A Long-Lasting Dream V: Starless and Bible Black

Author: hsiwangmu
Published: 2018-01-27, edited: 2018-01-27
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.V: East of Eden

Images: 28, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-01-17, edited: 2018-01-21

There was a certain cafè that, allegedly, the Empire of the Qing favoured; a certain cafè that, if you were (in turn) favoured by the Emperor, it might be possible to give advice to the man, himself -

But, if you asked H. H. Kung, who was leaving quite happily, still smiling a little at the thought of how good the half-cakes in that western style had been, none of that was quite as important as the fact that the Emperor himself had good taste, and listened well.

What a surprise that had been, and how fortunate for himself!

He still wanted to hum a little bit, for good conversation, and the idea of doing good - of doing righteously for the people - had him feeling, if not ebullient...

Well, perhaps H. H. Kung was always ebullient.

It took him a few tries to start his car as he placed the magazines and papers and books and models he'd brought with him inside, one after the other -

So he was quite surprised when the car sputtered, and made a sadly underwhelming wheeze, and exploded in shards of hot iron and petrol.
"Another attempt, on a member of MY men..."

Puyi fumed.

His footsteps against the empty floor spoke as those of a man ten time as tall, and echoed around the dust and gloom. Xianyu kept careful match with him, watching but saying little.

... After all, his moods would pass, as they always did.

"What on earth were the gendarmerie doing - no, don't. Do not tell me. It was a surprise. Probably rebels. Syndicalists - the khan..."

Xianyu pursed her lips, and said nothing.

From where he was seated against a long table, Premier Kung gave a nervous, but encouraging smile that pulled at the corners of his moustache.

"Listen here, it's all quite fine. It's to be expected that there people are dissatisfied with my policies - and it's only the third time. I'm fine, so please don't - "

"... So I'm supposed to accept that it's fine, for you, and wait for them to come for me..."

Puyi whispered, venemously, and went silent - before slowly shutting his eyes, and sighing.

"Tell the presses to report that, then. That everything is - fine. No. Dai - Xianyu. Please redact that, and let the press report this matter in full."

Even wounded, the Premier nodded at that, and Xianyu couldn't help but wonder how he maintained such a sincere smile.

"... Hum."
Across the world, it wasn't only the old order that had broken down, but the new - and even countries that might as well have been brothers, with nary a difference in the eyes of China, were brought to blows.

Despite the fact that the Premier had shrugged off the third attempt on his life as if it had been some - minor and unfortunate occurrence - she knew the truth of it.

Fires, once started, die only for lack of oxygen.

Perhaps this one would go on, until...

"No. China will not accept this affront to her interests. You will re-instate civil liberties - "

Pujie's whirlwind tour had left him exhausted, but in its own way, it was invigorating. Unlike America, India was a familiar arena, and the interests of the Princely Federation no great mystery.

With resurgent power, and his own growing station, it was possible to - though he did not particularly care for it - threaten, and insinuate, and...

Should the worst occur...

Provide some small measure of hope for those who grew afraid in the shadow of their own homes.

His brother, of course, had been - bemused, at best, at the idea of allowing in refugees from both the Commune and the Princely Federation, but - so long as they would work for the Qing, they were part of it.

And so China grew strong.
Strong enough that not only had the war effort gone from phantasm to phantasm, but - no longer was the war itself discussed...

But the terrible predations that the Khan of All Mongolia must have.

"I hear," he'd heard in the whisper of a housewife, "that the Khan has two hundred legions of cavalrymen, waiting to charge on us..!"

"Ah, no, certainly not! He - instead, there are mines, all throughout the steppe and desert, and they..."

Pujie sighed as he returned home, and it was only the sight of his wife - of Hiro, that could bring a smile back to his face.
"Husband... You aren't allowed to show weakness in front of our firstborn, you know."

"Ah, but I'm not showing weakness! If you'd believe the way my brother frowns, this is - actually a kind of strength."

The small smirk made it clear - he hoped? - that he was joking, but even if he...

Hadn't been joking, entirely...

She laughed, and how graceful the laughter was.

Pregnancy was a frightening thing - more for him, apparently, then for her. But he feared every moment he spent away from home, now, even though no trip had been as draining as his time in America.

Brushing his glasses up against his face, Pujie gave a soft smile, and took her hand - Hiro sitting aside him with an unmatched gracefulness.

"You know - it isn't all so bad. And it isn't all your duty, husband. If it were, after all, I'd have to follow you into battle, myself - "

"Heavens, no! Though I have a feeling you'd destroy the opposition, it'd be a bit unfair... To them, wouldn't you say?"

