Stirk missed the shooting but rode in before the smell of cordite had cleared from the air. He found me at Venom Chang’s side, watching as the best medics we had on hand explored the extent of the War Leader’s injuries. The man who’d always been at his side, the Japanese swordsman, lay in the next cot, weak from loss of blood through half a dozen bullet holes but alert and expected to recover. The man’s constitution was remarkable. By contrast, Chang was still alive but unconscious. One shoulder was an absolute mess but the most immediate threat seemed to be the bloody crease in his skull from front to back on the left side, an inch above the ear. I straightened and jerked my head to one side, urging the Chief Scout to join me away from curious ears.
“I need him alive if he can be saved,” I began.
He read my mind and cut me off. “You need Laura and Herman.”
“Yes.” Had Weasel’s widow ever done brain surgery? I didn’t know. But if the medics could help stabilize Chang for a while, and if–a very big if–Chang was tough enough to hang on until they could get here, Fort Steel’s premier healer and the Roost’s herbalist extraordinaire represented his best chance.
“I’ll burn a hole in the snow,” he said. He did, too. Riding the outstanding black Badge horses and leading spares, he and his squad made the round trip to Elk Hollow and back in ten days flat, healers in tow. The widow Compton had a sore butt and the Hermit, who’d traveled north with his own curious, ape-like lope, had quads that stiffed up every morning for a week after, but they were here and Chang was still hanging on. Still unconscious, but still breathing.
“I don’t know how much brain damage he’s got,” I told them, “but he’s all yours.” They got to work and got back to the unending problems of administration.
Only forty-three Hooded Cobra soldiers were still alive and healthy enough to travel. We’d interrogated every one of them, along with thirty-six permanently disabled, nineteen of those likely to die sooner or later. A double handful petitioned for asylum, begging permission to immigrate. We weren’t too sure about any of them. How could they be trusted? But we left the blacks to Randy McGee and the Jews to whoever was going to end up running the Badge. They were sovereign states; if they wanted to taken in some of their own, it was no business of mine.
I did have to consider the fate of three Asians: One Chinese sergeant, a Korean private, and another private who identified himself as a mixture of Indonesian, Caucasian, and Vietnamese. That one, for whatever reason, struck me wrong. He also struck every member of the Barred Rocks wrong. When I told him he would not be accepted, he asked why. “I don’t have to give reasons,” I told him curtly. He wanted to argue the point until he was informed that he could either shut up or be shot. He shut up.
We decided to accept the Chinese and the Korean, on probation. If they failed, they would be executed. Nobody told them that part but they could not be allowed to carry intel back to Hooded Cobra. Especially since the Roost would have to host them. Nobody else would. MAP had lost eighty-seven good men in this war, counting those with injuries that left them unable to care for themselves. It would take us years to recover. Possibly decades. Asians would not be safe anywhere in MAP territory except at the Roost, among the most eclectic group of weirdos in the Territory.
Hey. We think outside of the box and we’re proud of it.
Laura Compton trepanned Chang’s skull, bored a hole to let out accumulated blood, relieving pressure. She also repaired his shoulder while he remained unconscious. “Pretty bad swelling in the brain,” she told me, “and seven bone chips removed from the shoulder. I don’t know if he’ll live or not. If he does, he’ll never regain full use of that arm. All we can do now is wait. He’s basically in a coma.”
Weeks passed, and then months. Sora, also known as the Skilled Man, was back on his feet, unarmed and closely guarded but forcing himself to exercise withered muscles. By mid-March, it looked like an early spring with melting temperatures at midday more often than not. Early one afternoon, young Davies Compton brought me the news. “He’s awake.”
I didn’t have to ask who he meant.
Chang was propped up, resting on a pile of furs, when I entered the tent. “So you’re him,” he croaked, his throat rusty from disuse. Sora held a mug of thin broth to his lips. He sipped, almost choked, but his dark eyes never left my face.
“If you mean I’m MAP’s commanding officer,” I nodded, “then yes. That would be me. Major Michael Jade.”
