The Komneniad: The Dragon Shall Rise

April 3rd, 1941
Shanghai Harbour, Occupied China
Late evening

The harbour wasn’t exactly quiet, even at this time of night; late shifts were still unloading high-priority cargoes in the harsh light of floodlamps. Still, it wasn’t the insane bustle of daytime, when the goods of every nation on Earth flooded into the main entrepot of all China and most of Siberia. It was just the right level of activity: Not so little that a man stood out, not so much that he was likely to encounter someone he knew, or worse, someone who knew him, or his face. From a dossier, perhaps.

Even so, Xian felt considerably relieved when he finally ducked into the warehouse – not abandoned, here in the heart of the docks, that would have been economically insane; but not in intense use just at this moment, since it wasn’t holding any high-priority cargoes. Nothing to arouse suspicion, even if someone saw a light; many of Shanghai’s parsimonious family-owned shipping companies used their warehouses for office space as well – living space too, in some cases – and might work far into the night. So Xian had to suppress the urge to roll his eyes when his knock on the door was met with a hiss of “What’s the password?”

Someone had been reading too much imported Russian spy-fiction, again; what if he’d been a policeman making a routine check? Or just someone accidentally knocking on the wrong door? Nothing could have been better suited to make him insanely suspicious. Anyway, what were they going to do about it if he didn’t answer right, shoot him and throw him into the harbour water? But he had lost that argument some time ago, so he merely gritted his teeth slightly on the reply, “Dragons Shall Rise”, and entered without complaining about it.

He was the last to arrive, he saw without surprise. The others were all much younger than him, students mostly, and had freer evenings – too free, in his judgement. When I was their age, he thought ironically; but the fact was, when he had been their age he’d been in a prisoner-of-war camp – well, just out of it, actually. Not, in any case, hanging about drinking tea and studying the classics (or Russian spy novels) all day. A Komnenoi prisoner-of-war camp might have done some of these young louts some good. Being drafted into a Working Youth Brigade at fifteen might have been good for their character too. Not so good for their health, he admitted, remembering the fate of most of his comrades. It was the lucky ones who’d made it into the POW camp. Lucky, or smart. The last few tenacious holdouts had been gassed, he’d heard, after month-long sieges of the warehouse districts. Nobody liked to talk much about the desperate final days of China’s independence. Not even among the victors.

“All right,” Huang said, taking up a stack of papers and rapping it on the table in lieu of a gavel; it was his turn to be the chairman. All very egalitarian, to be sure, but Xian wished they’d give the job permanently to someone who knew how to run a meeting; Huang did not live up to his name. “Now we’re all here, let’s get started. The shipment has come in. It’s in those boxes over there.”

“Out in plain sight of everyone, in a warehouse we don’t control?” Xian wished he’d kept his voice down, but sheer horror had overwhelmed his political instinct for a moment. At least he had their attention. “That’s just, that’s – we have to move it. Right now.” He stared at Huang, trying to will some sense into the boy; alas, it would take more than a mere shout of horror from a veteran of a great war, two major uprisings, and several riots to get through that skull.

“Well, of course,” Huang said soothingly. “It’s right here on the agenda, item three: Where to put the stuff. First we have to go over the action items from last month, though.”

Xian sat back in his chair, defeated by the sheer magnitude of this. They had weapons, just sitting in their heavy military-looking boxes that the warehouse employees wouldn’t recognise when they came in tomorrow; that wasn’t a labour-camp offense, that was anything up to and including actual literal crucifixion. And their group was far too large, eight people, any of whom might be an informer or just have a loose tongue. And… and… action items! He looked in anguish at Zhou, who tightened his lips, but nodded. Maybe his son could find the words, maybe they would listen to someone their own age, someone who hadn’t defended the Mishing Warehouse with an ancient singleshot rifle and three bullets, but who had studied the classics and could turn a phrase… Zheng broke into the argument between Huang and Da about whether the pamphlets had been widely enough distributed. “Comrades, if I may? While both comrades Huang and Da make interesting points, I believe we should, perhaps, table this discussion temporarily. The guns must be out of here by tomorrow morning.” Xian shot him a grateful glance. He knew his son was embarrassed by his dockworker father in front of his intellectual friends; but he still had enough filial respect – enough brains, even – to take Xian’s advice on matters of tactics.

