This post is part of the series Dragon in the Shallows
Other posts in this series:
Dragon in the Shallows
a DW5 Alternate Reality ‘fic by Dot
VI. Dangerous Games
Zhuge Liang, having received the latest situation report, closed his eyes in deep thought. Wu was, as he suspected, prepared in case Shu broke faith. He would not be able to entangle them with Wei now.
Speaking of which, Wei’s forces did not seem as interested in coming to Cao Ren’s aid as it was to march on Yiling and retake Nanjun. Worse, Cao Cao had designs on courting Wu. If Zilong’s missives were accurate, Sun Quan would soon be receiving a diplomat arriving in the name of the Emperor.
In the matter of going to war against Wu, Zhuge Liang found himself agreeing with his Lord: it would be akin to cutting off one’s own limbs and rather impolite besides. Of course, once Wei fell that would be another story altogether, but for now it would be best to maintain mutual dependency.
Hoping that Zhou Yü thought the same, Zhuge Liang turned his attention to the seige against Fan castle. He weighed his options, tapping his fan on a map of the area. With Guan Yü injured, it would be unwise to press the attack. The enemy was already demoralized from the flood, but any last-minute desperation attack would cause unnecessary casualties. Without question, direct confrontation should be left as a method of absolute last resort; that one of the opposing officers took to the field with a coffin, of all things, was proof enough.
Sigh. Thinking circles around people was hard work.
Cao Pi knocked over a pile of books on his way to the sole chair in the room and sat down, resting his legs on the table. “Tell me, Zhongda, what use is it to keep a dragon that won’t fly?”
Sima Yi chose his words with great deliberation. After all, this could be nothing more than a test from his new Lord. “I beg Your pardon, Highness, but I’m afraid I don’t quite follow what you mean.”
“Take you, Zhongda. Your brilliance easily rivals that of the other kingdoms’ strategists and you have a will that could unite the land should you ever put your mind to it.” Cao Pi’s eyes gained a dangerous glint to them. “And yet my father never let you have any important office for fear that you may one day steal the throne that he himself worked so hard to usurp.”
Your father was a paranoid lout who couldn’t stand the idea that someone might be smarter than he was, Sima Yi thought, keeping his face a blank mask. “I’m eternally grateful that you were willing to take a chance on me, my Lord.” He decided to take his own small chance. “But you came today to speak of a ‘dragon’─” he pretended to have a sudden flash of insight, “─you’re referring to Zilong, then?”
Cao Pi seemed a bit annoyed that Sima Yi was playing dumb, but he continued nevertheless. “Unlike my father, I have no interest in keeping trophies. While Zilong is honorable enough to not try to kill me, and may even come to my defense if he had to, I can’t keep sending him on the battlefield, especially not against Shu.” He flicked his bangs out of his eyes. “While watching him pine for his Lord is rather amusing, his presence is beginning to grate on my nerves.”
“Perhaps Zilong will prove useful to us, if only once.” Sima Yi unrolled one of his maps. “I doubt Fan castle can hold up that much longer, and not even a blind man will miss our troops amassing near Nanjun. If we are to succeed in our negotiations with Wu, we must have the position of strength.” He gestured to each city as he mentioned it. “While Shu has returned Jing, it remains a point of contention. They will attempt to regain it by hook or crook. Wu is well aware of that, or they wouldn’t have bothered to keep it so well-guarded; and surely Gongjin is well-read enough in history to remember that the first emperor of Han began his ascent to the throne as the King of Guanzhong. In addition, your opinion of Zilong suggests that you wish to give Wenyüan a more fulfilling job than guarding He Fei even if he is magnificent at it.”
Cao Pi smiled in a manner that reminded Sima Yi of a cat about to pounce. “Is that so?” He leaned forward. “Tell me more, Zhongda. I want to know what else is in that pretty little head of yours.”
Zhuge Liang’s expression was one of undisguised relief as he greeted Pang Tong. “You kept me up nights worrying about you, old friend.”
Pang Tong puffed out his chest. “I’m the Young Phoenix, Kongming! It’d take more than a few arrows to take me down!” He tipped his hat to show that his eyes were glimmering with mirth. “Besides, I’m not the one who gave away a whole city without a fight.”
Zhuge Liang made a mock hurt face. “Not you, too, Shiyüan. Yünchang spent the entire Fan campaign grumbling, and I’m not looking forward to the inevitable chewout from Yide, either.”
“Well, you’ll have me on your side, at least.” Pang Tong clapped Zhuge Liang on the shoulder. “After all, I’m sure you have some cunning plan to not only win back Jing, but score a few extra cities on the side, too!”
Zhuge Liang shook his head. “I swear, this job will be the death of me.”
A breathless messenger ran forward and knelt before the two strategists. “Sima Zhongda has approached the Allied camp as a messenger for Wei and seeks an audience with our Lords!”
Zhuge Liang wasn’t quite fast enough to hide his alarmed reaction. “He comes alone?”
“No, sir. He has Zhao Zilong with him as a bodyguard.”
Pang Tong’s eyebrows went up. “Huh. What’s that slippery fellow got up his sleeve this time?”
“I don’t know yet, but I intend to find out.” Zhuge Liang began striding towards his Lord’s tent. “Assemble all the officers. Zhongda deserves a proper welcome.”
Sima Yi ignored the murderous glances of the generals and kept his gaze fixed on the leaders of the Shu-Wu alliance and their respective strategists. This was where the future battle would be won─or lost, if he didn’t play his cards right.
Sun Qüan, the ostensible host, made no effort to hide his surprise. “What business does Wei have with us?” he asked, apprehensive that Sima Yi might reveal that they’d been having secret talks.
“My, you cut straight to the chase, don’t you? But I do suppose that small talk is rather pointless.” Sima Yi stood, drawing all eyes to him. “Let us be frank, then. The mandate of heaven has passed to Wei. The issue of legitimacy is now a moot point, and my Lord is much more interested in the welfare of the people at large than wasting his time fighting petty disputes with you lot.”
Zhuge Liang indicated with a wave of his fan that he wished to speak, and with a nod from Sun Qüan did so. “So the descendant of Zichang boldly declares the dawn of a new era?”
Unnecessarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
Style names guide, in order of appearance –
Wenyüan – Zhang Liao
Shiyüan – Pang Tong
Zihuan – Cao Pi
Zichang – Sima Qian, ancestor of Sima Yi
No hot Cao Pi/Sima Yi action, sorry. You want a story with blatant gay subtext, go read Shui Hu Zhuan (i.e. Suikoden).