His eyes went wide for a moment, then crinkled in amusement. “Major Jade?”
“That’s right. It means something to you?”
“Two somethings.” Another sip. “Sora tells me we lost the war. That I’ve been in a coma for months. Strangely, I remember most of it. But to lose to a mere major? That’s so unthinkable…it is laugh or cry.”
I shrugged. “We’re a young society. Not high population. Just never saw the need for fancy labels. Just enough to get the job done.”
“You did that.”
“You said two somethings?”
“Do you know the significance of jade–the stone, I mean–in Chinese culture, Major?”
“Can’t say that I do.” The Library undoubtedly had that information. It had simply never occurred to me to look it up.
“To us, jade is everything good. The primary hardstone of Chinese sculpture. Embodies the virtues of courage, wisdom, modesty, justice, compassion. Symbolizes goodness, preciousness, beauty.”
“Is that all?” I asked wryly.
“No. Emotional healing, too. Elimination of negativity.”
“Well now, I’m suddenly all impressed with myself.”
“No.” Weak as he was, he probably shouldn’t be talking at all, yet his gaze was piercing. “You are not. Which makes you trebly dangerous. I did not expect to find one such as you here.”
He needed to take it easy. I could see that. Besides, Laura Compton was hovering, giving me dirty looks. She was almighty protective when it came to her patients. But he wasn’t done.
“I am your prisoner.” A statement, not a question.
“For now, yes. Heal. Regain your strength. When you are stronger, I will have a proposition for you.” I left the tent with two sets of eyes on my back. I had given Chang and his friend, Sora, something to think about.
Another week passed. I kept myself busy, waiting for Chang’s call. He requested my presence on a fine Sunday morning. A few birds were already returning from their winter vacations, winging in, bringing a sense of renewed life to the land. Canadian honkers flapped high overhead, most of them pointing north, a few seemingly confused.
The Chinese warrior was up and dressed, sitting on a camp stool, elbows resting on a small camp table, fingers laced. The Japanese swordsman, sans sword, stood at his right shoulder, a little to the rear, showing no sign of the trauma his body had suffered. Remarkable men, these two.
I seated myself across from Chang. Mace stood at my left shoulder, directly across from his opposite number. Half a dozen people tried to hang around, pretending to be casual, hoping to hear what might come of this momentous meeting between the top military leaders of MAP and the Empire. I dismissed them, my tone brooking no dissent.
Venom Chang wasted no time on pleasantries. “You said you had a proposition for me?”
“I do. If your mind is clear.”
He blinked. “It is clear enough. There are little things my memory drops when it should not, but when that happens, Sora can–and does–refresh my memory. Between the two of us, nothing said here will be lost or distorted.”
Nice speech, but nothing distorted? There was always something distorted in communications. “Some might say,” I began slowly, choosing my words carefully, “that the Empire lost this war.”
“Only some?” Chang smiled despite himself. “An interesting choice of words, Major Jade.”
“History is written by the winners. Or so it is said. But that is not always the case. History can be written by the losers if the losers are skilled at public relations. Or in this case…let me be specific, War Leader. I do not want the world to know you failed to win this war.”
His eyes went wide. “Why on Earth not? If not that, what do you want?”
“This is what,” I replied, handing him a sheet of paper. “Read it, and then I will explain the why.”
He bent to the task, Sora reading over his shoulder.
1. War Leader returns to his Emperor’s court.
2. En route, and thereafter, War Leader spreads word of a great victory in the Northwest Territory. Why is he escorted by a mere 40 cavalry? Obviously because he left the Empire’s Glorious Army in place to administer the new acquisitions.
3. An alliance is formed an ratified between the two Powers of this Continent: The Continental Alliance, details TBD.
It didn’t take long to read. Chang raised his eyes from the paper. Studied my face. “I don’t understand. You want the world to believe we conquered you?”
