He calls me a demon. A night-demon: a dream-stealer. He says that I sneak into his dreams and pollute them, invading his mind when he is most vulnerable. He says that I chase him, seated astride a white horse, my sword drawn. He tells me that I always catch him, corner him; and that I call him a traitor, cry for him to confess to being a Han, and encourage him to reject the Manchus.
He always tells me this with a smile, as if inviting me to laugh along with him. It is impossible to get close to him. He is the emperor. Any intruder would be struck down and killed if he were foolish enough to try for an unsolicited audience.
And yet I creep in beneath his defences, as black as an assassin, as determined as water over rock; I infiltrate his mind and rob him of rest, and cause him to waken in terror.
And so he sends his men to kill me: Not only because I disturb his dreams, but also because I am the true emperor of China.
I am Qian Long's brother.
* * *
I have only fractured memories of my childhood. My parents I do not remember at all, except for flashes of awareness that come to me when I am reminded by scent or touch or sound of something long ago and forgotten.
It is strange that I associate flowers with my father – dog roses and peach blossom – and if I smell these two scents in combination, one fresh, the other fading, then I can see in mind's eye a tall, unsmiling man with his long black hair unbound. He gave me a piece of silk to play with. I remember that because I still have it, though now it is worn and frayed.
It is yellow, the imperial colour.
My mother I recall in fragments. I never know if I am remembering her, or her maids, or my nurse. Perhaps the image is a composite of all these women. I don't know how old I was when she sent me away – for my protection, she said – but I remember the box wrapped in scarlet and gold, the box that held my birthright: the throne of all China.
And I remember the day the box was stolen, when the pavilion was flooded with blood; and when the assassins left me alone, unharmed, in the midst of the slaughter. I never understood why they didn't kill me. Sometimes I wish that they had cut out my heart and let me bleed to death with my retainers.
From the human wreckage I took a fan. It was a hot day, and the blood attracted dozens of flies. Strangely, I think the flies disgusted me more than did the deaths. I remember quite clearly how I retrieved the fan from the belt of the chief eunuch who had accompanied me into exile, and how I went out onto the porch. There was a slow breeze that moved over me like a tongue, leaving me damp rather than cool. My sweat brought more flies. At first I flailed at them with my hands, and then I undid the clasp of the fan.
I forgot the flies the moment I opened the fan to its full width. It was made of thick, dark blue paper and black lacquer. There was a golden inscription on the handle, but back then I did not much care for letters and writings. Instead it was the design upon the face of the fan that made me stare, made me forget the flies and the death and the fact that I was alone in the world.
Upon the fan there was a dragon. He was painted in gold and scarlet, with just a touch of black in his eyes and at the tips of his claws. He sprawled full length, body sinuous, tail lashing. In his right paw he balanced the sphere of power, but it was clouded, smudged with gold leaf.
I think the image of the clouded sphere made me cry. My tears and sweat fell onto the fan. I remember feeling guilty that I had damaged an imperial fan, this adult object that did not belong to me. And then I remembered that its bearer was dead, that they were all dead, and so the fan belonged to me, now.
That made me cry even harder. Although I had had toys and pets in my previous life, they were owned ultimately not by me but by my father. But now, for the first time in my life, I owned something that was utterly mine.
The idea terrified me; and I wept until I had exhausted myself.
* * *
I had that fan for years. I carried it with me into my new life as Chan Ka Lok; took it halfway across China and into the desert terrain of the Uyghur, and then brought it back here to the east, to the home of the Red Flower Society. In all those years, I never opened the fan again. I think I was afraid of what I would see: either the dragon would not be as powerful as I remembered, or the sphere would no longer be clouded, and I was not ready for either of these things.
But what I did look at, over and over again, was the inscription on the handle. I wore it smooth with touch, copied the calligraphy until I could mimic it better than I could sign my own name: 'dressed in the finest brocades to parade in the dark of night.'
