GREAT RIVER, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, YEAR 46 NEW CALENDAR
It was all over. Or was it? The Emperor’s huge army, more than twelve hundred strong, had come to town. Like Santa Claus but different. Very different. There was no thought of open resistance. Eighteen bully boy enforcers would present about as much opposition to hardened, disciplined troops as a sheet of tissue paper to a thousand razor blades. Every citizen was walking small, or better yet not walking at all. Those who could get away with it were huddled in their homes, hoping against hope for the dark storm to pass without destroying everything they knew. Ferry men were huddled in disconsolate groups, staring at the ground, watching the newcomers furtively from the corners of their eyes. Most of the ferry barges were now guarded by hard-eyed Chinese officers commanding squads of either Asian or black soldiers. A few were covered by entirely Caucasian troops sporting blue Star of David insignia on their off-white, quilted shirts.
None of the boats were in the hands of their former owners. No one had been killed yet, not that they knew of, but the message was clear. A new Sheriff had come to town and he was packing heat.
In the upstairs conference at the Roundhouse, the Three Guys huddled, almost whispering as they tried to decide what to do. Brak, the lean one, dark eyed and ruthless. Philtre, fat as a hog who’d been running loose in the corn for years, puffy around the eyes, gluttonous and scheming. Ned, medium everything, able to walk among the people without being recognized. Or, to use the nicknames their serfs called them behind their backs: Larry, Curly, and Moe.
Philtre was of the opinion that, far from disaster, the presence of Hooded Cobra presented opportunity. “They’ll need administrators,” he insisted, his voice full of confidence. “We can be of use to War Leader Chang.”
Ned shook his head in negation. “People like that don’t need people like us.” He spoke quietly, unconcerned. They should have cut and run months ago, but his partners refused to believe the persistent rumors. Hooded Cobra was too far away. They would never come here. When the illusion was dispelled by the appearance of heavy cavalry at first light, followed by troops of three different colors marching in disciplined formation, it had been too late. Not a single ferry had gotten away safely.
This Venom Chang fellow knew what he was doing.
Brak said nothing. He was ever the most laconic of the Three Guys. He also cared the least about ostentation. Dark brown jeans, a cut above those worn by dock workers in finish and fit, but nothing fancy. Serviceable boots, their toes a bit scuffed. Cotton shirt, a deep forest green color. Plain leather belt with a plain knife in a plain sheath, no other visible weapon. His eyes gave away nothing as he studied the fat man.
“Brak?” Fat Philtre did indeed like fancy goods. His pants were made of soft leather, dyed an almost electric blue, accenting his bulging ankles, calves, and thunder thighs. Alligator leather boots, ridged and unmistakable, encased size thirteen feet. As a young man, destitute and underweight, he’d worn size tens, but his feet had gotten fat along with the rest of him and he liked the extra length. Big feet, big everywhere, the saying goes. Good for attracting the ladies. Not that any lady would willingly lie with him these days unless profit was involved. A lot of profit. Unlike his partners, he wore his bright red shirt outside his pants in a futile effort to disguise the size of his gut. Thick gold chains encircled his neck, hung with gemstones of every color. In a fight, those chains could be used to strangle him like Princess Leia strangled Jabba the Hutt in the classic Star Wars movie, though fighting was not in the lardful man’s nature. Deceit and treachery, perhaps poison or a hired assassin, certainly. But not fighting. “Brak? What do you think?”
Brak said nothing. What was there to say?
Besides, the lean man heard them on the stairs, seconds before the great double doors burst inward to admit more than a dozen Empire warriors. In the lead strode a powerful force in the form of a man. A Chinese man.
So, Brak thought. Venom himself comes to call. With no show of either fear or haste, Brak bowed deeply to the man who would determine his destiny. It was not a matter of sucking up. Most likely, his death had already been decided. War Leader Venom Chang, Emperor Chung’s right hand, simply deserved respect.
