Gift Horse and Zhou Yu's Test
The benefit of Sun Ce’s decision to break off from Yuan Shu was that Lü Meng, and everyone else for that matter, were too busy to dwell on such paltry matters like discovering one of his lord’s key officers and trusted advisers despised him. The news came so sudden and yet, not many complained. If anything, it seemed to garner the opposite reaction. Everyone involved were quick to offer their assistance in the transition. Soldiers and their families worked around the clock to prepare, packing valuables, constructing carriages, whatever was available. It was a kind of organized chaos, Ling Cao had told Lü Meng, but he wasn’t quite sure he comprehended the phrase and simply took it for what it was worth, choosing to dive into work and busy his body instead of his head. He was just a soldier, nothing more. Leave the thinking to someone else.
It was strange, though, to work so far away from his lord, but at least he was with familiar company. Ling Cao was quick to put him to work and keep a curious and talkative Ling Tong out from beneath his feet. They were assigned to watch over the carriages during the exodus to Wujun, a task that others may have balked at but not Lü Meng. Guarding people, multiple people, was something he was meant to do, he figured. And like protecting his lord, he’d dedicate the same devotion to not only his family but Lord Sun Ce’s and the rest. It was something he was good at. Something he was comfortable with. Something he couldn’t possibly screw up and that add more kind to Zhou Yu’s fire.
‘Don’t think about him. Just don’t think at all.’
“You look like a rain cloud ready to unleash a monsoon.” Ling Cao’s comment caused his attention snap away from his thoughts and look to the man he walked beside. What he saw was the side of the horse’s face that Ling Cao rode upon and he brought his gaze upwards, stroking the horse’s muscular neck in hopes of grounding him back into the present since his mind apparently longed to wander. Not a good trait for a guard at all. He must have given Ling Cao a blank look as his expression softened and he rephrased his statement. “You look angry. What on your mind?”
“Nothing,” Lü Meng said, his tone flat and eager to retreat into silence once more. Days passed since he and Shi Ran eavesdropped on his Lord and Zhou Yu- did he really have time to be dwelling on that now? “Nothing’s on my mind.”
“You’re not a good liar, are you?”
It would figure he’d see right through him and if anything his expression soured. “Just thinking.”
Lü Meng couldn’t stop the huff that escaped his head and not once did he consider how his actions may have been considered rude. “Stuff. Just stuff.”
It would not be enough to placate Ling Cao’s curiosity, but it would be all he’d get out of him. He was determined to resist any more efforts unless it was followed by an order. Grumpy as he was, he couldn’t afford to disobey an order. He pondered if the veteran knew that. He was content to keep addressing him as a friend for awhile longer, it seemed, as his patience, nor his questions, never wavered. “How do you feel about leaving Runan entirely?”
Truth be told, he never gave the matter any thought. It had been five years since he left the village of Fupo and made his stay with Lord Sun Ce and his men, a long time for a teen at the time but so brief in the grand scale of time. Yuan Shu’s district wasn’t so much a home, but the people within it. Thus far, everyone he had come to know was leaving with them, so what was there left in Runan to miss? He answered truthfully. “No. Most here never seemed to consider this their home anyways as they’re from Wujun and Jiangdong. We’re not wanted or needed here anyways.”
“How did you figure that?”
Lü Meng shrugged, confessing with ease before Ling Cao could mistake him for clever. “Just heard it from others as we were preparing to leave. Lord Sun Ce and his men were wasting under Yuan Shu’s command but he’s not willing to risk harming his people in a direct fight. So, we leave and return home.”
Though he sat elevated near him on his stead, Ling Cao did not so much look down on him as others might have for his honesty, and that was a blessing for the former bodyguard at least. “Regardless of where or who to heard it from, that’s a good way of thinking about it. Sometimes it’s for the best not to think too hard on certain matters.”
“I’m not really known for thinking hard, so that should be easy.”
He wasn't even sure why he said it, but at least Ling Cao’s laughter lifted his spirits in a strange way. “No, maybe not, but you are still young and have plenty of time to learn your duties. For now, focus on the task at hand and it’ll all work out for the best.”
It was a well desired relief to know that Ling Cao wouldn’t enforce ridiculous expectations on him all at once. He wanted to keep it simple for as long as possible, but now that Ling Cao got him talking, he could feel all sorts of questions beginning to nag at him. Best get them out now while the journey was peaceful and there were no roaming Zhou Yu about to mock him for his ignorance. “Sir, can I ask a question?”
