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They Were All Loyal

Copyright © 2023 Melissa Irene Burrowes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the Author.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations depicted in this story are fictitious.

Contents

Home

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44

Chapter 1 - The Prime Minister

Some days Tresser longed for the past.

He remembered when he had first gotten into politics, and commitments were easy to keep. In more ways than one he wondered if he was living up to expectations in the eyes of history.

He gazed out the limousine window, lost in thought. The shiny black vehicle, which bore two Sarrillian flags on its hood, was closely guarded by a convoy of several other cars that transported his security entourage and ever-present officials.

They had returned from the airbase, following a weeklong overseas visit to some ally countries, as well as a stop at one of their navy forts. Sunlight shone across Sarrilla's capital city and although it was a beautiful day to be back, there was endless work to do and going out to enjoy the morning was not in the itinerary. Even if it were, the simplicity of taking a walk in the park was a distant memory.

At thirty-eight, Prime Minister James Tresser was the youngest head of government in Sarrilla's history. He was of medium build, with honey-blond hair and bright amber eyes. The tailored suit he wore always had a small pin of Sarrilla's flag on the lapel, like a uniform for the nation's highest office, and though he was of a mellow personality he also had the semblance of being burdened.

From his suit pocket, he took two silver items. To the untrained eye, they respectively looked like a cigarette lighter and case, but Tresser knew they were more than that. Despite it all they were both untold symbols: the one was future, the other was past.

Tresser retrieved a cigarette, lit it and said nothing.

The prime ministerial convoy arrived at the mansion where a routine ceremony of welcome, with drums and bugle, was performed by the guards. Upon entering the building, Tresser slowly walked to his office, accompanied by both his private secretary Susan Ferry and his press secretary Stanley Parnell. They were his top assistants, so they were often part of his entourage and came along on trips. Susan's smooth-coated fox terrier, Whitmore, trotted behind them; the dog always accompanied her and, consequently, the prime minister at work.

Stanley Parnell had been Tresser's campaign manager back when he had first run for parliament, but Tresser wondered intermittently if he had made a mistake putting him in the nation's chief public relations post. He had been resourceful during the campaign time, but ever since Tresser had attained the leadership Stanley had adopted a flighty way, at once fussing over the government's public image while insisting it was something that could be left to him to remedy. Perhaps it was the strain of press conferences, thought Tresser. Stanley was about his age, with straightly combed black hair, almond-shaped blue eyes and a distinctly bureaucratic look about him. He juggled a clipboard along with manila envelopes and papers deftly.

Susan Ferry was thirty, attractive and slender, with soft features. She had blue eyes, and brown hair that fell below her shoulders with a natural waviness. Her reputation of being an efficient administrative assistant had risen Susan to her current post, which dealt with more than mere clerical work - she was essentially the prime minister's chief administration official - and Tresser felt she was easy to confide in. Candor could be rare in government, even amongst Tresser's own cabinet and civil service, yet Susan always seemed a notable exception when prompted for her opinions. She had a mild, tactful way of speaking, the sort of manner evoking approachability.

Whitmore the terrier let out a yap when they reached his owner's desk. "Paper mountain!"

"I see it, Whitmore." Susan patted her dog on the head, and proceeded to sift through the pile of papers that lay on her desk. "Stanley," she said, handing the press secretary several notes, "Apparently, these messages are for you."

"Thanks," he replied, and lingered near the desk reading them.

Susan followed Tresser into the office followed by Whitmore, and when the prime minister sat down, she placed half the stack of papers in front of him.

"Prime Minister, these papers arrived for your perusal and signature," she informed him.

"Thank you, Susan," replied Tresser. "Seems the work never ends."

"It's been a long week," she said sympathetically.

"Though quite good, actually," said Tresser, beginning to sound upbeat. "I think we accomplished a lot. Except for the fact that work usually piles up around here."

Susan smiled. "Anything else you need, Prime Minister?"

"Not right now," he answered, "I'll call you if need be."

At that moment deputy prime minister Richard Corbin came into the office, followed by Stanley. The two were disputing something. This gave Tresser fatigue. Susan crossed paths with them as she left the office, still accompanied by her loyal canine.

Corbin, visibly seething at Stanley, directed his attention to Tresser and exclaimed, "Prime Minister, glad to see you've returned!"

Richard Corbin was fifty-one; the opposition spoke of him as difficult to deal with and his own party thought he was a very strong-willed person. He was often thought to be a balance to Tresser's diplomatic personality, however most of parliament didn't really think he was adept at handling the nation's problems. Thus, Tresser had won the appointment as leader of his party, which led to his becoming prime minister. Tresser had given the deputy post to Corbin feeling it would both unify the party and appease any resentment his colleague might harbor.

"Of course, Stanley and Richard are arguing," Tresser said sarcastically, "You both seem to be always at odds with each other. Haven't you ever agreed on anything?"

"Rarely, if ever," Corbin quickly replied.

"Stupid idiot," mumbled Stanley, thinking he had not been overheard.

"That's exactly your problem Parnell," declared Corbin, "you don't respect your superiors. I am deputy prime minister as well as minister of defense. I handle all matters of security on palace grounds..."

"Is the effort getting too much? Maybe Tresser should reallocate some of the responsibilities."

"Fuck you. You need to defer to my authority."

"I work for the right honorable Prime Minister James Tresser, not you," countered Stanley.

At this point, Tresser was annoyed with the quarrel. "Stop it, both of you," he interrupted. "We are here to serve the people of Sarrilla, not waste time with petty arguments."

This noble sentiment went disregarded. Both men glared at each other but became silent; it was obvious the two of them did not get along. Before the prime minister could say anything else, there was a knock at the door and Susan peeked in again.

Tresser looked up tiredly. "Yes, Susan?"

"Excuse me Prime Minister, the emperor of Longguo is on the telephone," Susan told him. "He wants to speak with you."

"That's strange," remarked Tresser, with surprise. "He hasn't tried to contact us since we broke off relations with Longguo. I'll take the call in here, at my extension."

"Yes, your excellency," Susan replied, and left.

Within seconds Tresser's telephone rang, and he picked up the receiver. "Prime Minister Tresser speaking."

The man who spoke on the other line had the faintest Chinese accent. "Greetings, Prime Minister. This is Emperor Li of Longguo."

"Hello Emperor Li," replied Tresser, "What is the nature of your call?"

"I have called to see if our governments can discuss a truce," answered the emperor.

The sheer brazenness of the Longguo dictator made Tresser lose his patience.

"Your nation disregarded Sarrillian law by poaching an endangered species, violated international law by using your embassy's diplomatic immunity to smuggle the pelts out, and when all this was discovered your ambassador participated in the torture of two Sarrillian citizens on their own soil! Now, you call for a truce to our cold war status?" Tresser replied angrily.

"Prime Minister, I assure you I knew nothing of what the late Ambassador Qiang was doing. Remember, too, the circumstances surrounding the ambassador's death, which we have graciously omitted from international scrutiny."

"Don't play innocent with us. The furs were being sold in your department stores. And don't try to blackmail us either: not only did we have nothing to do with that airplane 'accident', we know fully well you ordered it yourself."

"I grant that," Emperor Li relented, "but you cannot say I knew of what was done to the reporters. I would never have authorized such an act against citizens of our ally."

"Perhaps not the torture, although you do it readily to your own citizens," Tresser retorted. "You still authorized the rest."

"Prime Minister..."

"Those were protected animals under our laws," Tresser interrupted. "You had no right to them. If anything, the furs were ours."

"Very well," conceded Li. "As reigning monarch of the empire of Longguo, I will authorize financial remuneration to Sarrilla for the value of the furs taken; in addition, I will publicly apologize for the fox fur incident." At this point, there was a brief moment of silence and the emperor added, "I know Prime Minister, you are a reasonable man and you see this is an opportunity for lasting peace between our two nations."

"Emperor, are you saying that you are willing to pay us for the furs that were stolen?"

"Yes. I would prefer to iron out the plans in person. I request your permission to step on Sarrillian soil."

The prime minister thought for a moment, then said, "Alright. I will allow you to come to Sarrilla on a diplomatic basis, to discuss payment of the furs, but I make no commitment to reestablishing diplomatic relations between our nations. Your people can contact ours to arrange the day."

Unseen by Tresser, a smile crossed the emperor's face.

"I await our meeting, then," Li replied benignly.

"Goodbye," said Tresser, and hung up.

Corbin and Stanley were waiting expectantly, and Tresser did not uphold the suspense. "I think you heard. Emperor Li wants to pay us for the arctic fox furs his embassy smuggled out, as a way to reestablish diplomacy," the prime minister explained. "He wants to discuss it in person."

"This is excellent information!" Corbin declared forthrightly. "Longguo is on our southernmost border. It's better for both nations that there not be animosity."

"But it does seem interesting they would want a meeting now," Stanley wondered.

"Keep to planning press conferences," Corbin sneered. "Your forte was never in international affairs."

Stanley ignored the attempt to provoke him. "Our relations with Longguo deteriorated after their coup d'état," he addressed Tresser. "Granted, we tried to maintain it for trade reasons - and yes, because we didn't want a hostile nation right across our border - but their current administration had ill will from the start. Why their sudden reversal?"

"Maybe they don't want a hostile nation across their border," Tresser pointed out, "especially one with far more military power than they." The sense in this was irrefutable.

"I don't trust them," said the press secretary simply.

Tresser was about to speak when Stanley added:

"Plundering the few arctic foxes left for Li's private profit - that is bad enough. It's that we knew nothing about it till the TV crew found out...and they were nearly killed for it, because they wouldn't reveal who tipped them off."

"I recall seeing the exposé televised," Tresser affirmed. Indeed, it was enough for him to officially sever diplomatic relations with Longguo at the time.

Stanley continued, "Then Emperor Li goes so far as to issue a statement that our cutting relations over it somehow violates Longguo sovereignty. That's not an act of good faith."

"Well," reasoned Tresser, "I've always believed in extending a hand in friendship instead of a fist in war."

"Didn't you use to live in Longguo?" Corbin asked Stanley seethingly.

"Only till I was three," Stanley now seemed awkward. "I was born in the Sarrillian embassy there. You see my mother had been a consul..."

"I think it's a good idea to engage with Longguo in diplomacy," interrupted Corbin. "Maybe even start import-export deals again."

"We shall see," Tresser responded noncommittally. "Now, gentlemen if you please, I have lots to get done. I'll speak with you later."

As the men walked out of his office, Tresser sighed and put on his reading glasses.

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Chapter 2 - Shui

Longguo was an Oriental nation which only a couple of years ago had seen its longstanding imperial dynasty overthrown by Li Shang, a man with a notorious reputation whose holdings in department store chains and fur trading had been but a front for racketeering. His syndicate had considerable influence in the land garnered through fear, but the power-hungry Li had always coveted being the empire's head of state. Appointing himself ruler in a violent coup d'état, Li took the royal palace for his own center of operations and called himself Emperor. Anyone who dared to question his authority or by what right he ruled was quickly punished or put to death.

Today, Li had summoned his chief scientist to his presence. The scientist was slender, about age thirty, with rectangular glasses that framed his dark analytical eyes. He wore a formal-looking suit, tie and vest under an open white lab coat; attached to the lapel was an identification badge bearing his photograph and name: Dr. Qiang Shui. As he walked down the corridor, he retrieved the pocket watch he invariably carried with him, opening it to check the time. It was an elegant gold timepiece, with a brilliant uncarved cover.

The scientist was accompanied by a general in full military attire who walked beside him. General Wu was in his fifties and bore a stern, ever-worried expression. He was second-in-command to the emperor, and it was a well-known fact he had a great many responsibilities, some of which he disliked, although he did his best to hide his emotions.

A carefree Shui was psychoanalyzing him.

"Consciously, General Wu, you may profess to disbelieve my theories, but subconsciously you fear my research," said the scientist, closing the watch.

"Fear it!" scoffed the general. "I don't fear magic tricks."

"You have a right to be wrong," Shui said naturally. "However, it's not wrong to be right."

Wu looked annoyed.

Shui adjusted his eyeglasses and continued speaking, as analytical as ever. "Your irrational fear of my research, I hypothesize, is indicative of a high level of stress that has imprinted itself on your subconscious mind..."

"Doctor Qiang Shui," Wu interrupted haughtily, "the idea is about as credible to me as your mindless sleepwalkers."

"They're not mindless," corrected Shui, "they're hyper-suggestible."

"...and how did you get them like this? By having them look deep into your eyes?" laughed General Wu.

They halted in the hallway; the scientist faced the general, who met his studious gaze fiercely.

"You don't believe me," Shui stated plainly.

"I think you're fooling our emperor," retorted Wu.

"Then look into my eyes," Shui calmly said.

There was a pause; momentary nervousness on the part of General Wu, who at last said, "No," and turned his gaze away.

Appearing somehow justified, Shui walked ahead.

They came to an expansive office in the palace, with windows that extended from the crimson-carpeted floor up to the ceiling and overlooked the garden outside. To the right was an ornate wood desk, with a glass enclosure atop it housing a rattlesnake. Behind this to the side was a flagpole bearing the Longguo banner; it was a black flag with two red stripes running horizontal across the top and bottom, as well as an embroidered gold Oriental dragon in its center. In the middle of the room was a table that displayed a map of the planet, and it was here studying the charts that they found the emperor.

Emperor Li was about sixty years of age, with a trim, goateed face and eyes as cruelly calculating as his pet rattlesnake. He commonly dressed in the traditional golden silk attire of the Longguo royalty; impressive enough alone, but his cold demeanor, quick to turn savage if he was so much as irked, was what had made him the most feared man in Longguo.

General Wu stayed at the doorway as the scientist walked forward and bowed. "Your majesty, you had summoned me."

"Dr. Qiang Shui," began the emperor, "I am very pleased with the progress you have made on your experiments. The Sandman Project is now to enter its most important phase."

As the emperor circled around the table with the map to where Shui was, the scientist found himself growing curious as to what precisely was the ultimate goal of the Sandman Project. While Shui was pleased to have such high-profile funding for his research, Emperor Li's interest in it was challenging to surmise.

"You and Song Xing will accompany me on a diplomatic visit to Sarrilla. You will be part of my delegation; however, it is important that at some point in the gala the Sarrillian prime minister be entertained with your skills... it would be a good distraction..."

"Entertain?" Shui's indignation escaped him. "Your majesty, certainly this scientific research can serve the empire more than as a mere parlor game?"

The emperor paused, long enough for Shui's gaze to drift about the room and settle upon the snake enclosure; the reptile was coiled near the glass leering out at everyone. General Wu still stood stoically at the doorway, not divulging his thoughts.

"Dr. Qiang," replied Li finally, "you are my top scientist and will of course be introduced as such, but your ability in a setting of showmanship will be of utmost importance."

"I will help in any possible way for the good of the empire, your majesty," Shui assured.

"You will have two additional targets," the emperor told him. "The two Sarrillian journalists whose investigative report caused such disgrace to our nation. Your father, Ambassador Qiang Xue would never have been ordered to leave Sarrilla by their government, and then never have died in that terrible accident of the airplane crash, were it not for the spiteful reporting of that TV reporter and her cameraman. In a way they killed him for television ratings."

The rattlesnake, within its enclosure, hissed loudly and shook its tail. Shui glanced again at it briefly.

"I want you to bring them to me," the emperor said.

"As you wish, your majesty," Shui said, bowing.

"Under your spell," the emperor added.

Shui smiled.

When Shui had left, Emperor Li turned towards Wu. "I trust, General, that you have not given our skilled hypnotist Shui any reason to suspect I ordered the airplane sabotaged."

Fright flickered upon General Wu's face, and he jumped to pledge, "You have my loyalty, most honored majesty."

"Very good, General," said Emperor Li calmly. "Remember Wu... it's your life, not his, that hangs in the balance."

Meanwhile, Shui had gone out into the palace garden, where the melody of an Asian flute drifted on the wind. The cherry trees were blossoming, and the aroma of the flowers filled the air with their intoxicating scent.

Shui followed the mystical sound of the flute, close to the building where his office was. The entire walled compound, which consisted of the palace and several ministry buildings, had luxuriant overlapping gardens. The stone walls surrounding the place occasionally broke off to wrought-iron gates; usually locked tight to the outlying towns, they were unfailingly open to the line of trees that led into the nearby forest.

He encountered a lady seated beneath one of the cherry trees, a few paces away from his ground-floor office window. She was in her late twenties, dressed in a traditional Asian dress, with her long black hair picked up in a bun. Woodland animals surrounded her to listen as she played a bamboo flute. The wildlife from the forest would wander onto the palace grounds occasionally, drawn by the flute melody that graced the imperial garden on sunny afternoons.

Shui knelt down to where she was sitting. As she finished the tune, she looked over at him and smiled. "My Shui."

He smiled back. "My darling wife, Xing," he replied.

Most of the animals dispersed, some with compliments towards her music. Xing thanked them, but she sensed her husband had something else on his mind and as soon as they were alone in the garden she asked, "What's wrong, Shui?"

"It seems Emperor Li wants us to join a diplomatic delegation to Sarrilla... as performers," Shui said this with slight annoyance.

"What new plot is he hatching now?" Xing wondered.

"It involves those journalists from Sarrilla," Shui replied. "The ones he keeps reminding me were responsible for my father's death."

"It seems odd to me," Xing answered, "that he is so very determined for you to know and believe that those people were at fault for their report, when there is no reason the airplane should have ever exploded upon take-off."

"He is overly insistent. I think something is strange about it too..." Shui sighed, and added, "Nonetheless, I have studied film of them. The reporter's a good subject, if she wants to be, or she doesn't know what's happening to her."

"Shui, I don't sense anything bad from these people," Xing told him. "On the contrary...they've suffered enough."

"How?"

"I don't know."

"We have one way of finding out," Shui replied matter-of-factly.

"They were just doing their job," reasoned Xing.

"I know," he said, with a sly smile. "Likewise, I'll just be doing my job."

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Chapter 3 - The TV News Crew

Sarrilla's parliamentary building was situated across the street from the prime ministerial palace; by far the most ornate room was the one where parliament met while in session. In the center of the room was a mahogany table, with a gold phoenix statue as the recognizable centerpiece and two podiums on either side for the prime minister and the opposition leader to speak; directly beyond were rows of ornate benches where the members of parliament sat. The press gallery was on a balcony overlooking this ceremonious stage where government's successes and foibles were acted out.

Foibles, mostly, thought Tresser with reluctant realization, as he faced the opposition leader seated across the table.

The cabinet were sitting in a line on the foremost bench, as was protocol. Deputy and defense minister Corbin would sit to Tresser's right; they were flanked by the ministers of foreign affairs, commerce, agriculture, wildlife, and the treasury. Behind them were the lesser members of their party, who occasionally called out with support for their leader's policies.

