A Long-Lasting Dream III: We'll Let You Know

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: II - Pictures Of A City

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

Eastern seaports closed, screamed the headline – every capital letter oozing off of a cheap gothic typeface at odds with the traditional characters which comprised the bulk of the text below.

Xianyu stubbed her cigarette against the table, glad for her solitude. Though the headlines were sensationalist to the extreme, that didn't render them false – unfortunately.

Spiritual President Pelley had mandated that all shipments to the “False Kings and Knifemen” of Europe were to stop, immediately; and though the American State only controlled a thin swath of land on its southernmost border, nobody truly controlled any land in the former territory of the United States – not anymore.

Borders had always been porous things, but perhaps the Americans had believed their state was different; exempt from time because it was more democratic, or more pure.

Xianyu stared at the ash on the table, frowned, and wiped it off.

Then, she saw her visitor arrive, and offered the briefest of rare smiles.

“Ah. Pujie. You look well.”
“We've decided – Chinese names for the children, the boys shall have Jurchen courtesy names, and the girls Japanese ones!”

Pujie didn't just look well – his face was flush, his smile wouldn't leave his face, and he was talking a mile a minute; to be honest, she found it exhausting. But you didn't learn by ushering people away, and she didn't hate his happiness, not entirely.

“Sounds like you're planning a real brood. Puyi'll be afraid you're out to usurp the succession.”

There was a brief moment when they both paused, for many reasons.

“We-ell, ah, did you know that the, uh, it looks as if the Reds in the Great Lakes Corridor shall form their own state, soon. Which is - “

Xianyu did her best not to chuckle at that; the idea of the ancient General Butler forming his own military rump state, allied to the provisional junta of General MacArthur -

“It's not going to be led by Butler.”

He saw her grin, her wolfishness, and cut it off – and his tone was deadly serious.

“Jack Reed has apparently returned.”

… Xianyu lit another cigarette.
The funny thing about totalism was, it didn't actually sound like a coherent ideology. Syndicalism had a million deviations, and it was her job – she considered it her job – to know all of them, all the tiny screws that made people want to accept them.

Most of them weren't too different from anyone else, of course; safety, food, family. Those things.

But, totalism – maybe it had formed in response to the failure of the old monarchies, or the success of regimes like Codreanu's personal dungeon.

The idea that you should sacrifice everything to someone who promised to give you everything, in return...

Well.

Once you had somebody by the throat, and they were happy about it...
“Puyi's been thinking of settling down again, too.”

Outside, the weather was unpleasantly stuck between fog and rain, snow and light. Pujie seemed immune to the cold, and she sometimes wondered if he didn't have the wildest spirit of all of them; masked as it was behind contentedness and good spirits.

“Oh, excellent! My brother, you know – the Emperor should find someone, I should like it if he'd find somebody – someone nice.”

They were both silent, and Xianyu feigned shivering.
She wasn't cold, either; but it was little things like that which made people smile, or laugh; gave them something human to talk about.

And for all his flaws and naivete, she liked Pujie, and wouldn't have him thinking –

“... Same thing is happening, all over the world. I'm – “

“Don't worry about it.”

And she cut him off, quietly, fumbling for another cigarette.

“It's the obligation of the state to protect its own, now more than ever. Hum. Can't let you and your cute Lady Saga feel afraid in your own backyard, can I...”

She trailed off, and bid him farewell, and finished her cigarette – and went to get drinks not long after.
Otto found Xianyu at her usual haunt; unlike the corner club used by ministers of state and Puyi's favoured few, it was – well, it was much like her.

The lighting was dim, and neon.

A lot of young men and women, fashionably dressed in a way that was (to his admittedly German standards) rather scandalous...

And she was slumped over her chair, in a white suit that matched her white gloves, and pretending to be drunk.

“Go away.”

“Afraid I can't, aha! That damn Emperor told me to tell you that the Legion Etranger has stepped up recruiting, so, you know, you can finally depart to darkest Africa!”

One eye opened, then the other. She must have known that he could see through her; and she weighed her options, sat upright, and motioned him into the booth across from her, off-lit and muzzily violet.

“I'm being serious, you know.”
He began, chewing over his words, carefully.

