A Long-Lasting Dream VII: The Night Watch

Author: hsiwangmu
Published: 2018-02-10, edited: 2018-02-10
A tale of an empire that was, or could've been.
A story about dreams, and waking, and death.

The story of the resurgent Qing Empire, but most of all, the people present within.

Part of the campaign:

A Long-Lasting Dream

Previous part:

Game: Darkest Hour: A Hearts of Iron Game

A Long-Lasting Dream VI.V: Windfall

Images: 5, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-02-02

Birds fluttered from the thicket.

Scowling, Puyi watched them filter past. His glasses felt so heavy as he tore them from his face, and resisted the urge to throw them to the ground, but of course -

There'd just be a lecture by some German disciplinarian, later. As such, emoting was pointless. And anyway, he didn't - hate the birds, so much, as...

"You'll get them next time, brother. You, you really did shoot better! And anyway, it isn't like any of this matters. You won't be hunting birds, when we go home!.."

Pujie, even with his occasional doubt and good-natured flustering, was welcome everywhere; he fit in easily, always seemed to be dressed well, and spoke better.

Despite the fact that he was only fourteen, everyone assumed that he was the older brother, didn't they...

"They were just birds. I didn't care."

He muttered to himself, and almost believed it.
Of course, Pujie hadn't gone hunting that day - rarely did, didn't even care for it.

As if he didn't have to prove himself, to anyone.

Scraps of thought tore at the back of his mind the entire way back to the residence that was as much a school, as a home, as a -

...

The old man was there. He might have been using a cane, but if he was, it was well-hidden.

Puyi couldn't see his eyes, but he thought the old man was smiling.

"... Brother, what on earth are you - "

And he broke into an open run, hurtling towards the figure with his good arm held out; since, after all...

What reason would the Kaiser have had for visiting them, in a muggy day, in the summer..?
"Easy there, easy. For an Emperor, he's sure pugnacious, isn't he?"

It was, of course, a western-style hospital. The Emperor's distrust of traditional medicine was well-known, and more well-known than that was his general sickly demeanor.

The nurse on call - Xie Hua - took a few steps from the grasping hands that'd sought up, as if seeking to reach out for some phantasm, or perhaps strangle it.

She'd seen enough coming back from the Northern Incident to be particularly concerned by it, especially given how quickly - and stably - the Emperor had been transported in.

But...

Treating the Emperor, himself...

Now, that had been interesting.
And the thought had crossed her mind that, in this silence where only the two of them existed, it would've been incredibly easy to just - if a mistake had been made...

...

Yet, she was a nurse, first and foremost. And she liked the idea of a family, someday, which you couldn't make on the marks of a nurse, alone.

And he looked - so weak, right there, that even if she considered the Emperor himself to be a blundering monster...

Well, at least she wasn't a murderer.

She sat down near the raised hospital bed, with its beige sheets, and muttered to herself, quietly.
Perhaps to him, as well.

"Do you think they caught the man, then..?"
Chao ran.

And he didn't know how long he'd been running; the entirety of the city had been closed off.
It wasn't as if he had contacts, either, knew secret places to hide down, or lay low.

It'd all just been too much, and in the moment - in the moment, he'd had to do something.

To speak, without using words.

... He'd thrown the revolver away, which seemed so foolish, now. They could do something to it, couldn't they? Find who had owned it by - the shape of the bullets, or something like that...

Shivering, her found his legs slowing. And he willed himself to keep running, but perhaps he hadn't been running, for some time now.

No, perhaps it was better to call it limping.

Around him, Nantong shone and beckoned like a jewel of iron. The south may have innovated, but Nantong was perhaps the most prosperous city in all of China -

Yet here, filth like himself could vanish, and it seemed as if nobody cared.

Pulling his scarf more tightly to his neck, Chao wondered if the papers would identify him before the gendarmerie, and mulled over which was worse.

To see his name, a killer of emperors...

Now, he couldn't even limp.
"Chao Hengjie. Apparently fell into the bay and froze himself to death. Terrible business."

The black-bearded corpse that had been trawled into the morgue was one of many; death always surged in the winter months, and even though he'd gotten used to it, it was rare that Cecil Clementi found himself invited to a viewing.

