A Long-Lasting Dream VIII: Indiscipline

Author: hsiwangmu
Published: 2018-02-20, edited: 2018-02-20
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 VII: The Night Watch

Images: 31, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-02-10

The summer heat had been awful.

He hated it, this foreign land; hated the people, with their easily-ruddied faces, their loud mannerisms, their constant blathering. The endless training and education and discipline, with only a few moments to rest - to reflect.

He hated the birdsong, the fact that he was used to it, that he sought the time by the birds out the window. Hated the fact that the bruises didn't heal up, hated his own weakness.

No, most of all.
Only, in the end.

What he hated...

Puyi sucked back air, and tried to stay awake - knowing that he was supposed to be asleep, but, time had ceased to have meaning.

He wasn't even alive, really; wasn't really living. He was waiting for the next day's routine to start, so that he could continue to fake this - existence, deny everything about himself, so that one day, in the end, it might be worth it for... Someone, maybe - himself...

And he didn't know -

Sometimes, a knock came at the window.
Sometimes, it wasn't birds.

The thrown stone fell back, and he pretended to ignore it, like he always did. Xianyu shimmied up the side of the wall as if the brick had been riddled with convenient handholds; and she looked more suited to the fashion of a young man about town than he ever would.

... He'd asked her, once, how she could simply do it, as she pleased. She'd seem surprised - because for her, it was easy as just doing something, and when she did...

Nobody questioned it.
But he...

"Hey, there, little emperor. You seem glum. But guess what? I brought stuff to eat!"

"... Go away."

Puyi whispered, and rolled over in his sheets.
He'd vomited, earlier in the day - perhaps because the knoutmaster had struck him in the gut for failing his steps, perhaps because of illness - the cause didn't really matter.

Everything still smelled of it, though - of vomit, and blood.

... She didn't care, and began munching on something that, admittedly, smelled delicious, and he didn't... Hate the food, here -

"Go on, you probably haven't eaten, right? Hah, I know, I know... Just go on."

"Stop being so personable. You disgust me."

"Mmn. Wouldn't be the first time I've heard that! Hah!"

Her hearty laughter was so - he might hate her most of all, Puyi decided, because it was unfair. All of it was so terribly unfair, and he - he hated...

But it was a good pastry, and he hadn't eaten.

"... I've finally been getting to the Classics. The real ones, not the crap they spew at us here. I've been reading this incredibly depressing one, aha. Y'know who you remind me of, Puyi?"

"Please. Just get this over with."

But he smiled.
A little.

"There's this - incredible, talented and intelligent young woman, and, well, you remind me a lot of her. That's what I think."

"Of course you... Did something so obscene as to consider me..."

"As for me, who knows. There's a character I relate to a little, but, aha, you'd never guess which one!.."

Puyi's smile fought to restrain itself.
It lost.

"Guess I'll have to read it, then. Someday. It's the - protagonist, isn't it? You're too smart to be easily pinned down, so - "

Xianyu wasn't listening.

Her attentive eyes were watching the treeline out the window, just watching it.
Staring beyond the horizon, at the sky.

Dark as it was, it must have been an unearthly shade of blue.

"So, I can call you Daiyu, then, Puyi?"

"If it makes you happy - "

For some reason, her frown made him shiver.

"... Hey. Puyi. Would you be happier... If we traded places, then..?"
Everything ached.

Life was a kind of suffering that demanded perfection of you, but dreams were a kind of training, too.

And though he'd been mandated bedrest, and - extended a bit beyond what was strictly necessary...

Puyi felt better. A little stronger, a little more certain.
He'd slept dreamlessly, or perhaps his dreams had been unimportant, and trivial; he'd missed the boring trivium of administration, of idle conversations about the minutiae of daily life.

... And, with rest, had come certainty.

He hadn't been meant to die, not yet.

Just at the edge of his vision, he could see them.
Perceive them as if they were as real as anything else.
No - they were.

They must be.

He watched them fade in the dust and emptiness of the palace, his palace...

And inhaled the crisp summer air.
"Xu was a bit of a... I say. It's strange we're having such a large celebration for a man who could've doomed China!"

H.H. Kung's blustering was so unexpected that Pujie had to stifle a laugh. Rarely did the Premier have such strong thoughts, and besides - without Xu, there wouldn't have been a Qing Empire to save, probably.

