Bofu was numbed by the revelation and stared blankly.
“That’s not all,” Gongjin continued. “The intelligence that we were getting before we departed was right: Liu Bei’s done as some suspected he would and attacked Xiapi, killing the governor and-”
“Liu Bei’s governing Xu Province again?” Bofu exclaimed.
“It didn’t last long,” Gongjin explained. “Cao’s advisers must have recommended a swift march that took Bei by surprise, that or Xu’s people betrayed him again. He’s fled to Yuan Shao, who’s-”
“Liu Bei and Yuan Shao are allies against Cao Cao now?” Bofu chuckled. “That lot are completely mad. Yuan Shao was Cao’s best friend, and both he and Cao hated Liu Bei, and then Cao sided with Bei to kill Lü Bu, and now this…?”
“If I may…?” Gongjin said. “Yuan Shao’s distributing abusive literature about Cao Cao, accusing him of all manner of things. Cao’s supposed to have murdered a pregnant Imperial consort that was related to one of the conspirators, and-”
“Cao’s committed regicide…?” Bofu exclaimed.
“Supposedly,” Gongjin said. “And a ‘secret’ Imperial edict’s supposedly surfaced that labels Cao as ‘another Dong Zhuo’ and-”
“Wait, wait, but that means we’re marrying our kin to a tyrant,” Bofu realised. “How far have we gone with the responses?”
“Thankfully, not far beyond acknowledging his letter,” Gongjin said. “We can still get out of it, I think, if we must: I recall an unpleasant rumour about a great hero that supposedly stole the Imperial Seal, so I tend to be cautious.”
Bofu nodded soberly at the reference to an infamous story about his own father.
“Huang Zu’s a broken man: he can wait,” Gongjin continued. “We must ascertain the situation in the north before we do any more.”
“The north always has to be more important than the south, doesn’t it,” Bofu muttered.
Within days, Bofu was back in Qu’e, capital of his vast homeland of
Jiangdong; the capital was now considered to be in Wu Prefecture - rather than
neighbouring Danyang - after a boundary change to evenly divide responsibility,
but Danyang’s Administrator, Wu Jing, was still based in Qu’e while suitable
arrangements were made further west. The officials gathered, with the senior
military officials taking seats to Bofu’s right and senior civilian officials
taking seats to his left; the remainder occupied rows at the back of the long
hall. Once every man was seated - and Lady Wu had taken her special place to
the left of her brother Wu Jing - Bofu awaited the words of his aide Gu Yong.
“Firstly, we have some new faces,” Gu Yong said. “There is Xu Sheng, whose brave actions in Chaisang are well known.”
Xu Sheng smiled boldly.
Gu Yong gestured toward a boy of 12 years of age that sat at the far end of the row of courtiers and said, “Amongst our junior officials, Lu Ji, the cousin of Lu Xun.”
“…Lu Ji…?” Cheng Pu whispered. “Lu Kang’s son…?”
Huang Gai nodded silently.
Gu Yong gestured toward a miserable, thin-faced official at the rear of the hall and said, “And newly installed in a civil service role, Mister Zhuge Jin.”
“Donkey Face is still here, then,” Zhang Zhao muttered.