A Long-Lasting Dream VI: Easy Money

Author: hsiwangmu
Published: 2018-02-02
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 V: Starless and Bible Black

Images: 50, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-01-27

A darkened theatre could be described as a dream, that you shared with others.

In that devouring gloom, you could let yourself be drawn into a pleasant stupor, focusing only on the light reflecting off of a moving screen - and so it was that the Emperor of All China found himself.

Trade had been good to China and the United States, alike; and when that nation upon the Pacific had sent their 'tribute', it was of an entirely modern incarnation.

Notes from stageplays that the President claimed were '10'000 times brighter than Broadway had ever been!', recipes and marvels and completely unimpressive tools, a confetti of items that seemed almost randomly strewn together and - in the end - had held little interest to Puyi.

But, the latest piece from Fleischer/Iwerks was different.

The animation featured the struggles of Felicity the Rabbit and her faithful alley-cat, Venus.

Despite the fact that it was an utterly juvenile piece, the kind of thing to be expected from a man like Hughes...

Puyi had watched it, twice, after the rest of them had left.

He couldn't say why it captured him so.

Sighing, he lay back in the empty theatre, and stared at the assortment of wines (left unopened) and spurious 'medicines, cure-alls, and pick-me-ups' next to a hand-written, or at least hand-signed, note.

It depicted several of the characters from the animation, and promises that 'your pals from across the sea were waiting, just around the corner to entertain, and delight you!' -

And on the back...

Can't wait for even better, more successful days. Cheers, in friendship, H.
But he hadn't been sleeping well, recently - so it was perhaps the simplicity of it all that appealed to him.

The past had been complex.

In this isolation, he could allow - for a few moments...

"... Baoyu."

"Damnit - "

He'd already known that it was temporary, of course, but he'd just wanted to wait, just a little
"We must never take joy in victory."

It was amazing, really.
How the crowd would cheer, even before the speech had began.


Somewhere in the crowd, his brother and his wife were watching; he knew it. Puyi could feel the weight of their eyes on him, searching him out - they must be, somewhere, somehow...

Yet, he was a different person, when he spoke - and if he spoke patiently enough, slowly enough, the feeling would fade.

"Never seek pride in our accomplishments, for this, too, is the will of heaven. Just as it is fated that all China will fall together, under one roof, the tragedy and suffering we have experienced in this war has been fated upon us."

He followed the script, carefully - for he had written this speech; had repeated it time and again in his mind.
The words came naturally, but he felt as if they might flutter away if he did not pay attention.

"Tragedy has been left in the dark, a closed room where there is no light. Now we turn our eyes to the future - and as surely as we must mourn this victory, we shall celebrate a greater dawn, and all the wonders that it may bring."

Not once. They never stopped clapping.
He could have said anything; been anyone.
Why, it could've even been -
"Damn good show, Puyi! I think, I really think you're doing well. I'm proud of you, brother! And the news only gets better - the Premier and I've been going over trade agreements, and..."

Pujie had been completely alien to melancholy, as of late. With the war having been successfully prosecuted and the people content, largely, the only matter left to his brother and to Xianyu was making sure that the situation at home was secure.

Which had meant that Kung and Pujie had spent a great deal of time making friends. Which meant that from Tokyo to Tehran, people knew of the Qing, and saw a friend -

Or at least, a reliable partner.

... Puyi smiled, even if he felt nothing at all.

"Yes. It's very good. A damn good show. A damn good empire."
"Damn... It's really not quite as I expected it to be, Xianyu."

"That's good. Means that you're learning and adapting. Also, I brought you a gift. Sorry I'm delivering it in advance, but..."

But she had her own suspicions about the future, and how good it might turn out to be. Hiro, at least, was the ultimate host - smiling gratefully even as Xianyu handed over the rather unremarkable rabbit, with its red button eyes.

"Oh... That's, ah, nice - "

"... Hum! It's not for you, Hiro! It's for your kid!"

And once again, as Hiro smirked, a somewhat glum woman realised she'd been outplayed, and may have grumbled sulphurously to herself, just a little.

