Lü Meng didn’t have time to prepare himself for the abrupt shift in scenery and pulling out of the memory gave him a terrible headache, ripping through his skull like a stray lightning bolt. He could no more stop the pained gasp than he could stop the thunder that always succeeded lightning and he wasn’t sure how he managed to stop himself from grabbing his temples. Though what stopped him was a mystery to him- he wasn’t sure why he bothered keeping up appearances as Zuo Ci had already seen how cowardly and weak he once was. ‘Once,’ he reminded himself, squinting his eyes and concentrating his efforts on fighting the headache. ‘Once a coward, never again.’
He waited for Zuo Ci to speak up, but the man was oddly quiet. Was he still entranced in the memory or merely musing over his findings? Either way, he was determined not to wait in silence for long, and broke it, unaware of how his voice would affect the mystic if he was still entranced. Maybe he’d return the favor and spread his headache? He could only hope. “So, thoughts? Opinions? Since my life is on display, I’m curious as to how this is meant to contribute to your investigation.”
Perhaps too much of his spite hung on his voice and years spent controlling his temper were pushed aside so easily. And the worst part was that he wasn’t sure exactly why this recent memory threatened to undo all of that hard work, but he at least managed to reign it in and display it through a coat of smarm. Seconds passed before Zuo Ci said anything and when he did, Lü Meng felt little comfort in it. “I’m afraid to admit that I do not have much to say. You are hardly the first to be lured into war so young, nor the first to succumb to your own emotions. I wonder, just how much you and your adversary have in common after all.”
Now this caught Lü Meng’s attention and he tried to hide it, but to no avail as he was certain it escaped in his voice. “So he was a fugitive once? I’m sure his reasons were far nobler than my own, or so he would proclaim.” Admittedly, he did not know of this and he was torn on whether the skepticism he felt was justified or not. Could have easily been a ruse to deter him from his mission, though it could also be a way for him to learn more about his enemy before the inevitable confrontation. Either way, he was content to leave his fugitive days, as brief as they were, behind him. “What I learned from my experience is to have the strength and courage to face the consequences of my actions, regardless if they lead to punishment or a reward.”
This piqued the old man’s interest and he took some measure of pleasure in seeing his baffled expression, even if it was short-lived. It made the headache he suffered all the worth it. “Oh and tell me, you feel you were rewarded for your actions that day?”
“Of course I was,” the Chief-Commander said and proudly as well. Perhaps it was a bit arrogant of him and it was fear of it consuming him as it had so many others that made him calmly explain himself. “Look at it from where I had come from and you’d understand perfectly why I would see it as a reward. I was granted amnesty when I should have been executed. Even better than that, my family was taken into Sun Ce’s care, including myself and Deng Dang. I didn’t understand just how much of a blessing it was until later, but I was never ungrateful.”
“So you feel that killing that man resulted in your reward?”
The Lü Meng of now understood where the Lü Meng of his teen years did not, and now he was more than happy to explain to the mystic. “No, I was granted a second chance to redeem myself, but I was rewarded for my decision to join Deng Dang’s army in the first place and to present myself to Lord Sun Ce, even when they intentionally made it difficult for me to do so.”
Zuo Ci’s expression was near unreadable but not for long, and he wasn’t sure if his eyes were deceiving him when he wore a rather contented smile, as though his response pleased him. Not that he was certain if it was a good or bad thing, but it seemed it would simply have to remain a mystery for a while more as the mystic was keen on moving on ahead. Whatever laid in the man’s mind as far as his final judgement on the matter went would simply have to be addressed later, the Chief-Commander thought to himself and relieved that his headache seemed to be ebbing away slowly. He felt displaced, one moment there in this shared realm and the next, looking at himself, kneeling in front of Sun Ce, too nervous to understand the kind smile that the young Sun lord wore as he confessed his crime to him. All the while, Zuo Ci was there, asking him questions, letting him witness his past but keeping him in this strange limbo. “Yes, I can see where one would commend you for your bravery, even when you were clearly either coerced or goaded into the action. Swallowing your fear, and your pride, to do the right thing… it would seem that the courage you are renowned for did not simply develop on the battlefield as I originally thought.”