The prime ministerial question period was a weekly occurrence, keenly and thoroughly covered by the press. For one hour, the prime minister would answer politically charged questions from other members of parliament, both from his party and the opposition.

"We must reform defense," Tresser was insisting, to jeers from the opposition benches. "The current procedure for a military offensive is grossly inadequate – the general in command must first contact civil service officials...to get his call patched through to the prime ministerial palace...then run it by the prime minister, before firing a shot. In a true war, he must have the authorization to act on the battlefield himself, swiftly, by his judgement."

The opposition jeers became more boisterous, and the members of parliament from Tresser's party were lackluster in their retort. From somewhere amidst the opposition benches, someone hurled a crumpled piece of paper across the room at Tresser. The prime minister ducked but kept talking, in a manner as if trying to reason with them.

The last thing Prime Minister Tresser had on his thoughts was the press gallery. Poised in the front rows of the balcony, their camera focused upon him, were a man and a woman in their mid-to-late twenties. The lady held a microphone in her hands, while the man managed a television camera; they were filming the political debate, yet with the precision they carried themselves and experience to match the pair could have easily been awaiting their cue for a live broadcast. They were accompanied by a fluffy white Persian cat, who in turn was accompanied by a grey squirrel who hopped from the cat's back onto the balcony railing and jerked his tail with curiosity.

"How did he get elected again?" the squirrel questioned.

Esther the cat tipped her head to the side and glanced up at the lady. "Samantha?" Esther referred the question.

"His party won the majority in parliament," the woman replied.

Samantha had her eyes – large, vivid eyes, the hue of emeralds – fixedly upon Tresser, as if she were the cat and he prey. She tossed the bangs of her short, shaggy brunette hair as she turned sideways to her cameraman.

"Dave... pizza for dinner if he's corrupt; otherwise I cook," wagered Samantha.

"Bet accepted," Dave smiled as he zoomed the camera lens for a closer shot of Tresser.

The cameraman had tousled brown hair a shade darker than his companion, and coffee-colored eyes to match. His casual look with the network's call letters and circular red 8 logo on his cap was a contrast with Samantha's typical trim business attire – a khaki blazer and pencil skirt paired with a green silk blouse, fitted to her slender physique, and pointed, patent-leather pumps – yet they were the perfect journalistic team together. They had worked on countless stories leading them up to the coveted international beat, even though as their network's most prized employees they had liberty to pretty much investigate anything, even local, they deemed newsworthy. Investigate they did, and had hence earned themselves a joint reputation for incisiveness.

While the news was their joint passion, it had its share of peril, which they accepted as a matter of course. The investigation into Longguo's wildlife poaching had nearly been their death. Some years prior to this, their network's helicopter had crashed in an accident with them aboard. It was little wonder their relationship had added personal to the professional.

The debate was subsiding, and as the question period ended Tresser gathered up his suitcase and papers, with banter towards his colleagues that no one up in the press gallery could overhear, and was ushered out of the parliamentary chamber by his typical security entourage. Stanley and Susan came over to walk on either side of the country's leader.

"Won't Mr. Bennett be worried about you?" inquired Dave of Esther, as he and Samantha gathered their own equipment, "His show cat gallivanting with a TV news crew up and down the capital city of Sarrilla?"

"Bennett can fend for himself. You two have a penchant of getting yourselves in trouble," Esther meowed, "Your cat Geronimo told me as long as I'm coming to the mainland anyway, I may as well keep track of you for him."

Filbert propelled himself from the balcony railing to Dave's head, clambering onto the photographer's cap. "What I still can't fathom is how you guys can film all that political squabble and not shout at one of the sides," chattered the squirrel.

"No view has a monopoly on truth," Samantha explained. "We report the facts and let our viewers interpret what they signify."

"I guess, but..."

"It's not our business to involve ourselves in the news. We stand apart from it. We have to be impartial observers, without influencing how the events play out one way or another."

"That doesn't sound fun," objected Filbert.

"It's pressy ethics," meowed Esther. "Geronimo back home was telling me about it. Professional do's-and-don't's they've got to stick by no matter what, to do their job right."

Filbert asked, "Like not revealing anonymous sources?"

Samantha hesitated, as if a memory had swept her away momentarily; the slightest tension took her, unnoticeable to most, except to Esther who being a cat was innately observant.

"Yes," said the reporter, firmly.

They went outside, to where they had parked the satellite van along the sidewalk curb. Esther gazed across the street at the prime ministerial palace, with its flowery garden surroundings and limestone façade. She could imagine how many places it held for a cat to explore and hide.

"I bet sightseeing in there will be way more interesting than the cat show," she meowed, ears alert to the mansion.

Filbert hopped about her in a circle. "Yeah! But don't get too distracted from winning this week. That's why I followed you here as your agent," he added.

Samantha glanced at the two animals. "Since when do you have an agent, Esther?"

"All celebrities need an agent. I'm a cat show champion seeking her next trophy. Pretty soon they'll be asking me to model for kitty kibble," Esther purred.

"Well. Anyway..." said Dave, "Esther, Filbert, you'd better wait for us at the news van."

Esther swished her tail. "I want to see the PM. I've never met a world leader."

Neither the reporter nor her cameraman seemed very impressed with the notion.

"There are two categories of politicians," Samantha explained matter-of-factly. "They're either corrupt and astute, or well-meaning and clueless."

"You can only really tell when you meet them in person; they all look identical on camera," added Dave.

"Ffftt. I still want to meet him."

"I do too!" Filbert agreed, "It's unbecoming that I, a squirrel, have not set paw in the palace."

"Let's not start going on about that," Esther growled. "I heard enough of your conspiracy theories during the drive here."

"It's not a conspiracy theory. It's a necessary branch of the government," insisted Filbert.

"Ffftt," Esther retorted.

"Tell you what..." Samantha interjected, "We'll try to get you in. But if they've got a no-animals policy for visitors you're both heading back to wait for us at the news van. Deal?"

"They wouldn't dare kick out a squirrel!" Filbert said.

"I'm a cat. Rules don't apply." Esther purred.

"...and because you're both cute, I know we're going to try to get you in anyway," sighed Samantha.

They signed in at the main security desk of the palace. Esther and Filbert watched the guard there with interest; he was dressed in a suit and tie, with an earpiece not unlike that Samantha wore when she was going to broadcast.

Esther knew all the guards assigned to prime ministerial, parliamentary, and embassy security were actually soldiers from the Sarrillian military, and he did have a no-nonsense demeanor about him. "The cat and squirrel aren't on the guest list," he said.

"Told you," Dave said to the animals.

A voice chimed in, "Let them pass. They seem alright."

It was an orange-yellow tomcat, with white paws and a somewhat plumed tail.

"I'll take them to the PM's office," the tomcat meowed.

The soldier did not question it, to Esther's intrigue, and so she, Filbert, Samantha and Dave followed the tomcat down the corridor.

"Does your human work in this place?" Esther inquired.

"I actually don't have a human," said the other cat with a wave of his tail. "I'm one of many cats who make our home in and around the palace. They like us here; we keep mice away from the offices and offer a kittycat distraction to everyone when the work of running the nation becomes stressful. We're kind of a national treasure too," he added.

"That's right...I knew that a colony of felines who were descendants of the king's pets still lived here," considered Samantha.

Esther had alert ears. "You are one of those cats, then?"

"Yep!" purred the tomcat. "The royal cats were my great-great-great-great..."

Filbert the squirrel clambered up on Dave's cap. "So...when do we meet the squirrels?"

"The squirrels?" echoed the tomcat.

"Get ready," meowed Esther, as Filbert straightened his posture importantly.

"In Sarrilla, there's a secret governmental society of squirrels," said Filbert, "passed down by inheritance, whose job is to be an unwritten, unseen check-and-balance on the prime minister's office."

"Uh...yeah. Right," said the tomcat, and turned sharply. "The PM's office is down the hall!"

The secretary, Susan, was typing a letter when they walked in; at a notifying bark from Whitmore the fox terrier, she glanced expectantly at the little group.

"These two have an interview with the PM," mewed the palace cat.

"Samantha West and Dave Candid from WCAT," said Samantha.

The secretary nodded and stood up from the desk with a smile. "How do you do?" she introduced herself, shaking their hands. "I'm Susan Ferry – the prime minister's private secretary. Wait here for a moment; I'll let his excellency know you've arrived."

When Susan stepped away, Whitmore padded to Esther with his tail wagging. "You're a kitty! My name's Whitmore!"

"Esther," she meowed the introduction, arching her back, "and I hope you're not the sort to chase cats."

Whitmore, still wagging his tail, barked. "Not unless you want to play tag, because usually the palace cats don't want to."

Esther's back returned to a relaxed posture. Whitmore added, "I'm the pet of the prime minister's private secretary."

"That must come with benefits," purred Esther.

"Well, I get to travel with Susan all the time on official trips," he considered.

"I should find a way to get my human in a position of power, or at least affiliated with someone in power," Esther mewed. "The hotel business is what Bennett likes, I suppose, but leaves much for a feline like me deserving of finery and shiny things to desire."

The palace tomcat, who had hopped onto a bookshelf nearby, gave a questioning meow. "You got to travel with these journalists, though."

"Only because we snuck into their luggage!" remarked Filbert. Samantha and Dave scowled disapprovingly.

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Tresser had returned swiftly to the prime ministerial palace, with Richard Corbin following him as he walked into his office.

"I'm not just your deputy but your defense minister," Corbin was saying, "As such I can tell you – you have more pertinent things to concern yourself with than trying to reform defense. No one would dare attack us; we're one of the world powers. Besides, the planet is peaceful."

"The planet is peaceful now. God willing it stays peaceful, but we must be prepared anyway," said Tresser, sitting at his desk. "You know I'm the first one to err on the side of diplomacy."

"Defense reforms are a waste of the government's time, Prime Minister. We've got a bigger problem with the budget stuck in committee. That doesn't pass and they're going to hold a vote to kick us out of office." Corbin thought for a moment, then added, "Who did Stanley set you up with for this TV interview anyway?"

"Samantha West and David Candid of WCAT."

"You agreed to an interview with West and Candid?" Corbin's outrage was plain. "They were responsible for that investigative report into the fox poaching."

Tresser was busy sifting through documents. "Which did us a service. They exposed what Longguo's ambassador was doing with our wildlife."

"It also exposed the late regional governor, Victor Ulrich, who had been working with the Longguo government," said an adamant Corbin. "Ulrich was from our party."

"He was also corrupt, conspiring with an enemy country, and giving us a bad reputation," added Tresser.

"What gave us a bad reputation was that it came out," said Corbin with insistence.

At this the prime minister glanced up, a bit surprised.

"Richard are you saying it would have been better had he never been halted?"

"Better for us," was the serious answer.

His bold-faced admission in this was irritating to Tresser. "Maybe," the prime minister conceded. "Whether it's better for the nation is debatable."

Corbin did not seem to care about the latter point. "The opposition pounced on that exposé and our poll numbers suffered. I tell you; all those sneaky reporters want is to oust our party and get the leader of the opposition into power."

Tresser looked uncertain, yet press secretary Stanley Parnell – who had also walked into the office – smiled a little. "You're just sore because of that rumor going around you're having an affair."

"None of your business," snapped Corbin.

Stanley continued to goad. "Must be hard to keep your wife from finding out..."

"Stop it! Both of you! We've got work to do!" the prime minister admonished them.

The two men faced each other angrily, and then Stanley placed a document in front of Tresser.

"Your excellency, the latest polls came in, and you're stumbling. They think your opposition does better than you at question time. They also think your cabinet ministers would be more decisive than you in a crisis."

"Is there any good news?" Tresser asked hopefully.

"Well, they think highly of your cabinet ministers," Stanley offered.

"That's why you scheduled this interview," deduced Tresser.

"Don't worry, Prime Minister," assured Stanley, "Leave everything up to me. Just stick to the bullet points."

Susan came in. "Prime Minister, the TV crew is here."

"Already?" Stanley hurried out of the office, past her, and Corbin with a scoff left as well but at a more leisurely pace.

"Please send them in," Tresser said when the others had gone, adding, "Susan, do they look like everyone says they are?"

She hesitated meditatively. "How is that?"

"Dangerous?"

"Appearances can be deceiving, Prime Minister," she replied with commiseration.

"I was afraid of that," Tresser winced.

"Don't worry," Susan assured, "You should feel better about your decisions. The whole point is you want to get word out to the public about the defense reforms, isn't it?"

"Yes," Tresser considered, "you're right. Besides, how much different can they be from any other journalists? All these members of the media are alike." He was grateful for her reliable encouragement, in any event. "Thank you, Susan."

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Chapter 4 - The Interview

Tresser knew Samantha West and Dave Candid had established a reputation as being crafty. However, being introduced to them, he genuinely could not see any difference between these interviewers and others. There was a universal tendency of the media towards unfavorable portrayal of whomever was in power, but that did not preclude him from treating journalists with the utmost courtesy - if he was discourteous, that gave them an excuse to make him look bad, and his temperament was not generally inclined to be discourteous to anyone anyway.

"Where shall we set up?" asked Samantha.

"Wherever you like," Tresser replied, "Do you want the drapes open or closed?"

"They can be open. It helps with the lighting," said Dave.

"Hello!" Esther's purr made Tresser glance away from the journalists to the Persian cat and the squirrel.

"My name is Esther, your excellency," she meowed, dipping her head.

Filbert announced, "I am Filbert the squirrel, collector of nuts and raider of bird-feeders..."

"Bow to him, Filbert," hissed Esther, splatting the squirrel on the head with a sheathed paw.

"Nice to meet you, Esther and Filbert," greeted Tresser, "Though the ceremony is really unnecessary."

Esther gave a cheery meow. "I always wanted to meet someone who was considered the top cat of a country."

"Technically, Esther, the job in Sarrilla is considered 'first amongst equals' compared to all the other capable ministers of the cabinet," Tresser replied modestly.

"Yeah, but it's still first," purred Esther.

The palace cat gave a loud meow. "These two came with the TV news crew from our commonwealth of Tropical Island. Apparently, they hid in the baggage - quite ingenious."

"Quite troublesome too," Dave added, "It's the second time animals have stowed away to the mainland with us...and these two, while we're friends with them, are not even our pets."

"They can be helpful though," Stanley commented, "I know your last stowaway saved your life."

"It is a long story," Samantha said, uncomfortably, "which you are already aware of, but yes."

Filbert had something else interesting him. He inquired, "Not to be forthright and certainly with no disrespect, but...when do we meet your superiors?"

"Who?" asked Tresser.

"The squirrels," smiled Filbert.

"He thinks there's a secret government of squirrels," scowled the palace cat.

"There is no secret government of squirrels," Tresser affirmed.

"You say so by obligation," declared Filbert with a smug look.

With a mildly audible ffftt, the tomcat swished his tail and sauntered out the door.

"There are a lot of legends surrounding government," Stanley said to the squirrel. "I guess it would be kind of fun if they were true, but most of them aren't. Remember the one that says the Sarrillian royal family has heirs somewhere? People still thought there might be an infant prince or princess who had been hidden back in those days, because the late queen had been said to be expecting a child."

As he spoke, he gestured to a tapestry bearing in the center a crowned phoenix perched atop a flowering wu-tang tree.

"That was the emblem of the monarchy, wasn't it?" inquired Dave.

"Yes," Tresser said good-naturedly, "however, the legend has no foundation... they have no descendants remaining. That's why the prime minister in Sarrilla is the de facto head of state - his party elected into power by the people, for over a century now."

"I heard they say the same thing about Longguo," Susan chimed in, "and someday the true emperor might resurface to claim the throne there."

"Wouldn't that be a story!" Samantha exclaimed, and Dave shared her enthusiasm.

"It needs cats in it," opined Esther.

"...you mean squirrels," said Filbert.

Samantha addressed the two little animals. "Esther, Filbert, we're going to be doing our interview now. You can watch and listen if you like, but we're going to be recording."

"Ok," accepted Filbert. Esther, however, flattened her ears.

The interview began forthwith, and everyone nearly forgot about the cat and squirrel being present. Stanley and Susan stood nearby but off to the side, so as to be out of the camera's view.

Samantha's questions, so far, were nonthreatening. Throughout the interview she was inscrutable, and though she nodded occasionally Tresser knew it was a journalistic ploy of sorts, more recognition of his replies than any sort of agreement; he could tell there was something else she was waiting to ask, perhaps a harsher and unrelated question, and his concerns were validated when she finally leapt to the attack.

"Regarding your proposed defense reforms, Prime Minister..."

Here it comes, thought Tresser.

"...many have said with the large expenditure that previous administrations made on SPARC development, further defense spending would be too costly. Do you have any comment on that?"

Tresser glanced at Stanley; he had not been told of this angle prior. "Well... defense reform at this time is the right thing to do. The kind of bureaucracy we have is laughable."

"According to documents our network has obtained, the government is still at a deficit because of SPARC..."

"SPARC was a necessary investment...I say this even though my administration wasn't the one who developed it...conventional forces are also necessary..." He was acutely aware of how he stumbled, inwardly cringing at how inept he must look. Samantha had a glimmer in her eyes, giving away the fun she was having over this unpreparedness for her questions and his resultant discomfort. Stanley did not appear to know how to rescue Tresser from the quandary.

Esther was the one who did, indirectly. She gave a long meow to garner their attention anew. "What's 'spark'?"

The prime minister gratefully seized upon the topic and answered, "Esther, SPARC is an acronym. It stands for 'Sarrillian Photonic Attack Response Command'."

"What's a Sarrillian whatever-that-is?" the cat persisted.

"It's an energy weapon. It's a laser."

Esther purred. "Like a laser dot to chase?"

"This is much stronger than that," Tresser replied. "You have heard how satellites orbit our planet in outer space. There are a series of them that have, well, sort of a laser relay system. They fire a beam, which ricochets off each one in sequence, until the laser finally shines onto a target somewhere on the planet's surface."

The cat looked fascinated by this imagery of, as she saw it, a high-powered laser dot bouncing back and forth in the darkness of space. "That sounds meow-velous!"

"Not really," said the prime minister.

Esther noticed his manner had grown subdued.

"You see," explained Tresser, "this weapon is the Pandora's box of armaments. It can destroy entire countries or pinpoint a single person on the planet. In an instant - the speed of light is faster than any conventional or nuclear weapon - it vaporizes the target. There's no time for them to retaliate or even react. From what I was told, one of the physicists who worked on it died in a terrible accident during the development. All of which is reason it should only be used in a matter of extreme necessity. It has never been used, in fact, outside testing."

To this, Esther's blue eyes widened. "Why not? If this is true, Sarrilla could conquer the planet!"

