A Long-Lasting Dream: I - The Sheltering Sky

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

"January, 1936.

The scene - a certain café, hidden from prying eyes, where a young man has retreated from his nagging wife of some years, to discuss matters of vital importance with his trusted acquaintances - "

Behind a plume of smoke - enough, perhaps, to match his bluster - the German air marshall of the Qing Emperor burst into laughter at the dour, frowning young man to his side.
And the young man spoke, curtly and with no trace of accent to his tone:

"Verdammt, Otto! She hasn't been my, my wife for five years, now; you should show more respect for your emperor - "

"I've only one emperor, the sky; but I respect you more than her."

The first speaker, an older man who would've fit finely into the military fabric of the Kaiserreich, was Otto Ciliax; and though his somewhat weathered smile was impish, his tone had adapted a sudden and inflexible devotion.

As to the second, the man not yet thirty years of age, smoking the National French cigarettes so fashionable as a symbol of those monarchs still reigning -

He was Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, and ruler of the much-diminished Qing Empire.
The three assembled - for there were three, and waiting for a fourth - shifted, the third amongst them resting her shoes atop the table. It would've been considered unfathomably rude in the careful, court manners of the Qing; but then again, in this particular place, such manners might as well not exist.

"Where's Pujie, anyway. Can't imagine he's wasting time trying to mooch up to a Japanese..."

Her whispered voice trailed off, the emphasis saying what she did not.

"Ah, Xianyu. Please be more cautious. It'd be just like my brother to stroll on in when we're talking poorly of him."

Chastised the Emperor, though his tone didn't quite match the slightness of his smile.

"Hum. Wasn't talking poorly of him. Really of her, more like."

Xianyu, for that was her name, tugged irritably at the collar of her uniform; it, too, was German - as Otto's, and a men's uniform beside. Very few could understand his childhood acquaintance, let alone humour her - but Puyi had trouble imagining her any other way.

"Hiro isn't bad, not like Augusta."

Otto offered through a cloud of smoke - and as if on cue, they all inhaled; Puyi from his fashionable cigarettes, and Xianyu from the dirt-cheap smokes she bought by the bulk from the crumbling Russian state.
"Ah, but my brother had the luxury of not being set-up with an older German."

If resentment flickered across the face of the young Emperor as he spoke, it passed just as quickly.
His companions shot each other careful looks, and it would've been hard to tell who was more difficult to read, the roguishly well-heeled pilot, or the sullen and curt young Minister of the Interior.

"Don't look so glum, please - I didn't mean to be - to be crass."

Puyi mumbled, sighed, and speared some interchangeable western dessert with his fork.

It had always happened; this game of control between his allies, his enemies, and the foreign powers that would use him as nothing more than the cheapest of tools.

... But no longer.

"So, about what I called you here for..."
The new year started with a strange freneticism that not even those stationed in the German garrisons to the south had expected; the shy, somewhat socially awkward and uncertain Puyi -

A man that had all but felt like an elabourate doll, crafted for the Kaiser's delight, had shattered himself and reformed into a man driven - though to what purpose, none could readily say.

His 'court' - staffed with an unwieldy mix of backstabbers, powermongers, childhood friends and the odd German air ace - was constantly at its own throat, and privately, a cable sent to the Kaiserreich all but made clear that it was expected that Germany would soon have to prop up the Middle Kingdom, again.
Beijing was in the middle of transition; a flux of German merchants, Russian-Franco refuges, Japanese traders, and various lost souls had began to lend the city a cosmopolitaine character, and yet its ancient charms seemed stronger than ever. A new sense of purpose had began to emanate from the northern capital; and it whispered of a China that might yet be centre of, if not the world, its own destiny.
"Chanzhou. Why."

Xianyu started, bluntly.

The map on the table was one of several Puyi had brought with him; he had commissioned them to show the current Qing-controlled areas from a tactical perspective, only to find that the German company involved had somewhat crudely mass-produced them, with several noticeable defects.

... Not that it mattered, truly.

Adjusting his glasses and sighing, the Emperor smiled enigmatically.

"Why do you think, Daiyu?"

Puyi said, under his breath, and the two shared a chuckle;
Puyi's laughter quiet, and reserved, and that of Xianyu coarse and sincere. Otto wasn't sure what was so funny; for all his time present, Puyi's relationship to Xianyu still confused him.

