A Long-Lasting Dream IV.V: East of Eden

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 IV: The Devil\'s Triangle

Images: 37, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-01-17, edited: 2018-01-21

The creaking of a thousand boats, from luxury liners to tiny merchant vessels, rattled about the marina.
And the mix of mist and the call of gulls was oddly captivating, too; and Pujie shook a sense of wistfulness away, since there was no time to be a tourist just now.

Mr. McClellan was bobbing towards him, too; more like a humanoid boat than a person, Pujie felt.
McClellan was a diplomat's diplomat, though he looked a little less energized in person; shorter and smaller and less dynamic, but with a focus behind brown eyes – a focus, and a handshake that announced as it took Pujie's own...

“Welcome to San Francisco, Mr. Pujie. Hope you enjoy your stay, here.”
Far too many hills later, they'd arrived at Hughes' current residence; McClellan having informed Pujie that the President of the United States – although, of course, most foreign powers referred to it as the Pacific States – owned many small ranches, test facilities, and airstrips.

Pujie mused that Otto would've been interested at the latter; but for himself, the whole thing felt far too much like a spectacle. In person, McClellan was wasting time, showing off local buildings and showreels and institutes as if each one would be a wonder that Pujie had never laid eyes on; and worse still, Pujie imagined that McClellan knew this to be the case.

So, Pujie smiled and asked politely:

“Why are you spending so much time keeping me away from the President, Mr. McClellan?”

“Aha, well... President Hughes is...”

There were two men with them; big men, stocky types, one looking as if he'd been peeled from white paper and the other seeming as if he'd been carved from a slab of dark granite. They exchanged glances, silently, and Pujie felt rather certain that neither man was being payed enough for their time.

“President Hughes,” McClellan continued -

“He's a very unique individual with a lot of time constraints. We're just giving him a little bit of time to get prepared. It shouldn't be so very long now, you understand...”

And Pujie smiled to let McClellan and his bodyguards know that of course he understood, and it was truly no issue at all;

But he made note of the incident all the same.

They continued to drive aimlessly for perhaps two odd hours, before finally pulling a building they'd passed multiple times; one that roared up to the sky, as if issuing a challenge.
“The view is lovely, isn't. Like a view right out of the heavens above, down to the blessed earth below. Mr. Pujie Aisin-Gioro, god, what a pleasure. What a pleasure! Sit down, sit down. Get yourself some coffee. Hell, have two cups; I don't drink any personally, but, always keep a few for my guests.”

McClellan had abandoned him at the top floor, but Pujie had to agree with the man in front of him; the view was incredible, and somewhat melancholy. San Francisco was it's own little island – and beyond it, not too far beyond, were areas closed off to all and sundry...

Howard Hughes, first president of the United States of America (Pacific Claimant), wheeled on his feet as if he'd detected the slightest hint of sadness, scowling.

Not at Pujie, mind.

Just at the idea, however faint, that somebody in his presence wasn't enjoying life to the fullest.

“Don't tell me – you've already seen this. We sent your guys a postcard, they sent it to you, and I'm wasting your time.”

“You're not wasting my time.”

Pujie answered gratefully, then added –

“I do have a question though. Aren't you too young to be president, by the old rules?”

“Old rules. Old rules, he says! You're a pretty canny guy, let me tell you Pujie, the rules are better now. You know the saying right?”

“No, I'm afraid I don't know the saying.”

“Money buys citizenship, but damn I wouldn't sell that Pelley citizenship if he payed me.”

Hughes stopped for a few brief seconds to allow laughter; Pujie had never been one to chortle suddenly, but it seemed fine, for Hughes plowed onwards irrespective of his guest's reaction.

“Well, mister. Let me tell you, we're just so glad to have China following in our footseps, because you and I all our people – they're gonna be rich. I've got so many plans for our nations, and I, I personally, am glad to have already taken care of all those trade deals – “

Hughes shoved his hands his pocket, removing a small elabourate case. Fumbling for a moment, the president popped it open, freeing a plain white lozenge from the crushed velvet interior.

“ – just a moment, gotta keep my mind sharp. You want one, pal?”

