaps that is fated. After all, no dynasty lasts forever.” Zhuge Liang paused for a moment. These were his truest, most innermost worries, ones that he had not even shared with his wife. “Should Mengde unite the land under the banner of Wei, the land will know peace, of a kind, and be able to repel the barbarian hordes gathering at the borders. While outside threats have remained low for the being , they are watching the growing chaos as surely as we.”
Zhang Fei sneered. “Why didn’t you join him, then, if you think so highly of him?”
Zhuge Liang shrugged. “He didn’t ask.” He turned his attention to Liu Bei again. “But you did, my Lord. And you begged me to assist you. So I must ask of you, again: what is it you seek?”
Liu Bei stared into his empty cup. “Is there no other way, Kongming? Must so much blood be shed?”
Zhuge Liang relaxed. He did not need to push much further. “Peaceful measures will still be made whenever they can, of course. I have no desire to exhaust Shu with endless fighting, either. But we will need every advantage we can get.”
Liu Bei closed his eyes, as if to fight a fresh wave of tears. “I leave Zilong to you, then. Please keep him safe.”
Zhuge Liang nodded. “Your wishes are my command.”
It was times like these that the sting of conscience hurt the most, but it was what had to be done. After all, no human being could rule the world by ideals alone.
Zhou Yü cleared the scrolls from the extra chair in his office to accommodate Zhuge Liang and sat at the opposite side of his desk, head in his hands. “How is Gongfu faring?”
“I’ve given him some medicine to ease his pain and help him sleep. A messenger has gone to the other shore for him, but I have no further word as of yet.” Zhuge Liang allowed some of his own mixed emotions to show through in his voice. “Nevertheless, I do believe that your strategy put us one major step towards victory.”
“It’s still not something I ever care to do again.” Zhou Yü collected his thoughts and looked up. “But enough of that. There’s still one major factor against us, and it’s out of our control.”
“Yes, but we have the gods’ blessings.” Zhuge Liang gestured towards the map on the desk. “From my observations and discussions with the local fishermen, a shift in the winds is approaching soon. As our troops are not as well versed in meteorology, I suggest that we use this opportunity to put on a little show for them.”
Zhou Yü made no effort to hide his amazement, but soon broke out into a genuine smile. “Should I be worried that you know so much, Kongming?”
Zhuge Liang smiled back. “Only if you ever plan to set me on fire.”
On the third night, the air grew damp with eminent rain and the usual pre-storm breeze picked up. A light mist began to dust the Wei forces when Cao Cao received word that all was ready.
Cao Cao noted the flapping banners with glee. “Behold, Zilong, even the heavens have sided with me! With this wind, Gongfu will be able to cross the River easily.”
Zhao Yün held his tongue until the raft had crossed too far to be repulsed. “Perhaps it is just my imagination, Prime Minister, but if Gongfu truly comes bearing grain, wouldn’t that boat be lower in the waves and not so swift?”
In the moment that it took Cao Cao to process this information, Huang Gai struck, setting his ship ablaze and ramming it into the immobile formation. Cao Cao froze, dumbfounded, as the sky grew orange with flames and the northern army was thrown into disarray. He recovered long enough to shout some orders, but full panic ensued when a firebomb landed near their position.
Zhao Yün waited until he was separated from prying eyes, then fell into the River below. Grabbing onto the side of the ship, he pulled himself up and began treading water towards the shore, using every ounce of strength to keep his head above water. Feeling his foot hit solid ground, he clambered up the shallows and collapsed to his knees, gasping for breath.
A shadow fell over him. “Dear me, what a most unusual catch.”
Zhao Yün blinked away tears, whether they were of joy or sorrow he couldn’t tell. “Master Crouching Dragon!”
Zhuge Liang helped him out of the water. Assistants were on hand to remove the manacles and offer a fresh change of clothes. “Our Lord has not stopped thinking of you since you went missing at Chang Ban, dear Zilong.”
Zhao Yün turned the new spear over in his hands. “Does he–hate me?”
“Silly boy. He would never hate you. He only prays for your speedy return.” And here Zhuge Liang’s expression grew solemn. “However, I wish to make a most unreasonable request of you.”
“Hold nothing back,” Zhao Yün commanded, already beginning to half-guess what the strategist had in mind.
Unnecessarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
Style names guide, in order of appearance -
Gongfu = Huang Gai
Wow, four pages go by real quick. At this rate, the story will get a lot more epic than I had expected.