Tresser was resolute. "Just because one has the power to do something does not mean it should be done."

"You would know," the cat relented. "Where is the laser button?"

Filbert the squirrel chattered, "It's not a laser button, Esther...it's a transceiver."

"What the fuck?" Esther turned to Filbert with flat ears.

"If it transmits a wireless signal and receives one back it's called a transceiver."

"I'm not even going to ask where you came up with that."

"The dictionary said it." Filbert faced Tresser before Esther could snap at him again; the squirrel asked, "Where is the transceiver?"

"Laser button," Esther persisted, with a swish of her tail.

Tresser suddenly found himself preferring Samantha's catchy questions to the animals' innocent but weighty ones. They had made him feel a little uneasy. "That is a secret," he answered tactfully.

"The squirrel society knows," justified Filbert, "but I can understand you not wanting to divulge it to me right now. There are, after all, non-squirrels present."

Samantha interjected, "Leaving defense reforms to the side, for the moment..."

Thank God! Tresser thought, perhaps too soon.

"...there's much talk about the upcoming state meeting you have planned with Longguo. What do you say to those," Samantha asked the prime minister, "who say meeting with the Longguo emperor at this time is improper, given the recent military practices they've been holding on the border?"

If the previous question was baffling to Tresser, this was utterly unexpected to him and it was noticeable on his face. Stanley piped up, to Samantha's irritation, "I think we can halt the interview now. Thank you..."

"One moment Stanley," Tresser interjected, "I can't comment on this matter until I find out more. Believe me, Miss West - I intend to find out more," he added with narrowed eyes at his press secretary.

Stanley fidgeted, but found refuge in an unrelated question. "Where's Esther?"

They looked around the office; the Persian cat was nowhere to be found.

"Oh no," muttered Samantha.

Esther the cat, meanwhile, had wandered down the hallway, following the scent of seafood. She came to the kitchen, where the staff were in the process of preparing a lavish dinner for later that day.

When the cook walked away, Esther leapt onto the table and seized a whole fish from the table; she hopped down with it and was going to walk away to eat when suddenly a hiss made her whirl around alertly.

"Who are you?" It was another cat, with flat ears.

"Esther," she said, placing the fish on the floor, "I came from outside."

"All the palace seafood belongs to the palace cats," said the other feline.

"Says who?" Esther defied.

The other cat approached, ears still flat and fangs bared; Esther countered with a hiss.

During this time, the little group consisting of the television crew, their high-profile interviewee and his two assistants, as well as the bevy of security guards, were now conducting an impromptu search of the palace hallways for the missing cat.

"She must be around," Samantha said, with embarrassment.

Dave looked as ashamed. "We're really sorry for causing all this trouble."

"Oh, that's ok," the secretary Susan replied, with a genial smile, "Critters do get into all sorts of antics..."

Whitmore yapped, his tail wagging cheerily as he bounded behind her. "I'm good at tracking! Maybe I can sniff the cat out!"

"Not now, Whitmore," Susan dismissed his offer a bit offhandedly.

Filbert, riding atop the cameraman's cap, peered down at Whitmore. "Esther's not easy to find anyway... especially when she decides to ambush someone from behind!"

"Does that happen often?" asked Whitmore, his waving tail now slowing, with a worried glance over his shoulder.

Samantha, Dave and Susan walked ahead with the animals; Stanley tried to speed his pace to follow but Tresser stopped him. The two lingered behind.

"Why didn't you inform me that Longguo was conducting military exercises before the interview?" Tresser demanded.

"I presumed Richard Corbin would tell you. He is after all your second-in-command, as well as your defense minister."

"That may be, however it doesn't excuse you as my press secretary. Sometimes I realize the media tells me more than my officials."

"We don't want you to realize that, Prime Minister," Stanley replied.

There was a seeming literality to the statement, and Stanley awkwardly noticed it too late, yet before Tresser could respond they heard screeching and caterwauling. Both of them raced over to find two felines fighting in front of the palace kitchen. One of them was Esther.

Samantha exclaimed, "Break it up!"

The two cats separated, neither one backing down. "What in the world...?" Tresser began.

The palace cat spoke first. "She was trying to steal some of our fish, your excellency!"

"I wasn't stealing this fish," snarled Esther, "I found it on the table there."

"That fish belongs to us," hissed the cat.

"I saw it first," Esther hissed back.

"I'm sorry Esther but the fish is theirs," Prime Minister Tresser said quickly.

"Says who?" Esther defied again.

"The prime minister," said the other cat smugly.

Esther was going to retort to this, but she was swiftly scooped up by Samantha. "Come on, Esther. You took it when they were preparing a meal. I'm surprised he doesn't say that fish had belonged to the humans."

Esther gave a disapproving growl.

"Well, Miss West...I'm sure you have plenty of footage for your newscast," Stanley spoke up, shaking the TV reporter's hand as she tried to balance the flat-eared cat in her arms. He was entirely ignoring her cameraman. "Susan Ferry shall show you out."

"We had more time," Samantha protested.

"I'm afraid the search for our missing kittycat took away time," Stanley said with an acerbic smile. The reporter and press secretary eyed each other hostilely.

"Well I..." Tresser started to say.

"You have an appointment with the Vergledian ambassador in ten minutes," justified Stanley.

"That is true, Prime Minister," Susan acknowledged, with a glance at the black leather planner she held.

Tresser did not think it very fair to the television crew, but he was secretly glad at being saved from Samantha's questions. Then again, he was also secretly concerned it might come back to haunt him, if this reporter-cameraman pair was as tenacious as everyone thought them to be. It had been his observation that slighting the news media was generally not a wise political move. Samantha's annoyed look worried him.

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Chapter 5 - Busy Evening

Prime Minister Tresser met with the ambassador from Vergledia but his thoughts were elsewhere – namely at the border, where Longguo training had been taking place unbeknownst to him.

When the meeting was over Tresser went to his office and called deputy prime minister Richard Corbin to join him. The prime minister was accompanied persistently by press secretary Stanley Parnell, who evidently wished to see the outcome of the confrontation.

Corbin came promptly, and seemed oblivious to the reason he had been summoned there; when he was met with the question, he expressed not even the slightest hint of disquiet.

"Richard," said Tresser, "why wasn't I told that Longguo was conducting military exercises along our border?"

"It was hardly consequential, Prime Minister. There were only a few boats and some planes," Corbin replied casually.

"A few boats and some planes," Tresser scowled. "What else were there, a small handful of tanks?"

"Well, now that you mention it..." His explanation was interrupted by a brief knock on the open office door. A young woman stepped in, pushing a cart with a coffee canister, cups, and various sorts of pastries.

"Prime Minister..." she began speaking and was swiftly interrupted by Corbin.

"How dare you enter without permission!" Anger was visible on his face as he raised his voice at her. The attendant froze awkwardly in her tracks; she said nothing, but the prime minister did.

"Corbin!" Tresser shouted at him, "What is the matter with you?! I asked for coffee to be brought in to my office, and what's more, she knocked on the door before entering!"

"Well..." Corbin stammered.

"Never again, Corbin!" Tresser ordered, "Never again are you to treat any of my attendants with such disrespect!"

The woman stood there, quite uncertain about what to do, until Tresser motioned to her. "Please proceed to bring over the refreshments...no need to pour the coffee, I shall do it for myself...Thank you."

Corbin watched with a face of disgust, but said nothing more as the attendant had left the room.

When she was gone, Stanley spoke up from where he stood at the side of the room. "Seems like you think you have a right to belittle others, eh Richard?"

"Only those that are under me on the ladder of success... Come to think of it...are you, perhaps?" Corbin answered acidly, looking straight at Stanley.

"Enough!" interrupted Tresser, "You two had better learn to work together in cooperation or else I'll have to make some personnel changes."

There was the slightest smirk from Corbin and Stanley alike – in his time as prime minister, he had not once fired anyone – however Tresser, having overlooked it, kept speaking. "I can only imagine how the opposition laughs behind my back saying that my own group cannot get along."

"With every respect," Corbin replied, "I think they're laughing right now about the interview. That's the fault of the interviewers."

"Yes, I know you dislike them," diminished Tresser.

"I have good reason to," his deputy persisted, "That reporter Samantha West and her photographer are sold to the opposition party."

"You're overthinking them, Richard. Those two are just members of the media, like all of them."

"You can't deny the way they point this shit out on television is detrimental to us."

Tresser was dismissive. "The moment someone runs for office, especially if he wins, people view him in a depersonalized way – even those who voted for him. The news media all think one additional thing: if any misfortune befalls an elected official, no matter how great and no matter his party, so much the better. It means papers selling and higher ratings."

"Which is why we ought to rewrite the Sarrillian constitution and curtail the press," declared Corbin.

Some days, Tresser felt, he couldn't tell if his deputy was being sarcastic or not and it was keenly frustrating to him. "They do serve a vital role in democracy too. The point here is that you two were the ones who should have told me of the border exercises – not the media."

Tresser dismissed them hence. As they left the office, Susan's little terrier Whitmore trotted in carrying a ball. Neither the deputy prime minister nor the press secretary paid heed.

Whitmore plopped the ball onto Tresser's lap. The dog stood up on his hind legs and looked up at him with big, hopeful eyes. "Will you play ball with me?"

"Sorry Whitmore, I'm rather busy right now," Tresser replied.

"No one ever has time," the dog sighed, as he flattened his ears and lay down at the prime minister's feet.

Tresser considered the matter for a moment, then tossed the ball across the room. A happy Whitmore sprang after it, retrieved it, and dropped it back on the desk. This went on for a few minutes and Tresser actually found himself having fun.

"Whitmore, stop pestering the prime minister," Susan chided when she entered the room.

"He's not pestering," Tresser hurried to excuse the dog. "A little break from work is good for me."

"I wanted to make sure you're not disturbed." She gave a little sigh. "He's such a playful dog; I feel bad I can't give him much attention. We always have so much going on."

"Nonsense," Tresser insisted, "you simply have to schedule time in, and make the most of that time. You always schedule things perfectly here at the office."

"I suppose," she replied.

Susan placed yet more papers atop Tresser's desk. He always found it privately pleasing when she was around; she seemed to anticipate his feelings and offer intuition that otherwise escaped him amidst the stress of national affairs.

"Susan, what's your opinion about all this that came out from the interview? Longguo holding military exercises on the border so close to our meeting. Stanley and Richard both seem to have been keeping it from me."

"I'm not sure," Susan responded, "but we can't call off the Longguo meeting; it would cause offense. Despite that...it is unusual Emperor Li's sudden interest in diplomacy, especially combined with the exercises. I think the emperor has something up his sleeve."

"But what," mused Tresser, "and furthermore, what should we do about it?"

"Maybe take more security to the meeting? If they want to be cautious, there's no reason we shouldn't be too," she reasoned. "I would be wary of Emperor Li's motives."

The prime minister nodded thoughtfully as he petted Whitmore; he then glanced from the terrier to her.

"Why don't you take the rest of the day off?" offered Tresser. "You can leave early, if you'd like."

This surprised Susan, but Tresser was being amiable as he went on to say, "The busiest time will be in a few weeks, when the Longguo delegation arrives; besides, the weather is sunny. You can drop by the park and play with Whitmore."

"Very well," said Susan, then smiled at him. "Thank you, Prime Minister."

She clapped her hands at the dog and he ran quickly to her side, walking out the door with her.

Tresser spent another hour or so in his office, working on the ubiquitous pile of official paperwork that invariably required his attention, until at some point he looked at the clock on the wall, yawned and said out loud to himself, "Time to go home."

He left the office and walked down a hallway that led to his top-floor apartment. When he reached the foot of a stairway, he nodded to the security guard stationed there and headed upstairs.

Upon reaching his quarters, he loosened his tie and flopped into an armchair situated near a window. Glancing out, he could see the city lights that were just coming on as the sun set at the horizon. He sat for a while thinking about all that had transpired in the course of the day; and then his mind drifted to Susan. He felt a sense of calm whenever she was around, and he enjoyed speaking with her. The attraction was undeniable.

Suddenly the phone rang; shattering the quietness of the moment and dispersing his thoughts.

The prime minister was asked to go downstairs again to face what his advisers deemed to be a national crisis. Longguo had inexplicably increased troops at the border. Tresser made the decision to order their own soldiers to amass at the border as well, and then telephoned Longguo, putting the communication on conference call so that everyone present could hear it.

"Emperor Li, I'd really like to know why this sudden enthusiasm to play war-games," said Tresser when Li was on the line.

"I had the notion your people might see it as a provocation."

"That seems more an action of a nation at war, not a gesture of peace."

"It was not intentional," assured Li. "We have received word of a threat towards Longguo but we would rather keep the matter quiet."

"Is that so?"

"There are factions, Prime Minister, that would not like to see the rekindling of diplomacy," said Emperor Li, and then added, "Speaking with discretion, the threat came from a group within the nation of Tarruff. A group of so-called free Longguo activists who protest this coming meeting. I thought it would seem untoward to only fortify our Tarruffian border, so I opted to increase troops to them all."

"It is true; he has placed troops on his other borders," Corbin piped up.

Li continued speaking, "As a matter of fact, they've issued threats against both of us. I would have thought Sarrillian intelligence would have notified you."

Tresser didn't know what to think of it, but the insinuation that his officials had kept this from him seemed almost a taunt. The realization that it was likely true was downright frustrating.

When the telephone call ended – civilly, with plans for the upcoming state meeting – Tresser turned to one of his cabinet ministers. "Maurice, what can you tell me about Tarruffian militia groups?"

Demetrius Maurice was the foreign affairs minister, though he preferred everyone call him by his surname as he felt, out of two flamboyant names, it was the less of the two. He was forty-one, and possibly the shrewdest member of his cabinet. He was lean, with dark hair and brown eyes. Unlike the others who had their background in either the military or local politics, he had spent most of his early work in the diplomatic service; perhaps it was this experience that endowed him with an enviable way of negotiating with opposition members in parliament. Maurice also oversaw intelligence, which in these present times of peace was devoted unabashedly to surveillance of neighboring countries. If anyone would know anything about the Longguo leader's claims, it would be him, yet to Tresser's surprise he gave an ambivalent shake of his head.

"We haven't heard anything of it. However, we have reason to doubt the Longguo account," the foreign affairs minister added.

"What reason?"

"The project," Maurice said, as if it were manifest.

Tresser's perplexed look made Maurice realize elaboration might be warranted. "Emperor Li and his top echelon been working on some sort of a project for at least several months now, under tight secrecy... We've compiled what little intelligence we've garnered on it here."

Maurice handed him one of the manila folders he held. The file was stamped across the top: SANDMAN

The prime minister hesitated, as the foreign affairs minister continued explaining, "The chief scientist of the project is Dr. Qiang Shui – the son of the former Longguo ambassador. He studied neuroscience here in Sarrilla before returning to Longguo about the time of the revolt, where he became a high-ranking member of Li's regime. Working alongside him as his assistant is his wife, Song Xing...they specialize in hypnotism."

"Why am I only now learning of this? If you said they've been working on it for several months?" Tresser prodded.

"I gave the file to Richard Corbin..." Maurice's voice trailed abjectly.

Tresser instantly faced Corbin. "You're both deputy prime minister and minister of defense – which you are generally very quick to point out. Why didn't you inform me of this?"

"Certainly, Prime Minister, this was inconsequential," he began to say.

"The same inconsequence of their border exercises?" Tresser prompted.

Corbin said nothing; his face expressionless. Tresser figured he was either embarrassed at his inefficiency, or really was oblivious about national security. Either way, Tresser thought that Corbin was not acting as if his job was significant and this bothered him.

"Are you feeling all right, Richard?" the prime minister asked him, "It seems that you're not taking matters of state very seriously."

"I'm fine, Prime Minister... I... am tired. Perhaps I should take a couple of hours to rest."

Tresser stared at him for a moment and then nodded, "Agreed. Take the rest of the day off." Corbin tipped his head in acknowledgement, turned and walked out.

Afterwards, Tresser spent about an hour alone at his office, reviewing the Sandman file and deliberating over what had transpired earlier. He was annoyed and wasn't sure why; perhaps it was because he figured his top advisors should be able to think things through without much help, and besides that he didn't like the way this had been handled.

The film of the interview with the WCAT journalists had been televised earlier, he knew. From what he heard, his ill-informed answers had not made it very flattering. Yet he still was not very certain to whom the blame should be cast – Stanley Parnell, or Richard Corbin.

A scowl formed on his face and the palace cats that had been hanging around his office saw it.

"You're in a bad mood," remarked one of the cats.

"I need a cigarette," the prime minister said simply.

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Chapter 6 - Cabinet Meeting

The military posturing at the border was all over the newspapers and television the next day. Commentators claimed it was undermining the possible reconciliation.

At least, lamented Tresser privately, if it would have drawn attention away from the interview. Instead, the interview clips of his weak answers were edited together with the imagery of marching Longguo soldiers. The opposition – and the press – were having a field day with it.

Speculation of ill intent faded over the next month as preparations were made for the state banquet. It was now two weeks to the event; while the Longguo delegation was set to fly in a day prior, Tresser and Li were to actually meet at the gala. It was discussed at the cabinet meeting that present morning.

The meetings were held in the conference room near the prime minister's office, with all the ministers of Tresser's cabinet present. Besides Richard Corbin - Tresser's deputy and defense minister - and Demetrius Maurice - head of intelligence as well as foreign affairs minister - the ministers of commerce, agriculture, treasury, and wildlife were also in attendance.

Susan was diligently jotting down what would be the minutes of the meeting. She was the only woman at the table, and as the prime minister's secretary sat beside him to his right-hand side.

These meetings were invariably rife with discourse. The latest spat was between the ministers of commerce and the treasury; it was something about the new coin minted to commemorate a battle not circulating enough due to it being too large in size.

Tresser thought that was what it was, anyway. He had not finished reading through the brief among his papers that morning – it was a very large document, more a novella than a brief in size, and there was only so much he could read about the national economic effects of currency circulation before deciding it was taking away time better spent elsewhere. When commerce had tried to explain it to him, there was immediately a retort from treasury, accusing commerce of being one-sided. The prime minister tried to defuse the quarrel, but neither would listen, and the rest round the table were watching it all like a show.

Amidst all this, Whitmore padded in with tail wagging. He was rarely acknowledged by anyone – save for Tresser – during these meetings but never ceased coming by in the attempt to get his owner's attention.

The dog walked up to Susan and pawed at her leg, whereupon she patted him on the head but gently pushed him away. He gave a slight whimper.

Tresser felt bad for Whitmore, but it was a fact for everyone working here that their governmental responsibilities were inexorable and often left them with little personal time. He was not immune to it himself, perhaps it was difficult for Whitmore to understand it.