When I was older I learned that it was a proverb. It was one that I treasured, for, unlike some proverbs, it had different meanings when applied to different circumstances. The man who'd carried the fan before me, the chief eunuch, would never have been able to flaunt his wealth and privilege to his family, because he had none. Many of my followers in the Red Flower Society had to remain silent of their advancement and favour for fear of attracting the attention of the imperial guards.
And I… I had lost my birthright, and so existed as the rebel leader of a society that opposed the Manchus. I was the rightful emperor of China, and I lived in exile within my own country. There could be no brocades for me. Not yet.
It was the thought of the fan that prompted me to action. For months now we had been harrying the imperial forces, sending word of secret meetings and then ambushing the troops that hurried to capture us. Smaller, more daring operations had been carried out by our most skilled warriors. And yet, for all our action, I felt that we were not doing enough.
I gathered my advisors around me. We drank jasmine tea and talked about society business. They spoke of those things that promoted their own interests. One wished for me to agree to the purchase of more land in Shanghai, so we could build more houses. Shanghai, he said, would one day surpass Beijing – we would be investing in the future. Another, a farmer, said that he would prefer it if our funds were spent on livestock. A quality horse-stud would be just the thing to ensure our ties with the Uyghur people in the north western deserts.
My attention wandered as they argued amongst themselves. I reclined on my cushions and let my gaze drift around the table. All of these men were around my own age, except for one – my godson, Fong Sai Yok. His father had been one of my chief lieutenants until his arrest five months ago. Sai Yok, his mother, and I had been able to prevent his execution, but now he had decided to retire from the Society.
It was left to me to teach Sai Yok the ways of the Red Flower Society. So far he had been an enthusiastic student, although he preferred to expend that enthusiasm in brawling rather than learning. I had hoped that by inviting him onto my group of advisors, he might absorb some of their wisdom; although today's display of self-interest was one I hoped he would not emulate.
I glanced at Sai Yok as another man declared that we should step up our attacks against the Mandarins, to show the emperor that we meant business. He had been quiet until then, but now he spoke up, saying, "What good would that do us?"
There was a ripple of laughter from around the table, and the speaker replied, "You listen too much to your peace-loving uncle. This is a people's war, not a war of intellectuals! The people understand one thing – violence."
I sighed and sat up. "They also understand peace, and would rather have peace than war."
"I am not talking about war, Master Chan, but violence."
"There are other ways of managing this."
I thought for a moment. My hands automatically reached for my fan – this was one of pale cream paper and bamboo – and I snapped it open, fluttered it once or twice. The breeze it created was warm rather than cold, and it made me pause, my ideas strengthening.
I closed the fan, held it up, and asked, "What is a fan?"
My advisors looked at me, confused by such a question.
"It is for cooling oneself," was the first, and obvious, answer.
"For proclaiming status," was the second, adding: "The style and size and painting upon the fan show how cultured a man is, and how much wealth he enjoys."
"Therefore," said a third, "we can say that a fan is also a work of art."
"Yes," agreed the second. "It is hard work to cool oneself. Better to look at something pleasant or instructive painted upon the fan, so the mind does not become idle."
Fong Sai Yok listened to the discussion with his full attention. He leaned forwards on his cushion, his gaze going from each speaker to the unopened fan I held in my hands. Suddenly he spoke.
"A fan can also be a weapon."
I looked at him, pleased. "Explain yourself."
"Just so. It can be a weapon - just like a sword, only more unexpected."
I flicked open the fan and raised it slightly. "A fan could not kill a man."
"No," Sai Yok agreed, smiling. "But it could disarm him."
"Shall we try?" I closed the fan again, rose to my feet and walked around the table to face him.
"But Uncle, I don't have a weapon," he protested.
"Somebody lend him a sword," I said, and after a slight hesitation the farmer went out of the room and returned with a blade.