Inseparable even during their German education, neither seemed to truly respect one another - in the Prussian sense, perhaps. Or perhaps (damnitall) they simply respected one another in a way all their own -

"Sorry I'm late, everyone. I was seeing dear Hiro off at the station!"
Pujie was everything his brother was not - outgoing, easy-keeled and a friend to all who knew him. Of course he could be gripped by the same melancholies that all the Imperial Family seemed to share; but he bore them better, more honestly, and for the longest of times, many had spoken of how he would be a more suitable heir to the throne.

It was telling that though Otto smiled broadly, and Xianyu flashed a crooked grin from beneath her officer's cap, if Puyi smiled - it was a wan smile indeed.

"Let me make up for the lost time with some good news. In return for some minor monetary concessions, German industry is more than willing to help us get the leg back up, brother!"

Pujie announced with a broad beam.

"How wonderful."

Puyi replied, conversationally, and then smiled.
"Furthermore, I've gone and laid out the beginning of what I think is a truly sensible plan for development; of course, we can't truly afford the industry to develop our cities along German lines, but..."

As Pujie began to ramp up his pitch, he was cut off by Xianyu's hoarse reply.

"... That's stupid. We'll all be dead before any of this is done."

She announced, and Pujie's face fell.
Otto stifled a laugh, and scratched at the scar against his right cheek, before chiming in.

"She's right, you know. Not that you shouldn't start industrializing; we're going to need to move quickly, after all. Just - maybe tone down your excitement, little prince."

Pujie shrugged, unfazed. Perhaps this was why, even with their rivalry, Puyi kept him around; and all four laughed, and the redrawing of lines and factories and imaginary borders on maps grew increasingly distorted within the smoke, and the following flowing liquors...
It wasn't long after that day that proved so fateful, that the first of many revelations shook the world.

Russia, always a juggernaut at war with itself, had collapsed with the assassination of President Kerensky.

The well-heeled and pragmatic Baron Wrangel had seized control of state, hoping to navigate through the worst of the crisis; and perhaps, if fortune proved kind, restore the rightful autocrat.
Russia, of course, was a danger - with eyes towards China and beyond.

"But you still think he's workable. Wrangel."

Xianyu asked, tone making it clear that she did not.

"Of course he's workable; the man is nothing if not honourable. Unlike that wretch in Mongolia!"

And the smug surety of Puyi's tone was almost a laugh.
Two pairs of feet walked through a solemn imperial hall. The first thing Puyi had done upon cutting strings with his German handlers had been to then cut off the eager strings of more domestic puppeteers.
It was a lonely hall they shared, and so Puyi preferred it.

... As to the Mongolian wretch, he was in fact a Russian, of German extraction - and quite mad, or at least a convincing pretender to madness.

"Just imagine. We strike a deal with the Russians, their cavalry cut through the north, we take the south, and Mongolia - "

It was rare for him to grow excited, excitable, and her one word cut through it in an instant.

"Baoyu."

The first pair of feet fell silent, then the second.
Xianyu seldom smiled, and she was not smiling now.

"Now is not the time for dreams."
"... Now is the time for action, and we're all glad to be - to be, uh..."

Puyi winced, and screamed in the shelter of his mind as Yuan Shikkai's useless former president continued to mumble platitudes. The populace, however, was as content to hear platitudes as plans, perhaps even more so.

Or, perhaps, it was simply easier to accept anything, if it was from an ethnic Han..?

Xu Shichang's rambling speech ended, and the masses burst into applause. They praised the new year, a new empire, and new reforms.
They laughed and cheered, while to the north, rumours spread that the vicious right-hand man of the Mongolian 'khan' had killed twenty-eight Chinese traders, for no discernible reason.

Puyi stood roughly to his feet, rising from the liter, and clapped.
He clapped louder than any of his subjects; and it was an incredible break from tradition that left the crowd shocked, but was it not a new cycle, and was not Puyi a monarch of the new school..?
"World's gone mad."

Otto grinned, having cut himself shaving again.
He and the Emperor were watching the small, backwards Qing airforce attempting to do pirouettes in the sky.
Though the planes themselves were near-defunct, the pilots had iron wills and decent motor controls, and Otto felt strongly that even if you didn't have the one, the other was fairly important -

"And which viper do you think will strike first, Otto?"