“There's – a lot of talk about such things, if you'd care to leave.”

“Running away isn't in my blood.”

Was her only reply, but she was smiling, at least.

… So. They could discuss business...
It was the 15th of January, and Puyi held the reports in front of them. Civil servants had scoured them carefully, trying to guess his mood and obscuring things that might send him into a pique of anger – ignoring the fact he rarely felt angry reading his reports, and oblivious to the fact that Xianyu and Pujie would deliver the uncensored facts to him, in the end.

First, and perhaps foremost, was the news out of Mongolia; the war with the land of the Ma's had long-since stalled, but if rumour was to be believed, brutality by both the forces of the Lama and the Khan had broken the proud people, and sent them scattering.

… Which was backed up by how many had streamed across the border...

The second, was an invitation. And he loathed it, but it was impossible to ignore; stamped with a royal seal, gaudy, but commanding.

Naturally commanding, in the way he would never be, no matter how hard he tried.

And he would attend, of course.
Perhaps most concerning, however, was the news from the Empire's erstwhile German 'allies' and 'protectors.'

He'd joked not long before with Otto, that perhaps the old man was finally going senile; addled from boat-building projects and too much war, and yet here was the proof that maybe it was so.

Syndicalism, in his own back yard, and the Kaiser claimed at his false court, his 'Weltbund' designed to prevent another Weltkrieg, that all was fine, and that he supported the status quo.

Asia was lost, then; and the Qing were on their own.

The imperial icon of Emperor Kangxi was, like all other such icons, for his personal veneration.
And Puyi was not a pious man.

So he was silent, and thoughtful, and whatever emotions stirred in the mind of the Emperor of All of China, only the dead could say.
“PROST!”

Otto drank deeply, and across from him, Pujie was doing the same. God, but if he'd known that the happier the Emperor's brother got, the more willing he was to drink – and that he was such a lightweight..!

“It's a good match, I think. Their temperaments are amenable, and though I'm surprised that the Kaiser is not a more adventurous sort...”

“Don't tell me, Pujie, you think he married down..?”

Pujie frowned the blush under his glasses making them look slightly dubious as he struggled to articulate his thoughts

“I don't really, I don't believe in that sort of thing. I mean, there's station – but, the Habsburgs have always seemed rather, hrmn, rather open-minded for monarchs of the old-school...”

Otto shrugged, then frowned, and finally scowled at his drink.

“They'll eat you alive at the Weltbund.”
In one swift stroke of the pen, another state fell.

Like the Americans had fallen to their new theocratic state; the Norwegians consigned their king and history in an eye's blink.

And in the dust-riddled High Hall meant to evoke the Holy Roman Empire, a High Hall boycotted by Syndicalist states due to matter of course, resigned from by Spiritual President Pelley due to the 'decadence and immorality of European law', where more chairs were empty than were occupied, Pujie took the seat reserved for Paramount Emissary of the Qing Empire.

The Germans, at least, were courteous; many had studied in China, and just as the Hellenistic classics were experiencing a revival in Chinese circles, so too were the Classics being studied in the Kaiserreich.

It was a mystery to all why the Garda de Fier was in attendance.

Pujie did know their representative, or care to.

But he was allowed to speak, and hold forth, and hold forth he did – for two hours, perhaps expecting some concession, some cowed mewling like the poor bastards they'd been too slow, too distant to save.

… And the room went silent, and the dust filtered through the air, and Prussian nobles were staring at each other, and saying nothing.

A magistrate caught his eye, coughed, and turned away.

“Well, if there is no issue with the requests raised in regards to the Rumanian issue – “

Pujie rose.

“I, in speaking for the five-thousand year Chinese Empire, deign to respond to the representative of the illegitimate Rumanian state.”

And he adjusted his glasses, and began to speak.
Every street was packed; not just with celebrants, for there were still many complaints, even if discontent with the regime was at a terminally low point.

But after the surprising humility showed in his earlier speech, many – both Chinese and foreigner, alike – had arrived to see the much-lauded Emperor of the Qing, whose profile had risen somewhat after his brother's fiery speech against the illegitimate and abusive Iron Guard.

It was, Xianyu conceded, a good speech; but it was all a huge problem.