He managed for his voice to be heard over the brouhaha. "People – why are we bickering like this? It won't help Sarrilla any."

They quieted down, but not with the recognition and embarrassment warranted; they had more a tolerance towards his pleas like one might show a small child, and furtive glares to each other assuring a return to the quarrel at another time.

All this wearied Tresser. I'm supposed to be leading the country. Why can't I get anyone to cooperate?

Tresser then looked at his deputy and defense minister. "Well, we've heard from every ministry except Defense. Do you have anything else to add, Richard?"

"Just the fact you have the gala with Li coming up," Corbin responded.

"I'm guessing that all the details are being taken care of?" Tresser posed. "Including security?"

"Of course!" Corbin assured.

"Good," said Tresser, "we have to answer to parliamentary questions, and I've heard there was some concern about the point."

Corbin was snickering, and Tresser glanced over at him. "You can find some humor in all this?" he asked.

"Whether we want to or not," answered Corbin, "we have to present ourselves at parliament once a week, every week, to have a debate with the opposition members, all televised by the press, with half the public cheering us on, half the public cheering them on, and another little group betting on what the outcome will mean for next season's election...It's ludicrous, how we waste our time with this."

"It's democracy," pointed out Tresser.

"Yes, it's democracy," Corbin grinned, "and quite comical too. We Sarrillians have turned government into a sport!"

Tresser was considering his deputy's view, and finding himself with a bit of ire at it, when someone knocked on the door. Everybody looked over as the press secretary Stanley walked in.

"I won't take up your time, your excellency," Stanley said hurriedly, "just want to run past you that for the state gala I'd like to park the prime ministerial limousine at the main gate, to get some publicity pics together with the Longguo transport..."

"Wait a second," Corbin interjected, "You can't park it there! I already settled that the limo is going to be right across from the security communications hub."

Stanley glowered at him. The other cabinet ministers now watched the newest rising quarrel to see its outcome. "But the background with the two vehicles together is good for PR..."

"Is that all you think about?"

"It's my job, you idiot."

"It's not your job to decide security matters, you insolent..."

Not again! "Enough of this petty bickering!" Tresser interjected.

"Well, the limo has to be parked somewhere," Stanley pointed out.

All eyes around the table turned to the prime minister for his decision.

More time to think it over would be better, thought Tresser, yet he was aware procrastination was not an option open to him. He was drawing a blank. Tresser's eyes wandered and fell upon his secretary Susan almost pleadingly, whereupon she spoke up to rescue her boss:

"Why don't we park the convoy beside the patio?"

Stanley's surprise was evident. "The patio? You mean near the side gates?"

"Well," Susan tentatively weighed, "it's scenic...and close enough in case of emergency..."

"Wait," Corbin leapt, "that's still too far from the security hub."

"The important thing is that the vehicle is near the prime minister so he can get in," Susan pointed out. "It always has security surrounding it...doesn't it?"

Corbin lingered, as if he sought a counterargument; finding none, he gave a sharp shrug of his shoulders and remained silent.

"It makes sense to me," Stanley assented.

"Yes," agreed Tresser, "park it near the patio gates. Now, if we have nothing further, this shall adjourn the meeting."

The cabinet ministers collected their paperwork and left the conference room, as did Stanley. Corbin darted out first, almost as if he was annoyed by the whole exchange.

This left the prime minister and his secretary alone at the conference table, save for the terrier Whitmore.

Tresser was shuffling through papers when he remarked, "Richard forgot this. ...Susan, could you give this to him? I believe he went across the street into the parliament building."

When she took the manila file, he spoke again. "Thank you for stepping in back there Susan...I really don't know what I would do without you."

She replied simply with a smile, and her eyes fell briefly away from his to the paperwork. "Prime Minister...if I may, sometimes it seems you're uncertain how to manage the cabinet."

"I know. You're right." He hesitated pensively as he stood from the conference table. "To tell you the truth, Susan...some days I find myself overwhelmed. I suppose I'm always wondering if I'm doing the best I can as a leader. Dealing with all the bureaucracy..."

The words stretched out; their eyes had met again, and the depths of hers were as easy to lose oneself in as an ocean. He lamented the situation. She was in the civil service, he worked with her as a politician. There was a certain separation that had to be maintained out of propriety, a potential conflict of interest in their work that made anything between them forbidden.

Now it was he who turned his eyes away from hers.

"...so much bureaucracy," Tresser added a bit flatly. "There must be an easier way to run a country."

"That depends on the person," she replied, in an unexpected remark.

He looked back towards her curiously.

"It's summed up by loyalty, Prime Minister," Susan explained, "Your loyalty is without fervor. If you had the courage to make your feelings known, to stand up for what you want, to reach out and take it..."

Her voice trailed softly. They had, practically without realizing it, ended up moving towards each other. So close their breath, warm and light, now danced upon each other's lips. Tresser found himself torn like never before in the temptation. His mind crying out that it was wrong, his body desiring her regardless...

"Have you ever tried?" she whispered.

The body won over the mind. His lips met hers passionately and he let the kiss turn deep and searching. And when he did, she reciprocated instantly. The forbidden fire, kindled fitfully over two year's duration, was now ablaze and spread in ecstasy. Her body arched against his, his hands fell to her waist, and it was all he could muster not to go further.

Image and separation and propriety be damned. He wanted her.

When they parted, the world still whirled around them. Susan's face was flushed, but not nearly as much as he felt his own to be.

"Maybe," said Tresser, gasping for breath, "but I wonder what effect it might have upon affairs of state."

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Chapter 7 - Spies, Saboteurs, and Squirrels

Susan left the prime ministerial mansion for the capitol building, intending to find Corbin and deliver the manila file that he had left behind at the cabinet meeting.

As she walked down the long hallway, her high heels tapping upon the shining marble floor, Whitmore padded after keeping to her quick pace.

"I wonder where Corbin is," Whitmore barked.

"What time is it?" Susan asked Whitmore.

"Not sure," yapped the terrier. "You've got to help Tresser review for his meeting with the opposition leader at 4:30. Before that, you have to type up those cabinet minutes so they'll be done around 3. And before all that..."

"Yes, I know," she interrupted him a little impatiently. Whitmore's tail drooped.

Corbin's MP office was down a side corridor. Soon, she crossed with the press secretary Stanley Parnell who was going in the opposite direction. Whitmore wagged his tail in a cheery greeting.

"Stanley," Susan remarked, "I'm surprised to see you here. There's no press conference today, is there?"

"Dropped by to get something from the publicity office," Stanley explained.

"Have you seen Corbin, by any chance?" asked Susan.

"Corbin? Nope. I haven't seen him." He pushed past her, a bit hurriedly. "I'm in a rush right now - sorry I can't chat more with you, Susan."

"That's ok," she replied.

When Stanley had gone, Susan and Whitmore continued their search for the deputy prime minister.

They could not find Corbin anywhere. Susan sighed and glanced up at a clock on the wall. It's almost 2 o'clock, she reflected, in answer to her previous question to the dog.

"It's getting late," Whitmore barked, echoing her thoughts. "I wonder where he is?"

"Let's go to his office," Susan decided, and headed in that direction with the little terrier tagging after her.

A couple of rooms away from Corbin's office was a sitting room for members of parliament. It had wood paneling and brown leather chairs, and Susan recalled seeing Tresser and Corbin here occasionally when they were still in opposition.

Susan walked by the room and peeked in. There was no one here presently, but atop a center table was - beside a telephone and a couple of newspapers - a crystal bowl filled with almonds for anyone to partake. She noticed the bowl, took a handful of almonds from it, and continued towards Corbin's office.

Susan was not the only one to express interest in the almonds. A few minutes after she had gone along her way, Filbert the squirrel came by the parliament building. He climbed up a tall tree outside of the office and leapt onto the window sill. Filbert had been searching about the grounds for acorns and, not having found enough to his liking, figured from here he could survey the garden better. It was because of this that Filbert spied the bowl.

"Almonds!" Filbert's eyes shone.

He squeezed through the partially open window, which was actually more difficult than he would have thought; the pane was jammed and the fit tight even for a limber squirrel, but he succeeded within a minute or so and bounded onto the table. His tail knocked over the telephone receiver as he did.

The telephone lines in various parts of the parliament building were as antiquated as the capitol itself. There were several interconnecting lines here and unnecessary extensions, so that it was possible to overhear telephone conversations on another receiver three offices down.

Filbert recognized Emperor Li on the telephone, from having heard him speak in broadcast media, and took interest in listening. "What update do you have to report to me?" Li was asking someone.

"Everything is in place, your majesty," came a voice responding on the other line, and a shiver ran through Filbert, "That stupid Mr. Tresser suspects nothing! We'll be able to strike at the state gala as planned."

"Very good, commander," replied the emperor, "I was right to assign you as my chief operative in Sarrilla. From the Sarrillian palace, you have been able to direct all for me. You have been eyes upon the prime minister, ears at the cabinet meetings, and hands steering the actions of everyone to my will. You have channeled all information to me to set our plan in motion. Do not let me down now."

"Is everything ready on your end, your majesty?"

"It has been arranged. You know what to do."

Filbert's eyes were wide as he listened to the conversation, all the way to when the Longguo emperor hung up. He scattered all the almonds he had collected in a turmoil.

"A conspiracy!" Filbert tried to spring out the window, but as getting out posed the same difficulty as getting in, he decided to race for the building's main exit.

Filbert dashed out the room as Corbin was passing by. The deputy prime minister was in a rush, walking briskly down the corridor, and he paid little heed to others crossing with him let alone a squirrel.

When he heard a loud dog's bark from somewhere behind, Corbin turned back and saw Susan from the opposite end of the corridor. He stopped and waited for her.

The secretary came over and handed him the file. "You forgot this at the cabinet room," she stated good-naturedly.

Corbin took it from her without a word in recognition.

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Esther was sitting outside on the sidewalk in front of the capitol when Filbert came scampering by.

"Esther! You've got to hear this!" squeaked Filbert. "I got into the parliament building I got on another line and I heard the emperor giving orders to someone from Sarrilla..."

"Hold on," Esther interrupted, "what in the world are you talking about?"

"I heard the emperor speaking over the telephone with a Sarrillian contact in the prime ministerial palace!"

"A spy?" queried Esther.

"Somewhere in the prime minister's office there is a Longguo spy!" declared Filbert.

"What are we supposed to do about it? That's a human problem."

"We could tell the prime minister," Filbert insisted. "This is a big deal! Do you know there's hardly any food for the critters in Longguo?"

"No tuna?" Esther mewed in shock.

"No nuts," Filbert responded emphatically.

"You and nuts," meowed Esther, flattening her ears. "Leave it to a squirrel to call a nut shortage a crisis. How do you know it was the emperor of Longguo anyway?"

"I recognized Emperor Li, and the spy referred to him as your majesty," justified Filbert.

Esther got up and stretched, extending her claws. "Well, I don't know if they'll want to talk with us..."

"They've got to! They said they had something planned for the state gala," the squirrel chattered.

"Well," said Esther, "let's go over to the palace and see if anyone will listen to your story."

The two animals crossed the street and found a suitable gap in the fence surrounding the ministerial palace building, so they snuck in. They were soon met by one of the palace cats.

"Here to try to steal more of our fish?" hissed the other cat with flat ears.

"No," said Esther. "It's about the squirrel. He wants to speak to the PM."

"There's a spy loose from Longguo!" exclaimed Filbert.

The other cat thought about it. "Come on," he purred finally, swishing his tail for them to follow, "I know a quick way into the building."

"I'm glad you're taking him seriously, but I didn't expect you would," Esther meowed.

"Why wouldn't they? The info's coming from a squirrel," said Filbert.

"Espionage is serious when it affects the humans who feed us fish," was the cat's practical reply.

He led them to a tree that grew beside the palace; its leafy branches concealed a window. They sprang up onto the branch nearest and saw the window had been left ajar enough for a small creature to squeeze through.

"Isn't this a danger, for the humans to have a window of the palace open like this?" Esther said surprised. "What if a rat were to climb in?"

The cat's response was to point with his tail at a camera, itself hidden by the leaves.

"That's only one," he added. "If you can find all the others you've earned some of our fish."

"It's being monitored by the squirrels," decided Filbert, to a frustrated growl by Esther.

"You and your conspiracy theories...starting with this ridiculous tale about a secret government society," Esther said.

"Feeding into the official account, exactly like they want you to," Filbert reproached.

The tomcat eyed Filbert sideways. "The prime minister is in his living quarters right now, down the hall," he said. "You'll want to speak with his private secretary - Miss Susan Ferry. She can show you to him."

"I think we met her, last time we were here," Esther considered with a thoughtful swish of her tail. "Thanks."

The tomcat took a leap out of the tree and landed on his paws.

Esther and Filbert crept underneath the window pane and hopped inside the building. They found themselves in a hall with an elegant stairway leading upwards to the private residence.

Susan was returning to her desk, with Whitmore the dog walking alongside her.

"There's something untrustworthy about Corbin," Whitmore barked.

"I hate to say I agree with you on this, Whitmore," Susan answered quietly, "yet..."

Susan then noticed the two other animals peering up from the floor; she recognized them with a smile. "Hello! You're the critters who came to see the interview. You're Esther, wasn't it?"

"That's right," meowed the cat. "Filbert here wants an audience with the prime minister."

"This is a matter of national security!" Filbert exclaimed. "Life and death! The fate of Sarrilla's nut supply!"

Esther hissed at him. "No one cares about the nuts!"

Susan found it amusing. "Let me see what I can do."

She darted up the stairway and, knocking upon the door at the top, entered the residence. Esther flattened her ears and turned to the squirrel. "No nut complaints. Keep to the subject of a possible spy because that's what the humans will be most interested in."

"Doesn't seem right we don't bring up the subject of nuts, but alright...I'll do as you say," replied Filbert.

A few moments passed and Susan opened the door again, waving them in. Esther padded into the room with tail held high and the squirrel tagging after her.

They found the prime minister sitting at a small table, having an afternoon snack of coffee and cinnamon rolls.

"Esther and Filbert," Tresser greeted them cordially. "What can I do for you?"

"Excellency," Esther dipped her head in recognition. "Filbert is the one with something to say..."

"There's a spy in Sarrilla!" Filbert was talking over her excitedly. "I overheard the Longguo emperor on the phone..."

"Wait," Tresser looked confused. "There's a spy in Sarrilla..."

Filbert was chattering incessantly.

"Yes, and all this is a testament to the fact that we animals could run the world better than humans - you people make a mess of it. If you left more to the secret government society of squirrels..."

"Mr. Prime Minister, I am so sorry about this," Esther was purring, trying to look cute. "Don't kick me out because the squirrel is acting like a rodent."

"On the contrary," Tresser said, "I want to know what's this business about a spy."

"They've got someone infiltrated here in the prime ministerial palace, but we don't know who," Filbert jumped to say. "They're listening into cabinet meetings and influencing government decisions and the whole dastardly bit!"

Before the prime minister had a chance to say something, there was a knock at the door and Susan came into the room.

"The Minister of Commerce would like to have a word with you," she said.

"Tell him I'll speak with him in a few minutes; I will be finishing my lunch," Tresser told her.

The squirrel was still chattering adamantly. "This enemy operative has some evil conspiracy together with the Longguo emperor. I was on a telephone extension when I heard them planning. The fate of the nation depends on this!"

The prime minister smiled at the animals and said, "Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I will keep it in mind."

Susan who was still standing at the door, gently ushered the cat and squirrel out.

"I don't think they really believed us," commented Filbert when they had descended the stairway.

"Well, at least you tried," observed Esther.

"I didn't even get a chance to talk about the nut emergency in Longguo and the possibility of it happening here," added the squirrel.

"Forget about the nut issue," hissed a visibly annoyed Esther, "That's not going to happen here."

Susan, however, had walked down with them and lingered. "Esther...Filbert...about what you were telling the prime minister..." Her brown eyes held grave concern, and they realized the private secretary, at least, did believe them.

"Do you think you could recognize this person if you heard their voice again?" she inquired.

"Unfortunately, no," admitted Filbert, "I only heard the spy say a few words. But they're plotting something sinister for the state gala."

Susan seemed pensive. "It's just that I have my suspicions..." She hesitated, then shook her head.

"You know who the spy might be?" Esther's ears became alert.

"I'm not sure. You'd better go," Susan said graciously, "I'll talk to the PM, don't worry."

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Chapter 8 - State Secrets

Emperor Li had two things on his mind. First was the conquest of Sarrilla. He had always wished to do this, yet he knew the Longguo army was no match for Sarrillian weaponry, so he had endeavored through the Sandman project to attain another means of military supremacy. Sarrillian soldiers working at the embassy in Longguo were systematically hypnotized and returned to their nation, and through important connections his chief operative had made in Sarrilla, placed in strategic posts.

On the side, he still had his private business - the department store chain he owned. The arctic fox was a species unique to Sarrilla, having come to be extinct on the rest of the planet, whose fur was most valued of all the animals. Sarrilla had it listed as an endangered species. If Li had thought more about it, perhaps it would have been better served to smuggle two live foxes out rather than thousands of pelts, so as to breed them in Longguo. Nonetheless, Li would never admit failure himself; his greed had gotten the best of him, and with the help of a regional governor and his ambassador as liaison the poaching began, with the final fur garments being sold through his private business.

Li's initial plan had been to help Governor Ulrich become prime minister - a position the governor had coveted - and the hypnotized guards would be his secret surety to ensure Ulrich remained a figurehead for his rule. However, these plans fell apart swiftly, as did his lucrative fur smuggling operations, when they came to the attention of WCAT journalists Samantha and Dave.

The investigative report they broadcast caused him a loss of estimated billions, nearly bankrupted the international holdings of his department stores, and led to Sarrilla cutting off diplomacy with Longguo - making his plans of conquest more difficult. Li therefore became consumed with having his vengeance upon Samantha and Dave. It would not do to merely order their deaths, as they would be seen as martyrs; nor was there gain by causing them to suffer first in the usual way, as his associates had tried this, and all it had brought to forefront was their extraordinary resolve to uphold the ethics of their profession. Vengeance, then, would have to be a product of their peculiarities; it was the sole way he could have true victory over them. He would have them demoralized.

To conquer Sarrilla, and to revenge himself upon Samantha and Dave. He saw the opportunity for both.

Dr. Qiang Shui had analyzed all this of him, being naturally analytical, as befitted a scientist of his caliber and field. He cared little for whatever petty vengeance Li desired. He did however care about his father's death in the inexplicable airplane accident. And if the only manner he presently saw to bestow clarity to this enigma was to play along with Li's revenge plot, then he would play along.