“Oh, very well,” said Huang peevishly; he had been losing the argument. “Let us move to the third agenda item, then, since comrades Zheng and Xian insist. We have, let’s see” – he looked at the papers in front of him – “five crates each with twenty-five Arisaka rifles; ten crates of ammunition; and five of grenades.”

And you wrote this down?” Xiang burst out.

“Why yes, comrade,” Huang returned mildly. “How else should I keep track of things?” Apparently he took Xiang’s stare of mute horror for assent, for he continued. “Now, I had thought that each of us might store two or three crates, but I understand now that this is not very practical; they’re larger than I realised, and heavier.” Xiang gritted his teeth; it was good, actually, that he wouldn’t have to argue against spreading the weapons out in student apartments that any number of random girlfriends and acquaintances wandered through. He very grudgingly awarded Huang a mental point. “So, I am opening the floor to suggestions, comrades.” Huang looked around benignly.

Xiang rubbed his forehead. “We should have had a plan for this before we arranged the shipment,” he pointed out wearily. “With a specific recipient for each rifle, or at least each crate.” And why hadn’t he insisted on that himself, he wondered? He’d been sick, last month; and then before that he’d been out of town visiting another cell… dammit, they shouldn’t need him to hold their hands to quite this extent.

“Be that as it may,” Da broke in, “we are now faced with the problem that we did not, in fact, have such a plan; and must make one.”

“True,” Xiang nodded; perhaps there was some hope for these idiots. He should not have let himself get distracted. “As a temporary measure, perhaps my brother’s truck would do. It won’t serve in the long term, but we can load it up right now and have the items in a location we control, not subject to random bypassers’ curiosity.”

“Splendid!” Huang beamed. “Then with that settled, let us return to the issue of the pamphlets. Comrade Da, I really do think – ”

“Right,” Xiang overrode this. “I’m going to fetch the truck. Finish the action items while I’m gone, and then we’ll load it up when I get back. Zheng, come with me, please.”

“Certainly, father,” his son replied, looking just as pleased to be out of the wrangle; smartest of the lot, Xiang thought to himself, not that this was exactly a point to take pride in.

Once they were safely out of the warehouse, Xiang took a deep breath. Shanghai’s harbour air wasn’t exactly a refreshing ocean breeze, but at least it didn’t smell of incompetence that could get both him and his son crucified. He started walking, east.

“Father, where are you going?” Zheng asked. “Uncle Ho’s shop is the other way.”

“I know. We’re not coming back. They can find their own truck.”

“What?” Zheng stopped. “What do you mean?”

Xiang stopped too; his heart was still pounding, he noticed uneasily, rubbing his left side. He was getting old for this business of revolution. “Rifles, son. Weapons are what separate the serious revolutionary from the idle chatterer. And the Komnenoi know it, too. Pamphlets and secret meetings and passwords, that’s a couple of years in a labour camp; not a spring outing, but quite survivable.” Xiang had survived it twice, in fact, three years each time, in addition to his stint as a prisoner of war. “For weapons, they crucify. No judge bound by written law, no magistrate schooled in the classics; the Ministry of Internal Harmony goons come in and take you away, and the next morning you’re nailed to a beam and wishing the asphyxia would hurry up, already. Actual iron nails, son, through your own personal wrists; I’ve seen it happen, to men I knew. Respected. Loved, even.” He shook off the memories. “And say what you like about the Komnenoi, stupid they’re not. They know what’s dangerous and what isn’t. No amount of pamphlets will topple their rule. That’s why I use weapons as my test of intelligence. If a resistance cell is smart enough to realise that, as soon as they get some guns – and no matter what Huang thinks, it’s not actually difficult; the Japanese are only too delighted to supply them – they are in Deep Serious Business, then they may be smart enough to actually do some damage, and be useful when The Day comes. And if not, if they keep arguing about pamphlets and agendas and action items… then I triage them.” He paused reflectively. “Grant you, leaving crates of rifles out in full view on a warehouse floor is a whole new level of stupid. I may need a new word. Quartage?”

Zheng stared at him in horror. He was twenty, Xiang reminded himself, and quite idealistic. “Triage?”