"I would've taken you to be an admirer of the man, Kung. Surely you can respect anyone juggling so many responsibilities - "

"Aha!"

The quick beam of the Premier as soldiers stepped forward, one after another, flanked by the new armour-units that had been produced...

Had there been orders for so many display officers? He'd have to check his notes, later -

"That's it, you see. It's because he took on so many responsibilities that I had such high hopes for him. People view ambition as dangerous, as well they should, but - it's also a test. The truly ambitious, if they can live up to their... Say, there are a lot of artillery units on parade, aren't there? Goodness..."

Kung trailed off, and all Pujie could do was nod.
... It was then that his brother took the stage.

Puyi had not been scheduled to appear, and probably still needed rest - his various illnesses were worse in the summer months, but - he looked well, oddly well. Almost - happier than Pujie had ever seen him before, with a thin smile that graced his lips.

And it didn't look right, or natural, and Pujie suddenly had the desire to excuse himself - to return to his family -

"... In Germany, right now, there is a race going on. An aviation contest between two great heroes of the air; Luise Hoffman and the famed Manfred von Richthofen."

His brother's whisper strained the ear - and even without aid, you felt it as much as heard it; and where the ears failed, recording equipment did not.

Puyi adjusted his glasses, and held his hand out in front of his face - slowly drawing it closed. As if to steady himself, perhaps to steady himself...

"With a hostile nation on its borders, the German Empire watched eagerly to see which of its heroes would return to her borders, first. Do you know what happened?"

The silence was all-consuming.
"Neither pilot finished. Hoffman disappeared shortly after leaving Daressalam, Richthofen vanished over the open water. May a higher power protect their souls."

Silence is actually audible, though - you can hear the nervous tension, if you listen closely enough.

And slowly, terribly slowly, his brother did something that Pujie did not expect.

He smiled.
"But it is all irrelevant, in the end. All that anticipation, and I believe I am the first in China to tell you - as it should be, as your Emperor. War has been declared, between the nations of Germany and the French Commune."

Near-panic burst out into the crowd -

Silenced by the slight, weak sound of a cough.
Nor was it fake; Pujie could see his brother's shoulders stir, his teeth grit against one another as he sunk his legs into the stage, to draw upon strength...

But his posture held, and the sound demanded respect.

The Emperor spoke.

"We have no need of the depravities of Syndicalism, or the bitter pill of German barbarism. Let us remind you that it was the German who said he would be as a hun; and now, the hated German will face the scourge of God he has so undoubtedly brought upon himself."

Pujie frowned, and tried to make his way through the crowd, but -

Around him, people were smiling. Staring with awe in their eyes. Happier then he'd ever seen people appear to be, by all that was holy, if they'd been judged at face value, they looked happier than he looked with Hiro, what was going on -

"You should - we have to say something..."

Kung began, uncertainly, but it was clear that nothing would be done.

Pujie nodded grimly.

"And we shall. But later. I'm going to go find a cabman. Let's go - I don't imagine he'll be finished, not for awhile. There's - a, a terrible amount we're going to need to discuss..."
"... Hum. Can't wait 'til we get to find out what books she'll like."

They'd gone to seen a performance; during the change in government in the Russian State, several of the religious sects of that nation had fled; Xianyu wasn't familiar with the particulars, but whether they were Muslims, Jews, or questionable Christians, they were all welcome in China -

But the type of performance was interesting, and the rendition of it was peculiar, though, was the character of the despotic tyrant-woman supposed to be sympathetic? Maybe that other Italian had understood it all a bit better -

Huisheng was staying close to her mother, but already had keen, slightly sad eyes. There was something about them that - reminded her of the past, and Xianyu'd already decided that, if it could be helped, she wanted their kid...

Their kids, even, if things went that way, to have long and happy lives.

But Hiro had enjoyed the play immensely, enjoyed the chance to get away from it all; for it seemed the damn moment she'd given birth, people'd dropped in and out of their house, even with a temporary leave of absence to Pujie -
"Xianyu, it's possible that Huisheng won't like literature at all."

"Don't even joke like that..."

Grumbled Xianyu, and hid her smile well.

