Amy struggles to keep down her bile. “You mean to tell me that my life has been endangered, I’m being held hostage, and one of my dearest friends might be dead because my name happens to sound like someone in one of your ancient legends?!?!”
Carlos spreads his hands in apology, but his reply is cut off by the squeak of a door. Amy looks over his shoulder to see Zhenzhen.
“Please to come in. Breakfast is served.”
Carlos steps to one side. “He’ll be wanting to dine alone with you. I’ll talk to you, later.”
“Damn right you will.”
“Tread lightly with the General. He’s in a bad mood.”
“That makes two of us,” Amy replies, and pushes past Carlos to meet with the man who holds her future in his hands.
As Amy passes through the double doors leading to the dining room, Zhenzhen deftly slips behind and closes them. Before Amy turns, the click of the lock echoes in the large sparsely-furnished room.
A chair scrapes. At the end of a long table dotted with gleaming silver settings and covered dishes, General Fu stands alert. Amy forces a smile to mask her dismay and notices something about the man that failed to register during their first meeting. As expected, the man, thin and gaunt, stands with a stiff military bearing in a uniform that twinkles with ribbons and medals. The set of hard, tight eyes and a thin, humorless line of a mouth were also anticipated.
General Fu is short, Napoleon Complex short.
Much as she tries not to generalize, Amy knows there are few opponents in her line of work that are angrier, more bitter, or more at war with the entire world than an extremely short man.
“I am so glad you’ve decided to join me,” the General smiles. “I hadn’t realized you were so tall.”
“I hadn’t realized you were so short,” she replies and starts forward with an air of indifference.
Anger sweeps across his gaunt face. Like many short men, lack of height was a point of annoyance for the General.
Amy settles without invitation into the chair at the opposite end of the table. “I’m starved.” She lifts the silver cover off her plate to reveal a steaming plate of eggs, surrounded by hash browns dotted with green and red peppers and silvers of bacon. Reaching for a plate of toast flanked by bowls of butter, jelly and marmalade, Amy steals a glance towards the General and notes his stiffness.
Yes, General, you’re in charge, but I’m in control.
Within her feigned nonchalance, Amy realizes she is indeed hungry. The food is warm and tasty, and she allows herself to enjoy it, putting her uncertain future in the background.
Whether by watching from some secret hiding place, or silently summoned through some pre-arranged signal, Zhenzhen appears as Amy clears her plate and empties her glass of tea. Amy nods as Zhenzhen offers her more tea, then stands and wanders over to the massive fireplace dominating one side of the room. She studies the large portrait of General Fu, wondering if it might reveal another chink in the man’s armor.
The air stirs as General Fu moves to her side.
“My official PRC portrait.” With a bit of a wistful tone he adds, “It once hung in the Hall of Heroes.”
“How the mighty have fallen,” Amy notes. “Must have been an especially long drop for someone of your size.”
Through a tight jaw the General asks, “Why do you persist in insulting me?”
“Who are you trying to kid, General Fu? With a warm meal and phony pleasantries? You’re either planning to kill me, or imprison me here for the rest of my life. Either way, I’m not going to make it easy for you.”
“Death or imprisonment? Do you really think so little of me?”
“You’ve given me no reason to think otherwise.”
“There is another alternative. One that leads to your total freedom.” The edges of the General’s mouth ripple, which Amy supposes is the closest the man can come to smiling. He indicates for Amy to precede him back into the adjoining weapons room. Intrigued, she complies.
Among the array of displayed weapons, the Sun Goddess sword draws Amy toward it. At the same time she keeps note of the displayed weapons that can be most easily grabbed and used against General Fu. One of the many swords seem the best bet.
Perhaps sensing her train of thought, or out of natural caution, General Fu keeps several feet between them, even as he himself stops to admire the Sun Sword.
“Magnificent,” he murmurs. “I understand you’ve been told the legend of the Ah Mah Lin Say.”
“Who led you to understand that?” Amy asks.
“I have my spies,” the General replies cryptically. He goes on, “South American is very much like China. Fraught with myths and legends. And here, just as in China, they can be used to tear people apart. Or bring them together.”
Something Carlos had said pops into Amy’s mind. People will rarely be roused to fight for a cause. It is much easier to get them to fight for a legend. So the Brotherhood invented a legend. No, not invented. We have always had the story of Ah Mah Lin Say, the Sun Goddess. We more like, re-wrote it. Amy wonders which legend the General has been told.
“I am not a violent man by nature,” the General continues. “If a goal can be achieved without violence, I’d prefer it.”
“I’m sure a lot of the families of those you crushed with your tanks in Tiannamen Square would have preferred it.”
The General makes a casual gesture, tossing it off. “Violence can be an effective tool at times, and should never be wholly abandoned. It is usually the best way to handle betrayal,” he lectures. “Though, diplomacy and negotiation have their place, too.”
“Please, sit,” the General requests, waving to a small couch several feet away. Amy settles on the couch, noting that the General does not follow, but rather moves to stand with the Sun Goddess sword in the background over his shoulder. She realizes: He’s planned this moment very carefully, choreographed it, in fact. It might do her well to listen closely.
“I have had long discussions with your friend Carlos. He would like to see his people reunited, brought back together to better protect themselves, to achieve prosperity. That is one reason the Brotherhood of the Blood Orchid was revived. One way to bring people together is through fear.”
“You mean fear of the consequences of screwing up and earning the wrath of those who’ve assumed control.”
“An acceptable method for the short term, but as time passes, fear of the retribution of the rulers lessens. It happened in the Soviet Union. It is happening in China. Authoritarianism has its uses; for a limited amount of time. Until something better comes along.”