“That’s right. That’s why I’m going this way, to the police station.”

What?

Xiang held up his hands placatingly. “No, no, I’m not going to turn them in! That is, not to the Ministry of Internal Harmony. Just to my friend Sergeant Wen. Who will arrest them, of course. He’ll get a commendation, too. But there won’t be any mention of weapons, in his report. Just pamphlets and agenda items. A year in a prison camp; two years, max, if they resist arrest. And the weapons, well, Wen will find somewhere safe for them; and they’ll be ready for The Day. Wen is no idle chatterer.”

“Those are my friends!” Zheng protested.

“Yes, I know,” Xiang said softly. “And I’m an uneducated dockworker. And Wen is a policeman, a running dog, and he never studied, either. And your friends are smart lads, in their way, I’ll not deny it; just… impractical. And you’re easier in their company than in mine – no need to shake your head; there’s no shame in that, and I’m proud of your education. So. Just this once, I’ll offer you a choice. We can walk a third way, if you like; home, not to the police station. Your mother will have dinner for us; roast duck, I believe. And we’ll leave your friends to find their own damnation. Maybe they will have a rush of blood to the brains, and get their fingers out and get moving. More likely they’ll end up on the Hill. My way will spare them that; they’re young and healthy, they’ll easily make it two years in the camps. They might even learn something practical. And then you never work in the resistance again, at least not with any group I’m involved in. So. Your choice, son.”

Zheng stared at him, anguished. “But – you can’t ask me to – ”

“What, you thought the revolution had no hard choices? The Dragon Shall Rise, son; that’s what it’s about. Not looking brave in front of your friends’ girls, or even your friends. If that means putting some well-intentioned idiots in the camps for a year or two, instead of letting them talk their way into a cross, well. For me that’s not so hard, actually. But I’m old, and tired.”

“You really think…” Zheng trailed off. “And am I a ‘well-intentioned idiot’? Would you have left me there, if I weren’t your son?”

“Well – I would, actually,” Xiang admitted. “But you were certainly the brightest man in that room under thirty.”

Zheng’s eyes narrowed. “Not high praise, is it? Coming from you?”

Dammit, the boy knew him too well. “You were the one who got them to talk seriously about the guns.”

“I won’t betray my friends.” Zheng’s mouth set in a stubborn line that Xiang knew all too well. This was the damn motorcycle all over again. Which, admittedly, Zheng had eventually bought with his own money. But the resistance was a bit more serious than disagreements over traffic safety. And of course the boy would see it in terms of honour and betrayal, rather than education; the camps had a reputation all out of proportion to their actual deadliness, the Komnenoi did that deliberately, as a deterrent. Xiang sighed, exhausted. Actually he would be just as glad to have Zheng out of the resistance business; it was too nerve-wracking.

“All right, ” he acceded. “Let’s go home, then.”

“No!”

“No? Make up your mind, son.”

“I’m going back to warn them. You do whatever you want.” Zheng turned on his heel, but had not gotten more than three strides when Xiang caught him by the shoulder and whirled him around.

“No, son,” Xiang said, quite calmly – but the dockworker’s muscle in his arm bulged. His slim, intellectual son’s eyes widened at the strength in the hand holding his shoulder, digging in cruelly under the collarbone to paralyse the arm. “I’m your father, and you will obey me; that is ancient custom and law both Roman and Chinese. I am your superior in the Resistance, and you will obey me; that is necessity and survival. And, right now, on this street – I’m the man with the muscle, the experience, and the will to beat the silliness out of you, if necessary. So you will obey me, three times over; and you are not going back. The police station, or home; those are your choices.”

Zheng’s mouth worked, but no words came. At last he whispered. “Two years? Your word on it?”

“At most. One is much more likely.”

Tears trickled from Zheng’s eyes, but he nodded. “Sergeant Wen, then.”

“All right.” Xiang let go of his son’s shoulder, and Zheng slumped in defeat. “And well done,” he added.

There would come a Day; The Day, for which Xiang had worked all his adult life, when China would rise again and be strong; and perhaps Zheng’s sons would not have to make terrible choices. But this day… Xiang’s son had chosen to continue his father’s work.

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