Puyi seemed uninterested in the planes above - but he was.
For the Emperor had an interest in everything, and just hid it, as well as any man might.

"Hard to say. If you ask me though, it's probably safe not to worry about Romania. I mean, they're a little far away!"

But Otto didn't laugh quite as much this time.
For the subject of the 'Iron Guard' did very little to induce laughter.
Propellers whirled down as the planes landed in green-brown fields around them...
It was supposed to be a simple speech, about those left behind by industrialization and how this year, things would be different. That he was a new monarch, and would do things in a new way.
Pujie had written it himself, knowing that his brother was not one for pageantry.

He had been shocked from the very beginning, then, from the moment Puyi had let his carefully prepared speech flutter into the wind, to the moment that the crowds had cleared - wandering off as in a daze, or a dream.

"My reign has not yet brought you prosperity. I am sorry."

And the Emperor had bowed low, and the courtiers had been too shocked to panic.

The candid words of the Emperor rang with regret, and self-incrimination that might easily have led the crowd to abandon him, if he did not constantly return to the subject of hope; that he might better serve and represent his people, and make things right, and better - and to Pujie's surprise...

At the end, the crowd cheered.
What future was his brother inviting...

He saw Xianyu, slinking from behind the stage; and whatever scheme the two of them were hatching, he - he felt...
"That's certainly an interesting setup you've got there."

"Stop peering over my shoulder, Xianyu!"
Sniffing, Xianyu derisively 'hummed' and looked at the dossiers held by the Emperor himself.
... Despite her impropriety, his hand yielded readily enough.
"Not enough. No way these'll deal with the rabble. Should've stole those German tanks."

"Otto - and I! - wouldn't have forgiven you."

"Hum."
Stretching, Xianyu adjusted her cap and walked off.
It was clear that Puyi had much more he wanted to say; he always did. It was funny, for how taciturn a guy he was, suddenly he was all words the moment he trusted you -
Not that she didn't relate, outside of the whole talking part of it...
But a perfectly sunny February day couldn't be perfect, could it?
Pulling the brim of her cap over her eyes, Xianyu gave a curt nod at the elabourately dressed lady in front of her, followed by an entire court's worth of contemporaries.

... Was kind of funny, really. And her tongue tasted her teeth for a minute, and Xianyu bit back her words.

"Good to see you, Lady Saga. Seems you traveled well."

"Oh, but Dongzhen! It has been far too long!"

"Has it, now."

She didn't hate Hiro; the Japanese were a menace, but perhaps a preferable one to the encroaching hordes of superstitious populists, rabid syndicalists, syndicalist populists, and rabid... Rabid...
Her feet tapped irritably against the dirt.

"I mean to say. You're always welcome here. I'm sure that you'll be expected to meet Xu Shichang..."

"Ah..."

For a minute, exasperation flooded across the carefully drawn face of the foreign noble, and for that same minute, Xianyu felt a rush of pity.

"But I'm sure he's probably stealing money or something. Go on. I think I saw Pujie around the garden."

And the relief on Hiro's face was almost as amusing as the fact that her entourage had remained carefully quiet and neutral the entirety of the time they'd spoken.
"And then... Then Goering says..."

Pujie laughed, and poured himself another glass of wine. It was bitter stuff, plum-flavoured and - like all such classy things - imported. Both himself and the Emperor dreamed of the day that it was Chinese goods that spoke of nobility - but that day would not arrive for some time... For some time yet.

Hiro was laughing at him, and his poor tolerance of alcohol; but she always did. For such an immaculately presented lady, how on earth could she tolerate liquor so well..!?

"Are you really so interested in some foreign noble..."

"Only the one, actually."

They said nothing, for awhile. Then he snickered.

"But, but the Kaiser looked like this - "

And Pujie imitated Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, in all his red-faced glory, and Hiro burst into laughter, and the evening faded on.
It was fairly frightening how quickly the mood changed.
Jubilation over the new year had transformed into rage, or concealed it - and soon the iron-clad velvet of the German corporate state had fallen under attack.

... Puyi hated von Falkenhausen and all he represented, even as he could not help but respect the man himself. And though the Board of Directors had been shocked - they refused to budge, building back the Head Office as if the attack (a vicious, ugly, affair that had threatened to spread into an even greater conflagration) had never happened.

