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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

Tommy4ever

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Hard luck Communitarian. But still well done on getting 2nd place.
 

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Naggy - :O That's... That's terrible to imagine. Like the meatgrinders of WWI all over again. If it works, I'll do it - but daaang. Luckily, all is quiet on the Eastern front!

jafloresl - Yay! Glad to see you here! China doesn't get Manifest Destiny like the U.S. does; rather, it gets it as an offshoot of Nationalism and Imperialism (I think?) - it gets a bonus in war exhaustion reduction and something else that escapes me at the moment.

Enewald - At some point, I would love to do a silly AAR that has me control every food producing province in the world, and try to factorize all of them. No food for the world, bwahahahah!

Alex - I will treasure this contest, the excellent participation art, the warmth it's provided and the friendship it's nourished forever. Thanks for holding it, my friend. :)

Tommy4ever - Thanks! It's all good, however; there's a great expression I'm fond of: let the good times roll! And I intend to do just that. :D With good friends, a pleasant glass of tea, recently refilled, and a freshly crafted sandwich, life is grand!
 

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State of Mind Aigun'75 Hui'an '80 {1875-80}

Dear Ariabella,

Again, I must tender my consolations and hide my regrets that I cannot be home - and again, it feels as if I am in the wrong permanently, making mistake after mistake. I understand Mother's sorrow - but she literally refused to eat before her death? It sounds unbelievable, even after such strange events have occurred to me... I just wish I had written her one last letter, or said something to her. They have just finished laying telegraph wires throughout most of China - why did she have to leave us now, when we are all closer than we ever have been?..

Unfortunately, as sad as I am, this does not come to me as a great surprise. Her despondence after Papa and Sylvester passed away was so great I could feel it even through the paper she wrote to me on.

Ariabella, do you think she hated me? Is it possible - in any way - that she blamed me for their needless deaths?.. If I had been there, would anything have changed?... I no longer know. All I can say is that I miss you - take care of Humphrey - he was never good at dealing with grief. It's not much - but this is the last of the money that Hong Mei Ling and I scrounged together from my previous post and several trips into town. If it can help at all... Well, I have said enough, and done very little. Please - put my old coat on a seat at the funeral. I am just sorry that I cannot be there, myself.

Clark


He considered throwing it into the wastepaper basket near the bedside, but couldn't bring himself to. No matter how many times he rewrote it, words seemed inadequate. How do you express loss for your Mother, dead of grief from losing her husband and one of her beloved children? What can one say or do to even began to encapsulate their feelings, when they can't offer their arms in embrace or a direct word of consolation?

Well, it's not like you even know if she died of grief, anyhow. Wouldn't it be funny if all this crazy talk turned out to be-

"Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Clark shoved the palm of his hands against his forehead, trying to down out Gentleman's extremely unwelcome presence as his words brought to mind a concern that seemed so ridiculous, so out of mind that the mere mention of it caused him to break into a cold sweat. It was so unbelievable, ridiculous even - just ludicrous enough to be...

The cool sensation of Mei Ling resting her head against the crook of his neck was as calming as a breeze, and Clark felt his mind once again receding into lucidity. He could feel her hugging him silently; and turning his head to the side, could see the streaks of grey visible in her auburn hair and the expression of utter concern tugging at her face. It hurt him to see her look so worried for him - so Clark slipped into his most confident grin, and began to tickle her sides! She separated, laughing so hard that she cried - and perhaps they were both crying, but he couldn't find a way to show it.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she slowly managed to replace her concern with a coy smile. "If I had known you were just making silly faces because I wasn't around to pester, I wouldn't have tried to support you! In the interest of getting it out of your system, I had -thought- that we might take a walk along the riverbank, if you wanted. Maybe stretching our legs would do a shut-in like you some good, don't you think?" She was still smiling, but it wavered slightly, and she had to ask.


"... Is there anything I can do?"

Her voice was much meeker than normal, but only because she wasn't sure what to ask - or indeed, if there was anything to ask. Clark tended to need encouragement even when he was in a good mood - and it was impossible to call the devastated man - still young in her eyes, almost timelessly so - she saw before her one who felt pleasant.

But he put on a strong front for her, and seemed adamant that there was no way he was going to talk about the pain going through his mind. Which was stupid of course, given that the only way you can recover from these things is to talk about them... How come you can be so loud about unimportant things, but so silent about what's really bothering you?

"It's nothing, Mei Ling. I've just finished a letter - a rather good one, I think. You really outdid yourself when you suggested what we send along with it. Perhaps it's a bit late, but, ah- better late then never, am I right?" He chuckled bitterly, but it was only directed at himself; his laughter sounded mirthful enough, but his gaze never left the floor.

"Dear-" Her fingers sought his hand, and found it cold and clammy; she could almost feel where the pen had imprinted into the palm of his hand - for a minute, almost wanting to laugh at the tangential thought of it becoming almost a part of him. She cradled her hand to his, and Clark's irises finally locked with hers, a little smile just visible on his face.

"Let's go for that walk, Mei Ling. I hadn't meant to be cooped up all day, with these voices and this pen and such droll writing, when I am with such an incredible woman. Shall we?" Hand in hand, the two left the cottage together as the letter remained alone and unfinished, a message incomplete.

-

Madhav Pradhan shivered against the cold. March had brought with it floods of Han Chinese settlers, Manchu dignitaries, and brisk winds that made border duty nightmarish. The Qing payed it's new customs agents lavishly, however - half out of necessity to the importance of their job, and half out of recognition that one of the few things that could buy a sense of loyalty in their new mountain province was excessive spending and public works.

That's probably why he agreed to see the strange foreigner. He was very nondescript, so much that at first Madhav Pradhan had assumed he was a spy of some sort - a complete lack of memorable features would be useful in that sort of business, he believed. But the man insisted in a dry voice that sounded as if it were being filtered from beyond a wall, that he was just a representative of the British civil administration in Bihar. It seemed logical enough.

"So, Mr. Dynamai. Why is it that you wish to cross the border into Baishan? I will need you to show me your consulate status with the Qing - so if it is not too much trouble, please produce your papers." Switching to Manchurian had been a test - although his grasp of it was poor, it was good enough to get his point across - especially if, as a diplomat, this stranger was fluent.

Madhav's bluff went checked as the stranger replied in the same flawless, far-off tone that he had indeed brought his papers - he had already put them on the table in front of Madhav. Looking down, the border guard was surprised to see the a small pile of official-looking documents, the diplomat's white-gloved hands resting comfortably far away from them. Madhav had not seen the papers being set down; but everything was in it's proper order, despite the gnawing suspicion that was screaming through the back of his head.

"You are here to guarantee that the current Emperor continues the join-mobilization agreements that existed between the Tianmen Emperor and Empress Victoria, am I correct?" The stranger nodded. Madhav felt the knot in his throat tighten. Memories of the all-too-recent Qing occupation raced through his head, unbidden.

1chap13.jpg

I have orders that free movement of foreign citizens is to be restricted-

The diplomat grunted, as if talking had become a burden, and withdrew a large sack from inside his breast pocket. Madhav felt the sweat drip from his head as the stranger emptied the bag's contents onto the table, and the drowning roar of glimmering coins of some unknown mint thundering one after the other onto the desktop, burying the documents in a sea of gold. Mr. Dynamai slowly tilted his head up to face Madhav, who was still having trouble distinguishing his face and voice, as Dynamai mumbled something asking if that would be enough to guarantee an agreement.

Madhav Pradhan closed his eyes, and thought back to the Qing marshal who had briefed their unit. He had seen the fear and devotion in the man's eyes when spoke of the Tongzhi Emperor - or rather, his mother. He had heard that obedience was to be rewarded, and although he had not believed it at first, he was not so removed as to avoid talking to the stream of Han Chinese in the province. They had told him of government officials tentatively permitting them to void themselves from the hair law, or read foreign correspondence - how it was a test for all of China. He had seen the steel mills, and read the works of Adam Smith - and now, the Qing was caring for his family.

Not many were convinced of Qing beneficence, but Mr. Dynamai was out of luck. Madhav Pradhan eyed the kingly pile of golden coins on the table and shook his head. "I am afraid you will have to return the British Consulate, sir. The Qing Empire has no interest in renewing former Imperial treatis-" He was surprised. Even if he'd had time to finish his sentence, the sudden grating clarity in Dynamai's voice was shock enough.

"How Unfortunate."

The border guard tasted his own blood as it rose salty and red to his lips, staining the gold which was fading from the table like a faltering dream. He could feel something stirring around inside his chest. Ah, Dynamai's fingers. Of course. As those jagged fingernails yanked something loose with a sickening snap, he collapsed onto the table. Then, his body shook, and he felt nothing more.

Mr. Dynamai brushed his fingernails gingerly off on the back of Madhav Pradhan's clothes, adjusted his hat, and stepped out into the mountain checkpoint. Several other such checkpoints existed around the province. But it no longer mattered, as he had achieved his mission. And that mission had already been completed.

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Satisfied with his handiwork, he caught the next train through to Shaanxi.

-

The weather was wonderful outside as they walked along the bank of the black river. Clark had needed the fresh air, and it was always wonderful to talk with Mei Ling as the two of them relived old times - and discussed their plans for the future. Although Mei Ling still threw out dreams of action and change into the conversation, they were often pushed away into the next discussion of a series of endlessly enjoyable hazy days, one flowing after another until they blended together in pleasant fog.

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As they spoke, a garrison of soldiers marched by, directed by men on horseback.

Major Lu Yue Ning smiled politely as he watched the two walk by the riverbed. Modernization of cavalry brigades had made the morning rounds far more pleasurable for an officer such as himself, and it was always nice to see two citizens enjoying a walk together. The young man with his bristled mustache must be a teacher of some kind - and the older woman, her hair cut short and set into a bun - was possibly his benefactor? Either way, the always greeted him pleasantly - realizing he'd forgotten to discipline the lazy enlistee's who had began to treat life in Aigun as a state-sponsored vacation, he shouted out some harsh words and the unit continued on it's way.

Hong Mei Ling had laughed at the rather ineffectual major - he was always trying to look so professional in town, yet had probably been assigned to Aigun as a way of removing him from the tense borders near British territory, or Macau - but came to stop as if suddenly realizing something. Clark, who had been laughing as well and animatedly talking about how they should get horses some time, to better startle the garrison, when he saw her face.

"Mei Ling?... Is everything all right?" She was biting her lip in consternation, brown eyes lost in thought. She shook her head and smiled at his question, grinning cheekily.

"I hope you don't think every time that I'm lost in thought, something terrible's happened! I'm fine, actually... Just, trying to remember something. You'd been talking about how the gentleman, or whomever, wouldn't leave you alone - and... And..." She pursed her lips, tapping her feet against the ground irritably. Then her face lit up and she nodded with an audible 'ah!'. Clark raised an eyebrow in exaggerated anticipation.

Folding her arms, Mei Ling motioned for him to keep walking. "It's nice here, isn't it Clark? It's obvious that whatever we saw wasn't nearly as important as we thought it was, right? We could probably live our lives here in peace, watching the river flow by and enjoying the pleasure of each others company." She picked a rock up from the river bank, and threw it into the water - it stirred a memory somewhere in Clark's mind, but from when, he could not remember.

"Bullshit."

She was still smiling as the rock hit the water - it wasn't a brittle smile, or a fake one. It was at peace with the world, and it was eerily reminiscent of one had seen somewhere else. "I feel old, Clark. Every day that I wake up, it's just a little harder to remember things, and I'm more out of breath as we walk along this old road." She chuckled, and began to walk again. At this point, Clark knew better then to interrupt and let her continue, face expressionless.

"There's too much I need to do. And if I don't do it... I won't be able to respect myself and who I am. This place is perfect - too perfect. And being able to spend the days with you like this is incredible - but I can't just sit back and fade away, Clark. Doing that feels wrong to me, fundamentally wrong. I have to take action, not re-action. This must sound stupid, but... I want to see if we can find some more of those guys. I can't tell if they're anti-Qing or responsible for the abdication of the Tianmen Emperor, but the fact that they haven't bothered us makes me think they're afraid. What of? What is it about us that means they haven't followed us here? Why won't they fight, damnit?... Anyway. I don't want to lash out without a target, and I'm not going to do anything rash." She took a deep breath, then locked her eyes with his in a piercing gaze.

He spoke neutrally, trying to avoid any inflection in his tone. "You've seen life here, Mei Ling. It's peaceful, harmonious. Nothing bad seems to reach Aigun. The border is demilitarized, people are friendly, and mostly allowed to live as they like. Perhaps - well, perhaps the Qing isn't as monolithic and corrupt as you seem- no, seemed - to think it was. And as usual - what could we possibly do? And what of these strangers? They left us alone, so what's to make you think that there is any point in our chasing after them?" It was Clark's turn to wait for a response. It didn't take long.

"Hiding out in a rural city, where the days are languid and slow as moss drifting down the black river, is hardly what I'd call an excuse for the rest of the shambles that counts as the Qing state today. And even if things have improved, they can always be better - and I know I can do something. And yer final question?" Her face split into a grin. "Maybe there isn't anything we can do. But honestly, would you really want to just stay here without trying?"

It was Clark's turn to smirk. "Just the answer I'd expected from you. I'll have you know that it's likely very dangerous, we have no leads on either end and my faith in the ability of one person to change the order of things in any great way is rather low. That being said..? It would be my honor to accompany you on this journey, madame."

She ran over and hugged him tightly, and the two embraced before continuing their walk- as they looped back towards their house, a faint, depressive voice whispered something in the back of Clark's mind, and he snapped his fingers. "Ah - my dear, I may have lied. I do think that I might even have a lead for us." Mei Ling looked surprised as Clark leaned in to tell her what his second voice had whispered to him . Mei Ling nodded excitedly, then blushed as Clark said something else - and their home drew near for what might be the last time for a great while.