"I'm not joking. My daughter will learn everything about this world, and hopefully, she'll learn that I don't care what she does in it. Failing that, I wouldn't mind too terribly if she followed in your footsteps - "

"Now, seriously, stop joking around..."

"And became a spectacular woman. Now, where was I joking..?"

Hiro was - this woman was a terrible influence. But - it wasn't the worst thing to hear.

Xianyu'd settled on wearing a dress, for once; people always expected folk to react, but they didn't.
Since she knew that, if you had confidence, you could pretty much do anything in this world...

Her fingers reached reflexively for a cigarette in a pocket that wasn't there, and the dour glare of Hiro, the watery eyes of her kid, and the slightly watered-down glare of an attendant fell upon her all at once.

Ah, damn!... But surely, the day was auspicious.

Felt like, almost...
Felt like...
When one of her men beckoned her aside, the slight enjoyment she'd allowed herself vanished, in the span of seconds.

It was only natural, of course; the world'd gone mad.

But, talking behind the curtains of a theatre like this...

«Montagne. You have anything to smoke?»

«In a ballet theatre? C'mon...»

His nervousness was something else; she wondered if any other Head of the Gendarmerie'd have this sort of status within the organisation; ah, but it didn't matter. Creating a history for yourself...

Felt weird, really.

Montagne handed her a cigarette, and Xianyu lit it glumly.

"War, huh..."

She muttered, and the silence engulfed those two words; terrible in their simplicity.
"... You know. He wasn't such a bad guy. I figure we could've been friends, in another life."

"Really..."

Montagne said, clearly skeptical.
But that was fine - the French might know what it was like to lose a homeland, but to never have truly had one - that was something that only individuals could know.

... Anyway. Didn't matter.

The battle for Taiwan, or Formosa, as it was known to the western world, had already been lost.
Generations of kids had grown up knowing diplomatic and courteous Japanese citizens who were not so different from themselves.

Same as in Korea, really.
And it'd be hard, maybe impossible, to break the familiar and cherished bonds that were present there -

Not without horrific costs, at least.

... Xianyu threw her coat over her dress, having started on her second cigarette.
When Pujie returned the next day, Hiro had half the mind to get him drunk; a cruelty, perhaps, with the constant needs of their daughter, but...

But even still, she'd never seen a man look so defeated as he did in that moment.

So she beckoned him to the table, and held him tightly, and assured him that things would be fine.
... But things weren't fine.

She'd watched Xianyu walk so quickly out of the theatre that there might as well have been a fire, or something worse. And she'd had that hard-head look of utter wretchedness on her face that always warned of something, something terrible, just around the corner.

News came, every day, of a new war cropping up; of new rebellions, some based around something so simple as dialect.

There was no end, and China found herself in the role of a policeman; for at the moment, Germany, who had chosen to look the other way so frequently and so carelessly, had paid the price.

She very much wanted to cry, but -

Well, Huisheng cried enough for all three of them, didn't she..?

"... You were smiling, just then. I could feel it."

"Husband, you can't read minds, you know..."

"Ah! I was right, I - I knew it! Well, I - I'm going to make something for dinner, so..."

"I'll help you. No, I refuse to let you - besides, you have a more important matter to attend to..!"

"How could I forget?!"

Pujie roared (if a roar could be a very quiet thing, taking their daughter and embracing her, tightly.

Yes.

All would be fine.

All would certainly be fine.
The atmosphere at a certain café was thick as smoke, even though nobody was smoking at all.

At the head of the table sat a young man who was also Emperor, his frown stern, but genteel; the kind of man that other men remarked to admiring, for he was surely a trustworthy man.

... The Emperor tapped the table, twice, to draw the attention of those around him.

"I'd like to apologise for being ill. For taking so long to heal. I'm weaker than even I had thought, aha..."

"... Don't joke like that, Baoyu."

"You shall find that I'll joke as I like. And there's no reason to joke at all, not when our attention must be focused on the world stage."

"Brother..."

Pujie began, trying to find his courage.

Yet - his brother did not lash out, nor did his voice hold any of the bitterness that Pujie was...
Unfortunately familiar with.

"Go on. I'm listening."