“In this age of chaos, I find one cannot afford to be a coward, and even though I didn’t know it at first, there’s more to courage than simply fighting. Take the ones who chose to stay behind and tend to their fields, for example. To choose to continue working, so that your family or others can eat, instead of abandoning one’s duties. To choose stability over fame can be just as courageous as venturing out, can’t it?”
Zuo Ci mulled over the question and moments passed in silence between them, before he chimed in, his voice threatening to dissipate the wall between the realm they were in now and that of the past once more. “Yes, courage can come in many forms, but one must be weary. At what lengths would one be willing to go to justify courage, and when does courage turn into recklessness? When does one’s efforts to display their bravery impede upon another’s liberty and peaceful way of life?”
Now Lü Meng tried to resist the pull, despite its inevitability, at least long enough to where he could prepare himself for what the next memory would be or perhaps guide it to where he wished to go, like when one took control of a dream. He wasn’t sure if it was even possible, but he would at least say he tried. “If you’re talking about my lord’s decision to break away from Yuan Shu and reclaim his homeland, then I’ll simply tell you that you’re wrong. It was not a decision he made neither lightly nor recklessly, and he had every right to retake his homes, does he not?”
He wasn’t expecting Zuo Ci to laugh and though it was soft, it was just as mocking to him. “I’m sorry. You’ll forgive me for finding it hard to believe that when you and your men are so confident that these lands here are yours as well. It hardly surprises me that you feel this way when I suspect it is your late lord’s doing in the first place.”
Oh, Lü Meng was seething, but all of it remained locked inside, squirreled away and waiting to be used as fuel later on. He couldn’t show just how deep his anger went and why it threatened to undo all of the training that he endured to keep his emotions under control. He suspected that the mystic knew it was there and sought to exploit it, and it only added fuel to his endeavor to contain himself. So, he took in a breath and considered his words with care, reigning his voice back into a careful neutral as though his slip up never occurred. Like Sun Ce had done, this man was goading him on, and he’d refuse the bait. He knew that Zuo Ci would likely just waltz into the memories anyway, but he was confident that his opponent, if he was considered one, would find nothing short of truth. “That is a topic we can debate later though admittedly I grow tired of. The matter with Wujun and my former lord’s decision to return to them, however, I’ll be more than happy to discuss with you instead. You are aware that the Sun family that I serve descended from Sun Tzu, correct?”
“I am aware.”
“Then you would know that he wrote the famed Art of War in those lands, and there were other details, proof that those lands were his to return to. Those that refused that proof and fought were in the wrong, simple as that. We gave them a chance to resolve the matter peacefully, just as we did here in Jing province several times before, and they refused it. Lord Sun Ce, nor Lord Quan, are warmongers.”
Zuo Ci’s eyes narrowed and he began to fade into the background, a familiar eeriness surrounding Lü Meng once more in warning. The rain that had once drizzled and soaked his armor shifted into a welcoming sweat, cooling his warmed skin and offering him something to combat the midday humidity that assaulted him and his training partner. “You speak with such confidence. Now let us see why…”
It was hard to think five years had passed since the young Sun lord took him and his family into his service. Not that Lü Meng bothered to keep track of such things now, as though they were not at constant ends of one battle after another, he was kept busy with one thing or the other. More often than not, he found himself being pulled into either manual labor or training by his senior officers, neither of which he really minded. One gave him something to do to pass the time between the sometimes lengthy lulls in combat, and the other gave him the much needed training he’d need that apparently his lord felt that he and his men were missing out on.
In truth, Lü Meng didn’t mind the training. In fact, he rather liked it! Day by day, he grew stronger, his endurance improved, and even he could tell that he had put on some much needed weight, finally filling in the armor without is sagging off of him. The physical activity of the training also helped to make the passage of time all the more tolerable. Sun Ce had said that the rigorous wasn’t so much as to improve his skills, but to stave off the madness that seemed to stalk his troops from the inactivity that their lord placed upon them.
