It was the winter of a great nation's discontent.

A dun-coloured fog hung over the Capital- looming more oppressively, more palpably every single day- a dun-coloured people laboured and scurried in the streets below. Starving, empty-eyed men- their ribs sticking out like that of a crow-pecked carcass'- dragged rickshaws loaded with rice. Vendors from over half a continent peddled their wares- scurrying through the potholes on the roads like rats moving through a filth-strewn drain. From some nearby temple, rose a chorus of voices- the voices of the lepers, the blind, the crazed- begging the unlistening ears of the passer-bys for a few coins- coins that considering the state of the economy- were near-worthless anyway.

These sights- and more- were what greeted Li Xingke as, for the first time in years, he drove through the Road of a Thousand Glories to meet his beloved Empress. For more than three years, Xingke had laboured, both in the Grand Military Institute as well as a hundred battlefields- facing every privation, very want, every struggle- as his

How had they fallen so low? For thousands of years, China had lead the World. It'd been China that had given the World the paper it wrote its histories on. It had been China that had given the World its first guns, its first watches, its first dams. Chinese ships had been the first to round the World when the great Treasure Fleet- after eleven gruelling years- had finally streamed into the Shanghai harbour. And it had been China that had freed the thousands of Asian peoples from the tyranny of forign barbarians- replacing the merciless exploitation of the savage Whites with a multinational Federation that ensured justice and freedom for all. As late as 1930, it had been the Chinese who were the premier power in the World- and the Britannians and Europeans and Australians and Arabs had quaked, not before the unending seas of armaments pouring out of the forges of Saigon and Calcutta- but the wisdom and cunning of the sages and mandarins of the Forbidden City and the sagacity and charity of the Emperor- May his Soul find peace in the Halls of Heaven Above.

Maybe it could've been better…would it have been better if Dr Yat-Sen had survived? What if the Harbin revolution had succeeded? Master Qimei had been deluded-true enough- but he was a true mandarin, a lover of China.

The car drove past yet another check-point. Briefly, the vehicle stopped. Another nod- and they carried on. Was it the tenth such check post- or the hundredth? The Empress had enemies- yes, she did; and a day will come when Xingke would present her with the heads of each single one of them- but where the starving faces he'd seen on the roads that morning foes? If the Empress had foes, they were not in the streets of Luoyang. The Nationalists had been making sporadic raids nearby but he doubted anything short of a massed attack by Isa Yussuf could threaten the city. And Yussuf was probably more than a thousand miles distant.

Charles Zi Britannia ruled half the World with an iron fist- and his carrion crew of generals and warmongers picked at the borders of the Federation. The corrupt Socialists of the failing European Union clashed as fiercely against the East as they did against the Fascists within their own midst. Sihanouk plotted and plotted in the jungles of Cambodia- aided, as the rumours had it- by the renegade Zhu De. Beyond the Himalayas, the Maharaja still remained loyal- but his fractious vassals chaffed under the Eunuch's heavy-handedness and Patel wanted nothing more than to see Chinese corpses littering the fields of Asia. Du Yuming was loose in Burma- defeating army after army sent against him, and half the Irrawaddy was a desolate wasteland. And less than a thousand miles from fair Luoyang itself, the mysterious Jiang Jie Shi haunted the mountains.

They stopped at yet another checkpoint- and Li Xingke had enough. "What is the meaning of this?" He snarled at the woman manning the post. "We must have passed over fifty of these infernal checks already. This is an Imperial vehicle, one of the Empress' Own. How dare you even stop us in the first place?"

The woman's eyes had widened like saucers when she saw who exactly it was in the back seat- but she recovered quickly- much to Xingke's surprise and admiration. "I profusely apologize for my actions, Lord general. But we have received orders to be more vigilant and diligent I our duties from now on. Reports have reached us that Ma Bufang has recently attacked and massacred over five thousand soldiers at Nin Gansu. Isa Yussuf has been sighted less than four hundred kilometres away; we fear Jie Shi wishes to make a strike at the Capital."

Xingke groaned. Four hundred kilometres away- how come the army wasn't in the streets? How come he hadn't even heard of this? "Where are the armies? I didn't see a single Knightmare on the streets!"

"Apologies for that as well, Lord General," bowed the woman, consternation plain on her face. Not how a Lieutenant of the Guards of Yellow Rift Perimeter should behave, thought Xingke, as he glanced at the chevrons on her shoulder. "But from what I've been told, the Eunuch masters do not wish to antagonize Jie Shi at this stage. They believe an agreement can still be reached and that an attack on the Capital is simply too untenable a goal for…"

"An attack here…Of course it's impossible! Why would Jie Shi send a no-name idiot to take Luoyang?" Li Xingke snarled at the woman. "This is a feint! Send word to the armies! We will first beat back Yussuf, and then I will seek out their main forces. What news do you have about Ma Bufang and Zhang Xueliang?" But as the words left his lips, he knew they were futile. It was clear the woman, though calm and disciplined enough to serve as a Lieutenant of the Inner Fortifications at this time of crisis, was clearly out of her depth. "Enough of this," he sighed. "Climb in, Lieutenant, and signal all the Checkposts ahead to leave this nonsense and start fortifying the perimeter. Message the Barracks and tell them I will be there to lead them within the hour."

"Very well, Lord General. Should I also order the paramilitary to move out? They may not have the weapons- but infantry can take down armoured vehicles and helicopters as easily as a Knightmare."

"Then what about the people? We can't leave them defenceless against the Nationalists!"

"We can order a general warning- and transfer most of the population to the underground Storm shelters. That way, we can free at least three quarters of the Paramilitary and abandon at least half the city without endangering any of the civilians. The School scout organizations and Student volunteers will give us the rest of the manpower."

