A Long-Lasting Dream IV: The Devil's Triangle

Author: hsiwangmu
Published: 2018-01-17, edited: 2018-01-21
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 III: We\'ll Let You Know

Images: 34, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-01-17, edited: 2018-01-21

The burnt ruins of faded, colourful cigarettes stained the theatre floor.

Reserved for the private use of the Emperor himself, and those he saw fit, it didn't matter how unclean the place became; nobody else would see, unless he bade them enter.

A seat away, Xianyu was watching the woman – Germany's famous actress – with an emotion that Puyi could not place. She had gone from quietly laughing at the outlandish setup and the hyperbolic dialogue to sitting quietly, hands atop her knees.

Occasionally, just occasionally, she'd frown.

“She's beautiful, isn't she? Germany's own lady knight!”

It had been Otto who'd suggested the movie, and, as his loud announcement made clear – as did his slightly flushed face – he had seen it several times before.

Puyi had approved of it to humour him, even though he was barely staring at the screen, himself; and his words sounded as if they came from behind a filtered screen, as well.

“She's a woman, Ciliax, and nothing more.”
The movie itself was obviously a piece of propaganda, produced by the German government to appeal to Wrangel's regime. Glorifying the White Russian military presence in the face of hordes of uneducated syndicalist-communist Reds, and featuring an incredibly sympathetic protagonist, the movie could not have been a clearer attempt at winning good favour.

He resented thinking so deeply about it, even as the tape had long since ceased to run, and the Emperor of the Qing found himself staring at an empty, sepia-accented screen.

Xianyu's hand against his back was somewhat more weathered than he'd remembered, but perhaps he'd been giving her too much to do.

… Hmn.

“Your gloves?”

Puyi asked, and Xianyu coughed out a laugh in reply.

“Storing good matches in them. Was just reviewing them. No luck so far. You're a hard one to find a match for.”

“... My apologies.”

He whispered, and shut his eyes.

“Don't. Don't worry about it. Baoyu.”

But he had been worrying about it for some time, and would not stop, now.

Otto was trudging back from the private washrooms, cursing something in German – German that had now become peppered with Chinese, Puyi could not help but note.

“But God, Lord God above! She's just so radiant, like a – a diamond...”

Xianyu laughed, but Puyi knew even without opening his eyes that it would not reach her own.
Her hand retreated, he raised his spine, and turned to smile at Otto, who returned it.
It was fascinating how people grew discontent so quickly.

You could give them everything; the freedom to their own food, their housing and the trade they pursued, and they would find a way to resent you for it.

The hour was long, and the evening was high, and Pujie was mentioning a hunt for dissidents in the Irish State, and they all blurred together.

Rubbing his eyes, Puyi winced and tried to look as if he understood what his brother was saying –

Teetering, and narrowly tumbling forward.

“Brother?!”

Pujie immediately ran forward, and it was not a terrible accident; Puyi'd already readied himself before he fell, feeling more surprised and humiliated than anything else.

Of course, it was just another good reason as to why he preferred solitude, but...

“Fine. I've probably been staying up too late, recently. All those papers you send me, haha.”

His brother laughed politely, out of courtesy.

They did not talk about business and foreign affairs again, that evening.
“VERDAMMT!”

Otto spat out, face red and ruddied; he hadn't been drinking, but he was angry. Angry like only a man who knew how bad things were could be; and like only a man who knew that they could always get worse, might be.

“Don't look so glum.”

Xianyu began glumly, the shadow of a smile creeping onto her face.

“How can I not be?! With the vipers over in the Ukraine hitting us form the right, and the cobras of the sea hitting us from the west...”

“Always figured the cobra was more of a Brazillian matter.”

“Oh, so it was? Wait, damnit! I mean to say – this is terrible...”

She was only half-listening, of course; for there was another country with a great and growing agricultural sector, still willing to export to Mitteleuropa, if approached; and desperation made better buyers, or so the saying went.

… And the other reason was, she'd heard plenty of rumours enough that there were even worse things than the world closing in on itself.
“I, I don't see why I need to have this chat with you, formally...”