"Well, my child will surely be grateful. I think I've seen this - creature, around? Somewhere?.."

Their conversation remained on safe and idle things, rather than matters of state.

Xianyu did not mention that it had been cast away by someone else; for it was not her place to say.
Instead, she came up with excuses to let the conversation linger, and they weren't really excuses - Hiro was... Pleasant, and calming.

She'd just finished a story about some minor official having stabbing himself (accidentally?) with a fountain pen, when Pujie returned. His surprise quickly turned into a cheerful smile and the tip a rather fanciful hat he'd taken to after visiting America.

"Well, hullo, Xianyu! I do hope you haven't been waiting for me - "

"... I have, actually."

Pursing her lips, she considered carefully her options - and settled on -

"Apologies, Miss Aisin-Gioro. I'm going to have to steal away your husband, for a moment."

"Oh, and here I thought you were trying to steal me away!.. Just- don't linger too long, will you?"

Xianyu frowned, truly wishing she could make that promise.

"... I'll return him to you as quickly as possible. Pujie?"

"Right."
"That's ridiculous, he can't just - threaten the entirety of the concessions! The Kaiser might not be our ally, but he's not our enemy - Xianyu, you have to convince my brother that this is, this is absolutely madness - "

"... I tried."

Silence reigned in a certain café.
With only two customers, it felt more like one of the establishments she favoured, and though normally the ambience would've been peaceful -

Xianyu stretched back into the booth, and tried to look more comfortable than she felt.

... He had to know, of course.

There was no way she'd go against Puyi.

China deserved nothing from them.

But that didn't mean she didn't care, didn't mean...
Damn it, all of it -

Pujie, however, had already thought of something, like he always did. He'd snapped his fingers one against the other, and grinned, and looked certain, positively certain, which meant...

Grumbling, Xianyu buried her head in her gloved hands.

"You're going to make it worse, aren't you."

(And it wasn't a question.)

"Possibly. But I'd like you to have some faith, just a little. And if you'd like to take some of this with us, and spend the evening with Hiro and myself - "

Of course, there was little she would've enjoyed more.
But, as the edges of her teeth formed what might have been a smile -

"Can't. You know how it is."

... And that, at least, they both knew was true.
It had taken a miracle, perhaps directly handed down by God himself, to keep Puyi from the negotiating table - but miracles and mistakes in equal measure were his domain, and H. H. Kung felt certain that the worst was over.

He was well acquainted with John Rabe, who of course knew von Falkenhausen, and after a lightning tour of early-morning diplomacy, had managed to convene a second meeting, with himself and Pujie attending on behalf of the Qing.

But see, the Premier thought to himself with a twinkle in his eye, that was where things fell apart, and where they might be put together again.

Rightly were the AOG worried about their status, the status of their workers, the status of their factories and shops and homes. And the Emperor, as - certain, as he could be, was not the man to understand that.

"Gentleman, first I'd like to open with a talk about the legal status of the German Corporations in East Asia. But, that will only take a minute of your time."
Kung bought their attention, if not their compliance - the dark smoke billowing around them proof that the Sino-German consortium was not happy - but they were listening.

Lighting his own cigar and grinning re-assuringly at Pujie, he thumped a hand against the table.

"Tomorrow, you are going to accept the terms offered by the Empire of China. But, that's on paper. In reality, nothing is going to change. Well! The regulations and standards of Berlin will come from Beijing, but I assure you - they are all but interchangeable."

Nervous discussion - he'd got their interest.
His teeth sunk into the cigar, and he beamed.

"Sometimes, you must play with your cards held firmly to your chest. Though the Emperor has spoken, the actions of China show you clearly the intent of her people. We need your support, gentlemen, to develop China fully. Shall we have it?"
Compromise is the most terrible type of diplomacy, for it defeats the extremist and the demagogue in a single blow.

Overnight, Puyi had achieved his dream of formally extending control over southern China, and - with a flurry of carefully written legislation - the rights and guarantees of the Sino-German citizenry had been protected.

The matter of their trade and practises was a different matter, but the Premier was - as always! - optimistic.