Ned did not bow. He merely turned his palms forward to show they held no weapons. And waited.
Scheming Philtre read things all wrong. He bowed, too, sort of, but it was a shaky affair, lubricated with copious sweat, and carried no conviction. The fat man’s eyes were darting left and right, looking for a way out that didn’t exist, even as his sly mouth began spewing out foolishness. “Great Emp–uh, Great War Leader, you see before you the humble trio who own Great River.” Or had owned it, until today. Poor choice of words. “You have shown your unopposable strength. I am yours to command.”
Chang stood still, feet spread shoulder width, arms crossed. Philtre missed it entirely but both Brak and Ned detected a hint of amusement in those dark, slanted eyes. “Unopposable?” His inquiry held no hint of mockery. “Is that an English word?”
Philtre blinked rapidly. He had no idea how to respond to that. Confused, he nearly missed the feared conqueror’s next words. “You,” Chang addressed the nondescript Ned, “do not bow?”
“Seems a waste.” Ned smiled at the man in battle letather. “You’re either going to have me executed or you’re not. Why spend the effort?”
Venom Chang, a specter of terror throughout the land, stared without expression. Then, suddenly and without warning, he burst into laughter. “Finally! All these years of preparation and conquest, yet never meeting anyone who saw the truth of things and had the testicular fortification to state it outright!” He turned his attention to Brak. “And you?”
Brak did not smile. “You have carried out your Emperor’s orders flawlessly. You’ve earned the respect.”
Philtre, spiraling down into panic at seeing his partners appearing to converse so easily with the fearsome Chinaman, decided he had to say something more. “I bowed, too, Your Excellency.”
Chang’s expression turned cold as winter ice. “You, sir, are the perfect symbol of what has gone wrong in this land.” His right hand flickered, a signal to the Skilled Man who stood at his side. Sora’s katana took the fat man’s head before the threat even registered, a bright flash of Damascus steel followed by the pumpkin rolling down over the great belly like a boulder released at the top of a hill. It landed and rolled across the floor, scheming eyes still scheming, Soul unaware its physical incarnation had been terminated. Blood fountained from the slumping body’s neck in bright scarlet counterpoint, spraying both Brak and Ned yet somehow missing the invaders entirely.
Sora cleaned his sacred blade on the pig-person’s expensive shirt, reflecting wryly on the fact that his boss really didn’t like fat men. His face gave away nothing.
“You,” Venom Chang addressed the remaining Two Guys, “may pack your bags. We will discuss your new assignments over breakfast in one hour.”
The four fish dish, a Roundhouse specialty, was much better than expected. It hadn’t even killed my taster. I cleaned my plate, considered calling for a second helping, and decided no. Self discipline in all things. I would not let a small town plate of food tempt me.
Over chicory based coffee for the former owners, who’d had the sense to change clothes, and chamomile tea for me, we got down to business. “I can use you as spies,” I told them bluntly.
The dark man called Brak did not respond in any way that I could see. Ned, however, nodded as if he’d expected nothing else. “Away from here, we would not be known.”
“Exactly.” The man who could walk in any white society without being noticed was, I confirmed to my pleasure, no fool. “You will go as common traders. From this town, Great River. Using Great River freight wagons. You’re from here, so no one will be able to trip you up on that score. Few know your names, thanks to the care you took to be known as Three Guys. Larry, Curly, and Moe.” My lip curled involuntarily. Ancient comedy was a favorite study of mine. One among many. You’ll carry trade goods, items of real value gleaned from your warehouse hoards stolen from honest people.”
I waited to see if either of them would protest my wording. Neither did. Good. They understood the situation. “Both of you are in your forties, too old to be conscripted into our military arm. As spies, however, you may have value. You will leave immediately, as soon as the wagons can be loaded and the teams harnessed. My men have interviewed your eighteen enforcers. Nine have been executed as being of no worth. The other nine will go with you as drivers and guards. They are used to taking orders from you. Just do not let any of them desert. I would take it unkindly.”