Pujie declined politely, imagining that his brother would've made a comment about several such offers from the British; but thankfully, Puyi was not a diplomat.
Hughes shrugged, and swallowed it with some water, rubbing the droplets from his smile.

“... So let's get RIGHT to business. You wanna see my Linebreakers?”
The linebreakers in question were planes, and impressive ones at that; though quite a few of the beasts appeared to have been dormant for some time. Affixed to the showroom wall was a map with the rough territorial boundaries and claims of the young 'Pacific' States. It reminded Pujie of a lesson in history one of their German tutors had been fond of –

“Okay, so. They're beautiful, and I'd originally wanted to rely on airpower and my private security forces. But as it turns out, that loses wars. Crazy, huh?”

“Mindbogglingly crazy.”

Pujie answered with aplomb, and Hughes scowled at an imaginary enemy.

“Right?! Well, the good news was that there were a lot of guys loyal to the United States around here, and we set up a pretty elite force, heavily mechanised, uh, motorised... Good stuff, fast and powerful. And we've the industry to keep churning out weapons!”

President Hughes rattled off a list of tanks, tractors and plane components; it was clear that he loved everything about his new position, even if it struck Pujie that he referred to it almost as a hobby, more than anything else.

… Finally, President Hughes stopped talking.
The scowl returned.

“So you'll be wanting to know about Pelley's guys too, huh?”
“Nobody expected anyone to kill Huey Long.”

Pujie began; they'd returned to Hughes office after one last (though too-long) diversion by the American president, in which he'd half-detailed and half-marketed his latest long-distance plane (“Still in development! Like a baby gosling!”).

“What do you make of Mr. Pelley's rise to power?”

Hughes shrugged at the question, one trimmed eyebrow raised.

“It's not really a rise to power. Uh, I know that sounds like a lie, or grandstanding, but – it isn't. I can't even tell you what he controls, exactly. There's a line from roughly Riverside – that's a county – to the old capitol, DC, and that's Pelley's land.”

“He seems like a terrible excuse for a human being.”

Said Pujie, smiling, and Hughes went from shocked to laughing riotously in the blink of an eye.

“Damn! Don't miss a beat, do you... Well, yeah. He's a real spitballer, though I imagine I could have a few drinks with him. Of course, he doesn't really control anything, anymore. Just sits up in that meditation lodge, and each of his 'subordinates' has their own little fief to rule over...”

Hughes trailed off, looking blankly at the wall; then flipped what Pujie was beginning to suspect, with increasing bemusement, a strong mint into his half-open jaw.

“So, he doesn't even control all of his territory directly? How does it stay together..?”

And Hughes smiled eerily at his question – a toothy smile, the smile of a shark who smells the first falling blood.

“Sound and light.”
In every territory occupied by the Spiritual State, in every city large enough to be a potential place of recruitment, theatres were raised almost overnight. If the area was too poor to raise one from a mixture of pleading and extortion or nested funds, an amphitheatre was raised, instead.

But it was the cinema halls that were the Spiritual State's pride and joy. Pelley's second-in-command was a young man, Ron Ormond.
A stage magician by trade, Ormond had seen first hand the powers of suggestion, fiery rhetoric, and film; and been headhunted by Pelley after a 'divine trance.'

Now, Ormond controlled most all of the day-to-day aspects of the place, while Pelley spent his entire time in 'pious meditation' to 'harmonize his soul with his ancestors'.

The state itself had no real devotion, terrible morale, and no ability to enforce law on the lands it took over; but the incredible wealth being amassed by Ormond, Pelley, and several of their inner-circle, such as the Ballards, was immense.
“Think of it less like one huge state, and more a bunch of tinier statelets at permanent war with itself, each run by a bandit.”

Pujie grimaced at Hughes explanation, thinking that it wasn't dissimilar to the situation of Long Yun, if Long Yun had held ambitions on all of China; and that was always a possibility.

“I mean – there are actual swathes of land that nobody controls; not the Syndicalist bastards, not the generals' cabal, nobody. The Free Rockies, the Great Lakes Soviet... Patton's Hundred...”

“Er – “

“A general. He's gone crazy, fights anybody who comes near his little slice of middle America. He's crazy happy, the bastard; probably prays that the war'll never end!..”

