The Throne of Jade Affair
Napoleon Solo was a man of few vices. He smoked, but not habitually. He drank — mostly vintage wines and twelve year old scotch — but not often and seldom to excess. He sometimes killed in the line of duty, but he took no pleasure in it and happily, he seemed free of the darker urgings that afflicted some in his profession.
Indeed, there were many things about his partner that Illya Kuryakin, who cultivated few vices himself, respected and even admired. Solo was scrupulously honest when it counted. Generous to a fault. Agreeable and easy to work with. Dedicated, dependable and fiercely loyal. He also had a well developed sense of justice and fair play, tempered by a charitable bias toward the underdog.
In many ways, Napoleon Solo was the most moral man Kuryakin had ever known. But Solo had one glaring weakness, a weakness that alternately amused and annoyed the Russian.
And that weakness was women.
For most men, skirt chasing is an idle recreation at best, a diverting way to pass the time in between the real business of life. For Solo, it was a vocation, a quest, and along with his position as Chief of Section II, U.N.C.L.E. New York, his raison d'etre.
Yet, the handsome, dark haired agent pursued his quarry, not with the blood thirsty instincts of a predator, but with the joyous if single minded enthusiasm of a connoisseur. Kuryakin once joked, somewhat ruefully, that Solo collected love affairs like a philatelist collected stamps.
There was more than a little truth to this. Napoleon loved women
— all women — and was as endlessly fascinated by them as they, apparently, were by him.
This last point always puzzled Kuryakin. He wondered why Napoleon's conquests acted more like willing collaborators. But when questioned, Solo would only offer a secret, confident smile and say, "They like me because I listen to them. I pay attention. Women aren't used to that from men. It disarms them."
To live and work in close proximity to Napoleon Solo then, as Kuryakin so often did, was to be engulfed in a miasma of sexual tension that was both stimulating and stifling. It meant playing the helpless spectator in a never ending game of thrust, parry, and counter thrust. The situation no longer bothered Kuryakin. Over the years, he'd grown accustomed to it.
So, it came as no surprise to find that his partner was running very late that day when the Russian stopped by the apartment on his way to the office. It was, after all, a Sunday morning.
"Give me ten more minutes, okay?" Solo pleaded as he unlocked the door. He was still in his robe and he hurried away before his partner could respond.
Kuryakin closed the heavy, reinforced door behind him, reset the locks and threw the dead bolt. Enforcement agents couldn't be too careful, even on a quiet Sunday morning.
No, Kuryakin wasn't surprised. Nor was he particularly shocked to see a distinctly feminine form buried beneath the rumpled blankets in the bedroom beyond. He angled for a better view, but the door was only narrowly ajar.
"This is a helluva thing," Solo was saying as he hustled between rooms, struggling with his clothes. He had his pants on but his shirt was still unbuttoned and he wore his tie draped, unmade, around his neck. "You'd think the Old Man would give us more than an hour's notice."
Kuryakin shrugged. "It sounded urgent."
"It's always urgent," Solo answered and disappeared into the bathroom.
The Russian agent snorted in agreement and glanced around the apartment. It was more cluttered than usual. In fact, the living room looked like the proverbial hurricane had hit it. The coffee table was piled high with champagne bottles, glasses, and empty packs of cigarettes with a few melted candle stubs. The sofa cushions were askew — one was leaning next to an arm — and a nearby ottoman was turned on its side. Kuryakin tipped it over and found one leg broken. Some bits of broken glass crunched loudly underfoot.
"We had a minor accident," Solo explained in perfect understatement as he fumbled with his tie. "Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'll be only a few minutes more."
Kuryakin replaced the stray sofa cushion and did as he was told. He looked around and thought: yes, a collision definitely had occurred on this very couch the night before. They had come together like two taxis in Times Square, no doubt about it. You could almost see the skid marks.
Chuckling to himself, Kuryakin he sifted through the leftover debris. In between the bottles and broken crystal, there were small clumps of good but modest jewelry: a pair of diamond and ruby earrings; a twisted necklace and bracelet to match; several rings with assorted stones. He leaned back and felt something very hard and very sharp poking the base of his spine. Reaching under the cushion, he came up with a black high heeled shoe.
Kuryakin sighed, tossed it away and fished under the seat again until he found its mate. He checked the inside label, near the heel: size seven. The name belonged to an uptown boutique. Not terribly expensive, but fashionable.
Interesting, Kuryakin thought to himself as he deposited the shoe with its companion, and resumed his impromptu scavenger hunt. This time, he was rewarded with one, then two, nylon stockings that stretched like soft taffy before surrendering with a snap into his waiting fist. One of them had a run.
The agent smiled, caught a whiff of delicate perfume and burrowed deeper into the corner of the couch. His fingers closed around a compressed ball of lace and wrinkled silk.
"Do you want some coffee before we go?"
At the sound of Solo's voice, Kuryakin snapped to attention. His hand released the silk and retreated just as his partner reappeared.
Solo was fully dressed now with only the cuffs of his shirt still undone. "The coffee is fresh," he said. "I made it this morning."
"Fine," Kuryakin replied and sprang from the couch.
Inside the small efficiency kitchen, he found Solo pouring two cups of coffee. "Black with sugar, right?"
"Yes. Thank you very much."
"Oh, and while you were rummaging around in there," Solo remarked casually as he passed the coffee cup, "did you happen to come across my gold cuff links?"
"No," Kuryakin said flatly, trying hard to keep a straight face. He gave up and buried it in his cup.
"Well, I know they're in there somewhere. I had them last night. Excuse me."
No doubt many things were lost last night, Kuryakin thought as Solo went into the living room, taking his coffee with him. The Russian listened as his friend searched through the furniture and the mess on the table, until a third voice called, Napoleon softly in the background.
"I have to go now, darling," Kuryakin heard Solo say, his voice fading into the bedroom. "There's coffee on the stove, if you want it..."
The woman said something in return but her voice was low and though he strained to recognize it, Kuryakin couldn't.
Silence followed and when Solo finally reappeared for the last time, he was pulling on his suit jacket. Apparently, he had found his cuff links.
"Ready?" he asked and Kuryakin nodded, drained the last of his coffee, and placed the empty cup in the sink.
"Won't your friend in there be disturbed by this abrupt departure?" Kuryakin asked lightly as they slipped through the living room and out the door.
"No, she understands. She works for U.N.C.L.E. too."
"Oh?" Although he'd never admit it, even under threat of torture, Kuryakin was burning with curiosity to know the woman who could leave such a shambles in her wake. A furtive peek into the bedroom as they passed had revealed only a hint of strawberry blond hair.
"Anne from Reception?" Kuryakin guessed out loud in spite of himself.
"Ah — no, no," Solo muttered as he locked the apartment door. "The tall blonde, the new one, from Accounting. What's her name?" He wiggled his fingers as if he were trying to pull the name out of the air. "Ellen? Eileen? Elaine. Yeah, that's it."
Kuryakin's eyebrow arched. "You mean the one they call The Snow Queen?"
"Do they?" Solo asked absently as he dropped his keys into his pocket. He patted the gun under his jacket to see if it was settled properly.
"Napoleon, that girl is impervious to any form of flirtation or flattery. Parker and Drew have been trying for weeks. How did you manage it?"
"Oh, I dunno," Solo said with a self-satisfied grin. "I applied a little heat and she just melted. Now, c'mon. Let's not keep Waverly waiting. You said it sounded important."
"Urgent," Illya corrected him peevishly. "I said it sounded urgent."
"Gentlemen, you are looking at a map of the sovereign state of Yu Shan." Alexander Waverly studied the projection screen and gestured with his unlit pipe. "It's a small nation — twelve hundred square miles or so — located north of Burma, at the eastern tip of the Himalayas."
"Just a bit larger than Luxembourg," Solo remarked as he sipped at his cup of coffee. It was his third that morning. The previous night had been strenuous to say the least, and although it was now well past eleven, he still didn't feel completely awake.
"Indeed Mr. Solo, but with only 86,000 inhabitants, about a third of them living in and around the capital city, the population density is considerably less."
Solo didn't bother to ask why they all should be concerned with such a remote, seemingly inconsequential country on this pleasant Sunday in early March. He was sure that Waverly would tell them in his own good time.
"Yu Shan: Jade Mountain," Kuryakin added thoughtfully, interpreting the ideographs on the lower right corner of the screen.
"Very good Mr. Kuryakin."
Solo offered his partner a sour, sideways glance. His own grasp of Asian languages was shaky at best. He could speak and understand a smattering of Japanese and he'd picked up some Korean from the war, but deciphering the five or six thousand characters that comprised a workable written Chinese vocabulary was beyond him. Solo wondered how much Kuryakin actually knew, but the Russian's eyes behind his tinted glasses were unreadable. Waverly ignored the interplay between his agents and went on:
"Unlike some of the other nations in this mountainous region, Yu Shan traces its roots back to China, not India, and the residents speak a form of Chinese dialect. The country was once a stop along the ancient Silk Route and even today, it produces a respectable portion of the world's supply of jade and semi precious stones, as well as gold, silver, copper, nickel and tin. Recent geological studies have found evidence of possible coal and natural gas deposits as well."
"Even with the isolated location and altitude, it's ripe for development," Kuryakin observed, and Waverly nodded.
"A number of Western corporations have had their eye on the place, much to the dismay of the Red Chinese. It is in everyone's interest that Yu Shan remain independent and stable."
"Remain?" Solo repeated as he watched Waverly toy with the tobacco in the pipe. It was even money whether or not the old man would actually get around to smoking it. Still preoccupied, Waverly nodded again.
"A month ago, the hereditary ruler, Emperor Ch'i Lin, died under annoyingly vague circumstances."
"Who's in charge now?" Kuryakin asked, and Waverly interrupted his struggle with the pipe and pressed the projection button. The map dissolved into a close up of a small boy.
"Ostensibly, the Emperor's son, Tseng T'ien. As you can see, the boy is very young: barely five years old. He's an orphan now — his mother died in childbirth — and apparently, there already have been two attempts on his life."