Fong Sai Yok held the sword awkwardly. He was happier when using his fists, but I knew he would humour me at least as far as this demonstration went. He tested the balance of the blade and then stood uncertainly, waiting for a signal.
"Attack!" I barked.
He lunged forwards, aiming for my chest. I stepped back with one foot and bent backwards, feeling the end of my braid brush the floor as I moved. As Sai Yok started to withdraw to begin a second lunge, I lifted the fan and flicked it open. The sharp snapping sound made him jump, and distracted him for a moment. His aim wavered as he struck again, unsure this time.
I brought the fan up parallel with the blade and caught its edge in the groove of one of the folds. At the same time I swung my body forwards and then sideways, letting all my energy flow along my arm. I twisted my wrist, tipping the fan and forcing Sai Yok to fumble the sword-thrust. As he tried to pull back, I stepped forwards and regained my balance, closing the fan around the blade.
Sai Yok yelped and tugged at the sword, but I clamped my hand tight around the base of the fan and pulled the blade towards me. Sai Yok let go, and I caught the handle of the sword before it could hit the floor.
"Good," I said, disentangling the sword from the fan and handing it back to the farmer. "Thank you, Sai Yok."
Sai Yok seemed downcast. "You already know how to fight with a fan," he said, almost accusingly. "What was the point of that?"
"Everything." I sat down and opened the fan, letting everybody see that, though made of paper and bamboo, it was still intact after the fight.
Sai Yok was still standing by the window. I patted the cushion closest to me, inviting him to sit, and then I said, "My point is that a fan can be a weapon without the need for any demonstration of physical force. As you said, it could not kill – but it could disarm."
He sat down and stared at me, puzzled. "I don't understand, Uncle."
I laughed, folded up the fan, and then hit him lightly on the head with it. "There is nothing for you to understand, except that I want you to accompany me to the capital."
"Beijing? But… Master Chan, you will be arrested!" my advisors cried.
"Why do you want to go there?" Sai Yok's gaze had sharpened. "What will you do?"
I smiled; touched the fan to my lips. "It is time I paid the emperor a visit."
* * *
Our journey was uneventful. I left my horse with Fong Sai Yok and entered Beijing on foot. Before we parted, Sai Yok asked why he could come no further.
"What if the old men are right," he'd said. "What if they arrest you?"
"You don't know that. How can you be so sure?"
I patted his shoulder. "They won't touch me. I am the emperor."
I smiled at his confusion, and then began my walk to the city gates.
* * *
It was remarkably easy to get inside the Forbidden City. Members of the Red Flower Society have infiltrated many levels of the palace, and I was passed from one servant to another, progressing through corridors and across courtyards until a blue-clad eunuch led me along a narrow brick passageway set with peach trees in ceramic pots. At the end of the wall was a pavilion, and the eunuch gestured to it. He did not wait to see what I would do, but turned and hurried back to his duties.
There were no guards, but I took no risks. I slid from shadow to shadow, finally climbing through a window to one side of the pavilion.
The room I entered was in semi-darkness, lit only by two oil lamps beside the bed. The drapes were half-drawn across the bed, but I could see a figure sitting upon the mattress as if waiting for me.
I glanced quickly around the rest of the room. A European timepiece - a great ugly porcelain thing covered with moulded flowers and mounted on a brass elephant - stood on a sideboard. There were footstools and mirrors, a large jade carving of a holy mountain, a desk with a number of painted scrolls open upon it. It was a small, intimate room rather than the vast ornate bedroom I had imagined.
I turned my attention to the figure on the bed at about the same time as he noticed my presence in his world. The drapes parted, and a hand reached for the closest of the oil lamps.
"I knew you would come." Qian Long sat on the edge of his bed in his nightshirt, a double robe of white cotton overlaid with bright yellow silk embroidered with black dragons with red eyes and tongues. His voice and expression were calm as he said again, "I knew you would come. You told me so yourself, in my dreams."
"You dream of me?" I could not hide my surprise.