Since that wasn't an entirely impossible scenario, the conversation tapered off, and after a few minutes, Hughes stood roughly to his feet, and extended his arm. Pujie recognized the cue for what it was, shook it strongly, and turned to leave; catching Hughes wiping it against his trousers while waving animatedly as he glanced back.
Allegedly, the remnants of the United States controlled the lion's share of the territory; but their effective authority diminished the farther you got from Colorado Springs. Their support drew from many different sectors of pre-war society –

You were as likely to find poor southern blacks who'd supported Long in the hope he'd extend the privileges he'd fought tooth and nail for in Louisiana, social democrats who'd been purged from the CSA, urban industrialists who'd been evicted from the Pacific States, and just as many people not aligned to any particular fraction – but trying to stay alive.

The most distinctive feature of the government, however, was that it was composed largely of military personnel. And the constant strain of war had forced the American people to work together, integrating poorer and wealthier citizens, as well as the ethnic minorities America had only recently began to reach out to.

Similarly was the cabinet composed of a diverse mix of political backgrounds and beliefs; outright syndicalist Smedley Butler was present, as was ineffectual showboater MacArthur, who had briefly headed the 'Presidential Triune.'

After such a form of government, largely MacArthur ruling by decree, had proved ineffective and lost ground to the Spiritual State, the chiefs of staff – with Malin Craig as acting head – had formed a temporary government, allowing for some level of civilian democracy.
Craig's state was authoritarian, but generally well-intentioned, if over-extended. It reminded Pujie immensely of the early days after he and his brother had returned; with Puyi overcompensating for the slightest perceived infraction with force.

Fortunately, as he and Xianyu had learned to work with Puyi, and Puyi had learned from them moderation, it seemed that Craig had also learned flexibility as the war raged.

For non-military mandates, civilian elections and administration were allowed; and an efficient office of war intelligence, the IAA, or Internal Affairs Agency, had been set up to process war refugees.

The question was if the United States government in exile could quickly regain its lost land; every day brought the prestige and legitimacy of the federal government a little lower, and people worried of food and their own life were less likely to look upon it as being favourable, or even having truly existed...

Making them in turn more liable to swing to the extreme options available to them, even if those self-same options had made it clear that their life, let alone their livelihood, was of tertiary importance.
Perhaps the greatest ability it had was the ability to rapidly re-integrate terrain when taken, though not so quickly as to avoid issues with rebellions and bandits, ever the menace to stability... Well-intentioned or no.

“S'cuse me, mister. You waiting for anybody?”

“Not particularly.”

Pujie replied politely, uncertain as to why the rather scruffy-looking man who had approached him was looking at him so intently.

Courtesy had taught him to always apprise somebody of the potential to be a friend, at best, or a useful piece, at worst; and caution had taught him to not reveal too much, too readily.

Whatever odd appraisement the young man had been going through, it seemed he was satisfied with Pujie's answer, lighting a cigarette and going silent. As Pujie waited for the car to fetch him to the evening's hostel, the man spoke again, quietly.

“They treating you right, Chinaman?”

“Oh, naturally.”

Pujie offered, and the man frowned, shaking his head.

“Hey. You don't have to be so coy, you can be level with me, pal. Damn if I want to see that scumsucker Hughes messing with a man like you, with any men like you.”

“Does President Hughes often mess with people like me?”

Pujie returned, glad that no matter how he felt, he was unable to harness his brother's dry tone.
The man to his side knit his brow even further, nodding as if his head might bob from his shoulders.

“Oh, pal. You're foreign, I get it. New here. Well... Let me tell you what it's like where the government doesn't hate you. Let me tell you about Jack Reed.”
Unsolicited, his new friend spilled out his heart to Pujie; talking in great detail about the idyllic life the Combined Syndicates offered workers. Banksters had been driven out, and any foreign man could find himself a better life, a purer existence.

Tiny beads of sweat trickled down his face as he spoke; the man had stopped expecting anything from Pujie, having apparently retreated to a mixture of treasured memories and desperate fantasy.

Despite their differences in belief, Pujie began to grow worried – for so sincere, so total was the stranger's feverish rambling, that it seemed almost –

Almost...