For China had survived many civil wars and rebellions; if it could survive such monstrous tragedies, than figuring out a way to balance the needs of the populace, the ambitions of its entrepreneurs, and the whims of its Emperor was divinely simple, in comparison!..

Pujie plopped down on a bench next to him, affecting an exhausted sigh (though his own smile gave it away).

"Good heavens, man. I think negotiation with the Khan would have been worse. Now the real battle begins, doesn't it..."

Kung chuckled, considered another cigar - but decided against it.

"Perhaps so! But I'd prefer to think of it not as a battle, but an opportunity - since, all things considered, I'm a bit worn out on warfare..."

They could both laugh, at that.
A peculiar side effect of the treaty was the cessation of Macau.

Depending on the publications one read, it was either marketed as a cruel and hamfisted land-grab the Qing, or the righteous return of a long-discarded jewel to the heart of China.

The truth, as ever, was more complex.

Instability had plagued the heart of Portugal as the violence of the Spanish Triple War spilled and toiled against natural borders that were just lines on paper...

And despite the protests of those who dreamed of an ultramarine state, after seeing the terms offered to the AOG...

Local government hedged their bets, for it seemed that fortune favoured China.
"I suppose it'll be the death of many a mapmaker, this era..."

Hiro commented dryly, that evening.
Despite his best attempts to appear serious until dinner was finished, Pujie had found that his wife saw that as a challenge - not one that he minded, of course, but...

"Well, I'm just glad it ended well. My brother's been - grasping, recently."

The conversation paused.
Neither of them glanced away, but - the conversation paused.

"... He truly is - a peculiar fellow..."

"Ah, well, Hiro... He, he can't really settle down easily. And he's been concerned about the safety of - of everyone's safety. Which is ridiculous, between myself and Xianyu - "

"I notice that you included yourself, first, husband..."

"Well! I do my part!"

"You surely do!"

He pretended to sulk, but found it impossible - and it was as good an excuse as any to let the previous topic of conversation die.
The morning's headache was a stark reminder that nothing truly died, only hid from view.

Puyi was furious.

"They have exploited - our nation for decades, and centuries before. And now I am to prostrate myself in front of this cabal of merchants that you and Kung went out to perform for - "

"PUYI!"

He hadn't meant to yell - and it had been a long time since he'd yelled at his brother.
But Puyi recoiled as if struck - his mouth hanging open, but no sound coming forth.

The silence gathered like a cloud, spread throughout the palace and embraced the dust around them.
Pujie tried to think of something, something reassuring that his brother might care to hear...

"... You're, right of course. Pujie. The consequences for the people - for the nation - would be worse if we didn't... If we must - "

Puyi sank onto his throne, and bade his brother leave with a wave of his hand.

And Pujie could hear the sound of his brother's pained breathing as he left, and had no idea what he was supposed to do.
The dividends of compromise showed themselves quickly; though the AOG and Sino-German companies were no longer capable of farcically passing corporate diktat as policy, commerce and industry had always been a part of China -

And with the end of their self-imposed isolation, the whole of China was available for development.
Many of the effects of the decade wouldn't be felt for years to come, but the entrepôt of the east was open; and to her shores came all the lights and sounds and businesses of the world, looking for opportunity.
It was only natural that the Qing would turn their eyes to the so-called International Cessations, or Legation Cities.

Xianyu had expected another boisterous proclamation from the Emperor, backed up with the increasingly modern and impressive armed forces.

However...

"There's no need."

She and Pujie exchanged glances, saying nothing.

For the first time in some time, they'd met with Puyi at a certain haunt; it had meant to be a detente, of sorts. She'd looked into a few more marriage candidates, prepared a few arguments.

Puyi lit a cigarette, and sighed.

"Look here. I'm not - I can see the concerns the two of you have. I'm not blind."

The smoke rose and fell, like a sigh.

"But, the thing is - any over-extension here will reflect badly on all of China. And I like Clementi, so - a loose suzeranity is fine. I've - already talked it out."

"Without consulting - "

"Yes, brother. After a period exceeding no more than one hundred and one years, full association will be returned to China. Are there any problems?.."