For in making it, not only had Romania; a vital supplier of oil – grown increasingly hostile to the Qing, but to its German ally.

German diplomats had worked overtime, and she had been approached by several German officers, including a fellow she'd rather liked – another Wilhelm, if it were to be believed – about the possibility of an attempt on Codreanu's life.

And it had sounded a good idea, but domestic concerns were tantamount.
For in the success of their agitation on the continent, rabble-rousers from the Indian Commune were everywhere; and as good, and good-intentioned as Pujie's speech had been, it had also detracted from Puyi's station, and made many wonder why his charismatic brother was not Emperor...

Amongst many other matters.

One of her gendarmes approached, whispering something into her ear, and Xianyu blended back into the crowd, as the liter carrying the Emperor arrived.

It was fortunate – the speech was short, concise, and touched on no issues of importance.

The crowd was satisfied, however, and left convinced that it was the most significant of their lives.
Not long after, Puyi and his brother were sharing drinks against the backdrop of a roaring fire.

It probably wasn't the wisest of decisions, but the Year of the Ox felt – Puyi wanted to feel that it would be auspicious, and that perhaps he could make of it a fresh start.

… His jealousy, he wanted to believe, might burn, too.

“Which is why I'm telling you, no kind of populist devilry will despoil the holy order on our watch, brother! The world looks to China!”

Pujie adjusted his glasses, smiling with his eyes already half humbled by exhaustion, and good cheer.

“Are you already drunk already?”

Puyi couldn't help but laugh, cracking a wide smile at the childish regret on his brother's face.

Maybe that devil Saga had seduced his brother, plied him with liquor –

No. Don't think about that.
Maybe it's what happened though, a long game by the Japanese...

He bit back the thoughts, and turned to the fire once more.
“And how wonderful to see you, my dear friend.”

The Great Prince and Ruler of All India lied warmly, and Puyi knew that it was a lie, but smiled all the same.

“Yes, truly. Great China extends her warmest regards to her eternal neighbor, Bharat.”

His English was awful, and it must have sounded awful, for the Nizam laughed – but Osman Ali Khan was nothing if not a spectacular host, and payed the minor faux pas no heed.

… And the Silver Jubilee was an event like no other.
To describe the opulence and wealth on display would do wealth injustice.

Puyi noticed, for a moment, a woman across one of the many great tables – and she stared at him, and he tried to smile.

It was not the kind of interest he'd meant to express, only for her to be surreptitiously but firmly be drawn away, as an attendant explained that they had not meant to offend him by allowing a lesser daughter of the nobility to catch his eye.

He wasn't sure what to think, and kept trying to smile.
“So.”

Xianyu didn't speak a million words; she left the one hanging in the air, a trap for you if you were not careful.

Not that this was a trap, Puyi reminded himself – but he couldn't disclose all the things he was worried about, and feeling.

Not even with Daiyu, it seemed.

So, the Emperor asked:

“What did the German visitor have to say?”

It was deflection, clumsy as he had been when he was a child; but Xianyu was nothing if not gracious, in her own way.

“Went well. Think we might have a lot in common, me and he. Same bad habits.”

Her smile reassured him.
It was a precious thing, that smile – perhaps a lie, too, but could not a lie be more precious than the truth?
“Of course. Not everything's good. The vultures are circling.”

The 'vultures' in this case were the usual suspects; though the worrying trend amongst them was that these were not tyrants-playing-to-the-people, but other royals, alleged and sincere alike.
And the entirety of the post-war concert of powers was that royalty should not attack royalty, amongst many other such rules, burning as the Weltbund collapsed around them...

“You really, your men think that there'll be a conflict of power against the Ottomans?”

“Hum. Seems certain.”

Xianyu bit her lip, then added –

“Their Sultan of Sultans is old. Not a bad man. Not very good, very adaptive, either. They've been trying to make their people see themselves as Ottoman. Like people here are Chinese.”

And they stared at each other, and Puyi laughed, very quietly.

“... Well, would you pen a letter of my regards and support to the Sultan of Sultans of the Sublime Porte. Tell him that – should the worst come to pass, there are always places for more amongst the Court of the Qing.”

Xianyu had already left when he opened his eyes.
Already, his brother had let himself in – looking...