“Does our lord expect trouble along the way?”
Ling Cao looked him over and his expression was hard to make out, despite his keen features thanks to his battle scars. “Why do you think so?”
“Because…” Suddenly, all courage left him and he found his voice fading into a whisper. A guardsman shouldn’t ask so many questions. “I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”
And yet, Ling Cao’s paternal instincts kicked him and he urged him on, like a parent nudging its fledgling off the branch. “No, no, speak your mind, Lü Meng. Our lord encouraged it, did he not?”
He regretted saying anything, but seeing it encouraged so only pushed the floodgates open. He had a feeling Ling Cao would not let him back down now. At least Zhou Yu wasn’t there to sneer in his direction and he chose to take some solace in the fact that Ling Cao wouldn’t take up that habit. He hoped. “I’m just curious as to why there are so many who are traveling armed, or why Lord Sun Ce purchased soldiers instead of carpenters or more supplies for the journey. Is he expecting trouble?”
“That’s something else you picked up from our charges while they packed?”
“Most of it is, but some of it’s me own.”
He wasn’t ashamed to admit to either- he may have heard Yenji or someone else mention it while he was moving from one carriage to the next, but it lingered in his mind and stirred his own brain into action. His answer pleased Ling Cao and his answer was blunt but nothing short of honest. “These are turbulent times and it’s best to expect trouble. We could be attacked along the way by bandits, and once we get to Jiangdong and the Wu territories, pirates could start becoming a problem.”
“Yes, with all the rivers and such. Pirates will become more common the further east we go, but I wouldn’t worry too much about them. Some can be talked down or employed, like Zhou Tai. And those that can’t? They’re nothing we can’t handle.”
Lü Meng wasn’t a complete idiot. He knew what a pirate was. He simply never thought he’d see one in his life, and yet, he was apparently moving to a district where they were apparently common. Then again, he could not have predicted a lot of where his life had led him or where it would take him, and it all required too much thought. “They’re just bandits on boats, right? I can handle them.”
“That’s the spirit, Lü Meng. Show no mercy or fear, and keep on looking ahead. Once they catch wind of any valuables we’re carrying, they’ll come sniffing, and it’ll be up to us warrior to send them fleeing with their tails between their legs.”
Oh to that Lü Meng had no doubt! Ling Cao’s confidence in the matter quelled any fear he might have harbored for the incoming threat, but there was still something else that bothered him. “Will that be all, though? Pirates and bandits?”
“One would hope, but not, it’s likely that we will be met with some resistance from those who make their stay there now.”
“But I don’t understand. I thought Lord Sun Ce had claims to those territories…” Lü Meng knew he was being foolish and he wanted nothing more than to just shut up and look ahead, like Ling Cao encouraged him to. But Sun Ce had expected him to question when he had doubt, and didn’t his lord’s orders outrank that of Ling Cao’s? “Why would anyone try to resist his return to Jiangdong?”
Now, any humor that Ling Cao’s battle-hardened face carried faded away, but Lü Meng felt no fear when looking upon him. Instead of mirth or smug confidence that he displayed on the topic of pirates, he seemed more reserved, but in a respectful way, as he spoke of the possible threat that waited for them in Jiangdong and the Wu territories. It was all very confusing for Lü Meng… “Because they may not honor the proof that our lord or Zhou Yu will present them. Because many of them have found success there and do not see themselves being allowed to keep all that they have gained if the Sun family and their army return to their rightful place. Or, simply put, because they are fools who do not wish to allow any to tell them what to do and seek to defy any authority that is not their own. Take your pick.”
It baffled him that there would exist so many reasons that they’d fight. He himself had ‘enlisted’ to gain fortune for his family and had obtained it in his own way, and yet, he still found himself picking up his spear every day. Thus was the life he made for himself and at least now he could be put to good use. Five years and all he had done was train and be pulled into small skirmishes. Would real battle await them for their homecoming or would they simply be for show?
The sounds of hoof beats approaching lured him from his thoughts and he couldn’t hold down his grin when he spotted Deng Dang among the regiment that now rode alongside them. Deng Dang returned the smile, as he pulled up next to him, accompanied by a man that Lü Meng could hardly bring himself to look at without feeling overwhelmed with what he suspected to be gratitude. Fa Shi! Had he ever thanked him for that night? “Captain, glad to see you would make it.” Ling Cao called out, throwing a respectful bow his way. “I hope Lord Yuan Shu handled your transfer well?”