"No siblings?" Solo wondered. Waverly changed the picture on the screen. Now, there was a good looking young man with wire rimmed glasses in a western style shirt, tie and blazer.
"Just a half brother: Prince Chang Shih K'ai, twenty one years old and a recent Yale graduate. Shih K'ai's mother was a commoner, so under Yu Shan law, he is not in line for succession and has no legal claim to the throne."
"That hasn't stopped usurpers before," Solo noted cynically and his superior agreed.
"True, and the Prince is known to sympathize with a budding indigenous socialist movement. However, the real power in Yu Shan is the boys' grandmother."
The face on the screen was replaced by the stern and imposing countenance of an older woman dressed in full court regalia.
"Her Serene Highness, Daughter of Heaven, the Dowager Empress Tz'u Li," Waverly intoned. "Fifty three years old, she was married at sixteen, gave birth to Ch'i Lin at seventeen and was widowed six years later. For the past three decades, she's been the power behind the Jade Throne and currently, she's acting as regent. Her brother, Lung Wing, is the Prime Minister. It was he who requested our involvement."
"What do you want us to do?" Solo asked finally. Waverly turned to his agents as the screen darkened and the panel slid shut behind him.
"Find out what the devil is going on there. I want to know who is behind the plot to remove the young emperor and destabilize the country."
With the contents of his pipe finally arranged to his satisfaction, the old man touched a match to it and took several deep draws. "Her Serene Highness has graciously — if somewhat grudgingly — agreed to dispense with the usual requirements for male residents of the palace," he said between puffs. "That will allow you some latitude. However, be forewarned gentlemen: this is an ancient, tradition bound society and the structure of the imperial court is complex, archaic, and firmly entrenched. A breech of palace etiquette — even the slightest discourtesy toward a member of the royal family — can be punishable by death.
"I needn't remind you that Yu Shan is not a signatory to the U.N. or to this organization. We have very little influence there. If you get into trouble, I may not be able to bail you out. So, please: watch your manners and be on your very best behavior."
Although Waverly clearly addressed himself to both of the men, Solo caught his superior's eye. The senior agent shifted uncomfortably, certain that the last admonition was directed at him.
"That will be all," the chief said, dismissing them, and turned his full attention to the stubborn pipe. It was still unlit as the agents exited the executive suite.
"What did he mean, 'the usual requirements' for male residents?" Solo asked aloud when they were out in the corridor. Kuryakin tucked his glasses back into the breast pocket of his sports jacket and smiled thinly.
"It seems, Napoleon, that other than the members of the royal family, the only males allowed to live on the palace grounds are eunuchs."
"Oh," Solo said.
The trip to Yu Shan was long, exhausting and difficult. Part of the problem was just getting there. The urgency of the mission eliminated the possibility of flying on a commercial airline, but the considerable distance and unusual location also made the expense of a single jet prohibitive. Waverly ordered the agents booked on a series of regularly scheduled U.N.C.L.E. flights, and for the next twenty five hours, Solo and Kuryakin were passed from one company plane to another, like batons in a relay race.
They left New York at four that afternoon on the transatlantic shuttle. In London, they met the Far Eastern supply run, which had delayed take off and stood waiting for them at Heathrow.
Unlike the well appointed shuttle, the supply run plane was old, creaky and uncomfortable, better suited to hauling cargo than coddling passengers. The sole on board amenity was a bottle of inexpensive bourbon, proffered by a big, bluff Aussie pilot, who swore that he never touched the stuff himself.
After brief stops in Baghdad, Tehran and New Delhi, the plane dropped them off in Rangoon, Burma, in the wee hours of the morning. A turboprop was ready for take off, but the pilot was nowhere to be found. By the time he arrived, the sun was peeking over the horizon.
"The Kingdom of Yu Shan was established over thirteen hundred years ago," Illya Kuryakin recited aloud, a while later. "Napoleon, did you know that its own people call it The Land of the Purple Blossoms?"
"Up until Sunday, I didn't even know the damn place existed," Solo replied irritably, wishing that he could have remained blissfully ignorant. They were standing on an isolated airstrip, high in the Himalayas, about a mile east of the capital. It was Tuesday morning now, and a cold, biting, bone chilling wind tugged at their overcoats and whipped through their hair. Apparently, spring would be late this year.
"What is that you're reading anyway?" Solo tipped his chin toward the thin blue book in Kuryakin's hands. The Russian had been studiously thumbing through it, on and off, during the course of their trip.
"It's a country profile prepared by Section Four. It's somewhat dated, but it might prove useful. For example, listen to this: the royal throne was carved in the year 1294. It's made entirely of rare jadeite inlaid with pure gold leaf and it's worth over —."
But Solo wasn't interested in historical trivia. "What time is it?" he asked wearily, checking his watch. The constant plane hopping had made a good night's sleep impossible and they had been forced to get along on catnaps.
"Ten o' five, Burma time. That means it's about nine o' five here."
Solo reset the hands of his Rolex to the proper hour. He dug into his coat, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and poked one between his lips.
"I wouldn't smoke if I were you," Kuryakin warned him. "We're not as high up as Tibet, but it will be difficult to breathe, nonetheless. It's near the end of the dry season as well. There's a good deal of dust blowing in from the fields. You'll feel it soon. No sense placing an additional burden on your lungs."
Solo nodded and put the cigarettes back in his pocket. Now that Illya mentioned it, his chest did feel a bit congested. The altitude was making him a little light headed, too.
"And by the way," the Russian added, "don't drink any water unless it's boiled first. The farmers fertilize their crops with human waste material so the groundwater is probably contaminated."
Solo frowned and made a mental note. "I wonder when the reception committee arrives," he muttered. Kuryakin pointed to an approaching cloud of dust.
"Perhaps this is it."
As the cloud grew closer, it was accompanied by the roar of an automobile engine. Soon they could make out the ghostly outline of a vehicle: a red, late model Plymouth Fury convertible. The top was down and there were two men in the front seat.
The car screeched to a halt in front of them and the driver hopped out. He rounded the hood and called to them, his right hand extended in greeting.
"You're the men from U.N.C.L.E., right?"
"Yes. Prince Chang Shih K'ai?" Solo answered, recognizing the young man from his photograph. The agent did his best to hide his surprise.
"Let's cut the formalities," the prince said as he shook their hands. His English was excellent. "Make it Harry Chang, okay?"
"Okay," Solo laughed. Chang's grin and easy going manner were contagious. "I'm Napoleon Solo and this is —."
" — Illya Kuryakin, at your service," the Russian volunteered.
"Nice to meet you both. Don't worry about your bags. Kung will get them."
"Kung?" Solo asked, and Harry Chang pointed to the hulking, bald headed giant who was, at that moment, unfolding himself from the passenger seat. He was dressed in a bulky fur trimmed coat with a long, wicked looking saber hooked to his belt.
"Yeah, like in 'Kung Fu', y'know? He's my bodyguard," the prince said. He motioned to them to follow him back to the car. As they passed the silent Kung, the giant plucked their suitcases up easily with his powerful hands.
A man definitely well matched to his job, Solo decided.
"They wanted to send down a yak cart to meet you, but I thought you'd find a car more civilized," Chang explained as the agents slipped into the back seat. They waited as Kung loaded the luggage into the trunk and climbed heavily into the passenger side. The car listed noticeably under his weight, but no one made any comment.
"We appreciate the lift," Solo agreed, "but isn't this a bit, well..."
"Unusual?" Chang smiled, over his shoulder. He turned the ignition and threw the Plymouth into gear. "Maybe, but this is the only car in Yu Shan. I went through a lot of trouble and expense to get it here and no one drives it but me."
The way to the capital city was a rugged dirt road that skimmed perilously close to the edge of the mountains. Below, in the mist enshrouded valleys, ragged peasants worked in orderly ranks, preparing the fields for the imminent spring planting. As they drove along, Harry Chang talked:
"Despite the wealth you'll see at the palace, this is a poor country. The peasants are still bound to the land like medieval serfs. Their agricultural methods are terribly outmoded and ineffective. When the weather is bad and the crops fail — which happens more often than not — food is scarce and the mortality rate is high."
"You sound as if you don't approve of the system," Kuryakin observed evenly.
"I don't," Chang shot back, "but there's nothing I can do about it."
"Surely the Empress can. Isn't she concerned with the welfare of her subjects?"
"Why should she be? She hasn't left the palace in thirty years. When I wanted to stay in America to study law, she said it was a worthless pursuit."
"Perhaps the Empress felt your talents could be otherwise
employed," Kuryakin said diplomatically, but Chang sighed with undisguised frustration.
"Look, you don't understand. Everybody here, from Grandmother on down, is narrow minded and superstitious. Up until a few years ago, they wouldn't even allow carts on the paths. They were afraid that the wheels would cut into the earth and release evil spirits. I had to practically threaten a coup to force Grandmother to let me have this car. But it was worth it. I love American sports cars and this one's a real beauty, isn't it?"
"Yes, but wouldn't a jeep have been more practical?" Solo asked, just as they hit a teeth rattling rut. The prince only shrugged.
"It would be better to pave the roads."
The capital, which bore the same name as the parent country, was a motley collection of one and two storied huts. The huts were made of mud bricks and clay, with thatched roofs and papered windows, huddled on a plateau, high above the surrounding fields.
But a visitor to Yu Shan would scarcely notice these buildings, for the eye was immediately drawn along the single main street to the palace. "There it is: home, sweet home," Chang announced sarcastically as the towering structure reared up before them.
Perched at the rising end of the plateau, the imperial palace of Yu Shan dominated everything around it. It was built of white stone and mortar, and although only ten stories high, the graceful inward curvature of the walls made it appear taller. The red tile roofs and the gold ornamental work around the windows caught the light and glittered in the mid morning sun. The whole city seemed to cower before it, like an obsequious servant clinging to the skirts of its mistress. Solo whistled low through his teeth.
"Impressive," Kuryakin allowed but their host in the driver's seat chuckled humorlessly.
"Oh, gentlemen, please: save your applause," Chang snickered. "The magical mystery tour is just beginning and as they say: you ain't seen nothin' yet."