Lady Hiro Aisin-Gioro, née Saga, was sweating, and doing nothing to hide it.
Here, away from her court and her running makeup and her entourage, behind the concrete walls where it might as well be only the two of them...

Xianyu sat, one leg perched against the other, and eyed her over dispassionately.

“You're a member of the National Alliance.”

“Of course not..!”

Whispered Hiro in reply, and Xianyu gave a curt nod, stretching her fingers into the air – as if seizing it.

“Right. Of course not. But you see, we've got a lot of people immigrating to Qing-controlled lands, and this is more than a little suspicious.”

“But I – we're practically sisters, now...”

“Don't be coy. It doesn't suit you.”

Then, Xianyu fetched one of the crummy Russian cigarettes she favoured, and handed it across the table.
Hiro gave it a very grim stare, and shook her head twice – but smiled, weakly.

Xianyu returned it.

“My job is to make sure the Empire is safe. Just like your husband's job. Just like your job.”

“My job...”

“Hum. I don't know. Guess I've always felt that, if you're looking to have children, the most you can do is hope they'll enter a safe world. One with a bright future.”

The words had taken a lot out of her, and Xianyu slouched back into her chair.

“But, well, that's up to the two of you. Let me be the first to officially welcome you to the Qing Empire. Here's your visa, Madame Aisin-Gioro.”
It suddenly felt as if the world had lifted off of Hiro's shoulders; everything made sense, once again.
And there was a wonderful, strange, freeness to it; of being in a new land, alone in a crowd; it spoke to her and told her that the future was hers, if she only chose to claim it.

She suddenly felt like laughing up at the sun, and so she did – laughing until she'd nearly felt the sting of tears down her cheek.

The sun was incredibly bright, that day in July, as the mix of motor-traffic and handcarts drew to a close, almost in an instant.

One of Pujie's – one of her husband's men was running towards her, nervously adjusting his uniform collar.

He was sweating, and nervous, and despite the fact her Chinese was not perfect, she understood him well enough.

“Ma'am, it's dangerous. We're going to take you in a car, all right? Let's get off the street, for a moment.”

And she knew that there was no time to ask, and soon the scenery was falling by, her nervous chauffeur only occasionally looking behind them.

“We're going to the city..?”

“Yes, ma'am. I imagine there's no safer place to be in the case of unseen developments, and your husband specifically requested your presence.”

She smiled, even if it were obscured with the skill she'd spent a lifetime perfecting.
Though the Palatial estates were no longer forbidden by decree, the complex was – in the manner of the German people – verboten. It was Imperial Word that allowed anyone, from the lowest commoner to the most high-standing diplomat – entry into the estates of the Emperor, and so to see it abuzz with functionaries and military men, was nerve-wracking.

A woman of the nobility must never show her concern, however, and the demure smile Hiro flashed upon her entry soon caught the eye of a man; a German gentleman, she'd met once at one of her husband's events... What was his name –

“Oh, Herr Rabe! It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Madame Saga – no, excuse me. Madame Asian-Gioro, it is always a pleasure.”

His gentle eyes flashed to hers, than to the acquaintance he had been speaking with – and studiously avoiding the smoke of. The scent of cigar-smoke was overpowering as it emanated from the slightly squat, incredibly jovial-seeming man, as he waved excitedly as if he'd always known her.

“We were just speaking of your husband, but please. Allow me to introduce Mr. H. H. Kung.”
She'd only just had the moment to extend her hand – which he shook vigorously – when Pujie and his brother returned, surrounded by a cadre of military officials.
Some of them she recognized; and others were new.

Her eyes half-shut, and her expression darkened.
Pujie looked at once angry, and defeated – but the Emperor bore no emotion at all.

“War is declared against the hateful nest of Millenarian traitors.”

Puyi whispered, the loudest whisper she had ever heard; and the syllables fell to the floor as rain.

“War, against the inheritors of the spirit of Taiping. War to liberate those that have fallen upon their murderous rule. War, to reunite the proper Empire under its rightful ruler.”

He paused only to adjust his glasses upon his face, before addressing the crowd one, last time.

“War.”