-

Imperial Mother Cixi's head ached. She'd been trying to ignore it, but as she ceded more and more duties to her errant son, she had to watch as he performed each one more and more sloppily, increasingly distracted with his wife - and creating an heir apparent. Cixi had grown to wonder if Empress Xiao Zhe would not have made a better, more cunning son then the brat whose messes she continued to clean up now - then chided herself for even doubting it - anyone would have done better than that dolt.

But it wasn't as if she relished the control, and anyone other than Emperor Tongzhi would have noticed how much she was actually responsible for. She'd been giving settlers in far-off regions permission to rescind themselves from the hair laws - and found the level of loyalty remained mostly the same. Of course, there was always the question of Manchurian Sinicization - but she doubted that would happen. Ordinary content with the Qing rule had never been higher, and those who complained were quickly encouraged to take their complaints elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that lead to complications when such nuisances did just that - and found eager audience. One of the servants was bracing for a blow, mental or physical - most likely the jagged storm of words Cixi would lash upon his back for daring to interrupt her thoughts with such ill news. He was not mistaken.

5chap13.jpg

They dare insult our settlers, our way of life? The Laotian's owe their very EXISTENCE to us!

She calmed down after that, however. Well, perhaps that was a lie - she had always been calm, but the look of terror on a servant's face as they feared the worst was quite satisfying. She could not understand why such subservience was a valued trait in those who worked for the palace - if they had to bring news to her, could they not try to remain composure, or perhaps even hold their ground as she spoke? No matter, the news was actually quite good; not only would it give the Qing a chance to test the strength of their alliance with the Japanese and the Vietnamese, but also the tightness of their leashes. Luang Prabang had been on such a chain, and broken free - would they take the opportunity to strike at their master's hand?

They did not however, with slimy diplomats eagerly reporting their aid in slicing up Laotian land. They would probably want territory out of it, but Cixi did not want any one of China's tributaries to become too powerful. If they did, she would cut them down. After all, if she fell - well, there would be no one to take care of the matters at hand. Rebellious traitors in nearby lands was hardly the only order of news, however.

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Victoria had finally made her move.

The Bank of England had been around for a long time - but only recently had it accumulated the power to become the leading financial institution of state. And more importantly, the ability to sneak it's tendrils into financial institutions in the Netherlands, off the coast of Brittany, sprawling from Gibralter to Lisbon to Calcutta. And it's increased rights and regulations could not have come at a more coincidentally serendiptitious time for the British.

banksy.jpg

It's hallowed halls guarded more secrets then mere currency, after all.

No, it had been granted such extra jurisdictional powers due to their precious child-like Empress predicting a remarkable change in the political climate. Austria, once considered among the most powerful and stable states in the Concert of Europe, the country who had shackled reckless Prussia and stood firm against the flailing of the dying Ottoman, was collapsing from it's own bloated bureaucracy.

7chap13.jpg

A perfect parable for what could have befallen the Qing, she mused.

Some region in Italy - Lombardy, she believed it was called - had even declared it's nominal independence. Ironically, due to harsh Germinization policies carried out, it's population could more easily comprehend German than Italian. But so desperate were they to be free of Austrian yoke, they had revived a state not seen for a long time; amusing. Perhaps what was more amusing was the imperial ambitions of France as they cut into the melting heart of the Rheinland in the hope of turning it into a bastion against any revived Prussian state.

Not that it mattered. She had called Victoria's move, and would raise a glass to her lips in praise of it's cunning, except that she did not drink. Even the slightest risk of her mind not being at it's prime was a gamble she did not plan to take. Besides, why gamble when rigging a game works so much better? Within months, the Qing had completely occupied Luang Prabang. And within minutes of that occupation, they admitted defeat, submitting tribute to the Qing - and soon becoming once again inexorably leashed to their rightful masters.

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As an attendant read off the list of capitulations, Tongzhi stumbled into the Inner Court.

His robes were half-open, and he had obviously just been woken up. As to why that was, she would just half to hear it from him- something likely to happen any minute as the Emperor glared at his mother and her attendants, yelling even as some rushed to help him dress.

"How dare you not tell me of these militant doings of yours, Mother? Luang Prabang was a sovereign state, free to drift and choose it's allies as it pleases! We have no right to intervene simply because we style ourselves their protectors! Did you think that I would not find out?... Perhaps you were right. Perhaps it is only now that the damage is done that I can see how dangerous it is to keep you here!" He snarled at her, but it was weak, unsure. She could see the hesitation in his eyes and hear the trembling in his voice. He wasn't even really sure what was going on, was he?

Sighing, Cixi shooed her own servants away, then fixed her son in place with a cat-like smile. "Dearest Tongzhi. Do you not forget that you are the Emperor, and have certain duties to your subjects? The Qing apparatus of state was merely predicting your divine will - which I had no part in administering. It was done to protect Luang Prabang from the hateful reaches of the decadent West, and despite the horror it might have inflicted upon our brothers and sister, was far preferable to the fate of the Burmese, was it not? Ooooh - I had forgotten, a failure like yourself who neither studies nor reads would not remember such distant history, would they?"

Tongzhi's mouth opened and closed. The servants had clustered around themselves, the palace guards making sure to stare anywhere but at the dueling family. They all already knew who had won this battle. "But I did not mean to offend you, my son. And if by some chance I have, a million pardons! But rejoice! This great achievement was all possible through you! Indeed, if you had not said how important you believed friendship and unity among brother-peoples was, I am not sure the Generals would have been so warmed by the plight of the Laotians as to assist them in restoring order. Congratulate yourself!"

Now, Tongzhi looked as if he might break into tears - despite being a young man, it was impossible not to see him still as a child. "But... How... Mother, that can't be, that just can't be." He was mumbling, trying to remember why he had been so enraged in the first place, find some disparate argument to cling to as he drifted in the endless sea of Cixi's soothing words, only discretely sharp. She gave him no quarter however, her last remarks nearly paralyzing the Emperor with shock.

"But, Emperor - if you are at all alarmed by what you see, please consider what events led to your recent businesses occupying so much of your time. What could it be that kept your thoughts eluded from the realm of the material to more ephemeral pursuits? Perhaps it was your studies; and you have surprised me with your capacity at learning classic works? Ah, no - the strain of public appearances must be draining the Emperor's strength. Or could it be something else, I wonder... It seems that Lady Alute - ah, excuse me, Empress Xiao Zhe has been spending a lot of time with you, has she not? Amazing how it seems to have taken place right as you could have been listening to news in court-"

And as soon as those words had left her mouth, Tongzhi was beaten. No, of course Xiao Zhe hadn't been trying to distract Tongzhi from his duties as Emperor. Such a loyal - perhaps some would say slavish - wife, Cixi had never seen. Indeed, her attempts to gently goad her husband into finding a concubine to hasten his production of an heir had gone entirely ignored. Tongzhi would recover from this blow - and if he was at all a worthy man, he would actually discuss this with his Empress, instead of blindingly accusing her. Of course, if he was the useless, simpering fool she assumed he was - well, it was no worry of hers if idiots chose to act on impulse and hearsay.

As Tongzhi ran from the Inner Court, she perused the latest military documentation, a thin smile spreading across her lips as the numbers of divisions recruited and training programs implemented by the talented Zeng Guofan continued to improve. He was getting old, stagnant, absent-minded, however; it might be time to start looking at the promising officers-in-training that were cropping up, and arrange a few field promotions...

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And life returned to the palace staff as the Empress continued her work.

-

Cheung Hai whistled as he labored in the fields. Although many of his friends had gone off to work in the factories that were now an unavoidable part of the landscape, his leg - which had never quite healed - made him useless for any sort of heavy lifting job. At first, they'd assumed that meant he'd be fine canning food, but his sense of humor and natural loathing of authority had made that impossible - and as men and women alike were drawn towards the promise of guaranteed wages and jobs that were important to the Qing, the fields had lie fallow. He sowed the crops - his wife and children helped harvest them. While friends and family alike toiled under the smog and harsh supervisors, life had only improved for him, poor or not.

Of course, visitors were not a common sight, even those who rode the trains across the country. The beautiful iron beast with their heavenly roars were one of the things that made him happiest to work in the fields - he got a great view as they rocketed across the landscape. The older woman he recognized - barely. She no longer wore her hair long, although the constant fierce look in her eye had remained the same. Her companion however... He had to rub his eyes to make sure the brave, foolish man who had ran into town truly looked almost the same as he had that fateful day. Grinning from ear to ear at this pleasant surprise, he threw down the book he had been reading and hobbled over to greet them.

"Oi, it seems that heroes always return to the scene of the crime! What brings Hong Mei Ling and Clark Osskisson to my humble farm?" Cheung Hai threw his arms out around him to indicate the not-exactly-meager land around him. Although December had wrought the ground with it's cold grasp, it was easy to imagine how the land looked in the summer or autumn, rich with the harvest.

Mei Ling gasped. "You, you remember us? Well, looks like I owe Clark here some money, heh." Clark muttered something under his breath, and Mei Ling jabbed him in the ribs; his dodge was not quite nimble enough, and he fell to the ground, laughing. Had those two always been this close? Cheung Hai chuckled to himself, then yelled back towards his ramshackle house.

"Lanying! We have guests! Please prepare a meal or something properly for them!" Indistinct shouting could be heard back, possibly indicating that the Cheung Hai should do it himself. He chortled sheepishly while still keeping an eye on his two visitors; beckoning them forward with a wave of his hands, they stepped into his house - where a woman with a white scarf covering her hair was setting out several sweet-scented cakes drizzled generously with honey and sesame seeds. She giggled as Cheung Hai was surrounded by three children, each one begging to start the meal.

A mischievous glint in his eye, Cheung Hai paused, looking as if he might have suddenly forgotten he was hungry, or had guests over. As looks of disappointment flooded his children's faces, his wife sat down and motioned for everyone to join her - which they enthusiastically did, Clark and Hong Mei Ling included. "This delicate flower is my wife, Ma Lanying; somehow, we've managed to survive a deluge of strange kids who found their way here - the oldest is Fuxiang. He's going to be a farmer, just like his father, right?" Fuxiang hesitated for a minute, then nodded emphatically.

"Daiyu here is the middle sibling. I don't know how she survives having such a lazy father; but with her mother's wit, it's probably not that much of a surprise." Daiyu smiled briefly then took another bite of her cake. "And, Chunhua needs no introduction, am I right?" Chunhua had not taken a seat and was hiding behind her mother's chair, unsure if she should materialize in front of the strangers. Her hunger got the best of her, however, and she sat down to enjoy the sweet cake in front of her.

"Thank you for the warm welcome, Mr. Cheung. Your family is beautiful." Hong Mei Ling couldn't have smiled more brightly if she tried; the family was even sweeter than the fresh honey; and it was so easy to listen to them talk amongst themselves, occasionally asking what had brought their guests to such a tiny home or what their lives were like, that she almost forgot why they had arrived. Clark, of course, looked as if he might stumble into asking the question at an inappropriate time - but whenever his mouth opened, Mei Ling shot him a calculating look and he embarrasedly remembered that there were children present.

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They're building another factory located in Guiyang, right on the tip of the Wu river.

"As a farmer, I'm grateful for extra fertilizer, of course - although some part of my soul trembles in fear at how evil that artificial stuff is. Not nearly as evil as the halls that churn it out, though! Why, if they keep building up big old factories, at this rate the entirety of China could be covered in the damn things!"

Sighing, Ma Lanying shooed the children away; they ran up a battered staircase, Daiyu motioning towards the dishes as if to ask if she could clean them. Smiling faintly, Ma Lanying shook her head, and the girl joined her siblings upstairs. "Please forgive my husband's enthusiasm - we rarely have visitors, especially ones that hold such an important place in his heart. Did you come by with a pressing need to buy vegetables, or just to hear him criticize the factories that are grinding up our friends like meat at the slaughterhouse?"

Caught off-guard by the bluntness of her words, Clark and Mei Ling exchanged significant glances. Finally, Clark had the chance to speak freely, so without hesitation he folded his hands into a steeple and began to speak. "A bit of both, actually. We were here on - well, a hunch of mine, actually. Besides being a wonderful chance to see how Cheung Hai had been doing and stock up on supplies, well... We wanted to ask some things. If the factory work is really as bad as they say, and - well, about that incident."

Perhaps he'd expected the kindly couple to fly into a fit of rage or simply refuse to speak to them - so instead, Ma Lanying's gentle laughter as Cheung Hai scratched his head with another abashed grin on his face. "Wow, it's funny you should say that. See, back when the 'incident' occurred - I'd felt like I'd fallen into water, or perhaps a tar bank. But for some reason, I was completely calm! And I had the distinct impression that at some time, you'd remember little old me and come to ask me about it - that it'd be on a good day, and an auspicious time. Lucky coincidence, huh?"

Coughing, he scratched his chin. "Not sure where to start, though. Most of my memories of the attack itself are vague, and I get the impression - though it's just a 'hunch' as you might say - you're not looking for personal anecdotes of terror. Pretty sure they looked like humans to you and me and everyone; but they weren't. You know it too... Right?" He suddenly shot Clark an appraising glance.

"Thing is, they've been around recently. That much I can say with certainty. They hang around the factories, the diplomatic consulates... There seems to be a limit to where they can go, however. They're polite so long as they don't know that you know that they know... Well, that they're something else. And there are other ones, too. Ones dressed all in white, like they're at a funeral. Never had the courage to spy on one - heard a rumor that was a quick way to find yourself feeding the garden, and I'm afraid it's a risk I can't take right now."

Cheung Hai smiled tenderly at his wife, and the two clasped hands. There was a poignant pause before she spoke - clearly she had been carefully considering her words, and had been evaluating Clark and Mei Ling since they set foot in the proud but dingy house. "You saved my husband's life - and for that, I cannot thank you enough. So I don't want to tell you that what you're looking for is probably in Guizhou - a new factory site, right near the border?... It seems like it would be the perfect haunting ground for those things." She stared at Mei Ling for some time, looking at something resting in her lap.