Not that Lü Meng understood what any of that meant at first. He honestly didn’t understand a lot that was going on around him and he didn’t want to ask since he was absolutely certain that he was the only one that didn’t comprehend the tension that threatened to strangle the officers he had come to know and respect. They were restless, he once overheard from where he stood watch outside when his lord was at a meeting. They worried that their young lord would grow lazy and his claws would dull from where he writhered beneath Lord Yuan Shu’s shadow. None had really paid much attention to his young bodyguard to think to get his opinion on the matter, but if they asked if he felt that their lord was restless, he’d give them an honest answer. Painfully bored.
Sparring at essentially become a much needed pass time for Sun Ce and though he had many officers that he considered worthy opponents, most of the time he’d call upon his bodyguards instead. Said it was a good way to test their skills and keep them on their toes, though sometimes Lü Meng figured it was simply a spur of the moment idea and they were usually the quickest to find. Between himself and an older, more formidable man (whom he had to eavesdrop one time to even get his name, that being Zhou Tai), he was starting to think themselves to be his favorites, though he was certain that his lord must have favored Zhou Tai more.
A former pirate and already seasoned in combat, Zhou Tai was quiet, intimidating, and thus far, Lü Meng had seen Sun Ce best him only a handful of times while he himself had yet to best him in a duel. His only relief, if one could consider it such, was that the former pirate never chided or bragged about his countless victories, nor did he ever put his opponents down. But then again, Zhou Tai barely said anything at all and gave off such an aura of complete indifference, so there was that. Better for there to be no feelings towards him than those of hate or disgust after his own experience with Yu Mao.
Even now, there was little emotion to be seen in that hawk-like face of his and had he not known him to be fiercely loyal to the Sun family, he’d feel unnerved by that glare alone. He reminded himself as he did at the start of all of their duels that it was only a spar and nothing more, and he snapped to attention just in time to block the strike aimed at his head.
The loud ‘crack’ of the reinforced wood threatened to deafen him and it resonated throughout the barracks, letting any passerby know that Sun Ce’s boredom had reached its peak once again.
Zhou Yu watched the fight proceed for a bit before making his way deeper in, knowing better than to announce himself and giving the two dueling officers a wide enough berth as to not distract from Sun Ce’s entertainment, though by looking at the young lord, one would be hesitant to even call it that. The proud and energetic head of the renowned Sun family has half lounged on the chair, chin cupped in a supporting hand and watching with little interest. No, not quite that, Zhou Yu mused to himself. He seemed invested and deep in thought, but not directed at the fight taking place in front of him. So, the man closed in on his lord and childhood friend, certain that he’d hear him over the deafening cracks and shouts that rang through the air. “You don’t seem that enamored in your officer’s duel, Ce. You may want to be careful they don’t catch that. You’ll hurt Lü Meng’s feelings like that.”
Even his smile was delayed and though he was alert, he remained slouched in his seat, as if without a care in the world. “Oh, and why do you say that?”
“Because, like all of us, he works so hard to please you and wouldn’t want to feel that his lord is disappointed in him,” Zhou Yu said, coming to stand next to his lord and watching the fight with some interest. From this angle, he could see just how hard Lü Meng was trying, despite being at a clear disadvantage. It was admirable in a way, but it seemed useless. Zhou Tai simply could not be defeated in a duel. Lü Meng, unaware of his critical eye, gave the fight his all, going on the offensive and looking for any opening he could exploit, though Zhou Tai seldom left one. Those he did were sometimes a trap and having sported a welt the size of a ripe melon for a week, Lü Meng had grown weary of those ‘openings’. Zhou Yu noted his hesitation to the blatant openings that his opponent gave him and couldn’t help but comment to Sun Ce. “He seems to have caught on to Zhou Tai’s baits, at least.”
“If you knew how much Zhou Tai doesn’t hold back, you’d learn pretty quickly too. However, this is good.” Sun Ce gave a nod and he did seem more invested in the fight than a few moments ago. Now if it came from his chiding or having come from reaching a conclusion on his as of yet unspoken dilemma, Zhou Yu wasn’t sure, but he could always pry into the matter if need be. “Zhou Tai will probably win this one too, but it won’t be for Lü Meng’s lack of trying.”
“You don’t sound too confident in your bodyguard’s ability, Ce. You trust him to secure your life but not to defeat another in a duel?”