“You,” I indicated the taciturn Brak, “are to be known as the Trader, the man in charge. Ned will be the keeper of records and second in command.”
“Where,” the man called Ned inquired mildly, “are we to trade?”
“From north of Gatorville to the farthest reaches of the remote Northwest Territory. To a place called Fort Steel, where they have a foundry.” There were more instructions, but I was most interested in that foundry. Provided I could take it intact, the foundry would one day turn out ton after ton of weapons, armor, horseshoes, wagon wheel rims, U bolts, tongue hardware, fencing wire, and more, all for the glory of the Empire. I had to have that foundry. “You may find yourselves tempted to abandon this trust. Freedom in the wilderness, you might think. I know that in your position I would consider the possibilities. Thus, I offer you the carrot and the stick.”
“The stick is simple. You already understand it. Betray me, desert or bring back false information to hinder my mission, and you will die a thousand deaths before you die.” I barely needed to say it, but better redundant than careless.
“The carrot is also simple. Serve me well until this conquest is complete–I do not deign to call it a war, for none can oppose us effectively–when it’s over, any spy who has served honorably will be rewarded with two square miles of prime land, preferably with live water, deeded into his name. Additionally, there will be a mustering-out purse of 1,000 golds for each of you, enough to hire men to work for you, to build, to farm, to start a new business if that is what you wish. I have the Emperor’s word on this.”
I was startled when Brak chose to speak. “That’s a sizeable carrot.”
“Yes. There is one proviso. You will not be allowed to cheat your workers, to steal from anyone, or in general to live dishonest lives as you have done here. Even so, the temptation to forfeit may be strong. To counter that, I must tell you a story.”
Leaning back in my chair and crossing my legs, I began. “Long ago, many centuries Before, there used to be people called hillbillies living in parts of a state called Arkansas. There was a true story told about two of these men. They’d been out catching frogs. Returning home at night, their pickup truck–like a covered freight wagon, but self-powered and very fast–was doing okay until the headlights went out. The hillbillies figured out a fuse had blown. Being the geniuses they were, they put a .22 long rifle cartridge in to replace the fuse. It fit perfectly. Twenty miles down the road, just before they reached a bridge, the cartridge overheated, went off, and blew a hole through the driver’s testicles.”
I had to stop. Ned was laughing out loud. “This really happened,” I said. “I assure you.”
“Never doubted it.”
I went on. “When the bullet hit, the wounded driver cranked the wheel hard to the right, running the truck off the road and into a tree. The injuries from the accident weren’t much, but it took major surgery to fix up those testicles and they never did work right after that. The passenger told the cops, if they’d been on that bridge when his buddy shot his balls off, they both would have been killed. To add insult to injury, the wounded man’s wife had just one question. She wanted to know how many frogs the boys had caught and if anybody had brought them in from the wrecked truck.”
“The point to this,” I finished quietly, “is that you can’t fix stupid. So you two, don’t be stupid.”
Choosing inventory for the three wagons would take some time. I left them to it, under guard of course, and headed back to my headquarters command tent in the army’s center, Sora at my side. We would be staying here for at least three days while the army’s administrators evaluated the needs of the town and made recommendations. In the end it would be up to me. How many fighting troops would be needed to keep the area secure? Of those, how many cavalry and how many infantry? What were the resources, other than the ferries, and how many ferries were available to move the army across the unbelievably broad, intensely muddy river? Unhappily, I was pretty sure I knew the answer. Great River’s existing boats were small and few. To transport three thousand people–more than a thousand troops, followed by civilian freighters under contract, camp followers, all the paraphernalia of an army on the march including the dwindling herds of cattle–we were going to have to build ferries of our own. Much larger craft, capable of shifting one hundred or more troops at a time. Or thirty cavalry. Or forty cows.