“Bah, my loyalties never really were with him,” Deng Dang said, returning the bow before turning his rather gleeful gaze onto his brother-in-law. “How Lü Meng doing? Not giving you too much trouble, is he?”
“None whatsoever. Asking questions.”
“Good, that means he’s ought to learn something.”
Now Lü Meng found himself fighting down a growl. He was right there! Before his face could break into a scowl, though, Deng Dang was on him, nothing but smiles and motioning to Fa Shi. “Don’t get cross, Meng. I’m only teasing, but you never handled that too well. Congratulations on your promotion, brother.”
“Thank you,” Lü Meng managed to say. Whatever anger he felt brewing in his gut dissipated in lieu of Deng Dang’s genuine cheer. There was never any doubt that Deng Dang and his regiment wouldn’t follow Lord Sun Ce (the storm that Yenji would have cried would have threatened to flood not only her own carriage but every other carriage under their care), but it was still great to see him nevertheless. He really didn’t see his brother-in-law all that much, now that he thought about it… “I hope to do our lord proud.”
Deng Dang’s laugh was gruff and throaty, but filled with mirth, and now it was impossible not to smile. Fa Shi passed over something long and draped in cloth to Deng Dang and the youth would not have to question its contents for long as it was suddenly handed over to him. “I’m sure you will. Now, accept this gift from your proud brother-in-law and his officers. May it serve your well in your future endeavors.”
“A gift…?” Lü Meng had almost stopped his march but managed to keep his pace. He truly wasn’t expecting this! He tucked his spear under his arm to grab the object being handed to him. It was a weapon; even a dunce like him could tell that much and his excitement and curiosity overwhelmed and routed his confusions. He pulled the sheet back, revealing the most magnificent glaive he had ever set his eyes on. Truthfully, it was rather simplistic in appearance, but it was -his- glaive, and Deng Dang took advantage of his silence to explain each of its features, as though he were attempting to sell him the weapon itself!
“It’s a standard glaive, similar to the pikes you see the mounted officers wield. This blade here, see how it sticks out?” He pointed to the hook. “That’s to dig dig into armor or flesh of a mounted enemy and pull them off their horse. This part of the blade is for wide sweeps to swipe at the horse’s legs and officers, in case you’re surrounded. The part at the end is the sharpest, like a spear point, so you can jab it forward and put a quick end to your opponent once you dismount them.”
“It’s heavier than my spear…” Lü Meng observed, not thinking about it and hoping it didn’t sound like a complaint. No, he was just stating the obvious and admiring the glaive that his brother-in-law gave him. He felt like a fool. All of that lengthy explanation and all he could say was ‘it’s heavy’.
“Right, but with reason. You’ll need the weight to hold the weight of your opponent when you throw them down. It’s also sturdier and won’t snap in half like a spear would.”
Fa Shi snickered, breaking what Lü Meng feared was a five year silence and yet never hearing him sound so open and free. Even if it came out as a tease, Lü Meng didn’t really mind it so much now, as the mirth he heard put his conscious at ease. “Which will make the weapon smith happy. We’ve had so few fights and yet leave it to Lü Meng to wreck more than his fair share.”
“I won’t break this one, though!” Lü Meng would cherish it, clean it every day. He wanted to know how Deng Dang came to find such a fine weapon or how much it cost, but he knew better. Lord Sun Ce himself taught him that lesson many moons ago- something about not looking a horse in the mouth? He wasn’t keen on exactly what the wording was and why it involved not looking into a horse’s mouth, but he understood the message well enough. Don’t be ungrateful. Don’t question where it came from. He thought. “I’ll treat it with care, brother. Fa Shi.”
“Just don’t be afraid to bloody it. It’s a weapon, after all, not just for decoration.” Despite his warning, Deng Dang flashed him an appreciative smile. “Once we’re settled in our new home, I’ll show you some of the more extensive tricks with it and how to use it when mounted. But I know you- you’ll probably obsess over it and master it in no time at all.”
“I… Thank you,” Lü Meng said, grasping his glaive close and hoping that he did not look too much the part of a blubbering fool. If he did, then he’d take comfort that only these men here would be the only witnesses and whatever pride that he had would remain intact for awhile. “I’ll treat it well and put it to good use. I promise!”
