Friday, November 28, 2008

Return to Fusang: Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place

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O'Toole in the Sorghum field
The newcomer is shorter than me by about half a head, wearing Western clothing (ill advised in the surrounding neighborhood), and transmits an earnest, energetic air about him that is not unpleasant.

"Who might you be, sir?" I say, nodding at the MI-5 signal, giving a countersign (three fingers brushing the hair back, as if distracted; not that this will do the casual reader any good; they will have been changed by now).

"Aye, stranger, whom might YOU be?" says Yao. The newcomer could not but feel a bit apprehensive at so many rifles, carbines and choppers pointed in his direction by big, grinning bandits. I think Yao doesn't like to have the rug pulled out from under him in this manner. He is perhaps a tad peevish about a newcomer walking in unannounced with no warning from his scouts. Tsk. Crafty devil, this fellow.

"I am Shea LeFevre, a trader and resident of Caledon. This is my companion in whose company I have traveled with since Kowloon. You are Colonel O'Toole, if I am not much mistaken?"

"No use denying that. I rather doubt there are that many Westerners in this neck of the woods to confuse me with"

"Sir! Are you aware that there is a rather concerted effort to see you dead by the so-called "Dragon who Waits", from Fusang?"

I goggle at that one, and start laughing. The bandits join in after Yao translates.

"Yes, Mr. LeFevre, I had some notion. But I thank you for the warning, nonetheless."

He goes somewhat red-faced.

"That is to say, you are familiar with her Grace, Eva Bellambi?"

Yao intercedes, grinning. "Ah! The head of Caledon MI-5! You have hidden depths, Colonel!"

I shrug my shoulders, repeating tonelessly: "There is no Caledon MI-5. There never was a Caledon MI-5. If such an agency existed, I'm certain *I* should have had nothing to do with it."

Even LeFevre laughs at this jibe.

I continue: "I have made acquaintance of the lady of which you speak, sir, I believe I met her at her last Winter Ball. Charming affair. Somewhat spoilt by a Norwegian fellow with gigantic boots that insisted in gobbling up the cucumber sandwiches before I could hook a few for myself.. " Yao and LeFevre look at me, quizzically.

", in any event, yes, I have met her."

Shea continues. "The Duchess has arranged for your exfiltr... er.. your repatriation after wiring me for assistance and intercession. I have an extra horse for you, sir. If we ride out now, and are stealthy about it, we can make Kowloon via the North shore of the Yalu in four days."

Yao frowns. I look at the healer lady from the Hanxian village and smile. She smiles back at me. I know that English isn't her native tongue so she's probably getting one word in 50.

"You are mistaken, sir..." I start, grinning.

"I am in no means in distress. Nor, as you can see, am I 'kidnapped' any longer. I will not be leaving until certain business here is concluded."

His eyes bulge at that one. "But SIR! You are commanded! Surely you are in no shape for.. that is to say.. how could you possibly... you seriously don't mean..?"

"Oh, I mean to, alright" I reply. "The Western Powers have made a horrid mess of things here in the Celestial Kingdom, for an easy price they didn't have to pay. These last few days, I've seen not dozens of people, but hundreds of people slain by this madman. HUNDREDS. Wrap your mind around that, son. How did they do that? With tanks and aeroplanes and cannon that the Chinese didn't used to have.. until WE gave it to them. People like ME gave it to them. We have to fix this. And I intend to do so."

It is hardly our fault that the Dragon Who Waits is a genocidal madman, Colonel...

Yao looks sharply up at LeFevre.

"No? it isn't? Listen here, long nose, and learn some wisdom. You know how we in the Celestial Kingdom used to go to war? We would all meet on the assigned time and place. There would be bands along playing gongs and drums. The astrologers would be along to cast portents. The generals would stand on hills under umbrellas! In my father's time, we took breaks in the middle of the battle for tea and rice! All very ridiculous to you, I'm sure, but very Chinese to us, and the way it has been done for a thousand years. Now we witness the machines that rend the earth, and the black smokes, and Land dragons with iron skins.. and.. villages destroyed..."

His voice is catching with anger. I look at him with some sympathy, suddenly realizing why a divinity student had become a bandit leader working for British Intelligence.

She turns back to me: "But sir! Listen to reason! They have tens of thousands of men under arms, they have a steam leviathan! There are rumors of kite-ships in the air, and railroads, and other, larger constructions of war! You don't stand a chance! Besides, the Duchess has commanded it. "

Mr... Lefevre? What would your rank be, in that non-existent organization, if it did exist (speaking entirely hypothetically)?

"J-junior field agent, sir. Probational. I mean, if it were real, that is."

"And mine? If there was such an organization?"

"S-s-ector lead, Celestial Kingdom desk, sir"

"Entirely correct. So if, say, a notional sector lead says 'make it so', does a theoretical junior field agent say 'no, you have to follow me instead'?" "

Er, nossir, I didn't mean to make the presumption...."

"I thought not. Now, we have plans to make, and you could be useful as well as energetic. Someone has to scout the approaches to Fusang Castle. You're quite correct, they have a very large army.. But it can't be everywhere at once, so we can move quite freely in the places where it is not. I suggest we move with Yao's band here, as close to Fusang as we can go, and then perhaps a small band of 3 to 5 of us try to infiltrate in through cover of darkness..."

At this point Yao snorts derisively.

"In the words of my grandparents, 'you one crazy long nose devil'. Infiltrate.. and do WHAT?"

"Unspecified tasks.."

"Colonel, just a minute ago, you were boasting that The Dragon Who Waits has lived long enough. If you mean to kill him then say so."

"That's the rub, Yao.. governments don't kill leaders, they don't make war on individuals."

