He could hear the faint music even before the servant led him to the ornamental pavilion overlooking the Duke of Wu's fishponds, making numerous mumbled apologies for the unorthodox manner in which the duke had chosen to receive his guest. Zhou Yu smiled and waved the man's excuses aside; summer was coming, and the Southland was growing ever warmer by the day. The pavilion, Zhou Yu knew, caught the best of the evening breezes, so it was no surprise that Sun Quan should want to enjoy the freshening winds after a dull day of mediating his ministers' squabbles.
The sight that greeted his eyes when he stepped inside the small building, however, was one that was frankly unexpected. Oil lamps flickered and cast shadows on the two figures sitting opposite one another. Sun Quan, Duke of Wu, descendent of the mighty Sun Jian, brother of the feared Sun Ce, was bent intently over a qin, stroking its silken strings with an expression of the utmost concentration. This in itself was cause for concern. Sun Quan had always disdained the qin, claiming that it was more suited to poets and philosophers than himself.
"I am only a duke," he would joke, flashing a wide smile. "I care only for wine and women and song!"
"And governing the country?" Zhou Yu would ask, already guessing at the answer.
"That I leave to my most able advisors!"
The truth was, of course, that the younger Sun brother was a careful, cautious leader, who consulted widely and made decisions based on gut instinct. He was not, however, a patient enough man for the rigorous training that qin playing demanded. To sit still and tease out nuances on the qin's strings went too much against his natural impulse for action. He had been taught as a child as part of his regal training, of course, though he had never continued with any great passion. But here, now, Sun Quan was responding to the notes emanating from the qin set opposite him with a quiet dexterity that seemed to contradict his dynamic nature. Though he didn't quite have the same level of skill that Zhou Yu possessed, his replies were executed well enough, and their simple harmony matched the soft tunes issuing from the neighbouring qin.
This made Zhou Yu turn to the other qin player, a slight quirk of the lips the only sign of his discomfort at Sun Quan's visitor. Zhuge Liang looked up and offered a quiet smile in greeting, his fingers stilling the strings of his qin.
"Viceroy," Zhuge Liang stated evenly, his voice not much louder than the breeze that blew gently through the pavilion. Startled out of his musically-induced reverie by the sudden silence on his partner's side, Sun Quan finally seemed to notice that there was another person around. "Brother!" he exclaimed happily, rising to his feet, his lips curving into an easy smile. "What luck! Look what Kong Ming has made of my mediocre skills!"
"Indeed. I see he has wrought a miracle."
"I must protest. I fear His Highness gives me all the credit when it is he who should be praised for his perseverance," Zhuge Liang said, rising to his feet and offering Zhou Yu a formal greeting. "It is good to see you again, Viceroy Zhou."
"And you." Though Zhou Yu said this with enough warmth in his voice, he was of the opinion that Zhuge Liang's presence here was troublesome. He had, after all, arranged this meeting with Sun Quan to discuss issues of state, and for all his professions of friendship, Zhuge Liang was not a person he particularly wanted around whilst they debated their next course of action. Not in these preliminary stages, at least. Alliances in times of crisis were all very well and good, but during peace time it was necessary to keep at least a few secrets from one's allies, lest the tables were turned later on. This was what all good generals knew.
The trouble was that Sun Quan had lately spent a touch too much time with Zhuge Liang. The two were close in age, and Sun Quan seemed to thrive on his conversations and philosophical discussions with the strategist, asking him for advice on matters of government with increasing regularity, almost as regularly as he came to Zhou Yu and the rest of his ministers for their thoughts. And while, no doubt, he was quite within his rights to do this, Zhou Yu felt that such a friendship was ill-advised. Zhuge Liang was a strategist and had sworn loyalty to Shu, and to Lord Mayor Liu. To reveal too much in casual conversation needed only the slightest moment of inattention and could result in disaster if one was not careful. And even though Sun Quan was quickly maturing into a most capable leader, there were still vulnerable areas, Zhou Yu thought, where a thinker of Zhuge Liang's calibre could strike.