“Good lad. Take good care of him, Ling Cao. He may be a troublemaker, but you’ll seldom find anyone more dedicated to his work.” Satisfied, Deng Dang gave his young brother-in-law a pat on the shoulder. It was brief, but a welcomed display of affection between the two, one that he knew Deng Dang to be relieved to show after so long of holding it all in for appearances. Without Yu Mao or others that feared he’s favor him, he was free to express the care he held for his brother-in-law and his family and Lü Meng welcomed it, even if it could only be small instances like this. He savored the feeling… since he knew that once it came time to make promise on practicing with the glaive, Deng Dang, or Fa Shi, whichever one that would help him, would not go easy on him later, and he would have to remember those good feelings for later, he told himself.
Lü Meng knew that he’d have the time to put his training to good use. He simply wasn’t expecting it to be quite so soon. Before night even fell upon them on the first leg of their journey, Lord Zhou Yu had returned and relayed what information he had gathered throughout Jiangdong and the Wu territories beyond it, confirming exactly what Ling Cao and Sun Ce had suspected. Those who lived there now were not willing to step aside and the prospect of an assault seemed inevitable. Some said assault, others proclaimed invasion. Lü Meng wasn’t sure how he felt, nor did he really care. As far as he was concerned, he’d just wait for orders and be given a direction to go fight. Let others busy their heads with all that complicated nonsense. He was here for fight, nothing more, nothing less.
His new weapon gave him a perfect outlet and his training with Fa Shi and Shi Ran offered a great distraction as his lord discussed their plans with his generals and advisers. The new distribution of weight hardly bothered him. He always had a stronger swing than what was appropriate for a spear, so it was almost a welcome blessing to swing something sturdy. What he had trouble getting used to was trying to pull off a mounted officer. Try as he might, there was always something off about the angle and with each pass he’d only managed to nick Fa Shi’s armor or miss entirely, and after several passes, he was feeling frustration beginning to nip at his waning patience.
“Again.” Fa Shi called out, never once sounding annoyed or impatient, and that didn’t help him. He should have been just as frustrated as him and yet he hardly seemed bothered at all! He waited until Lü Meng was in position before he reared his horse around and charged at him again. This time, as he drew close, Fa Shi let out a scream and the action put the young officer on edge, causing him to swing upwards at a different arc. This time, the hook of the glaive slashed the reins and forced it from the rider’s hands, but its rider never left the saddle, and Lü Meng cursed so much that he was breathless by the end of his tirade.
It was around this time that Zhou Yu decided to step in, and he would never understand the look that Shi Ran gave him from where he watched from the nearby carriage. “Watch your volume, Lü Meng. Unless you want to lure the attention of every bandit, pirate and wild animal in the province upon us.”
The look Shi Ran gave him was a cocktail of horror and scorn and it was most curious, but his attention did not linger on him for long. Lü Meng would not allow for it, as he worked on calming himself down. “No, sir. It’s not what I want.”
And oh what anger he held in that voice of his! Zhou Yu swore he could peel paint with the heat of that response and he pondered if all of it came from the training session. It sounded deeper than that, but perhaps he was looking too deep into the matter. It was so hard not to want to look at all the finer details. Fa Shi turned his horse around and bowed from atop his stead, addressing Zhou Yu as to give Lü Meng time to collect himself. “We’re sorry, Lord Zhou Yu. Lü Meng’s always been passionate about his training. We’ll call it a night if you fear it will put us in a precarious situation.”
“No, not at all. Perhaps if I could be of some assistance?”
From this angle, Fa Shi could not see how Lü Meng shook his head and he was forced to bite his lip to stop himself from cursing when Fa Shi accepted the offer. Damn him! “Of course! Would you like my horse, sir?”
“In a moment. Allow me to speak with Lü Meng first.”
No, Lü Meng didn’t want to speak with Zhou Yu, but what choice did he have? Fa Shi was clueless to the tension that existed between the two, but not Shi Ran. As Fa Shi dismounted, the dark-haired youth leaned over to Lü Meng and whispered over his shoulder. “I can try and talk him down if you want?”
Want? Yes. He knew that Zhou Yu would provoke him, even with Sun Ce’s demands to back off, and he wanted nothing to do with the matter. But he couldn’t back away from this, not without being insubordinate or making Zhou Yu suspicious. Before he could even find words to turn down Shi Ran’s offer, Zhou Yu was upon them and by the way the younger of the two stiffened, he could only wonder what cocky expression his new, charming tormentor wore. “Shi Ran, would you mind if I spoke with Lü Meng alone?”