That afternoon as Shui was in his office looking through some books, a knock came to his open door. He looked up and saw Coronel Zhu. Zhu had been assigned the position that Shui's father had prior to being sent as ambassador to Sarrilla. He was an unassuming man, perhaps five years older than Shui, with a character that seemed in casual conversation too mild for his work; indeed, the work often came to be too weighty for Zhu, so Shui found him to be an interesting subject for analysis though he had never hypnotized him. Zhu now lingered at the doorway, with a distraught look in his eyes that he tried unsuccessfully to hide.

"May I have some of your time, doctor?" he asked Shui.

"Ah... Zhu! It's been a while that I've seen you... yes, come in. Is there something I can help you with?" Shui asked.

Zhu walked to the nearest arm chair and slumped into it, wearily. "I need some of that Sarrillian rum that used to be imported before the embargo began. I hear you keep a stash of it here."

"I see no reason to not give you some... you look anxious," the doctor noted, as he retrieved a liquor bottle from a cabinet and poured out a glass. He handed this to Zhu, who eagerly took a drink from it.

"Why do you keep this stuff anyway, Dr. Qiang? I never see you drink it yourself," he asked.

"For research," was Shui's reply.

"How did your father ever stomach this job, before he was appointed ambassador?"

"He didn't care." Shui said.

"Why do I care?" confessed the coronel.

Shui looked at him steadily and questioned, "Why follow the orders, then?"

"You know fully well the emperor would kill me. I have not wanted to die. I carry many secrets," Zhu replied.

Shui answered nothing but began taking notes of the conversation.

Zhu kept talking, "If someone would have told me before the revolution what I'd be tasked with doing after it, I'd have told them I had principles. If there's one thing I've learnt, fear is worse than pain. The people who break are overcome by fear."

He stopped talking briefly to take a large swallow of the liquor and then continued, "To think the regime broke me without lifting a finger."

Shui asked him, "What is worse then, Zhu... fear, or guilt?"

Zhu was silent for a moment before answering:

"I cannot continue doing this doctor... I suspect the emperor has been told of my regret in following his orders and my future holds only death."

Zhu turned to look straight at Shui and noticed the scientist was staring at him pensively. It was then that Zhu decided to confess one of his biggest secrets.

"There is another thing, doctor. Your father died in the airplane crash because the emperor himself ordered it."

Shui opened his eyes wide and asked, "What did you say?"

"It was not the doing of any Sarrillians... They had nothing to do with your father's death... it was the emperor."

"Why are you telling me this now? Was fear of death so intense that you did not tell me before?" The scientist appeared to be emotional; anger was in his eyes.

"I am sorry, Shui," the man replied, "but I was protecting my life in the only way possible within our confines. I can no longer do this job."

Shui thought about what he had said. "I shall remain quiet about what you have told me."

"I appreciate that, and I will give you a bit of advice," Zhu added, "do not let the emperor know what you know of it or you too will perish."

"Thank you for your sincerity, Zhu," Shui said.

Then a small group of Longguo soldiers appeared at the doorway and saluted.

"Coronel Zhu. You are required."

Zhu observed the soldiers for a moment, then tiredly put the liquor glass down and walked out of the room. The soldiers surrounded him as an escort.

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Mere minutes after the conversation with Zhu, Shui and Xing were summoned before the emperor. They were not told the reason he wished to see them. When they arrived at the throne room, they both bowed low reverently and stated their presence, as was the custom.

Li spoke directly. "I have some important matters I called you here to discuss. One has great urgency. Do you know of anyone who might be plotting disloyal acts against the empire?"

"No, your majesty," Shui replied.

The emperor nodded briskly in acceptance. "I inquire because someone has been captured this very morning who has committed such an act."

There was a motion by Li towards the entryway. The scientists glanced over as Zhu was forced into the throne room at gunpoint by a Longguo soldier. He was dragged before Li. The coronel looked disheveled, and met the eyes of no one there save the emperor.

"Coronel Zhu," stated Li.

"Your majesty," Zhu replied, with equal brevity.

"You were issued guidelines as to what should befall enemies of state," said the emperor. "You failed in following orders."

"I could not follow those orders," Zhu blurted out.

Zhu faltered, as if he had suddenly realized the asperity of his manner; forcing himself to regain composure, he continued:

"I have done many atrocities in the name of the empire, till now I have the crime of refusing. You've already shown humans can be like beasts, your majesty. I'm through with acting like one."

"Then perhaps you should discuss it with beasts," responded Li cryptically.

Zhu was in a state of shock when the soldier nudged him with the rifle, and he was led away without saying any more.

Li turned towards Shui and Xing when the others were gone. "Now, Dr. Qiang, to a more agreeable topic. I presume you have all preparations necessary for the voyage and for my plans to be fulfilled."

"As you commanded, your majesty," Shui replied.

"Remember - at all times your loyalty must be paramount. To waver in carrying out our mission is a class of failure. Failure is inefficiency, which is disadvantageous to our victory and shall not be overlooked, for the good of the Longguo nation."

There was then a terrible scream, from somewhere within the palace confines; it was rather distant, yet close enough that Xing gave a startled jump and Shui turned towards the exit of the emperor's throne room as if some manifestation of the events outside would be evinced there. The scream was protracted and finally fell silent abruptly, imbuing the once-peaceful silence with icy eeriness.

"Oh yes, Dr. Qiang," the emperor remarked, as an afterthought, "Remind me to fill the vacancy of the commissioner of state security."

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Chapter 9 - Rumors

The prime minister was in his office, gathering some papers and getting ready for the day's parliamentary meeting, when Susan walked in and handed him a document. Ever-present Whitmore tagged after her.

"Brief from Agriculture, Prime Minister," she said.

Tresser gave it a swift glance. "Thank you, Susan. I know this afternoon I've got question period in parliament," he added. "What else is on the agenda?"

"You also have the second reading of the defense reform bill," she replied. "Not to mention the vote on the budget..."

"I can't believe I keep forgetting that's today," Tresser remarked with honesty.

He sat down tiredly at the desk. Weariness was written over his face, and it competed with the beginnings of a headache. "I've been going over the bullet points Stanley wrote for my speech on both the budget and the defense reforms. Somehow, I don't think he's got the essence of what I want to say. It was so much simpler when I was newly running for parliament. Now, being prime minister, why does it feel as if I'm not really the one managing things?"

"There are people, your excellency, who do try to get their way..." Her voice trailed. Tresser looked up at his private secretary, and he could see she was uncertain whether to speak further about the topic.

"There is more you'd like to mention," he realized.

"It's about the rumor of espionage... I don't want to impugn anyone, Prime Minister."

"Just say what you want to say... I won't mention it outside of these walls," Tresser replied.

Susan relented. "Hasn't Corbin been acting odd lately?"

Tresser studied her judiciously. "Susan, you don't really believe the squirrel, do you?"

She paused for a moment and thought about her words, before saying:

"I just don't think Longguo is being honest with us."

The prime minister leant back thoughtfully. "I've been wondering about Stanley myself."

"Stanley?" This surprised Susan.

Tresser shook his head, trying to minimize his concerns. "Stanley's no spy; I've known him for years. He was my campaign manager as you know, not to mention I fought alongside him in the navy...he was even decorated for his service." He tapped the cigarette he held against the ash tray. "Stanley, or Corbin...neither of them has been very open with me."

"Filbert said it was someone who had access to cabinet meetings," Susan pointed out.

"There are five cabinet ministers, besides me and Richard," Tresser considered. "Stanley doesn't typically attend cabinet meetings."

"Whoever it is, or could be...we shouldn't discount the possibility of a spy. My view, Prime Minister."

Susan still seemed to find the whole issue rather awkward. Tresser smiled encouragingly at her.

"If anything," he said, "this affirms my decision to follow your previous advice."

"What was that?" asked Susan.

"That I should take more security to the meeting with Li."

She smiled back, her gentle features endlessly pretty to him. "Well, I do think playing it safe is something we can never do too much of."

Susan stepped away spiritedly, but Whitmore lingered in the office as if he wasn't sure where to go.

"What's your take on it, Whitmore?" Tresser asked. "Do you think there's a spy?"

"How can I say, Prime Minister? I'm only a dog."

"You're more than that, Whitmore. You're my friend."

The little dog began whipping his tail with happiness.

The prime minister added, "If there were a spy, who do you think it would be?"

Whitmore tipped his head to the side. He debated the issue for so long that Tresser began to wonder if the little dog would reply at all.

"The one you'd least hope it would be, Prime Minister," Whitmore determined at last.

It was probably the most enigmatic thing he could have said. The worst scenario for the country is if the spy would be deputy prime minister, thought Tresser, but on a personal basis, it would be worse if he were someone who has been a friend for so many years...

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The parliament session went better than expected. They finally agreed to pass the budget, and everyone was for once praising the prime minister for having made key decisions culminating in this.

As Tresser walked out of the chambers, his upbeat mood was noticeable. He crossed the street to the ministerial palace and as he walked up to the door he spied a red rose bush in full bloom. Plucking a single rose, he entered the building and met with the guard at the front desk.

"Hi Pete," he greeted him.

"Greetings Prime Minister," the man replied.

"Pete, would you happen to have a nail clipper in the desk, perchance?"

The guard, handing him the clipper said, "As a matter of fact...I do!"

Tresser took it and cut the thorns off the stem of the rose.

"Out on a conquest, sir?" asked the guard with a smile in his face.

"You know nothing, Pete," the prime minister answered.

"Yes sir!" the guard saluted.

Tresser continued on his way till he arrived at his office, and along the way spied one of the mail couriers. "I'll save you the trouble of sorting through some of my mail," he said.

A happy Tresser took a small cluster of the envelopes at random.

As the courier left, Susan appeared from inside the office and began protesting, "But Prime Minister..."

She stopped when Tresser extended the rose to her, saying, "A beautiful flower, for an even more beautiful lady."

She took the flower and giving it a sniff, smiled at him. Realizing they were still alone in the corridor, she approached him and kissed him on the lips, softly but sustained for a few seconds.

"You needn't bother so much about the mail," he said, changing the subject. "I'd like to look at some of the correspondence anyway!"

The phone on Susan's desk rang and she answered it.

"Prime Minister... it's the President of Tarruff."

"Fine, I'll take the call in my office," Tresser replied.

He ducked into his office with a noticeable bounce to his step.

Stanley walked up at that moment. "Do my eyes deceive me, or did he just take in a batch of unfiltered mail?"

"Unfortunately...yes he did," she answered.

Stanley shook his head. "He did something similar when he was first elected to parliament. He thought he could read all his mail. I had to convince him it was impractical."

"Oh, that wasn't what I was concerned over," Susan said, "He likes to look at the correspondence - now. He's always seen it after it's been filtered by the clerks at the mail room."

She opened one of her desk drawers and pulled out a thin glass vase; pouring some water into it from a water bottle she kept on her desk, she placed the rose blossom in it. Stanley noticed but said nothing.

Tresser returned some time later with the envelopes opened and neatly divided by paper clips.

"These I'd like to reply to...these are probably better off forwarded to security..."

Stanley had a world-weary look. "You see, your excellency, why we have a mail room to deal with correspondence for you."

"What time is it...?" The prime minister glanced at the clock on the wall, then back at Susan and Stanley.

"You go ahead and take your lunch break," he said amiably. "When you get back, I'd like to dictate all the reply letters and sign them."

"As you say, Prime Minister," Susan answered.

Meanwhile, Stanley the press secretary was looking through some of the other letters Tresser intended to respond personally to. He glanced up from one of them at his boss.

"Prime Minister, you don't have to send a signed reply to every little kid who wants to know who your favorite ball player is," said a disapproving Stanley.

"Why not? I think it's amusing," said the prime minister, "plus he'll probably get a kick out of getting a response."

"It takes away time from more pertinent matters," Stanley maintained, "like what to do about your dwindling poll numbers."

"Maybe, but if you must find some pragmatism in it, it's also true that little kids become grown-ups who vote," Tresser said, and with that stepped away back into his office.

"I'm surprised you don't see this as a public relations opportunity, Stanley," smiled Susan, when they were alone.

"Well, you've got a point," Stanley relented with a laugh, "Actually, maybe something like this is the kind of publicity he needs...though I don't see how any of this will offset the weak image he has in parliament."

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Tresser was at his desk perusing paperwork when Whitmore padded in and lay inside the office entry, his head upon his paws.

"You're still here, Whitmore? I thought you would have gone with Susan."

"She didn't ask me to come," the little dog sighed.

Tresser considered the situation for a moment, then offered, "I'll be taking a walk around the grounds pretty soon. Why don't you join me?"

Whitmore was so surprised, he leapt to his paws with tail wagging. "Really?!"

"Really," replied Tresser, with a small smile.

"Yay!" Practically bouncing up and down, Whitmore raced out the door, howling, "I'll get my leash!"

"There's no need for that," said Tresser, but Whitmore had already gone off.

A meow emerged from underneath the desk. "Dogs."

Tresser glanced down to see one of the palace cats. "Apparently he doesn't get much attention."

"It's his own fault, for not demanding it," hissed the cat disapprovingly. "You'd never find a feline so timid."

"Prime Minister," Tresser glanced up to see Corbin enter the office. "I heard something going around about a spy within the cabinet."

He did not mince words. The directness of it surprised Tresser. "Yes," the prime minister acknowledged, "but it's only a rumor..."

"Stanley has to be the spy," Corbin insisted, "Look at him. He even looks more like he's from Longguo than Sarrilla."

"Richard I won't tolerate those remarks." Tresser could picture how fast the opposition party would leap too, if they had heard them. "Any accusations will be made by evidence, not these bigoted stereotypes. And everyone is under scrutiny."

Was it a flicker of nervousness he saw in Corbin, just then? Perhaps Susan's suspicions were right.

"We've got a certain obligation to follow constitution processes of law, after all," added Tresser.

Corbin gave a small shake of his head.

"Why do you try so hard, your excellency? In the end we'll be kicked out of office eventually, like every administration before us."

"That's not the point," Tresser said defensively, "we ought to be doing our best while we're here. That's why people elected us to begin with."

Corbin shrugged and left.

The palace cat now hopped onto Tresser's lap and looked up at him.

"With you it's personal, though," meowed the cat.

"No it's not," responded Tresser, but the cat merely squinted his eyes and purred louder.

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Chapter 10 - Embers

Since the day Tresser and his assistant Susan kissed, they had tacitly admitted the attraction they had for each other.

They would sneak kisses at various locations within the ministerial palace, always careful to not be seen by the press. On one particularly quiet day; a rare one when not much was on Tresser's schedule, she walked into his office at the end of the day and found him gazing thoughtfully out the window.

"I was getting ready to go home," she started saying, "Is there was anything else you wanted?"

"Yes," he replied quickly, still looking out the window, "there is something I want... would you have dinner with me tonight?"

There was a pause, and a smile crossed Susan's lips. "Yes," was the simple answer.

Tresser turned to face her and smiled. "It would be here at my living quarters because I don't want the press to start publicizing my personal life."

"I understand," she said.

"Is 6 pm alright?" Tresser asked, "or... " he glanced at his watch, "It's 5 pm; perhaps 7 would be better?

"6 pm is fine..." Susan said, "I don't live far from here... I'll take a quick shower and be ready by 6."

"I can send my chauffeur to pick you up."

"That would be convenient for me... Thanks."

And so it was that the attraction between the prime minister of Sarrilla and his administrative assistant, deepened.

The evening was marvelous. Tresser requested the cook make steaks, with a side of lettuce and tomato, and since he wasnt sure what Susan liked as a beverage he had water, soda pop and red wine available. The table was set with fine crystal on a lace tablecloth, candlelight and, to complete the atmosphere, a vinyl record playing violin music in the background.

They ate, talked, laughed and drank some wine...and they kissed. The kissing became the focal point leaving the wine as unneccessary to their relaxation. They were completely at ease with each other. So much so, that they moved away from the table and to the sofa.

"We could go to the bedroom, you know," she said.

"I wasn't sure if you were open to that, yet..." Tresser replied.

Without much more conversation they both stood up, Tresser took her by the hand and together they walked to the bedroom.

Tresser and Susan sat at the edge of the bed. Off in the distance, the violin music had long since stopped; the record having run its course, but neither could be bothered to replace it. The prime minister stretched out a hand and stroked her cheek, and when he kissed her lips softly, she responded likewise, and they leant back gradually till he lay atop her.

He allowed his kisses to trail along the side of her neck as he unbuttoned her blouse, his hands outlining her supple form. It was like catnip for both, with the intimacy of the gesture drawing them further into a whirlpool of exhilaration; Tresser's heart began to race, and he was already getting a bit lightheaded when Susan undid his tie and took off his shirt.

Yet simultaneously his senses were heightened, and they were all upon her. He had not expected to be with her this soon; now that he was, he could not tear his eyes away. Endless fantasies that had readily entertained his mind in the office, which he had just as readily dismissed as pleasant daydreams, had become a reality. Some part of him still wondered if it was a dream.

They turned over on the bed till she was now atop him; her hands spread across to feel his chest, and with almost ginger grace trailed a finger lightly down his torso. A playful expression lit in her eyes as she reached down to undo the buckle of his trousers...

She kissed him, tenderly.

A shiver coursed through Tresser. Gratification radiated out from every flick of her tongue or delicate stroke of her fingers. Her expertise surprised him, not in a bad way; it meant she had secrets he still did not know and it only made her all the more alluring.

He drew in a sharp breath.

He could barely think now. He allowed his eyes to close and submitted entirely to her skillfulness, relishing the euphoria of pleasure, losing himself in her tongue's slow, rhythmic caress.

He hadn't realized when he had begun panting. Her pace became faster and even more enjoyable. The sensations were wonderful; a drunken ecstasy almost to the edge of oblivion. Just as he was about to cross into that nirvana, she teasingly stopped

.

This inability of release left him quivering, groaning almost plaintively. "Susan - please..."

Instead she gave a small laugh, and was then atop him again. He took her in his arms as she ran her fingers through his hair, her tone gentle.

"One day, James, I'll truly have you at my mercy."

"You already do," Tresser replied.

"What will they say, here in Sarrilla?" Susan smiled slyly.

He responded by kissing her passionately, and pulling them both over so that he was on top once more, now removing her bra.

"Susan...my darling Susan...I love you so much," whispered Tresser.

He was bestowing kisses over her breasts as one of his hands slid below her waist. When she let out a little moan of delight it sent a new thrill through him. He wanted to indulge her in the same way she did to him, and as he explored further, her own hands tightened around his shoulders.

Susan's warm gaze, soft figure, the way she whispered his name lovingly into his ear... it was the first time she had actually called him by his first name, wasn't it? Everything about her captivated Tresser. She meant far more to him than merely a coworker or a fleeting love. And she was his, and he hers.