Pujie pursed his lips, but did not frown.

"No. That's - quite good, actually."

"I suppose it is."

Puyi replied, and Xianyu said nothing at all.
Naturally, his demurring from the situation with the Legation Cities came at a price - when Puyi announced his intent to pacify Yunnan, he expected his inner circle to follow his lead...

And they did, for though Long Yun was no Sternberg, there was no room for banditry in the modern era.
Here, too, the cold threats of the Emperor were more of an advantage than a weakness; for it was true that the combined armed forces of China were tried and tested...

Whereas insurgency against civilian rule was not a true proving ground for combat, regardless of what the warlords boasted.
Long Yun saw his fate reflected in the buttons of Qing uniforms, and after an exchange of letters, the plurality of bandit lords plead for clemency.

Whether or not that was a mistake is uncertain; for though the ringleaders and warlords were arrested to the last man, the trials given to them were as fair as could be expected.

... But when all was said and done, the Era of Warlords had come to a close.
Across the sea, the situation continued to fracture; with the Danish crown releasing their territory of Island in the hope that independent irredentism and fraternal states might detract from growing domestic discontent.

Puyi had many words to say about such appeals to popular sentiment, but no need to say them; for it was in a rocky island, littered with black stone and ancient tales, that a mirror of the world could be found.
The dream of the Kaiser-i-Hind had been crushed beneath the victorious Entente, and Delhi looked poised to wipe Syndicalism from the subcontinent, at least at first.

Where supporters of the government celebrated in the street, it was impossible to tell who was simply an enthusiastic supporter of the crown - and who might nourish different thoughts, secret thoughts - deadly, and serene.
Rebellion became the word of the day along the border; and the Qing Empire found itself doubling, than quadrupling gendarmerie services.

Loyalists to former princes, nationalist opportunists, and syndicalists - both loyal to Calcutta, and to themselves - sprung out of every shadow, and infiltrated every holding, every business and alley corner.

It seemed that war had not solved the issue of sovereignty; it had only made it worse.
... Such were the musings of the man reclining in a certain villa in German Marokko. The villa in question was not especially elabourate, but despite his own modest tastes, Otto Ciliax couldn't deny that it'd been a pleasant few months.

Marokko was quite different from China; there was little interest in independence or autonomy at the moment, at least not with the world situation so unstable. He had no doubt that, in a few years time, the status of German colonies would be an incredible damn issue, but - so it was.

For now, it was enough for a man to wander the markets of Marrakesh, uncertain at the amount of mint tea it was strictly safe to consume.

... Sighing, Otto grumbled up at the air, and wondered if his stubble had set in again.
It felt like it had, but he hadn't checked the mirror this morning, and -

"Excuse me. Otto Ciliax?"

One of the professors at the Marrakec Imperial University approached him, his beige aselham standing in contrast to the somewhat overly large glasses perched against his nose.

"Yes?"

Replied Otto, not unkindly - he'd done a bit of lecturing at the University in his copious free time, and though it was pleasant enough work, the reality was that the kind of flight they were teaching now was far beyond him. No, it was definitely something better left to the next generation -

"Good, good. I thought I recognised you. You were the guest instructor on Naval Sorties, right?"

One of those old feelings, the kind he'd joked with Xianyu about in what felt like another lifetime, came over him.

Not fear, exactly - but that uncertain energy, like something was about to happen.

"My passion is flight, but, yes, that's me. Merciful God, I hope I haven't wronged some tenured professor - "

The stranger laughed, looking relieved.

"No, nothing of the sort. It's more - you were stationed in China, recently, weren't you..?"
"... I don't like to talk about it."

And so he'd sped up, hoping that this fellow'd have the damn decency to appreciate a man wanting to put some distance between himself and his past - but the local student, or whomever he was, kept perfect pace.

"There's nothing wrong with that, but it's - very important that you do. Or rather, I won't take no for an answer. You see, I'm writing a thesis on the importance of soft power and the merchant marine in world affairs - "

It seemed innocuous enough, and Otto let his guard falter, a bit.