Looking...
Overnight, the balance of power in Europe had changed.
Viewed as kin to the weak and crumbling Ottoman corpse, the Austrians and their boy-kaiser had seemed doomed to fall to pieces.

Yet their 'Otto' had negotiated strongly and firmly that their renegotiation, or Augsleich, would be a centralised and unifying affair... And surprisingly, the various peoples of his empire had agreed.

And perhaps more surprisingly still, the Emperor had kept his word.

Xianyu had scarcely believed it, and rumour (Pujie's word) had been that her cigarette had fallen to the floor.

(Which was probably worthy of some ancient curse for the disrespect it showed, Puyi mused to himself with a sly smile.)
“And now, all the other little states are going to line up to support the Habsburgs!”

Pujie's history of Ukraina was too complex for Puyi; the idea of a state being (in various forms) a part of a larger commonwealth, an armed camp, a republic of cavalrymen.



“No, stop. Their, hmn, host – that sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it.”

For the second time, Puyi smiled as he spoke.

And his brother returned his grin.

“Well, perhaps they'll be a natural ally, at some point in the future. For now, our good friends the Habsburgs are surely going to help us influence the Kaiser, and keep the old order strong.”

Puyi's smile faded around the edges.
“But I don't understand...”

The Lady Saga muttered, her husband to one side, and Dongzhen – that strange woman, Xianyu – to the other.

She'd been so happy to visit China again; and her husband had assured her that the Austrians were now going to be the kind of people, his kind of people, who would respect the rule of law and the rights of others.

… To be honest, her protests were a lie. One did not survive in the court of the Japanese Empire without seeing humanity for what it was; cruel, and harsh.

But she had hoped, because Pujie hoped.

Hope had a way of being cruel.

“That's just how it is. You can't hold a wolf's hunger against it.”

“Is that your idea of comfort..?”

Despite herself, or perhaps because she secretly appreciated Xianyu's odd sense of humour at this time, Hiro laughed, quietly.

The weight of her husband's hand was comforting, and she wished the news that had brought her here was not so portentious, but...
“Well, ah, that's a good thing! It means we're more likely to be able to avoid – unpleasantness, and...”

As Pujie blustered, Xianyu's face had gone neutral, her eyes blank; and she'd faded into the background far more easily then a woman so brazenly wearing the clothes of men should have any right to do.

“No, don't you see..! If the Emperor is going to look inward, it means nothing but – but what we experience, for the people within, and I...”

Hiro shut her eyes, and felt, rather than saw, her husband's embrace as he fell against her.

“... You aren't just loyal to the Emperor, or your family. Hiro – you are also obliged to the children we'll have. And as your husband – you know, I, I...”

“But what if I have no familial loyalty...”

She couldn't help herself, and smiled just a little at the tittering laughter of her husband.

Her fingers looped around his.

“What are you saying then, Pujie...”

“Move here. With us, in China. That way there's no – problems, and you know, you could even – if your family wanted to...”

And all she could do was tell him that she would think about it, but it was no lie, and he knew.

And his smile gave her strength.
“Well. Old order's dead. Didn't last long.”

Xianyu sulphurously muttered in-between smoke.

“Stop being so damn dour!”

Otto yelled into the clouded air, and and the four of them grew silent.

It was very clear that whatever promises of stability had kept the Kaiserreich alive, it was now a world that was fend-for-yourselves; and despite the promises of demagogues and dreamers the world over, the truth of that world was a very unpleasant place.

“Well. It's the times such as these that an Emperor is more important than ever.”

Puyi began, and surprised himself with how much he meant it.

Otto gave him a supportive nod, and looked about to speak, but...
“And what of the people who cannot protect themselves?”

Pujie was not angry. He was never angry.

It was not anger that drove him.

It was a desire for what was right, and perhaps Puyi realized that was what bothered him –

That he was scared of his own brother.

And the thought made him giggle unpleasantly and aloud, but when he spoke...
“Perhaps they should rue their own misfortunate birth.”

The voice of the Emperor was as cold as ice.
“Damnit! Guh, stupid thing...”

It was not a modern motor-car, though it was very close. And the man leaning over it, perhaps, was not exactly a modern man, either, despite his best attempts to appear otherwise.