"Every night, Chan Ka Lok." Qian Long gave me a weary smile. "Come closer; let me see you. I want to know whether my dream matches the reality."
I obeyed, curious myself as to whether I matched the looks of my phantom self that haunted his dreams. Qian Long lifted the oil lamp and stared at me for a long time. I started to notice the ticking of the clock, and had counted nearly one hundred ticks before he spoke again.
"You look younger than me. But of course, demons can change their faces."
He tried to make his tone light, but it was more than a little thoughtful.
"I am not a demon, but a man," I said, "and I have come to address the issues of men with you… brother."
He laughed. "That old story. I do not believe it."
"Maybe not when you are awake, but when you sleep, your dreams recognise both me and the truth."
Qian Long stood up swiftly and advanced upon me. The flame of the lamp sputtered, trailing black smoke. "What do you know of my dreams!"
I shrugged, but would not back down in the face of his anger. "You told me yourself that I am in them. Do I look like the Chan Ka Lok of your dreams?"
He turned away to look at the ugly brass elephant carrying the clock. "Yes," he said. "You are the man I see in my dreams. So now I must ask myself whether you, too, are a figment of my imagination."
Qian Long glanced at me again. "My guards tell me that I sometimes talk in my sleep. I describe places that do not exist, peoples that I have never seen. I even speak in languages of which I have no earthly knowledge. With such an imagination at my disposal, what if you are no more than a fantasy?"
"I am real enough." I smiled peaceably. "In fact, I have brought you a gift. I do not think that dreams bring gifts, unless it is the gift of foresight."
He was distracted by that. "A gift? What kind of gift?"
I reached inside my sleeve for the fan that I'd tucked away, withdrew it and held it out to him. "A gift," I repeated. "From one brother to another."
Qian Long ignored my words. He came close enough to snatch the fan from my fingers, and then he retreated to the other side of the room. He set down the oil lamp on the desk, and by its light he opened the fan. He did so slowly, as if expecting a scorpion to crawl from the folds.
I watched as he opened it to its fullest extent. I had been afraid that the dark blue paper might have begun to rot, but it still looked as new as the day I had taken possession of it. Only the golden inscription was worn away, although if held to the light, the calligraphy was still perfectly legible.
He looked at it, and was silent for so long that I said, "It might interest you to know the history of this fan."
When he said nothing, I continued, "It belonged to the chief eunuch assigned to accompany me into exile. When all my retainers were killed, I took the fan for myself. I have not used it or opened it for over forty years, although I have carried it with me for all that time. Now I give it to you."
He did not look up. "Why?"
"The gift of foresight," I reminded him. "Dreams bring signs from gods and ancestors. Consider this a sign for the future."
"And you expect me to believe that you have not touched this in forty years?" Qian Long finally raised his head, and then turned the fan so that I could see it.
I had to take a few steps closer to see the image. It was not as I remembered it. Oh, the dragon was still there, curled across the fan with his black eyes, but he was not as finely delineated as before. His strength had gone from him, smudged into the folds of the paper.
At his feet, the sphere that I remembered as being clouded was now obliterated. It looked like a ball of fire, tinged scarlet through the splotched gold.
"This must have been a masterpiece, once," he said. "What happened?"
I lowered my head. "I wept over it."
"As you and your society weep over my rule?"
I looked at him again. "My tears of forty years ago were those of a frightened child. Now I weep for the injustice and cruelty you allow the Manchus to commit against our people."
"Ah," said Qian Long softly, "so now we come to it."
I watched him snap shut the fan. I was distressed that some of the folds did not align themselves correctly, and felt a peculiar guilt that I had given it, even spoiled as it was now, to a man who did not appreciate it.
I said, "You are not the rightful emperor."
"Yes, I am." Qian Long gazed at me with an expression somewhere between admiration and contempt. "I have sat on this throne for twenty-three years while you grubbed about in the Xinjiang dust, gathering your followers about you. Twenty-three years! Is that not leadership?"