When she urged him still onward, he obliged. Two united as one, in movements of prehistoric harmony. Their togetherness like the tide, till it rose into a glorious moment of utter rapture, and the world fell away into a blissful fog.

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Chapter 11 - The Diplomatic Delegation

The Longguo delegation had finally arrived.

They had been met as protocol by Corbin on the tarmac, and from there issued into a convoy of limousines heading for the elegant residence that would be their home-away-from-home for the three days of diplomatic negotiations and parties. The WCAT television crew, Samantha and Dave, were present to cover their arrival along with a multitude of other press, but the emperor and his many officials did not linger long in the open. Still, Dave managed to get an excellent faced shot of Li when he turned to scan the throng of reporters searchingly before getting into his limousine.

The two journalists returned to the newsroom after the delegation settled into their temporary abode, but the tagalong animals decided to remain there.

Esther and Filbert hid outside, watching the diplomatic convoy from a distance.

"All this fuss over Longguo, as if they were universally evil," hissed Esther moodily. "You know, I have family in Longguo."

Filbert's whiskers jerked with excitement. "Here's the plan. I'll use my superior squirrel intellect to distract the guards. You duck in underfoot. Then I'll circle around and get in through the upper floor window, which you will open."

"Superior squirrel intellect," Esther hissed, "cats are the masters at sneaking into places – without help. If you're so smart, why don't you get the window open?"

"I'm smaller than you," Filbert replied.

Esther flattened her ears and was about to hiss again when Filbert added, "Esther, this is our sole chance to find out what these Longguo people are up to. Imagine if we can unravel a whole international spy ring! We'd be heroes!"

"The humans will take credit," said Esther.

"Samantha and Dave will tell everyone what happened," the squirrel insisted. "Come on, the nation is depending on us."

"Very well," relented the cat.

Filbert scampered off. Mere minutes later there was a tumult near one of the limousines and loud shouts in Chinese. Esther could discern Filbert's silhouette hopping from seat to seat inside the vehicle, to the dismay of the chauffeur.

Several of the Longguo guard dogs were barking and straining at their leashes. They were Dobermans mostly, of a fierce appearance that Esther thought would be nightmarish at the foot of a tree with her at the top.

Hope Filbert thought this through, Esther considered.

Either way everyone was alert to the squirrel, and no one to the cat as she hurried, low to the ground as if stalking prey, to the entry of the diplomatic residence and snuck in.

The place was much smaller than the prime ministerial palace, yet as luxurious. No expense was withheld towards the comfort and prestige of visiting dignitaries. It was brightly lit and elegant; the glistening chandelier in the foyer caught Esther's eyes, and she had to hold herself back from leaping onto one of the side mahogany tables in an attempt to reach it.

There would be a crash, thought the cat, that would lure all the humans. Best not for now.

She hid behind a potted palm tree and planned her next move. She observed as people walked by, conversing in Chinese; animals could comprehend all human languages equally, and Esther could tell they were discussing trivial things with nothing even insinuative of a dark plot.

For now, she had not been seen. The Persian cat noticed a stairway down the hall, and she hurried towards it.

Filbert is being too sure of himself, thought Esther, how the hell do we even know where that upper floor window is? He doesn't know the layout of this place and neither do I.

The cat emerged in another hallway with pristine carpet of a teal color, which appeared to lead to living quarters if the ground floor was for conferences, dining, and receiving guests. She padded boldly down the way, weaving around the diplomats and servants who were all too busy with their work to take heed of the feline.

Esther decided to leave Filbert outside. The window he had said was evidently behind a locked door; which one of these hotel-style rooms it would be was anyone's guess, and of utmost importance she was now fascinated with the shininess of this place. It was shiny and had lots of nooks and crannies to explore; what more could Esther wish?

If there would be anywhere to find out about a conspiracy, it will likely be in the emperor's living quarters, Esther decided. That's likely the shiniest place here. Royalty and shiny go together.

As she turned the corner, she bumped into two pairs of legs. It was Shui, talking with General Wu.

"Hello!" Shui bent down and petted Esther. "What are you doing in here?"

"Get that animal out of the building!" General Wu barked. He did not seem content at all to see Esther on the premises.

"General, certainly you can't mean this charming little creature! Cats are nice, quiet animals."

Esther purred and hugged Shui.

"Whatever," grumbled Wu, "but keep that cat away from his majesty. He must not be disturbed. He has important work here in Sarrilla."

"Very well, General Wu." Shui gave a small dip of his head and the general walked off. Wu gave a sort of uneasy glance back at Esther before ducking into a side room.

"My name is Esther," purred the cat. "I'm exploring."

"Dr. Qiang Shui." He gave another little dip of his head. "I am a scientist...my research centers upon the study of increased human suggestibility through trance conditioning. Hypnotism if you will." This was said proudly.

"Us cats are hypnotic in our own right," meowed Esther affirmatively. "Lot of things you can do with that ability."

"Yes, though in Longguo the options open are somewhat hampered," Shui lamented.

Esther pricked up her ears with interest.

"I'm planning to defect," said the scientist, with unexpected candor. "In Longguo, you stand with the supreme leader or you perish."

"Then you're quite brave to say so."

"I can tell you have no plans to tell anyone, except for those two journalists who were with you at the airport and I would be interested in you getting word to them anyway." Esther noticed he was quite perceptive, like she was as a cat. "You see my father was the late Ambassador Qiang."

Esther flattened one ear dubiously. "They knew Ambassador Qiang... however I don't think it was under very good circumstances."

"I would like to meet with them," he insisted. "I have some information on what his majesty plans for the state gala. It concerns my research."

"Then Filbert is right?" Esther nearly squeaked in surprise. "There really is a conspiracy?"

Shui hesitated. "Please tell West and Candid, and no one else. You will, won't you?"

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Esther was let out the front door, where she soon met up with Filbert.

"Some best friend you are," Filbert shuddered. "Leaving me to be chased around by those wolves."

"What happened to your superior squirrel intellect?" Esther meowed, "I got better than a new piece of info. I got an informant."

"You got us an informant?"

"Well, he wants to talk to Samantha and Dave anyhow. His name's Shui."

"Shui..." Filbert was pensive. "He works as a hypnotist, doesn't he?"

"So what?" meowed Esther.

"So what? I heard from a ferret..."

"Here we go," hissed Esther.

"Here what goes?" asked the squirrel.

"If you heard it from a ferret, it's bound to be an exaggeration," responded the cat.

"Anyway," continued Filbert undauntedly, "this ferret says his human had some kind of a phobia, and thought she'd never get rid of the fear; then a hypnotist got ahold of her."

"You mean, she went to see one."

"Yeah, yeah...well, when she was told under hypnosis that she didn't have the phobia, she felt like she would do what she was ordered. To this day she's phobia-less."

"Everyone knows that," Esther said. "That's what hypnosis is used for. The brain accepts it because the person wants to get rid of the issue."

"What else can they make their victims do?" Filbert chattered.

"Just look at what I can accomplish with my wide-eyed kitty look," answered Esther. "That's a kind of hypnosis. Look, Shui likes me. Anyone who likes cats can't be half bad."

"I still say that scheming Shui plans to put someone under a spell," asserted Filbert.

"He's trying to seek political refuge. I don't think he's planning anything underhanded," Esther headed off down the sidewalk.

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Meanwhile, Shui had sought out General Wu. He found the general ending a telephone conversation.

"Fine." He spoke gruffly. "Just track that damn cat. And keep me informed."

He hung up, and upon seeing Shui nearly froze in place.

"What do you want, Shui?" Wu demanded.

"I had a few questions, notably your preoccupation with Esther the cat," Shui replied. "Don't try to deny it. I can see your unease through your body language and your unwillingness for Emperor Li to meet her."

"It's none of your concern," snapped Wu.

"Well then, perhaps I ought to tell his majesty about our little visitor," Shui answered calmly.

Wu wavered, and Shui smiled mildly.

"Irrespective of this," said the scientist, "Why is the cat so important?"

"She is the key to some information his majesty seeks," General Wu said.

"Information?"

General Wu studied him smugly. "Kingdoms rise and fall with information. Information of troop movements, information of plans, information granted to and hidden from and unexpectedly uncovered by the masses."

"Which is why you wish the information yourself, to gain leverage over his majesty," deduced Shui.

"If you knew everything Dr. Qiang, you might rethink your alliances."

"Such as about the sabotage to the ambassador's airplane?"

The bluntness of this statement took Wu aback and he could not hide uncertainty, how he was measuring his next words; it alone told Shui he knew the truth, and it was precisely what Zhu had divulged. The scientist spun to leave, but Wu stopped him.

"You could assist me, Dr. Qiang. I'd rather have someone with your...talent...on my side than the emperor's." It was the first time Wu had acknowledged Shui's hypnotic capabilities with anything more than circumspection.

"I'm on no one's side, General, except for the advancement of Science," responded Shui, and left.

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Chapter 12 - Alliance

Susan sat in the garden of the prime ministerial mansion, below a large tree in the shade of its flowery branches. It was lunchtime; however, her responsibilities as the commander-in-chief's right-hand assistant were unrelenting. While she had her lunch, she was sifting through some documents, but her thoughts were on whether Tresser would heed her concerns over Corbin.

Whitmore gave a bark, bounding from one side to the other. "Come on Susan, let's play ball!"

"Not now Whitmore," Susan dissuaded, "I have all this paperwork."

She glanced up when she heard a meow, and Esther padded over with her tail lifted in greeting. Whitmore barked as a happy alert to his owner.

"Hi Esther," Susan stroked the cat. "Have you and your squirrel friend been up to more adventures?"

"Trying to find out more about the Longguo spy and his plot. Were you able to talk to the PM?" Esther meowed. "You seemed to have someone you thought could be the spy."

"I'm not certain," Susan stated.

"Who do you suspect?" Esther was looking up at her with wide blue eyes.

Susan conceded. "Richard Corbin."

The cat hissed. "If it is Corbin - that would be terrible! The deputy prime minister!"

"I know. I hope I'm wrong in that, really..." her voice trailed as she spoke; Filbert came scampering over at that point, and the secretary glanced over to him. "Hello Filbert!"

"Hi guys! Are we having a meeting or something?" chattered the squirrel.

Susan spoke up. "Nope. Just chatting, Filbert, but I have to get back to work." She scooped up the paperwork as she got up from where she was sitting; turning to the dog, she said, "Whitmore, you can stay here for a while longer and chat with your friends if you like."

She left quickly as Whitmore watched her walk away.

"She never seems to have time to play," lamented Whitmore.

Esther meowed, "Why don't you get another human, if she isn't spending enough time serving you?"

"Get another human?" Whitmore's eyes opened wide. "Whatever for? Can that even be done?"

"Oh, I forgot, you're a dog," hissed Esther. "The purpose of having a human is so they can serve you. On the side, it's fun to watch their antics - humans act amusing sometimes - but if they don't treat you as a king then that defeats the purpose."

"I'm not going to abandon my human just because she's overworked," Whitmore insisted.

Esther twitched her tail. "Well, Susan does seem nice, I guess... and as long as she feeds you, that's what's really important."

"The love of a pet and their human," quipped Filbert the squirrel. "See, us squirrels, we're more intelligent."

Esther gave a ffftt. "That's why you guys are always trying to get into bird feeders. If you got yourself a human, you wouldn't be searching for food all the time."

Just then she spied the WCAT television crew coming briskly down the path from the mansion. Esther darted off towards them, Filbert following, and Whitmore decided to chase after as well.

"Samantha and Dave! Just who I was looking for," meowed the cat, purring and entwining herself around their legs.

Whitmore wagged his tail at them. "Hello, friendly humans!"

"Shoo, dog," hissed Esther. "This is feline business."

Samantha bent down to pet both of them. "Hi Esther and Filbert! ...and good to see you again Whitmore! We're kind of busy right now though."

"Yeah," affirmed Dave, carrying the camera equipment, "we've got this press conference film to edit."

"Can't you just throw it on the air as-is?" Filbert asked.

"It'd be about one-and-a-half hours of political rambling," said Dave seriously.

Esther gazed up at them with squinted blue eyes. "Whatever. You have a message from a source. He wants to chat with you," continued the cat, seeing she had their attention, "He's got a lot of info about an evil plot. But he wants his name kept anonymous..."

Filbert broke in and elaborated. "He's a hypnotist accompanying the delegation, called Dr. Qiang Shui."

"Filbert!" yowled Esther accusatorily. "Not in front of the dog!"

"Why not?" whimpered Whitmore.

Samantha had her green eyes pensively narrow. "Did you say Dr. Qiang?"

Filbert was chattering at Esther. "Yes I said it in front of Whitmore. Everyone's got to stay vigilant lest they get Shui-ed."

"Shui-ed?" echoed Esther.

"Hypnotized by Shui."

"Did you come up with that like you came up with the word transceiver?" hissed Esther.

"Transceiver is in the dictionary. Shui-ed ought to be."

Samantha and Dave however, had exchanged a quick glance at the name Qiang. "That's a common surname, though," reflected Samantha.

"Then again Longguo is about the same size a country as Sarrilla," pointed out Dave.

"Shui said he was the former Longguo ambassador's son," Esther confirmed. "But he says he's not happy with the regime in Longguo and wants to defect with his wife. He's got info on some scheme being set in motion for the gala."

"Remember we said there was a spy?" Filbert prodded, as if vindicated.

Samantha recalled the two animals mentioning it yesterday, and her replying that such a thing had to be verified somehow before being reported on television like fact. "We're not ones to turn down a story. Wherever it comes from," she said. "At this rate any lead is worth following."

"There's definitely something up," agreed Dave. "We can't figure out if Tresser knows of it or not."

"...and whatever it is," added Samantha, "it's something way more sinister than what's going on with the deputy prime minister."

Esther looked intrigued by this. "Richard Corbin?"

"They say he's having a love affair," Dave explained.

"With who?"

Samantha chimed in, "That's what we and everybody else in the Sarrillian press would like to know!"

Whitmore now gave a yap. "My human Susan thinks Corbin's the spy. But we've got no evidence."

"If he or anyone there is a spy, it'll turn up," replied Samantha, "news always breaks, sooner or later." Her eyes sparkled. "Did Dr. Qiang say where we could meet him?"

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Under normal circumstances for most people, Samantha and Dave would never have risked going to meet this unknown scientist, whose links to their one-time tormentor were enough to make one wonder if his intent with them was nefarious. Of course, Samantha and Dave did not act on normal circumstances - they acted as journalists, and proud of this they were.

Shui and Xing were friendly enough in greeting and banter. The scientist spoke the Sarrillian language with surprising fluency, without even an accent.

Samantha, though, still felt guarded.

"Forgive our wariness, but you are the son of the former Longguo ambassador. Our relationship with him was not a friendly one."

"You have an exceeding capacity for understatement, Miss West. I must take notes on that. Regardless, what happened to you both was something unjustly cruel. Consider my helping you expose his majesty's conspiracies now as recompense, however feeble, for what my family inflicted." An icy shard now found its way into his voice. "I do have my own reasons for assisting you, too."

Shui pushed the manila file towards them. Samantha opened it and sifted through the papers, then glanced up with surprise.

"Emperor Li ordered my father's airplane sabotaged." Shui summarized the documents. "He has been hiding the truth about what happened all this time. So naturally my allegiance has shifted."

"Where do we come into this picture?"

"Li wished me to hypnotize you and bring you under our bidding."

"You haven't done this."

"I won't do it. It would be a dishonor after everything my family has put you through. Besides...it would not aid my research," added a serious Shui.

Samantha and Dave exchanged a quick, dubious glance.

"Li has rather archaic notions about how the science works, I'm afraid," explained the hypnotist. "Whatever it is he wished you to do I highly doubt your subconscious minds would agree to, even under hypnotic suggestion. The subject maintains free will towards those concepts they are deeply loyal to."

"But neither of you know what he planned for us to do?"

"Alas, no. I do know he plans something at the state gala. The Sandman Project is a grand operation, though to what end it leads has been kept secret."

He explained at length what he knew of the Sandman Project. For years, a careful selection had been made of Sarrillian soldiers on the basis of their suitability for deep hypnotic trance; the determination was through film Longguo had taken surreptitiously of them, and by exclusion of those whose personal connections would lead their disappearance to be questioned. These men had then been assigned conveniently to the Sarrillian embassy in Longguo, and through various manners had been captured on days off, hypnotized to respond to a signal, and returned to their post the next day with no memory of the occurrence. Shui had a good eye for the most susceptible of them; they had succeeded in this ploy with over 90 percent of the captives.

"What about the remaining 10 percent who were not able to be hypnotized?" asked Samantha, when he had concluded the tale.

"I was never told what became of them," Shui replied. "I never saw them again either."

"But how could no one in Sarrilla have heard anything of it?"

"It was silenced somehow. Esther says there is a spy within the upper reaches of Sarrilla's government, which seems a reasonable conclusion to make. The only one who would truly know is Emperor Li."

"Perhaps it has something to do with discovering if the prior Longguo royal family had any surviving heirs. Legend said that should the true monarchy ever be overthrown, there would be one survivor; the Longguo rulers by nature were said to be unrivalled in their grasp of warfare, from strategy to combat, with only their horsemanship surpassed by the Sarrillian kings," Xing explained, "Li is very particular about myths and omens."

"Suppose we made the emperor believe you had done as he asked," Samantha said, "and that we would do your bidding blindly...he might even talk freely before us, wouldn't he?"

"Yes..." analyzed Shui.

"Sam, what are you plotting?" asked Dave with a gleam in his eyes.

"I'm thinking about going undercover," she stated boldly. "Do you think it would be possible to play at being in a trance?"

"His majesty knows what I've written in my laboratory reports," the scientist said thoughtfully, adjusting his eyeglasses again, "but even so he has certain notions of hypnotism that I cannot dispel. He is not an expert. I think it might work," he added with a smile.

Over the course of the next day they made their plans together, and he coached them as to the proper behavior of hypnotic subjects to feign. It was a difficult but interesting endeavor, and Samantha and Dave's concerns about Shui and Xing gradually waned as it was evident they truly had no animosity towards them.

If their meetings lessened leeriness, Shui's clever ideas to trick Emperor Li were what ultimately won them over. When they bid farewell till the state gala, Samantha whispered to Dave:

"That Shui..."

"What about him?" Dave questioned.

Samantha narrowed her green eyes. "He's the only person we've ever met who's sneakier than we are."

They glanced back warily to where Shui and Xing were. The hypnotist smiled at them.

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Tresser eyed the line of handmade signs bobbing up and down along the sidewalk outside of the mansion gates: the line of people protesting tomorrow's meeting between democratic Sarrilla and dictatorial Longguo. From the bulletproof glass windows of his residence, he could not hear what was being said, but he could imagine.

