Ying Si trusted Zhang Yi and regarded him as a friend – even if he was not always certain about his Premier's goals and long-term intents. He always missed Zhang Yi when he was absent, and the way his Prime Minister was able to explore their shared vision for the world and allying the states, and make even a complex plan of action seem simple and logical.
The man was loyal – but possibly more to his theories, and whichever ones he was presently most interested in or being paid to develop, than the actual ruler who had hired or asked him. Finding ways of keeping Zhang sufficiently interested and challenged to remain in Qin was worth it regardless – and enjoyable.
There was also the mixture of diffidence, bordering on brittleness, and sheer physical bravery – such as actually interpolating himself between two squabbling leading figures, and escaping from a form of protective custody to go to the kingdom of Chu and risking imprisonment and possible death there. Ying also admired the way Zhang had, seemingly, smooth talked his access to transport on the return journey from the border.
Teasing Zhang was amusing – but, Ying recognised, should not be carried too far: while Zhang was a willing foil and concealed his feelings, it was bad manners to do it to the point of eventually causing Zhang to go elsewhere again. Also, others of the royal council might laugh with the king, but they might well become wary of what the king might do to them and seek to protect themselves.
Ying also needed Zhang on a deeper level than his advisory role. As a king he always had to be justifiably concerned about actual and potential enemies – but at times now he was feeling more paranoid than appropriate. He was also aware his mind was frazzling to some extent. Zhang was able to calm him, sometimes merely by his presence: his sympathy and concern were genuine.
He also feared for Zhang – who was older than he looked - who would find it difficult to take on a new role on Ying's death, but was not of a nature to willingly retire, unless the situation was too dangerous or his health forced him to do so. The Crown Prince would probably not retain him, as was traditional with new monarchs and their predecessors' chief advisers. Ying's suggestion to Prince Dang that he might consider pensioning off his father's chief advisers when the succession arose was met with a somewhat sulky "It depends." At least the option had been put into his head – and some of the ministers would retire or move away from the court of their own accord.
Speaking to Zhang's friends – generals, a merchant with many contacts and a conniving nature, and others – to advise him to leave the court after the king's death was another thing that could be done.
There were still times when Ying Si knew his mind was clear – and he could sense Zhang's compassion when it was not.
Now was one such interlude of clarity.
'Yi – we both know what the situation is. Thank you for all you have done over the years, for myself and for the state of Qin. You know what I should apologise for, and I do so.'
'That is all forgotten. I have enjoyed working for you, for Qin, and for our grand plan. Do not ask me to retire yet - what else is there for me to do?' They were not saying their farewells, just ensuring that what was necessary had been said, when it could be appreciated.
'I did not say you should - but it is something that has to be considered. What you desire, and what others decide to do with you, may be quite different.' The Crown Prince had plans for a different strategy to the present policies of alliances and would not change his mind soon. Ying smiled. 'Your merchant friend – amusing and knowledgeable chap, with enough links to be a spymaster, willing to put a price to anything, but no class – said something about some barbarian ruler residing at the other end of the trade routes, wishing to conquer the world. Perhaps you go to him, or whoever succeeded him and bring him into the horizontal alliance. Would outflank the rulers of the other states, and you would enjoy the challenge.' Ying wondered how the merchant would respond if asked to arrange for the sale of the other states to Qin. It might have been an interesting strategy to pursue had it been suggested early in Ying’s reign.
'I will think about it.' Taking the suggestion in the spirit intended.
'Remember – my Premier is both who and what you are, but so also is Zhang Si. One day soon Zhang Si will go back to Wei and tell his mother about the successes he has had, and that he had a king as a friend, who valued his friendship and his work, and that he has a place in history – but he will also say that he is still her loving son. He will go round his home town to see how it has changed, or not, and which of the people he knew from long ago are still there. Then he will sit outside his house and contemplate familiar places and feel as much joy as when all his conniving in the Palace and all his diplomacy works out.' He could guess the other man's daydream from passing remarks over the years.
Zhang's expression became wistful as he imagined the scene just described, and he smiled.
'I will… thank you for the gift you have just given me, more precious than any monetary reward.'
'I am glad to have given it – and I will ensure you are well recompensed.'
'What more do I need than what I have being doing for the past twenty years?' They both knew that there was much truth in the statement.
'Memories do not pay the bills.'
'While I enjoy the finest quality of goods I can afford - which some see as luxury - my tastes can also be simple, and I have the family home.'
'I will arrange something, so you can enjoy your tastes – and keep your family and home in the style you are now happy with.'
'As you wish. My one regret is that you never came to Wei to see my little domain.'
'Tell me about the place.'
Zhang did so: it was clear to Ying that things were more golden in Zhang's memory than they had been in reality, but he would not spoil the other man's pleasure, which had, no doubt, sustained him over the years. He too had his home-in-memory, which occasionally helped him escape some of the shadows.
'It sounds a wonderful place,' Ying said as the narrative came to an end. 'I would have enjoyed being the premier of your domain.' There were occasions when the idea of retirement to such a place would have been tempting.
'But the reality probably would not live up to it. One reason why I have never gone back.' Again the wistful note.
'One day you will - and you will think back to this discussion, and remember me as you walk round your domain and what I would be interested in.'
'And when I do finally retire - I will think of this place likewise, and will be here with you again in spirit... and we will continue our discussions, and with others about the vertical alliance and other possibilities... and I will prepare my notes for circulation.'
'I will hold you to that.'