Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Return to Fusang: Comrades in Arms

Steelhead Adventures/Return to Fusang

Entry Point | Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

Blinking in the sun, I stand on the dock at Hangxian, surveying the landscape with mounting horror. This village had stood for time immemorial, long before there was a Warlord of Fusang, or even the Emperor himself. At 300 li from Fusang's capital, they had never had any dealings with the people from the highlands. Entire generations of families had been born, fished the banks of the Pei-Yang in peace, and nobody had ever even heard of Fusang before. Now, they were vanished. My look of disgust and loathing must be palpable, for Lien Bao somehow feels inclined to comment.

"See how the Dragon who Waits now has access to the wider ocean, Colonel. You Lords of the West have taught China an important lesson-- we shall not ignore the wider world any longer. The conquest of Hangxiang is the first step towards that wider world-- what you see will be rebuilt into a modern port city, servicing the Fusang Highlands! Impressive, is it not?"

"Impressive? What happened to the Villagers who once lived here? This isn't Fusang! It's hundreds of li from Fusang! What is your master up to?"

"My master?" Lien Bao laughs. "You are droll, Colonel. Pray you do NOT make acquaintance of my true master. As for the Dragon who waits, He desires a river port and a navy, perhaps a merchant fleet in time, so he may hold His head up amongst other Lords of China, perhaps the Emperor himself. "

"But why here on the Pei-Yang, Bao? We both know this is no great river of commerce, like the Yalu to the south. You will have to extensively dredge and reengineer what's left of Hangxiang to even begin to have the proper sort of harbor for this effort. Why not go to the Yalu? It's less than half the distance, over flatter ground. Hangxiang will require an army of men months to complete!"

Bao grins strangely. "Time and manpower, Colonel, are both resources the Celestial Kingdom posesses in abundance. As for the Yalu, it will eventually provide a waterway for Fusang to reach Kowloon and beyond. But for now, the Dragon who Waits had set his eye on the Pei-Yang."

I smirk. "Would Feng Yü-hsiang factor into that decision, perhaps??"

Lien Bao glowers... (Aha!, I think.. that's close to home!). "It is not for us to question the will of the Dragon who Waits, Colonel. The Progressive Army of Heavenly Peace hardly factors into His will at this juncture".

I ponder that, while keeping an outward mask of calm. The guards lead me, half dragged, to the small go-down (warehouse) at the pier edge. The Progressive Army of Heavenly Peace must be the latest grandiloquent name for the army of Liang's southern rival, Feng Yü-hsiang. The fact that Liang didn't start expanding towards the easier target speaks volumes. Perhaps he fears a confrontation with Feng, at least until he builds his army up.

Once again, I'm chained to the wall in the go-down. I'm laughing to myself, now. Musn't smirk. These are the same chains I have been testing in a state of berserkergegang for the last week. The guards seem oblivious to weak points developing in some of the links.

Bao enters with a small woman of middle years. Her eyes are downcast and filled with fear and sorrow, and perhaps.. rage?

Bao says, in Mandarin: "You will see to the Long-nose's comforts, including food, a bath, and such of our clothing that might fit him".

"Yes, Worshipful One." She bows, and departs.

(in his flawless, Oxford English) "Now, Colonel, I must leave you for a time, and report to my Master at Fusang, so He might prepare for your arrival. He greatly looks forward to your meeting."

"I must say I relish the meeting somewhat less, but I cannot fault your wonderful hospitality."

Lien Bao bows. "The next step of your journey shall arrive tomorrow. We have arranged for an escort fit for a prince, Colonel. You should be honored!" he exits. I hear a rush of wind outside the warehouse, and the diminishing laughter of Bao, heading.. Upward? Crafty old bastard.

The woman arrives presently. I ask her: "What is your sorrow, child?"

She does not reply, only passing me a bundle of clothing, bathing accountrements and a hot bowl of rice with fish. I eat, greedily and quickly, feeling strength return. She stands with her eyes downcast as I bathe, then change from the filthy rags of a Wrath Commodore undress uniform and into the padded, shapeless chinese garment, not much different from the dress affected by about 300 million other citizens of the Highland region. I wouldn't pass for a native (ever), but at least I would be warm and comfortable, now reasonably clean. The woman watches the process with dull fascination, her eyes lingering on many of the marks of recent encounter with Bao's questioners. I am a fast healer, but the whip marks are still quite livid, and the multiple bruises are transitioning from sickly purple to puffy yellow/green now, which must have been a sight to see.

She seems to wish to say something. Again, I ask: "What is your sorrow, child? You needn't tell me if you don't desire to."

She looks at the whip marks, the chain, and tears fill her eyes. Choking, she leaves.

It occurs to me. She is a citizen of Hangxian. What she must have seen!

Yawning, my head droops. This is hardly a point to relax, but I the warm food in the belly was always a trigger to get sleep while I could.. or was it drugged again? I couldn't tell, for once again, I found myself spiraling into blackness.

This time, my dreams are more incoherent visually, but more acute aurally. I hear, again, and again, Ward reciting "Imperiequeritis, tria pendent corpora ramis dis meus et gestas in media et divina potestas dimeas clanator sed jetas as astra levarut..." with me.. like the impatient Brothers of Saint Trinians trying to drill Latin into my resistant brain. I see him by the fire, laughing, eyes crinkling up, and he turns to me.. "Are you slacking on your lessons, O'Toole?" Then, other voices, without faces, but I can recognize them. A woman's voice.. the Duchess? She is dictating a telegram. "Do not fail me in this assignment, Shea..." and then, again, the faint voice of the Sherrif of Steelhead. "I ... saw... Hotspur" and another voice I don't recognize... "far greater danger than..." and then blessed blackness again.

I awake to a rough shaking. It takes a minute or two to recognize them, but before me were Pu Ying, Small Shang, and the Filipino whose name I couldn't ever pronounce but means "Wild Man". From the old days! My eyes widen. "Good Lord, am I dreaming still? This IS a pleasant surprise.. how the DEVIL did you find me here? It's been years!"

"Be quiet, Running Dog Lackey of the West!" snaps Pu Ying.

I stop short at the expression on their faces, which are filled with anger and sorrow. It was at that point the sleep cobwebs clear, and I realize they are not in EVA uniforms any longer, it is twenty years later, and they are now wearing the uniform of Fusang.

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