Grim work, perhaps, but necessary.

Not long after the Qing government had pushed for reunification, justifying the move with promises of stability, an assassin had gone and shot the situation all to hell.

He'd heard the Emperor's condition was well, and was always so, in such cases, people seemed to rally around the cause of the wounded party, without much greater thought given as to why.

Smashing the triads had taken resolve, and a willingness to work together from all the communities of the Cities. But that meant addressing grievances; you couldn't tell a little sister that she could go free, without simultaneously condemning the fact that society had condoned it all in the first place...

The technician - who he'd brought in on recommendation, from Delhi, tapped him on the shoulder.

"... Do you really think this is the man?"

"Can't say. It seems too coincidental; I suppose he was just another lonely suicide..."
«Don't understand the point.»

Jia chewed on her straw and watched the 'parade' of boats pass by. It was apparently 'cause the emperor'd been shot, or something, but she didn't know.

Her brother dipped his feet into the water, and again.

«That's 'cause you're a moron. It's really sad. I mean, if you have a heart - »

«I've got a heart! It's a thousand times bigger than yours, you're the moron, moron!»

Macau was changing very rapidly, almost overnight. The Portuguese-Qing exchange hadn't changed her life, Jia figured, but now all the rest of China thought they could just barge in, and probably would.

Well, it was a good enough time to sail somewhere else, anyway...
"Murders? Oh, how dreadful!"

Lied Tsên, through her immaculately white teeth, as she took careful notes of the other ladies around her.

Nanchang was the rose of China; and with all the salons of France lost, the haute couture of Italy crushed under quarreling, and the Americas - ah, but when had Americans been fashionable..?

It had fallen to China to shine some light back into the world; and where high culture existed, so too had China reclaimed its place there.

Unfortunately, this also meant that she had to share oxygen with the ladies around her, each one a walking advertisement for her competitors...

As to the city itself, ah, but the air was good and crisp and clear! It filled her lungs and made her want to sing, which is probably why Li had brought the whole idea of murders up - to ruin her day.

... Stupid -

"Yes, murders! They say that there was an occult conspiracy to kill the Emperor, don't you know, and actually his death would only have been the beginning, and - "

Talk, talk, talk.

Watching the pastel fabrics weave with every movement, Tsên imagined a world in which a righteous murderer might find her circle of 'friends' - but alas, no such thing existed.

"... Anyway, why do you care so much, Li?"

But then - the funniest thing happened.

Li sighed, and played with the flower in her hair, and did all the little calculated steps that might anyone fall in love, if for a moment -

And stared up into the sky.

"Well, aren't they - in a way, isn't it all so dreamy..?"
"I don't need help."

There were Western camera-men and journalists at the parade grounds, this time; there had been some before, but it was largely a matter for China, for the 'Chinese' - and only now had those words become so very important, once more.

What had the motives of the attacker been?
What had they accomplished, in the end?
Would this have a future on the nation, itself..?

But the only words that Leonard Hsi captured before the speech were perhaps the most famous.

They were captured in a moment of candidcy that Emperor Puyi rarely displayed; his voice shakier, and higher, than it was when he spoke aloud.
And there was something else, perhaps; fear.

As to the speech itself, Leonard felt it was perfectly passable; but it wasn't really what he, an outsider, felt.

It was designed for the people around him, and all of China to see the safety of their Emperor, and an Emperor was as much a symbol as any animal of the Zodiac...

Which was why, when it finished, the way he somewhat limped off the stage would've been terribly disheartening...

If Leonard had cared, and cared to have kept his camera rolling.
"I like you! I... I've always liked you! Just because we live far apart, it doesn't mean anything! I'm gonna - If you believe in me, I'll make you my wife!.."

Jun punched at his chest multiple times, as he finished up his eighteenth confession, by his own count.

From atop the bridge as she passed, Yilin shook her head, stared down at him...

«Go jump in a lake, you muck-drinking son of a bastard whore. Y'aren't gonna make anybody your wife 'cause you're gonna die in a ditch!»

"Even though I can't understand a word you said, I - I know we're gonna be together!"