Now Sun Ce pulled his gaze from the fight and flashed Zhou Yu a knowing grin, in turn inflaming the strategist’s curiosity all the more. “I trust him with my life because of his fight and his single-minded focus on his task. Look at him, Yu. He may not have the skills or experience that Zhou Tai has, but he has spirit and determination to match what he lacks.”
Zhou Yu did as he was told. As he watched, he couldn’t help but see what his friend meant, but he still held onto his doubts. And of course, as he knew Sun Ce so well, he expressed his doubts, trying not to allow his own personal feelings towards the bodyguard that Sun Ce seem to favor to sour his words too much. “While heart and determination are good traits to have, when it comes to safeguarding your life, I’d prefer skill and experience, not to mention some intelligence to be able to access a situation, instead of just charging in with brute force and sheer dumb luck.”
Sun Ce’s laugh almost drowned out Lü Meng’s shout as he went for an opening and he just barely saved himself from a blow to the face when he swung the other end of his quarterstaff around to block Zhou Tai’s immediate counter. The loud crack brought all eyes to back to the fight, including that of Sun Ce’s, and his interests finally seemed to arrive, though late. The fight itself, however, never stalled and continued on, its intensity crackling through the air with even more fervor. “Oh, he’s picked up on his deadly counter at long last! Yu, I know you don’t think highly of him-”
“What an astute observation, my lord!” His soft, cultured voice dripped with sarcasm and any other who dared speak to Sun Ce in such a manner would have been reprimanded. With Zhou Yu, though, not only did he get away with it, but Sun Ce carried on as if he was never interrupted.
“But I think you’re being closed minded on his potential.”
“You say that when you expressed your doubts earlier?” Zhou Yu scoffed. “So he blocked an attack? Tell me why I should be impressed.”
“Because now he knows it can be done and knows to block where he previously didn’t. Soon, he’ll learn to counter it and he’ll be one step closer to the day he’ll beat Zhou Tai in a duel,” Sun Ce said, now having sat up straight and definitely interesting in the fight now. His gaze was upon his officers and yet he could feel his friend’s eyes upon him. “Look at him now and compare him to how he was fighting a few moments ago.”
Zhou Yu obliged and could not deny what his lord had seen nor what he could clearly see. “He does seem more confident than before.”
“And yet, he hasn’t let his success, as meager as it may be, get to his head. He’s still aware that Zhou Tai can go for the kill at any moment. So what if he’s not the best duelist? Fact is, he got heart and strives to succeed, and he’s learning, to top it all off. I happen to find that admirable.”
Zhou Yu could see all those points and could not help but smile, to see his lord was more observant than he had initially let on. These months of inactivity may have threatened to dull his claws, but at least his mind was still sharp and poised. He did see some of what Sun Ce had mentioned, but he remained skeptical, and with good reason. While Lü Meng had not allowed his success to fester into arrogance, he was allowing something else to act through him and he was quick to bring it up. His observations, as well as what he personally knew of the young bodyguard, would not allow him to do any less. “What about his temper? You find that to be an admirable trait?”
Another ear-splitting crack, another shout, and it was impossible to not notice Sun Ce’s wince. “I haven’t quite figured that much out yet, no. He does seem to wear his emotions out in the open, don’t he?”
“Only the negative ones I find. Right now, he’s frustrated and it’s starting to have an adverse effect on his form.” It was easy to see from where they watched and to those nearby could hear it in Lü Meng’s angered grunts and shouts. Zhou Yu didn’t need to say such but sadly he knew that Sun Ce may have been blind to this glaring flaw. After all, it was easy to overlook such things when one was guilty of such flaws themselves. And had it been Sun Ce out there getting heated, maybe he would have been more forgiving himself. “You should call off the fight before Lü Meng gets himself hurt.”
He could see his hesitation to do so but before he could repeat himself, Sun Ce relented with a sigh. He couldn’t blame him. To see someone on the verge of finally accomplishing their goal, only to be cut short before he could succeed. Perhaps Sun Ce felt he could win, but Zhou Yu simply knew better. Sun Ce’s hand rose and his shout was loud, strict and edge with authority, penetrating through the ruckus caused by the fight. “Alright, enough, both of you. At ease.”