The city streets were crowded, but at the sight of the royal convertible, the people immediately hurried out of the way and bowed low as the car passed. Chang ignored them all and nosed the Plymouth carefully but purposefully forward, like an experienced commuter negotiating rush hour traffic. He parked at the front of the palace, near the base of an imposing white stone staircase that stretched upward, to a pair of massive gold plated gates.
"Two hundred and ninety three steps — I counted them once," Chang commented. "It's a great place for a kid with a slinky, but it does discourage visitors. Ah well, Grandmother hates to entertain anyway."
He watched as Solo and Kuryakin clamored out of the car. "You can leave your bags with me. I'll see that Kung delivers them to your room."
"Aren't you coming, too?" Solo inquired, but the young man held up a reluctant hand.
"Uh uh. Grandmother makes like the Queen of Hearts whenever she sees me coming. Y'know: 'Off with his head. Off with his head.' I think I'll pass on this little tea party, if you don't mind. Uncle Wing will probably take it from here. See you fellas later."
The Prime Minister, Lung Wing, was indeed waiting for them in the
vestibule, just beyond the front gates. He was a short, moon faced man, pleasant and agreeable, but visibly nervous. After exchanging hasty introductions, he said, "You must come with me. Her Serene Highness demands to see you."
"Right now?" Solo exclaimed. He was still out of breath from the climb up the stairs and the thin air wasn't helping much. He looked over at his partner helplessly. Kuryakin shook his head, annoyed. After twenty five hours in transit, they were hardly in shape for an official royal audience. They both needed a shave, a shower and a change of clothing, not to mention a decent meal.
"Certainly, right now. We understood that you were to arrive around dawn."
"Yeah, well, that's true but we, ah, had a small problem in Rangoon ..."
Solo tried to explain about the tardy pilot, but Lung Wing had neither the time nor the patience to listen to details. "The Dowager Empress does not like to be kept waiting. Fortunately, she appears to be in good humor today."
Lucky us, Kuryakin thought to himself, but he held his peace as Lung Wing continued to hustle them through the wide, sweeping corridors of polished wood and alabaster tiles. The Prime Minister counseled them as they walked:
"Because you are foreigners, it is not required that you kowtow. A simple bow from the waist will be sufficient. You may address the Dowager Empress as 'Your Serene Highness' or 'Madam' but remember: never turn your back on her. And please, speak only when you are spoken to."
And then suddenly, they were there, at the doors of the throne room. Two large, fleshy but well muscled eunuchs stood guard at either side. Both of them held long poles tipped with intricately engraved and elaborately shaped, three pronged spears and they carried flat, single edged sabers similar to Kung's on their belts. One of the men silently reached for the handle of a heavy, bronze jewel encrusted door and pulled it open.
"I will precede you," Lung Wing whispered as he tossed a coin to the guard. "Stay near the door. Come forward when you are called."
In the course of their work, Solo and Kuryakin met and mingled with all manner of heads of state, from presidents to princes. They had visited castles and capitols, great halls, sacred temples and grand mausoleums. But nothing — absolutely nothing — they had ever seen before could have prepared them for the sight that met them now.
"Oh my oh my oh my," Solo mumbled low, under his breath. "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
"What did you say?" Kuryakin hissed back, genuinely perplexed.
"Never mind. Skip it," Solo sighed. Having a Russian for a partner was not without its drawbacks. For his part, Kuryakin was thinking of Coleridge's vision of Xanadu and Kublai Khan. Certainly, the throne room of Yu Shan palace looked like something straight out of the adventures of Marco Polo.
The hall was huge, with a high, vaulted ceiling supported by at least two dozen gilded columns carved in the shapes of animals — dragons, lions, goats, tortoises, serpents, and phoenixes — all keeping careful watch over the proceedings. The windows were narrow and set high in the walls and dust motes danced like snow flurries in the arching shafts of muted sunlight. The air was thick with a haze of incense and smoke from the yak butter lamps, bathing the entire room in a burnished glow of perpetual sunset.
Yet, even in the dim light, it was possible to see that every inch of wall and floor space was magnificently and lavishly decorated. There were filigrees embellished with semi precious stones, panels covered with splendid frescoes and everywhere, enameled mosaics that shimmered like finely detailed cloisonné.
The predominant colors were saffron and scarlet; topaz and ruby; gold, bronze and copperplate, and the effect was not merely exotic but otherworldly.
"The foreigners may approach us," the Dowager Empress announced finally. Her voice was softly feminine, but also as crisp and piercing as the gong that preceded it, and carried well across the hall. Clearly, this was a woman accustomed to being obeyed.
"I believe that's our cue," Kuryakin said. He nudged Solo, who was still surveying their surroundings, and the agents advanced with Napoleon slightly in the lead.
The Dowager Empress Tz'u Li sat on a throne mounted on a raised platform and just as Section Four had reported, it was indeed made of gold encrusted jade. The five year old Emperor, Tseng T'ien, was at his grandmother's side, next to her elbow. He fed a slice of fruit to a small, leashed white monkey that played on his lap, but the boy looked bored and fidgeted restlessly on his miniature throne.
The two monarchs were not alone. A phalanx of advisors, courtiers, concubines and general hangers on were lined up on either side of the central platform. Everyone was dressed in flowing robes of expensive brocaded silks. All the women wore buff powder make up and blood red lips that matched the overall color scheme and made them look somewhat vampiric.
As Solo and Kuryakin stepped up behind the Prime Minister, a twitter of curiosity rippled through the crowd. The elegant attire of the assembled company reminded Solo that his striped trousers and formal morning coat were still packed neatly in his suitcase.
The agents bowed courteously as Lung Wing had instructed them and each introduced himself individually.
"Kur ya kin?" the Empress enunciated slowly and pointed. Her fingernails were incredibly long, curved talons. "This is not an English name."
"No," Kuryakin admitted. "It is Russian, Madam."
The woman wrinkled her nose as if she had just inhaled an unpleasant odor. "Russians are Communists, are they not? We do not like Communists and we do not trust blond men. Blond men are unlucky."
That tears it, Illya thought to himself. If I'm not careful, before this affair is over, she'll be handing me my head on a platter. He resolved to keep his mouth shut and allow Napoleon to do the talking for both of them.
"We would like to thank you for inviting us to your beautiful country," Solo cut in, changing the subject, "and to request your permission to —."
The agent was interrupted by Tseng T'ien, who knelt on his seat and whispered something to his grandmother. Tz'u Li turned her full attention to the boy and Solo waited patiently as the royal pair conferred briefly. Then the child settled back on his throne and the Empress said, "You will excuse our grandson, Mr. Solo. The Emperor wishes to go out to the courtyard to play with his pet. We told him he must wait until we have finished our business here. We all must know our place in the world. Everyone must perform his duty. Do you understand us?"
"Perfectly, and may I compliment you on your English? It is impeccable."
Tz'u Li arched one thin eyebrow. "Do not be so surprised. We learned the language so that when we say 'no' to the barbarians from the West, there is no confusion of meaning. We do not appreciate opportunists or tourists here."
"My partner and I are neither," Solo reminded her gently but firmly. "We were summoned."
"Yes. That was our brother's doing and we still question the wisdom of that decision. Please explain to us why outsiders such as yourselves should be concerned with the troubles of our insignificant nation."
"We protect and defend all nations, large and small. That is our particular place in the world ...our duty."
Kuryakin stifled a smile. He almost expected to hear her say touché, but instead, the Empress merely pursed her heavily rouged lips.
"Very well, Mr. Solo. We will allow you to exercise that duty. This audience is over. Our grandson wishes to play in the courtyard and we will accompany him. You may join us later, when you are more ... presentable."
Now it was Solo's turn to concede the advantage and he did so with a gracious tilt of the head.
"And one more point," the Empress added, almost as an afterthought. "While you reside under this roof, you must follow the rules of this household."
"We fully intend to, Madam."
"Then tell us: is that a gun you carry against your body?"
Solo nodded. He pulled open his coat, displaying the U.N.C.L.E. Special in the shoulder holster for all to see. Behind him, Kuryakin thought it prudent to do the same.
"Yes," the senior agent acknowledged. "But our guns do not fire bullets, only sleep inducing darts."
Actually, that wasn't entirely true. The Specials were currently loaded with safety darts, but several extra clips of regular ammunition were stashed in the lining of Solo's suitcase.
"It matters not," the Empress informed him. "They are weapons and in this palace, weapons must not be concealed. Carry them for all to see or not at all."
"As you wish, Madam."
Satisfied, Tz'u Li took her grandson's hand and led the boy from the throne room. When they were gone, Solo and Kuryakin left with Lung Wing, who intended to personally escort them to their room. However, a long robed minor administrator with a problem that needed immediate attention met them in the corridor.
"Go ahead. We can find our own way," Solo said.
"Are you sure?" the Prime Minister asked uncertainly.
"No problem," Kuryakin chimed in. "Your directions are simple enough."
Although they didn't say so, the agents were anxious to explore the palace on their own. Lung Wing was unwilling to leave them, but the minor administrator was waiting and lacing his fingers anxiously together. So, apologizing profusely, the Prime Minister reluctantly accompanied his subordinate, while Solo and Kuryakin sauntered away in the opposite direction.
"Quite a joint," Solo chuckled. He shoved his hands into his pockets and craned his head to study the exquisite designs on the ceiling overhead. Kuryakin was not so easily impressed. "It could do with some more efficient insulation," he observed as a chill gust of air whistled past and tickled the flames in the overhead lanterns.
Up ahead, there was another set of massive doors with an equally massive doorman stationed on each side. Unlike the throne room guards, these were unarmed. Neither of them reached for the handles.
"Was it something we said?" Kuryakin wondered, but Solo understood immediately.
"Flip them a quarter."
"Didn't you notice what Lung Wing did before? He slipped the guy a coin. Evidently, they expect to be tipped."
"But Napoleon, there must be hundreds of doors in this palace. Surely they can't expect payment every time." Kuryakin dipped into his pocket and offered a quarter to one of the door tenders. The big man grunted and opened the door.