"That hat - I remember the character you've embroidered on it. You know, most people gave up fighting for change after it came. Money has flowed into people's lives - and for most, that was enough. There aren't too many who would still recognize it, let alone help you... But even if there aren't- don't think for a second that people are quiet because they've given up. They are just too content with the status quo to change it, too scared to wish for change, and too conditioned to believe in it. If only they believed - then everything could be different." She reached her hand over and grasped Mei Ling's tightly. Mei Ling was silent, perhaps shocked for a moment - but than offered Ma Lanying a caring smile.

"Weellll, seems like you got what you came here for, friends. There's not too much a humble farmer can do besides load you up with healthy, hearty food and wish you loads of luck. Not that I expect as much as my loving wife here, mind! You might be heroes, but you've done plenty already! So, it's fine if you go and investigate things and decide you just want to come back and visit with us sometime. Take care of yourselves now, all right?" And with those words they found themselves given more food than they could possibly eat in weeks, many words of advice and good will, and a drawing that Chunhua had made of what appeared to be the two of them - or possibly some sort of turtle-monster.

As they waited for the nightly passenger rail to pull into the station, Mei Ling rested her head against Clark's shoulder and recalled the evening fondly. The the train was late pulling into the station, dragging soot behind it and it's steam painting the night sky with ash like tiny fonts of snow. Clark was distracted from how beautiful the sight was by a tiny tug on his hand, almost like that of a child. Mei Ling was staring at him plaintively, expression unreadable.

"Hey, Clark... Do you ever think..." Her fingers tightened around the drawing as their eyes met - and communicated more then words could have. He cupped her chin in his fingers and kissed her lightly, trying to obscure his regret.

"... It's probably not possible now, is it?" He couldn't see her reaction at first, and if she'd sniffled in the darkness, he couldn't hear it over the roar of the steam engine. All he knew was that her grip on his hand tightened, and she buried her head further into him, as they stewed in the melancholy of a wonderful evening and boarded the luxurious train that would allow them to travel to a place void of such painful thoughts. Mei Ling slipped the drawing into her coat with delicate aplomb, and Clark helped her onto the steps to the train, noticing the slight hesitation in her step - and then, the train was off into the night.

Neither noticed the white-suited men behind them, one tapping a long-hooked pipe against the concrete of the station as the two they had been sent to observe drifted just out of their reach - not that it had mattered. The night air remained cold, the stars twinkling desperately as if not wanting to be seen by the observers, as they stepped one by one onto the tracks and began to slowly march after the receding train...

-

Bonus - Royal Qing Museum of Egyptology opens, disputes rare find with France -

11chap13.jpg

The Qing Archaeological Institute has been intensively investigating Egypt in the hopes of finding relics that explore the relation in trade between ancient China and the Nile Delta. In the news today has been a dispute between French and Qing Archaeologists over whether a proposed 18th Dynasty tomb was found by the Qing, with local help, or found by French entrepreneurs who claim a right to the tomb and all that found within.

Julien Pierpont explained the situation as a classic riddle of the chicken and the egg. "... It is not so much that we wish to deny the Qing Empire this historical moment in rare Egyptian history. But the land had been surveyed by French engineers and bought with French interests - it only falls that we have just as much claim to the land and it's objects as the Qing do. In the situation that a compromise becomes unavailable... We will of course deter to local interests."

eatthiscarter.jpg


Until proprietary rights are sorted out, the tomb has become highly guarded, with Ottoman Police enforcing neutrality in the French and Chinese quarters of the dig. So far, calm heads have prevailed and it appears the science alone will win through the day. But if conflict breaks out, you can expect the Central Daily News to cover it in earth-shaking detail like no other paper; our goal, as always, is to bring you uncompromising news that cuts to the truth of any matter.


-


Thoughts so far -

Late updates make me a sad man indeed! Sorry about that! Anyway - I've been getting into closed-room mysteries a lot - I won't say which ones, but you can probably guess by the type of person I am. Say, what sort of genre do you all like? Letters alone might not be enough to tell mine, although it's got pretty much everything I enjoy in a story. I'm not just writing for me, though! I'm writing for you! So in terms of what you'd like to read, please do let me know. Even though it's too late to add too much post-modernism besides my own twisted plans, the next offering I'll kick over would love to be molded by your brainy selves! Let's combine ideas, gentlefolk, and create a better future!
 

Qorten

Crazy Cat Person. Meow!
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Communitarian!, many congrats being 2nd in the contest! I did not have you in my personal top 10 sadly. You ended on #12 with 26 points. Tastes differ I guess. The writing itself was certainly more then okay, but the immersion of the gameplay elements with the narrative weren't IMHO. That really spoiled the story for me. You had to put in some gameplay with screenies to fullfill Alexspeeds' rules, but I can guarantee that if you had written a pure narrative with the gameplay so far buried that it was almost unrecognizable, you would have gotten a lot more points from me. Anyway, congrats again and have fun with whatever you buy with your prize!
 

LordTempest

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Communitarian, I have a question that's been bugging me a long time: Who was the inspiration for Mei Ling? She shares a name with Song/Chiang Mei Ling and she reminds me a lot of the Manchurian Princess Kawashima Yoshiko, who if you believe the rumours, suffered wild mood swings and liked to cross dress, among other things...
 

unmerged(219496)

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Qorten - Hey, thank you! I have no qualms about my rating. If you enjoyed Letters a bit, I'm happy. :) And very pleased to receive feedback. Honestly, I've been divided on whether or not I like the narrative/gameplay part myself. Part of me *loves* blending screenshots in with the writing, but I also know how jarring it could be. My 'test audience' irl has much the same reaction, but is very patient. :p Anyway! Thanks for the feedback and your judging!

scholar - Thanks a million! It feels good - now if only I possessed a time machine to play around with some delicious Europa Universalis and comment on the forums, eheheh!

Enewald - I cannot promise that there will be whities or men bleeding, but I promise you, if not this update blood! Blood! Glorious blood, an ocean of blood which we will drown our opponents and drink from like the finest of wines, blood wine! With blood sausage and some tomatoes as well! Blood tomatoes!

Okay, that sentence was way too fun to write. :D

Tanzhang - I giggled in writer-ish glee that you got it dead on! I was actually planning to have name characters be more relevant to the plot due to my love for punning and wordplay, but figured that A: I wasn't sure if the audience would get into it (not to mention my horror if I butchered my own riddles through lack of skill!), and B: Really need to get my computer set up for Chinese character input support, as well as some stickers/replacement covering my keys. Anyway, if I may delve into some stuff that's vaguely plot-related but shouldn't be spoilerish at all -

Madame Chiang was an influence directly because she was strong, and did a bunch of incredible things... And, uh, because my grandmother went to school with her in Wesleyan, if what my mom says is true. Apparently she was polite, clever, dangerous to her enemies, and generous with her friends. All the things that help one get by in school! Odd but interesting anecdotes aside, what really inspired me about Soong Mei Ling is that she was able to completely understand the bizarreness of the western world at the time, and while holding a dialogue with it, continue to advocate for China, never backing down. Hong Mei Ling's stubborness, resolve, understanding, and family history are most influenced by Soong Mei Ling.

But let's also discuss Miss Aisin Gioro, shall we?... I think I first learned about her life story in sixth grade? It always seemed so terribly tragic to me. I've subscribed to most of those wild rumours - she definitely (and defiantly!) dressed in men's clothing, had a firm strategic mind and a complex that may have come from some truly terrible events in her life (we will never know the truth of that, I think), and I hear she was quite the drinker. I've got a few theories regarding her mood swings, too. But anyway - it always seemed to me that she was just as capable as the Japanese propagandists promoted, but was entirely out for the Manchurian people in the end, at least if her statements in the middling to last years of the war can be regarded as true. Does that excuse her assistance in intelligence and anti-spy rings and as a figurehead? Almost certainly not. But if even in someway, I can repatriate some part of her life, well... Hong Mei Ling is partially my desire to write a character who can do that, as well.

Also, seriously good detective work. As a side note - all characters with names always have meaningful names - how meaningful varies, especially for side-characters, but as an etymologist, well, it's just too much fun!... And as an even sidier note - I actually have names for even the nameless in-AAR characters in my head, but resist the urge to detail them all. If any of you have read Gormenghast, a lovely series that most people considered in dire need of an editor or five? That's my mind, right there.

Jape - Industry is love! Uh, what I mean to say is that they're doing middling. Those who do well in the current Qing state are rewarded. Taxes are pretty evenly spread out, which hasn't stopped the ultra-rich from making roughly five to five hundred (seriously!) times what the lowest sectors make. My capitalists build most railroads even with rich taxes at thirty percent, and still remain outrageously powerful. The poorest classes are unbelievably poor-off, but in a Modern, Westernized sense. Clergy and teachers keep them from getting uppity. So everyone is shepherded along while the court profits.

I'm sure the system can sustain itself like that forever! :D
 

unmerged(219496)

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Hempel's Raven Hui'an '80 Beijing '85 {1880-85}

The train grated upon the tracks, and every minute it felt like it was careening against the ground, the mechanical pounding echoing throughout her head. Even in her dreams, it seemed as if she couldn't escape that sound. But was she even dreaming? It felt as if there was something terribly wrong about this place - for one thing, where were all the passengers, or guards watching over shipments of grain? Her pulse quickened and she walked down the cars - endless oceans of freight cars, each one seeming just like the last. Then, she heard something else besides the roar of the train.

With no mistake, someone
was following behind her.


Hong Mei Ling jolted awake, breathing heavy and eyes wide. She could feel the cold sweat on her face and inwardly cursed herself for sleeping so long. It was a dream, and nothing more. So why did it feel so real..? Let it pass, and remain calm. Taking a deep breath, Hong Mei Ling felt the cool night air drifting through a passenger car window that had been left open. Her fear was further dispelled as an undignified snore cut through the air - Clark had fallen asleep as well and with one hand stuffed into his coat pocket not unlike a famous leader, was clutching something tightly to his chest.

I'd hate to imagine that of all the things to wake me up, your snoring had to be it, Osskisson. I wonder if you've even found a way to interrupt my dreams, now? Laughing quietly, she considered waking Clark, but settled for watching him sleep. The harried look that was always in his eyes when he was awake had left him - giving him a rare look of peace as the moonlight lit the passenger car. She gently moved his hand aside and noticed how cold to the touch it was and rummaged around the car for a blanket; there had been one bed in the car, but either the previous occupants had taken it's blanket, or the thin sheet that covered it was supposed to provide some warmth. Sighing, she settled on the latter and set it gently over Clark's sleeping form.

The paper he had clutched to his chest slid out of his fingertips as the blanket touched his shoulders and Mei Ling carelessly picked it up. It was a letter, of course - unfinished as usual. Though he barely looked a day over the age of thirty, he had often started writing letters of late, only to stop them half-way as wrote and never to remember them again, a look of cheerful naivete gracing his face when asked about them. Hard to say if it's endearing or unbelievably annoying. Then again, that's Clark-

Her thought was cut off as she read the first, and only sentence. No, it couldn't even be called that; the first stuttering note. Then, her eyes unblinking, she read it again. Again and again until it dawned on her that no matter how many time she read it, it would make no sense and meant nothing at all. And if it meant nothing at all- her fingers tightened around the paper, crumpling it as she felt the cool breeze beckoning. And without any further thought she took the message and let it slide out the window. It's ink-stained surface showed it's face one last time -

Mei Ling -

I-



-
Clark whistled to himself as he returned to the dining car, fresh newsprint tucked safely under his arm. It'd cost three yuan notes for the paper, which the boy selling had acted somewhat surprised to see - but Clark had assured the boy that not only was paper money perfectly legitimate, with a fine and varied history in the annals of Chinese history, but these bank notes had just been established two years back! He'd then excitedly babbled on about said history, ignoring the glazed look in the paperboy's eyes as he murmured that yes, he'd known, and that he was just surprised to see them in circulation. That had been enough for Clark and source of information in hand, he'd headed back to join Mei Ling for lunch, and perhaps tea.

As he elbowed through the crowd, he could hear a familiarly melancholy voice. Ah, Moonwatcher. It'd been some time, indeed. You know, lecturing about ancient history to a youth who more than likely knows everything you're telling them is pretty terrible, Clark. If I were to tell you about Geometry and the music of the spheres, wouldn't you be terribly bored? Clark suppressed a snicker, drawing a few strange looks which he promptly ignored.

You're right of course. But *history!* It's so fascinating and interesting that I just assume everyone else will share the same love for it that I have - and on a lovely sunny day like today, with the countryside speeding past us in this wonder of technology... Can you blame me if I'm a little excited? A mental sigh - but an amused one - was the only response he got as he walked past the conductor, blue hat bobbing in brief acknowledgment.

"Fine, suit yourself!" Clark murmured to himself, still grinning. Then, catching Mei Ling out of the corner of his eye, he waved enthusiastically. She didn't notice at first, looking out the window as if watching something far removed from the reality of the train carriage. His chaotic motions caught her attention soon enough, however and stifling a laugh of her own she motioned for him to join her - which Clark promptly did, collapsing into the booth exhaustedly.

"Nice to see you up and awake, Clark. I thought that after how hard you'd slept after getting on the train, I'd end up taking care of you until we reached Guiyang. You snore louder than me, by the way." They both laughed, although Mei Ling swore that Clark looked a little hurt by the allegation. Pointing at the newspaper under his arm she shot him an inquisitive stare. "What's in the paper? Anything interesting?"

1chap14.jpg

Progress, Mei Ling! A beautiful bouquet of it!

Clark refused to respond to the slight 'snrk' that escaped Mei Ling's lips followed by what could have been her murmuring that was a stupid choice of words - it didn't matter. This was science, and the ultimate victory of the Qing Empire! "You can see clearly in the front page how Qing scientists have utterly humiliated the West in the pursuit of a practical, efficient, malaria vaccine. That should be more than enough interest to wrap up a fine lunch, should it not?"

Mei Ling had stopped laughing however, instead looking highly philosophical. "Hey, Clark. If some Westerner had beat China to the discovery, you'd be booing and hissing, right?" Clark paused, unsure where this was going - so he smiled fearlessly and took a sip of his tea.