A fear formed in Zhou Yu’s gut that Lü Meng would be too incensed to hear or obey his lord and he was more than eager to jump in, but he was surprised to see both combatants back down just as suddenly as the fight had started. Part of him felt disappointed to see Lü Meng surrender so quickly, but apparently he didn’t know the bodyguard as well as he thought he did. Perhaps he did have a brain in that skull of his, or more likely, Lü Meng simply focused his frustration through other means, such as his mouth. “Why?”
Zhou Yu wasn’t sure why he was expecting anything calm to come from the young man, and silently chided himself for it, as Sun Ce offered him an explanation. To give the young Sun lord credit, he hardly sounded intimidated in the wake of Lü Meng’s anger and were his ears fooling him or did Sun Ce sound rather jovial when he addressed his bodyguard? “It looked like you two were going to go all out and I didn’t want to risk either of my men getting hurt. What if I need you both later and you’re too exhausted and injured from practice to be of any use?”
“But my lord, I was so close!”
“You think so?” Sun Ce arched a brow and then looked to the taller of the two. “Zhou Tai, your opinion?”
The former pirate was definitely the better off of the two, though Zhou Yu could make out a gleam in his eyes, a hint of excitement despite being only slightly winded compared to his sparring partner. “Close, but not enough.”
Few were surprised by this assessment, but fewer still were surprised or could blame Lü Meng for expressing his frustration. He was going to snap and say something, but before he could, Sun Ce was quick to check him, never once raising his voice or allowing anything remotely sharp to edge his jovial tone, not the tone that his friend would have taken with the youth in his current state. “See, even Zhou Tai sees you’ve gotten close, but that’s enough for one day. I’ll need you both for your duties later, and besides, you wouldn’t want to wear yourselves out before Quan and the others show up, do you?”
And yet, for all of Zhou Yu’s doubts, there was some method to Sun Ce’s madness when it came to dealing with his officers. His friendly and encouraging words, as well as the mention of their incoming visitors, seemed to quell that rage in a heartbeat, and Lü Meng wasn’t the only one that brightened in response. Zhou Tai’s smile was subtle, but it was definitely there, as Lü Meng asked, “Will they be here soon, then, my lord?”
“With the way you’ve been shouting, I’m surprised they haven’t swarmed in here yet!” Sun Ce flashed his bodyguards a smile, never once alerting them to the set of eyes that loomed from the windows and doorway. By this time, they had tried sneaking in behind two officers, both of which were highly amused but were good sports about it. Zhou Yu spotted the small caravan immediately, however, and had applauded his friend for keeping Lü Meng distracted for as long as he could.
Few things could get past the ever vigilant Zhou Tai, however. He was quick to spot them and his warning came mere seconds before two of the caravan broke off and hopped onto Lü Meng’s shoulders. “Incoming.”
“Speak of the devils,” Sun Ce said with a howling laugh, not at all concerned for the safety of the children and teenagers that began to overwhelm his young bodyguard, much to Zhou Yu’s dismay. “Quan, Shi Ran, careful with Lü Meng! You’re not so tiny anymore!”
Not that Lü Meng showed any strain in hefting the two of them up. Once he stood at his full height, though, though, they jumped off, sparing themselves a scolding as well as Lü Meng’s back. Zhou Yu was curious about the rapid shift in attitude that occurred within the bodyguard, but thankfully Sun Ce was more than happy to explain. “Works every time. Anytime I see his temper start to flare up, I either send to the stables to muck stalls and tend to the horses, or plan a visit with Quan and his classmates, and just like that he mellows out.”
Honestly, Zhou Yu was impressed and didn’t even try to hide it. “So, instead of using negative reinforcement, you counter with physical labor and a positive outlet. You’ve done well, Ce.”
“Took some experimenting, but it definitely works. He seems comfortable around horses and they usually don’t give him any lip when he grumbles to them, and when it comes to young ones, he turns into a cuddly panda bear.” Sun Ce smiled, but it wasn’t entirely of mirth, nor of cockiness to have Zhou Yu compliment him so. “Besides, it’s not just me. You should acknowledge that he’s changed because he does work hard.”
Zhou Yu was content to leave it at his compliment to Sun Ce, but for his friend to chide him like that made him bristle and he didn’t notice how Lü Meng glanced their way to see his borderline annoyed expression. “You must forgive me, Ce. You’ve had more time to be around him to notice such things, but I will take your word for it. Who would better know your bodyguards than the one he serves to protect with his life?”