... So, it seemed that confession eighteen had failed. Yilin was unapproachable beautiful, unapproachably sharp, and unpproachably unapproachable.

He'd been in live for, by his count, the last year of school. A long, enduring love.

The plan, was simple - join the armed forces, maybe the gendarmerie. Become a dashing war hero; she'd have to admire that, right..?

And the walk back home was long, too, and the smell of factory smoke overpowering, but that was the south for you.

"I'm home, you sad shitfaced ol' bastard! You got any news for me?"

His old man must not have returned from his factory job, yet. The guy didn't speak much, seemed to love his work more than his only son. A real piece of work, Jun thought.

Yeah, which is why he'd show his old man his place, become... Something, get out of this stupid hick town -
Above, the factories belched coal.

No oil burnt here; only dark rock, dark as night, dark as dreams.

People went in; goods went out.

It was the ideal arrangement, and the best part about it was that it was replaceable. If a part stopped moving, you could replace the part; if a person stopped moving, you could replace the person.

Junshi wiped the sweat from his brow.

Eighteen.
His lovely eighteenth wife had been finished.

The furnace bellowed, and her dress was orange and white. God, but he wanted to cry; and that useless son of his couldn't understand this, never would -

"You done with your inspections, Zheng?"

"Mmn. Should keep well, as long as you treat her right, don't feed her garbage."

"..."

The middle-manager stared at him, trying to get a read on the soot-stained figure before him. But Junshi knew he was an enigma, knew enough to know that he didn't care what other folk thought of him.

Since it was all a machine anyway, and like him, they were replaceable.

Another meeting tonight, he'd heard.
Not that he'd gone for the politics - he didn't consider himself a 'Syndicalist' or whatever garbage the youth were calling themselves.

But China was a dying machine, and somebody had to fix it.

... Sometimes, he spoke up at the events.
Sometimes, people even listened.
The poetry reading went well.
People clapped.

... Quietly, Yilin bristled with an unconcealed rage.

Schools had been set up all over the country; no longer were they required to show a photo of their barbarian 'Emperor', but, they were always organising events that made it all seem natural.

Her plans to get out of this stupid, backwards hick-town, and to drive a stake through the heart of the beast, so that China would be led by the Chinese...

A grandiose dream like that would never come to pass if she had to spend her time grading juniors on their murderously poor understanding of prose...

What if it didn't end here, either?

What if this sort of foolishness was the case in university, and beyond - she'd have to smash all of 'em, make 'em all understand...

"Miss? Was it a good poem?"

A younger girl. Dark brown pigtails, dark brown eyes.
Hesitant stare, vacant, like a painting.
Yilin frowned.

... Gan.

"It was a lovely poem. The vivid imagery captured the hatred that any downtrodden man must feel for the shackle round his neck, and what actions must be taken to free himself..."
He'd never imagined that it'd come to living in a cave, but... So it had.

Where other cities had prospered, Guilin had found itself in the uncomfortable economic crunch of being developed, only to no longer be at the centre of industry. Many formerly AoG-controlled offices had fled, and so the sad story of his life had taken a turn for the worse.

Dismally, Chen pulled his clothes around him.
He wasn't the first to stumble upon the idea, but many who could've left, had. He'd been too stubborn, too secure in his station - having worked in finance before the transfer.

But people kept leaving, and things had gotten hard. He felt certain that things'd improve in a year or two, at the most; peace, stability, and optimism were good economic strengths.

Aha, which made it funny, that...

It was so damn cold.

There'd been people around the city the last time he'd gone to beg. Handing out leaflets about various things.
And they'd seemed to be from different groups, too; there was no unity in Chinese politic, after all.

Destroying the AoG had brought unions and regulation; a fair and free market had quelled interest from reform-minded conservatives - strong investments and peace had raised the lower classes lots in life broadly enough that...

Well, cases like his were a coin hidden in a silver mine; worthless next to all the obvious treasure.

Sighing, he wondered if they'd maybe have food, if he slunk back into town...
When people left dying towns, they came to Wuhan.

That's what'd brought Grandmother Huang to Wuhan; her husband's death had been tragic, and she hadn't known what to do. But the nice gentleman at the company office had insisted that pensioners should move to Wuhan, because of how much opportunity there was, there...