She smiled, and stared at the paper, and smiled a bit more softly, still.
"You know - I've been talking with Xianyu, more often. She - I think I've had quite the wrong read of her."

"She's - a tricky one."

Pujie answered as diplomatically as he could, but his grin brought out another of Hiro's half-snorted fits of giggling, which she never even pretended to hide in his presence - unless she did, of course.

How fortunate he was -

"I think she's just very cautious. How on earth did you turn out so well, husband..?"

"Hah, saying that I turned out well is like saying that a man with a blessed life has conquered misfortune. It's been no trouble at all, really."

They stared at each other, and he knew that she knew far more - but that, too, was fine.

"... I rather hope we can visit Tokyo, soon. When - "

"Even if my brother forbade it, we'd go. And he won't. I - I do know it, Hiro!.."

"And I know you know it!"

Her eyes twinkled, but she said no more - and the fact that she smiled so dearly was enough for him.
"On the subject of language... I swear, Kung's head is screwed on wrong, Daiyu. Trying to codify languages is the task for scholars, not ministers - "

"Mmn, well. You have to remember that Kung is a scholar, and an academician, and an economist. He has a lot of time."

Xianyu had been - busy, recently.

It wasn't the duty of the gendarmerie to oversee the shifting terrain of the current Mongolian incident, but - she left, and then returned, and left again.

He probably could've, probably should've ordered her to restrain herself, but - there had been more pressing matters on his mind.

Xianyu frowned, fidgeted, glanced at the papers and ash in front of them, and lit another cigarette.
If she smirked at the fact that ash covered most of them, he feigned that he didn't notice.

"You should be more thoughtful. The Emperor is expected to rule All of China."

"And all under heaven."

"... Mmn."

The pause hung, like smoke.

"You cannot rule people who won't listen to you. Perhaps that'll be my 'canon.' Hum."

She smiled, glumly, and excused herself without another word.
"Well, brother, it's a bit more complex then that. The Arabian-Iranian... Er, the... Aegyptian-Lybian-Iranian... The..."

Two brothers, meeting in a hall strewn with ghostly ash, shared a pause as only siblings can; two pairs of glasses, one worn and yet quite well-loved, and the other sporting a notable, yet unacknowledged crack, removed for a moment's shine.

"Pujie. I swear, if another country joins that - ridiculous axis, I shall sever ties with the lot of them."

"Brother - we, it's absolute that we keep an eye on the canal zone. I know you understand this, but - "

"... Do not presume to know me."

Puyi turned his back to his brother, and sat back in his throne. How reassuring it was, like a sickbed or a cellar or a cage -

Giving his temple one last massage, the Emperor sighed, and smiled wanly.

"Sorry. Language issues, the matter of - dissidents, and now this. Tell Lybia that our congratulations are in order, and as ever, the Imperial Palace will await their diplomats."

Pujie smiled, and as always - all was forgiven.

As always.

As ever.

...

Puyi's fingernails dug into wood, and he said nothing at all.
"The time of cults is ended; and the time of despots and false claimants. China will soon stand whole again, and that means we must avoid shattering peace, and replacing it with despotism."

Now, the new and austere 'New Year' festivities had become rote. People were accustomed to the military-accented grandeur that Puyi favoured - accustomed, but not bored, for pageantry was more eternal than any monarch - or so he thought, restraining himself from grimacing.

Instead, his fingers tapped at his side.

One, two, one, two.
A method for keeping order, and keeping calm.

"We, who seek prosperity, and to expand our rule, do not seek to do so by elimination, nor annexation, but by the hand of providence - by fate, and the good will of heaven, restoring order to all that lies under the open sky. Our dream is peace, and stability; our majesty, the approval of the Chinese people. We listen, and you speak - you toil, and we thrive."

No longer did some puppet dispense marks to the crowd; nor was there anyone focused on anyone but himself.

And Puyi -

Puyi...

"Ten thousand years."

He whispered, and yet it came out loud, and strong, like he had always been ready for this role - had been born for it.

And the crowd roared, and clapped, and he bade his chauffeur take him home, for illness did not retreat even from Emperors.
"The Kaiser doesn't want peace. Don't know why. He's got everything, that man. Had it. Guess he got bored."

When Pujie was out on business, Xianyu had taken it on herself - without permission, of course, even if it was somewhat of a breach of familial discipline - to check in on Hiro.