Lü Meng was not entirely deaf to their conversation and he could catch bits and pieces, but in truth he was too invested in greeting young Quan and his friends to really care what his lord and his closest friend were discussing about him. “Lord Quan, you have grown! You’re almost as tall at me now. I’ll need to be careful or else you’ll tower over me and then how will I ever shield you?”
“You could climb on Zhou Tai’s shoulders!” Shi Ran said, pushing his way and making sure he was at the front of the brigade and not once seeming to notice or care that he was blocking the way for the younger and smaller ones. For his suggestion, he was rewarded with a pat on the head and reveled in the attention. Of course, Shi Ran pegged himself as everyone’s favorite and didn’t bother trying to hide it. “Lü Meng, we heard you fighting from a whole li away! Who won? It was you, wasn’t it?”
Lü Meng was hesitant to answer but one of the officers that walked in with the brigade was quick to spare him from answering and disappointing Shi Ran with the truth. “Both won, as both men fought their hardest and did not back down or expose their weakness to one another. With each duel, we grow stronger, wiser, as so long as you walk away from your battles alive, then that alone is a victory worth celebrating.”
The one that spoke was Ling Cao, a man that Lü Meng had grown an almost instant liking and respect to when he arrived in Sun Ce’s forces. He was a strong warrior, but surprisingly kind, despite his grizzled and scarred appearance, as though he wound he suffered only imbued more wisdom on him. When Sun Ce, Zhou Yu and Han Dang returned with Lü Meng and the new recruits that day five years ago, he stayed in the general’s home until he recovered enough of his strength and got his own family situated. Those days were brief in the grand scheme of things, but it left its impact on Lü Meng and Ling Cao’s son. Not content to allow Shi Ran to hog all of Lü Meng’s attention, the eight-year-old managed to take advantage of his small size and maneuvered around to where he could climb onto Lü Meng’s back. He crowed triumphantly from where he was perched on the bodyguard’s shoulder. “But you’re training him, Dad… so he should have won, if you spent all of those nights-“
“Tong, hush your mouth and get down from there. He is one of our lord’s personal guards, not a horse.”
It might not have been enough to spare the truth from coming out, but there came no immediate retaliation at least. As Ling Tong slid off, the other officer that joined them let out a loud and boisterous laugh, the sound booming and terrifying though Lü Meng would rather take a hit from Zhou Tai in a duel than admit that it startled him. Huang Gai had a way of making his presence known and it had conflicting results from others as some of the children practically shifted like nervous stallions in a storm. “Well, now he’s a babysitter, but don’t worry. This lot won’t give him any more trouble than our lord already does.”
“Hey! I don’t think I give my bodyguards that much trouble.”
“One would have to have battles to fight in order for your bodyguards to be of real use, I think,” Zhou Yu said, whatever soured his mood before seeming to have been cast aside for the time being, despite the sting of what Lü Meng suspected was almost a backhanded compliment in his direction. Despite the affection he received from the teens and children around him, he couldn’t help but suspect that not everyone here liked him, and he never thought that Zhou Yu would be the type to hold anything against him. What had he done to earn his ire, he wondered. Before it could fester and spoil his good mood, though, Zhou Yu was eager to draw the attention of not just his lord but his officers as well. “My lord, Ling Cao, Huang Gai, myself and others would like to have a few words with you if you have a moment.”
Sun Ce was quick to oblige and looked to his bodyguards. “Now’s a good a time as any. Zhou Tai, with me. Lü Meng, I trust that you can hand your new charges for a bit?”
It was more of a request than an order, but one that Lü Meng was happy to obey. Even when his curiosity grew within his mind as to what they’d be discussing. What would they want to discuss? And why was Zhou Tai allowed to attend? All questions and no answers came to his mind at the moment. “Not a problem at all, my lord.”
“Don’t worry, Lü Meng,” said Ling Cao, patting him on the shoulder as Sun Ce, Zhou Yu and Huang Gai migrated to the entryway. Zhou Tai lingered but Lü Meng’s attention was on Ling Cao and the young lady he motioned to. “You’ll have Lady Lianshi to help you with this one. She’ll keep the princess in line so that you can focus on the boys.”