And as if a fire had settled over them, the generals and admirals and diplomats were all hooting and hollering and filled with a fierce excitement as great as any millenarian; and she only quickly armoured herself with an approving half-smile, before fighting her way through the crowd to her husband –

Who was not applauding, but staring at the floor.
“... He wouldn't attack the Khan. Even after all the reports we'd – we'd discussed, with all the monstrosities that man has unleashed against his people.”

It was like they were in their own little world, surrounded by the Imperial court; and once again she was gripped through the feeling of being adrift in a crowd.

But she clung to him, and her eyebrows knit, and she kissed his brow.

“Pujie.”

“He – Hiro. He said he did it for me; that because I so despised the Iron Guard and Pelley's men, surely I'd be happy to know that the Millenarians would be purged from the earth...”

She helped him to his feet, and whispered in his ear; whispered that it would not do to be seen weak while the Emperor looked strong; for none knew as well as she the daggers that multiplied in halls of power.

… Perhaps not none.

Xianyu had detached from whatever shadows she clung to, her peaked cap bobbing once at her, and again at Pujie.

“We've a problem. Burma's gone syndicalist.”

“I can't – “

Xianyu's eyes grew bright with a trace of emotion, and she whirled on the balls of her feet, ignoring the stammering Pujie; though, Hiro noticed, perhaps – it was a sort of kindness...

And for a minute, the figure of Xianyu looked almost dashing, though she could not say why she felt that way about the oddity of the Qing court.

“Miss Aisin-Gioro. I'll be expecting you to look after your husband. I'll take care of matters for him temporarily.”

“Of course..!”

Hiro muttered fiercely, but, unable to help herself –

“There are more matters?”

At this, Xianyu – and Pujie, just a bit – chuckled.
Xianyu's reply, as ever, was terse.

“Aren't there always?”
German liquor was peculiar; they were too devoted to their 'dunkelbier' or however it was pronounced.

Hiro considered them all rather weak, though the charming airman – Otto, was it – seemed at once horrified and impressed by her capacity.

She would, she reminded herself, tone it back later. Now, however, was not the worst time for drink...

The café they'd absconded to in a whirlwind of activity had not been open; and then the proprietor had seen Xianyu, and mysteriously it had opened again.
How fortunate to be connected, then...

Pujie had improved dramatically, though she knew not what to tell him; for the enigma that was his brother operated by the rules of no man, it seemed...

“Long Yun keeps on sending his men into the AOG. It's not an immediate concern of ours. But the bandit general is going to make it one.”

Xianyu's bitter ruminations made it clear she already had a few solutions in mind, but unable to help herself, Hiro interrupted –

“Ah, so not entirely like Song Jiang, then...”

Suddenly, Xianyu's eyes lit up, and she pulled the brim of her cap over them to hide it.

“Hum. Not entirely, no. But it's certainly something to keep under consideration...”

“Until the damn corporate suits make it our problem, I vote we drink our troubles away!”

Otto announced grandiosely, and to that, at least, Hiro could find herself in perfect agreement.
They talked until the night was over, Otto's cheers to the health of the new Polish king probably loud enough to be heard across the entirety of China; the man was too boisterous for his own good.
To her surprise, however, very little hard policy was discussed; perhaps for the benefit of her husband, who remained quiet, though no longer chastened, for the rest of the evening.

It was quite dark when they left; Otto waving them a bleary and energetic farewell, and Hiro being certain that she'd heard Xianyu mention a goodbye, before disappearing to another haunt across the street.

Pujie clung to her arm, and she found the role-reversal more than a little endearing; glad for an evening fog, as it gave her an excuse to draw closer...

“Sorry. Please don't think less of me.”

He murmured, and her lips drew into a frown.

“What? Why on earth would I think less of my husband for standing up for his beliefs..? Unless, ah, have I stepped out of line...”

Pujie managed a smile, and it remained on his face before he kissed her; and the fact that he was blushing as he kissed his wife, hidden by fog, brought her to laughter once again.

“Of course not. To have a loyal and astute wife is what all men wish for.”

“Goodness, well, I hope I shall not end up married to all men...”

As the motorcar arrived, she realized with a shock of happiness, that it would be taking them home.
“Home is the entirety of the world; and the world is home to China.”