“Are you having trouble, sir?”

The man's shoulders froze and he rose to full attention, the grey of his beard looking all the more austere as the gendarmerie surrounded him.
… One of them, of course, was a woman.

“No, please – ah, just car trouble. Hopefully this isn't a, hahaha...”

From underneath the cap she wore that so resembled those he had seen on the rest of them, something dawned on her eyes. She muttered something in one of the European languages, and her compatriots melted away into the spring air.

“Hui... Xizheng.”

“Yes, that's my name.”

His response to Xianyu was cold, but not discourteous...
Though he was increasingly confused, as she laughed.

“Don't look so scared. Come with me.”

“But I – my car – “

“We'll send someone. Don't you know?”

And she fiddled with one of her gloves, looking at something written on the inside of it.

Her frown was unmistakable.

“The Emperor is getting married.”
Despite the fact that it was a holding cell, it was incredibly comfortable.

For one, he truly wasn't being held or investigated for something; and she'd made certain he understood that with the fine cigarettes.

Xizheng didn't smoke, or drink, of course; he considered himself observant, though – less so, now.

“So, you're quite wealthy. And you fled the Mongolian incident.”

“Yes, and yes. My wife didn't make it. My two daughters did...”

“The Emperor is looking for someone – unique. To show his commitment to the people.”

Neither quite met the others' eye; not long ago, the Emperor would have had his pick of concubines, secondary wives; but the German intervention had come with rules, or perhaps Puyi had chosen this, or – but, anyway!

Knitting his brow, Xizheng placed his hands to the table – and frowned.

“Well, what am I here for, then?”

“Good. You're happy enough here that it's all somewhat distant. Guess things fade soon enough.”

And it was, and he felt guilty.
“Don't look so awful. So wretched.”

To his surprise, Xianyu's tone was – too raspy, too forceful to be considered gentle, and yet possessed of a gentility all the same.

Her gaze was somewhat distant and – perhaps this was not about...

What he had imagined...

“Moving on from the awful proves you're alive, after all. So... I suppose neither of your daughters would be interested in an arranged meeting.”

“... No, Lady Dongzhen.”

“Hum. Not often I get spoken to so formally.”

She lit a cigarette, and watched the embers glow.

Unable to contain himself, the memories came flooding back, and he leaned over the cheaply-made Western furniture, crying without knowing why.

“Will you – is there any chance that you'll, that one day there'll be revenge for all of it?!”

The cigarette continued to burn, and she nodded to the air.

“Can't rightly say. But I imagine your motorcar should be fine, by now. Give the Emperor's regards to your daughters.”

“And your regards, Lady Dongzhen?”

She was still laughing, as he left – bemused, uncertain, and unable to shake the scent of smoke.
Otto was staring up at the sky; the clouds were heavy, and they obscured it awfully. There was no wind, and the illusion was created that – if you looked at it long enough – the sky was placid.

But make no mistake.

Today was a storm like any other.

Pujie stepped off the airplane, one of the more modern ones built on new German lines; he looked sick, though – perhaps it was all the crisis, but he seemed undaunted.

Damn, but Otto felt he should've given him more credit...

“Welcome back to China, Pujie. Did the Kaiser – “

“Otto, we tried. Wrangel refuses to sign an anti-syndicalist bloc; he refuses to see Russia pulled into another war, when the menace is right on all of our doorsteps. Damn him...”

“Can you really blame him though?”

He scratched the stubble where he'd let it grow back a bit, trying to avoid the painful razor scars that seemed more frequent these days.

Pujie stared at him, and nodded, eyes fierce.

“Of course I can. This isn't about any one nation, but about the world. And the world is – “

“Same as it's ever been. An awful and terrifying maze, Pujie. It'll devour him, same as you and I in the end.”

And soon the goggles were across his eyes, and the sky had swallowed him up, and whether acknowledgment or confusion had registered on the face of the man so far below, it did not matter to him.
Pujie's report to the Emperor was not delivered by hand, or even by a trusted attendant.

Rather, it was delivered late, after the event that had been termed the Spanish Triangle had already well and truly began.