I avoided the question, instead grabbing onto the most recent of his victories over the people who had helped raise me. "You shame the Uyghur people by renaming their land."
"And they shame me by refusing to do as I desire!" Qian Long said, his voice loud. He pointed the fan at me. "Ka Lok, they are dangerous."
I shook my head. "I lived amongst them. They are proud and independent. They have no interest in the Middle Kingdom. What use is Beijing to them? But now you have forced them to regard the rest of China with suspicion and mistrust…"
He made a dismissive gesture with the fan. "As I said: they are dangerous."
"Because you made them so!"
Qian Long smiled. He came close to me and tapped the side of the fan against my cheek; then stroked it down the side of my face. "Then by the same reasoning," he said softly, "I have made you and your society dangerous."
I turned my head from the caress, and felt the edge of the fan across my throat. I said, "You are a Han, and yet you rule as a Manchu. There is no honour in that."
He sighed as if my words made him regretful, and then he withdrew the fan. "There is no honour in anything. Or are you such an idealist that you believe in such a concept? The members of your society – do they honour you, or themselves?"
"They honour the cause," I said stiffly.
"The cause. The same cause that would make them rich and powerful if you were to succeed in overthrowing me. Would you allow that?" Qian Long walked around me until I met his gaze. He answered the question for me: "Of course you would. Otherwise they would turn against you."
"There can be leadership without corruption," I said quietly. "I believe it."
He gave me a pitying smile. "Not in the real world, Ka Lok."
"Then perhaps I do not belong in the real world," I said. "I will return to the world of dreams, and meet you there."
I turned to go. There was a clatter as something fell behind me, and I paused. I looked down. The fan lay on the floor, and I was tempted to take it back. As I hesitated, Qian Long reached out and seized my plait, wrapping it around and around until he held a fistful of my braided hair.
When he tugged me towards him, I had no choice but to do as he wished.
"I would know you, Ka Lok."
"As you desire," I snapped.
Qian Long laughed shortly. "Desire? That is half of the problem, surely. That everyone must do as I desire. I need only say the word and my desires are met, fed, encouraged. No one within these walls will ever challenge me; and so when challenge comes from the world beyond, it infuriates me that they will not do as I desire."
I twisted my head, loosening his grip slightly and freeing a length of my plait. I managed a half step away from him, and said, "That is the burden of being a leader of men."
"I would eliminate such a burden," he said.
I lifted my gaze to his. "How?"
"By eliminating you."
I felt a flicker of fear, but stamped down on it. I was not afraid of Qian Long. I was not afraid of my own brother. "I am not the only rebel in your kingdom."
"No," he said, inclining his head in acknowledgement. "But you are the only one here."
"You will not kill me."
"Perhaps; perhaps not. That all depends upon my desire, does it not?"
I did not like the way he said that. My expression must have betrayed me, for Qian Long smiled – not lasciviously, but rather in a cold, detached way.
"I want to possess you," he said quietly. "I want to own you like I own my women, like I own every soul in this city, because you are in my dreams: and if I own nothing more in China then at least I must own my dreams."
I reached up and grabbed my plait, wrenching the rest of its length from Qian Long's grasp. I stepped back away from him, and then jumped as the ugly European clock started to chime the half-hour. As soon as it fell silent again I said, "You cannot mean what you say. We are brothers. It is unnatural."
He smiled; came closer. "Half-brothers, at most, if what rumour says is true. But you have no proof of that, and so you are just a man to me – just a man, just another possession. And as for it being unnatural – do not worry too much, Ka Lok. It is not your body that I desire, but your submission to my throne. And if you will not kowtow in court, then you must bow to me here."
"I will not."
I turned away, but he seized me again, swinging me around into his arms. We struggled together, but every time I tried to free myself, he kept me close.