Solo grinned in triumph. "See? Maybe they're unionized."
His partner was not amused. "This is going on my expense account."
Despite the opulent furnishings of their bedroom, the sanitary facilities were considerably more spartan. Showers and flush toilets were unheard of, and hot water, except for drinking, was apparently a luxury. The agents filled a porcelain basin with ice cold water, tore a washcloth in half and made due with a travel bar of soap.
Breakfast — or brunch, since it was now almost eleven — was served in their guest suite. It consisted of weak tea, a lump of unidentifiable vegetables and a bowl of barley based cereal that was cold, gray and thick as paste. Solo ate as much as his queasy stomach would permit, then changed into a fresh shirt and his good blue suit.
"Are you coming?" he asked as he tried to find a comfortable yet suitably conspicuous place for his Special. He finally gave up and shoved the gun under his belt.
"I'll be along in a while," Kuryakin answered. He pushed the contents of his bowl around with one chopstick, studying the arrangement.
Solo smiled to himself. After this morning's audience, the Russian was understandably less than eager to rejoin their hostess. "Okay, I'll cover for you. But don't be too late — and don't play with your food. Didn't your mother ever teach you that?"
After Solo left, Kuryakin lingered over his meal as long as he dared, but finally, the servants came to tidy up. He gulped down the last of the tea, strapped on his shoulder holster over a black sweater and abandoned the relative safety of the room.
Although there was still a chill in the corridors of the palace, outside the morning mist had dissipated, warming the air temperature by some twenty degrees. Following Lung Wing's instructions, Kuryakin passed the Hall of Wisdom, hung a right at the Imperial Library, crossed the Courtyard of Peaceful Contemplation and headed for the Courtyard of Joy, at the center of the complex.
As he neared his destination, taking his time to inspect the surroundings, he could hear voices drifting in from the open terraces. Napoleon was talking to the Empress, while a monkey chattered and a child squealed happily in the background.
"So you say there have been several attempts on his life already?" Solo asked as he idly nudged a decorative slate with the toe of his shoe.
T'zu Li stood beside the agent, watching her grandson scamper about with his pet monkey. The monkey was acting particularly naughty, much to the delight of Tseng T'ien. Half a dozen guards ringed the courtyard while the boy's lovely young nursemaid, Ping Hsiu, chased after him.
"Three days following the death of our son, the Emperor, the evening meal was poisoned," the Empress continued. "Upon further investigation, one month's supply of food was found to be contaminated. We also lost two royal food tasters."
"How unfortunate," Solo agreed — especially for the food tasters. He kept the last part of the thought to himself and listened as she went on:
"A week ago, there was a fire in the East wing, near the Emperor's quarters. We were with him at the time and helped him escape."
"Was it suspicious?"
"The cause remains a mystery."
Just then, Tseng T'ien, giggling between breaths, rushed to his grandmother and hugged her, jostling her skirts. Solo expected to hear a reprimand at the very least, judging by the nervous expression on Ping Hsui's face. But the regal Empress only smiled indulgently and offered Tseng T'ien an affectionate pat on the head.
"He has a lot of energy," Solo observed and Tz'u Li nodded. "Yes, and a bright mind, too. He will make a fine ruler somed —."
She never finished the sentence. A loud shot rang out and Solo felt the warm breath of a bullet as it flew between their heads. Instantly, he reacted, pushing the boy and the woman to the ground, out of harm's way. As he shielded them with his body, he dug into his waistband for the U.N.C.L.E. Special.
Out in the corridor, near an archway, Kuryakin froze in his tracks at the sound. Quickly, he scanned the terraces, searching for the source. And he found it: a figure in black was crouched low, on one of the pavilion roofs, over to the right.
The sniper was positioned in such a way that no one in the courtyard could see him. It was only by sheer luck that Kuryakin was standing where he was. He ripped the automatic from his holster and fired. The first shot zinged harmlessly against the red tiles, scant inches from the sniper's foot. Alerted, the figure ducked out of the way and the second shot missed him entirely.
"I see him, Napoleon," Kuryakin shouted. Solo was back on his feet, twisting about unsuccessfully for a target. "Stay here with them. I'll go after the gunman."
The figure in black dropped back along the roofs and Kuryakin took off down the corridor, in an effort to intercept him. After all, what goes up, must come down, the agent told himself.
The blueprints of the palace contained in the Section Four report had been sketchy at best, and Kuryakin had spared them only a cursory glance. Now, as he ran, he feverishly tried to summon them up in his mind:
The sniper was on the roof of the Pavilion of Heavenly Guidance, headed south, toward the main throne room. That meant Kuryakin should turn left at the Hall of Tranquility. Then, right at the library. No, left, the way he'd come.
"Open the doors! Quickly!" Kuryakin cried as he raced through the corridors, to the series of door tenders ahead. He repeated the command in Mandarin and Cantonese, hoping at least one of them would be close enough to the Yu Shan dialect. Apparently, the men understood. Over and over again, they pulled open the doors and the blond agent sailed on through, showers of coins sprinkling in his wake.
Despite his unfamiliarity with the layout of the palace, Kuryakin's guesses turned out to be correct. As he rounded the corner of the library, he caught a glimpse of black. The sniper was darting to the right.
Good, Kuryakin thought as he ran. No rooms opened on to that corridor. The man would be trapped in full view. Kuryakin accelerated but as he veered into the intersection, he ground to a halt.
The corridor that met him was empty. It was as if his quarry had disappeared into Yu Shan's thin air. Confused and almost thoroughly winded, Kuryakin cursed in his own tongue as his lungs labored for oxygen.
But then, he paused. He could hear the muffled beat of running feet. They were just ahead of him, but where was the sniper? Was he pursuing a ghost?
There was no time to waste on answers. Kuryakin took a deep breath and broke into a sprint again. He pounded down the unbroken corridor, listening to the sounds of retreat. His quarry was just ahead. No, wait: he was parallel.
Parallel! That was impossible! Startled, the agent's eyes raked the heavily decorated walls, and in the diffused sunlight from the overhead windows, he almost missed it: a door. A secret panel, camouflaged by the frescoes.
Kuryakin pushed against it with his fingertips and the panel tipped inward without resistance. He slipped through the portal and found himself in a narrow, dimly lit passage. Not far ahead, the figure in black melted into the darkness and was gone. Kuryakin followed.
As he turned yet another corner, the agent ran into an apparent dead end. Once more, it seemed that his quarry had vanished, but this time, there was no mystery. Kuryakin found a rickety iron ladder bolted to the wall. He began to climb and eventually, bumped his head against a trapdoor.
The trapdoor led to a roof. Kuryakin popped his head through and saw the figure in black dancing sure footedly along the tiled spine. Below, he could hear the sounds of the palace guards fanning out in the courtyard.
"Stop!" Kuryakin shouted in English and Chinese, but the sniper obviously had no intention of complying. The agent anchored his elbows, tightened his grip on the butt of the Special and aimed. In the next instant, there was a shot, but it did not issue from his U.N.C.L.E. gun.
"Damn!" Kuryakin exclaimed, but there was nothing he could do. The black figure on the roof ahead dropped his rifle and clutched at his shoulder. The rifle clattered down the tiles to the left and he swayed, for a moment, to the right. Then he toppled over and as Kuryakin leaned forward to watch, the body spiraled downward, bouncing against the mountainside and landing in the rocks, hundreds of feet below. Disgusted, Kuryakin holstered his weapon, and climbed down the ladder, pulling the trapdoor shut behind him.
Back in the Courtyard of Joy, the mood was anything but joyful. The Prime Minister and a regiment of plump palace guards were scrambling frantically about, combing the area for nonexistent accomplices. The monkey was screeching, Tseng T'ien was in tears, clinging to his nursemaid, and the Empress was screaming at Napoleon at the top of her lungs.
"How dare you push us to the ground like that! Insolent barbarian! Foreign dog! How dare you touch us! Unforgivable! We shall have your head! We shall see you flayed alive!"
Although Solo made a half hearted stab at it, he could see it was useless to reason with her. As he listened to her tirade, he resigned himself to the possibility of an immediate execution. Certainly, that would be preferable to trying to explain all this to Waverly.
But Fate intervened in the form of Harry Chang. He appeared suddenly, accompanied by a manservant and carrying a very expensive Wetherby rifle. As soon as she saw him, the Empress forgot about Napoleon and immediately redirected her wrath. Solo exhaled in relief.
"You! I knew it! You covet the throne after all!"
"Take it easy, Grandmother," Chang said calmly as he shouldered the Wetherby. "You know I use this gun just for hunting. I didn't try to kill my brother."
"He's right," Kuryakin agreed as he entered the courtyard. He held up the rifle retrieved from the dead sniper. "This is the weapon that was used. A bullet embedded somewhere in these walls will confirm it."
"See?" Chang said, but Kuryakin was not finished. He pressed a finger to the barrel of the Prince's gun.
"However, your rifle is also warm. You shot the man in black, didn't you?"
Chang's manner turned defensive. "So? You were aiming at him yourself."
"Indeed, but as you probably have heard, my automatic fires sleep inducing darts. We might have saved the assassin for questioning."
The Prince began to protest his ignorance, but Kuryakin ignored him and turned his attention to Tz'u Li. "Madam, are you aware that there are hidden passageways running alongside the corridors of this palace?"
"Of course," the Empress responded indignantly. "They are for the lesser servants, those who cook and clean, so that they may perform their duties and move about unseen."
Interesting, Kuryakin thought. He remembered the meek nondescript little man who cleaned up their breakfast bowls earlier that morning and the seed of an idea was planted in his mind.
"The Emperor is upset," Lung Wing cut in, gesturing to the sobbing child. "I think it would be desirable for everyone to return to his business." He motioned to the guards to disperse. Harry Chang called to his manservant and they also withdrew.
"Escort these two back to their room," the Empress said, pointing to the agents. Kuryakin wanted to object, but Solo made a discreet slashing sign across his throat, and the Russian fell silent.