“... We've driven out all the banksters, the moneylenders, oh! Brother, all the vanguards of the bad ways are gone, and it's a beautiful place, a utopia for workingmen like you and me...”

Pujie's gaze narrowed, masked by his glasses.

“I must be off, I'm afraid; but thank you for the stimulating discussion.”

The man's facade vanished in a second, even as Pujie gratefully waved towards the black car trundling towards them.

“Hey! You mean to say you aren't interested? C'mon, pal! I'm not telling you this just for the sake of it – don't you turn your back on me..!”

But his expression looked pleased as Pujie left, which wasn't surprising.

After all, everybody knew how many labour spies Mr. Howard Hughes had employed before becoming President of the western United States...

The hotel he arrived at was of the imposing imperial style so favoured in the United States; but forlorn as it was, separated by so many struggles from similar buildings so close, and yet so far, it felt almost more lonely than ground; and Pujie was one of it's few occupants.

… He found himself unable to rest easily, that evening, with the moon full and the stars bright above; and so unable to rest, he wrote letters to Hiro throughout the night.
“I've got your report on the Entente. You won't like it.”

Xianyu began, and the report in question fell against the table, which shook under the weight.

Puyi's grimace indicated that he already agreed with her, but the Emperor steeled himself and flipped to the first page, then the second.

Slowly, his half-anger faded, replaced with idle curiousity.

“Good heavens, Daiyu... This Edward is truly, ahaha...”

“I'm not really one to laugh at another man's oddities.”

Xianyu laughed, half-smiling.

“He really does though. Hum. And the man might yet be the best fit for our aspirations...”

Despite his initial reservations, Puyi continued to thumb through the papers, and tried to portion out the man beyond the mask.
For his own experiences and his intellect told him that there must be some greater meaning to the image Edward VIII portrayed.

But increasingly it became clear that same man delivering the radio speeches was the same man with the lavish parties, grandiose expenditures, and relative disdain for his adopted country.
… At the least, Puyi mused with a smirk, his devotion to his wife seemed properly pious...
But the greatest strength of the Emperor was not necessarily himself, but the fact the Empire extended beyond him. Xianyu's report told of peoples from all the corners of the far-flung and fractured Entente who continued to support it, no matter their own struggles.

Their devotion was – at once – confusing as it was heartwarming.
He couldn't say that it made him feel jealous, exactly; the circumstances were different enough that they were confusing more than analogous.

Yet – for so many to sacrifice so much, for a goal that effected so few of them...
It was either loyalty or madness, or perhaps both.

“A few of the people I've talked to suggest that His Majesty might be aiming to strike Germany first. While everybody else is doing it. Depends on how quickly the French integrate Romandie, I suspect.”

“D'you think they'll integrate it at all, Xianyu? I cannot imagine people so used to democracy would so quickly yield to tyranny...”

Both paused, and both laughed.

“Well. Depends. Berlin isn't biting yet, though. Both sides are staring. Guess we'll see who blinks.”

Puyi forced himself to stop laughing at her response, to stop smiling, and to continue reading.
The rest of the report was devoted almost entirely to the less rosy state of affairs in the National French State. Though led by a war hero, Marechal Pétain, a hero is not the same thing as a monarch – and the authority and legitimacy of the French banner wavered.

First had been the regrettable affair of the expulsion of Franco-Jewish citizenry, which had left the Turks, Italians, and Germans looking stronger by comparison; followed by the failure of a new airline, the rumours of fifth-columnists leaking vital intelligence to the syndicalists of the near shore, and all else...

Puyi sighed, and considered risking a cigarette.
But with all things remaining constant, they might end up being a luxury sooner, rather than later; so he settled for one of the awful and unfiltered little blasphemies Xianyu had wordlessly proferred.

… It was a mistake.

Coughing, Puyi gave her a frown that would've sent a tiger cowering; but as Xianyu was a wolf, all she did was look unrepentantly neutral.

As he tried to bite down bitter tobacco, Puyi noticed something that caught his eyes, jabbing at one of the images.

“Who is that man?”
As it turned out, the man was Admiral Darlan; a man fighting for his very political survival against increasingly untenable odds...

