When did Zilong start having an interest in birds? Sima Yi wondered as he caught sight of a gray flash disappear out of Zhao Yün’s window. Still, he kept his comments to himself; best to not let on that he had suspicions while he investigated further. He cleared his throat. “Good day, Zilong. Allow me to change your dressings.”
“If it doesn’t trouble you.” Zhao Yün shrugged out of his robes and sat up.
Sima Yi unwrapped the layers of gauze and inspected the wound. The stitches held well, considering Zhao Yün’s restlessness. He began cleaning the area with a damp cloth.
He marveled at how fit the man was for his age. But then, it’s not like I’m that much younger, he reminded himself. And I’ve wasted so many years languishing here in the capital. I want to be on the battlefield with troops under my command, not to play nursemaid to a general who will never be utilized to his full potential.
“You look melancholy, Zhongda.”
Sima Yi almost dropped the jar of ointment. Damn. I keep forgetting how observant he is. He gave Zhao Yün an insincere smile. “Just wondering when I can have my chance to repay my Lord for his kindness.” Some kindness. The Simas never seemed to have any luck when it came to serving royalty.
“I’m sure you’ll have your chance.” Zhao Yün’s tone indicated that he was serious, not patronizing as most of the Wei officers tended to be when this topic came up. “Shu has Kongming and Wu has Gongjin, but since Fengxiao retired no capable strategist has yet appeared for Wei.”
Sima Yi feigned surprise. “Me? A strategist?”
“If your skills at Go are any indication, you certainly have what it takes and then some.” Zhao Yün’s brow furrowed when Sima Yi pressed against a tender spot. “I’m sorry to say, however, you don’t have much of a future as a doctor.”
“A thousand apologies, Zilong.” Sima Yi picked up a fresh roll of bandages and began wrapping them around Zhao Yün’s torso.
Destruction rained from the heavens and the invaders trapped between the narrow cliffs could only cry out in terror and despair as they faced certain death. The triumphant defenders, certain that they had stopped Shu’s ambitions, charged down the hill to claim the trophies that they deserved.
That was when the real main force mobilized, surrounding the surprised officers, and the ambushed first wave stood up to reveal that few arrows had pierced the thick padding they wore beneath their armors.
Pang Tong smirked at the trembling enemy who regarded him as if he were a ghost. “As delightfully morbid as it would have been for me to die here,” he began, indicating the stone placard identifying the area as Fallen Phoenix Slope, “I happen to be rather attached to living, and I’m sure you are as well.”
A messenger arrived and announced for all to hear the fall of Luo Castle. Their morale shattered, the opposing troops surrendered, down to the last man.
“I’d love to stay and chat, but I have a city to take for my Lord.” Mounting Hex Mark, Pang Tong pointed his staff to the north. “Forward, men! Hansheng would never let us hear the end of it if we fall too far behind.”
As his arrow hit the mark, taking the tip of Huang Zhong’s helmet plume, Zhao Yün let out the deep intake of breath he had drawn to keep his aim steady. “Stand down, Hansheng!” He shouted, now that he had the elder man’s attention, and drew a second arrow.
Huang Zhong kept his own bow at the ready. “Is it Zilong who presumes to order me about? What are you still doing with the likes of Cao Cao?”
“None of your business!” Seeing Huang Zhong’s bowstring twitch, Zhao Yün released his arrow as well, and the two missles collided with each other in midair. He strung again. “Withdraw at once, or the next one goes through an eye!”
Huang Zhong was about to answer when the roar of Cao Cao’s other forces echoed over the ridge. He grabbed the reins of his horse but did not lower his bow until Zhao YÃ¼n did as well. “No thanks, I don’t think the half-blind look suits me.”
Zhao Yün waited until Huang Zhong rode off before dismounting to check on Xiahou Yuan. Despite his injuries, the man remained alive and alert. “Can you stand?”
Xiahou Yuan gestured to the shaft sticking out of his leg. “I think I’ll stay here.” He waved to catch the attention of the arriving medics. “I didn’t realize you were so good with a bow, Zilong.”
Zhao YÃ¼n gave the man a wistful smile. “I practiced with the best.”
Xiahou Yuan had the decency to look embarrassed. “Er, yeah. Sorry about, well, you know.”
Zhao Yün shrugged. “We were enemies then. I’m sure if I had the chance, I would have done the same.”
“That’s not very reassuring.”
Zhuge Liang hurried down from the platform overseeing the practice area to greet Zhou Yü. “Why didn’t you announce yourself, Gongjin? As it is, I don’t even have any tea to offer you.”