"Of course! After all, this proves China's prestige. In a way, it makes me feel guilty about helping a rebel such as yourself. Not so guilty that I can't still tag along, hahaha!..." His laughter didn't last long, because the answer hadn't caused Mei Ling to smile at all. She continued to look thoughtful, eyes slightly glazed as if in reflection, or possibly half-sleep. For a minute, Clark wondered if maybe for once, it was she who had been the one to avoid the evening's rest.

"... No, that's not it, Clark. If people are protected from Malaria, that's enough, right? That's the point of this progress. Instead, it's become some weird contest - where one 'side' has to humiliate the other, defeat them. And I remember you parroting views when we first met, views that I didn't precisely appreciate." She held up her hand as Clark leapt to his own defense, indicating she wanted to finish.

"It's not like I haven't done the same thing. Maybe I still am, searching for a China that neither of us can even be sure exists. But for a minute, I wondered - why does it matter who developed the technology? At this point, the West couldn't drag the Qing down even if it was invaded by multiple countries at once. In the contest of prestige, we've won. But who are we?" She drummed her fingers against the booth table as several waiters began to cart food through - an incredible mixture of aromas and spices drifted through the air. Clark motioned to the waiters and quietly asked for some time, waiting for Mei Ling's response.

"What I'm trying to say is that this whole thing feels like a farce. We're being distracted from the real issues again - things like how the factories haven't change how poor people are - and if they're scratching by somehow, how their freedom to say their mind goes out the window in the desire to be upwardly mobile. For example, take a family of farmers-"

Clark cut her off with a knowing smile. "My, my - seems our little stop in Hui'an really got you somewhere. Well, since you're playing devil's advocate for - well, for what exactly, I'm not quite sure - let me be the advocate to your advocate. So what if that is the case? It sounds to me like you want to change things, but you've just now realized how huge a task that is - and how even if you can change the Qing Empire, somehow - you realize that won't be enough." Crossing his arms, he looked out the window, watching the hills roll by.

"Maybe it's human to give up in the face of such overwhelming problems. But I've always known it's my duty to fix things. At first, it was just the Osskisson family honor - perhaps it still is. Or perhaps by trying to fix everything, I've just mired myself down and dragged everyone involved with me down with me. Honestly, if I hadn't gone with the Tianmen Emperor that night, I probably would've confessed to you right then and there. Would've saved us both quite a bit of time and angst, wouldn't it?" He chuckled at nothing in particular, his face hidden as the train vanished under a tunnel.

"You're not going to hear me admit doubts like this very often - because it scares me to think about how wrong I might have been, Mei Ling. Sometimes I'm scared that I... Hah, listen to me right now. I sound terrible, don't I? Well, let me get back to our discussion instead of these little tangents. Even knowing all of this - you still want to go ahead with your plans, don't you? Mei Ling, even if you can't fix things - even if you just break them more - you have to keep trying, don't you?" It wasn't a question. Really, it was more of a plea. A plea that if denied, would mean that so many years of his own life had been wasted.

Of course he'd known the answer before she spoke, however - her hand on his just reaffirmed what he'd always known. "There is nothing that could persuade me to stop now, Clark. We're both too stubborn to give up something when we've just found it." She smiled at him, and that was enough. Without further talk, Clark waited for the dining cart to wheel it's way over and the conversation switched to lighter things over food and tea.

So then, why were you planning on going alone?

-

2chap14.jpg

Foreign dogs! Know your place!

Ma Anliang's cavalry troops cut through the Russian refugee armies like tissue paper. The roar of combat had turned into the droning cry of terror as the foreign insurgents poured back across the border - or rather, tried to. Ma Anliang had been watching them for days, his subordinate Deng Kangan specifically told not to attack... But to wait. And wait he did. After torching Russian settlements, the rebels had thought to cross the border. Perhaps they had been routed. Perhaps they secretly hoped to take Chinese terrain. Or perhaps they were simply drunk with power.

It mattered not to him. All he saw was the retreat of scum barely worthy of their own lives. The late Zeng Guofan had been fond of allowing a defeated enemy to escape with their honor intact. Although Ma Anliang was not a cruel man by nature, in the eyes of the rebels, he saw chaos. Chaos that could more easily spread then wildfire and tear all the achievements of the past decade down. In that time, in that place, he made his decision. Deng Kangan rode up alongside him, waiting for instruction. "Your orders, sir?"

"... Route them back towards the borders. If any show the slightest sign of fighting back, kill them all. I will take responsibility. Now ride!" With a thrash of his reigns, the cavalry stampeded towards the feeling Russian revolutionaries, sun reflecting off of the steel of guns and swords drawing ever closer. It was hard to tell when the fleeing mob realized they would not escape, and begin to fight - but when the sun fell from the sky, there were no survivors, save one.

3chap14.jpg

The message of revolution had survived.

-

The palace was in an unstoppable panic as the news hit. Courtiers who had lived their whole lives accustomed to decadence and order were gripped with the news as if by the cold vice of death itself. Emperor Tongzhi, young face already pockmarked with worries and doubts not unimaginable for a ruler three times his age, was staring at delegate after delegate with an increasingly pale face as his Empress watched him, unable to do more than stare - the slightest misspoken word from her, and any Lord or Lady of the court could latch onto it like a knife, one that Xiao Zhe knew they would not hesitate to plunge into her husband's chest.

"My lord Emperor! Our troops are deployed to the borders, with very few besides the last remnants of the Banner system being reorganized around urban areas!"

"These, these impudent rebels pillage our lands with their strange ideas of freedom and liberty - they occupy the factories you have built, the very sign of your providence, and seize them for themselves!"

"All of our consortium's holdings in Guangdong have been burned to the ground, and a foreign ambassador gutted alive and left for the gulls!"

"If it were not for you, they would not know what these machines did! What will you do? Emperor! Emperor!"

Tongzhi's fists were clenched so tightly that his own nails had began to dig into his skin; he could feel them breaking the surface and the warmth of his blood trickling onto the floor - worse, he could feel hot tears began to well up in his eyes. Don't panic, he began to think, trying to remember the strict rules of his mother. Show no fear, for they will break you. Show no worry, because it will make your head bow. Show no regret, for it will chain you down. No! It's useless! Mother, where was she? This was her field, not his! He had never wanted this burden! It was mother's fault!

"S.... S..." An indescribable sound came out of Tongzhi's uncertain lips. Perhaps he was calling to someone who was not there, or perhaps he was so paralyzed from fear and self-doubt that nothing he said could even rightly be said to resemble a word. One of the courtiers raised a fan to her lips; but it could not hide her giggling. Then, a nobleman of military backing began to chortle as well, his hands at his sides as if to contain an endless laughter when nothing was remotely funny. Soon, the entire room was laughing at Tongzhi, who with his face downcast made no effort to defend himself.

"STOP!"

The voice was loud and commanding - and it forced the laughter to halt and acknowledge it. Nevertheless, there was an elegance to that one word, a musical tone that identified the speaker even before she rose from her husbands side with eyes that glistened like a storm. Empress Xiao Zhe spoke with an authority that none had expected from her delicate form as she glared in judgment at the court that dared insult the Qing Emperor.

"You dare to come in with grievances that are as much your own fault as the rioting of these raucous peasants, and then hurl them upon my husband, the Emperor with whose authority you are allowed to be something more than the filth that it is evident you rose from? It is clear there is more nobility in the slovenly rebels then there shall ever be in this room! You should all be on your knees, begging my husband for his heavenly forgiveness, and yet you dare to laugh? How dare you? How *DARE* you?"

Her rage was like a whip, cowing the uproar as it fell upon the courtiers and nobles, and for a minute Tongzhi felt as if he had been saved. His gaze met with that of his wife - and for that same minute their eyes communicated more of their love then sweet speech ever could. The crowd, however, would not let them savor that time - many had not been stunned for long by the Empresses' strong words. Zuo Zongtang, well-respected general bowed his head respectfully.

"Empress, you speak from the heart. Many in the crowd have forgotten their place, and as such spoke rudely to the Emperor and yourself. Nonetheless, a firm solution is called for to solve the crisis - if not, the entire Qing state could be dismantled by powers foreign or domestic. What is your suggestion, Emperor Tongzhi?" He had ignored her after a brief courtesy, addressing the overwhelmed Emperor directly - and empowered by this realization, the crowd began to revive.

Face contorted with delight, a mid-level bureaucrat approached the throne. "Yes, yes! Emperor Tongzhi, what will you do? Do you hope to wait it out in the palace? Has the Emperor fallen so far to be inactive and secluded, as the Prince Gong was before you?" Xiao Zhe glowered at the man before her - what was his name? Hong... Xiuquan? Not only had he disrespected the former Emperor who had raised him to this station, he also had ignored her - but there was nothing more she could do. She was a woman, and there was no woman that was strong enough to be recognized by the entirety of the court - helplessly, she watched as the courtiers gathered around her husband, a tiny mob of their own.

The door to the inner court exploded open.

In marched two squadrons of well-regimented troops, rifles slung over their backs and faces obscured by their plumed hats. Leading the regiments was an older man whose faced was set into an expression as hard as stone. The regiments stood at either side of the open gate in respectful attention, as the Imperial Mother, Cixi strode slowly into the room. Where her gaze fell, courtiers and noblemen, soldiers and businessmen fell to the ground, unable to meet the devastating venom of her gaze. She spoke first to Xiao Zhe, the only one to stare straight back into Cixi's eyes, unafraid.

"... I'm glad I didn't have you killed, Lady Alute. It seems that I've misjudged you. You are indeed capable enough to be the husband of my only son, and the worthy Empress of these unworthy souls." Although the crowd was shocked by Cixi's candid admission in considering a crime they had all imagined she would take part in, the force of arms and her authority meant none could stand against her. Cixi's smile to Xiao Zhe was infinitesimally tiny, yet radiantly proud. To Xiao Zhe, who had rarely seen the Empress's smile except as a facade used to enforce the illusions she wove, it was an incredible sight.

But it did not last for long as Cixi's gaze turned to her son, with a wrath even more terrible than that which had been reserved for the courtiers. "As for you, my worthless disgrace for a son - you have failed, as I expected. Time and time again you have failed, unsure whether to follow in the footsteps of your uncle, your grandfather, or simply follow the instructions I give you. Your stupidity sometimes makes me wish that I had a daughter, not a son!"

The entire room winced as Cixi struck with words like tiny knives - but none could predict what she said next, Tongzhi flinching as if expecting a physical blow to follow the emotional. "You've let yourself be attacked from all angles by a crowd barely worthy to lick your shoes, and for what? Because you cannot deal with some upstart peasant rebels. It's truly pathetic. Yes, truly pathetic... That all you useless parasites would insult this man!" She spun around and once again the crowd fell around her, terrified.

"My son is useless and weak and frail - yet, facing his problems, he has ruled kindly and dispassionately. Against my advice he has tried to improve the standards of living for all the subjects of this disparate Empire. He has taken care of more than you can possibly know, or will ever know, and is the divinely birthed Son of Heaven! And still you claim his fallacy? HA! Emperor Tongzhi! Show them that no peasant rebellion, or self-proclaimed Imperial Rule Assistance Society can possibly pose a threat to those with the divine throne of sovereignty!"

Tongzhi rose, looking not like the scared child he felt he was, but the true Emperor of the Qing. He recalled the relaxed but sharp approach of his uncle and the wit of his mother, and knew in an instant what must be done. "Send divisions to route all the rebels. Tell all our garrisons that anyhow who surrender should be spared and allowed to join into the Qing army. Those that resist should be made an example of, so that never again will rebels raise their fists against ours - no, my Divine Right!"

And with that, the crowd rose to this fantastic stage in thunderous applause, their applause drowning out the tiniest of whispers between Cixi and her two children, one through birth and the other of respect. "Zaichun. I meant everything I've said about you. There are times when I've despaired of ever having you. However... I love you. And never forget for an instant that I am your mother. To protect you from these slathering fools, I would turn into a demon and send them all scurrying back to hell." With that, Cixi withdrew to the tiny throne she had installed in the loneliest corner of the room as the crowd dispersed to fulfill the Qing Emperor's will.

-

When Clark and Hong Mei Ling arrived at Guiyang, it had become a completely different place. The train had pulled into the station and been pelted with rocks and mud; several windows had been smashed and regular cries to expel the foreigners could be heard. Hong Mei Ling was quick enough on the uptake to guess what was going on. Grabbing Clark's hand, she steeled her tired body and dashed towards the exit, the little the two owned throne over their backs. As they sped to the carriage exit, it was easy to catch small vignettes out of the corner of her eye.

An old man, half-asleep through the chaos. Two young couples obviously headed to a new university, confused but energetic. A foreign family, speaking an unintelligible language in claustrophobic terror. The train conductor, shaking his fist as he tried to guarantee the safety of his passengers.

Without further thought or sentimentality, her feet hit the metal that signified the stepladder out - and she leapt down, landing on her feet with a slight cough as she caught her breath. Then she blinked in horror - Clark was no longer holding her hand. Wheeling around, she saw him weaving his way through the crowd far more slowly, stopping to reassure people, an implacable smile on his face. What is that moron doing?! Clark - hurry up!

Clark seemed to hear her inward thoughts, and hopped down the stepladder confidently, unaware or unafraid at the din of revolution around him. He paused to smile beatifically at her, and bowed his head slightly. "My apologies for keeping you waiting, fair lady - it seems there are some people in there who are scared to death of the atmosphere. It does not quite fit the pastoral countryside they expect when they hear of foreign adventures. I thought that although we have our own business to attend to, we might be able to clear a path for them?"

She couldn't believe her ears. Was he seriously...? Heh. "You might think I'm too old and out of touch to take this one, Osskisson. I'll prove you wrong in a heartbeat. There's a military garrison just past the train depot. We just have to make sure no one blocks the way." Grinning cockily, she tilted her head to the left - and spat, lips curled in frustration.