And in spite of it all, winning.

Xianyu clenched her teeth, and stubbed her cigarette against the photo.

“He's a liability. Due to the Irish refusal, National France is the closest springboard the Entente has in their little fantasy war. So, Darlan. Darlan's constantly refusing any attempt to provoke the 'other French' up north...”

Puyi nodded grimly.

“Which means that he's unpopular with the rest of the alliance, but has a strong following amongst those who know the reality of what they're up against. Unlucky bastard.”

“I wouldn't have too much sympathy for him.”

Xianyu murmured, and he decided not to press it further.
… He trusted her judgment of character, after all.

But then...

“So, the Entente is largely useless to us?”

“At this juncture. Though Delhi might be more useful to us than the Nizam, at this rate...”
The issue of Delhi was a delicate one.

On the one hand, the very fact that the British had managed to maintain their tenuous grip on the populace, and not only survive, but thrive – that indicated that they might well be on track to unite the region.

But on the other, Delhi was a foreign power, a rightful monarch threading knife-like fibres through the plains of northern India; and the ghastly marionette held together was as independent as any other puppet.

… Puyi decided against another cigarette.

“You know, it's distasteful. And of course, I'd prefer not to. But Edward does seem to have a lot of support these days, doesn't he?”

“Hum. Support is a funny thing; it ebbs and flows, like the tides. No need to integrate yourself too quickly, Baoyu. Let's let them make their own mistakes, first.”

Xianyu chuckled quietly, and he decided not to press the issue; after all, the first possible mistake had already been made; the matter of Nepal, and its independence.
Opportunism had allowed the Nepalese to overextend their reach, though the last few years had seen them playing a dangerous game of appeasement between syndicalist-aligned (but independent) agitators, and monarchist-aligned (but independent) traditionalists.

Every party desired to remain neutral, but impose it's own view of society; so the state had persevered somewhat harmoniously.

“Changed quickly enough when the Raj figured the Commune was smuggling in arms. They sent a warning, the Nepalese ignored it. Commune declares war.”

They had reconvened in what had once been a sumptuous room for guests or state functionaries; he had not know, given his return to the Emperor had come long after it had been abandoned. And though many had been hoping he would allow for the many ministers and plenipotentiaries to return...

A crack of the billiard-cue cut through her words, and he grit his teeth.
He couldn't even strike correctly, could he –

“... Nice shot.”

Xianyu chortled, and Puyi was forced to concede his anger, for the moment.
As the forces of the Raj had swept through Nepal – much like he had failed to sweep a winning round of billiards – there had been a quickly drafted agreement; lands considered part of the traditional Indian sub-condominium would be returned to Anglo-Indian rule, and the Nepalese would be a semi-autonomous vassal of the Canadians.

… Which had, somehow, caused the Commune to stop mobilizing, their own forces having only advanced into a sparse few Nepalese cities and vales.
It had been – at the end – rather anticlimactic a truce, leaving both sides looking the weaker.

Perhaps, he mused, the benefit had been for the people of the subcontinent; but the people nevertheless still craved war, and war they would have.

“You've got that face again.”

Xianyu murmured, from where she was burnishing her cue.

“I'm just jealous you're better at this than I am! The Emperor should be allowed a complimentary win!”

“Hum. I'm pretty fond of billiards. Sorry.”

She said, unapologetically, and they chuckled – and he let the matter of politics drop, for now. He would read the rest of the report later, after he'd cleared his thoughts somewhat...
Later, the night had swept in unannounced, leaving Xianyu feeling somewhat restless.

She'd read somewhere that the more you slept, the less you were aware of your own death; it was one of the many bits of nonsense they'd yet to fully suppress from the millenarians, but it had stuck with her.

Not because she felt at all unaware of her own death, mind.

She got dressed quietly; choosing to leave her cap against the bureau; it was night, the mood was jubilant in spite – or perhaps even because – of the ongoing Mongolian conflict, and even if she had been recognized, it would not matter.

And the night air felt good and cool against the nape of her neck as she found herself in one of the bars still proudly catering to foreigners; the scent of smoke and the blurring thrum of tinny music a pleasant obliteration of the senses.