He'd been right, bless him.
She'd found work taking typeset for the German-language press before being convinced to retire by her surviving family, and her coworkers.

The cost of living was gentle, and even a handful of marks could carry you through the week - Chinese marks, that was, German marks would buy you perhaps thrice as much.

But it seemed as if there were a lot of terrible things happening, these days, and despite her best attempt to stay on top of them, it all seemed so very distant.
She wrote letters to friends, occasionally, and the post was punctual, now.

No worries about bandits, stealing it, or - other problems.

There were still matters that - tore at her soul, and made her concerned for how things might turn out, but...
Well, they were just the concerns of an old woman.
Surely, the future would be bright?..
Report: In Regards to Current Construction
Subject - Superheavy Battleship Chang'e (Produced Under Licence)

Lt. Colonel,

In regards to your last letter, my family has been well. I have recently been blessed with a son, whom I have decided to name Daigorou. There is no continuation of the threat I mentioned in my last communication.

The Chinese labourers work quickly. As a sister-ship to Kaguya, there are many similarities, but I feel the construction is too hurried, and the vessel itself made of substandard materials. I am uncertain if this is due to the overeliance on market factors, a desire to regain naval prestige, or simple oversight.

Her crew, however, has impressed me numerous times. There is a deep desire for victory and revenge against any perceived slight, but the feeling towards the Emperor and Japan is that we are brother-nations. I do not foresee conflict in the near or immediate future.

Yet, there are many issues that concern me.
First and foremost amongst them are the continued reliance on sale of licence; second, being the recent news regarding the Court.

... Clearly, the nation must be seen as powerful and generous, not merely accommodating. Therefore, to welcome Prince Abeba's arrival, I recommend the following...
"Yilin! Get down here, and talk to me! I think my old man's gotten drunk again, he keeps on rambling about a bunch of stuff that goes right over my head, you're the smartest girl I know, so - "

Jun kept on rambling. She'd taken the bridge; he was walking under it.
For some reason, he'd followed her around for most of their lives. He seemed to think it was because their life was a heroic love story.

... She didn't hate him, but there were always more important things on her mind.

«Go - »

Yilin began, than quickly bit her tongue.

"Is it that important?"

He paused, and didn't reply.
She only realised as she kept walking, and his footsteps ceased entirely.

"... You - responded..."

"Of course I did. But answer my question, all right? You don't think I've got all the time in the world - "

"Right, uh, please come with me - "

His tone was scared.
She - had never heard Jun scared, before. He was a coward, sure, and a lot of what he put on was bravado. But he wasn't the type of coward that got nervous, or showed it - not ever.

... Jun's father hadn't been drunk for days.
He was talking about something to do with France, and she didn't understand.

... No, she understood perfectly.

The virus, it seemed, had spread even here.
Otgonbaatar sat, and watched the sky.

He'd come a long way, and seen so much devastation. At the time, it'd been too violent to think of as a pilgrimage, but...

Several circled, fought with one another.
One of the birds flinched, and fell from the sky - immeasurably far in the distance.

Yet, still, he was alive.

The Khan had supposedly been blessed by a great many powers and factors, and yet nothing much had come of it. Otgonbaatar was uncertain about the matter, as he had been about many things, as of late.

Xi'an bustled; thrummed.
Like an ancient heart, it had began pumping blood throughout China, again.
China.

... It was a strange thing to consider, and he didn't particularly like the reality of it.
Yet government edict had been kind, and there was a great deal of willingness to look the other way.

To forget.

But was that mercy, or a greater cruelty?
And what was atonement, if not recognition..?

Sighing, he straightened his red robes, wondered if that was vanity, and left.

The birds continued to fight in the air, long after he had left.
Sulphurous mumbling and plumes of smoke, alike, were a good sign that his boss was near.

Tsui had never considered himself particularly blessed with good intellect or skill. He'd never meant to rise through the ranks of the gendarmerie, but - here he was.

Policing China was a difficult matter, for although the situation was mostly stable, there were always many factions that wished to see that stability destroyed. Many of the gendarmerie, then, had their roots in other armed forces, many of which no longer existed...