Now Lü Meng was surprised and wondered how he had managed to miss the young princess among the group when she spoke so loudly and with heated purpose. Sun Shangxiang huffed, despite Lianshi’s efforts to reign her back in. “Nuh uh! I’m staying with my brother and the rest of them! I don’t need to be treated special or any different just because I’m a girl!”
“It’s okay, you don’t look or act any different from the rest anyway, so I wouldn’t know the difference,” Lü Meng said, not really thinking about his words or how they came out, so when Shangxiang’s eyes widened and anger flashed in them, he was curious as to what caused such a reaction. As Shi Ran, Ling Tong and some of the other boys laughed, he retreated his gaze to Lianshi in hopes of sparing himself from the princess’s wrath. “I welcome your company, Lady Lianshi. You and the princess both.”
“It’s my pleasure, Lü Meng.” Lianshi flashed him a polite smile, as if sensing his silent distress and seeking to quell it with her aura alone. She was calm, polite, sweet but strict from what he had known of her. Such a drastic difference from her own charge, but a welcomed one for Lü Meng. Given how easily he seemed to offend Shangxiang, he had a feeling he’d be looking to her for some much needed guidance on this endeavor.
Sun Ce’s calling did more than alert the former pirate in question and Lü Meng turned to see why his colleague hesitated. That was when he noticed how Zhou Tai and his lord’s brother were discussing something in near solitude away from them. Another mystery but one he was certain that he’d never solve, at least not from Zhou Tai himself. At Sun Ce’s beckoning, Zhou Tai whispered something to Sun Quan, gave a blink-and-you-miss smiles, then turned on his heel and was at Sun Ce’s side, so fast that one swore he ever fell behind at all.
Now, it was just Lü Meng, Lianshi, and the youths, and whatever his lord and his officers were going to discuss would eventually reveal itself when it was ready. His curiosity was present, yes, but he knew better than to allow himself to be too distracted, especially with the likes of Shi Ran and Ling Tong to monitor.
“Lü Meng, Lü Meng, do that thing!”
Sun Ce was right to call off the duel when he did, because it was clear that the young ones were being exceptionally active today. While Sun Quan and Shi Ran were growing into fine young men, they still had an abundance of energy, and apparently the two of them were instigators of the constant barrage of feats. He did not need anything more than ‘the thing’ to know what Quan wanted and he let out a snicker, turning his head to face the younger Sun lord and not once getting distracted or letting Sun Shangxiang come close to hitting him as they ‘dueled’. He had to admit that her tenacity was something to admired and he suspected a blow would hurt like hell, but he managed to fair better against her than he had against Zhou Tai earlier (though truly, that was nothing to brag about) as he addressed her brother. “You still like that? Didn’t our lord request we stop doing that?”
He remembered the event though vaguely, and perhaps it was wrong of him to put such faith in the young teen to give him a straight answer. Sun Quan flashed him a pleading look and what else could Lü Meng do but want to give in? “I don’t recall such a request. Please, Ling Tong and Shangxiang hasn’t seen it yet!”
Sun Quan didn’t have to do much to twist Lü Meng’s arm and he found himself relenting. “I’d love to, but that’ll depend on if Princess Shangxiang doesn’t break the quarterstaff, or our fingers. Ease up a little, Princess.”
Shangxiang gave it one more hearty ‘whack’ but both held fast and she let out a sigh, handing the quarterstaff back to Lü Meng. By now, Shi Ran, Ling Tong and the rest of the now curious young ones flocked around them. “Those are strong, but I prefer a bow anyways.”
“Me too!” Shi Ran said. “We should have a contest one day, Princess.”
Ling Tong tugged at Lü Meng’s sleeve as the bodyguard expected the quarterstaffs for their durability. Wouldn’t do him good if they snapped! “Lü Meng, are you good with a bow?”
“No, afraid not.” He openly admitted. He wanted to play it off as a joke and he hoped to dissuade them from questioning him any further by displaying something he was good at. “Alright, so let’s see. Princess Shangxiang, you grab onto this end, and Ling Tong, you get this one.”