Sora took up a position near the tent flap while I settled down on the camp bench with a sigh. My work table was set up, complete with plenty of paper, pens, and ink. We at Hooded Cobra, by far the superior and most intelligent race, had saved the ancient knowledge of paper making. I could be thankful for that much at least.
Flexing my fingers in grim anticipation, I took up a pen, dipped the tip in ink, and began writing my report.
MOST GLORIOUS EMPEROR CHUNG, EYES ONLY
Arrived Great River this day, April 1st, Year 46, before dawn. Town and ferries have been secured with no loss of life on either side, save only one local administrator and nine useless thugs, executed. Severe delay is expected, possibly months. Ferry boats inadequate for our glorious army. River as wide as stories say. Not crossable by other means. Plan to build crossing fleet of our own, to be left under guard for army use only. Assets acquired and dispatched. Supplies adequate to date.
“Sora.” I handed the finished page to my friend. He scanned it quickly and nodded. It made sense to him. He handed it back. I folded the sheet of paper, placed it into a courier pouch, and sealed that. It would be moving quickly back toward Hooded Cobra within the hour, destined to bring new wrinkles of unhappiness to the Emperor’s brow. The man could read between the lines. Yes, supplies were adequate. For now. But as we forged along, putting ever more distance between Hooded Cobra and its glorious army, keeping those supplies adequate was proving to be an ever intensifying headache. An army could not requisition from local citizenry what locals did not have. Hunting stripped a miles-wide swath of wild game without filling a quarter of our bellies. Foolish children that we were, the Emperor and I had both believed we would be in full control of the known world, all the way to Fort Steel and back, long before now. I thought of the wisdom written down by my own ancestor.
Alone, I move like lightning. No enemy can avoid the speed of my strike.
With a squad, I move like leopard, swift, silent, deadly, with many sharp fangs and claws.
With a company, I move like lazy cow, cropping grass and lying down to chew my cud.
With an army, I move like snail, leaving slime in my wake.
Ancestor Wang understood. The more people on the march, the slower they moved. It had never made any sense to me. Why should such a thing be so? It made no sense. And yet it was so.
“Skilled Man,” I said to Sora, “Ask your questions. Make your comments.” This was a ritual between us, enacted only when we could not be overheard. Every Chinese knew his was the superior race. My friendship with an inferior person, a mere Japanese, remained neither understood nor accepted in most of our peoples’ hearts, though they did not speak of my heresy. They were not suicidal. For the most part they were not. Every now and then, a fanatic did attempt to assassinate either one or both of us. Thirty-seven attempts since Chung took the throne, twenty-two more than against the Emperor. Few knew of our glorious empire’s internal turmoil. Happily so.
“I have only one. What do you really intend with the scum, Brak and Ned?”
“Caught that, did you?”
“Of a certainty. I would be most surprised if either one of those men returned to give their reports.”
“Of course they will not. They are hardly men of honor. There are three things I do expect them to accomplish. One, they will spread the word ahead of us, describing our army as even greater than it is, terrifying the populace, turning the bowels of local politicians to water. That will make the settlements less likely to consider fighting a superior force. It will make our conquest that much easier.
“The second thing I expect them to do is seek asylum with one or another of the Northwest Territory peoples. Once they have been accepted, I expect them to raise havoc from within. If this Brac and Ned can find a way to take over leadership, they will. If they cannot, they will still cause trouble. They have a certain amount of self discipline but their men do not. There will be theft, rape, perhaps murder. They will weaken the host community that welcomes them.”
Sora nodded, satisfied. I knew I was right. Aside from the enemy, where such were not allowed, every society–no matter how small–had its politicians.
I had no way of knowing just how wrong I was, how deadly my mistaken assumptions would prove to be. By and large, the Northwest Territory peoples were led by cold-eyed warrior statesmen, not politicians at all. It was not at that time possible for me to believe such a thing. I had told the Great River scum, “You can’t fix stupid.” I should have told myself.