Zhou Yü clasped the Shu strategist’s arms, marveling at how thin the man had become since they last met. “Lady Sun has been writing me about your unusual teaching methods, and I just had to see for myself.” He glanced over towards the Princess, who along with her young son was having the time of their lives routing the bodyguards dressed as Wei soldiers, and smiled. “I hope she hasn’t made a nuisance of herself.”
“Of course not. The Lady provides a most interesting challenge whenever we skirmish.” Zhuge Liang gestured for Jiang Wei to approach. “Gonjing, this is Jiang Wei, styled Buoyüe, my apprentice.”
“I’ve heard much about you,” Zhou Yü replied, nodding. “Perhaps you can visit us next time and I’ll introduce you to Lu Xün and Lü Meng.”
Jiang Wei’s eyes glittered with amusement. “Perhaps.” Hearing the ‘soldiers’ on the field call for him, he bowed. “Pardon me, but our exercise isn’t finished yet. By your leave, Prime Minister.”
“Go ahead, Buoyüe.” He lead Zhou YÃ¼ to the tent he had his men put together in the time that he exchanged pleasantries with the Wu strategist. “Two understudies, Gongjin? Truly the lands of Wu are fertile grounds for fertile minds.”
Zhou Yü laughed. “Shu also has its share of talents, does it not? And besides, I hear the Imperial Uncle has established himself king of Guanzhong.”
Zhuge Liang made a sigh of mock dismay. “I suppose that means you’re here to collect on The Loan, then.”
“Don’t make it sound like the end of the world, Kongming.” Zhou Yü leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. “I’m sure we can work out an agreement that both parties can agree to.”
It was too soon to antagonize Wu over just one city. Not while Zhou Yü still lived. After all, the man had been nice enough to not keep the Lord of Shu hostage after his arranged marriage to the Lady Sun. “Well, if you put it that way, I do have half an idea to take Fan Castle, but success would depend on Wu’s absolute cooperation.”
“Oh?” Zhou Yü tilted his head, as if trying to peer into the other man’s mind. “Do explain, and by that I mean in small words I can understand and not one of your Zen-style riddles.”
With friends like these, who needs enemies? Zhuge Liang found himself wondering as he launched into his plan.
Ling Tong entered the main tent, water dripping from his bangs. “Explain to me again why we are attacking Wei at Shu’s request.”
Lü Meng didn’t look up from his reading. “Help an ally, strike a blow to Wei, and get Jing. It’s not a bad deal.”
Lu Xün continued to pace. “But what is Shu getting out of it, except a dumb castle that any idiot can see is prone to flooding, especially with all this rain?”
Zhou Yü signaled for his generals to approach, then spoke in a low voice. “I don’t like having to think of Kongming in this manner, but he may use this battle to turn on us.” Making a motion for the others to keep quiet, he continued: “The three kingdoms may be at a stalemate right now, but Liu Bei is entering the autumn age and Kongming might wish to advance his Lord’s plans before he leaves this world. Should both Wei and Wu suffer a defeat here, the balance will shift in Shu’s favor.”
“That scheming bastard,” Lü Meng muttered, wringing the book in his hands as if it were Zhuge Liang’s neck.
Zhou Yü shook his head. “He serves his master, just as we serve ours. Besides, this is only a remote possibility, but still one we must demonstrate our preparedness against.” He nodded to Lu Xün. “That will be your task, Buoyan.”
The young apprentice nodded back. “I’ll make that Kongming think twice about betraying the alliance.”
“Don’t be too hasty to attack,” Zhou Yü reminded him. “After all, we are supposed to be cooperating.”
Unnecessarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
Style names guide, in order of appearance -
Fengxiao = Guo Jia, one of Cao Cao’s trusted advisors who passed away before Chi Bi. Cao Cao was said to have cried that he would not have lost if Guo Jia were still alive.
Hansheng = Huang Zhong
Buoyüe = Jiang Wei
Buoyan = Lu Xün
The allusion Sima Yi makes about the luck of his family refers to Sima Qian, given the death sentence after attracting the ire of the fifth Han emperor with his defense of a general who had surrendered to the Xiong Nu (i.e. “Huns”). Too poor to bribe his way out of prison, Sima Qian submitted to castration instead. (Ancient Chinese penal codes are scary.)
Pang Tong’s survival of Chengdu is inspired by his musou mode in DW5 and a suggestion my brother once made about how to deal with ‘surprise’ attacks: “Ambush the ambush!”