"As you wish, Madam," the dark haired agent said as they took their leave and backed toward the archway. The Empress favored Solo with a glare of untempered hostility and her soft voice dripped with venom.
"We will deal with you later," she promised.
Out in the corridor, trailed by two armed guards, the agents walked back to their room and compared notes. Kuryakin still held the confiscated sniper rifle and he passed it to his partner.
"Do you recognize it?" the Russian asked.
Solo shrugged. "A carbine assault rifle. Semi automatic. Twenty rounds or so to a clip."
"Ah, but a particular type of assault rifle. I thought you might have come across one like it, in Korea. It was developed from the Soviet Simonov — standard issue for the Chinese People's Liberation Army."
Solo made a sound deep in his throat and Kuryakin nodded. "Guns like these are like the fleas on a dog's belly. Where there is one, my friend, there are bound to be more."
Apologizing to the Dowager Empress was not an enviable task, but one of them was going to have to do it. Solo decided that it might as well be him.
So, after a short consultation with Lung Wing, who convinced the guards to allow Solo some autonomy, the agent left Illya napping and went in search of Tz'u Li. He found her in the Imperial Gardens, sitting on a portable throne, surrounded by her ladies in waiting and several of the late Emperor's twelve concubines. Evidently, her fury had subsided. She granted him an audience.
"My partner and I are extremely sorry for disrupting the peace of this household," Napoleon told her, choosing his words carefully. He wanted to say: we saved your imperial ass, lady, and you should be goddamn glad that we did, but he swallowed his pride and continued.
"We did not mean to offend you. Your welfare and that of the Emperor is our greatest concern and we humbly beg your forgiveness."
The Empress twirled a broken flower bud and considered his request. It was a warm, lovely afternoon, and all around them, the trees and shrubs were just coming into bloom. "Perhaps we lost our temper in haste," she sighed after a moment. It wasn't much of an attempt to make amends, but at least she was trying to be civil. Solo was encouraged.
"On the contrary, you had every right to feel insulted. We are outsiders, new to your ways," he said and held out his hands. "Your Highness, I am a rough and violent man. I am deeply sorry if I caused you undue distress or hurt you in any way. Please understand: I could not bear the thought that the people of Yu Shan would lose their wise and beautiful Empress."
That's laying it on a little thick, Napoleon told himself, but then again, he had no particular urge to be flayed alive. The compliment had its desired effect. Although she did not smile, the expression of Tz'u Li's face brightened while her companions tittered among themselves like delighted songbirds.
"Your apology is accepted," the Empress relented. She eyed him slyly. "A pretty face and a honeyed tongue: Heaven has blessed you, Mr. Solo. Has it blessed you in other ways as well?"
"I suppose so."
"Are you healthy?"
"Reasonably," Solo replied, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. He wasn't quite sure where this was going, but he had the distinct impression that he was being set up for something.
" ... And well formed?"
"I beg your pardon?"
The agent arched an eyebrow in surprise as the other women giggled girlishly in the background. Even if they didn't understand the language, they certainly knew what was going on.
A coy smile now played across the Empress' ruby red lips. She fingered the bud with one, well manicured talon. "My English is good but not yet perfect. Allow me to rephrase: can you perform adequately as a man?"
This was too much for the ladies of the court. The discreet giggles escalated into a delicate chorus of silvery laughter. The more modest among them hid their faces behind their fans.
"I haven't heard any complaints," Solo retorted, trying his best to hide his embarrassment. She'd better not order me to drop my pants, he thought, because I won't do it.
"Ah, but now it is you who must not take offense. We meant no harm. The male pride is so easily wounded. Therefore —."
The Empress rose from her chair and gathered her robes about her, preparing to leave. "We shall continue this discussion in privacy. You will come to our bedchamber tonight. For the time being, you are dismissed."
Solo returned to the guest suite feeling more than a little perplexed. "What's that note tacked to our door?" he asked aloud. Kuryakin was now awake and busily digging into his suitcase.
"A royal edict. We've been confined to quarters, in retaliation for this afternoon's episode."
"Doesn't apply to me. I have a date with the Dragon Lady."
"You what?" Kuryakin interrupted his labors and narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
"I've been invited to the royal bedchamber," Solo answered nonchalantly. There was a bowl of fruit on the table. He reached for something that looked like an apple and bit into it. Across the room, Kuryakin collapsed into a nearby chair and went pale.
"Oh Napoleon, this is terrible. You don't understand what this means..."
Solo chuckled softly. "I'm a pretty big boy. I think I can guess."
But Kuryakin was not laughing. He ran a nervous hand through his hair. "The Empress has had exactly one dozen lovers in the past thirty years. The last one was three years ago."
"So? She may look a little ripe, but the old girl's not dead."
"No, but all of her lovers are."
"What?" Solo demanded and dropped the fruit. Kuryakin nodded vigorously. "In each case, the men were executed the very next day. To sleep with the Empress, even a Dowager Empress, is the highest form of treason here, a capital offense."
"But that's ridiculous. It was her request." Determined to make his point, Kuryakin was already flipping through the Section Four report.
"Listen," he said and read aloud: "If any man — not her lawful husband or consort — shall look upon the Empress unclothed, he shall have his eyes put out...
"If any man — not her lawful husband or consort — shall touch the Empress in a disrespectful manner, his hands shall be severed from the wrists...
"If any man — not her lawful husband or consort — shall remain in the Empress' bedchamber from dusk to dawn, his p—."
"Okay, okay," Solo cut in, "I get the picture." He sat down heavily in the opposite chair and frowned. "So she still has it in for me. I guess this is her way of getting even."
"... Or reducing the odds in her favor."
The agents exchanged silent glances as the gravity of the situation began to sink in. "I suppose I could finesse my way out of there, tonight," Solo said finally. "Tell her I have a headache or something."
Kuryakin returned to his unpacking. "As for me, I shall be occupied this evening with my own project." He burrowed deep into the suitcase and produced a small wooden box. Solo recognized it as a make up kit.
"Going to play junior detective and mingle with the natives?" he snorted, but before Kuryakin could respond, there was a knock at the door. Solo rose to answer it and discovered four charming young maids waiting for him. They all bowed then circled him, chattering away in the Yu Shan dialect.
"What the hell are they saying?" Solo asked as two of them gently slipped his jacket from his shoulders. Kuryakin folded his arms and grinned.
"I can't be certain, but apparently they intend to take you away and clean you up. It seems you're going to get a hot bath after all, you lucky foreign dog."
But Napoleon didn't look like he felt especially lucky. "Now wait a minute . . . Honey, please . . . hey, I need that," he protested as one of the women relieved him of his watch. Another one was unknotting his tie and a third was emptying his pockets. Solo looked toward his friend for help.
"Illya, c'mon. What am I going to do?"
Kuryakin shrugged. There was no doubt that Napoleon's predicament was serious. Still, the sight of Solo trying to extricate himself from the clutches of four sweet, but very determined, young ladies was enormously amusing.
"What can you do?" the Russian smirked. "Close your eyes and think of U.N.C.L.E."
"Thanks a lot, partner," Solo shot back. The women had stripped him of all his accessories and were now smoothly but firmly sweeping him toward the door. "The old girl was right about one thing: hanging out with blond men is definitely bad luck."
Kuryakin pulled a ring from his pocket and tossed it to Solo.
"Here. At least try to keep in touch. Call me later."
Solo had just enough time to nod before he was crowded into the corridor. The door closed behind him.
Still smiling, Kuryakin opened the make up case and returned to his work. It was getting late. Dinner would be arriving soon, and there was still a great deal to do before then.
The imperial palace of Yu Shan was more than merely a residence for the Emperor. It also served as the country's seat of government: a sprawling, maze like complex of halls and rooms, courtyards and pavilions — almost a small city in itself.
In addition to the royal family, nearly five hundred people lived and worked within its ivory walls. At least half of them were the so called "lesser" servants, who moved silently and unobtrusively about their business, like ants in a garden.
They were little better than slaves, these drudges and menial laborers, without personal dignity or identity or even individual names. Their movements were barely noted, and for all intents and purposes, they were invisible. After all, who marks the passage of an ant?
Who, indeed? Kuryakin asked himself as he cracked open the door of the suite and peeked down the corridor. Certainly not the two guards, who pointedly ignored the stooped little man plodding toward the agents' room, on his way to deliver the evening meal.
Good, Kuryakin thought: now, to exploit the situation. Satisfied, he quickly withdrew into the bedroom and positioned himself out of the casual line of sight. He waited until the servant came in and set the tray down on the table. Then Kuryakin slipped behind him, shot him with a sleep dart and caught the man before he hit the floor.
"I'm really very sorry about this," the agent apologized aloud as he undressed his unconscious victim. The U.N.C.L.E. darts were harmless, but they left behind a nasty headache.
Although Napoleon's luck may have soured, Illya's was definitely improving. This was the same servant who had delivered their breakfast earlier, which made Kuryakin's task all the easier. The man was approximately the same height and build as the compact Russian.
Kuryakin donned the drab gray cotton outfit, skull shaped cap and soft soled shoes. With his make up nearly complete, he needed only to add a black wig.
After tucking the sleeping servant into the huge guest bed and pulling up the covers, the agent examined the contents of the dinner tray. There was a bowl of clear soup, a helping of rice and vegetables and some stringy poultry that looked like chicken. Kuryakin wolfed down what he could, and threw Solo's portion away.
Several minutes later, he emerged from the guest suite, carrying the dirty plates and dinner scraps on the tray. He bowed his head, and lowered his eyes as he padded along with rapid, mincing steps. This was the riskiest part of the escape. Once he passed through the doors to the central core of the palace, he would be able to slip into the concealing darkness of the servants' passageways. Just a few feet more and he was home free ...
"Nee! Dung yee dung!" one of the guards called out: You. Wait a moment.
Kuryakin stopped short. Now what?
The big man swaggered over to the disguised Russian, while the latter focused his gaze on the tip of the gleaming saber that dangled inches from the floor. "So: the foreign dogs are not very hungry tonight, neh?" the guard observed in the Yu Shan dialect as he inspected the remains of the meal. Kuryakin understood about every other word. He wondered if a response was expected. Taking a calculated risk, he kept silent.