“O-of course not, Lord Zhou Yu! I’ll just be over here… near the carriages where it’s safe. Call me if you two need me!”
Before he managed to retreat, though, Lü Meng took some solace in his silent apology. It was short lived. This would mean he’d be alone with Zhou Yu and he only had his own temper and flimsy control to rely on. Fa Shi was close by, though, he told himself. Fa Shi would stop him this time.
“It’s considered rude to not look at your fellow officers, Lü Meng. You may want to be careful with that, as some officers might take offense to that.”
It was certainly more words than Yu Mao would have used but it had the same effect, invoking a deep, guttural resentment within Lü Meng that he hoped wouldn’t bubble to the surface and show in his eyes when he looked at him. At least with Zhou Yu he found himself looking down and didn’t feel so terribly small as he did with Yu Mao prior. He was surprised to see his polite smile despite the edge in his voice. Not so surprising was the smugness that glistened in those deep brown eyes, as he addressed him. “That’s better. Now, your stance is accurate, but you’re intentionally holding back. May I ask why?”
He hoped to quell some of his flames by the time he spoke, lest he spit them out and set his lord’s friend alight that night. “I don’t think I’m holding back.”
“You are. I see it in your face. Every time Lieutenant Fa Shi makes a pass, you lock up and your response is too late to get the hook of the blade in.” There was no anger in his voice, but its tone wasn’t welcoming either. Zhou Yu had to expect his distrust in him and had the nerve to try and address him as though he genuinely wanted to see him succeed. It made him fume. “So, I ask again. Why do you hold back?”
He swore he could feel flames escaping his nostrils and tried to turn his head away without breaking eye contact. He wanted to burn this man but he was too low on the ladder to get away with it, he reminded himself, as he replied in earnest. “Because what if I hurt him? Or the horse?”
Zhou Yu said nothing as Fa Shi let out a low chuckle. “I wouldn’t worry about this one here. Po here has thick skin and I doubt anything will get through it these days.”
The horse flared its nostrils and nipped at Lü Meng’s turban, as though trying to soothe his worries in its own way. In spite of his foul mood, he could not resist the urge to shower the horse with affection, scratching the horse’s muzzle and finding some comfort to cling to, even when Zhou Yu stole it away. He grabbed the reins from Fa Shi and within seconds he was mounted atop the saddle, speaking as though he could not see the confusion that accented the young officer’s features. “Very well. I’ll give you someone you despise to practice with. Get ready for my pass, Lü Meng.”
He began to pull the horse around as Lü Meng found himself sputtering words, somehow managing to stop him in his tracks. “But, sir, I don’t-”
“Now Lü Meng, I was told by others you are an honest, if not brusque, man. Now is a horrible time to pick up on lying.” Zhou Yu wore a grin that would make any alligator envious and Lü Meng could bring himself to look up at the man before he pulled Po around and trotted to his position, calling to him as he did so. “Now get ready for my pass, and unlike Fa Shi, I will be seeking to strike you down.”
This was bad. This was really bad. Lü Meng felt a cold sweat hit him. He wasn’t surprised to know that Zhou Yu knew of his hatred of him. Of course Zhou Yu would see right through him. He was intelligent and Lü Meng knew he wasn’t the most difficult scroll to read either, so it seemed inevitable that he found out. No, he also wasn’t ungrateful for the chance to throw his tormentor to the ground and be allowed to get away with it. But he was afraid and he could not hide it. What if he went too far? What if he seriously injured him? What if he killed him? “Lord Zhou Yu, I can’t… I can’t do this!”
He wasn’t sure if Zhou Yu could even hear him as he now stood mounted at a far enough distance where the horse could break into a full gallop and merely waited for Lü Meng to get ready. Fa Shi had clearly seen Lü Meng’s fear and was hesitant to pass over his spear. “Lord Zhou Yu, are you sure this is wise?”
“No, it’s not, but it needs to be done. Have no worries, I’m merely testing him.”
“More like provoking, young lord.” Despite his mumble, he offered him his spear and took a step back. He wanted to offer his aide to Lü Meng, but he did not wish to expose too much about the young officer, especially against his will. And truthfully, what could he do? Like Lü Meng, he was far too low on the ladder to make a scene and get away with it. His next words weren’t at all meant for the strategist atop the horse but the man that couldn’t hear him from this distance. “Good luck.”