This was - entirely unnecessary, as the Lady S - Lady Hiro kept an incredibly vibrant social life, even lightly pregnant as she was, but...

Maybe it was the fear of shadows that operated beyond her own, or perhaps it was simply the joy of being able to talk of the Classics, or - if she were very honest, Xianyu thought with a broad smirk -

Perhaps she'd finally figured out what it was like to be lonely.
"Mmn, well - that man fills me with a terrible desire for pomegranates!.."

Hiro begin with her own, cat-like smile -

And Xianyu had no idea what she talking about, quickly hiding her confusion under the brim of her cap. Hiro stared, and her grin only widened, and she leaned over the table, head against her steepled fingers - before carefully taking a seat.

She was - truly elegant, Xianyu thought, and adjusted her hat again.

"Kishimojin! Ah, maybe you're not familiar, I'm reaching a bit, but - "

"Oh - Ah. I should've suspected as much. Wolves and man-eaters get along well enough, after all. Pity you quit the habit."

"Well, once I caught the man I was looking for, I had no desire for the rest of it! Ah, but - I do appreciate it, Xianyu."

"... Hum. You know, it really isn't any trouble at all. I - it's nice. Spending time with you."

And - she meant it, and if that made Xianyu smile, and it felt - surreal, to her, so it was, and so it was fine.
She considered lighting a cigarette, but - as much as it pained her terribly, there'd been rumour that cigarette smoke made children ill-tempered and disruptive.

Not that she was superstitious, of course, but it was better to err on the side of caution.

Xianyu glanced over the candle-lit table, ruffling her hair, thoughtfully.

"Part of it is - I don't... Not really one to talk much."

"Is anyone? Truly?"

They both laughed, and once again, she was - surprised.

Who was this woman, who was so at ease with so many, so easily?

Perhaps - she was a demon, then.
Or - something.

... Right.
"Gonna be gone for a bit. It's gonna be a secret. I didn't want to tell anyone."

"Not even the Emperor?"

Her surprise, this time, was genuine, and Xianyu nodded - pulling her cap low, so that it hid her eyes entirely.

"... Mmn."

"Well - I, I don't know what to say, Xianyu. But I hope that it - that you aren't taking on more than you're capable of, or - "

"Gonna be fine. It's a matter of national security, so it's under my jurisdiction."

"Aha, that's a rather broad view of - "

"Your security, your husband's security, the security of the Emperor and the Empire. All of it. That's my job. And at the moment - "

... She'd almost slipped.

Her words, and her sweat, hung nervously in the air like invisible fireflies, and Xianyu prayed that Hiro neither noticed nor cared; but she did notice, and did care...

While having the good grace to feign ignorance.

And Xianyu wanted to say something more, but that was all that she'd been able to say, and even that had been a struggle.

She rose, gave a stiff salute, and left - her shadow fading more slowly than her presence ever had.
The sun hung overhead, bloated and cannibalistic.

It devoured itself as it stretched in all directions, on the cloudless sky.

But it was still greedy, still hungered for more - would never be satisfied until it had devoured all it might yet touch. And when that, too, had been consumed, as morsels fell from its lips and stained the pockmarked surface, then it might sink red fangs into orange flesh, and eat -

Until there was nothing left, at all.

Cold light, and cold weather, and the haze of fire; all prayed to the sun - but as the armies of the Qing marched, they found no sign of their elusive enemies, as if they were ghosts...

As if they had never existed at all.
"Where is Xianyu."

It was the third time he had asked, and it was not a question.

Puyi shook with rage, but it was a familiar, powerless rage. Pujie and Kung had sat at either sides of his table, and were sharing nervous glances at one another, but -

"This... Treason, this - conspiracy, to sabotage my reign... A petition. You tell me that a petition, after all I've done - after we've come so far..."

"You don't have to sign it, brother - "

"Of course I do! You don't understand, they'll - the people want... The people..."

Damn it.
Damn it.
Damn it...

Puyi felt the familiar shaking coming on, but gave no effort to hide it; he felt like fainting, felt like vomiting, felt like crying, felt like doing - something, anything, just to lash out, but -

... His fingers balled into fists, and fell against the table, and his head soon followed.

When he raised his brow, he had returned to the state of careful neutrality that served him best - for the Emperor must never show weakness, nor emotion, nor care.

"If I do this, the - disturbances should stop, I think. For the moment. In the long term, too, it must be for the best. I could NOT run - the Empire is run on discipline, and through the civil service. To discredit it, is to lose our divine right."

"Puyi..."