"Well, there's a mob all right. Well-armed too. It looks like it's got disgruntled soldiers and factory workers, mostly. Some are missing limbs, and a few are women. How did things spiral out of control so quickly?" Clark shrugged apologetically, staring at the crowd for himself. Although some hefted make-shift weapons or knives, this wasn't a gang of incensed artisans in a cozy teashop, but a revolt of the disenfranchised, trying desperately to create some sort of future for their children.

He turned to voice his plan to Mei Ling - that they should try to talk things out - only to notice that she had already hurled herself down the rail with a well-timed jump, grunting as she hit the ground at a run and hurtled towards the mob. Wow, given how old your broad is, seems that she's still pretty feisty. Maybe you should, you know, help her or something? Chief? Gentleman's words held a sense of worry to them, but Clark hadn't even been listening. Throwing himself over the railing - and falling to the ground with an un-acrobatic thud - he darted after her, already winded and panting.

What he couldn't see was that Mei Ling was breathing raggedly as well, clutching a stitch in her side and trying to remain calm through the pain. Damnit. Why am I so impulsive? I don't have to prove anything... So why am I trying to do this? A particularly nasty thought insinuated itself into her mind as she threw herself into the crowd with a flying punch, catching one of the factory workers upside the head with an audible smack. He stumbled back as Mei Ling landed unsteadily on the platform the rebels had gathered on, her fists raised in front of her. Strands of greying auburn hair fell between her eyes... And she readied herself for the first blow.

It never came. Even when Clark dragged his breathless body up the steps to the platform, wheezing but determined to back her up - the crowd was just staring in recognition. Mei Ling began to feel increasingly anxious for something to happen, perhaps even a bit embarrassed. Finally, the factory worker she had hit spoke, covering his jaw with one hand. "An old guard..? Here? We thought that most reformists had either melted away into the Tongzhi Emperor's cadre, or died of old age. Sister!" The crowd gathered around Mei Ling, cheering and raising her up on their shoulders.

Clark followed after them, confused but elated. With the mob caught in such a diversion, their attention had been broken from the train, which was now unloading as if nothing had happened in the first place. Mei Ling was also confused, but seemed to be less so as she pointed sheepishly to her hat - which still contained, sloppily woven into it, a certain character. "It seems like I'm unintentionally popular... Although I'm impressed you all know your ancient history, I'd be pleased if you could all let me down - and perhaps tell me where you're going, or who you are."

The rebels graciously abided her, lowering her to her feet as an old man with patched black hair spoke. "Well, we're part of a larger movement - the Imperial Rule Assistance Society. We believe that the Qing Emperor has become too influenced by his Mother and by foreign powers. Clearly there are some exceptions to the rule-" He smiled at Clark, who offered a nervous grin back. "-But where foreign influence has set down it's foot, death and poverty follow. We will not let China be despoiled by decadent courts or foreign powers any longer! The Manchu will have no choice but to accept our advice, perhaps a parliamentary system..."

As if some unofficial meeting had started, the rebels began to talk amongst themselves - the violent feeling from earlier had dissipated, and this began to feel like nothing more than a harmless meeting amongst friends discussing politics over hot tea. And just a minute ago, they were prepared to attack that visiting couple who spoke in that gravely language - for no reason besides their supposed implicit involvement in China's destruction. Mei Ling cursed under her breath, then tucked the troublesome stray hairs from earlier back into her bun and offered a conciliatory smile.

"It seems like you've been keeping the flame of revolution hot even while amongst the past generation, it sometimes has died out. My friend and I were not here to aid you in anyway, but it seems fate has deposited us here - we were hoping to investigate the new factory being constructed - would it be possible for you to show us the way?"

A stout man who was carrying a young child upon his shoulders beamed tranquilly at them. "Of course! It's simple enough - just follow the river to it's mouth, and you'll reach it soon. Long live the Qing! Long live China!" The crowd roared in celebration, and Mei Ling bit her lip. Clark was clearly ready to leave at that comment - and it was clear he felt it would be the best option to remove themselves as hastily as possible. I can't do that, though. Something has to be done.

"Hey - wait. I know how the taste of reform has only caused you all to crave more. Every day I wish - no, I know that an era where our effort will actually mean something draws near. However... It's too much to choose targets at random like that." The crowd quieted down instantly, it's well-wishing glances instantly turned into hostile whisperings. The atmosphere had become something else entirely in that moment - but Mei Ling pressed on.

"And it is the fault of foreign influences, mostly. China has had treaty after treaty forced down it's throat, and only now have we been able to protect our interests and our future! We remember the loss of Macau, of tributaries being yanked away, off our commerce disrupted and foreign goods sold to us while being plied with opium!" The crowd was cheering again, this time as if being riled to the attack. Then, Mei Ling cut them off.

"But how does that justify randomly attacking foreigners? I've been hanging around this one for some time now - and although he can be an insensitive idiot at times, he's not so bad a guy, really." Clark went beet-red and looked as if he wanted to interrupt, but kept his mouth shut.

"An old mentor of men once was telling me about tactics - if you attack the first opponent who comes your way, you may be tired when the enemy leader reveals themselves. And if you cannot take them, then nothing changes. You will not gain food through attacking foreigners. You will not gain prestige, or protection for your family or loved ones. Nor will you gain these things by mindlessly attacking the Qing! To strike hard and strike fast, we must view the real cause of these problems - whoever is benefiting off of the sorrow of our people!"

Once again the crowd cheered, and Mei Ling thrust her fist into the air. "To blindly lash out doesn't bring victory - only fools believe that one dramatic battle can bring a happy ending, instead of the enemy just bringing larger, better trained forces to bear. Instead of attacking each other with violence, let us reform the root of the problem with peace, and make China the greatest country on earth!"

As Clark and Mei Ling left the crowd, which was slowly spreading out as it continued to talk amongst itself like a group of old friends, Clark couldn't help but ask her a question. "That was pretty good speaking... But are you sure you know you're doing? They might just decide as a group that your advice means killing every businessman, noble, and merchant in the Qing Empire. What will you do then?"

Mei Ling gave him an enigmatic smile. "As an individual, it is their decision what they must do. And whatever that choice is, they will have to take responsibility for it. For now, I think they'll choose to be more peaceful, and perhaps think more carefully about their targets. But I could be wrong, and if I am? Then it is my responsibility to live with my mistakes. Either way, worrying about it now brings nothing - and if it changes things for the better, well I'm one step closer to achieving my goal."

Clark chuckled darkly, throwing his hands into his pockets. "Seems like you've been reading that German's book. In the future though, don't introduce me as an insensitive idiot! It makes me feel sensitive and scorned - if I could at least be introduced as a sensitive idiot, then I'd feel much better." Their laughter echoed throughout the sunny, cloudless skies as they approached the towering hulk of a factory under construction. It's spires reached into the skies, and a long section of pipe had been constructed for slurry to be dumped into the river from.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Clark whistled in spite of himself, amazed at the bastion of iron and steel. "... Almost like a modern-day castle of industry. Certainly this one isn't complete, but, even still the graceful lines of it's architecture..." He shook his head in admiration.

"Anyway, sitting around here staring at it isn't going to give us any information. Shall we, my dear?" He held out his hand and Mei Ling took it gingerly - then they walked down the basin towards the tamped-down construction site, beams of steel and iron left to the side in preparation for further work. Not a single worker was in sight.

Mei Ling let go of Clark's hand and wandered through the empty halls, listening to the wind whistling through gaps in the beams as she walked. Besides the strange, melancholy emptiness - nothing stood out. It was almost like the place was completely deserted. Clark was staring up at the ceiling of the complex, a far-off expression clouding his face - it disappeared completely when Mei Ling looked his way, of course, replaced by a sunny smile that matched the blue skies above. Naturally, that only makes me worry more. Tell me what you're feeling for once!

She walked towards him with the intent to ask him up front, when the first tendril of transparent light sliced through one of the beams. The second came just as fast, from behind them. They were soundless, the only sign that they had been there the gleaming red embers burning in sections of the steel girders - sections that had been burnt straight to the core.

Clark dashed over to her side as several men in white suits walked out of the sunlight, their faces shielded by white bowler hats. No, that's not correct - they had no facial features at all, their faces completely blank. Mei Ling stepped in front of Clark, her hands outstretched like a wall. The standoff remained in check as time seemed to slow to a crawl. Clark could make out the quiet whisper of Mei Ling's controlled breathing. Then, everything sprang into motion.

The first stranger darted forward, so fast it's legs snapped and it's body fell forward, leading it to crawl on it's legs like some sort of spider. Mei Ling ran forward with a powerful yell and slammed her knee into it's face; the stranger fell back, crying out with a piercing howl. It didn't have to right itself as she planted her leg firmly in it's face and, with an audible crunch, twisted it into a fine red mist - or what it would've been if they bled. Instead, the stranger's head and soon it's entire body dissolved into a chalky powder, drifting away on the mild breeze and leaving nothing but a set of neatly folded white clothes. Mei Ling threw her head back, terror gripping her as another one of the strangers approached Clark in a dead run.

It's arms slung behind it like noodles, it threw itself into the air with a piercing cry and threw it's weight towards him. Clark had no chance to dodge and was knocked backwards, colliding with the girder as a terrible clang echoed throughout the construction site. Mei Ling roared again and dashed forward - and was thrown back by the third stranger, who had poured out of his suit entirely like a tower of fecund gelatin, transparent even as the sun glittered through it's body.

Mei Ling spat at the creature as it sprouted several limbs, each one ending in a tapered point like a spear.

She ignored the creature as she dove right through it with an unflinching kick.

The faceless mass could not look surprised - it had no face for such emotions, after all. But it could let out a wailing screech, like a construction crane leveling a tall building as it collapsed under it's own weight. It dissolved into the same powdery substance as the other one, and filtered away on the wind. It didn't change the facts however - the last stranger had leapt towards Clark, screaming and flailing it's arms - and there was no way she could make it back before he was -

Her eyes shut.

Hey, hey. You might want to open your eyes, at least your ears. It's not often I get a chance to directly influence things like this!

A faint music drifted through the air, and Hong Mei Ling opened her eyes - she could swear she had heard it somewhere before, perhaps in a waking dream. As the ethereal classical music died away, she could just make out a vague - thing - make it's way behind the stranger. Then, the bizarre thing wearing the white suit exploded in a shower of powder and green fire, and whatever had stood behind it had disappeared back into the ether as the sound of heraldry trumpets slowly faded into the distance.

-

Clark had seen Mei Ling take care of the first stranger. He had tried to call out about the second, but his voice didn't seem to reach his throat, and no matter how hard he tried it seemed as if time was slowing down and the color flooding from the world around him. One of the strangers had thrown itself towards him, of that much he knew - he could still see it's many mouths opening in the sores of it's translucent flesh, equally obscure fangs dripping with glittering saliva.

Of course, that old goat would have left you to fend for yourself. See? That's why you need me. Remember that, when the time comes! And good luck trying to sort all that out!

Gentleman's deep laughter echoed throughout Clark's head and he fell to his knees, unsure of anything anymore. The flutter of white-yellow powder in the breeze seemed unreal, something no words of his could properly explain. He looked up at Mei Ling as she collapsed next to him, exhausted - and decided it didn't matter right now. The mystery could solve itself later. For now, he knew one thing -

I have to go on without her. Whatever is going on is far too dangerous for her to follow me any further.

Certain in his belief, Clark gave in to sleep.

-

Deng Xishun wasn't too thrilled with being tasked at investigating disturbances. He'd much preferred a peaceful life of policing local shops, perhaps searching for a thief if things got especially dangerous. Still, orders were orders... And whomever that new chief-of-staff the Emperor's mom had appointed was, he had been strict that all sites of interest - state works, construction projects, military sites - were to be policed at all times.

dearcousin.jpg

What was his name again? Ronglu?

Anyway, it wasn't his business what rebels did or didn't do. Most had been cut down in the first few days after the Qing got serious. Like any people really stood a chance against the Qing - he'd heard that Madame Cixi had been at the funeral of Zeng Guofan when she had received news of some sort of power-play going on in the court, and had taken off like a rocket. Dangerous gig, palace life. Honestly - he much preferred his comfortable reality, with guarantee of pay, and work that was never too exciting.

Well, that ends that reassuring illusion. Huh.

Scratching his head as to why an older woman and a younger guy'd be loitering around a construction site with three piles of neatly folded western clothing - identical white suits, no less! - Deng Xishun realized they were, technically trespassing. Sighing, he prepared to go and alert the military garrison. Then, he took another look, a more cunning one. Wait a sec- hadn't their been posters for these two? For some infraction, or something? His memory wasn't too good, but he never forgot the promise of extra money.

With a spring in his step, Deng Xishun rushed back to the garrison - by the next morning the area had been thoroughly cleaned, and one Clark Osskisson and one Hong Mei Ling were taking the state express to Beijing. Deng Xishun wasn't sure what they'd done, but were satisfied that they must have had it coming. After all, he wouldn't have been paid so handsomely if they weren't!

-

Cixi hadn't wanted to take such an active role in politics, but more and more her son was trusting her with things she'd had to do behind his back previously. It was both refreshing, and a pain - because with any pretense of subtlety gone, she'd played one of her key trump cards. On the other hand, having the assistance of both the Emperor and the Emperor's wife was incredibly useful. Not to mention the perfect replacement for poor Zeng Guofan.

"I'd thought you'd forgotten me, Ronglu." Cixi mused as her cousin paced up and down the Inner Court, perhaps expecting a bandit or revolutionary to materialize out of thin air. He laughed heartily in response, eyes twinkling.

"You do me an injustice, Cixi. I would never forget the cousin I swore to protect!... Besides, you have many enemies as of late. It seems like you still can't keep your mouth shut. In that case, you need a strong shield to support you. I shall be that shield." Cixi smiled inwardly, even if she couldn't let it reach her lips. Outward emotion was a quick path to sentimentality, which could lead to defeat.

Still, his words were nice.