He laughs at that one. "You don't strike me as being naive, Colonel. Though they won't come out and say it, I suspect that is what your former masters are attempting to do right now."

"The British? How?"

"They are funneling arms and supplies to the Army of of Progressive Peace, under General Feng They are trying to goad him into making an advance on Fusang to commit an 'unspecified task' on General Lieng"

Trust the British to use one warlord to supplant another. Isn't Feng a bit long in tooth for this sort of adventure?

"The son. Old Feng died about four summers back. The younger Feng is a different breed. A reformer, you might call him. Wants land reform, and a representational government"

"That would be a first. I'd like to meet him some time, but not until we are through with Lieng... do you think you could get us close to Fusang, Yao?"

"You are not listening, Colonel. Fusang has the largest armed force in the Celestial Kingdom at the moment. More so, it is whispered, than the army of the Emperor himself. There are dozens of patrols. Machines that march on land and fly in the air. Even now the engineers from the West are building him the Iron River Dragon. There is no way to get there undetected. You plan is rash, and smacks of heroics... I am not eager to play the role of 'convenient villager who helps the Western heroes along, only to conveniently die assaulting the fortress' and I don't want that for my men, either. I suggest we make for the Yalu and join forces with Feng, who should be advancing on the Southern bank of the Yalu. It may take more time, but it will be more sure than just riding into the jaws of the Dragon who Waits."

Shea jumps on this argument.

"Yessir! The Army of Progressive Peace has grown tremendously in the last six months. They have the start of an aerial squadron of some sort, and British advisers, from what I have been told.

I am bemused.. " 'An aerial squadron' you say. As in airships? "

"If reports are true, yes, and other, faster style aeroplanes under the command of a British pilot they have sent out here to assist."

Yao puts in: "And more Westerners have arrived, from the reports"

"Anyone I would know of?"

"THEY appear to know YOU, Colonel. They asked for you by name!"

I'm startled..

"They asked about me? Who was this?"

"Three men. Two American by appearances. One could not be mistaken for being anything but a Scot"

"Did you see them? What do they look like?"

"No, I did not, the information was sent via courier. But I am told that one of them carries the Moon curse, but not from the tribe that was tracking you just now"

"Moon curse? You mean.. a Lycan?"

"Yes, that is your word for it."

"What about the other American?"

"Large moustache, carries a doctor's bag"

I am dumbfounded. Americans? A Lycan? This could only mean... Sheriff Ortega, and that sounded like Doctor Mason. The Scot, I'd never heard of. Good lord above, what were they doing here? Suddenly, many of the pieces fell together at once. The hallucinations, the visions while under torture and in a coma. This is heaven sent! They had come here looking for ME, of all people. I am touched. I never expected this. This changed things drastically. Suddenly I was close to allies I could trust...

"Yao! I see the light of your wisdom. I shall make for the Yalu, and attempt to join up with General Feng. Mr. LeFevre, will you and your strange accomplice accompany me?"

LeFevre is grinning and bobbing. "Absolutely, Colonel!"

I turn to Pu Ying and address him in Mandarin: "What will you do, oh brave bannerman of the EVA?"

Ying grins. "We have the job to complete for iron boat Masters (the Pigeon, he meant). We escort this one (gesturing to the little healer lady) back to Hanxian before she gets in trouble. Then we enter Fusang's army once more and record information for Iron Boat master"

I bowed, deeply.

"Thank you, Small Shang, for the gift of the knife. I buried it in the Russian's heart"

(Not exactly true; but theatrics is part of job in China)

Shang breaks into a bucktoothed grin and bows three times, chattering excitedly.

At that revelation, the bandits chatter excitedly, too. I sense Ignatieff was roundly hated by the local citizenry.

I turn to LeFevre.

"I suggest we get started at once. We have tarried in this spot FAR too long, and every minute brings more Fusang Cavalry patrols closer."

"One moment, sir! I brought Anh from the village to see if she could assist your wounds. Those are good field dressings, but that hand is looking nasty"

Anh, eh? I realized I hadn't learned her name.

I bow to her, respectively. She blushes.

"I am at your disposal"

She sits me down on a stump while the camp saddles up the horses and makes their gear ready.

She removes the torn and bloody shirt I am wearing. Clucking with sympathy at the angry red wound in my side from the bayonet. Reaching into her basket, she pulls out a small pair of scissors and three bottles of some form of liquid.

She gestures to the stitches..

"Yes, Anh, they were the best I could manage with one hand."

"This is.. not bad work" she says, shyly.

She quickly cuts the stitching I made (shooshing protests) and pulls the thread out. Filling the wound with the blood-stanching, constricting medicine I had seen earlier, I felt the area grow warm and tingly. Then she uses another medicine (this one thick and gluey) to pack into the wound. The whole area was bandaged around with clean linen. Almost immediately, it begins to itch horridly..

"Do NOT scratch. That is body going back into harmony. Do not disturb it"

I scratch at other parts, instead. I suspect whomever had this outfit prior to me had a flea problem. Wounds or no, a long soak in a tub would be wonderful at this moment.

Next, she looks at my left hand with the broken small finger. She applies an orange-ish, tingling medication to the broken finger, which is quite swollen. Then she holds the finger bones together, which is an agony.. yet, within minutes the swelling goes down, and I can tentatively waggle my fingers again. This is a miracle of healing!

I rise up and bow again.

"I must depart. I am sorry about what happened at Hanxian"

"So am I" she says, shaking her head sadly.

"I hope to make things right, Anh, or try to"

"Be Careful" she says.

I mount up on the little mare that had provided such excellent service escaping from Fusang cavalry earlier.

"Yao, Mr. Lefevre, shall we go?"

Yao grins, and gives the move out whistle to the rest of the bandits.

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