The boisterous voice of H.H. Kung cut through the now-empty palace as if the three present – himself, the Lady Xianyu, and the Emperor – were the only people in the world.

Xianyu was impressed by his spectacle, and perhaps even more impressed by the fact he genuinely believed it, as he danced with surprising agility around his plaster models and scattered papers.

She would be the first to admit she had neither understanding nor interest in his models, but Puyi had been studying restlessly as the war against the Shangqing Tianguo progressed. She doubted he understood all of it either, but on the important matters...

“Truly, Dr. Kung. It's as if you're gifted with a knowledge the rest of us will never understand.”

It was a dry, sarcastic comment – but it was also how he expressed affection, in his own way.

… She sighed, and felt the shuffle of candidate information, written against the inside of her glove.
Hsiang-hsi, at least, was unflappable through any sarcasm expressed by any man, even if that man were the Emperor.

“No, my Emperor. God, good education, and discipline are the only qualities needed to understand economics! That, perhaps, or a little bit of madness...”

The twinkle in his eyes continued to shine, even as his demonstration had finished.

“So – are you willing to try out my brave little theories, or should I go tell Herr Stennes to sell you his pitch?”

Xianyu observed the Emperor; his back turned, his posture stiff, and his face hidden.

But she had seen him enough to know the preludes to his smiles, the same ones he kept hidden, when he could.

“I don't think that shall be necessary. I cannot say I honour your God, my education feels incomplete, and I shall never have the discipline China is worthy of; but perhaps you can teach me your theories, even still.”

Kung practically danced out the door.
When it was just the two of them, once more, as it ever was –

The silence grew around them like vines.

Xianyu surprised herself, being the first to speak.

“Poland fell. Guess they didn't like the Habsburgs as much as they'd claimed.”

And his laughter was so brittle, so tentative, that it was hard to remember he was a year older.

“... I think I – I meant to make him happy, you know...”

“You succeeded. I can't say I've ever seen someone move that spryly.”

He laughed again, but it was even quieter than the first.

“Daiyu... You know who I mean.”

And of course she did.

“Well, you can't make everyone happy, Baoyu. I imagine the Emperor has to know that.”

“I suppose he must.”
His reply was followed by an request (and then an order) that she not find a place to skulk away to that evening, instead using one of the many unoccupied rooms of the palace.

If Xianyu was happy or unhappy with the command, she did not say; but it soon mattered not to the Emperor, for there were always more matters to address.

Despite the proclaimed isolation of the Japanese, they had taken an active interest in the newly-independent Manila Government, offering what appeared to be a no-strings-attached offer of financing and training.

It was, he mused darkly, highly unlikely that the doom of the Qing would come from a naval invasion from the Philippines, but lack of caution had killed empires before; and would continue to strangle them in times such as these.
More pressing was the issue of the treaty ports; the so-called Legation Cities.

When he'd first heard of the devastation caused from a monstrous squall, his heart had felt crushed with a pity he could never show to his most trusted confidantes; and when he had been told by those same aides and trustees that nothing was to be done, for it would be 'improper' for an Empire to aid the illegitimate and tiny city-states, and regardless, they would not accept aid...

Puyi had raged for some time, until only the falling rain could calm his nerves.
The smell of warm spices; cinnamon and nutmeg, brown caramelised sugars and rich fresh apples, was enough to make a spendthrift of a stingy man.

Otto, had ordered strudel; in honour of the success and prestige the Habsburg family was enjoying, even with some recent setbacks. Pujie had ordered simple steamed buns, because his brother was hopeless like that, Puyi decided.

… As to himself, he finally settled on the apfelkuchen, and the three of them ate in silence.

“You... You know...”

Pujie finally began.
“I rather think Dmitro is planning something. The young age of the poor king, the timing of it all...”

Both brothers were silent, for some time; the repetition of history, after all, needed little exposition.

Otto paused, fork stuck into flaking pastry, as crumbs fell from his face.

“Well, heaven help him if that's the case; the Ukraine might be heading for difficult times...”

“Ukraina.”

Pujie offered conversationally, smiling.
Otto chortled in reply, and Puyi coughed.