His brother began, looking concerned -

And Puyi wanted to strike him, to wring that false sympathy, that ugly pity, to kill it from his face -

"You know, mmn, well - it's not my place to say, really..."

Premier Kung surprised both of them, the fourth attempt having done nothing to dampen his spirits; though the surprisingly re-inforced housing he kept might have had a say in that matter.

His fingers played with his trademark thin moustache, and he smiled, just a little.

"... I think you're looking at this wrong. You aren't abdicating your powers. No, not at all. I don't know if you're familiar with the - "

"The Classics, yes."

Puyi scowled, but - opened one hand, and bade his Premier continue.
"Humanity on its own has no moral compass, for good or ill. Thus, when a man sees another man acting in good faith, he is moved to good - and so for bad, as well. When a man who is Emperor will move bravely..."

Kung cleared his throat, and his eyes shone.

"Well! You seem to think that the people are out to get us. The way I see it, there are always people left behind. And you know? That isn't fair. Isn't right! But we don't help those people by giving into them. We help them - by giving them something to reach for."

Puyi shut his eyes.

He - wasn't sure what to think.

But he nodded, once, then again.

"... We will think on this matter. For now, please leave us be. There is - so much to do, and I - "

He shook again, and Pujie helped him to his feet, unbidden.
As Pujie and Hsiang-hsi left, the Premier sighed dramatically and slipped a cigar from his pocket, eyes still mischievous and full of mirth.

"Merciful God, but I feared I'd messed up, there. Your brother is quite a man, isn't he?"

"He truly is."

Pujie replied, and made sure the smile betrayed no sorrow at all.

"But with this madness in Mittelafrika, and our investments in the subcontinent going so - terribly, I feel we're going to need to earn some goodwill! Which, ah, you seem to be the man to ask about - "

At that, Pujie couldn't help but feel a little colour return to his cheek, a slight smile to his lips -

"Well, I - I do try, you know. I don't agree about leading by example, because I don't... People aren't innately immoral, I don't think - "

"Oh!? Heavens above, no wonder you aren't the Emperor, then!"

Premier Kung laughed, through a cloud of smoke - but it was a good-natured laugh, that soon launched into a flurry of excited talk about this and that trade deal, with neither strings nor expectation.

If, in that smoke, concern was hidden, it was no business of his.
H. H. Kung's desk was riddled with magazines, almost all foreign. Not just Anglo-American, of course, for he read avidly; but all manner of publication, new and old.

One had listed Puyi as the world's most eligible bachelor, though the picture included - with the Emperor's trademark half-frowning scowl, certainly did little to appeal to the, aha, eligible bachelorettes of the world!

Laughing quietly while cleaning the bandages on his hand - an accident, probably not some other - miscreant, probably...

The Premier paused, flipped through a publication, and then again.

It might have struck others in his social class as rather peculiar, but he didn't have any deep hatred of syndicalism. Indeed, the idea of it wasn't - terrible, exactly, so much as the way it disregarded social order, but -

His eyes forced themselves over it, again.

"What a terribly unlucky fellow. Probably not important."

And the cover, depicting a man much diminished, was hidden underneath another, which depicted a man with a truly elabourate moustache and a caring smile, the cover of which may have read -

VICTORY IN THE SPHERE OF BRITAIN, AS...
"Oh? So isolationism comes to a swift and rather merciful end!"

Pujie had been in good spirits, as of late. The projects he had embarked on with the Premier - a lovely man, a bit head-in-the-clouds, but... Perhaps not always so foolish, she thought...

Well.

Hiro smiled from where she had been fiddling with the.... Germy-noodle, or however it was, that her husband had made. It was good, of course, but - she hadn't the heart to tell him she'd already eaten in his absence.

"I'd hoped it would turn out like this. I suppose it must make me fortunate - since it means we'll get to visit Tokyo again, before long!.."
"Well - don't get too excited, wife. I fear for my sanity, given that I hear that some - occult expedition of some kind embarked upon the very mountains of madness themselves - "

She laughed, assuming this was some sort of hyperbole or joke, but - Pujie's bitter frown slowly ate away at her laughter, and she knit her brows against one another.

"I - what on earth do you mean?"

"The Kaiser must - I don't know what he's thinking. Some expedition left to Tibet. They - were asking the most ridiculous things. Heritage, ah, language... Salacious, ermn, details..."

"In occupied Tibet."

"In occupied Tibet."

She tittered, nervously.

Pujie removed his glasses, and set them against the table.