He had met Frenchmen who spoke French, Laotians who spoke Lao, Russians who spoke Russian; and, of course...

Jurchens, who spoke only Chinese.

"Report."

Xianyu muttered, and he nodded tersely.

"No demonstrators; they seem to have been cowed by the presence after that last incident. Celebration seems to be far more curtailed, as well; which is nice. Less to clean up, right?"

She didn't laugh or smile; she rarely did, around her subordinates. But, it wasn't as if she wasn't pleased - you learned to recognise that, too, in time.

"... Good. Keep an eye on things. Report back if anyone brings out any Canadian effigies."

"Will do."

He paused as she wandered off, 'humming' to herself and clearly lost in thought. But...

"Is the Emperor well?"

"... Emperor Puyi is well."
Farming techniques had been modernised incredibly quickly, but the actual crux of it remained the same; vast amounts of people, toiling in spring, summer and fall, and planning most everything they could in winter.

Shan Bao had been toiling for most of the day, but he had a new best friend.
The radio was always interesting to listen to; it didn't talk back, and the best part of it was that, when their breaks weren't synchronized, he'd could listen to whatever classical singer was on, and pretend she was singing to him.

It was magical stuff, really.

But - occasionally, there'd be some news bulletin, jotted down, and folks would act as if it were a big deal.
More posturing, from the Europeans.
As if either France or Germany would've the courage to fight.

They were both children, on the world stage an in temperament, that was what he thought. More focused on watering each other's lawns than anything else.

Well, their loss.
Maybe they didn't even have radios in France, or Germany...
Hsu Jiang had been excited to be one of the first women taking the (Reformed) Civic Service examination.

That excitement had faded quickly when she realised that the reforms in question had somewhat shunted the offices available to those that had properly studied at a university, in the Western style...

But all of that had taken a rather miraculous turn when she'd stumbled upon Mr. Pujie. The prince insisted on such courtesies, and had been all too keen to recommend her - well, for a chance to prove her credentials, that was.

... Which meant an unenviable job, in harsh conditions.

Others might have balked at it, but she'd soon found her feet; Ethiopia was a rising power, much like China, herself; and the revolt of the high nobility (in areas where they had been granted control over a different populace)...

It could be said to mirror China, on a finer scale.

But she wasn't content to limit herself to the task at hand...
Hsu felt certain that something was going on, in Europe. It felt like a hundred tiny matches that had been lit were finally roaring into life; and though everyone was content to ignore them, that didn't mean they'd cease to exist.

She'd heard that a great number of old aces and commanders in Germany had re-located to Marokko, for whatever reason.

Likely no reason at all, really...
But the thing that she wrote about most fervently, was the newly re-forged South African state. An ugly sore on the sub-continent, even considering Mittelafrikan crimes, it had turned into an insular camp, allowing little oversight or observation.

The predominant feeling was that South Africa and Mittelafrika would soon come to blows, and that there would be no winners; only drought-starved corpses, clawing at flies and the sun.

... But opinion was hardly fact, and so she dug, and dug, and dug, and found just a few useful pieces of information about this minister, or that general...
... Right until she'd managed to find herself investigating the Kaiser, himself.

It was amazing how the trail had led her through her position in the Ethiopian countryside, dodging bullets and angry chanting, right to the slowly-pulsating heart of Europe.

The old monarch had bowed to the new wave; and all of the world had stilled their breath. But in their shock, they'd missed what was truly important...

Even though the French had apologised, and tensions had been diffused, their had still been an attack on German sovereignty - and it had gone unchallenged.
Report - Courtly Matters
Subject - Personal

Takao, you worthless hack, I'm not wasting time going through formalities with you.

My resources are at an end. The conglomerates are bleeding us dry, here, and the Emperor wants to give them more to play with, every day.

It feels as if the vitality of the nation is being bled dry, over a pit of coals. No, that's not a strong enough metaphor. You know me, you can imagine something. Drink a few. Are there any good breweries in Rongcheng? There probably are, bastard...

Well, it could be worse.

I feel as if the Ethiopian emissary is a man of good character; in regards to the deals reached, they remain to be seen.