“About – the matter of the past month...”
From across the table, Pujie stared at his brother.

Apology after apology, and yet they always ended up here.

Puyi was the eldest brother; and thus must know suffering that he, Pujie, could not began to understand. They were both aware of this fact, and despite their differences, had attempted to work together to bridge it – or so he told himself.

But they still returned to it, time after time.

… Around them, the maze of waiters and attendants in colourful, European garb, swam like exotic fish.
Pujie contemplated what might happen if he said his mind – in here, in a place like this, when the Emperor was doing his best to prove humble.

There was no point to it, of course; but the thought gave him the last bit of reserve he needed.

“Pay it no mind. With the German bloc looking healthy, it's up to us to make the east safe, as well.”

And Pujie smiled warmly as he spoke, brushing the matter off even as he let his mind wander to how he might best surprise Hiro, that evening...
Otto whistled to himself as the last plane pulled into the lot; though not a single one had been upgraded to the newest standard, they'd be remodeled soon; and there'd been talk about finally getting the latest cadre their own sub-commanders, Chinese by birth and confession.

The idea of finally being in competition with the Chinese might have threatened a lesser man, he figured, but it was – it felt like the culmination of everything that'd happened so far.

“Careful. I hear the godmen are immune to bullets and bombs.”

Ungainly on land as he was agile in the air, he nearly jumped as Xianyu slunk from behind him, looking...

“Ah, you slept at all, Xianyu?”

“Hum.”

The neutrality of her reply as she handed him the letter said enough; though the letter itself, written by a certain lady he'd made the acquaintance of, a lifetime ago...

Otto smiled, tracing the ink as he read.

“Indeed. Hum! Looks as if all sorts of devilry was rooted out in Mittelafrika. I suppose I might – have time to pay the place a visit, some time in the future...”

She yawned, then fixed him a pointed stare.

“Tell me what we can learn from it.”
Long Yun had earned quite a reputation; not a mere bandit or warlord, he was a cunning general, out to starve the German strongman, bleeding out the AOG while rewarding his followers, until he might carve up southern China for himself.

So to hear that Xianyu wanted to know if there had been any news they could exploit to strike Yun before his actions became a threat...

“Damned if I know, miss. Seems to me that the worst of it is something that the AOG'll have to deal with themselves, and they'll deal with it, one way or the other. But the good news is, the future surely looks bright for us!”

And she smiled that peculiar smile that made him uneasy; all wolfish and crooked.

“Bright as the cloudless sky.”
It was the next day that the news reached all of China; after a campaign that had been more like a police action than a military expedition, the millenarian cult of the New Heavenly Kingdom had surrendered. Outside of high-ranked members and recruiters of the I-Kuan Tao, very few had been punished; Puyi proclaiming that the people of China welcomed the return of their Emperor.

Rumour had it that even a young boy with ties to the Ming had been found. Rumour had it, also, that Puyi had requested his presence, himself.

Whether or not either rumour were true, a child had been seen leaving the Forbidden City, looking thoughtful beyond his years.

Across the empire, celebrations were held; not since the abolishment of the queue laws had there been such exuberance amongst the people of the Qing Empire. A feel of genuine enthusiasm had replaced the cautious optimism of the New Reformation – and, Puyi realized, as he watched the celebrants shower him with words of praise, he was...

His heart felt tight in his chest, and the cursed weakness threatened to overwhelm him, seize up his chest and strangle it with paralysis.
But his own fortitude felt exhilarated as his yell joined with theirs, and even the Emperor celebrated.

The first of many steps to reunification was complete.

China would be home to all Chinese, once more!..
… Pujie was uncertain what to say, at first.

There was no masking it with courtesy, no attempt to pretend it was anything other than it was.
Personally, as if he were an old friend, the Kaiser had approached him; ancient voice promising of glory and power and prestige and a million other promises, as if he were a boy; if he and Puyi were both still boys, and both still prisoners in Germany.

And then, as the Kaiser had left and various diplomats had approached him – some haughty, but many begging – he had began to imagine he was uncertain what to think, as well.