"Some of the expedition returned, I hear. The Khan's men didn't get them, in the end - apparently, some starved, and others - went mad, apparently lack of oxygen. I - have no clue what possessed them to, what on earth is he thinking..."

Without a pause, she placed herself behind him, and embraced her husband, gently.

"It isn't your place to concern yourself with these things. And certainly, the future will be..."
"... The future favours war."

Puyi whispered, and the various generals shot each other nervous glances.

Almost all were ethnically Chinese - or, it was perhaps more accurate to say, anything but ethnically Manchu. The Jurchen people were in decline, of course - had been, ever since the turn of the century, if not before.

Even as the court had grown accustomed to the managed democracy of the Imperial Palace, all it would take was a moment's weakness to allow the vultures to seize upon it.

Yuan Shikai had been birthed from weakness.
Therefore, weakness must die, strangled in the same cradle in which it was borne.

Puyi paced, and the boots felt uneasy. He was not suited for this.

Since he, too, was weak.
"When, eventually, the time is right, we must consider all nations to be our enemies. Those who are our allies, we reward; but all the land of China must be united. If not in my time, in some future time, in - "

No longer was he speaking to them, since he had dismissed them without further briefing - but when the pain came over him especially strongly, it helped just to speak.

To say - sounds, for the purpose of hearing his own voice.

So, that, if his vision left, he knew he was present.

... Where the hell was Xianyu...

Coughing, he tried to fumble for his glasses.
And he knew there was light, in the palace, but could not see them, so he went silent, and dreamed of conquest.
Dreams, however, were never simply dreams.

Stunned, Puyi looked at the report and quickly hid his surprise.

"Well, so it is! Apparently, we've already got the Khan on the run, if you can believe it! And there are reports that - well, we haven't had a significant battle since January!"

Premier Kung beamed, positively beamed, and radiated confidence.

Nodding, weakly, Puyi rubbed at his temple, and sat back down in the booth.

Though Kung was welcome here, for the moment, at least - and Hiro had proven a good counsel, though neither her nor her husband were present...

He waited, for a cough, or a wheeze - a sound.

Frowning, and realising he'd frowned, he quickly smiled.

"Yes. How auspicious. I cannot believe how powerful and magnificent our armed forces our."

And he thanked all of heaven that the Premier was too jolly a fellow to notice his acerbic tone.
But despite his suspicions, tension had seemed to - drop, a little bit, for a brief moment.

Though harsh, the German peace had been maintained - and despite bluster from the Commune, the French did not truly want to start another great war.

It was hardly as if the Qing had any obligations, but the idea of fighting against fronts in the far west - it was ridiculous. No, the ridiculous of these - demagogues, these pretenders, these men with no station, were...

"Puyi, I say, Puyi - are you all right?"

He nodded, weakly, and forced a smile.

"I'm terribly sorry, Premier. I feel as if I've been out of my own mind, recently. Not enough bedrest, I suppose. Hah."

"Yes, aha, ha..."

H. H. Kung stared at him, concern all-too-visible behind his thick glasses.
But he forced it from his eyes, in the end, and offered a paternal smile.

"Well, but even Emperor's must know their limitations. You know, for gout - "

"I don't have gout!"

Puyi burst out with a laugh, and his Premier smiled at him.

"Ah, well, there you are! Already a little better, aren't you?"

...

"I - I suppose I am."
Across the dry expanse of steppe, the forward brigade marched.

It was allegedly meant only for reconnaissance, and yet it had marched for perhaps a month, combing all across inhabited and uninhabited steppe, taiga, and desert.

Of course, she felt home, here - for this was home.
But it was a surprise, even still, when they finally found him. Not a single battle, not a single charge, not some profound defence - but, simply staring at the ground.

He was neither raving nor mad, not some giant with a sabre that cut through truth and lies, not a westerner with a throne of skulls.

Merely a man, staring at the still-warm corpse of what had once been one of his most fearsome subordinates.

Roman von Ungern-Sternberg stared up at them, and held out his arms.

"I suppose this is the end, then. Behold, the Great Khan of All Mongolia."
The two of them strode - she'd offered him a cigarette, but it turned out that the Khan did not smoke, though he asked about opium, should they have it.

When she'd implied they had none - a lie, for there were a few painkillers they'd brought - he nodded, with a sad and withdrawn frown, only hidden by his beard.

"So it is. I never thought it would go quite like this. Perhaps the third division will..."
It occurred to her for the second hour of their conversation that he was just a man, and in the third, that with all the mystery plied away...