Oh, I'm to order you to stand down from your observation of the Chang'e. As to your next orders, you should expect them from the consulate, not me.

Hopefully, the next time we meet...
Little Monday, as it was known, had rippling effects on the entirety of Africa. The flight of capital and wealth was one thing, but the other was the immediate halt to trade in inter-African markets.

The Mittelafrikan government soon accused South Africa of everything from currency manipulation, to attempts to flood it with refugees, to revanchist sentiments.

Premier Kung wrestled with the letter before him, thin as a single sheet, and heavy as lead.

Chinese investments in southern and western Africa had helped develop many areas that had been unable to secure western investments. And he'd felt - genuinely good about that, about having had the opportunity to do something, but...

It was amazing how much less energy it took to destroy something.

And there weren't any good characters, really. No heroes.
Just -

... Well, he couldn't afford to be grim.
There'd be time for that when he'd died.
For now, it was time to write, since that was what he did - write, and hope that somehow, the spilled ink might stop the flow of others' blood.
At first, they hadn't known what to say to another. With Huisheng needing constant attention, there'd been very little to say.

He'd - cried, a lot, at first.

Blamed himself, all the time.
And nothing she'd been able to say had helped at all, and she also - greedily, and she felt so awful - had wanted him to ask about her, about how she was holding up, even once.

... Yet, as harsh as it'd been, they were both resilient sorts. She hadn't agreed to be his wife with doubts in her heart, and Hiro felt that if she showed weakness, for even a second - that she might have failed her own belief in what a wife should do, and be able to do.

It was before they'd gone to see the visiting Prince that he'd asked.

She was trying on a new necklace; at his insistence that the fashion suited her.

"... Are you going to be all right, Hiro?"

Given that it had been all she wanted, really...

"Of course I am. I should be asking you the same thing!"

"You have. Multiple times."

Pujie had set his glasses against the table. Huisheng never made an awful din; she was so... Quiet, and controlled.

For some reason, Hiro felt certain - that she'd grow up to be an incredible young lady...

"Well, I must be terrible, then... Because I still don't think I've asked enough!"

He smiled warmly at that, and it was all worthwhile.
Besides - his brother had lived, even if he'd been - in retreat, for most of the year.

Maybe a postcard, from a foreign prince, would be just the thing to lure Puyi from his cave..?
Ah, certainly that would've drawn a snicker from Xianyu -
Hui Xizheng stared at the freshly-painted black car before him.

With this single item, he was above most of China.

Mei was lounging against the back seat, watching the sky with her usual discontentment. Meihua, in the passenger's seat, was - alert. As she had been since.

They were both fine young women, of course - but there was no denying that all three of them had been changed.

And the ancient city itself had continued long as it always had. Untouched by industry or the hand of commerce, by matters of empire or republic or revolution.

"Everything you, both of you need, is..."

He began to ask, and Meihua gave him a terse shake of her head, her only response.

"There's no going back from this, father. If we're going to try - well, be prepared."

She sounded so fierce, considering the possibilities, but - death had already stared them in the face before. There was no use procrastinating.

... And the roads were re-modeled, here, oddly - good...
"No civilians past this point."

In the end, they'd been defeated by simple bureaucracy; the gendarmerie having looped off a checkpoint in the semi-deserts and made it clear that nobody was going to go past it.

The two men blocking their way, were European; the young man at the counter had spoken with a noticeable accent, though Xizheng knew he wasn't enough of a polyglot to tell where it was from.

"Just - please let us through. We're trying to find out what happened to our home, and so..."

«Is there any real reason they can't proceed, Archambault... There's nothing up there but sand and sagebrush.»

«You idiot, going against orders could... Wait a second.»

Mei woke from her reverie for a minute to glance at the two of them, and pursed her lips. She didn't talk much, anymore.
She'd been quite - gregarious, back -

Both men vanished, and for awhile Xizheng wondered if they should just leave.
Yet, when they returned...

«You're - ah, my God...»

"Sorry, I mean, you're clear to go. But we have to go with you. Do you understand? Is that acceptable?"