"Thank you, Ronglu. By the way, I thought I might ask your advice on something? You see, I've been thinking that perhaps I've been too hard on Tongzhi, recently. He is a young man, is he not? As such, I thought that I might let a small glory tumble into his hands. You see, the Portuguese have been distracted recently. We've been attempting to yank them out of British protection. Not only have those fruits ripened well-"

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Some poor, backwards state is in need of aid. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the mighty Qing pledged themselves to Transvaal's fight?

5chap14.jpg

My Empress is indeed cunning. Are you sure this decision is safe?

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No decision is safe, Ronglu - but that is a fact I am counting on. However, I must correct you - I am not Empress.

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You will always be Empress to me, Lan.

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... Thank you, Ronglu.

-

The train grated upon the tracks, and every minute it felt like it was careening against the ground, the mechanical pounding echoing throughout her head. Even in her dreams, it seemed as if she couldn't escape that sound. But was she even dreaming? Of course you are, stupid girl. If you weren't dreaming, you'd be talking idly to that useless, arrogant man. You remain unsatisfied to serve, yet proclaim your independence through such subservience? Less than useless! You are never a man, will never be a man, and can never be as good as a man! Learn your place, and return to it!

... What is my place? Is that something static? Something I can prove existed or does exist..? No. I am Hong Mei Ling. Younger sister of Hong Minsheng, daughter of Sun Pan Di and Hong Haoshi! By proving that I am me, you have no right to say that my place is any but that which I choose! You cannot control me!...

Even if I agr-


As the back car jolted, Hong Mei Ling rose groggily to her feet, tired hand weighing against her head. When did I get this old..? I don't remember... They were in some sort of carriage. No, a train coach - it was empty, save for Clark, who was cutting an apple with a pen-knife. He beamed at her, slicing the apple neatly in two. "Ah, you're awake! It seems we've been captured by the Qing. I probably should've tried to stay awake, or kept you up somehow. You just looked so beautiful while you were resting though, it would've been a crime!"

His chuckle did nothing to brighten her mood - her head was killing her, and she had a brief bout of empathy for the days when Clark's headaches were so terrible as to cause him to do nothing but stay indoors. "... Cut it out, Clark. I'm not beautiful, and I never want to hear you say something like that, especially if it's a lie." She felt her fists ball up, felt the veins tighten on skin that felt too dry, not the way she remembered it in her dreams.

Clark had stopped peeling the apple. His face was deadly serious. "It's not a lie, and I'll say it again. You're beautiful. I'll say it again no matter how many times you deny it, so don't try to pretend otherwise." His grin told her to cheer up and accept it, but vanished the moment it was clear she wasn't going to, her head in her hands.

"I was never attractive. I've never been that smart or good-looking; if I'd just kept myself awake, somehow, we wouldn't be in this mess. Stupid! And now, now I'm old, and uglier and tired, and I don't know how long I can keep this, and somehow you look just like when I met you and on top of all of that - I, I, I-" She couldn't help it. Even though it took all her energy to cry, she couldn't stop the tears from welling up in her eyes and dropping to the floor.

There was no pause. Clark was holding her gently, fingers stroking her hair as she cried until she had no more tears left, the only other sound the occasional thump of the train along it's tracks. Wiping the tears from her face, Hong Mei Ling smiled apologetically and laughed. "S-sorry. I must look very stupid right now. It's just - if something hadn't happened, you-"

"Shh. You were incredible, and I was... Well, I think I'm just born lucky, perhaps. Or maybe it's my stubbornness. But one thing I can tell you, is that you don't look stupid. You look like the woman I love, and it wouldn't matter if you were ten thousand years old. I'm a little surprised you have doubts like this! I'd thought it was just me!" His laugh was sheepish and it was a terrible joke, but she laughed anyway. Her hiccuping laughter didn't last long however, and for a minute he thought she might cry again. She didn't, however.

"Clark... Would it matter if I was a man?"

He didn't even think before responding. "If you saw how much I stared at you when we first met, you'd know the answer already." She laughed again, and cried as well - but as the train continued on it's path, he knew she would be all right. "And for the record, I find your gray hairs charming and dignified, like a fox on the prowl!"

Snickering, she shook her head. "You're terrible, Clark. I suppose that makes you... Something small and easily caught? Haaa... Uh, since were caught, where are we headed, anyway? If it's the state, it'd make sense for them to take us to Beijing - but I didn't even think they were looking for us, anyway. Why would they take us now? Just because we couldn't fight back?"

Clark didn't answer for some time, looking thoughtful. "Possibly. It seems to me however that they'd have a better reason than that. One thing is for certain however, when we get to Beijing. We'll rush the guards, and then you're going to follow my rather brilliant plan." Mei Ling smiled and raised her eyebrows in faux-shock.

"And what might that be? No matter what it is, you can count on me!"

"Simple, you're going to go back to Aigun and wait. This has gotten too dangerous. I refuse to risk your life anymore."

Maybe he'd expected her to smile, or laugh, or nod sheepishly. Maybe it was a joke, and she just didn't get his sense of humor. She had to be sure. "What did you just say?"

"You said wait at our home. I don't want you to die a meaningless death."

Hong Mei Ling blinked and then folded her arms across her chest, dumbfounded. "Wait... What? No. No, no, no! There is no way that I am just going to leave because you tell me to, because you think *my* life is in danger! You would be absolutely helpless without me if a fight breaks out, and I don't you relying on weird strangers or dumb luck, especially since there are things out there that seem to be following us!" Clark chuckled. How could he laugh at that?

"If I told you that I don't think I'm in any physical danger, would that change your mind?" Again, he seemed to think this was inherently funny. Or maybe - he assumed that if he wore that kind of expression, the wide, toothy grin and the vacant eyes, she'd just back off. She grit her teeth in annoyance. Like hell!

"There is no way I will ever leave your side unless you tell me flat-out that you don't want me with you. If you can say that, I'll leave right now." She closed her eyes, feeling every breath as it left her body. She couldn't see Clark, had no idea what look was on his face right now or what was going through his head. After a while she heard dry sobs, and could hear the near-silent patter of tears against the floor... Followed by Clark's whispered words.

"... No. Stay with me, Mei Ling. No matter what happens... I want to be together with you."

It was her turn to comfort him, as the railcar continued it's journey towards the capital and whatever awaited them there. She did not know what the future would hold, but at least they could face it, together. The long silence was only broken by the low murmur of their voices and the slow change of the weather from gentle sunlight to the overpowering heat of a scorching day in August.
 

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First Lieutenant
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Aug 13, 2010
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  • Europa Universalis III Complete
  • Divine Wind
  • Heir to the Throne
  • Victoria 2: A House Divided
Thoughts so far -

Sorry these are appended in yet another post. As it turns out, I actually posted the max limit for the forums in my first round. :eek:o

Part of me wanted Clark to frat boy it and be 'Yeah it would bro' to a certain question, so that I could say CLARK 'fistshake' in the little outro here. :rofl: But that would've been pretty painful to read, I think. At least for me. In terms of this chapter - yes it was terribly late. I would love to say it's been due to me playing EU3 - but actually, I've only just looked at the bookmark settings a bit. It looks absolutely incredible, though! I found the perfect holiday gift for my family, and was going to grab it as well - I still am, actually, but have a rather funny story to tell! Not only is Paradox the best company ever, apparently they're so awesome they can even help me detect Paypal problems early, via Gamersgate! :D

You see, apparently my Paypal account is what I use to pay for my union membership, and there'd been some problems sending funds earlier. Both parties were confused, but I'd forgotten I used Paypal - I rarely use it, and so it went unnoticed. When I tried to pay through GG, I found that my account had been selected for... Random security checks? Or something like that. Annoying, but fixable. Anyone else ever have that happen? It seems like a terrible waste of time, in my mind. Maybe I just dislike Paypal. No, scratch that - maybe I just dislike money! xD Anyway, I'm so thrilled to have fixed that right I might just have to splurge! Although I realize it's probably not very economically feasible, you know what they say - when folks are down on their luck, they crave games! Or, at least I do. :)

My only regret is not having as much time to play them. Paperwork, paperwork, wherever I look. And bureaucracy! I'm usually pretty good at navigating that one, but these last few days... Seriously, it's like cutting through a self-dividing slime monster. Oh, about the chapter name - it's a wonderful little logic exercise isn't it? Not only does it directly relate to this Chapter and another one or two (any guesses? Hehehe!), it's a very interesting (one of my favorite, in fact!)... Paradox! Man, I kill me. :D

Cixi is always fun to write. I just have to one-up everybody else in the room at any given time.

I'll be commenting around all night - even if it's not as fast as usual due to multi-tasking on real world work. Wish me luck, my allies. What does the future hold?
 

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You see, apparently my Paypal account is what I use to pay for my union membership, and there'd been some problems sending funds earlier. Both parties were confused, but I'd forgotten I used Paypal - I rarely use it, and so it went unnoticed. When I tried to pay through GG, I found that my account had been selected for... Random security checks? Or something like that. Annoying, but fixable. Anyone else ever have that happen? It seems like a terrible waste of time, in my mind. Maybe I just dislike Paypal. No, scratch that - maybe I just dislike money! xD Anyway, I'm so thrilled to have fixed that right I might just have to splurge! Although I realize it's probably not very economically feasible, you know what they say - when folks are down on their luck, they crave games! Or, at least I do. :)

I've had this happen to me also. The PayPal site isn't really as informative as it could be, sadly. Just submit the info they need as soon as possible and hope that they respond as soon as possible.
 

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Communitarian, I wanted to post my feedback from contest judging here, so you would see it for sure, as well as all the readers who might be interested.

As you probably know, I rated yours first of all, as other judges did to -- fine work!

Finally, my top-ranked AAR on my ballot, Communitarian's Letters from an Unquiet August. First, I have to admit, anyone who introduces an AAR with a photograph from the Boxer Rebellion has caught my rapt attention. At first, looking at the picture, I saw the Japanese flag, and blithely concluded the architecture looked vaguely Japanese, and so wondered why a Japanese photo would start a Middle Kingdom AAR. Then I saw the French flag, and realized exactly what I was looking at, and my heart thrilled. The Boxer Rebellion is one of the most fascinating incidents in all history, to my mind. I was also encouraged -- I won't say shocked, but impressed -- to find Communitarian a very good, talented fiction writer. Many who try their hand at fiction have talents shining through mediocre performance, and others just have no talent at all. Communitarian is neither of these -- a practiced, or at least solidly competent writer. I apologize if this has been proved in other works I've not seen -- this is the first time I've seen Communitarian's fiction, and I sense immediate quality and refinement. Btw, someone else mentioned the character Mei Ling, and maybe I didn't have quite the shock others might have at learning she was a girl -- I immediately assumed she was, because of her name, and was merely confused at first that she seemed to be presented as a guy (initially I thought this was a minor error on the author's part, but alas this was part of the plan too). I found the interactions between characters realistic and the clash between cultures -- both internal to Chinese culture and Chinese-to-European clashes -- well presented. This seems like it will be a long-term AAR, so I'm looking forward to seeing it develop over time. Great work, Communitarian!


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Enewald - Oh, it was. The BB bites hard, but the preciousness of having all of China unified is worth all the infamy in the world! It's all mine! My own - my... Preciousssss!

Surume - Thanks for the advice! Luckily, it all worked out, but now I'm probably gonna end up boycotting them for their burdensome nature and financial bothersomeness, bwahahaha! Turns out I can acquire Paradox stuff without them using the other payment method (moneybrooker, I think?), which for some reason I thought was Scandinavian-banks only.

BigBadBob - Thank you, thank you! My badness is pretty, er, bad, right now - but not quite so bad I have to worry about an eight-power pact picking me apart for scraps. Fingers crossed. ;)


Rensslaer -

Wow, I don't know where to begin - whenever I receive such awesome feedback I feel like I must be dreaming or something, and then I'm not sure how to respond - so first off... Thanks. It means a lot, and I really appreciate it, as well as the time and effort you put into judging not just Letters, but the other entries as well. So again - Thank you.

I truly appreciate your compliments - one of the factors that started Letters was a (very) quick skim through the ranks, and my horror at not finding a Chinese AAR. I love traveling the road less traveled on it's own, but when it's an area of history or place that I feel strongly about, then it's practically an obligation for me to take care of things. I won't say that I'm a master scholar of Chinese history and language - I've got about a year and a half of independent study (read - holding a dictionary as if to absorb knowledge via osmosis) under my belt, just enough to shakily search Baidu for the images and research I need. Always a good time. :)

The Boxer Rebellion is absolutely fascinating - indeed, most of Manchu-occupied Chinese history is. Although I'd planned for the Boxers to have an even larger role in Letters then they did already, it seems they existed mostly to be slaughtered by the time they appeared. Not having modernized before, I was a little disappointed at how quickly it happened. Not disappointed from a gameplay standpoint, mind - but I'd been hoping to describe street-fighting, quick-formed comradarie, the eight nation armies at work, Imperial reactions - who knows, maybe in a spin-off short story. Wait, is that some sort of spoiler or somethin'? ;)

Second, I'm glad to know you're not the only one who noticed my bluntness when it comes to naming! :D I figured that most of my audience would either pick up on it immediately or be shocked; and although I'd toyed around with pseudonyms for awhile, like the idea of making lots of references based on character pronunciation/calligraphy, it got axed. Again, maybe for later.

One thing I always try to do, is portray conflicts as being personal - being the mutt I am, I have trouble seeing things as monolithic from one culture or region. People might see themselves and their motivations that way, but I figure the most realistic way to right that is to never have one character be 'right' or clearly heroic, if that makes sense? Everyone has reasons for what they're doing, and if I've captured that, then I'm pleased as punch. Anyway, this has got a few (fair few? We'll see, hehehe!) more updates left in it. I'm honored and pleased that you've enjoyed it, and thank you again for your comments - please feel free to drop in whenever you have time. :)

For certain reasons, my normal musings will be here instead of in the update, and they're pretty short. I'm tired (but happy!), my throat is parched, and I'm still not employed! :wacko: This is crazy, am I right? The good news is that I may have found the coolest job ever. I'm sure it'll be snapped up by some degree-holding brilliant person, but if it isn't, that'd be nice. :) Another idea for a short AAR - say, would you guys be interested in a CookbAARk? Ow, that hurt even me-
 
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Denial and Memory Beijing '85 Beijing '90 {1885-90}

trainc.jpg

Hebei drifted by as the maitre'd nervously handled the papers he had been given.