Everything about him was rather sad. Perhaps - pitiable.
Perhaps -

"We were going to retake it all, you know. Then, uh, what was his name, the knife man, he said - we might well try for all of the old Khagante, and I said we might as well, yes. I kind of pretended. Like it was a dream."

"... Do you dream often?"

"Everyone who looks into that sky dreams."

She might've nodded, at that.
"... I suppose it was a good show. In the end, I've created such a personage that nobody will ever dare forget me, and my impact on life. I - am content with that, I think."

"Did you ever plan it, then. To really succeed."

"Of course not. No point to it, really. Just to - I wanted to push for as long as I could, until God Himself punished me for it. I knew He would, in time."

Sighing, the unkempt man ran his fingers through his beard.

"They all believed it, of course. I did too, in the heat of it. But it was never more than a dream. A glorious, insane dream - "
"... You lie a lot."

"Of course. Everyone does. I - I wish I knew when I was lying, but I - I haven't felt like I've been truly awake, for years. I have a son, I think. He'll inherit my name. I think. Or perhaps not."

She nodded, not sure at what part of that she was nodding, and lit another cigarette. The baron frowned, but made no comment on the habit.

Xianyu glanced at him from the side.

"Why aren't you planning to escape, then? A lot of captives do. Might not even chase you."

"... I'll tell you a secret. But if I tell you, it will stay with you, and it is a horrible thing."

And the man who had been known as Khan sighed, and sunk in on himself. His eyes, too, sunk inwardly, and he stared up at her, with a sunken face, and a sunken frown.

"... Will you risk it?"

Perhaps she nodded; and perhaps she said nothing.

Only the open sky knew, for certain.
"This world is a prison. And under God's light, and the sky of Tengri, and the providence of Buddha, we are all prisoners. And wretches, and villains. Any other man in the same place would have done the same as I. Do you know the truth of it? We're all - awful, irredeemable creatures, all of us - and people only pretend to care."

"... Is that so."

"Look at the world around you. I have - no idea how it is that a woman has come to be my warden, nor do I care. But you see how I accept it? Because it would not matter if it were a man, or a woman, or a devil. My end was foretold. Your end was foretold; we are all, essentially..."

He trailed off, and knelt to the ground.

"Oh, God, oh God... I want to go home."

She finished the cigarette, and ground it beneath her boot.
His home life had become a bit more cautious as Hiro's pregnancy wore on, but - it was a bit more excitable, too! Ah, they were going to - to actually be a father!..

Even the news about some shady counterpoint to Xianyu, some - legendarily skilled master of subterfuge, none of it could dampen Pujie's mood. It felt as if things would be - perhaps not better, at least, but that they would be.

Of course, there were many concerns to be had - and Xianyu's continued absence, and the complete lack of news from the front, was - interesting, to say the least.
But the collapse of the rest of the world was the strengthening of the Qing - and as others ceded their powers and duties, the glove of the diplomat and investitures of the bursar cut new pathways open for China.

When the French rump state had decried an aero-project as untenable, Premier Kung had proposed they offer to invest - and so they did, without strings nor expectations.

And as they spent, they earned, and as they earned, China developed, and as it developed, the people felt a greater loyalty to the state - all as if it were ordained by the power of all of heaven, itself.

...

Pujie was concerned about that, even as he stayed up late, playing a game of cards - some kind of - floral cards, with his wife.

Hiro had a sly mind, and knew the rules far better, but - he didn't mind losing, in a game, at least, though he knew he'd find a way to win at something or other, later!..
"Don't be so dour. It really doesn't suit you, husband. You look as if you're trying, but then - "

"I can't help it!"

He admitted, with a nervous smile.

"All this - good luck, and it seems almost like it cannot be real. Like we must be - "

" - About to experience some terrible turn of events? Well - perhaps we are."

"Hiro - "

"No. Listen, truly... I mean that! Perhaps the sky will rain fire, and the world shall turn against itself, and the Americans will send their angels and trumpeteers across the sea to attack China on wings of fire - "

"H, Hiro..."

Snorting back laughter, he accidentally exposed his hand again - and she squealed with delight as she won (again!).

"But I'm serious. Pujie... You cannot let the glum character of the world make you oblivious to all the good in it."

"How could I? I'm just too fortunate, myself. But - I..."
Sighing, he eased back in his chair - moths flickering at the ceiling lamp, above.

"You know, Hiro..."

"I cannot read your voice, when you get like this. It's terribly ominous... A lady might even grow nervous!"