Amongst these was Sun Quan's tendency to indulge in wine and become a little more loose-tongued than was desirable. Often Zhou Yu made sure that the stewards watered the rice wine down before sending it to Sun Quan, but the duke was learning to curb his youthful impulsiveness. Another was the Sun fondness for hunting. Armed with a skeleton retinue and, more often than not, his sister Shan Xiang, Sun Quan loved nothing more than shooting startled roebuck or wild geese, disregarding personal safety in favour of the adrenaline surge of the chase. But Zhou Yu could not quite bring himself to agree with the words of several worried ministers who feared the devastating consequences of a stray arrow or a lame horse, and in any case Sun Quan's skill as a rider was only surpassed by that of the Shu general Zhao Yun.
What Zhou Yu feared most, however, was the hunger for knowledge that Sun Quan possessed. It was monstrous, and it had only grown since the young duke had taken the throne of his dead brother. Zhuge Liang knew that Sun Quan could devour whole treatises on warfare and strategy in the space of a few days and could often be seen engaging him on matters of philosophy. But music? This was something new. Zhou Yu had nothing but admiration for Zhuge Liang's tactics and if the situation had not concerned the future safety and ambitions of Wu, he would have gladly allowed the friendship to run its natural course. Unfortunately, the situation of both Shu and Wu were not conducive to such a relationship forming just yet, and though he might hate to do it, Zhou Yu would be sure to do best by his country and ruler.
"I have some business of state to discuss with My Lord," he said, turning to Sun Quan now, watching as the younger man rose fluidly from his cross-legged position before the qin. "In private, if Zhuge Liang will not object."
"Hardly," Zhuge Liang answered. "Such things are to be expected." He turned to Sun Quan and bowed deeply.
"I thank Your Highness for granting me the opportunity to teach what little I know of qin duets tonight."
"Thank you," Sun Quan said, his voice full of warmth. "I will see you soon, Kong Ming?"
"Soon enough." Zhuge Liang promised. Then he turned to Zhou Yu. "But before I leave, may I ask Viceroy Zhou a question?"
Zhou Yu inclined his head.
"I see. Am I to assume that you have come to press the case for the taking of Jingzhou?"
"Nothing escapes your keen senses," Zhou Yu said simply, "but I repeat again: these are matters of state. You will forgive me if I do not answer the question."
"Ah. Of course not." The ever-present hawks-wing fan was in Zhuge Liang's hand and he flapped it once against his chest. "And you will also permit me to state that Jingzhou provides the land and strategic situation that Shu needs to reestablish itself. Wu's lands are extensive, as well we all know. To let one city go seems hardly an unreasonable request. The refugees in My Lord Liu's camps are exhausted with the constant upheaval of the past few months and it seems only fair that we settle them as soon as possible. Jingzhou would be more than adequate for our needs."
"Indeed." Sun Quan's dark eyes followed the movement of Zhuge Liang's fan intently, but the duke said nothing, lifting his gaze to meet Zhuge Liang's. Something unspoken passed between them and then Zhuge Liang took his leave, offering flowery goodbyes to both Sun Quan and Zhou Yu, his robes streaming out behind him as he hurried down the garden path.
"You played very well tonight," Zhou Yu said after he had made sure that Zhuge Liang was finally gone. "You must come over for dinner one night to show this new skill off. I am sure Xiao Qiao will be thrilled to hear that you've finally applied yourself to the gentler arts."
"Elder Sister will be more amazed than impressed," Sun Quan retorted. "She never knew I could play a whole piece of music in the first place without getting bored halfway through. But let us speak plainly. Kong Ming was right, was he not? You've come to discuss Jingzhou."
"As a matter of fact, yes. You know we must take it before Liu Bei can properly muster his troops. He can have another small city to settle his refugees that is not so important strategically. Whoever controls Jingzhou controls the Yangzi, and why risk another repeat of what has happened at Chi Bi? My Lord, you must think of Wu's future prospects."
Sun Quan said nothing to this advice at first, instead picking up a half-full cup of wine from a low table and cradling it in his hand whilst he paced the pavilion's small interior.
"I can see your point, Brother," he conceded finally, "and the logic of the situation is undeniable. We must have Jingzhou to assure our future."
