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Mandarin and Master

By Celiose

            As a career civil servant in the Celestial Bureacracy, Zhang Ming Tong had done as well as one could reasonably expect. Being appointed Imperial Governor of the whole Lo-Xsia province was quite a distinction. In terms of land area, it was large; in terms of potential wealth, even larger. But the province’s problems were the real opportunity, here. Oni still controlled significant land, and of course the local lords, the daimyo, were always unruly and begrudged imperial authority.


            Zhang Ming Tong did not get to be where he was by being frustrated easily. The great Sung Chang teaches that within every problem is an opportunity. Although on the face of it, a peaceful and prosperous province might be better, overcoming the challenges of Lo-Xsia would be quite a career accomplishment. It would put him in a position to be named to the Imperial Court, where he would advise the Emperor himself on matters of grave import.


            It was therefore of utmost importance that he make a good impression on the young Emperor. Mentally, he corrected himself: His Magnificence, Kai Tsao Shou Lung Xsia Chin, Who Soars with Dragons and Rules All Under Heaven. In the “frontier” of Lo-Xsia people often used the more casual forms when referring to His Magnificience, but here nothing short of the most formal modes would do.


            And returning to the Imperial City as a highly-placed adviser was, of course, the goal, the dream of virtually every mandarin. Zhang Ming Tong’s guest quarters were opulent. Sheets of the finest silk, fine jade cups, and gold worked into almost everything. And his quarters were simply the beginning of it; here in the Imperial City, the sensual pleasures were so abundant that his mind could barely catalogue them all. Fine food, compliant young women and boys, fine sorghum wine, great works of art and literature…Lo-Xsia’s rustic charm could not compare. Zhang Ming Tong looked forward to having a meal prepared by proper Imperial chefs for the first time in far too long. Indeed, the real challenge of being Imperial Governor of Lo-Xsia was not the thuggish oni on unruly daimyo, but having to forego such civilized pleasures and refined entertainments. There was no point in acquiring power, if one was not also in a position to enjoy it.


            Indeed, as his baggage was unpacked, Zhang Ming Tong had to wonder what the best way to spend the few days before the big meeting was. There was precious little time to be spent, here, but that made it all the more sweeter; and it was a tantalizing teaser of the rewards to come.


            His brief reverie was broken by the startling sound of iron hitting the smooth wooden floor. Zhang Ming Tong whirled around, startled, surprised, a little unnerved. Rank also brought danger, rarely (but sometimes), Zhang Ming Tong longed for the days when he was not important enough to kill.


            “You,” said Zhang Ming Tong.


            “Yes, me,” replied Isokaru Eblana. Isokaru Eblana, known as the Master with the Iron Crutch, was getting on in years; he looked faril, and walked with a slight stoop. He was almost totally bald, a thin, long, whispy beard and bushy eyebrows the only evidence his head had once had hair.


            “What’re you doing here?”


            “I’m here for the meeting with His Magnificence, the Emperor,” said Isokaru.


            “You do not speak for Lo-Xsia,” insisted Zhang Ming Tong.


            “Not officially,” shrugged Isokaru, “but the daimyo built Lo-Xsia, and we’ll be there long after you or any other Imperial Governor leave.”


            Daimyo—“Great Lord”—the very concept of it all irritated Zhang Ming Tong. They were a throwback to the past, a time when those who could enter and settle the unruly region were promised land and hereditary title. Still, he had to smile; it was the reality he had to deal with, and he wasn’t about to let this insufferable old man ruin this trip.


            “I suppose you didn’t know the oni were on the move again,” said Isokaru.


            Zhang Ming Tong waved his hand dismissively. “The oni have been ‘on the move’ for some time now. It’s sporadic…they’re no organized threat to us.”


            The Master with the Iron Crutch shook his head. “This time, it’s different.”


            “What makes you say that?”


            Isokaru Eblana smiled a toothless grin. “I’ve been fighting the Enemies of Heaven since before you were an itch in your dad’s cock.” The old man put on a look of feigned horror; “oh, dear me, did I just refer to a plenipotentiary of the Emperor in such a manner? I must be getting senile.”


            Zhang Ming Tong turned away from the aged warrior; a calculated minor insult. Isokaru Eblana was a veteran of countless campaigns, commanded in numerous battles, and had fought virtually every enemy the Empire had, which was saying quite a lot. It would be foolish to totally ignore his council, no matter how irritating he might find him. “Very well,” said Zhang Ming Tong, “what do you know?” The question was met with only silence. When Zhang Ming Tong turned around, the old man was gone.



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