At the least - it was something he might learn from.
"Sensible man, Hoover."

Xianyu announced, and Otto raised an eyebrow, smirking.

"But the American's have freedom of speech, missy. Don't you think Coughlin deserved to have his voice heard?"

Otto chortled, arm shaking a little as he fired a round at the distant targets. Steady in the air and unsteady on the ground - the curse of an ace, he figured.

Xianyu didn't respond for some time; not out of cruelty, he knew. She was just like that. Her own shot went wide, then the second hit its mark quite well. A pity she was a woman, he mused.

"Freedom's just an excuse the loudest use to muzzle the quietest. Way I see it."

Funny, how you had to strain your ears to hear her, and it felt impossible not to hear her, all the same.

"Don't tell me you're one of those Gumindang people now, Xianyu!"

His crummy pronunciation elicited a quiet laugh, and though he often wished he had a better relationship with the Emperor's... Eyes? Ears?

The Emperor's warden -

It seemed as if she enjoyed his presence enough.

"Not really. Just figure that he's another symptom of democracy."

That, at least, they could both agree on.
Silence reigned, disturbed only by the occasional shock of gunfire.
Refugees poured across the border in a near-constant stream; it had seemed impossible for there to be so many, and yet...

Pujie kept trying to reassure them, and yet there was nothing they could do.

Wrangel had refused to respond to his requests for a guarantee that an intervention would not be seen as a step into the Russian 'sphere', the Germans did not care, and his brother...

Well, he'd never been able to read his brother.

Many of the refugees had been mangled - left alive, but with a limb missing, or twisted.

There was no reason.

And given how many were Mongolian as were westerners, it seemed the pointless and inefficient cruelty of the mad Khan spared no-one, not even those who swore to him their allegiance...
"PEACE! LIBERTY! RICE!"

The crowd chanted, though it was a small crowd, and not directed to the palace itself.

"Could work on their slogans, couldn't they."

Xianyu mumbled, and Puyi tried to look impartial... Even as he nodded his agreement.

"It's strange - they'll talk about their desire for democracy and representation, and then cast in their lot with Ungern-Sternberg or the Millenarians, or - or anyone who gives them the time of day. What on earth could possess people to be so stupid..!"

His fist clenched, even as her disarming and slightly mocking chuckle made him feel foolish.

"Easy there, Baoyu."

Grinning as she responded, Xianyu stifled a yawn.

"... Probably it's what happens when you've got no monarch to deflect the blame on."

"Is that so..."

"Could be so."

The crowd continued to chant, then dispersed almost as quickly as it had formed - eagerly plucking at taels... Marks, Puyi corrected himself, dispensed by the newly-arrived Xu Shichang.
"Did you know, the Union of Britain has allowed women to fight? Crazy, absolute madness!"

Otto began, pounding his meaty fist against the hardwood table. Smoke drifted by them in droves, and the three men shot glances at their fourth companion, who simply raised an eyebrow.

"Don't know why you're looking at me. Women fighting... That's ridiculous."

And if Xianyu smiled, it was a very lean smile indeed.

"We-ell, there are some animals, in a natural environment, that - Hiro was telling me - "

Pujie's face, red from the one drink he'd had, grew a deeper crimson still as he spoke.

"Brother..."

The Emperor began, as disarmingly as he might - but Pujie's brow furrowed, and he carried on.

"It's true, though! Like, lions! Lionesses, you see..."

Swearing in German, Otto excused himself, and Pujie continued on - undaunted.

Despite himself, Puyi found himself amused - if only by his brother's unflagging enthusiasm...

Ah, and his love.

... It wasn't the worst thing to know that your brother had found someone he cared for.

Shortly thereafter, Puyi excused himself, as well.
Rumours soon began to flood in that something awful was brewing in the south; that the German companies of the AOG were having financial troubles for some reason; that to the east, a great deal of political warfare was going on, and to the west, that the Canal - lifeblood for Chinese trade, even diminished as the Qing Empire was - might be a tempting target for a new, fearsome bloc...
But, no news was so bad as to cancel the Olympics; and here, Puyi, Emperor of the Qing, allowed himself a slight amount of enthusiasm - for, being somewhat introverted and unathletic, he had nevertheless been awed by the German gymnasium system; it's focus on the aesthetic and sportsmanlike qualities instilling a love for competition that he was all-too-glad to see spreading amongst the people of China, as well.