"Probably sick to their worthless bellies," the other guard laughed and the first one nodded. He plucked a chicken wing from the plate, tossed it to his companion and picked off a sliver of meat for himself.
"No sense leaving this for the scullery maids. All right, you. Get going," he grunted. Kuryakin suppressed a sigh of relief and went. Once in the main corridor, the agent immediately searched for an access panel. He found one about halfway to the first intersection and ducked inside, abandoning the tray in a convenient corner. Pausing, he took several deep breaths and cursed the thin air. He wasn't sure what he expected to discover during this masquerade. In fact he wasn't even certain what he was looking for. An unguarded comment? A bit of gossip? A piece of evidence that would provide a key to the puzzle?
The Emperor's quarters were located in the East wing of the palace. Kuryakin decided to check on the boy first and then head for the kitchens for some good, old fashioned reconnaissance.
Slowly but steadily, the agent proceeded through the labyrinth, relying on memory and his own instinctive sense of direction for guidance. Since Yu Shan was without electricity, the residents retired early. The traffic in the servant's passageways was light. Kuryakin met only two others in his travels and both encounters were brief and wordless.
It came as something of a surprise, then, to suddenly hear voices approaching from the direction of the East wing. The Russian agent flattened himself against a wall and listened. He recognized them: one was high and childlike, the other feminine and musical. They belonged to Tseng T'ien and Ping Hsiu.
Now what would the young Emperor and his nursemaid be doing among the lowly menials at this hour? Intensely curious, Kuryakin was determined to find out. He changed course and sprinted in the direction of the fading voices.
Although the acoustics of the narrow, tunnel like halls played annoying tricks with the sound, distorting and misdirecting the echoes, Kuryakin finally managed to catch up with his quarry. Up ahead, Ping Hsui was reassuring the boy and hustling him through an exit panel.
The agent delayed for a moment, then followed them through, into a main corridor. He crept beside an ornamental column and watched as the woman and the boy hastened to a doorway. This one was simple, unadorned and purely functional, a servants' exit that led to the city outside.
Ping Hsui tapped lightly twice on the wooden door and it immediately swung open, revealing two more figures. Kuryakin could barely see in the glow of the overhead lamps. Discerning individual words in the conversation was also virtually impossible, but there was no mistaking the silhouette of the massive Kung or the distinctive Western cadences of Harry Chang.
Chang said something to Ping Hsui and followed it with a kiss. Then the huge bodyguard scooped Tseng T'ien into his arms and the men left with the boy. Ping Hsui closed the door behind her and withdrew into the shadows of the palace corridor. Kuryakin waited until she was gone before he slipped through the door himself.
Outside, the night was already cold and bound to grow colder. Kuryakin wished the servants' uniform had included a jacket but it was too late for hindsight. The two men — Chang in the lead and Kung with the boy balanced on his shoulders — were trotting away toward the quiet city. They didn't seem to be in a rush but still, they were moving at a decent clip.
With his lungs already taxed by the evening's activities, Kuryakin resigned himself to yet another workout. As the Russian took off in pursuit, his thoughts drifted back to Solo. Damn the man: he always seemed to get the cushy part of the assignment.
"It must be truly gratifying to be the center of so much attention, Mr. Solo," Lung Wing declared enviously. "To have many beautiful women groom and prepare you and tend to your dressing."
Oh sure, Solo thought, just like the turkey at a Thanksgiving dinner. The agent offered no reply as he walked through the corridor, accompanied by the plump Prime Minister and two humorless armed guards. They were all heading toward the North end of the palace. This wing was perched precariously on the edge of the plateau, and contained only the Empress' private quarters.
Lung Wing noted his companion's sullenness and tried again. "At least did you enjoy the bath?"
Solo made a face. The less said about that humiliating experience, the better. It was one thing to share a sensual hot tub with an eager lover. It was quite another to be methodically soaped and scrubbed and then meticulously scrutinized, rather like a large piece of stemware. The agent had done his best to convince the maids that he was perfectly capable of washing himself, but his initiative was not appreciated.
"Precise ritual must be followed," the head maid informed him at one point in pidgin English. "Continue to interfere and we will bind you." Mortified and defeated, Solo threw up his hands and surrendered to their intimate ministrations.
After the women were finished and their work received the approval of their superior, they scented his hair with spices, gave him a pair of soft slippers and wrapped him in a heavy, embroidered robe of a rich sapphire blue silk. Solo idly fingered the intricate designs on the sleeves and was startled to find, upon closer examination, that they were frankly and explicitly erotic.
Now as he walked beside Lung Wing, he tried to sort through his roiling emotions.
"I didn't realize preparing for a date could be so complicated," Solo finally remarked, searching for something conciliatory to say. Apparently, spontaneity was as scarce in Yu Shan as potable water.
"It is a great, great honor."
"Yeah," Solo said, his voice flat, devoid of enthusiasm.
The Prime Minister eyed the agent suspiciously. "You are not thinking of changing your mind, are you?"
"Is that the reason for the muscle bound chaperones?" Solo asked, indicating the guards. "In case I try to back out?"
Lung Wing offered him a nervous laugh. "But that would be unthinkable. A terrible breach of etiquette."
"Oh really?" Solo's anger simmered just below the surface. "And what does Emily Post have to say about the proper way to dispose of ex boyfriends?"
The Prime Minister halted in the center of the corridor, a pained expression slowly spreading across his face. He frowned and said softly, "So. You know." Solo nodded and folded his arms.
"I am deeply, deeply sorry, but it is the prerogative of the Dowager Empress to request a companion to warm her bed."
"Did she ever try a hot water bottle?" Solo snapped back, but Lung Wing did not understand the reference. They continued the rest of the way in silence.
"You are certain that you have surrendered all of your weapons?" Lung Wing inquired gingerly, when they arrived at the doors of the Empress' quarters at last. "Are you kidding?" Solo muttered and held open the robe. He'd given up trying to retain any semblance of personal modesty. It seemed every servant of either sex had seen him naked already. No doubt a few of them were conducting a betting pool somewhere, handicapping his impending performance against those of the Empress' past suitors.
Actually, Solo still had an ace in the hole. Although he was unarmed, the maids had missed Illya's communicator ring. It was short range and limited, but at least he could contact his partner if things really got out of hand. Or Kuryakin could always use it as a homing device to locate his body.
"I regret the whims of my sister," Lung Wing apologized again as the guards lifted the heavy crossbeam and unbolted the doors. "I promise you that tomorrow, your death will be swift and painless."
"How very comforting," Solo replied. One of the guards motioned with his spear for the agent to enter. Reluctantly, Solo obeyed and went inside. The doors closed behind him and he heard the crossbeam fall back into place with a good, solid clunk.
The rooms in the Empress' quarters were arranged in a row, like a railroad apartment, and decorated with an extravagance that gave new meaning to the word "luxury." There were cascades of brocaded silk curtains covering the walls and rare oriental carpets on the floors, all in muted shades of plum, apricot, olive and gold. The windows were shuttered for the night and the air was stagnant and heavy with the cloying, sickening sweet smell of incense.
Solo moved through the suite expecting to meet more maids and ladies in waiting, but all was still and silent as an elegantly upholstered tomb. By the time he reached the bedchamber, Solo realized that he and the Empress were completely alone.
"Have you eaten?" Tz'u Li asked. She was seated in the center of a spacious bed, lavishly filled with silk pillows and covered with layers of quilted bedspreads. Several large books were opened and scattered around her.
"No," Solo replied. He wasn't particularly hungry. The smell of the incense and the smoke from the butter lamps were constricting his lungs and giving him a nauseating headache.
"There is food there, on the table, and wine. Drink the wine first."
It sounded more like an order than an invitation. Solo found the table and reached for the silver goblet. The wine was red like a port, and served lukewarm, with a peculiar spicy flavor. It also had a respectable kick.
"Drink all of it," she told him and the agent drained the goblet. Tz'u Li watched him intently. Then, apparently satisfied, she gestured carelessly and said, "You may eat now if you wish," and went back to her reading.
Well, if this is supposed to be a romantic tryst, she's certainly not in a hurry, Solo thought to himself. He began to grow hopeful. Perhaps she would let him go, after all.
The agent glanced over at the meal that had been prepared for him. It looked like chicken, but in Yu Shan, one could never be sure. Unlike conventional Chinese cooking, the cuisine here left something to be desired.
Tz'u Li noted his reluctance. "How much do you know of our history, Mr. Solo?" she asked aloud.
"Not much, Your Highness," the agent conceded and came closer to the bed, grateful for an excuse to skip the dinner. Although he was breathing easier now, he felt oddly stimulated. Whatever she had put into the wine had opened his lungs and cleared his head. Unfortunately, it was also awakening other parts of his body as well.
One of the large volumes occupying the Empress' attention appeared to be a scrapbook. Tz'u Li peeled a black and white photograph from one of the pages and held it out to him. Solo took it.
"That is a photograph of the grandfather of the present Emperor," she explained.
The agent studied the picture. A lean, hollow faced man wearing round spectacles and a formal tailcoat stood stiff and proud as a peacock, but Solo was more interested in the woman who sat next to the Emperor, in a throne like chair. She was swathed in yards of silk and wore an elaborate headdress, but somehow, even the grandiose and gaudy costume could not overwhelm her delicate, almost fragile beauty. The girl — for that was all she really was — looked very young and very frightened.
"And who is this woman?" Solo asked, even though he suspected that he knew the answer.
"It is our humble self. A journalist made that photograph on the royal wedding day. Our late husband took much delight in the inventions of the modern world, but he cared nothing for his people. Prince Chang Shih K'ai is much this way, too."
Although she spoke matter of factly, her words were tinged with regret.
"You were a very beautiful bride," the agent commented, "and you are still a beautiful woman." The compliment was not just another polite, politically expedient tribute. This time, Solo meant it.