With a single swallow, Sun Quan emptied the cup in his hand. His forehead was creased in thought, and he absently pulled at his beard.
"But Zhuge Liang has been pressing the case for Shu," Zhou Yu noted, feeling a grim sense of triumph when Sun Quan nodded in response. "And, doubtless, he has good reasons for why we should let Liu Bei occupy the city instead."
"He took me to see the camps where the Shu refugees are living," Sun Quan told him, "and it is no proper life for civilians. These people need the security of a walled city and the ability to pursue trade in order to regain their independence, otherwise they will always be beggars in foreign lands. Jingzhou seems ideal. And now that Shang Xiang and Lord Mayor Liu have come to an understanding -"
"Against her wishes."
"Yes!" An irritated gesture with the wine cup, and Sun Quan continued, "But it is a good match! If we are all family, then why is there the need to divide ourselves over Jingzhou?"
"Family is one thing, Highness," Zhou Yu chided, refilling Sun Quan's cup and a spare he found lying next to the wine jar, "governing a country is another. You cannot let affections rule your decisions."
"This may be so, but I can hardly be merciless to Shu. No," Sun Quan tapped a fingernail against his chin. "I must do right by the people under my care. A good ruler looks after his people like a father with his children."
"They are not your people, Highness." This soft statement made Sun Quan spin around to meet Zhou Yu's steady gaze. "No matter how many infants Zhuge Liang pushes into your arms, you must remember that they are not your subjects. I do not mean to be harsh, but their welfare is not your final concern. That is the duty of Liu Bei and his capable generals."
Zhou Yu studied the duke before adding, almost as an afterthought, "Not forgetting, of course, Kong Ming himself. As I have said already, there will be other cities for them to settle in. Cities with vastly more land than Jingzhou offers that are not in quite so commanding a location. It is as Cao Cao said; the court of Shu is still allied with us, but what of next year, when they are settled and need room to expand? What of the other warlords who have grown confident after your brother's death? These are all factors to consider. Friendship is invaluable, but you have duties that surpass such bonds, Highness. Zhuge Liang will exploit his relationship with you to serve Liu Bei."
Sun Quan looked pained. "Kong Ming's reasons for wanting Jingzhou surely pose no great threat to us, or the future of the state -"
"If Heaven has made Yu, why then Liang as well?" Zhou Yu interrupted sharply, growing impatient with his ruler's obstinacy. "Have you forgotten who has sworn his loyalty to your family? Brother, please! You must not let your head be turned by sweetened words! You cannot fully trust the advice of a man who has the interests of another leader at heart!"
The wine cup in Sun Quan's hand crashed to the floor with a sharp sound, and the duke looked at the pieces, his eyes seeing nothing. For a second, Zhou Yu wondered if he had misjudged his tactics, but at length Sun Quan drew a sharp breath in and exhaled, closing his eyes. Then he moved to one of the discarded qin and settled himself in front of it, shaking out his sleeves and pushing them back. He touched the strings once.
"Forgive me," he said, his voice barely a whisper. "Forgive me, Brother. As you say, I have left myself vulnerable to the persuasions of others."
Zhou Yu smiled. It was not a triumphant smile, rather one of resignation and relief at the completion of a difficult task. "You have done no such thing, my lord."
"Won't you play with me?"
"I would be more than happy to enjoy your newfound skills, Highness." Zhou Yu bowed deeply. He took his place at the other qin and began to tune its strings before striking a sharp initial tune. Sun Quan answered with a tentative, quavering note that gradually lengthened into a steady, clearer sound.
A wider, more assured smile spread itself on Zhou Yu's lips now, and his music was the sound of a confident hunter, striding forth to find his prey. Sun Quan's accompanying tune was more melancholy, though it was never as nervous as the first few sounds he had produced. It was the raw sound of loss and ambition, and it complemented Zhou Yu's playing style surprisingly well. They played on late into the night, until Zhou Yu was sure of Sun Quan's resolve.
The next morning, Zhou Yu began to draw up plans for the siege of Jingzhou with fresh determination.
In the Shu camp, Zhuge Liang did the same, with a heavy heart.