“... Xianyu?”
To her surprise, she had been recognized; though perhaps, Xianyu mused, it was fate.

“Ah. Hiro. What are you doing out late at night?”

“I couldn't sleep. I had the strangest dream – it was a little like an out-of-body experience, haha!”

She felt certain that Hiro's laughter was one of the little things that'd won Pujie over. It was quiet enough to encourage you, to warm your heart, to convince you that you were not alone; and yet there was a hint of something else to it; not just warm, but welcoming, and...

Xianyu shrugged, and withdrew a cigarette easily from her breast pocket.

“Try me. I'm not very superstitious, but I listen well.”

She threw the half-truth to the grainy atmosphere, and Hiro latched onto it; having navigated through it and sitting next to her.

Xianyu realized she was still smoking, and used it as a pretext to sit across from her, chuckling quietly to herself at Hiro's raised eyebrow – though the latter did not dwell on it.

“I – I thought my husband was worried about me, and then I found myself in the streets of Berlin...”
Hiro's story quickly went from the plausible to the bizarre, and despite that fact – or once again, because of it – Xianyu found herself all too captivated by it.

The comfortably smoky air was all the more throttling, and by the moment, she began to look for polite excuses away from the conversation...

But at the same time, she couldn't merely leave.

After all – Pujie's wife was lonely, and if there was anything she could understand...

“... Bicycles, hundreds of them; and the Kaiser himself was present. He said they'd invade Holland; he said they'd invaded Britain; he said they'd invade China! It was the strangest dream!”

“Well. Doesn't sound that strange.”

Hiro's lips twisted in a half-pout, and Xianyu laughed against her better judgment.

“It was! There was none of that awful dream logic, like when your face begins to melt, or the knuckles of your hands turn white-hot, and...”

Both women went silent for a moment, and the reassuring anonymity returned, along with two mugs; one of green tea, and the other, barley; Xianyu having heard from one of the gendarmerie that barley tea was good for ladies who might be looking to have a child; or at least, so his wife had said...
So, the topic turned to safe things; like war.

Like most everyone, Hiro seemed quite unconcerned about the Mad Khan, seeing him as but the whetstone against which China's blade would be honed before an eventual confrontation with...

Whomever.

Xianyu frowned, masked by smoke, and ran her fingers through her hair.
She should've worn the cap. Kept things official –

“Do you think they'll come up through the cities, then? Maybe – a blockade!? Ah, but we could, hmn, perhaps – naval mines!”

… It took her awhile, staring straight at Hiro's mischievous smile, to realize the other woman was joking; and when the joke hit her, Xianyu continued to laugh until she felt she might cry;

but there worse things.
Like every night stroll, it ended up feeling surreal; like something you'd tell somebody about, only for them to doubt it had ever happened; and they'd traversed an incredible swath of Beijing, to the point where Xianyu – halfway through her nightmarish headache – had sworn they'd navigated most all the city, and daylight had come out.

It hadn't, of course, but it'd been fun. Hiro, being a marvelous conversationalist, had discussed at great length her theories on 'naval warfare' which, unfortunately, were likely to be of little use to the development of a mighty Imperial Navy.

… But they were pleasant. She was pleasant.

“I'm scared.”

Hiro admitted, to the sky above.

Without thinking, Xianyu shot it a glance; but it was dark and murky black, with no blue in sight.

“... Hum.”

She offered in reply, then frowned.

“Don't be. America isn't such a bad place, not yet. He'll be back soon.”

“But that's not what scares me.”

Hiro's response was barely a murmur, and she did not talk for the remainder of the somber walk to her estates.
After a courteous, but curt, farwell, Xianyu was left alone with her thoughts – once more.

The idea of a German-Russian war had not been unimaginable to her, followed by what could only be described as a thousand baying dogs lunging for their piece, but it remained distant.

Despite Puyi's admiration for Baron Wrangel, the man was holding together a barely functional state; and from discussions she'd had with military command, it was not impossible that the Qing themselves could win, or at least survive, a war of attrition with them.

What, though, would be the fate of China if it was seen to the world as just another hungry dog; and for that matter, who would then lunge for their neck, in turn...