The woman who sat before him now was no longer a clawed and painted gargoyle. Dressed in a simple, Mandarin collared sleeping gown, her garish court make up replaced by a light, translucent powder, Tz'u Li was truly striking. Her mature face was smooth and unlined, with high, aristocratic cheekbones, petal shaped lips and bright, flashing black eyes.
Tz'u Li recognized the sincerity of his words and bowed her head slightly. "You are most kind."
"Then repay the kindness," Solo said quickly, seeing his opportunity and seizing it. "I'm begging you, please, allow me to return to my own room."
The Empress retrieved her photograph and shook her head. "We cannot," she said softly.
"But why not? Surely a few hours of pleasure are not worth a man's life. I'll do anything — anything you ask, anything you want. Just, please: let me leave."
"You cannot leave. Neither of us can. The door is barred from the outside. It will not be opened for any reason, until the sun rises. Even if you were to cry out, no one would come. It is the custom."
The woman calmly gathered her loose photographs up and tucked them back into the album. Solo rubbed his cheek in mounting frustration. It was obvious that she was telling the truth.
"Then I'll be forced to call my friend for help," he declared finally.
"You can do this?"
"Yes," he answered, as he stalked around the bedroom as tense and alert as a caged tiger. Something was wrong with him; he could feel it. His nerves were on edge, his heart was pounding in his chest and adrenalin was pumping rapidly into his system. Christ, he thought, what did she put into that wine?
All at once, the room felt suffocating. What if the assassins knew that he was trapped? What if Illya was in trouble and needed him? He decided to test the doors despite her warning.
"Where are you going?" the Empress demanded.
"Your Highness, please understand: I have to get out of here. The boy could be in danger tonight."
"Our grandson is in no danger. You must stay."
"But I'm useless here. The assassins could strike again and my partner may need my help."
As the agent crossed the room, Tz'u Li reached out for him with increasing urgency. "No, Mr. Solo, no. Do not go."
"I have to —.
"No! Please! You must not leave us alone!" Forgetting her regal bearing, the woman crawled across the massive bed, genuinely panic stricken.
"But the Emperor —."
"The Emperor is safe!" she cried after him. "It is me that they seek to kill!"
Solo halted in his tracks and pivoted, just in time to see the wooden shutters burst inward with a splintering crash.
Huddled on the edge of a ragged cliff, Illya Kuryakin felt cold and tired and extremely pleased with himself. Admittedly, the servant disguise had been a long shot, but the gamble was paying off — in spades.
From his vantage point, the blond agent had an excellent bird's eye view of Yu Shan's airfield. Twenty minutes ago, a single twin engine cargo plane had soared in low, from the East and landed. Harry Chang, and Kung — who still cradled the boy Emperor — and several other men were waiting for it.
And now, in the glow of torchlight and under the supervision of Chang, dozens of oblong crates were being transferred from the plane to a string of covered yak carts. Kuryakin wasn't absolutely certain what the crates contained, but he could guess.
Ten more minutes passed before the work was completed. Then the plane took off from the otherwise deserted field and the parade of wagons wound their slow but deliberate way back to the city. Kuryakin left the safety of his perch and raced along the ridge to intercept them.
He caught up with Chang and his cohorts at a barn like structure on the edge of the capital. As Kuryakin watched, the crates were carefully unloaded from the covered wagons and carried into the building. The agent counted the men: at least a dozen, including Chang and his bodyguard.
The odds weren't good. Still, Kuryakin was desperate for a closer look. He just had to peek into one of those crates. He waited patiently for the group to finish. Finally, after the torches were doused and the last cart had creaked away into the night, he made his move.
Kuryakin sprinted to the door and examined the lock. It was a simple, sturdy padlock. He switched the clips in his U.N.C.L.E. Special, screwed on the silencer and shot the lock off. Then he slipped inside.
The interior of the barn was pitch black. Unable to see where he was going, Kuryakin walked straight into a packing case, striking his knee hard against the edge. He stifled a curse and tried to maneuver around it, but powerful hands abruptly grasped him from behind. He felt his feet leave the floor as his body was lifted high and smacked against a wall, knocking the automatic out of his hand. A tiny flame flickered to life and danced near Illya's cheek.
"Well now, what do we have here? " Harry Chang grinned as he held his lighter aloft. "Aren't you a little old for trick or treat, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Not much nightlife at the palace," the agent gasped. Kung's beefy hand was wrapped around his throat, pinning him helplessly in place. "I was bored."
Chang's tongue clicked against his teeth as he shook his head. "Sorry to hear that. I guess we'll just have to make your evening more interesting, won't we?"
As soon as he saw the two lithe figures leap purposefully through the window, Napoleon Solo knew that he was not only outnumbered, but also outclassed. These were the deadliest of assassins; the sort who trained their entire lives for one mission, never expecting to survive it. Against such single minded killers, the average sane man had very little chance.
But Solo never considered himself average, and his sanity had been questioned on several occasions. Although the altitude and the thin air put him at a distinct disadvantage, whatever was in the spiked wine had eased his breathing and increased his circulation. When Tz'u Li reached under the bed and quickly tossed him a long, thin sword, Solo considered the odds even.
The attackers wore masks and were dressed entirely in black. They split up immediately, working smoothly and efficiently, like the trained professionals they were. One of them chased after Tz'u Li who retreated further into the suite, slamming doors behind her. The other cornered Solo, chopping at him with a broad, two handed iron sword.
The agent had no choice: he took the defensive. Solo feinted right then left, in an effort to improve his position. Trapped in the corner, he had little room to maneuver. The anonymous swordsmen hacked away with Solo parrying as best he could. The iron blade whistled past again and again, slicing the tapestries to shreds.
Solo's sword was thinner and lighter, with a single edge and a razor sharp point. When his opponent's blade caught in the draperies for a moment, the agent saw his chance. He managed to stab a passing thigh, then ducked and sprinted past. The man in black cried out in pain and surprise. He spun and lunged forward, renewing the attack.
The two swords sang together in murderous harmony, clanging and screeching, metal against metal. And over the din, Solo listened with half an ear to the sounds coming from elsewhere within the suite, knowing that he had to dispatch this swordsman soon if he hoped to save Tz'u Li.
Suddenly, the Empress screamed, and the split second break in Solo's concentration nearly cost him his life. The assassin swung his sword hard, beating against Napoleon's thin blade and shattering it.
Thrown off balance by the impact, the agent fell backwards on the bed. He rolled, first one way and then the other, as his opponent slashed away on either side.
Finally, the man in black raised his sword, preparing to cleave Solo in two. But at the last possible second, the agent thrust upward with his broken blade, impaling the assassin upon it. The dead man collapsed and his sword clattered to the floor.
Solo didn't even bother to check the body. He had no time. He sprang from the bed, scooped up the iron sword and flew through the rooms. Tz'u Li had barricaded herself into one of them, but her attacker had kicked in the door. As Solo charged, the second man in black turned his attention from the terrified woman to the agent.
Something whipped through the air, inches from Solo head. The agent jumped out of the way. A vase smashed to pieces behind him.
"Mr. Solo! It is a kau sin ke," Tz'u Li shouted, and Napoleon had just enough time to see the weapon in the assassin's hand before it struck again. This time, it hit the wall, ripping a deep gash in the plaster.
Solo swallowed hard. The thing looked like a whip, a combination of iron links and bars. It was somewhat like a bicycle chain, but far more lethal.
The agent held up his sword but the kau sin ke wound around it, wrenching the hilt from Napoleon's hands. "Son of a bitch," he hissed and retreated back to the bedchamber with the assassin hot on his heels.
Tz'u Li hung back, afraid to follow, until she couldn't stand it any more. She ran into the bedroom and found the men struggling together on the sill of the open window. Solo was on the bottom, bent backwards. The assassin had the kau sin ke wrapped around his throat and was trying desperately to push him out.
Tz'u Li cast about for something to use. She picked up a heavy vase and sent it crashing against the assassin's shoulder. The man staggered. It wasn't much, but it was all Solo needed. Using leverage, he grasped his opponent by the collar of his shirt and yanked. The assassin tumbled forward and plunged, headlong, out the window.
The momentum carried Solo out too, but the agent clawed the windowsill and hung on. He swung perilously over the precipice, his robe catching on the exterior ornamental work. A piece of the hem tore as Solo pulled free and hauled himself back into the room.
"Are you all right, Mr. Solo?" Tz'u Li inquired anxiously as she stood in the center of the bedroom. The place was in shambles.
"I'm not sure," Solo replied, gulping great mouthfuls of air. "Give me a minute, okay?" He wobbled unsteadily and fell into a chair near the window.
Tz'u Li folded her hands and sat on the edge of the bed. She tried not to look at the bloody corpse that was sprawled nearby.
"They must have used ropes and grappling hooks to lower themselves from the roof," Solo concluded, thinking out loud. After a moment, he added, "You knew this was going to happen, didn't you?"
The Empress nodded. "The other attempts — the poison, the fire — they were directed at me."
"Do you know who's behind it?"
"No. But I heard the whispers. I knew something would happen tonight."
Solo blinked as it all became clear to him. "That's why you wanted me here. To protect you. Not for —."
"— The wind and rain? No, Mr. Solo." Her lips puckered into a playful smile. "Are you disappointed? Lighten an old woman's heart and say that you are."
Napoleon laughed and collapsed into a fit of coughing. It was some time before he caught his breath again.
"Stop choking him, Kung. Put him down," Harry Chang ordered his bodyguard as he lit a kerosene lamp. The giant obeyed and Kuryakin slid gratefully to the floor. The agent massaged his throat and watched as Chang retrieved the U.N.C.L.E. Special.
"Where's the boy?" Kuryakin croaked.
"You mean my brother? Over there. Keep your voice down. He's sleeping."
Chang pointed to a corner of the barn. Tseng T'ien was indeed fast asleep, curled up in a pile of straw and blankets. "You really are very good at your job, Mr. Kuryakin."
"I've dealt with kidnappers before."
The Prince laughed as he juggled the automatic in his hands. "I'm not a kidnapper. When I heard that you were grounded and that your partner was snuggling with Grandmother, I decided to bring the kid along for safe keeping. I love my brother, Mr. Kuryakin."