... It was even better than he'd dared hope. He - managed a weak nod of his head, and then three cars were driving along surprisingly modern roads.
"Is it boring up here? I mean - now that the war is over?"

Meihua had never been especially talkative, but had forced herself to be more active in the emptiness left by her sister's retreat.

She had a bit of her mother's spirit, and people did enjoy talking to her - and Xizheng had resolved to not be so strict with them, after it all -

"A little."

Confessed one of the men, who'd introduced his family name as Montagne.

"But it's not as bad as the armed forces. I'd rather have a peaceful life in China, than all the war the world's seen... Apparently, that visiting prince returned to find his nations entire capital turned to embers."

"Heavens..."

"Mmn."

Montagne produced a cigarette, and lit it.
Xizheng wanted to scold him, but - well, it was his life, even if Xizheng couldn't help but wonder, if, perhaps, maybe...

"Still. It's not as if things weren't as bad here. I'm sorry we wanted to stop you, but... Well."
...

To say that it had been a disappointment would be to choose the wrong words.
It was everything he had expected; that they had all expected.

And yet -

Xizheng was a stern man, or tried to be.
He wanted to be an exemplary merchant, a learned scholar, a devoted father.

But he cried until he felt as if eyes might never dry, and then they'd left. A few days later, the slightly younger Franco-Chinese man had offered to take them to a café he frequented.

It'd been - appreciated, and Xizheng liked to hope that his younger daughter and the man weren't just idly flirting, but - it was pointless to think too much of it.

For now, it was just nice - having closure.

And that would've been the end of it, until Mei spoke.

"What was with all that... Cleared, empty land? And why were the roads leading up to it so new?"
High-rise apartments in the German style climbed up to the heavens. Their greedy fingers seemed to lust for the sky itself, and as rain fell, it fell on concrete, and wood, and plaster.

The clatter of nails might as well have been thunder.
Hú Gang struck each blow, seemingly immune to the weather, and listened.

Wouldn't let up, would it...

Another blow struck, and he'd finished his work. Now there'd been another crew of men, some fifty or so other contractors, a factory foremen, planners and engineers...

Kunming wouldn't be recognisable in five years; and in fifty, what would have become of China?

... Papers had been plastered to his own apartment, the other day.

They'd promised the usual tripe, but life was good; wages increased, and things seemed decent.

... But even still, he'd considered the promises made.

Right now, everything felt mechanical; as if they were in a giant machine, and the one purpose of it, inexorable and inescapable, was...
To hear that religious leaders in Japan and Lhasa had met wasn't unusual.

But, Otgonbaatar had not come so far to hear about the routine.

Indeed, he'd learned a great many things simply wandering - and one of the advantages of a 'united' China was that he could wander most anywhere he liked, with form or permit.

So it was that he'd learned of a certain attache to the government, who'd had attempts to disclose sensitive information stymied.

He - had no use for the information, himself.
But the news that a planned Anglo-Japanese fleet movement had fallen through...

Despite it all, Hsu Jiang never arrived.

For some reason, it all seemed perfect, and without rhyme or reason to it, he found himself laughing - for it was funny, truly and utterly funny...
Hsu touched the swollen bruise against her cheek, again. She knew she mustn't, but - it was almost hypnotic.

Though it was hardly the worst thing she'd faced so far, it was mesmerising because it'd come not from some distant land, but - her own 'home,' even as it felt incredibly distant.

A miner's riot and demonstration against Manchurian rule had turned into a desire to punish any agents of the state that could be found; which she would've escaped, if it had stayed simply that.

But the truth was that people sought to destroy for no good reason, and the miners had simply wanted an excuse to fight. Perhaps it was the horrible fate of being sealed in a tomb, or perhaps their lives were easy, and they were simply decadent - but she felt certain it was neither one nor the other, and just a natural state of things...

... Not that it mattered.

If it hadn't been for a local branch of the armed forces doing an exercise in Kunming, it might've...

But she'd missed her rendezvous with a source who had the potential to make her report to Pujie - and there was no easy way to track him down.

... Perhaps she'd never been cut out for the life, after all.

Laughing, and unsure of how she felt, she ordered the first of several strong drinks, until one faded into another, and they might as well have been a waking dream...

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