"School children out during a…?" Xingke spat out, outraged at the thought. "Are you insane!"

"Military training is mandatory for teens. Children are..." stuttered the lieutenant.

"Not soldiers!" shouted Xingke as he clambered out of the car. School children. What did she even mean by the words? There must be at least three million of them in the city- nearly all sons and daughters of important bureaucrats and officials; commoners weren't allowed so close to the Palace fortifications. The guards seemed to shrink back in front of him. Good, he thought. A stringent and powerful first impression would serve him well.

"We…We can say it's a drill. We are six years overdue for one in any case!"

A drill? Xingke stared at her as if she had grown another head. What was wrong with the Federation military! What happened to the bright, young graduates who would march out into the great world form its red-brown dragon gates… And then Xingke thought of Ma Bufang and Isa Yussuf and Du Yuming- and the rumours that Jie Shi- whoever he was- had once been a high official to the Chinese Federation itself. He thought of the red stone walls of the Grand Military Institute, the massive statue of Shi Huang Ti that overlooked the valley below, the Halls of the Great whose mile-long gallery paid tribute to the heroes who'd made the greatest possible sacrifice for their land and Emperors.

He thought of the dust that had piled on seven feet thick on the streets of Ashbagat and the flares that had fallen like shooting stars, lighting up the night sky- and the shells that had rained down upon the refugee camps that dotted the slopes of Kopet Dag.

"Who's the head of the Palace guard?" demanded Xingke of the Lieutenant.

"Po Xihue Liang"
"Then why isn't he responding?"

"The Palace guard authority, Lord General," started the Lieutenant, after a few gulps. She then composed herself and started rattling off such an insipid narrative that Xingke was sure she'd spent weeks practicing it. "The Palace Guard authority is a matter for the administration. As such, military authority is only given to officers who have had a corresponding lack of expertise in such civilian matters. Perforce of their position though as administrative servants, such military officers are not allowed to be stationed in positions where they can affect matters pertaining to urban civil policy."

Xingke realized that he was in the presence of someone who had scored pretty high in the defence training institutes that churned out the rank and file of the Federation's officers. He wondered whether having getting a lobotomy on their brains was necessary to secure a good rank there or students could manage to dumb themselves down enough in the five years they spent there. He gritted his teeth and asked, "Could you please explain to me what all that meant? In plain language."

"I am the highest ranking military official in the compound at present, Sir. Unfortunately, I have no authority to take independent military action unless the threat is more than six hundred kilometres from the Palace Great Hall?"

Incredible, sighed Xingke internally. Maybe he wasn't in the presence of a total idiot after all. "Look, Lieutenant, if the Palace Guard won't handle this because it is a military question, and you can't handle this because they're sixty hundred miles or whatever away, how do you suggest we do anything here?"

The Lieutenant nodded her head eagerly. Xingke guessed he'd managed to repeat a question that she must've prepared for in the cramming schools masquerading as military colleges in the Federation. "Yes, I do see that there is a real dilemma here. The questions of administrative policy with regard to central authoritarian sites can cause confusion between the military policy of administration and the military administration of policy, especially when responsibility for the administration of the military policy of administration conflicts, or overlaps with, responsibility for the policy of the military administration of policy."

"So then why aren't the Palace Civil officials acting to defend the city? They can't just leave the gates open for the enemy to saunter in?" demanded Xingke. "And what if said military rank is not available within the Palace Guard?" The intentions of the mandarins commanding the city defences was clear. They meant to hunker within the Palace, protected by the vast walls and dedicated defences while leaving the city itself open to the raiders under the Nationalists. Xingke wondered whether they were traitors within the Palace guard itself. Not unexpected but…

"Sir, the Palace itself would be invulnerable given the automated defences we do have. Unfortunately, only a military rank the equivalent of a Colonel or higher can authorize an aggressive response. And well…" She fidgeted, looking more like a young college girl than an officer of the Palace Guard. "The proposal has been on the table for over a decade now…but no one has actually gotten around…Setting precedents is dangerous according to Chief Secretary Bin."

Ah! Stupid of him to attribute malevolence to what was just another example of the Federation bureaucracy's utter incompetence. No, it wasn't incompetence. Madness. This was plain madness.

This is not the Empress' Empire, he'd thought that day at Ashbagat as the sky and the sand had burnt. Not an Empire worth saving. He hadn't been the only one among the Empress' generals to think this way- treasonous as it was. But unlike many, he was probably one of the few who still believed.

"Sir?"

Xingke awoke form his brown study. This was not how he'd imagined his audience to go- but then again, it wasn't his position to question what services he rendered. "Lieutenant," he wiped his brow as he thought and spoke. "Doesn't the Palace guard have the power to draft any civilian- a citizen of the Federation, of course- during times of emergency as long as a senior officer warrants it? And that the Officer, as a response to any emergency that may precipitate such an unconventional offer of service to said civilian, has full rights and response to act thus- without any fear of accusation of malpractice?" The girl's face betrayed her confusion but she seemed to be paying attention to him. A dim light shone in her eyes. Xingke continued, "And is it not true that field promotions for any individual serving in these forces is entitled to a position, best suited for their skills and qualifications?" the light grew brighter. "After all, according to Section 17c of the Compulsory Draft Emergency Laws of 1863 - the traditional allocation of military responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the administrable incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the military functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their bureaucratic overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position." Xingke finished and cleared his throat. "You do get my point, don't you, Lieutenant?"

"Very well, private Xingke of the Yellow Rift Perimeter," smiled the Lieutenant as she saluted him. "The Palace Guard would be proud to have your services, Lord General Xingke."