“Such as …?”
“The consolidation of power can be a tricky matter, Miss Lindsay. Yes, fear can be a useful tool. If you have the manpower and the resources to justify that fear. If you don’t have the manpower and resources, alternative methods must be employed.”
“Again: Such as …?”
“Finding a viable Shepherd.”
Amy shakes her head, not following.
“The overwhelming majority of people in this world are sheep, Miss Lindsay. Easily led … waiting to be led, wanting to be led. Needing to be led. Most of them are looking for the slightest excuse to follow someone, to find a Shepherd to do their thinking for them. The trick to becoming a good Shepherd is getting the Sheep to believe you have their best interests at heart and will lead them down the path of safety and prosperity.”
“Fool all the people all the time.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“Oh, I’m not going to do it, Miss Lindsay. You are.”
The soft squeak of the double doors leading to the hallway offer a distraction giving Amy a moment to think on, and decipher General Fu’s curious assertion. The squeak heralds the arrival of Carlos.
“Ah, Carlos!” the General exclaims. “Perfectly timed. I was just about to explain your plan to Miss Lindsay.”
“His plan?” Amy tries reading Carlos, but his face remains impassive.
General Fu escorts Carlos to a spot near the couch … they are an odd sight, the big South American and the slight, tiny Chinaman. General Fu precedes to the Roman chariot and climbs aboard … like a professor taking the stage to deliver a lecture.
“Tell me, Miss Lindsay. Have you ever seen the film ‘The Man Who Would Be King’?”
“A couple of times. Based on a Kipling short story. It’s a ….” Amy stops, remembering that the movie is a particular favorite of Genius. For all I know, he could be dead now, she realizes. “A couple of times,” she repeats through a suddenly constricted throat.
“Two British soldiers decide they want to be kings of a country,” General Fu begins. “To the first tribal chief they come across they offer to train his army and conquer his enemies. In a battle one of the British soldiers is struck with an arrow, but is not wounded because it strikes his bandoleer. Because he does not bleed, the natives think he is a god. The two British soldiers go along with this because they realize conquering the country will be much, much easier if their army is led, not by a man, but by a god.”
Now Amy understands. “You want the Ah Mah Lin Say to lead your army. You can’t be serious?”
“Nothing so dramatic, Miss Lindsay. I’m a military man. I don’t ask civilians to fight if it can be helped. They tend to make a mess of things.”
“More fit to be crushed under the treads of tanks, right?”
“I don’t have any tanks here, Miss Lindsay. But I do have a god. Or, rather, a Goddess. Words will be more persuasive than tanks.”
“Or bullets,” adds Carlos.
“Wouldn’t be much good to reunite your people if you have to kill half of them to do it, would it?” asks Amy.
“No, it would not.”
“So, to save your people, you’ve become a traitor.”
“A pragmatist,” Carlos corrects. “Take a look at history. No lesser advanced civilization has ever survived an encounter with a more advanced one, even a friendly advanced civilization not bent on conquest. Change, Miss Amy, can either lift you, or crush you.”
Amy shakes her head. “Take a look at history yourself. Its full of failed attempts by the few trying to tell the many how to live.”
General Fu’s laugh is short and derisive. “You Americans must rid yourself of the notion that Freedom is the natural yearning of Man.”
“Sheep, Miss Lindsay. The world is full of sheep more willing to be led than to think for themselves. Your country would be better off understanding this basic fact. Save you a lot of trouble in the world. Freedom may be a good thing for Americans. It is too much a burden for most of the rest of the world.”
“Which needs to be run by a shepherd?”
The General spreads his hands, and his mouth crinkles to hint a smile. “I’m willing to take on that burden.”
“With a little help from a ‘goddess’ who will put in a good word for you with the sheep?”
“It would save a lot of lives,” Carlos puts in.
“You mean save you two a lot of trouble.”
“I’ve never shied of doing things the hard way,” says the General. “In case you should demonstrate a bit of reluctance in assisting us.”
“It will be more than a ‘bit’ of reluctance.”
“I figured you would say that, Miss Lindsay.” General Fu jumps down from his perch on the chariot. “So I’ve arranged a bit of incentive.” With a child-like stride Amy would have found comical in other circumstances, Fu scurries over to the large fireplace. On one side he presses and pulls at something, causing a large section of rock to swing open and reveal a large monitor. He peels a remote from a clamp. “Let’s see. What room is it?”
From her seat on the couch Amy sees images flicker across the half obscured monitor too rapidly and too piecemeal to discern.
“You’ve no doubt noticed, Miss Lindsay, I do enjoy a certain level of comfort. I stole away from China with more than just the clothes on my back. I wasn’t about to have my dream of a jungle empire cut short by jungle fever or the bite of some obscure serpent or arachnid. I came, you might say, pharmacologically prepared.”
General Fu crooks a finger for Amy to join him at the monitor. Cautious, she approaches.
The security video quality of the scene on the monitor shows a room similar to the one where she awoke. The bed in the view, a static shot taken from a corner, Amy notes, is a large hospital bed. Beside the bed stands an ICU monitor and an IV stand. A woman sits reading in a chair next to the bed. A lump too indistinct to recognize lies on the bed.
General Fu fiddles with some controls. The camera zooms closer to the bed and focuses on the woman. “You do recognize the woman, Miss Lindsay?”
Amy squints. “Yes. It’s Zhenzhen, your … whatever she is.”
“I wanted you to make certain so you would know this was no bit of Hollywood trick photography.”
General Fu fiddles some more with the remote so that the face of the patient enlarges and grows clear.
Amy’s heart leaps into her throat.