Everything had been beginning to turn well and truly good for the Empire, even as the world itself seemed balanced at the edge of a razor. And his family were threatened with the possibility of that order, and that peace, vanishing in an eye's blink...

The flight home had been empty, booked for his private use – courtesy of the Kaiser himself.

And Pujie had clasped the locket of his wife close to his chest, and twisted, and found himself unable to sleep; or even to dream.
Not even with the end of the war had the celebration finished.

It was still common to see merchants and peddlers lining the streets, selling paper charms that praised the Emperor and the Empire, proclaiming a new age of friendship between Manchu and Chinese peoples; and by extension, all of China.

The generous terms given to the 'forcefully-conscripted combatants' of the New Heavenly Kingdom had won Puyi many admirers, and so when his brother returned home, he was surprised to find himself lavished with praise as well; a popular prince in his own right, honoured and considered both wise and loyal.

Otto Ciliax was waiting for him.

The older man said nothing as they shook hands, and, backed by several German soldiers, made their way to the Imperial residences.

Of course, security was lax; the entire Empire was revelrous.

But Pujie knew full well enough that Xianyu was never idle, and that Puyi trusted her perhaps even more than himself because of that fact – amongst the rest of them.
His heart began to race, but he had already made up his mind.

And as always, the Imperial Palace was empty – save for one sole occupant, the Emperor of the newly resurgent Qing Empire, dressed in full regalia.

Puyi had created a new order; barred orange with azure lace; the former to represent the defeated Heavenly Kingdom, the latter, the monarchy; for blue was the colour of the Qing, and the colour of the open sky.

And Pujie wore the medal as well, even as he stared up at his brother.

Neither man said another word, as the assembled soldiers left fresh bootblack against the Imperial floor.
Of course, Pujie had sent a cable the moment he had been contacted; for his loyalty was to the Qing above all else.

And that loyalty had meant he had strongly considered the Kaiser's offer; but in the end, had cast his lot long ago.

Xianyu's gendarmerie swept in like clockwork, and perhaps due to the ancientness of the place, there was no exchange of fire on either side.

Indeed – the German forces grew stiff, acknowledged the Emperor, and turned to march; escorted by the military police.
Without a single shot, the Qing Empire was finally, truly, free.

His brother and Otto stared at each other for some time.

The German held out his calloused hand, having began to grow old in the service of the Chinese;

But the Emperor did not take it, and finally, Otto bowed his head, and let it fall slack to his side.
And his posture, so poor on the land at which he was ill at ease, finally faded into the distance; and only the two brothers remained.

… Puyi hid his face, and began to laugh.
News articles the world over began to speak of the bloodless victory of the Qing, praising their resolute Emperor for his spirited defiance of the German order.
Despite the terms 'purge' 'revival' and 'independent' thrown around enough times to render them all meaningless, the actual breakup was amicable, in line with the open policies of the new Qing Premier.

Premier Kung had pointed out that, contrary to the demands of the peasantry, German factories and businesses would not be seized, but compensated; and all German residents who wished to stay would be given dual-citizenship, should they desire it.

The vast majority chose to do just that, with those who left – the bulk of the officer corps, research, and industrial branches – not making the choice, but having it made for them.

As he flipped idly through the newspaper, Pujie suppressed a sigh.

“Did we do the right thing, you think..?”

Hiro fixed him with the look he'd privately began to think of as her 'most noble' affectation; the one that made him laugh, for how seriously she could make a silly expression.

“Right or wrong, it is the decision you must live by.”

And, damnation take him, he found himself laughing with her; her ebullient giggling enough to kill the last of his doubts.

“You, you know, I think Xianyu is rather impressed to have someone to talk literature with – “

“Husband! You must read the Classics, too, or I swear I shall disown you and join a convent!”

And her imperious laughter evoked only his faint reply that perhaps he would join that convent, too.
… Pujie had been insufferably happy lately, and since Otto was gone, there weren't too many other people she enjoyed listening to –

Though, Xianyu mused, Hiro was a fairly educated woman. Which really shouldn't have surprised her, but it still was surprising...

“And, on top of that, it looks as if the policy backfired. I personally mentioned that they are always welcome in Kaifeng, but, for whatever reason, it seems the Weltbund is skeptical of the tradition, there...”