Why - it was not impossible that the Qing delegation might even win a medal, perhaps even gold!

Unfortunately, it was at times like these that Otto, usually such a stalwart companion, grew fiercely loyal to Bier und Kaiser, and conversations with the airman usually resulted in head-ache inducing stories about how he could've been an incredible athlete, if only just -
" - Just as you know, the nations of the West have daunted China. I too have been daunted by the West. I share your humiliation, but also your pride. For there are so many amazing things we have created, and are yet to create. Not only that, but just as we have shown that China may compete with the other powers of the world, we too will one day be seen as equals - and allies, and friends.

And as your Emperor, I also speak to you a promise that the steel that will grow on our soil now will bring to you the result of all the reforms that did not succeed; and when we are done with them, we will continue to reform, not just for the sake of it - but so that we may also find our place amongst the sun."

The German delegation had taken notes, he noticed.
But of course they would - he'd had Xianyu take careful notes of the Kaiser's, after all.
There was no surprise that the revanchist anti-Ottoman powers of the axis had banded together; but it was worrying, all the same.

Every monarch that picked another apart destabilized the world that much further; and Puyi had seen what happened when that instability grew out of hand.

Not long ago, the Qing had been dubbed the Ill Empire of the Far East.

Perhaps, once those desert vultures had rent the corpse of the Ottomans asunder, others would descend for him..?
"Brother - I'm sorry. I don't know what to tell you."

Pujie stared up at his brother, expression the practiced neutrality of a career diplomat.

"We can't let them go. I won't let them go..!"

Puyi felt his fingers grow white-hot, and the loneliness of the palace made him feel strong. From this chair - this throne, he seethed - his brother looked so much smaller, and twisted in the dark.

"von Falkenhausen says there's nothing to be done; and we, there's no money to - "

"Print currency, then. I know Shichang's been embezzling for ages, anyway. What's a little more?"

"Brother - please...!"

"..."

Puyi shut his eyes, and bit back the words he wanted to say.

"See it done."
Pujie was conspicuously absent the next time they met at the corner club.

Otto felt a deep sense of unease gnawing away at him; but that was just how these things went. Brothers fought, aha, and -

Suddenly, Puyi burst into a wide smile.

"I met the most incredible man, the other day. I think we might yet pull through this, somehow."

"A-herr? Well, that's certainly good news! So, another German then - "

Otto's joke was uneasy, but misfire or no, seemed to further defuse some of the tension.

Puyi's brow knit, and he conceded a nod.

"... Not entirely off the mark."

Puyi took a drag at his cigarette, and Otto followed suit.
Xianyu watched the two of them - then chuckled, raspily.

"Hum. I imagine at this rate, we'll beat the treaty ports at their own game. But this..."

And Puyi rose from his seat, expression fierce.

"I've, I've said it before, Xianyu. Competition, openness, and freedom of markets - freedom of information; these things ensure prosperity. Prosperity ensures competition, and with that controlled competition comes stability! There is nothing on earth that can shake my determination. I - "
"Umh."

"... Hum."
Despite the uncertainty of the lowest and highest classes to the relaxing of tariffs and trade fees, the middle-classes had excitedly began to not only import foreign goods... But foreign expertise. Chinese Industry was growing by the day, and when he next saw Pujie, his brother had recovered his usual spirits. Pujie's mouth flapped open, and he could already see an apology forming -

"Don't. The road of the Emperor is harsh. I made a decision. In this case, it was right."

A moment passed, and neither brother spoke.
Then, Pujie grinned.

"True, true. Let's hope that it continues this way, for a thousand years!"

"Well, I'd settle for fifty..."

Puyi muttered dryly, as his brother unfurled a cavalcade of technical reports - all pleasing to the eye.
And so the mid-year fell upon Beijing, and Puyi beheld the world, and China's place in it.
... And he fell to sleep, and to dreaming.
And the dream was good.

Next chapter:

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A Long-Lasting Dream: II - Pictures Of A City

Images: 31, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-01-17, edited: 2018-01-21

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