The Russian agent narrowed his eyes. "Is that why you're planning to lead a coup against him?"
"A coup?" Chang laughed again, harder this time, and shook his head. "Where did you get that idea? Jeez, you look like an intelligent man, but you sure don't sound like one."
"Then, please, educate me. Tell me why are you smuggling arms into the country."
Instead of offering a verbal response, the Prince gestured to Kung, who tossed a crowbar at Kuryakin. The blond agent caught it.
"Go on," Chang urged him. "Open a crate."
Hefting the crowbar, Kuryakin jammed it under the nearest lid to demonstrate that he was determined to do just that. As he pried open a plank, Chang lifted the kerosene lamp. Kuryakin looked down and his eyebrows arched in surprise: the crate contained only rakes and hoes.
The agent stalked to another crate and opened it. This one was filled with shovels. A third crate was loaded with packages of powdered chemical fertilizer and a fourth was crowded with burlap bags of seed. "Farming equipment and supplies," Kuryakin whispered and Chang nodded.
"This revolution is strictly agrarian. I've been selling off some of the trinkets from the palace to purchase all this. You'd be surprised how much those doo dads can bring on the black market."
Kuryakin set the crowbar down and leaned against a stack of crates. "But why all the secrecy?"
Chang chewed his lip and shrugged. "What the Old Queen Bee doesn't know won't hurt her. Besides, if she ever found out, she might want to plant me, too."
He handed the U.N.C.L.E. Special back to Illya. "So you see Mr. Kuryakin, the only gun here is yours."
Sheepishly, the agent took it and stuffed it back under his shirt. "Mind if I call my partner for a private conference?"
"Be my guest. But please, not a word about this to Grandmother."
Kuryakin went outside, uncapped his communicator and set the proper frequency. A few seconds later, Napoleon's voice crackled to life.
"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," Kuryakin apologized, keeping his voice low. "How goes your night?"
There was a short laugh from the other end. "Exhausting. And yours?"
"Enlightening. We both must be slipping. I'll tell you my troubles if you tell me yours."
It didn't take long, either way.
After signing off to Illya, Napoleon returned to the Empress' bedchamber. A cold wind was blowing through the open window. Solo started to clear away the damaged shutters and cover the hole with one of the fallen tapestries.
"I'm convinced that you're the target and not the Emperor, but I still don't understand why," he said as he worked. Tz'u Li sat on the edge of her bed and watched him.
"A small boy can be manipulated. A stubborn, narrow minded old woman cannot."
Solo turned, a bit taken aback by her bluntness. Right before the attack, she also had abandoned the royal "we."
The woman smiled sadly. "I know what is said, but it was not always so. When I was a young girl, I loved a boy named Lo Pang. We used to walk through the mountains, among the purple blossoms. Our families were close and we expected to be permitted to marry.
"But the old Empress chose me for her son. So I came to live here at the palace, never to leave again. My husband was dissolute and lazy and addicted to the poppy. I shed no tears when he died."
Solo finished with the draperies. He leaned against the windowsill to listen. Tz'u Li went on:
"I resolved to make my son, Ch'i Lin, a proper emperor. He was a good man, but not a clever one, and they killed him. Now, I will try to do the same for my grandson."
She paused. "Do you see, Mr. Solo? I have been daughter, wife, mistress, mother, and grandmother to this country. I am Yu Shan. That is why they must do away with me."
Despite Solo's efforts to secure the window, there was still a chilly draft. Tz'u Li gathered the quilts around her.
"Perhaps you may think of those dozen men before you, and believe that my death would be well deserved. But I did not order those executions, Mr. Solo... others did. I grieve for those men, even now, though only two were of any consequence. One was a traveling monk —."
She smiled again, faintly, at the memory. "The monks are trained to preserve their essence and draw strength from the pleasure of the woman."
"And the other?" Solo asked.
"My beloved Lo Pang."
She said the name calmly, but the agent didn't need to ask for the details. He could see in her eyes what that one night must have cost her.
"I am not a heartless woman," she added. "Only a lonely one. Now what do you think, Mr. Solo?"
The agent folded his arms and said softly, "I think it's time you saw the purple blossoms again."
Her mood lifted: it was comforting to know that he understood. "Then stay with me tonight — this time, not as a duty, but as a favor, from friend to friend. Stay, and tell me about the world outside. You have risked your life twice for me already. Will you not do so again?"
Tz'u Li was a small woman, and as she sat there, in the huge bed, without her throne, or headpiece, or other trappings of the court, she looked as slight and vulnerable as the young girl in the photograph. She held out her hands to him, palms down, and with elaborate ceremony, Solo went down on one knee before her. He took her fingertips lightly in his and touched his forehead to them.
"As you wish, Madam," he replied solemnly. "I'll do whatever you ask."
And then he smiled.
The doors of the Empress' suite were unbarred the next morning. Lung Wing rushed in at the head of a small regiment of palace guards, but at the sight of his sister, sitting upright in the middle of the royal bed, he froze.
"What is wrong, dear Brother?" Tz'u Li inquired coolly. "You look as if you have seen a ghost."
The Prime Minister recovered quickly but it was too late. The expression on his face had betrayed him.
"You see Mr. Solo," she said, addressing the agent who stood next to the bed. "We told you to be patient, that the traitor would reveal himself in the morning. And so he has."
Just then, Harry Chang, trailed by Kung and Illya, elbowed his way through the knot of guards. He saw the assassin's corpse on the floor and cried out in honest shock, "What happened, Grandmother?"
"Ask your uncle. He can explain."
Chang glanced over at the Prime Minister, but the latter ignored him. His eyes and his hostility remained focused on the Empress.
"Yes, Mr. Lung," Kuryakin chimed in. "Why don't you tell Harry here how you intended to murder his grandmother and pin the blame on him? Isn't that why that Red Chinese rifle was left for us? To make us believe that we were dealing with an insurrection?"
"It was a very good scheme," Solo observed. "What did Thrush promise you in return for the country? A puppet presidency for yourself?"
"Much more than that," Lung Wing smirked slyly. There was no reason to maintain the fiction any longer.
"Really?" Solo grinned in mock surprise. "Well, if you had everything so well arranged, I don't see why you called us in."
Lung Wing shrugged. "It was all part of the plan. We knew that it was only a matter of time before one of you made a fool of himself. The whole affair would have been a great embarrassment for U.N.C.L.E."
"You underestimated us," Solo remarked as Tz'u Li motioned to the guards. They surrounded Lung Wing.
"Not entirely, Mr. Solo," the Prime Minister smugly corrected him. "By remaining in this bedroom all night, you have broken the law, and you must be executed."
"You are wrong, brother," Tz'u Li cut in. "Mr. Solo has not been here the entire night. During the attack, for some time, he was outside that window. There is proof: a fragment of his robe is still hanging from the ornamental work."
Lung Wing began to protest, but the Empress refused to listen. "This is, we believe, what our honorable grandson calls, 'a technicality.' " She waved to the guards. "Take him away."
Solo studied the Empress. As the men dragged her brother away, the smile on Tz'u Li's face faded and for a moment, her eyes glistened. The agent leaned over to her ear and asked quietly, "What do you want to do now, Your Highness?"
The woman took a deep breath. She straightened her back, tipped her chin upward and said, "We all shall have breakfast together. There is much to discuss."
Then she turned to Harry Chang. "And afterward, if the Prince agrees to drive us, we shall ride in our grandson's automobile."
Chang laughed and gave Kuryakin's shoulder a triumphant slap. "It will be a pleasure, Grandmother," he said.
A few hours later, the ancient cargo plane that served U.N.C.L.E.'s Far Eastern supply run stood fueled and waiting on the Yu Shan airfield. Some yards away, Solo and Kuryakin exchanged parting words with their royal hosts. The day was warm and spring like, the sun was shining, and cascades of purple flowers carpeted the mountains in the distance.
"Goodbye Your Highness," Kuryakin said to little Tseng T'ien, who stood next to the Empress.
"And mind your grandmother and your brother," Solo added. "They both love you very much."
Harry Chang pumped each agent's hand in turn. "Thanks a lot, for everything." He pulled Illya aside and said, "I wanted to ask you about that Chinese rifle —."
Tz'u Li took the opportunity to turn to Napoleon. "Have you considered our offer, Mr. Solo?"
"Yes, and I must respectfully decline. I'm very sorry, but I'm needed elsewhere."
The woman nodded. "That is understandable, but regrettable." She leaned forward slightly and lowered her voice. "You were less than my beloved Lo Pang — as all men must be for us — but superior to the monk."
Solo cocked his head at the compliment.
"Hey! Solo!" It was the pilot, poking his head out of the hatch. "Better call the Old Man. He wants you to stop off in Karachi on the way back. Some kinda trouble down there —."
Solo waved to signal that he understood and sighed. The Empress eyed him sympathetically.
"The world is balanced Mr. Solo, between the principles of yin and yang, dark and light, forever locked in ceaseless struggle."
"And if one should prevail?"
The woman shook her head. "One principle can never prevail. It is the way of things."
She raised her hand as Chang rejoined her. "Farewell, gentlemen. And if you ever tire of the world, Mr. Solo, remember: there is a position here for you as long as we live."
Kuryakin inclined his head toward his partner. "What position is that?" he asked.
"Chief Royal Consort," Solo replied, keeping a straight face.
"I thought you two only talked all night."
"Ah, well, there's talking and then there's talking."
"Indeed? I can't wait to hear you explain the difference," Kuryakin growled, but Solo wasn't listening. He was watching Tz'u Li climb into the front seat of Harry Chang's convertible to sit between her two grandsons, and he was thinking that his was the greatest job in the world.
We did that! the agent told himself, and the sudden surge of exhilaration and pride of accomplishment was so intense, he wanted to cheer out loud.
But then the pilot shouted again, "C'mon mates, let's get a move on!" and the moment and the feeling passed.
Solo turned and hurried after Kuryakin without another backward glance. There wasn't any time. A plane was waiting, there was trouble in Karachi, and that was simply the way of things.