Chung Huiqing wrung his hands back and forth, occasionally looking over his shoulder as soldiers and officials loitered around him. He could feel their eyes boring into him, as if he had perpetrated some minor infraction simply by deigning to exist. He did not consider himself a brave man, so he did not know why he had offered to take the letter that young man had given him. It wasn't a crime to do so, of course- but nor was it proper form, and every second glance hit him like a bullet.

Nevertheless... He made his way to the observation coach, and felt at ease as the heavy atmosphere melted away. With nature speeding past his field of view, secure in this vanguard of industry, he was safe. Sliding the letter out of the breast pocket of his expensive suit, Chung Huiqing begin to read. If it was a danger, he would alert one of the guards posted to inter-provincial service. If not, then he would send it himself, as promised. Feeling secure in both outcomes, he read.

It was a bit jarring, at first - the writer used several words differently then the British English that Chung Huiqing was used to. He blinked at colors that should have been colours, an overabundance of commas and exclamations, and tenses that were out of place to the academy that had taught him. Stranger still was the fact the writer seemed almost to want to sound as if he were English. But once he'd gotten used to the dialectic variances, the letter itself was rather sweet - it was almost impossible to tell that it had been written by a prisoner. He felt a pang of regret for opening - but would have felt even worse if by some lapse of judgment he had enabled a coded missive to be sent to some foreign power. He continued to read as a young couple stepped onto the deck, talking excitedly over the roaring wind.



Well, Ariabella, perhaps all my fears and rationalizations were for naught. It seems I shall be going back to Beijing for at least one last time - I realize that you must be very busy, indeed that you must all have your own lives, now. And in some way, that is all well and good. It means that this vagabond of a brother of yours should be returning home soon enough, perhaps even in time for the centennial parade. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Please pass on my best to everyone in your life. If I set foot in home just once more, that once shall be enough. Until next time, and as always, I remain your loving brother,

Clark



It seemed too sad, somehow. Although Chung Huiqing had heard the two passengers were fugitives of some kind, capital punishment had become increasingly rare. And given that he hadn't hear of either a Clark Osskisson or Hong Mei Ling before, it didn't seem likely they were unrepentant enemies of the state. No, this letter was far too sad. And so thinking, he shoved it back into the pocket of his suit jacket, asked the young couple lost in the scenery and each others company if they cared for some champagne, and surprisingly pleased at this third option, stepped back inside as the wind picked up through the snow-capped hills.

-

1chap15.jpg

An air of gloomy anticipation hung over the Inner Court.

Emperor Tongzhi had been prepared endlessly to expect revolt and traitors at any turn. His mother had warned him that as soon as weakness was shown, knives would slip out of sleeves and reach ecstatically for an unprotected flank. The entire Korean peninsula seemed to be living proof- ethnic Koreans were rioting for an autonomous, or even fully independent Korea. Amazingly, the Manchu plurality settled in Korea had joined the rebellion, claiming that the court had become decadent and interlaced with Han culture.

The last thing he wanted to do was put down another rebellion. Although his pride at a recovery from what could have been a fatal mistake had made him feel invincible, the following weeks had crushed that like a virulent infection spreading throughout the palace halls. First, there were whispers - the Imperial Regiments opened fire on unarmed protestors. Soldiers had dumped unidentified bodies into the bay, and set fire to the rest. Then, those hateful rumors had been believed in enough to grant them factual status - and the papers had picked up on them with gleeful abandon.

... All he had ever wanted was for the people of China to be happy. He had never understood the difference of ethnicity. Han or Hui, Manchu or Zhuang - was not every citizen Chinese? Perhaps it was immature to think that his reign could be one of endless peace and prosperity, but he dreamed, nevertheless. Of a Qing Dynasty whose divine right to rule would be supported by the love and admiration of her people, one that would shine as a light for the entire world to follow.

"My Emperor. We await direct command to intervene in the peninsula." Ah. The secret police. Of course, they didn't truly need any authorization - they did as they liked to keep order in China. But appearances begged to be maintained, and the Emperor gave a nod of his head as a symbol of grudging permission. With a narrow smile and a snap of his fingers, the Head Officer and several other guards left their audience, and Tongzhi was alone with his thoughts.

In Cixi's chambers, the atmosphere was quite different. A giddy sense of drunken relaxation could be felt in the shut-off room. Of course, there was no alcohol - Cixi never drank - but as cup after cup of strong black tea splashed with fresh milk was downed, it was impossible not to see some similarities.

Cixi and the Empress Xiao Zhe were talking as if old friends and the Empress's refined, quiet laughter lit up the room. Cixi herself occasionally laughed, although to her own ears it sounded like a bitter cackle compared to the nobility of the Imperial Consort. But she managed to push her momentary jealousy of the popular Empress aside and instead enjoyed the pleasures of a wonderful conversation - that rarest of luxuries she craved so much.

"... Really, you think I was supportive? My, my - I'd felt as if I'd stepped out of my place. The last thing I'd wanted to do was make the Emperor look weak by appearing to speak out of place. Nevertheless, to hear the imbecilic chatter of those courtiers as they assaulted him without pause was almost like death - and I would rather have died than let him bare that shame for a second longer."

Resisting the momentary urge to pick apart the sentence, Cixi nodded in compassion and placed her hand over that of the Empress. "My dear daughter, please understand this - no matter how hard you work, no men will ever acknowledge that work as you are. You did well to speak for yourself; and I shall tell you that again and again if all you really seek is my mindless praise. However, here we are alone and secure, and idle words are so commonplace." A sly grin slid onto her mask-like face, matched by the bewitching grin of the former Lady Alute, covered only by a fan as she held it quickly to her lips.

"Wisely said, my dear mother. Very well - what of this new waterway that our engineers were so excited about they so rudely intruded an equally fine conversation my husband and I were partaking in?" Cixi snorted and took a sip of her tea, but the grin hadn't left her face. Her eyes shone with a rarely-seen excitement hidden behind layers of razor-sharp wit.

3chap15.jpg

The business consortium actually managed to build a canal in the Americas.

"It might not seem like much - but this is a symbol of world power on a scale hitherto unseen for China! Imagine - those greedy foreign bastards waited for decades to cut a route through to our markets, desperate to supply us with goods we had no need for. They were so coarse as to depict the splitting of Panama as a splitting of-" Cixi made a rude gesture, and the Empress giggled quietly, then adopted a mock-horrified expression. Cixi continued to smile.

"But we beat them too it. After countless devils died of exhaustion, leaving their idealists to believe they were building a better life for the poooor, backward people of the jungle - because that's all there is in Panama. Jungle. Li Shanlan didn't see things that way, however. He was even older than I was and still figured that a system of locks and control levee's would keep the canal operational before disease cut him down. Our friends in the business sphere bought Qing permissions months before our competitors from Mexico and the States had even had time to form delegations."

panamacanal1907.jpg

For a minute, an expression of doubt crossed the Empress's lips.

"I'm glad we completed the project, and it sounds very glorious for us - but isn't what we're doing in Panama... Rather similar to what the Portuguese did at Macao?" Ah. The Empress was clearly troubled with the morality of the project. Cixi didn't try to console her with false words, however. That would only make her weak - what she needed to hear was the truth.

4chap15.jpg

There's no difference at all, really. We don't pretend to have higher motives, though.

"Even now, our factories and fortifications are making Panama a fortress, a status symbol. The Qing have always been an empire, though it seems even many in the court have forgotten it. Don't look embarrassed - even I... Hah, that almost sounded like something embarrassing, didn't it?" Showing a fleeting awkward smile, Cixi leaned back in her chair, staring up at the ceiling.

"Roughly sixteen-thousand workers died. Mostly Cantonese migrants. It's probably closer to twenty-two thousand if you count the local workers we hired. But at the same time, we haven't been heartless. There's a lot of local autonomy, something my useless son was very keen on. After Professor Li died from malaria, we realized just how serious of an epidemic it was. There's a program in place that's trying to eradicate it from the greater Panama area, permanently." Cixi sighed, holding a hand to her head as if suffering from a headache. Xiao Zhe almost didn't speak for fear of aggravating her - but if anything, her conversations with the Imperial Mother had made her brave, and she was already strong to begin with.

"You really aren't the terrible person you make yourself out to be, mother. You deal with things that would break almost anyone else, and yet still - I know you have compassion in you. That much is obvious from these little chats of ours. Besides - anyone who could give birth to my beloved Tongzhi cannot be completely cruel, can they?" She laughed lightly, but Cixi's smile was more pained then genuine, and when she spoke, it was with a great weight.

"Although your words compliment me - may I never hear them again. If even once there is one who perceives me as weak, everything I build will shatter like glass. The ways of the West and these modern innovations that puzzle me still hurt to accept, strange as they are. But accept them we have, for better or ill - either is preferable to being crushed by the wayside. Now we bring such resolve to Panama. Whether they shrug off our assistance or not is another matter entirely." Draining her cup with a sigh, Cixi patently avoided meeting that concerned gaze, and the hidden tea party died down soon after. Empress Xiao Zhe left to bolster her husband's spirits and Cixi was left to reflect over snippets of conversation and the faint aroma of black tea.

-

theviewfromforever.jpg

The Outer Court had become truly impressive, looking more grand then ever.

As Clark and Mei Ling were escorted forward - and not unkindly - Clark could not help but feel a sense of nostalgia at being returned to the capital city. He lived for the flow of commerce, the constant lively conversations and energy. Is that really so? You're so close to your choice now, little one. Let me remind you - there is no reason to listen to me. Ignoring Moonwatcher, he tapped Mei Ling lightly on the shoulder, pointing to a crowd of children watching in awe as electric lights were raised up on tall poles, artificial fireflies doing an intricate dance with the real thing.

Mei Ling smiled and held his hand. One of the guards muttered something inaudible, but Clark paid him no attention. Whatever awaited them now was out of his control - and with that feeling, true or false as it was, was an incredible feeling of relief. Surrendering himself to that feeling meant a freedom to enjoy the efforts of the harried workers around them.

6chap15.jpg

It really is incredible, he mused. To imagine this years ago...

His train of thought was interrupted by an older man that instinctively struck Clark as a contradiction - perhaps it was his terrible posture conflicting with observant eyes, or the slightest hint of a smile tugging at his lips. Either way, he seemed happy to see the two of them, as if they were old friends. Their escorts parted in waves as the unknown man approached them, and Clark wondered in urgency if his letter had found it's way home.

"My friends! It is a pleasure to meet both of you. I am Ronglu, and will be your caretaker for your stay at the palace. I am certain that you have noticed the preparations in place for the World Fair; an amazing assortment of inventions, is it not? Not all are new to the world, but this is the first fair where our Qing state shall be recognized as an equal player. Although you are currently honored guests and invited to attend, I must regret to inform you that should you choose to leave your accommodations at the palace, you will have to inform me. I shall be glad to provide an escort anywhere you need be."

The entire sentence, that almost-smile never left Ronglu's lips. Clark couldn't shake the feeling he was being made fun of. In the past it would have been enough to send him into a verifiable rage or frustration, but now... He smiled in return, trying to remember the proper courtesies to use in such an occasion. Not that he even knew who this Ronglu was, of course. "Thank you, good sir. It is an honor to return to my place of former employment, although I had not imagined the triumphant arrival of Clark Osskisson and the legendary Hong Mei Ling-" He was fairly certain he had heard a rather muted laugh from his side "- to be quite so monitored. Will we be required to share a room with you as well?"

Ronglu smiled broadly and with an almost imperceptible twist of his fingers the guards who had escorted them all the way from the train scattered into the illuminated dusk. "I am glad that your sense of humor has remained intact on your long voyage; and my personal apologies for any roughness incurred upon you during your trip. My cousin wishes to speak to you two, personally - and although I cannot pretend to know her every whim, so long as you are her guests you shall be like my very kin." His low bow was exceedingly theatrical, but diffused any tension that Clark had held.

Mei Ling was not so certain. Although she had been very amused that she was a legend in Clark's mind - or at least his humor - such courtesy seemed inherently dishonest to her. And she had not forgotten so quickly that they came here as prisoners, which to all appearances they still were. "Well, speaking for both of us, I hope you treat your kin better than I hear they're treating prisoners on peninsula." It was an ill-formed insult and she'd regretted the risk her confrontational words had put Clark in as soon as they'd left her mouth. But, she'd never expected the reaction Ronglu displayed.

Laughing softly as if at a joke only he understood, their host replied, "Madame, I have relatives settled in Gongju, some of whom support the mischief taking place. I would behead them personally if my cousin asked it of me, despite what I can assure you is a deep and familial love." His laughter died down, leaving his face deadly serious. "You are not prisoners here, but nor will you be permitted to criticize the Emperor, his Empress Consort, or the Imperial Mother with impunity. I know of your background, Hong Mei Ling, and further backtalk from such a rebellious old crone will be dealt with swiftly." The harsh look that paralyzed both of his guests with shock left Ronglu in a flash, replaced by his earlier gracious smile.

"Now then, if you'll follow me into the Inner Court - amazing to think that even the Outer Court was once completely forbidden, is it not? - I believe you are probably hungry, and I can show you to your room. If you will follow me-" He continued to talk as they followed behind him, dull footstep echoing after dull footstep. Clark tried to comfort Mei Ling, but no words came to his lips - indeed, all he could seem to think of was an absolute terror that one step out of line, and his life - worse still, the life of the woman he loved - would come to a languorous end.