As always, the Forbidden City remained quiet as she crept into it; in practice, it had been forbidden before, but now it was truly empty – and could it even be called a city, when it was more accurately a mausoleum..?

The last few minutes she spent awake, were spent staring at the ceiling.
Her worries did not leave her, and she could think of no good answer to her questions –
But she was alone, at least, and for that, she was...
Puyi knew his brother had returned because the palace was alive; Pujie, his brother's wife and Xianyu, were having a lively conversation that had transformed into a kind of picnic in one of the many sections of royal gardens as he walked by; and though he did not know how best to deal with his brother's exuberant manner...

“Good to see you've returned unscathed from your encounter with President Hughes. I trust the Americans were receptive to our offer of support?”

Puyi announced brusquely, and his brother stopped in mid-sentence, beaming cheerfully.

“Ah, good to see you, too, brother! Just a moment, I actually brought some things back from you; a picture of this man, who I am told is a real Comanche Chief, this map of the Portuguese claims to Mittelafrika – “

If the Emperor was faintly amused at the bravery of the Portuguese, he did not show it.

“ – and, of course! These rather fetching American cigarettes! Well, allegedly American. I have some theories about Mr. Hughes and his America, but – “

“Hum. I don't really think you got the whole picture on your travels, Pujie.”

Xianyu snorted through a cloud of smoke, as Puyi gratefully accepted his brother's rightful tribute.

It was all slightly off-kilter stuff; much like his brother, of course.
But – it wasn't the worst thing to have, was it...

“So. What were you all discussing?”

Asked Puyi, and the three exchanged unreadable glances.
So returned the conversation to the matter of war.

It wasn't unnatural, of course; war was as much a part of the world as any other thing. Peace was a rearming in between war; and war, a blessing as much as a curse, painted the world red.

Puyi kept his expression steady, maintained, austere – all through force of will alone.

“The war plans shall proceed as the planners have kept them. An inflexible front will soon cut off the poorly trained Mongolian chaff from supply, and they shall starve even as they are in lands richer than they deserve.”

Xianyu rose abruptly, adjusted her tie, and gave a curt nod before leaving.

Pujie's smile withered, slightly, but did not fade – even as his wife seemed torn between anger, and concern.

… Sighing, Puyi placed his head into his hands.

“Do not question me on this matter. The swift defeat of Mongolia outweighs any cost. Elsewise, the Russians will sweep in, and greater plans will be untenable!”

He hated how petulant it sounded; even thought it was true.
Opportunity ruled the world – and those who did not seize it, would be preyed upon themselves.

They all knew that – must know that, didn't they know it...
Rezukhin sat outside, polishing his knives.
Unlike many in Urga, the Khan continued to live in a Yurt in the traditional manner.

Legend said that it was the greatest yurt; that it was the size of a palace, and that perhaps the settlement of Urga had even been named for it; as ridiculous that was.
And the legends also said it was austere, like the Khan himself.

Legends said a lot of things.

Rezukhin spat on his favourite knife, and let the spittle fall to the ground below before striking it again.

He could hear the familiar chiming nothings that preceded the arrival of one of the other of the Khan's most important guests; the secondary spiritual emissary, the Bogd Khan.

Rezukhin spat again, so he would resist the urge to do so when the filthy devil showed his face.

At the corner of his gaze, the rest of the dregs were arising.

The scars against his fingers itched; it was time.
“The Khan is not present.”

Intoned the Bogd Khan, and Dr. Klingenberg made an awful, tittering and high-pitched sound that could have charitably been called a laugh.
He began rambling rapidly in German, and Rezukhin contemplated strangling him.

No, if he did, then one of them would kill him. And he could not die yet.

“Continuing, the Khan has spoken and said that the march will continue until a thousand fires burn in a million Chinese homes. Then, the Khanate shall march on, to Teheran.”

It was ridiculous, Rezukhin thought.

He hadn't seen meat in months, outside of horsemeat, and trail meat.
And here they were, pretending that – it just might... It could...

Drunkenly, he laughed as well, laughed until he cried, laughed until he felt he might vomit, did vomit; and as he helplessly retched without a single strand of proof, a gong rang as loud as thunder, and all assembled froze in fear.

“The Khan has arrived.”

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