Stanley knew; the press secretary's office was not soundless like the prime minister's residence, and he had been listening to their parade from the afternoon and plotting scripted responses to the allegations.

"They all support the opposition party anyway," Stanley diminished, when he noticed Tresser's preoccupation, "no use fussing over them. Leave them out there."

"What are they saying?"

"Oh the usual shit. Sarrilla is meeting with a government that has blood on its hands. Disregards freedom... Tortures political prisoners... Doesn't even treat its animals humanely..."

"...and by consequence," the prime minister discerned, "that our own administration never cared about the Arctic fox scandal to begin with."

"I heard it's going to rain tonight," Stanley added with a mischievous grin.

Tresser walked back to the sofa, where Susan and Stanley were having tea and coffee and Whitmore the terrier lingered around merely happy to be there. The workday was technically over, but there was endless preparation to be done for the Longguo meeting, so they had been invited to come up to the private residence to discuss some business matters before the state gala tomorrow.

"They do know Li has offered to make amends?"

"They don't care, they're opposition," emphasized Stanley, and then he switched the topic. "This is the speech I've written up for the gala. Sure to take the media spotlight away from those protesters."

So the press is focusing on them, the prime minister deduced. Tresser hadn't had much opportunity to glance at the newspapers or television the past couple of days, mostly on account of his overwhelmed schedule and Stanley's insistence that it was something the publicity office could handle.

He handed Tresser the sheet of paper with the typed speech. "Best of all it's got tons of positive-sounding words that convey action and initiative. We're bound to get a good sound bite in the media." Stanley looked proud of himself for having written it.

Tresser began reading through the planned speech. "I am proud to stand here today and look forward to our shared future. Under my plan to cut taxes..."

His voice trailed and he glanced over his eyeglasses with a pained look. "Stanley, you can't expect me to say all this bullshit."

"Bullshit wins votes," the press secretary grinned.

"It'll look laughable," Tresser protested. "What does this even have to do with our international affairs with Longguo? We're giving a speech to a foreign delegation, not an election event."

"You're always giving a speech to voters, Prime Minister, even if you don't realize it."

"All right. We'll leave some of it at the beginning. But I want to revise it. The ending, mostly."

"I doubt you have time..." Stanley began.

"I'll make the time." This diplomatic matter was important to Tresser; perhaps the amount of importance had been underestimated by Stanley, who looked annoyed his employer was taking charge of the speech.

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Chapter 13 - The State Gala I

The evening of the gala arrived and everyone was hurrying about preparing for the banquet. Tresser had nearly forgotten Filbert's ominous yet unsubstantiated tale of spies and conspiracy.

The prime minister was in his office. One of the palace cats was sitting on the desk, listening with squinted eyes to a conversation in the meantime between Tresser, his press secretary Stanley and foreign affairs minister Maurice.

"I'm famished," Tresser remarked, "I think I could eat just about anything you put in front of me."

"Good," Stanley said inexplicably, with a grin.

The prime minister was happy. "What did they decide would be the fare?"

"They'll be dividing the food evenly. Half the dishes are Sarrillian while the other half are Longguo specialties. It's expected each of you will try the other country's dishes. You know, as a symbol of harmony and all that."

Maurice spoke up. "That was Stanley's idea. He's already announced it to the press, so there's no way out."

"I think it's a good idea," Tresser said, then turned back to his press secretary. "What's the main course?"

"We have lamb representing Sarrilla," replied Stanley promptly. "On their side we have octopus. Red and white wine respectively."

"Both sound delicious. I don't think I've had octopus. Is that like calamari?"

"Yes," interjected Maurice, "if you can get it down."

Tresser stared at him. "Get it down?"

"It's octopus sushi," Stanley rushed to say.

"I've had sushi," Tresser dismissed.

Maurice had a smile. "That's what everyone says."

Tresser turned dubiously to Stanley, who realized that it would best be brought in the open now, before the prime minister discovered it and inadvertently made a faux pas in front of the diplomatic delegation and international press.

"When it's presented to you, the tentacles are still moving."

"What?"

"It's a delicacy. They wriggle around on the plate so you'll have to..."

"Hell no."

"Your excellency..."

"No."

"But Prime Minister..."

"I'm not eating live octopus."

"It's not alive. It's just octopus still moves after, you know."

Maurice made it worse. "Octopi are unusual creatures, Prime Minister. They have nine brains. They kill the center one, but the eight little ones on the arms still have a mind of their own."

Stanley glared at him.

Tresser had become sick to his stomach. "I'm not eating half-dead octopus."

"I've tried it. It's delicious if you can keep it down," Maurice tried to mollify the situation. "They stop moving eventually."

"See," said Stanley.

Maurice was not done with his commentary. "You have to chew...really well, though...I've heard people can choke if the damn sucker things..."

"That's enough," Stanley glowered at Maurice again.

Tresser had heard more than enough to be disgusted. "Stanley, no."

"It will be an international offense," Stanley pointed out, with an almost repressed smile, "if you don't try it."

Tresser had to admit this, but the thought of eating something still in motion remained revolting. "Can't we decide on another dish?"

"Too late for that."

"The octopi are already in the kitchen if you want to see them," meowed the palace cat perched nearby.

"They brought nine-brained sea monsters into the palace," Tresser scowled.

Maurice prodded, "Didn't they eat anything like that in the navy? I'd think they serve lots of seafood on a ship."

"Whatever they served," replied Tresser, "didn't wriggle on the plate."

The tomcat was licking his lips. "What's the problem? It's served fresh."

Tresser looked straight at the cat. "You see this as gourmet seafood?"

"Hell yeah. Sounds delicious."

"Good. Then you have a patriotic duty to hide under the table during the state gala and eat whatever I throw to you."

"Patriotic duty? That's patriotic pleasure," purred the cat.

Tresser glanced at Stanley. "Please tell me dessert is normal."

"Chocolate truffles and Bird's Nest Soup."

"Which has a bird's nest in it," Tresser deduced.

"It has a mildly sweet flavor."

"I have to eat a bunch of twigs and look cheerful."

"Not twigs, saliva." Maurice elaborated, "The swiftlet birds make their nests out of saliva. That's the only way they can fasten them to the caverns where they live."

"The dish is presented as a sign of sincerity," said Stanley.

The prime minister turned expectantly to the cat.

The cat had squinted eyes. "No thank you, I'll pass."

"You have a duty," Tresser insisted.

"We're going to have our paws full with the octopus. We do have to fight with it."

Tresser turned back to the press secretary and the cabinet minister. "I don't know what's worse, live octopus or bird spit."

"It's dead octopus," corrected Stanley.

"It's wriggling."

"But technically, Prime Minister..."

Maurice chimed in. "The swiftlet is considered endangered in the wild."

"They're farm raising these in Longguo," assured Stanley.

Tresser eyed him. "You mean like they should have done with foxes?"

"When they have enough birds, they're planning to release a whole flock to the wild. That's not only diplomacy, it's a perfect image for the party's environmental stance." Stanley insisted.

"Why can't we ever eat normal food at these events?"

"Now Prime Minister, who decides what's normal food? Imagine how the Longguo delegation must feel. They have to eat the burnt muscles of a baby sheep and a half-melted mixture of tropical beans and milk."

"The way you two describe things, I'll be fasting."

At this point, Susan walked in carrying a file folder; she addressed the prime minister. "Briefs on the Vergledian situation, your excellency."

Tresser put his reading glasses on, took one look at the file, and grimaced. "Again? As long as they keep it on their side of the border," he relented.

Meanwhile his press secretary was still sorting out the particulars of the state gala. "We can't decide on the music selection. Foreign office wants to keep it classical Sarrillian. I say a mix of eastern and western folk melodies..."

Tresser removed the reading glasses. "It's too late to change the menu but not to decide what music should be played."

"Pretty much."

"Stanley, does that matter? Have the cats decide."

"The cats?"

"Yes," said Tresser.

The cat gave a happy meow and hopping off the desk, hurried out the office with plans.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

About an hour or so later, Tresser motioned for the others to follow him and they all headed towards the state dining hall.

Susan looked worried and while they walked, asked him, "Am I expected as your secretary to eat octopus at the banquet too?"

Tresser shook his head. "You have the lamb, Susan. You're an innocent party in all this, and I'm not going to force you to suffer alongside me from what will probably be the worst torture I'll have to endure in my life."

Their conversation was interrupted when part of the orchestra, a Sarrillian military ensemble, walked past carrying instruments: cellos, trumpets, violins, flutes – and an electric guitar. One of the palace cats trailed them with tail high.

"What..." Susan began.

"I don't ask anymore," said Tresser.

They were met in the hallway by a familiar television crew. Tresser tried to pretend to be happy to see them again.

"Good evening, Prime Minister!" Samantha greeted cheerfully as Dave zoomed the camera in.

"Media enters by the back," Stanley replied condescendingly.

Tresser spoke up. "West and Candid, I'm afraid the press conference shall be later..."

"It's a quick question about the table décor."

"The décor?"

"What's with the little flags?"

"That's Stanley's doing," said Tresser.

"Well, a bunch of them are being pilfered by the palace cats. We wondered if that was on purpose, or..."

"Those cats again!" Stanley exclaimed, hurrying off with the television crew chasing.

Tresser and the little group accompanying him proceeded down the path and were met with Emperor Li and his attaché; Richard Corbin was here too, with his wife Doris, and he introduced the Longguo dignitaries as protocol.

"I believe this is the first time we have met in person," remarked Li.

"Yes," acknowledged Tresser. "Your majesty, may I introduce you to my press secretary, Mr. Stanley Parnell...and my private secretary – Miss Susan Ferry."

Li's eyes lit up as if with marvel when he shook Susan's hand, and he smiled at her. "This land is privileged indeed. If the flowers of Longguo were to array themselves in starlight, I doubt one would be as beautiful as you."

"An honor, your majesty," responded Susan with businesslike cordiality, giving a small dip of her head.

The prime minister heard a low growl; he glanced down to see three of the cats had come up to stand beside him and Susan. One of them held a little Sarrillian flag. Taken from the dinner table, no doubt, thought Tresser.

"Your majesty, may I introduce the Sarrillian palace cats," Tresser presented them.

"I have heard of their..." – Li sought an apt description – "...exceptional faithfulness."

"That was in the time of the Sarrillian kings," Tresser diminished. "They were the royal pets in that time. Today they are no less valuable to us as a national treasure."

Emperor Li was studying the cats, and the cats were studying him. They seemed to have a mutual suspicion. This was confirmed when the palace cats all hissed and turned their backs to the emperor.

"If you would excuse me, your majesty," Tresser said, and stepped aside to speak with the felines. A small selection of Sarrillian security guards followed the prime minister and the cats down the hallway, where they were out of their guests' hearing range. Tresser then addressed the cats.

"I've never seen the lot of you behave so impolite to a foreign leader at a state function," the prime minister confronted.

"We have unanimously decided we don't like him," growled one of the cats.

"You must be courteous, in any case," Tresser half-chided. "This is diplomacy."

"Humans initiate diplomacy for politics. Cats initiate diplomacy when it makes sense."

"It seems to me peace makes more sense than war," Tresser insisted.

"It's for you to decide, ultimately. You're the head of state," the cat replied.

"The de facto head of state," he corrected, a little emphatically.

"My mistake, Prime Minister. More manifestation of the peculiarities of human logic, but we will attempt to comply with your wish," the cat answered with acceptance as the others looked at one another.

Tresser turned to head back to where Li was, yet a thought occurred to him and he glanced back at the cats, one of whom was still clutching the little Sarrillian flag. "Why are you stealing the flags from the table?"

"The idea of this Longguo leader meeting us in good faith is a farce. Our flags do not deserve the indignity of gracing the tables alongside theirs... but as you say."

The WCAT news crew was filming Stanley as he futilely tried to pry a flag from one of the cats' jaws. When the other cats padded past, one let out a meow.

"Gig's over. We gotta put all the flags back."

The cat released the flag. "Damn it."

"About time," Stanley scowled.

As Stanley and the cats all dispersed, Samantha called to them, "Will someone tell us what that was about?"

"The world may never know," lamented Dave.

At that point, they were met by Shui and Xing. Shui was wearing a tuxedo.

"Stage hypnotists usually do dress flamboyantly," noted Samantha.

"I still cringe admittedly, at the notion of my scientific studies being looked upon as a circus act, but if we must, then we may as well do it right. In truth this is not the first demonstration I have done," he admitted.

"I can't believe you talked me into wearing this bow tie, Esther..." the squirrel chirped.

"How can you go to a state gala naked, Filbert?" came the responding hiss from the cat.

The humans glanced over to see Esther padding over with Filbert beside her; Esther had on her typical crystal collar, which shimmered under the ballroom lights, but the squirrel wore a tiny bow tie and Xing could barely hold back a snicker to see it.

"The two of you look so cute!" Xing exclaimed.

"I'm a wild animal," Filbert protested.

"So were humans until cats domesticated them," Esther purred with squinted eyes.

"That's it. I'm off to find some nuts," Filbert chattered, and scampered off.

"Table manners! Wait till the dignitaries get here!" Esther meowed, and went after him.

There was not much long to wait. Shortly, everyone turned their attention to the entrance of the two world leaders.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Chapter 14 - The State Gala II

The announcement boomed through the dining hall, with all the formality befitting a royal herald:

"His royal majesty, the exalted Emperor Li Shang, of Longguo... and his excellency, the right honorable Prime Minister James Tresser, of Sarrilla."

Filbert eyed the Persian cat. "They have names like yours, Supreme Grand Champion Midnight Feline's Esther Priscilla Deirdre the third..."

"Shush," she hissed, "I want to hear the pretty music."

Somewhere, the orchestra was playing the anthems as Tresser and Li walked ceremoniously into the ballroom, side-by-side. Everyone was standing as a symbol of respect. Samantha and Dave had the camera focused on the rulers, while Esther and Filbert stood at the base of the tripod.

Filbert looked dubious. "My God, the kind of formality that goes into these diplomatic events."

Esther was purring. "I like it. Everything's so shiny."

The press secretary Stanley was watching how the scene played out like a choreographer, and Susan stood with Whitmore at her heels, till both world leaders reached their posts at the head of the long, u-shaped table and everyone was permitted to sit at the culmination of the anthems.

Tresser began his speech. It still was not devoid of what he deemed 'bullshit' at the beginning; however, he found the present revision with his additions more to his liking, and the foreign delegation appeared to like it as well.

"Our two nations have been entwined throughout history," said the prime minister. "We have stood by each other in times of peace and times of war. If Sarrilla and Longguo do not share this camaraderie today, it must surely be found in the misunderstandings of individuals, not in the lack of shared purpose of our peoples. It is my heartfelt hope we can tonight reencounter these common goals that our ancestors saw in each other." He raised his goblet rather majestically.

"May I propose a toast - to the people of Longguo."

There was an applause, and Li stood and lifted his own goblet.

"The words of the prime minister of Sarrilla echo in the hearts of the people of Longguo," responded the emperor. "I should like to reiterate my apology for the unfortunate and illegal actions of the Longguo diplomatic mission to Sarrilla, done under my inconsiderate orders. It was not the act of an international ally. It was not the act of a friend. May I add, that I know our nations will soon be brought together, with a unity unprecedented in our histories. I should like to return the toast - to the people of Sarrilla..." he lifted the goblet higher, "and to the unity of our nations."

The prime minister reciprocated, "To unity," and the goblets clinked together.

Everyone settled themselves in their places, and as the waiters made their rounds the orchestra began playing a baroque melody fitting the dazzling ambiance of the banquet.

The first course was a salad, western and east-Asiatic vegetables topped with water chestnuts and almonds, which to the prime minister was palatable but unfortunately not filling. It led into the main course, placed before a dubious Tresser by a sympathetic-looking waiter.

"Octopus drizzled in sesame oil with seaweed, your excellency," he articulated.

Tresser took one look at the epicurean delight from Longguo and began to wonder whether war might make sense after all.

Most of the lower ranking officials were not obligated to partake of everything on the menu. But that still left the prime minister staring, with disgust he hoped was not manifest on his face, at the plate of small tentacles squirming amidst seasoning.

The prime minister's eyes drifted off to the other plates and fell upon that of Corbin, who was proudly preparing to eat a fillet of salmon.

Tresser whispered accusatorily to his deputy. "How come you get salmon?"

"Shellfish allergy," said Corbin.

"Since when?" Tresser queried.

"Since today," he smirked.

Tresser cursed his bad luck to not have thought of that first.

At the table's far side, he spied Maurice, who had also been stuck with octopus. He recalled the foreign affairs minister had claimed to have eaten this offending dish before, and although he knew Maurice had background in the diplomatic service and so might very well have been exposed to 'fresh' octopus at some point, Tresser questioned whether or not he had actually dared to swallow these things.

The foreign affairs minister was nimbly picking them off the plate; each time he ate one, he followed it up by a liberal swallow of the white wine. Tresser started to wonder whether the only reason their diplomats could stomach many cultural delicacies was because of the wine. In a sour moment, it also occurred to the prime minister that perhaps the reason many of their trade agreements were so botched was because they were negotiated by drunks.

The prime minister lifted one of the pieces. To his added revulsion, the thing writhed about and latched onto one side of the chopstick like a snake coiling onto a tree branch.

Tresser forced himself to smile for the press.

Stanley brightly spoke up, to good-natured laughs and smiles across the dinner table. "No one can ever say our prime minister is culturally insensitive!"

His loyal press secretary Stanley was having lamb. Tresser felt like calling across the room "...et tu, Brutus?" but kept his poise.

Next to Stanley was Susan. The prime minister's attention drifted off unintentionally towards her and their eyes briefly met; her sympathetic gaze was warm as ever. His irritation lessened.

When no one was looking, Tresser pushed the octopus piece off the plate. Below the table, the cat caught the twisting tentacle in his claws and immediately began chewing.

Emperor Li, who was expected to have the lamb, appeared to be having no trouble with it and was genuinely enjoying his meal. As he ate, he spoke. "There is worldwide popularity for such dishes such as fried rice...chow mein...dumplings...the various sweet and spicy meats..." - Tresser found his mouth watering - "but I am gratified your administration would select something less known. Very few foreigners are so open to trying our more unique foods."

"Oh, it's delicious," Tresser assured, putting into play a smile he had perfected while campaigning.

"It also shows knowledge of Longguo," Li added, with appreciation. "Most people presume we are primarily Chinese stock, because that is our official and most common language, but very few realize - in the same way that your own nation has a diversity of western cultures - we have a diversity of far-eastern cultures."

"Humans are humans, no matter where we come from," Tresser answered. He wished he could say the same for food. "We all have the same desires at heart. That's why I'm sure our nations can find some solution here to our present conflicts."