-

Ronglu's tour led them throughout the Forbidden City. Although he had a practiced humor that was both relieving and terrifying. His enthusiasm was undeniable, leaping from newly-patronized objects d'art blended perfectly in collections sporting age-old masterworks to the full details of the re-occupation of the Korean peninsula. "Of course, it's more then a military maneuver. Occupation's themselves accomplish nothing. If the source of the problem is not discovered and eliminated, then military forces achieve little besides fomenting further violence. Not a terrible point, is it? Ah, and that would be your place of rest." Chuckling to himself as if his choice of words was very witty, he pointed outside the walls of the Forbidden City; just out of view of the Meridian Gate was a large complex of buildings, recently constructed. Although outside the walls themselves, they sat in perfect view of the Palace; perhaps it would be better to say that they existed in it's shadow.

"That complex is for diplomats, high-ranking officials, and esteemed guests such as yourself. I'll explain the details of your room to you, and then we shall go meet with cousin Cixi. There is a call-box that you may use to summon palace staff or maid-servants in need of assistance or emergency. Wind the crank as you speak. It's a cumbersome arrangement, but it makes sense soon enough. There is a small basin and stove, as well as any and all amenities for your personal needs. Are there any questions?.. Ah. What did you wish to say?" His eyes hardened instantly as Mei Ling spoke.

She was no longer frightened however, having had much time to think as their guide lost himself to the sound of his own voice. Meeting his jaded glance head-on Mei Ling spoke calmly. "It sounds like an incredible guesthouse; I am certain that Mr. Osskisson and myself will be very pleased with all our accommodations. However, I would like to know why we have been summoned before the Imperial Mother herself if we have committed some sort of offense, and what that act might have been." She breathed a sigh of relief mentally as his quiet malice faded instantly into the bemusedness of earlier.

"Far be it from me to guess Cixi's whims. I am fairly certain you have committed no crimes - that I know of - but have heard that it is rather useful to mention such incentives if one needs to encourage help in finding elusive contacts. You are not going before a court for that reason. And if there is something so terrible you have done that it is above even a simple Minister such as myself, it is much better that Cixi deals with you than trouble the Emperor." He paused, then flashed another brief smile. "If, for example, you were worried about false allegations of murder, I can assure you that the Prince Gong is enjoying a quiet retirement in Khovd. Enough idle banter however - I have a meeting to attend to, and I believe you know where Cixi's chambers are. Don't worry - I shall be watching you every step of the way, so there should be no temptation to dawdle. Until next we meet."

And with a subtle nod of the head, Ronglu left, leaving his exhausted guests to look towards the foreboding spires of the palace, it's roof reaching towards the heavens as if it held the Mandate itself. Hand in hand and without hesitation, Clark and Mei Ling stepped inside, prepared as they could be for the unknown. And as they disappeared into it's cavernous depths, a weathered old man with skin pulled tight over his bones scratched nervously at his nose, which along with his throat had been worn red and raw from years of nails grating anxiously across it's surface.

-

As impressive as the Outer and Inner Courts had been, the inside of the Palace itself remained the same. Clark recalled energy-filled meetings with the Tianmen Emperor that seemed as if they had occurred timeless centuries ago; the meeting hall was now bare, no Grand Council arguing military strategy or economic policy. The night outside seemed to have infiltrated the building and smothered it in a thick fog - or perhaps it was just his anxiety causing his head to ache so that it felt it might split in two. Mei Ling pressed one of her fingers to his forehead, and Clark smiled at her; a smile that turned into a light grimace as pain raced through his temple.

She kept her fingers pressed to his head and waited for the pain to leave him. It took some time, but finally Clark smiled faintly, and apologetically embraced her. "E-even now, you end up protecting me, ha-aah..." He shook slightly as her hands looped around his back, and she bit back the urge to ask how much longer that could be. Instead, she just continued to hold him, and time didn't seem to pass for minutes, or perhaps years.

With one last sad yet tender smile from Mei Ling, they approached the door to Cixi's chamber. It was unpretentious and rarely used. There was no sign the woman who lived behind this door was here, or even acknowledge their existence. For a minute, Clark could not help but even wonder if she was even alive. He pushed that though from his head, and knocked quietly. There was no reply at first - and then a rough intonation beckoned them. "... Come in. There probably isn't much time."

Clark opened the door nervously, and was about to gesture for Mei Ling to enter first, when he thought better of himself and stepped forward with more bravery then he had felt he had, prepared for anything. He half-expected to see some horrible and indescribable thing staring back at him, or perhaps the flayed and unrecognizable corpse of the Imperial Mother. C'mon, Chief. Your delusions aren't so bad that you can let paranoia get the best of you. That's just what your enemies would want. And there sure are a LOT of them! As Gentleman's sharp laughter cut through his head like a knife through a haunch of meat, Clark built up the last of his courage and entered the room.

There was no terrifying sight to behold, no twisted visage jumped out at him. Only the tired face of a woman dealing with far more than any one person could bear staring at him with a regal, bitter countenance as if disappointed - perhaps in him, perhaps in herself. She motioned for him to sit; two chairs had been placed around the circular table in the center of the room, at which three cups of a thick black tea scented lightly with orange had been set. All had gone cold.

As Mei Ling let herself in and sat down at the other chair, the Imperial Mother sniffed. "... Somehow, I thought you'd be younger than me, woman. And you. You barely seem old enough to be considered a man, yet hear you are before me. What a fascinating world this is to give me such splendid aid in my hour of need." Drinking deeply from her mug as if trying to revive some recent, cherished memory, Cixi sighed in resignation. "Your names. State them. I need absolute proof that you are who I believe you are."

Clark closed his eyes and took a deep breath before responding - which allowed Mei Ling to speak first. "I am Hong Mei Ling, Clark Osskisson's assistant and fellow traveler. If anything, I hope that-" Cixi clutched her mug so tightly that it looked as if her wrinkled fingers might manage to break it of their own accord.

"I did not ask you to speak for him, Miss Hong. Please do me the small courtesy of answering my question and then returning to silence. This is not easy for me, and at any time..." Trailing off ominously, the imperious woman's eyes drilled into Clark like a bullet from so long ago. He fought the desire to turn away or apologize for not responding more quickly.

"My name is Clark Osskisson. And I would hope that you understand that if one of us speaks, that should count as good for the both of us." Under the table, he reached for Mei Ling's hand, and squeezed it tightly. Cixi laughed, although not as unpleasantly as he had expected. She seemed almost relieved once they had both confirmed their identity, visibly sagging into her chair.

"As hilarious as it is that I meet another two fools who believe in this unattainable thing known as love, I'm glad that you are who you say you are. And before we get down to business - Clark, you should really drink some tea. You've been suffering the long-term symptoms of moderate arsenic poisoning for some time now. The amount that's built up in your system has probably the cause of your headaches. As for how I know-" Cixi knowingly tapped her forehead, as if to indicate a similar problem. Then, she shot Mei Ling the briefest of apologetic looks; if she had blinked, it would have been invisible.

"I'll be brief, as I've said that we don't have much time. You were present during an event you shouldn't have been. There may have been things you've seen that seemed unbelievable. Therefore, I'm asking you not to believe in them. Ignore them, go away, visit your family, disappear. It doesn't particularly matter to me; however, just by you existing, or worse, spreading unflattering rumors and discontent, such beliefs have a horrible tendency to be taken as truth." Cixi paused, sipping her tea while monitoring their reactions closely.

Mei Ling wasn't quite sure how to react. Was she referring to the body she had swore they'd seen? The bizarre things that attacked them on multiple occasions? Perhaps the voices that Clark claimed to hear?... For his part, Clark was still in a mild state of shock that he had been suffering arsenic poisoning. When? And why hadn't he noticed. Because normally, you'd be dead from it. Aren't you lucky, Clark? Such a lucky man...

Satisfied, Cixi spoke once more. "I can see you're not exactly sure what I'm telling you, so I'll spell it out simply. You may have run into some men, diplomats of a type, and gotten into a few brawls. Such chaos is a crime, of course - but since no one was really wounded, it's one that can be easily overlooked and forgiven. Perhaps you've also seen some events that are the result of a taxed mind. Can I ask you both to forget about them?" Her words were met with silence, broken only by the desperation in Cixi's voice. "... I can grant each of you some small boon or service for your promise in this. It's for the good of China - please."

There was no way that she was faking the emotion in her voice - but once again, after a brief display of fear, her face had resumed a calculating, masked, and above all, tired demeanor. Clark sank into thought, the warm feeling of Mei Ling's hand his lifeline to a world that felt so alien and removed from his own that he was not even sure this as well was not some confusing waking dream.

A boon, huh? Well, the obvious choice'd be something that benefits you. She's asking you to forget about us as well, by the way. She didn't come out and say it, but you know as much. You've probably pieced things together, since you're such. a. bright. kid. Now, sport! You get one shot, and one shot only. You want power. This is what you've built up for - don't let me down. You can finally fix all those mistakes of yours!

Gentleman's voice sounded like an increasing shrill trumpet in his ear, but for some reason seemed dejected, as if his heart wasn't even in the words he spat like flies into the dark recesses of Clark's mind. So Clark waited, for the inevitable counter-offer from the more quiet voice, the one that rarely showed herself... And soon, a sonorous voice that possessed a quiet strength posed a simple question.

You already know what you really want, don't you?


Clark opened his eyes and felt a fire coursing through his veins. It was now or never. His teeth rattled as he spoke and he wasn't sure if it was in a shout or a whisper. "... Can you promise me... That Mei Ling will be safe and happy? That if all of these things, these demons within and without - if I just pretend they never exist, there's one mistake... I'll never have to fix? Haha- this, this sounds so stupid when I say it out loud-" His laughter was cut off by the dead calm in Cixi's gaze.

"... For what it's worth, I can promise to the best of my ability that she will live happily and well, to the end of her days. That is the best I can do. Is that what you-" He didn't have to say any more. She nodded, and Clark fell back into his seat, unable to be certain of what had just occurred. He could barely make out the faint lines of Mei Ling's lips posing a question. He already knew what she was about to ask, and leaned forward to whisper in her ear.
"Mei Ling - she can't grant that for me."

Her eyes spoke volumes that no stunned reaction could match, her voice as quiet as he had only heard it once before. "But, why? Why is that, Clark? You can't... For me, you can't do that for me and then expect me to just sit there and not ask for your happiness?" Those pained words reached his ears, but at the same time seemed as brittle as glass - and the look in his eyes was also as brittle, full of fear and self-doubt and above all an assurance that for some reason, a reason he did not understand, that it was so.

Cixi said nothing to give hope to the woman older than herself whose tears were young and fierce and full of rage and self-anger, or assure the young man who was much older than he looked that his despair and inward loathing were actually intuition. Their whispered conversation continued for hours as the clock in Cixi's room ticked slowly onwards - and finally, after both had worn their faces red, Hong Mei Ling spoke her second-most desire.

"It - it's not the thing I want most, anymore. But could you please... Could you make it so that conditions didn't get worse in China? That people earned enough to survive, that we surpassed the old days and could actually be proud of how far we've come? Can you promise me that?" Her words were bitter, as if a challenge, sure that there was no way the old woman - no, a woman younger than her - could guarantee that huge task.

But Cixi shrugged her shoulders and finished the last of her tea with an enigmatic smile. "We're actually not too different, the three of us. You and I, Miss Hong - we both want the best for everyone in this country. Perhaps the world. Somehow, you've managed to hold on to idealism, perhaps even become more idealistic. As for me - I have never been able to believe that anyone can be trusted besides myself. And it has made me old, lonely, and powerful. We work in different ways - but so much as Clark's weapons were his words, and yours was your force of will, I will use all my influence to try to make your promise come true." She chuckled to herself, finding something amusing in retrospect.

"Well, it's done here. I know you have questions - but you've assured me that you will not try to answer them. Go to your room, sleep deeply and well, and tomorrow I will see if I cannot find a way to acquire you tickets - to wherever you want to be. That is, if you don't stay for the World Fair!" She laughed loudly and boisterously, pleased with this bit of back-room diplomacy that neither of them could understand. It even seemed like she was talking to the ceiling, or perhaps someone neither of them could see, challenging that unknown figure with her words.

Bidding them off with a wave of her hands, the last words Clark caught were so quiet he thought he might have imagined them. "... Forgive my cousin's attitude. He only wants to protect me. He's always... Protected me." Putting the half-imagined words of the lonely Empress behind them, the two left, and Cixi was enveloped by the darkness, a thin sliver of moonlight the only luminescence in the quiet room.

-

Clark felt nostalgic as the fireflies buzzed around newly built electric lighting, as if he was taking a road backwards through time. Fond memories kept infiltrating his senses, mingling with them as he and Hong Mei Ling headed back towards the hostel prepared for them. "You know..." He began, unsure of what he knew or why he needed to begin his sentence that way. "... You look incredibly beautiful, under the moonlight." Mei Ling laughed, but it seemed she wasn't sure if his sincerity - and so, on a whim, he held her under one of the glimmering lanterns and kissed her deeply.

For a minute they laughed and danced under the flickering lights while watching the stars in the sky and telling jokes of long ago. Stories of their previous adventures, of mistakes made and pasts unforgotten. As if drunk on starlight, he regaled her with the heroic exploits of the Osskisson household - they didn't matter, really, though - she'd taught him that.

She'd laughed, maybe said something in a questioning voice about what it was that made him question his own self-grandeur; acting offended, he stormed off in a huff; he hadn't meant it like that, obviously! Still laughing, she'd snuck up behind him and tackled his shoulders in a full embrace. It'd been his turn to laugh as they finally made their way to this - yet another home away from home; that elusive place. Opening the door like a true knight would, he'd motioned for her to go first; and she had, still laughing with embarrassment and happiness. Then, they'd went inside to the pleasantly furnished quarters provided.

-

That evening, Hong Mei Ling died peacefully in her sleep, of old age.

-




















8chap15.jpg

The Middle Kingdom on the eve of the World Fair
chinamap1890.jpg
 

naggy

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Whoops. That boon didn't last long.
 

Enewald

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Hmm... why build the canal?
So you can trade with US east coast? :D

Are you sure your money reserve is not too small?
Time for social reforms`?