"Hah, if you continue to ruin my bad mood, I'll - I'll cheat at our next game. Terribly. Though I really do like these cards, I should mention."

"Would you mind terribly if I tried my hand at it? Flower arranging has always been a weakness of mine, but - "

"You have no weaknesses. I'm certain of it."

She giggled again, as he imitated the stern, slightly strained tone of his brother - but quickly hid his own smirk.

He - hadn't meant to be cruel, of course, it was just - sometimes a little draining...
"But, of course not. I just - I want to be a good fellow, Hiro. And I want to do good things. And it feels as if everyone else is operating on the principle that the worse a man is, the more successful he might yet be."

"Well, everyone else must have a terribly short-sighted view of things. Only the most terrible get remembered - whereas even half-decent folk have an awful tendency to be immortalised in folk ballad, stage-plays..."

"If Xianyu were here, she'd 'hum' at that. Stage-plays are rather - she's fond of them, you know."

"Ah! We shall have to take her, whenever - "

The moths separated, and flickered away, leaving contrails in the dust behind them.

Pujie sighed, and shut his eyes.

"... Yes. That sounds - pleasant."
Puyi had gone through enough cigarettes to possibly be a fire hazard. His ill-temper had vanished however, replaced with a nervous energy that - well, it, too, was entirely like his brother.

"Ah, Pujie. Mmn, please seat yourself. Hiro. It's good to see the both of you. So - I'm sure you know why I've called you here, and I - I truly need your advice..."
The Emperor had set his sights on a match, although only for the potential of courting. And the way his brother gushed, Pujie - truly wanted to believe it was love, or at least lust, anything that might be - normal, good for him.

But - as ever, he was slightly distant, slightly stiff; as if he forced himself through the motions. To feel; to think. And...

Though he wanted to be happy, to encourage his brother, and say to him that his heart was worth following...

He knew, as Puyi knew, that it wasn't so.

From his side, Hiro shot him one of those piercing glances that she'd perfected; the ability to stare without giving away her thoughts, without ceding any ground.

Puyi neither noticed nor acknowledged it; simply bowed his head.

"... I - I must disappoint you, so much..."

He whispered, but Pujie said nothing, and placed his arms around his brother's shoulders.
In any case, it would be impossible to find a nameless girl as the so-called Empire of India fractured almost overnight; powers and dominions and princes all gnashing at the bit to get their teeth in.

When you threatened a dog, it growled, and then struck.

And there had been a great deal of threat, and resentment, building up over a great deal of time.

But - his brother recovered quickly, as he always did.

Perhaps that was his saving grace - that however removed he was from the world, however - lost, he felt, in this awful place, he was resilient.

That, Pujie decided, was the greatest praise he could give the Emperor; and as to the greatest praise he might give his brother -

Ah, but that must remain hidden, too.
Despite it being rather humid as they returned to their statecar, he'd draped a fur coat around Hiro; she was especially sensitive to the temperature, now, and there was no way he'd let her feel a moment of discomfort - well, so much was possible for a mere man.

"I do hate to say it, husband, but as much as I love your smile, if you don't help me in - "

"Ah, oh - terribly sorry. I was just thinking about, ermn... How awful it is that a nation might go at war with itself over the matter of - segregating itself, by the status of its peoples."

Her eyes narrowed, and she burst into laughter, though a restrained kind of laughter (that clearly caused her great regret, for nobody laughed like his wife - of that, he was certain).

"Oh, you were... Well, I have to agree. Imagine if China had done the same?"

Their chauffeur, separated behind glass, was a man of exceptional muteness and professional courtesy, and if their conversation became quite silly -

Well, in what world would such ideas take place?
Above, the stars had come out.

They'd finished sweeping the last of the areas allegedly controlled by the Mongols - but the indigenous people had grown sick of the Khan's rule, and all but welcomed their liberators. Of the sad medley of those remaining in his service, they were more often taken as prisoner than fought;

For loyalty in myth and on paper, loyalty in cruelty, simply done, without fear of consequence, is entirely different than loyalty in the face of punishment - and death.

Sternberg rarely blinked, even as he wept.
"... That's all."

He'd repeated it, for the seventh time, or perhaps the seven-hundredth time. But he'd candidly revealed many useful bits of information, without any goading, and it'd made the rest of the task easier. If the General Staff didn't know where they were getting such information - well, that was fine.

Better for them to operate in silence, then to lose more pointlessly to the dreaming of one man.

She stood behind him, in the thin steppe grass.

It swayed, in night breeze.