Which was a mistake, but not because of any ill intent by the curious student.
Above them, the sky exploded red and gold; and trails of smoke fell like oil paint, drifting into the heavens beyond them.

"Oh, ah..."

Whispered the curious student, stopping in place to stare at the developments above.

Perhaps four wings were engaged in a delicate aerial dance; and though the airspace around Marokko was officially neutral, the Spanish Triple War did not pay attention to borders.

Cursing under his breath, Otto broke into a run - then paused, cursing (again!) all the damn good food and mint tea.
With a sigh, he gestured towards his acquaintance.

"Don't hang around there, then! We'll go right into the thick of it!"
But, Omar ou Said was in much better shape, and so it ended up being Otto who lagged behind; not that it mattered, for by the time they'd made it to a good vantage point, the battle'd ended.

It was rare indeed that dogfights strayed so far from Spain proper, and rarer still that they'd end up as far as inland as Marrakesh, but even still -

His blood felt fire.

The wind had caught fragments of pamphlets, bits and pieces of useless paper treasured by the presumed victors; and when there'd been no victor, only falling wreckage, they fluttered against wind and smoke, making it seem as if the sky were raining paper.

"... Seems a bit sad, doesn't it?"

Omar ventured, and Otto sighed.

"That's war for you. Hopefully the damn fool thing'll be ended soon enough, before it escalates into another damn fool thing, and the process starts anew."

"Weren't you a pilot?"

"Of course I was, still am. You can't shake it. But we're conquering the sky, Omar - and one day, the sky'll conquer us, back."

"I - what?"

"... Sorry, doesn't make a lot of sense, does it? Guess that's just nostalgia. Verdammt - tell me about your damn paper again, and help me clean this up..."
He feigned interest for as long as he could, and Omar wasn't a bad fellow - genuinely enthused about his studies, about the future of floating battlestations - ships carrying planes. The idea had been raised before, and a lot of designers had laughed it off, but...

Otto whistled, and glanced up at the sky.

There was no trace there'd been a dogfight, nothing but the contrails of smoke and ash, so faded that you wouldn't notice them if you weren't looking.

He frowned, and frowned again.

"... It's also why Russia is always in a state of flux, you know! The inability of the Kaiser to project the power of the Kriegsmarine, is why Deniken - "

"Hold on, now?! What the hell happened to Wrangel?"

"Ah, I'm afraid nobody knows! There's a rumour that the church of that country got in a, aha, bit of a tiff with him..."

Omar's eyes glinted beneath his glasses - and Otto rolled his own.

"Let me tell you something, Omar - the whole world's gone mad - "
"That's quite naïve of you. The world's always been this way, and always shall."

"I... What in the devil are you going on about..."

He wasn't sure if he was ruddy-faced because, damnitall, he'd always been rather fond of the phrase, or because of the way Omar was smirking, but - Omar simply re-balanced his glasses, and smirked harder.

"Well, but it was a good conversation. Thank you for your time. Minus the - rather shocking aerial display, I feel I've learned what I came here for. Good day, Otto Ciliax. Peace be with you."

"Ah, yeah. Yourself, too."

Otto watched the man walk off, humming a local tune.
He watched, and tried to place the feeling from before - but couldn't, no matter how damn hard he tried. Sighing once more, he'd almost put it out of his mind, when he saw the poster.

Like the damn propaganda chits from before, it was worn and unwanted and went without attention.
But perhaps it had been fated not to attract the eyes of other; perhaps it had been fated only to find his.

"Air supply, Kunming to Lhasa..."

His knuckles rapped against the brick wall, twice.

Well, nothing to lose, really.
And why the devil not -
Quite the array of guests had gathered for what had turned out to be an entirely-too-long celebration. Really, now, all Hiro deserved was some peace and quiet, and the well-wishing had become a little much -

There was the ambassador from Ethiopia, and that one diplomat that Hiro'd introduced him too, and Xianyu had crept in and out without barely a word, but a damn bracing hug for the both of them - well, delivered in spirit to Hiro, but his brother'd been sick for the last month...

When the guests finally dispersed, Pujie resisted the urge to bolt, double-bolt, and weld the door shut.
They'd settled on it - bright health. With a name like that, his newborn daughter...

