The next few days passed in a flurry of activity. Han Xiang and Meng Dan were given 2 weeks leave from the school to show the travelers around beautiful Da Li. The youngsters had a grand time rowing boats on the nearby Erhai Lake, visiting landmarks such as the Three Pagodas, and riding horses over the great grassy planes. The end of the first week, Xiao Jian took them on a tour of the Xiao family estates. As the group played with lambs on the sheep farms, marveled over the intricate carvings at the marble quarries, and enjoyed the welcoming voices of children at the school, XYZ's grew more and more excited.
During one of the group's picnic lunches on the grass plains, she turned to XJ, "Brother, all these land and businesses belong to our family?"
XJ nodded, "Yes. Technically, they were all Fang family properties, but to protect them, Father had them transferred to Godfather. When our parents died, our home and properties in HangZhou were either burnt or confiscated, but luckily, we were able to maintain our deeds in Da Li."
XYZ gasped, "That means…that means…I'm not poor anymore?"
XJ laughed at her expression, "Well, my dear sister, we're certainly not as wealthy as the family you married into, but no, we're certainly not poor."
XYZ exclaimed, "Oh! Brother! Think of all the good we can do! Growing up, Liu Qing, Liu Hong, and I tried our best to help the elderly and children at Da Za Yuan. We didn't have much, but we still tried our best. But now..brother! Just think! We could set up even better Da Za Yuan's!"
XJ looked at his sister with pride, "XYZ, I'm so proud of you."
XYZ looked confused, "Huh?"
XJ explained, "I'm so proud of your reaction to our family's wealth. Indeed, the Fang family used to be well known for our generosity and philanthropy. I'm glad the legacy is strong in you. Instead of being glad for your own wealth, your reaction is to use it for good."
XYZ blinked at him, "Well, what good is wealth for me alone? I can only use it for so much. Really, when I first went to live in the Palace, HAM kept issuing me jewelry and gold. I certainly had no use for them. So, I tried to sneak out to get them to ZW. But, I got caught instead. I even had quite a fight with YQ and ET over them…they mistook me for a thief!"
ET protested, "Well, you were dressed up as a eunuch at the time, what were we supposed to think?"
YQ added, "But I suppose it did a set a precedent for how our XYZ would make friends. Just think, we got to know Meng Dan and Xiao Jian because XYZ fought with them."
SY nodded, "Me too! We had quite a competition."
Han Xiang nodded, "I seem to remember quite the commotion when I first set eyes on her as well."
ZW smiled, "Right, even I met XYZ when she was in the middle of a fight. Or rather, when she was running away from one!"
Qing-er laughed, "Should I count myself lucky that all she did was bump into me and LFY? Though…come to think of it, XJ, that's how we met too. So maybe it's a family trait?"
XJ looked at her in mock horror, "Oh no! Where did my sweet and gentle Qing-er go? You've been spending way too much time with my sister. I believe she's been a bad influence on you!"
EK chuckled, "I don't know, XJ, I fear you've been corrupted by her as well. Imagine! XJ making jokes!"
Meng Dan smiled but spoke up, "Let's not pick on my pupil. She has a heart of gold…Speaking of pupils, I fear Han Xiang and I must return to our students tomorrow. It has been a joy spending time with everyone, but we also have responsibilities."
ZW turned to Han Xiang, "Do you think you'll need any help? These past two weeks have been lovely, but I want to do something productive as well. I've been thinking, perhaps I could teach something as well?"
Qing-er nodded, "That's a great idea, ZW. I'm not talented as you are, but I'm sure there's something I can contribute as well. After helping XYZ with her studies for so long, I rather miss it."
EK, ET, and YQ looked at each other and nodded. EK spoke, "That's a wonderful idea. Xiao Jian, do you think Uncle would mind some guest lecturers?"
XJ smiled, "Not at all! I think it would be fantastic. Why don't we bring it up to Uncle and Aunty at dinner tonight?"
Uncle and Aunty were delighted by the youngsters' suggestion and quickly incorporated the special sessions into the schools' curriculum. The children loved the visitors, who tried hard to make all lessons fun and interactive.
And so two more weeks passed until one day, shortly after dinner, a courier arrived from BeiJing. He delivered the letter to Yongqi, who was much surprised to see his father's seal on the scroll.
When the courier left to rest for the return to the capitol, the group crowded around Yongqi.
Seeing his solemn face while reading the letter, Qing-er asked worriedly, "Is everything ok? Is LFY alright?"
ZW added, "Is it E Niang? Ah Ma?"
SY chimed in, "Is it my little Xi-er? I've been gone so long, she must miss me terribly."
Yongqi quickly replied, "No, no, everyone's fine. HAM, LFY, Ling Fei, Fu Da Ye, Fu Jin, they're all doing well. 15-Ah-Ge is growing up fast, as is Xi-er. The two constantly play together and bring everyone quite a lot of joy."
EK asked thoughtfully, "Is it Burma?"
Yongqi sighed and nodded, "Unfortunately, yes. HAM sent word that the Burmese are threatening to declare war. There have already been quite a few skirmishes closer to the border."
ET asked worriedly, "Is he calling us back to BeiJing?"
Yongqi shook his head, "No. He said we shouldn't feel the need to cut our visit short."
ZW asked gently, "You look quite worried…what else does HAM say?"