His breathing was shallow.
"You - you're very much like me, I think. In this position, anyone would be, but I know you understand. What I'm talking about. The eye of it, above."

The night sky was clear. Perhaps there were stars; perhaps they'd died, being eaten by an unending black so deep that it might as well have been blue, as the ocean...

Or the sky, for the sky was always blue.

She said nothing.

He continued to speak, more slowly.
Calmly.

"And, I - in the end, I have no regrets, and I - I think you understand it was all necessary, and so many people think like we do, and..."
The first shot sunk into the back of his head, and the second rang out as it bore a hole in the back of his neck. Red blood mixed with dark soil, and the swaying of the grass.

She watched it flicker out, and fade into the ground.

Perhaps time passed, and she watched it until the sun rose; but it really didn't matter.

... He hadn't really known anything, after all.
Several horse-mounted, bicycle-supported infantry units had returned from the Mongolian steppe.

For whatever reason, he was not surprised to see her amongst them.

Xianyu showed little concern or wear for her time amidst the steppeland, and no amount of stern scowling would chastise her.

So he opted not even to waste it, for more than a second, and nodded to her as she knelt in the otherwise empty palace, empty - save for its Emperor.

"You've returned. I suppose whatever task took you away, you've completed. An untethered dog is a dangerous beast, however. How terrible it would be for one to stray, and not return."

The words left without thinking - but she shrugged them off, as easily as if he'd said nothing at all.

"... I'm sorry. But it was important."

Her tone held no sorrow, nor contempt.

Only certainty, because she - like Pujie - was never uncertain, never doubted herself.
Simply knew - simply was.

And Puyi sunk upon his throne, and diminished, and sighed.

"No. I'm sorry. Daiyu. I am - glad that you've returned."

"Hum."

And, at that, she finally glanced up - with a wolfish smirk.

"Funny way of showing it."
The 'constitution' he'd signed was a circuitous thing; leaving ultimate authority with the Emperor, but allowing for his council of ministers to move independently in their spheres.

So, he did not blink when Xianyu animatedly sought out his Premier, and how Premier Kung had beamed and taken her (terse, concise) words in with a great deal of excitement, nodding animatedly and developing a plan a priori, which -

Well, Xianyu was rarely excitable, in a visible manner, that was...

But he knew her well enough to know when she was pleased.

... The final casualties of the Mongolian Incident, as it would be recorded, were almost all due to attrition.

Without any urging, the press proclaimed it bloodless, a returning of integral Chinese territory.

And, as to the Emperor -

He spent perhaps a week in silence and confinement, for he did not know how he felt, only that feeling, at all, was a terrible and violent thing.
Pujie had written his speech - and it was good. Very... Patient, and understanding. Full of kindness, and charity, to a defeated and exploited set of peoples.

... He wanted to rip it to shreds, not because it was poorly written, but because it was all so familiar.

But - these demons, he could restrain.

And so he read it, carefully and in moderation.

There was cheering - for victory had been without cost, and without cost, there was no fear of defeat.

It seemed people forgot suffering and starvation and humiliation in a moment's time.

Was he - even...
"Lost him."

"How on earth did you lose him, Xianyu!? If I'd known you'd gone out there to catch him, I would've sent a brigade - ten brigades - "

"Don't have that to spare. Wasn't necessary."

"Then how did you manage to lose - "

"Hum. Doesn't matter."

"But, he - "

She never budged.

The way her cap covered her face, he couldn't see her eyes at all - only the thin set of lips blistered by the steppe winds, and locked in determination he would never have.

"Doesn't. Matter."

"... Well, what am I to do?"

At this, she - mercifully - removed her cap, and met his eyes. She'd cut her hair again, and it was ragged and unbefitting of the nobility - but they had never been truly noble, anyway, had they..?

"Maybe he dug a hole in the ground. Grew wings, flew off to heaven. Doesn't matter. People don't care."

"Xianyu..."

"In the end, Baoyu, he was just a man. Not a demon, just a man. And he deserves no more than that."

Then, for once, for a moment, he saw it - a distant look in her eyes, as she glanced a way; and he recognised it too, but said nothing.

Neither spoke, for no more needed to be said.

A man of no importance had vanished; and whatever dreams he might have had, in the end - they had only been dreams.
It was first announced on a day in June - that the last of the Millenarians had given in.

Across the whole of China, celebration turned into revelry, revelry into reverie - and that was simply another kind of dream.

Such a dream was as terrible as it was pleasing, and the nation shuddered as it turned - but clung to sleep, and so the dream continued.

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