“Hum. Well, glad you offered them refuge, at least. Puyi'll be glum to hear he'll have to switch to White Canals, hehehehe.”

She ran her tongue over her teeth and chuckled; there was no way that the Emperor would stop importing his colourful cigarettes over this tiff, but she could at least enjoy a few gentle chides at his expense.
“... Ah, Xianyu. Thank you for – for telling him, for telling the Emperor that I was loyal to him. I don't think I could have expressed it... Well. If that makes sense – “

“Utter sense.”

The breeze had picked up, as it did around the autumn.
And the wind was like a horse too, she figured; wild and untamed, until you needed it to be spirited and free.

Maybe that was just another curse, in it's own way...

“I mean it. He – we're at odds so often, and sometimes I feel he thinks me disingenuous – “

“He loves you. In his own way.”

“... Ah.”

Pujie said nothing, and then Xianyu snapped her glove to her wrist. It caught his attention, and she smiled.

“The new planning estate. Your wife knows something about it.”

“No she doesn't!”

And so quickly did his gratitude turn to indignation, that she couldn't stifle her laughter – and finally, Pujie broke down and laughed with her as well.

Good.

It was best he didn't know how she really felt.
Shen Min shivered as he watched the fires and signal fires alike die out. No matter how you looked at it, Qinghai – or the non-occupied portion of it, at least – had been burning for almost two years, now.

Their final snuffing out was – it was a metaphor.
He'd fancied himself a poet, under the Heavenly Kingdom. Even with their conscription policies in place, he'd continued to consider himself one – fortunately, the near-bloodless success of the Qing intervention had left his entire family alive and well, and now he was a border guard.

It was unusual – the lady who served as the Minister of the Interior for the Emperor was – charming, but distant. She'd approached everyone present as if they were an old friend, but at the same time...
He tapped his feet against the guardpost's floor, cricked his neck from side to side, and sighed.

Peace and victory had finally rendered his ambitions null; for with the fires of the western corridor unlit, there was only one place for that wretched, burnt-corpse smell to come.

And when it fell upon the Qing, this would be no bloodess intervention; but a bloody and hateful war, where the winning side...

Though he didn't consider himself particularly devout, he still hoped that if the God of the Heavenly Kingdom listened, he might spare China the terror of the Khan;

For when Lhasa had fallen, it was said that the Russian Genghis had personally burnt the young Lama alive, while his host partitioned and sold the rest of the theocratic elite whom had once been their allies as personal slaves, tutors, and worse.

Outside, the last of the fires died; and Min knew there was no more time for poems.
“Glad to have you all back. I'll be blunt, since I'm tired of having to deal with war-ministers.”

Puyi began, boldly.
Of course, there were only three present at a certain café, and the absence was noted.

But amongst the nobility of the Aisin-Gioro clan present, the atmosphere was relaxed, almost as much as before.

“Just got back from a nice festival in Nepal. I don't understand half of it, but they seem to think the Khan isn't going to intervene in their state. Not yet, at least.”

Xianyu chuckled, quietly, her gloved fingers steepled under her chin.

Pujie coughed and then added:

“Uh, putting that aside – I was, wondering... You know, Hiro's quite knowledgeable about a lot of things...”

His brother smiled wanly.

“After such a show of loyalty, Pujie, you could bring a barbarian from any nation of the earth to my court. Besides,”

The Emperor's tone softened, somewhat.

“We are in dire need of good advice.”
“Regardless of what the Nepalese think, or our own reports, I remain certain that we'll run up against the Khan sooner or later.”

Pujie closed his eyes at his brother's words, silent.
Xianyu watched him lazily, before turning her eyes to the Emperor.

The glances they exchanged said nothing, and everything.

“Well. It's about time we deposed that delusional wretch. Sky's blue, isn't it.”

“It surely is...”

Muttered Puyi in response to her words, even though the weather was cold and cloudy.

All three were silent now; the rapidly cooling food in front of them all but untouched.

Steadily, Pujie rose from where he sat, his expression somber.

“I – I shall compose a declaration of war this evening. Brother. I – I will not let you down..!”