"It's a bloodbath. I can't see the Germans holding on. The British State is - a nightmare, it'll surely collapse any day. Mosley is a madman, and my contacts amongst his people suggest that it's only his Premier - "

Pujie tittered, nervously, at Kung's shoulders sagging in embarrassment at the idle slip of the tongue; but it had been merely grappling for another word, and nothing more.

"The, ah, analogue to the Premier, that's keeping him in line."

His brother, however, was not laughing.

"... It's terrible. So much blood, over something so stupid as ideology. The Kaiser and the Demagogue probably drink of the same fountain, at the end of the day - madmen, all of them. Someone should... Do something, about it..."

Oh, but how a room could grow silent; and how venomous could silence be.
"So, what does this mean for China? Shall I have to see to it that the Emperor and the Empire remain in our ascendent position, or are the affairs of state in order?"

Kung's nervous clearing of his throat was followed by a few photographs, somewhat poorly taken. Puyi pretended to follow them, to humour him, but it was clear from the glances that Kung and Pujie shot one another that - they understood he was simply humouring them.

...

"It's not so bad for us! War is an excellent, terrible opportunity for profit; and, well, China is the only economy in the world besides Japan, perhaps, that doesn't seem likely to implode on itself. No violence here!"

Kung managed a smile.

Puyi did not quite smile back, but it was similar enough.
"The, ah, real problem is the matter of oil. You've certainly seen how hungry China is for automobiles, and I couldn't help but notice - "

"Oh, the landships? Ignore them. They're for ceremonial purposes."

"... I, well..."

Kung adjusted his bowtie, and stared at the ground for a few moments.

"Very good, very good... Well, so long as the Persians and the Germans are linking arms, we can be a useful aide; and I'd like to invest in Persian oil, if at all possible, if only because it's better than relying on the Iron Guard..."

"Certainly. Your advice has been sound. People rely on you. I rely on you."
There was one person, however, who had been completely silent.

All eyes fell upon her.

With the brim of her cap gathering her own, they might as well have been invisible.

Puyi tried to smile, and gave up soon enough.

"And what about you, Xianyu? Surely you have something to report? As I've overlooked the last failure - "
"Won't happen again."
Silence, only silence, ruled as master of the land; higher than any Emperor that had ever ruled.

But Xianyu sighed, and removed her cap, and set it against the table - gaze thoughtful, and elusive.

"... Lot of things changed, rapidly. Our guys weren't expecting the Portuguese to fold. Maybe we should've let'em keep Macau - "

"Unlikely to have made a difference."

" - but they're gone, now. Might as well be all dead, since Iberia, like Britain, is essentially a dead zone. News doesn't go in, doesn't come out."

"How tragic."

Puyi sighed, and shut his eyes, and embraced the silence, giving all assembled a welcome reprieve -
But only for a moment.

"What else?"
"... Hum. Hard to say. Could be that the opposition in Africa is genuine, could be that it's an attempt to hold onto order in the face of extermination, could be an abuse of power by landholders and the gentry."

"But does it matter?"

"... Everything does, to someone."

"Does it matter to the Emperor, Xianyu?"

"... At the moment, situation is clear."

Puyi bit back his laughter, and interlaced his fingers, one against the other.

"Well - it seems that we're all doing well. I'm quite proud of you - of my cabinet. I realise this has been a stressful time for all of us, but - You represent China, and therefore, you represent me."

He rose, with a surprising ease that belied the lingering pain he felt.

"The doctors have mandated my rest; but I have complete faith in all of you. The next time we talk... I'm looking forward to hearing what has changed, in the world. Ah - and there are other matters, too..."

For a minute, they hung on his every word - and he left, without finishing his thoughts.
... It was a rainy day in September.

Xianyu had heard the news from an agent who'd gone silent not too long after; unlike Pujie's contacts, who could at least claim a degree of neutrality when questioned, hers were more hidden, but more open to punishment, when discovered.

She'd gotten discoverd, and that'd been the end of that.
You couldn't take it personally; that was what her counterpart, Canaris, had implied.
Ah; it would've been fun to match wits with him, but...

That wasn't the world, anymore.

No - the world was something new, something reforged from iron and vitrolic anger and earthly passion, untempered by prudence or - or...

Raindrops fell across the streets in front of her, and she realised she wasn't sure where she was going; only that she needed to keep moving.

It was a feeling she'd had often, recently.