Zhou Yu said nothing to the officer and once again called out to Lü Meng, not at all liking that he hadn’t taken his position yet. It was hard not to see the panicked expression and Zhou Yu was quick to chide him for it. He chose his words with care. “You are an officer of Sun Ce, Lü Meng, an honor that I don’t feel you’re even remotely worth of. If you cannot properly utilize that weapon for his cause, then it’s worthless. Now, prove to me that our lord didn’t make a mistake that day and get into position. That’s an order.”
Oh yes, that wound went deep. Even from this distance, he could see him trembling and his face scrunched up into a horrid looking scowl. Had Zhou Yu been his enemy, he might have felt an inkling of fear but as it was, he felt more tickled from the expression and disappointed. The moment Lü Meng took position, he lost, and Zhou Yu was perhaps too eager for the chance to educate the young man and his lord.
He gave no further warning, kicking the horse and the urgency of the motion put the horse on edge, sending it charging at Lü Meng at full speed. The spear was at the ready and aimed where it would disarm the officer, hardly fitting for a practice run but Zhou Yu was confident that he would miss his target and that Lü Meng would not remove him from the saddle. Lü Meng, on the other hand, was terrified, enraged, and perhaps five other emotions thrown into a bag and shaken violently and he tried to tell himself that it was just practice. It was just Zhou Yu rattling his nerves and testing him. That the spear wasn’t actually going to pierce his chest, that this wasn’t the perfect plot to rid him of a troublesome pest, that his jealous didn’t overrule his logic…
He tried telling himself that but none of it seeped in. Now Zhou Yu was upon him and he had only seconds to act! He wanted to strike, but his body wouldn’t move. Even when Zhou Yu shouted at him, even when he could see the spear coming- nothing! He could move nothing!
What snapped him back to the present was the wailing of the horse and he rose his glaive, but too late. By the time he swung it, Zhou Yu had rushed past him, spear drawn back in but wounding him just as much with that smarmy grin. Lü Meng could see Fa Shi moving to intervene, but all it took was a movement from Zhou Yu and he backed away. The strategist lifted his spear up and made his intentions clear. He was coming back around for another pass, and Lü Meng, determined not to be embarrassed a second time, spun on his heels to face him. “Fine! Damn you too!”
He could not see Fa Shi’s worried expression or how Shi Ran motioned to them from the carriage, as his eyes only saw his opponent. He spread his legs apart and pulled the glaive into position, the sweep of the blade and tip touching the ground and the hook poised. The steel in his eyes warned Zhou Yu that he was not only ready, but eager. He would not be ridiculed like this! And if it meant letting a senior officer walk away with a few bruises and a lashing for himself later, then so be it. “Come on! Come on!”
Now he heard Fa Shi approaching and Shi Ran’s shout, but he paid them no mind. All he could hear were the thundering hooves of Po. All he could see was the glimmer of disgust and amusement in Zhou Yu’s eyes. All he felt was the desire to wipe that smug, arrogant grin off his face. He’d have only one chance…
Lü Meng swung his glaive, catching the spear and penetrating its shoddy defense, and yet it was enough to protect its rider… or so it seemed. Once again, the hook never touched Zhou Yu but it bit into the saddle and something ripped away, causing the saddle to slide off of the horse’s back and throwing its rider off the side. Lü Meng spun around, longing to see Zhou Yu’s fall from grace and it was just as satisfying as he could have possibly imagined. He could not hear it bones snapped or if he landed in an embarrassing position. All he could see was him fall over the side and roll in the dirt, and it felt… damn good.
Too bad the feeling did not last for long, as no sooner did he lower his weapon, he could see Sun Ce fastly approaching and he did not look happy. Suddenly he understood what Fa Shi and Shi Ran were trying to warm him about, and he, the fool that he was, immediately regretted not listening. He stood at attention, but it did him no good, as the moment his lord was standing before him, he was on him. “Lü Meng, what the hell did I tell you the other day?”
Any confidence he may have gained from his feat was gone and not even looking at Zhou Yu being helped to his feet by Fa Shi and another could make that pleased feeling return. Before his lord could bark another order, he did managed to fumble out some words in hopes of quelling a little of his anger. “Sir, that… I should not let others co… coer… convince me to do things I know not to be right, even if they are a senior officer. Right?”