Not that it mattered to Puyi, for to the Empire of the Qing, Spain was a distant concept halfway across the world.

And whether syndicalism or carlism or monarchism won the day, all that truly mattered was that they were coming.

The Mongolians and the Millenarians and all the little rebels.

He frowned, bit his lip.
Xavier, of all of them, was perhaps the most manageable, if not agreeable. Driven by religion and birthright, and – not being comatose – open to negotiation, he might be the man to deal with.
And yet, the real power was rarely visible; such as with the C.N.T, allegedly an democratic organ of the trade-unions, but in reality the arm and government of Juan Garcia Oliver...

Puyi stared at the maps and papers in front of them, which had grown wet.

He threw them to the floor, and summoned for a servant; the servant arrived quickly, but not so quickly to see anything but the austere face of the Emperor, staring down at them.

“Send to me, my brother.”
Neither man said a word.

Puyi was looking at several of the marriage forms he had been sent; Xianyu's notes on each of them seeming an eternity of terse commentary.

She liked none of them, of course; but that was Daiyu.

He smiled without thinking, and Pujie returned it – and the Emperor was glad, for the millionth time, that she'd protected him.

“I'm – so sorry, I was out of place – “

“Perhaps.”

Puyi responded quickly, not wanting to retort or apologize.

“But, you did have a point. And – “

“You see it, don't you? Puyi! How ridiculous it is, all of it. Why, the man they replaced Goering with, a Paramount Chief of the Africans... He's still using forced labour! Of his own tribe, his own kinsmen! How, how do you justify that...”

“People justify terrible things all the time, brother.”

And Puyi stepped a bit closer, and let his guard down a little more than he liked; but it was too late.

Pujie, at least, never took the chance to drive home a knife; and if he was grateful again, the Emperor might have shown it – this time.
“What do you think about the Spanish cessations?”

It was a topic he felt neutral about; Puyi reasoning that the only thing they depended on from the Nationalist French was cigarettes, experienced emigres to serve as officers, and nostalgic propaganda.

But those were valuable enough, and as always, Pujie lit up at the chance to discuss his matter of expertise.

“Good, actually. We've had a strong relationship with France; and though I feel awful for those living in Tangiers and uncertain about their homeland, I hope that the arrangement works – as, as well as any seem to be working out...”

“Things get better.”

Puyi whispered, and was horrified how young he sounded, and how familiar the words were.

But perhaps Pujie had forgotten them, or never realized their importance, simply smiling.
That damn, undefeatable smile.

“Yes. Brother – I agree, utterly. They have to, don't they..?”
He was scared. Probably little more than a boy, really.
After awhile they all seemed like boys; not men, still too young to understand things, even if they were certain that they understood them.

They all grew awed, too; and that was part of the appeal, she knew well enough.

It was amazing how quickly people's resentment became awe.

But he was truly a boy, truly young; perhaps not even more then fifteen years old.

And he'd fled Burma, through Long Yun's personal fief, and managed to get to the Qing Empire, where he wanted clemency...

Xianyu took a long drag from her cigarette, and stared at his shivering form.

“Easy now. You should be glad you didn't find yourself in the Khanate. They don't like syndicalists, there.”

“Not that you'll suffer us here, either..!”

And he spat out the words, defiant, even though none of her men had roughed him up, and he'd clearly been eating well, at least recently. It made her smile a little, inwardly. What terrifyingly strong animals, men were...

“Hum. Maybe not. But that's the funny thing.”
The youth didn't seem to understand that he was free to go; he kept looking back with fire in his eyes, waiting a foregone martyrdom that wouldn't come.

And she'd wanted to ask him what he felt about the larger world; how he'd feel in five years time, when the stability of the Qing Empire had rubbed off in him; if he'd still be defiant then, in the face of a world where the closest of allies could fall upon each other to fight other scraps.

But she hadn't, instead choosing to lope over to a small bar; and it was easier to find a new one when the mood suited her, so that she wouldn't be followed or recognized, even though always, inevitably, she would.

The soft music of the piano and the flow of one drink, blending into the other, seemed to blur together, one after the other, a mix of every colour save blue...
And fragments of song were as good an oblivion as any.
… And she fell to sleep, and to dreaming.
And the dream was good.

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