“Not the entire world,” I corrected, “but outside of MAP territory, yes. You two, and of course your Emperor plus any he may choose to inform, will know the truth. But most of your people and all of the communities between us–Great River, Gatorville, et cetera–will believe we are nothing more than Empire colonies.”
“I don’t understand. You will lose so much face….”
“That’s one of the differences between us. I am a practical man, War Leader. Face means little to me. But I am also a student of history. I also understand that if we are to have an alliance, face is everything to you and must not be lessened. Have you studied the ancient Egyptian pharaohs?”
“In depth? No. A few snippets, nothing more.”
“A brief mention, then. One of the earlier pharaohs, thousands of years ago, went off to war with the intention of subduing a distant group of people. In due course, the pharaoh returned from campaign, announcing a victory so great that he’d left the bulk of his army in place to govern the new Egyptian province. He sent a beloved daughter there, a bit later, to assume rulership.
“But it was all a lie, some say the first Great Lie–though I doubt that–which worked on the theory that the bigger the lie, the easier it was for common people to swallow. In fact, the Egyptian army had been wiped out by the defending force. The pharaoh’s daughter was not sent to rule those people but required as a hostage to ensure the pharaoh’s good behavior in the future. And yet,” I leaned forward, pinning my esteemed adversary with my gaze, “and yet, the Big Lie held for 3,000 years, the truth being finally exposed by archeologists eons after the liar was dead and gone.”
“So the Emperor is cast in the role of Pharaoh?”
“And you get what from this?”
“In secret, not published, held closely in Empire archives and MAP records only, a pact between us. A trade agreement coupled with an agreement of nonaggression. Amicable relations all around. Sharing of information, up to a point. Both sides will always hold something back. That is inevitable. But, tokens of free passage in both directions, with Gatorville designated a Free Trade Zone where we can exchange information and ideas as well as goods and services. And in place of a supposed Egyptian queen to rule us, you send us forty young Asian girls between ten and twelve years of age, with at least ten of them being Chinese.”
“You…want our young females?” I could feel hostility rising in the man. Understandable. In his place, I wouldn’t like those terms, either. “Why, specifically?”
“Multiple reasons. Even with our war losses, we have more men than women out here in the west. In that age bracket, the girls will be young enough to learn our ways but also old enough to teach us some of yours. When they are of age to marry, they will have their choice of men, saving only a shortage of similar ethnicity. We are a diverse people here, War Leader, but we lack the benefit of your bloodlines.”
That might have been enough but I hadn’t gotten to the bottom line yet. Venom Chang knew it, too. His powerful right hand gently massed his left arm, several inches below the diminished left shoulder. “This is…in your boots, Major Jade, I could not have done this. Would not have even thought of it. It will take me some time to absorb all of the implications, ramifications, specifications. Not,” a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, “that the lying part is a problem. After all, war is ninety percent deception.”
“At least,” I agreed. “All of that is the small part. There is real reason for both of us–the Empire and MAP–to make this agreement between us.”
He looked at me, apprehensive. “And that would be?”
“Simple. Before the Fall, China alone boasted a population of more than one hundred times the number of people living in the entire western hemisphere. India was a distant second, but not that distant. If the casualty percentage across the Ocean of Sturms was similar to ours on this side, they may still outnumber us by as much as 300 to one. For now, we seem to be safe from aggression sourced in whatever is left of Asia and/or Europe. But that cannot last. Someday, ten years or ten thousand years from now, someone will find a way to cross the waters, either by sea or by air. Or both. It’s just the way humans are wired. And when they come, we will need to stand united. Not,” I raised an admonishing finger, “as a single nation. A single governmental unit always faces corruption and decay as it grows. But as two dissimilar yet crucial allies, we may–just may, mind you–be able to kick the butts of any who would try to take us over. And we cannot afford to be fighting each other as the Native American tribes fought when facing a European invasion.”
Sora, the Skilled Man, spoke without visibly asking his commander for permission. I found that interesting. “You are a forward-thinking man, Major.”
“Somebody has to be,” I said. “Somebody has to be.”