“And what did you do?”
Lü Meng fought with himself, wondering the best course to take from here. He could throw the blame on Zhou Yu and explain how he provoked him, but… that did not matter, it seemed. By now, Zhou Yu stood upright and dusted himself off, and he looked back at his lord so that he wouldn’t see the man’s triumphant smile. The other option was just to accept that he failed to heed his lord’s advice, and his answer was meek for a man that just threw another from atop a galloping horse. “Not that.”
Would it be enough? He doubted it. But the one to come to his rescue was neither Fa Shi nor even Shi Ran. It was Zhou Yu. “My lord, please, there’s no need for that. It was all a training session that I more or less forced onto him. It was dangerous, however, he’s performed quite admirably, wouldn’t you say?”
Lü Meng wasn’t the only one confused and he allowed Sun Ce to ask the question that burned in his head. “What are you even talking about? He could have killed you- probably wanted to, and I wouldn’t have blamed him with how you ruffled him like that.”
“Oh, he wanted to harm me, but kill? No. And he did neither, despite having the perfect opportunity. He channeled his anger and used it appropriately instead of being consumed by it.” And then Zhou Yu looked to him and the man he praised wanted to run and hide, even when there was no where to go. What was Zhou Yu doing? Where did this come from? And how the hell was he expected to respond? “I’ll admit I may have pushed you too hard, Lü Meng, but I wanted to test you as well as teach you a valuable lesson. It was not out of spite or whatever you may think I feel about you. I merely wished to see how you’d perform when under duress and to see if you could hold back if necessary. But you’re decision to strike the saddle instead of go for me and risk gorging me… well played.”
No, even after his explanation he was terribly muddled. Zhou Yu may as well been speaking a different language and he was certain his own treacherous eyes were blank to reveal his confusion to all. He couldn’t trust himself to speak and so he didn’t. Which, apparently, fell right into Zhou Yu’s scheme splendidly. “And so modest, too. I see what it is that Sun Ce and others like about you. My lord, hold no anger for Lü Meng, for he performed well. Controlling his temper and turning it into an asset will need some work, but he shows promise at least.”
All the while, Sun Ce’s expression softened, and it seemed that if Zhou Yu’s aim was to win Sun Ce’s heart, then he most certainly won. There was no sign of suspicion in his gaze and Lü Meng nearly yelped when his lord slapped his hand on his shoulder. “Alright then, seeing as you had it under control and all, then I’ll take it back. Well done, Lü Meng.”
Gift horse. That’s what the saying was. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Did that apply here? If he said anything contradictory, he’d only be digging his own grave and invalidate any good that came from Zhou Yu’s ‘praise’. Did he mean any of it or was it all to keep them out of trouble? If so, why both? Why not just himself? It was all just… it felt him addle brained and Lü Meng wouldn’t stand for it! “Yes, my lord,” he ended up saying if only to put an end to his misery. No matter what, Zhou Yu won. Let Zhou Yu win. “May I be dismissed now?”
“Granted. Take the horse back to the rest and make sure his saddle gets repaired before you start your shift for the evening.” Sun Ce saw no reason not to let him go and Lü Meng was grateful. “I need to talk with Zhou Yu anyways.”
So relieved was Lü Meng that he left before he could see how Sun Ce’s face broke into a scowl and he may have rejoiced to see it was directed solely at Zhou Yu. However, he simply approached the now calm horse and took the reins and saddle. He was eager to flee to the makeshift stables and just call it a night. He had enough of being Zhou Yu’s punching bag for one night…
He wanted nothing more this evening than to return the horse to its proper place and retreat to his family’s carriage, but he was a fool to think his night would end so peacefully. No sooner did he reach the stables did he find trouble, or, perhaps more accurately, trouble found him. He could tell that something wasn’t right when he was eclipsed in another’s shadow and he looked up to see the bucking grey stallion. Its angered and distressed whiny pierced the heavens almost and set Po on edge, forcing Lü Meng to stop and stare at the man atop the horse, gripping to its reins for his dear life.
Lü Meng might not have thought too much of the occurrence except for three glaring details: this man could not have been part of their army for he had never laid eyes upon him before, the horse was protesting wildly to this man that had the nerve to try and abduct him, and lastly the golden bells that jingled at the horse thief’s waist would forever engrave themselves into his mind for the rest of his days, as long or as short as they may be...