“…The Shanyue raided a village that’s not more than a day’s ride from
here,” Zhu Ran noted. “They’re becoming brazen again, and that always
escalates. Have any of your people heard anything, Mister Xu…?”
“Nothing,” Xu Gong replied coldly. “I have nothing more to do with the Shanyue. And ‘my people’ consists of a handful of old allies.”
“All proven facts,” Zhu Zhi said with a smile. “My son merely asks, since the Shanyue are none too bright and some of them might not know that you have severed your ties with White Tiger.”
Xu Gong bowed silently.
“Mister Lü, it is nice to have you here,” Zhu Zhi said as he turned to the quiet, observant Lü Dai. “You, of course, are here to offer ‘local advice’.”
“I am,” Lü Dai replied.
“…‘Local advice’…?” Xu Gong murmured; the officer-official Lü Dai was, in fact, a native of neighbouring Guangling Prefecture.
“We look forward to your contributions, Mister Lü,” Zhu Zhi said.
The discussions shifted to other matters; at the end of the meeting, Zhu
Zhi invited his adopted son Ran to his private study and said, “Don’t press Xu
Gong too often, son, else he might be less careless.”
“He could hardly be more careful,” Zhu Ran replied. “He’s obviously up to something, though… that he cannot hide.”
“Yes, but his correspondence disappears, despite our putting a ring of surveillance around Xu Zhao,” Zhu Zhi mused. “Perhaps… perhaps we are wrong to assume that he contacts White Tiger now. Perhaps we must consider other recipients.”
“Chen Deng in northern Guangling, the pirate king Xue Zhou on the Guangling waterways, Cao Cao in Xuchang, Yuan Shao in Ji Province, Liu Biao in Jing Province, Liu Bei in Xu Province; is there anyone else…?” Zhu Ran asked.
“…Chen Deng is a possibility; Xue Zhou is an unlikely ally,” Zhu Zhi
replied. “Cao Cao is as likely as Chen Deng; Yuan Shao might want to avenge his
brother, but there are others that would suffer first. Liu Biao is certainly a
possibility, since he might appreciate warnings about our movements; Liu Bei,
not at all likely. Chen Deng, Cao Cao, and Liu Biao… are the most likely
contacts for a Xu Gong that looks to lose his head.”
“Lü Dai’s been sent here because of worries about Chen Deng facilitating recapture of southern Guangling by attacking Wu Prefecture by circling around from the east, so Lord Sun Ce’s advisers are thinking as you do, Father,” Zhu Ran supposed. “But Chen wouldn’t dare act against Lord Sun without permission from Cao Cao…”
“…Which is why we must be careful and miss nothing,” Zhu Zhi said. “Cao Cao fears Lord Sun, but we know that he prefers diplomacy over action, especially with the threat of a war with Yuan Shao looming. We can convince Cao Cao of our benevolent intent if we are not contradicted, but Xu Gong is just the sort of man that might create enough tension to force Cao’s hand…”
“…Then we must find out what he’s doing, if anything, and quickly,” Zhu Ran prompted.
“Indeed, yes,” Zhu Zhi replied. “Hopefully, he’s harmless, but something tells me that he means only the worst for us…”