"What, Chan Ka Lok, are you suddenly so shy?" he whispered in my ear as he held me. "Do you not know that to serve your emperor is a great and worthy honour?"
He let me fall onto the bed. I could not strike him, not even then. He was my brother. In a strange sort of way, I loved him.
* * *
It did not take long. Indeed, it seemed to be more of a technicality than anything born of any kind of desire. I lay quiet and passive, required to do no more than submit. After an initial curious downward glance as Qian Long lifted the imperial night-robes, I fixed my gaze to the canopy of the bed. Yellow silk and white net drifted above me. A charm to bring good fortune, fashioned of red silken rope knotted and twisted into harmonious design, hung above me. I could hear the clock ticking. This time, I counted three hundred and forty-eight ticks.
* * *
When I left the city, I was not followed.
Fong Sai Yok was waiting for me at the place we'd agreed upon. He was sitting on the ground, building a pagoda of twigs and grass while our horses grazed a short distance away. When he saw my approach, he jumped up and knocked down his little pagoda without even noticing what he'd done. I wanted to say something, but could not find the words.
Our return journey was accomplished in silence.
It was mid-afternoon when we reached home. The meeting place was deserted. Not even a breeze stirred. The scraps of paper that littered the ground lay unmoving, helpless and transient in comparison to the immutable blocks of stone inscribed and painted in red with the laws of our society.
Sai Yok took the horses to the stables. I went alone into the house, climbed the stairs to my room, and sat down upon my bed. On the mattress there were several letters from our members, all sealed with the emblem of the red flower. I pushed them aside and stared at the wooden floor.
Fong Sai Yok came into the room and stared at me helplessly. I wished I had words for him. Even a lie would have been enough. He was so young and idealistic. He reminded me of myself, and that hurt more than it should have done.
"Uncle, what is it?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I am not a good leader."
Sai Yok frowned. I had expected him to refute me, but he did not. Instead, still thoughtful, he said, "Qian Long is not a good leader, either. It doesn't matter, because some kinds of leadership are… just coping with a situation. It is the people who make their leaders. The society chose you to lead us, so you have to honour that responsibility."
He paused, and then added, "Besides, I think you're a really good leader."
I smiled. "Thank you."
"It's my dream to be like you, one day," he continued, his smile wide and happy.
"A dream," I said. "You dream of me?"
Sai Yok came and sat beside me, inadvertently tumbling the neat pile of letters. "Yes," he said. "How could I not? You are our leader. A man always dreams of his master, even if he does not recognise him as such."
I jerked my head up and stared at him. "What?"
But Sai Yok was more concerned with the pile of correspondence. He picked up the letters and set them aside; then reached for an object that lay on a nearby shelf.
"Uncle. Your fan." He held it out, and then, when I made no move to take it, he placed it on my knee.
I looked at it for a moment, and then touched it. Bamboo and cream paper and black ink. It was not as fine as the one I had left in the imperial bedroom. It was second-rate, but still useful.
I snapped it open. The image upon its face danced before me, flattening out from its folded valleys and hills as I stretched the edges of the fan to their limits. A tripartite landscape was revealed: trees beside a riverbank; a distant mountain range; a tall, twisted willow amongst darker cypresses.
Sai Yok stroked the fan, and then took hold of my wrist, moving my hand so that I also moved the fan.
I smiled at the feel of the cool breeze, and murmured, "What is a fan?"
Fong Sai Yok let go of my hand. I continued to move the fan back and forth.
"It creates a breeze," he said softly. "It creates wind. It can create a storm."
I stopped the motion of the fan and then folded it shut with a snap.
"Yes." Sai Yok looked at me with the utmost love and respect and belief. "A storm." Hesitantly, he moved closer. When I did not flinch, he put his arms around me and pressed his face into my neck, holding me.
It was only a brief moment of contact, but it was enough. When he pulled away, I smiled. I gripped the fan with both hands as if it was an offering, and I said, "It's not over."
After all, I am still the emperor of China.