“See that you do not.”

And at this, the Emperor smiled;
And it was a gentler smile than Pujie had ever seen the Emperor wear.
It has been said that the Khan's War was a spark that set all of the world ablaze. From the tiniest island abroad, news of hidden cruelties and horrors brought conflict to light.

Hispaniola, always tense, became a brother's war over genocide and age-old rivalry; with both sides militarized and eager to fight to the last man – even if the ocean ran red with blood.
The subcontinent heard and witnessed the subversion of the Commune of India, and matched it with the eager eyes of the Delhi Government. War was declared; a holy war, a war blessed by the masses, a war pure and ideological and destined to save India; but whose India, which India, was left vague and ambiguous.

And in all of it, the man who would be Kaiser-i-Hind watched from a palace of wealth and impartiality, knowing that his time would soon come.
Ukraina's boy-king could not control those who kept him captive; and whether he agreed or not with their policies, it mattered little. The Ukrainian steppe brought bread-terror to Mitteleuropan cities, with the price of grains and vegetables rising by the day as Argentina and Ukraine skewered the German eagle.
Even the tiny state of Armenia, complying desperately with with the Ottoman government, only drew itself deeper into nationalism; war being declared shortly after; a war that was 'won' rapidly by Istanbul, but had so inflamed the Armenian spirit that every day saw a new rebellion that all the cruelties of the world could not suppress.
It was in this mess of naked aggression that Otto Ciliax found himself, detained in an airport staffed by the Raj. Thankfully, the Kaiser had approved his transfer to Mittelafrika; he had found himself unable to accept a pension in the AOG, despite the fact that leaving China had felt like a hole drilled in his heart.

A soldier might be loyal to his Emperor, but loyalty can be expressed many ways; and sometimes, after all, the greatest thing a knight can do is to stand down.

… Multiple Anglo-Indian pilots were scurrying by, and he had half the mind to join them, simply ask if they had spare planes that could be commandeered, for glory and honour and a chance to simply be in the sky and forget –

Otto was shaken from his reverie as a man in a brightly-dyed purple turban tapped his shoulder twice.

“You should prepare to leave, I'm afraid. We've taken Nepal, but Calcutta is forward raiding us, and there are rumours that Khan Ungern-Sternberg is going to cross the mountains.”

He couldn't help himself; it was such a ridiculous thought, that Otto laughed.

“Nobody would be – so...”

But the pilot, already turned to leave, had not smiled or laughed in response.

“Sternberg would, wouldn't he...”

Otto whispered, and waited for a response that did not come.

For better or for worse – it was no longer a part of his life; and so sighing, he gathered his kit to him...
And waited for his plane to arrive.
“Can't believe they're falling for it.”

Xianyu had taken to riding a horse across into Mongolian territory; of course, Puyi had cautioned her against it, but...

You could not tell her what to do, or what not to do.
It was why he trusted her, after all.

“How bad are the reports from the occupied cities?”

“Not bad; say what you will, Sternberg isn't an idiot. He knows we're trying to trick him. He'll probably turn back his forces the moment they reach Zhengzhou.”

“We haven't even encountered any resistance yet, have we...”

“Hum.”

Unlike the previous wars the Khan had faced, both sides were rapidly struggling to get into position; there was no time for raiding fields and salting the earth; the Qing Empire was simply too large, too vast; and any battle between the forces of the Khan and the Empire was quickly won by Imperial Forces.

The key, then, was manoeuvre.

Puyi smiled a thin, violent smile.

And after this war, with the Khan taken care of, China would never be subjected to losses in a war of nanoeuvre again.
She had been disappointed with him.

Which – he understood it.
It was not noble or regal or dutiful to let the enemy take cities; even though his guess had been right, so far; and supported by the military establishment.

But they had both known since they were young he was not – any of those things, not fit to be called them – and so he, he must win in his manner; and no matter the cost, he would.

He watched her form retreat until it was vanished, and he was alone; then fell back into the Imperial throne, and let his hand draw a shadow across his face.
Every breath he took seemed shallow, and he knew that if he slept, he might dream; so there would be no rest.

The Empire of the Qing had awoken.

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