Their daughter would surely have a wonderful future ahead of her.

"You did an excellent job of scaring them off. Any more of that, and we'll never have to worry about hiring staff!"

"Oh, please, no - If I see one more guest this evening, I'll give up the ghost!"

Hiro laughed at that, and cradled their daughter to her arms.

She was - truly...
Without thinking, Pujie let his eyes drift - stopping at the rabbit against the desk. It was a bit worn, and the doctor on call had mentioned that Hiro'd manhandled the poor thing; well, that was evident enough.

But for some reason, the already weakened cloth felt comforting, and as he pulled up a chair near the bedside, watching his wife drifting in and out of sleep, he wondered where on earth it'd come from.

The red button eyes seemed to be toying with him, and at long last he gave up the search and, with a degree of resignation, returned to to writing the next few days' speeches.

What with the turnabout in the subcontinent, there wouldn't normally be the option of taking time off, but...

Puyi had insisted on seeing him, even brought low by fever -

And the Emperor had insisted that he write all his speeches and orders for the next six months in advance, and at least do the rest of his work from home.

... Pujie smiled, and yawned, and perhaps drifted off to sleep, himself.
"I don't know, Xianyu, I feel good about things."

Puyi had been recovering from another one of his bouts with illness, and it was strange, but - he always seemed his best after they'd passed.

Things had changed, of course. They always did.
But - he seemed better, for the moment.
Even though he kept on trying to find a new uniform that suited him, and never would.

Even though he kept trying very hard to project a man that he wasn't.

Xianyu didn't sigh, didn't show anything at all - but smiled in the same charismatic manner she kept as her weapon of last resort.

"Life proceeds, Baoyu. Everything is in order. At this rate, maybe you should take some time off, next..."

"The Emperor can't take time off, Xianyu..."

"You sure about that? Maybe no Emperor's done it before. So. Why not be the first?.."

He did not laugh - but he smiled, a bit.
... Yeah, this one'd work. Looked martial enough, but more grand.

Well, then...
"As the western year closes, so does the eastern calender open a new page. The stability promised to all people, the ability to pursue a meaningful and prosperous life, without fear of slavery, or infirmity, or war - these are the things our nation cherishes most."

It was - a very good speech.
Pujie had poured his heart and soul into it, and even though neither his brother or wife were present...

The Emperor turned his mind from such thoughts.
Around him, the crowd listened intently - victory after victory having bought their love, and the sky-rocketing standard of living having dearly bought their hope.

Puyi gestured towards the heaven, expression stern. He had reserved this time, for his own speech - a compromise of sorts with his brother.

That - if he must put on a mask like this, he be allowed the freedom to be remembered, as he truly was - by those who might pay close attention...

"But we must never forget that our nation is built on tragedy. That a momentary lapse is all that is needed to fall back; into a slow death, into forgetfulness and isolation."
"Overcoming that tragedy is the strength of all the peoples of China. It is our rule that stands watch, and will never falter; and our duty to our people that grants us the title of Emperor."

His eyes shut.

"Never shall we return to that isolation, nor let the beguiling lies of the modern era distract us from the many triumphs she brings; the flowering of industry, education, and light that shall be the memory of our dynasty!.."

The crowd cheered, and he returned to the speech as written by Pujie.

"Rule by fear has gripped the world, and uncivilised men dream themselves the masters of those around them. We do no tolerate this disregard for the rule of law, the rule of all that under heaven which we are steward of, and privy to."

Another round of cheers, perhaps louder than the last - ah, it was almost funny, really. Couldn't they restrain themselves, or was their devotion truly that genuine..?

Resisting the urge to shake his head and laugh, Puyi drew to the speech's close.
"Already, we are discussing with our peers in the Japanese Empire and her associate states the return of integral territories to the Chinese people, and open movement of the people within! By this time in the new year, ah, er?.."

That was funny.
Such a small bullet -
It didn't hurt at all, really.


Puyi slumped to the stage, clutching his chest;
And the Emperor of China was not dead, but dreaming.

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