China was orderly, secure, and in good care.
Mmn. There were problems, certainly, but one by one, the worst ones had been cut before they could grow into a real mess.

Just a few more years of peace, that was all that was needed, really...
Because peace wasn't going to come to the rest of the world anytime soon. Might not ever come back; maybe this was all on them, actually. Maybe this truly was - what had the Millenarians posited, that the world was a cage, or a prison...

Rain; the droplets splattering, and footsteps against them.

Counteragents.
That was what she needed to develop.
People to look after him, if something were to sever the rest of them. If either Pujie or her were in trouble, then the rest of it, then...
"Xianyu! You look simply wretched..?!"

"Don't I always?"

Her crooked smile made it clear that was meant to be a joke, but Hiro didn't smile back.

Ah; so she'd come this way, by mistake.

Fiddling with her tie, Xianyu glanced to the side.

"Didn't mean to intrude on you. Just - checking in, I suppose."

"Well, now that you're here, you simply must come in; there were supposed to be some high-minded types from the Russian State, but I think they fled my terrible teeth... Which would mean it might only be the three of us!"

"And Pujie?"

"I could only be so lucky - and so greedy!"

"... Hum."

And it sounded nice. It would be nice to not think about all of this; to not think about anything, ever again. Perhaps that was enlightenment was; just cutting your ability to think cogently out, and letting it dry and wither in the open sun.

...

"Can't. Obligation, duty, and the rest."

"Oh..!"

Pouted HIro, but she'd known the answer before she even asked the question.

Xianyu saluted easily, and continued walking; and the rain continued to fall.
The next few days, the next few months, all were a blur and a vision and an afterimage of violent action.

War fell upon the world like a plague to which there was no cure, all the old alliances either falling apart at the seams, or exposing the same structural flaws that had damned them in the first place.
Puyi, however, had changed. Though it was harder to spend time with him, though it was more difficult to - to look at him, Pujie felt that his brother was doing better.

That - something about having been shot at, having been shot... It might well have, have given him a new lease on life. Perhaps it had encouraged him to - to try harder, to care about things...

Easing his glasses back, Pujie smiled.

Optimism might well be a fool's errand, but the thing about it was that it was also powerful, in ways you couldn't predict.

Inspiring people had a way of inspiring other people, and before you knew it...

"Brother. May I have a moment of your time?"

Pujie stopped, lowering a paper to his desk.

The Emperor had made a - surprisingly abrupt visit to his personal residence, and on such short notice..?

Hiro was out, with their daughter. It was a gentle-weathered day, rainy, but not yet unkind...

"Of course! Do give me a moment; you caught me doing work for you when I'm really supposed to be, aha, taking things easier, Puyi..."

Puyi nodded, and said nothing, simply watching his brother put his things away - then placed a neatly-packaged collection of letters and papers against the workdesk.
His fingers dug through them, and slowly, Pujie's brows furrowed.

"What is - the meaning of this, brother - "

"As your Emperor, I felt you should have the honour of seeing this particular speech before anyone else. I think I'm developing quite a knack for them, brother."

Pujie nodded, and tried to smile.

But it had dissolved from his face.

It wasn't a speech; but a list of demands - for territory, for reparations, and for a great many humiliating and debasing treaties, including a port in the Home Islands of Japan, proper, and a complete military disarmament.

Demands designed to be rejected.

Shaking, and unable to stop himself from the dry shudders, Pujie fell to the desk.

Above him, the Emperor stood.

"I thought you'd be happy; since, at long last, we are going home, again. Which, of course, is why I told you first - brother. Though, in this case..."

Steadying himself, Pujie turned to face his brother; and Puyi was smiling, a smile as thin as razor-wire, tripped along the edge of a knife.

"... It's specifically because you will be delivering this, as well as - well. I'm sure you can imagine my next request."

"But I - I can't, I cannot..."

"And I am ordering you."
A man stood, back raised.
His feet touched against one another sharply.

"Ten thousand years."

Pujie whispered, hoarsely; and shut his eyes.
For if they had been were red, it did not matter.
No, if his face were lined with exhaustion, it did not matter.

"Yes. Ten thousand years."

Replied Puyi; and surely, none of it and nothing mattered, for it was all a debauched, and wicked, dream.

Next chapter:

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