The two were curious and eager to oblige, but before they could move into position, Sun Quan protested. “But they’re so small, Lü Meng! I know you can lift heavier people!”
“Yeah, why don’t you do Quan and me first?” Shi Ran joined in, not at all content to let anyone go before in sans Sun Quan. Then his eyes lit up with an idea and Lü Meng was certain he wouldn’t like it before he even said a word! “Oh, do all four of us! Two on each end to balance it out!”
“Uh…” Admittedly, Lü Meng wasn’t the brightest person in the room, but he could not ignore the feeling in his gut when Shi Ran made that suggestion. “That doesn’t sound like…”
“That’s a great idea! Why don’t you do that, Lü Meng?” And yet, any chance that Lü Meng might have had to protest was stripped from his very being, as Quan was more than eager to have the feat done. And it certainly didn’t help when others chimed in, eager to see the feat done and to be a part of it. Once again, Lü Meng suspected he was being goaded on, but what else could he do? When Sun Quan turned to him again, he knew there was no way he could say no, not without looking both weak and cowardly. And Lü Meng knew that he was neither.
“Alright then. Princess, you and Shi Ran get on this end. And you, Lord Quan and Ling Tong, you get on this one. We’ll take turns for the next round, alright? Hang onto the ends tightly. Now, get into position and when I give the signal, tuck your legs in and hang on tight.”
They flocked to their positions, with Ling Tong and Shangxiang looking to Shi Ran and Sun Quan for guidance. Lianshi immediately objected and her concern was a good countenance to the excited murmurs of the rest. “Lü Meng, I’m not sure you should do this. I don’t think the quarterstaffs will hold their weight, and Quan’s a little heavier than Shi Ran. Won’t that effect the balance?”
All good objections, but Quan was quick to silence the naysayer before Lü Meng even had a chance to consider her warning. “Lü Meng’s done this plenty of times.”
“And he’s strong. He can totally do this!” Shi Ran said, equally confident and looking ready to wet himself with excitement as he cheered the bodyguard on. “We’re ready, Lü Meng!”
“I’ll be careful, Lady Lianshi.” Lü Meng flashed her a smile, showing nothing but confidence in hopes of quelling her probably well-justified concerns. In truth, while he suspected that the quarterstaffs might snap, he didn’t consider the balance problem, but if he raised any objections, he’d have his hands full with several disappointed teenagers and children. Once they were in position, he brought the quarterstaffs over his neck and shoulders, finding the perfect angle and once he did, he squatted his knees and wriggled his shoulders. He was getting a good feel of the weight and bracing himself, trying not to let the doubt that Lianshi’s objection gnaw at his brain. Shi Ran was right and he’s lifted heavier objects before, but he dared not make the young ones wait a moment longer. He let out a breath and gave the signal. “And… now!”
All four youths swept their feet beneath them in almost perfect unison and all of their combined weight came crashing down on Lü Meng at once. He had told himself that he was strong, but for a brief moment, he began to doubt that. His knees buckled beneath him and his shoulders immediately protested this new burden, but he caught himself from dropping to his knees. He immediately tried to figure out the balance and pushed against the weight, not at all hearing the surprised cheers from the ones around him or Lianshi’s started gasp, as all of his attention was allocated to keeping the dangling youths from touching the ground. He held his breath and strained, hating to admit that Lianshi may have been correct. Sun Quan was simply too heavy and threatened to throw off his balance if he dared push up, but Quan cheered him on. Unaware of how much the bodyguard struggled, the young Sun lord urged him on, and the joy in his voice was enough to cancel out whatever doubts he had or what sense Lianshi tried to instill in him. “Higher, Lü Meng! Higher!”
What choice did he have? He could no more disobey an order from Sun Quan than he could for his own lord, and so, with strength he was absolutely certain he had and was desperate for, he began to straighten his legs and push himself up. It was like pressing a horse! A great, unbalanced and kicking with all of its might horse! His chest screamed for air, his muscles begged for him to release the burden, but the excited cheers from the children… they drowned out everything. Fears, doubts, self-preservation, all of it was silent in lieu of the joy he heard from the ones around him. So, he pushed himself, standing against the weight and pushing his living weights higher and higher. A little more, a little more, and-