Yongqi sighed again, "Well, HAM says that since we're so much closer to Burma, he would like to send us on a diplomatic trip. See if we can't negotiate some sort of truce. If not, then he wants us to lead the battle. He is readying some forces in the capital as we speak, just in case the peace talks do not work."
Qing-er asked, "And who is this us he refers to?"
Yongqi replied, "EK, ET, me, and XJ."
XJ was startled, "Me? What does he want me for?"
EK answered for Yongqi, "I bet he wants you for information gathering. You're familiar with the province and can blend in with the civilians better. Given your past experiences, it shouldn't be hard for you. If you can also infiltrate the Burmese, then we might have a better idea of what we're dealing with and can offer incentives that will make the Burmese more willing to agree to peace."
Yongqi nodded, "That is indeed HAM's intent. He's putting me in charge of the whole operation, but EK and ET will be both my bodyguards as well as generals should battle be unavoidable. XJ is our spymaster. Of course, HAM is giving you a choice, XJ. You do not have to do this, but I think this task suits your skill set quite well. I really do think you are the man for this job."
XYZ, who had hitherto been listening quietly, demanded, "Well, what does he expect us to do?"
YQ turned to her, confused, "What do you mean?"
XYZ scoffed, "HAM can't exactly expect me to sit still and wait patiently within the safety of DaLi, can he? Perhaps ZW and Qing-er can, but I know I certainly can't. And I know SY is likely to agree with me."
SY nodded, "XYZ is right. While I know war and battle are in the province of men, XYZ and I can still help. I grew up as my father's favorite child, I learned more than just how to get my way. In my travels with him, I also learned some diplomacy. And I've discovered that sometimes, to get to the king, you must go through the women folk."
YQ remained worried, "But I don't want to put you in danger, XYZ. If something happened to you…I don't know if I can control myself, national peace be damned."
ET, however, took a more practical view, "YQ, I understand your worries, for I share them as well in regards to SY. But you have to admit, she has a point. Even though war seems inevitable at this juncture, our goal is still to maintain peace. If we include XYZ and SY in the trip, perhaps it would be a show of faith and good intention? If it's just men, perhaps the Burmese will think we intend to attack instead. With XYZ and SY accompanying us, it will seem more a diplomatic trip than an act of war."
EK agreed with ET's logic, "While I do not like to put either XYZ or SY in unnecessary danger, I have to admit ET has a point. YQ, think about it. Not only is SY a bride of the Qing dynasty, she is also a princess in her own right. By including her, we're also reminding the Burmese that our dynasty is not without allies. Perhaps we can also use another political marriage as a bargaining chip."
YQ remained worried, "I understand your reasoning, but from HAM's words, it seems as though he wants more than peace; he seems to want to acquire Burma for the Qing dynasty and add it to the empire."
ZW looked troubled, "But such intent is very much contrary to peace. I cannot imagine the Burmese willingly submitting to Qing rule."
Qing-er added, "From what I've read, the Burmese are a battle-hardened nation. Not to mention, their climate is very much unlike that of BeiJing. If war does break out, I don't know if our troops will be able to withstand the onslaught."
ZW nodded, "Besides, it would be like we are invading their homeland. Not only do they have a home-field advantage, it would also galvanize the common people to help the military in pushing our troops out of their land."
YQ sighed, "I know, I know. But I don't know how willing HAM would be to treat the Burmese as equals. Think about it. In terms of geography, our nation is much larger. From his point of view, surely the vast Qing dynasty can wipe out itty bitty Burma."
XJ shook his head, "Perhaps your HAM should visit DaLi sometimes. The reason so many different ethnic groups have been able to live peacefully together here is the mutual respect we have for different cultures; the principle of live and let live."
EK spoke up again, "YQ, since HS put you in charge of this operation, I think it's your call how to approach the situation. Since he didn't mandate the subjugation of Burma, I think we can allow peace to be our primary goal."
ET nodded, "EK's right. I think our first task is to plan for a diplomatic trip. But we should also establish a course of action in case we need to turn to arms."
XYZ insisted, "And those plans better include me."
SY agreed resolutely, "And me."
Qing-er added thoughtfully, "What we need is for the Burmese to trust us. If we show good faith, then they're more likely to return the favor. If XYZ and SY are going, then you might as well include me and ZW too."
XJ blinked, "Why? If something happens, XYZ and SY can save themselves, but you and ZW…"
Qing-er replied, "I know. ZW and I would need recuing. However, I cannot imagine that the Burmese king does not know of XYZ and SY's reputation. He would know they both have martial art skills and can fight back if need be. But both ZW and I represent zero risk to the Burmese. If we are truly to be a peace seeking delegation, what better way than bringing along two ladies of rank with no fighting skills?"
EK grew worried, "But if you two should be captured, you can be used as bargaining chips against us...And ZW, your health has never quite recovered fully…what if…"
ZW gently held his hand, "EK. I know. But Qing-er's idea has merit. Besides, if we are captured, is that not good impetus for battle? In the eyes of the other neighboring tribes, how would Burma look then? Perhaps we would gain even more allies against the country that would dare harm two Ge Ge's from a peaceful delegation."
YQ rubbed his forehead, "There's so much to think about and consider; it will definitely take more than tonight. I vote we think about it overnight and reconvene tomorrow to start setting down definite plans. XJ, I think you had better inform Aunty and Uncle of our task. I'm afraid we will no longer be able to give lessons at the school."
XJ nodded and left to speak with his godparents while the others headed to their rooms.