"Believe me, Prime Minister," said Li, with a smile, "I think the world will be astonished by what happens at this meeting."

When Li glanced away, Tresser turned back to discover one of the octopi appendages had somehow fallen - or crawled? - off of the gilded plate onto the tablecloth. He tossed it hastily down to the happy, waiting cat and smiled again innocently when Li looked over at him.

This peculiar dinner went on for a while, and the cats ate plenty, although Tresser did not eat a bite - not even the greenery or the rice, which in Tresser's opinion had come much too close to the cut-up octopi that couldn't decide yet whether they were dead. The prime minister did feel the gala was accomplishing its purpose, though, serving as a forum for the two nations to converse face-to-face.

"Longguo has been a Sarrillian ally throughout ages," Tresser was saying, "It has never mattered to us who is the emperor. Even if the same royal family no longer holds power in Longguo, my government does not view any reason your country could not have remained an ally. It was the intrusion upon Sarrilla - the fox poaching, the taking hostages - that was what harmed our international relations."

Corbin suddenly broke in, with a loud complaint that made both world leaders glance over at him. "There are cats under the table!"

A replying hiss came from underneath the tablecloth.

Tresser glared at his deputy. "If they want to be there, leave them there," he said with emphasis, yet Corbin was already shooing the cats away. The cats flattened their ears but said nothing as they scurried out from their hiding place.

At least enough was thrown to the cats to make it appear I've eaten, Tresser thought with a suppressed grimace as he glanced at the few pieces left on his plate. They were no longer being so mobile, something Tresser was happy about. I won't have to keep corralling these things back onto the plate. Now if there was only something edible.

Li resumed the discussion that had been temporarily deviated. "I have every wish to redeem my actions concerning the fox poaching. However, we must concede the relations of our two governments were souring even before this incident. Sarrilla had made statements, Prime Minister, criticizing the manner in which Longguo conducts its internal affairs, matters concerning the security of our state..."

"The matter of human rights," Tresser interjected.

"...statements," continued Li, "that had the effect of making Sarrilla appear more sanctimonious than all others."

Tresser took a sip of wine, and spoke levelly. "The policy of Sarrilla has typically been, even across administrations, to care predominantly about what affects our land. Your majesty, we do not approve of garnering power via non-democratic means, nor human rights infractions, nor actions that would harm the natural environment. We say so publicly, when doing so is made necessary to us. However, we are willing to accept these things in other nations, provided they do not infringe upon our soil. We ask solely the same sovereign respect we try to give."

Li said nothing in reply, and Tresser added:

"Peace is a priceless and too often rare thing. We could have intervened in the fledgling coup d'état that brought you into power. Some countries would argue we had the right to, as it occurred in our southern neighbor. War should not be treated frivolously. The deaths of men and destruction of worlds is not a frivolous matter."

"The empire of Longguo understands this," Li responded, "and agrees, in principle."

Tresser was wondering about this wording when Corbin interjected, "Well then, your principles are our principles; we can get along... maybe resume trade and military alliance? It works." He turned back to his dish, and an astounded look crossed his face. "Hey, where's my salmon?" He glanced accusingly to the floor, where the palace tomcat was happily eating the fish.

"You got one of our cuts of salmon by mistake," the cat said.

"They might have a point," Tresser considered.

Li did not interfere in the discussion, but he pushed his plate away from where the cats could reach it.

The final course was the dessert, and whilst Li was content with the chocolate truffles, Tresser was not so with the bowl of Bird's Nest Soup. It was a clear, viscous texture, with red berries sprinkled in it. At first Tresser considered it looked like gelatin and maybe he could taste it if he didn't think of what he was eating, but when it was followed by the swift determination that the dessert could equally look like what it was - a bowl of saliva - the prime minister decided he was going to be hungry for the rest of the evening.

Corbin, however, was devouring it without hesitation.

Tresser watched him sideways, then said to his deputy in a voice too whispered for the Longguo delegation to hear, "I can't believe you're eating bird spit."

"Old Oriental wisdom. They say it's an aphrodisiac."

"I can't believe you fell for that. I can't believe you think you need it. You're already fucking two women."

"I'm a busy man," said Corbin ambiguously.

"Keep too busy and it'll end up a scandal for the government," Tresser counselled with a slight frown, as he turned noncommittally back to the soup.

The Sarrillian prime minister and the Longguo emperor continued their conversation, and as they did, Tresser would stir the soup. Occasionally he would bring the spoon up to his lips, but stop short of actually consuming it; the ploy worked, and no one seemed to realize he had not even tasted it.

"Sarrilla does," Li was noting, "have a very keen interest in anything that other nations are doing."

"Our interest, again, is merely whether it might affect our land," replied Tresser, "for instance, if one country is working on a project..."

"Sandman," interjected Li with a small smile.

Tresser regarded him for a moment, finding fascination in the level of insight Longguo had attained of Sarrilla's government affairs. "Exactly," the prime minister finally answered.

"Dr. Qiang Shui is the scientist heading the project. It's a bit of an indulgence on my part. I was interested in hypnotism and what it could be used for."

"Well then we do have something we could collaborate on," exclaimed Tresser, "The advancement of science can aid people of every nation. I hardly know why you kept it so secret, Emperor."

"Habit," Emperor Li waved the question off, "My regime is quite disliked by a number of groups and I thought that revealing I backed the project would impugn its findings."

"What have you learnt of it?"

Li thought for a moment, and then replied, "Perhaps I should permit Dr. Qiang to explain the findings himself."

He gestured to Shui, who rose from where he was seated and walked over to the two leaders. The scientist gave a little bow.

"Your excellency, my research centered on subject-specific levels of suggestibility, as well as long term effects of hypnosis on the mind when the procedure is performed on a group, especially when compared to individual conditioning..."

Tresser looked at him a bit mystified.

"Would you accept an example on my part?" asked Shui.

"Yes. Indeed, I am interested in knowing more about how people are affected by it," answered the prime minister.

Stanley wasted no time in walking over to Tresser's side, a guarded look in his eyes. "Your excellency..." he whispered in his ear, "I don't mean to be out of line, but are you sure this is a good idea?"

"It's a better PR stunt than eating raw octopus," Tresser countered. "Besides, I am interested."

"Couldn't we find a Sarrillian hypnotist to fulfill this sudden fascination?"

"What do you think is going to happen, Stanley? I'll be at his bidding and mercy? You see too many movies."

"Well..."

"We like Shui," said the cat, who had returned under the table, purring and hugging Shui's legs.

Tresser looked vindicated. "If the cats like him, that's good enough for me. Just figure out how to add this into the press release."

Shui, who seemed to have discerned the topic of their conversation, turned a crafty, triumphant smile upon the overruled press secretary. Stanley sat back at the table looking unconvinced.

"Relax," said Shui to Tresser, still with a smile, "Trust me."

The hypnotist took out his gold watch and let it dangle before the prime minister's face while all the occupants of the table looked on.

Shui swung the watch back and forth and repeatedly told Tresser to relax.

The room about him began to grow dim, from the ceiling reaching downward, as if a light had been lessened but not completely shut. Tresser could only spend a brief moment aware of this, however, before his attention turned back to the watch; it had become indistinct, still clearer than the rest of his surroundings, yet nonetheless a fuzzy, circular gold gleam. The numbing, tingling sensation inside his forehead had grown, and seemed to stretch further back. His concentration was heightened, but inexplicably narrowed to only the swinging object and the hypnotist's calming voice. These, and to a lesser extent the shadowy, grey surroundings, had become the entire world, and in his present state he could recall nothing more.

Shui saw a blank look come over his face, his amber eyes cease to blink, the stillness of his body, and he knew he had captured his mind. Xing was standing to the side, her arms crossed.

"You are very sleepy...so very relaxed..."

The pendulum swung back and forth under Tresser's intense gaze. His eyes catching the glistening sparks that the object threw off, making his amber eyes seem brighter. His mind was void of thoughts and listening only to Shui's tranquil voice, which now sounded softer to him, as if volume had been turned down. The shiny gold watch swung back and forth in the greyness, ever standing out in his vision, framed with shadows. He felt absolutely relaxed now, so profoundly comfortable. He just wanted to listen to what he was being told, and wait with mild curiosity to see what would happen.

"When I count to three and snap my fingers...you will go deeply asleep."

His gaze moved from the watch to Shui, keeping the watch oddly in focus; a golden gleam at the outskirts of his vision. He was grey, like an image in a black-and-white film. He waited expectantly for his cue. It was not a matter of resisting. He didn't want to resist. What else would he do, after all? He had no preference. All he wanted to do, was whatever the hypnotist told him to do. He was so pleasantly relaxed, it was so much easier to go along with whatever he suggested...

"One...two...three..."

Shui snapped his fingers, and the prime minister's eyes closed and his head drooped.

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Chapter 15 - Stage Hypnotism

Shui had hesitated, and Tresser found his mind racing, reasoning now perceptible at the true, instantaneous speed of thought. He realized that should he want to resist an order, he could, but it would be difficult. Perhaps only for a matter of great importance would he try it. Everything was still grey and dark, barring the shiny gold pocket watch... His mind snapped back to blank attention as Shui spoke again.

"You will take the goblet of water that is before you on the table," Shui suggested.

Tresser immediately complied.

"Drink a sip of water from the goblet," the hypnotist ordered.

The prime minister held the goblet up to his lips and swallowed a small drink of the water. The spectators were hushed; Shui smiled.

"When I count to three you will wake up," said Shui. "One... Two... Three!"

Shui stopped swinging the watch and snapped his fingers.

Tresser woke up, still holding the goblet. "Astounding... I have a complete memory," he remarked.

"That is typical," Shui explained, "I didn't tell you to forget the experience. Very infrequently we find subjects who will forget spontaneously; these are known as excellent subjects, but they are rare. You would be categorized as a good subject, Prime Minister."

While the prime minister was fascinated by the whole thing, another small, sly smile crossed the emperor's lips. He had not anticipated Shui's hypnotizing the prime minister here – though it factored well into his established plans.

Tresser thanked Shui, who dipped his head and then turned towards the further entertainment of the attendees. He and Xing went to stand before the dining table, near the orchestra where the dance floor was, and introduced themselves.

"The first volunteers I'll take," said Shui, "are some people who otherwise would not volunteer in this setting; a bit of an added test of the power of hypnotic suggestion," he added.

He pretended to search the crowd until his eyes fell on the press flanking the outskirts of the room.

"Samantha West and Dave Candid of WCAT News! I met them in the corridor earlier," Shui said to the audience, then addressed the two journalists. "Isn't that so?"

Samantha and Dave acknowledged this with a swift nod and smile, though the journalists kept to filming.

"You would be ideal participants. Would you come up to where I'm standing?"

Samantha and Dave made the convincing show of refusing, and Shui made an equally credible show of drawing them to where he stood; he held out the watch.

"But you do want to," he smiled, "You are quite compelled to..."

"How did you get us here?" asked Samantha, when they stood before him. "Dave, we'd better..."

"You will see yourself as a cat," Shui ordered, with a smile.

Samantha replied by lifting a hand, curling her fingers, and saying:

"Meow!"

There was a little gasp from the audience, and a few murmurs.

"What did you do?" The cameraman opened his eyes wide in pretend shock.

She leant against Dave's shoulder in a catlike hug. "Prrrr..."

Shui was trying not to laugh at her play-acting. "Are you a show cat? You do have striking fur."

"Yes – and I'm glad you think so. When do I get a saucer of milk?"

"You're not a cat; you're modeling the latest fashion," Shui said, snapping his fingers. She instantly altered her posture and strode forward flamboyantly as if on a runway.

"I don't know about this," Dave feigned, and Shui leapt to dangle the watch before him.

"In fact, Dave...you're among the photographers taking her picture."

Dave seemed to hesitate; he then hurried to the TV camera, taking it swiftly from the tripod, and returned to where Samantha was. He knelt with the camera on his shoulder, and she posed as if she stood on a catwalk.

The Longguo emperor had a smirk of triumph. Tresser faced Li with narrowed amber eyes, and asked straightforwardly, "Is this some sort of vendetta against them?"

"No," answered Li, though he maintained the smirk, "Simply harmless fun."

"For us, and the rest of the spectators perhaps," considered Tresser. He was not very angry, but the faintest tinge of suspicion was detectable in his voice.

"I don't know if Dr. Qiang sees it as a vendetta," Li added, "But the media take every chance to have fun with us; we may as well have a bit of fun with them today."

"As long as they're having fun, too," said Tresser. He was starting to wonder how much influence Shui could possibly have acquired over him, with the short session he had gone through, but he had no wish for Emperor Li to perceive his concerns.

Shui had told Samantha and Dave to dance, which they were now doing with apparent obliviousness to the enthralled spectators. Shui was observing the emperor.

"I think we've got him fooled," whispered Shui.

"With all this, I sure hope so," Samantha whispered back.

Emperor Li apparently wanted to see more, however. He spoke up, "Tell me Dr. Qiang, could you make them address his excellency and me in the fashion you demonstrated back in Longguo?"

Shui led Samantha to the table where both world leaders sat.

"You're back to yourself again, but still deep in the trance," Shui said, "and you see the Sarrillian prime minister as the Longguo emperor, and the emperor as the prime minister."

When he snapped his fingers, Samantha spoke.

"I'd like a joint interview with you two," Samantha said, not so dishonestly; turning to Tresser she added, "Maybe you could tell us Emperor Li...what would you say to those concerned about human rights in Longguo?"

"Well, I have been thinking of improving them," said Tresser, with a sideways look at Emperor Li.

"...and your excellency," she turned to Li, "what do you have to say about them?"

Li was now placed unexpectedly on the spot. He eyed Shui, who smiled.

"I don't think it's proper to comment on it...with our emerging diplomatic relations."

He looked annoyed, though Tresser now seemed to be finding amusement in the spectacle.

"All right Samantha, I think we've taken enough time from these busy men," said Shui.

"I have a follow-up question," replied Samantha sneakily, but Shui insistently shoved the watch in front of her face.

"You see them as who they are again. Follow the watch, Samantha."

Shui figured Emperor Li was satisfied with all he had seen, and he was disinclined to antagonize the Longguo ruler further – at least not right away – so he decided to end the 'demonstration'.

"One...two...three! Wide awake!" Shui pretended to awaken the television crew. "Samantha and Dave – thank you for your help. I hope you're not too upset," he added.

"Not at all...I guess?" said Samantha, acting a bit undecided.

Shui actually got a small group of volunteers out of the audience after that, and as he went through the motions with them – this time genuinely – Samantha and Dave returned to their post.

Esther gave a little hiss. " 'See yourself as a cat.' You could have done better. I do not talk like that... Incidentally, when can I have a saucer of milk?"

The entertainment of the gala soon drifted into music for the attendees to dance. Tresser and Li had turned their conversation towards the monetary concern of repaying the fox furs.

"Your returns, had the arctic foxes not been endangered, would easily have been those of a Sarrillian company," Tresser pointed out.

Li did not dispute this. "The gross profit I made from end-user garment sales was twelve billion dollars."

That's enough to be a smaller country's GDP, Tresser marveled silently.

"Perhaps we could discuss it better in the night air," Li proposed. "I always find business matters to be dealt with more productively in the tranquility of gardens."

"All right," accepted Tresser, "shall we head to the patio now?"

"In a few minutes. I must excuse myself for the moment, your excellency."

Samantha and Dave were watching as Li and a select group of his guards rose from the table to step out of the banquet hall, and it was then Shui found the opportunity and drew nearer to the television crew.

"It's worked," he whispered to them, "His majesty is expecting you. I'll be playing along, so don't read too much into what I might say while in front of him."

"Ok Shui," she replied.

"Just a note," the scientist added swiftly, "The security guards accompanying the prime minister are all my subjects."

The moment of shock could not be followed up with a question, because Shui motioned them swiftly to follow and walked off to join the delegation.

Tresser, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to grab a bite to eat. "Coast is clear," he said to the cats surrounding him.

The cat let out a loud meow. "Bring me back an octopus."

Tresser bolted into the kitchen before he could be noticed.

"Your excellency," Tresser turned towards the chef's voice to see him watching with mild surprise.

"I'd like a bunch of cinnamon rolls," Tresser said quickly.

"As you wish, your excellency."

Tresser stepped away from the entrance to the center of the elegant kitchen. He felt someone – or something – observing him and he glanced leerily to a tank off to the side where typically lobsters were kept. There were still some of the small grayish octopi there, but one of them had positioned itself at the front of the tank, close enough to stare out at him with its froglike eyes. The prime minister returned the stare sideways.

"A lot of things can happen before night's end," said a familiar voice. It was Susan.

She was eating a cookie that she had grabbed from the kitchen's stash. She quickly dropped it into a trash can nearby and walked over to him, pressing his body against his. So close he had a reaction.

He steadied his voice. "You're going to make focusing on these negotiations hard."

"In a way that's the point," she replied playfully. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her passionately.

The moment was suddenly interrupted when they were engulfed by white light, and Tresser looked over to see Samantha and Dave. The light was from the television camera.

"Couldn't wait for dessert?" smiled Samantha.

Susan had wide eyes and she implored the TV crew, "Please, don't..." Her voice trailed, defeated.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't air this," Tresser said, oblivious to the fact he still had his arms around his lover.

"We'll have to check our broadcast schedule," Samantha replied.

"Seriously," he insisted.

"Oh, I don't know. The prime minister having a fling with his private secretary? That's a great story. Of course, if we had a bigger story to cover...like say, another exclusive interview...well, the news cycle is what it is. Your kitchen escapades might be old news by the time we get around to it."

"So it's blackmail?"

"More like a trade."

"How very convenient. You members of the media just don't care who gets hurt as long as you get a story out of it."

Tresser momentarily wished he had a way of getting the spotlight on them somehow. Unfortunately he was aware of no way to do that. As far as he knew of their personal lives, Samantha and Dave were a steady couple of a long time, although they had not married; even if he could find something salacious to spread about them, the public cared more about the sex lives of politicians than journalists. They were public figures like him, yes, but permitted different degrees of privacy.

"All right. You want to report we're together? Go ahead," declared Tresser. "There's nothing to hide about love."

Susan couldn't suppress a subtle smile.

To Tresser's chagrin, Samantha and Dave did not look annoyed but indifferent. "Film at eleven," Dave grinned ominously, and the two journalists left the kitchen without another word.

At this point the chef walked over to them with a plate of cinnamon rolls. "Your excellency..." he simply said, extending the plate. Susan took the plate and Tresser took a bun.

"Thanks, Fred," the prime minister said, munching on the pastry. "At least I get to eat something tonight."

"We should find out what's happening out there," said Susan, motioning to the parlor area. "The emperor might be waiting for you already."

"You're right, darling," he replied, "let's go."

As they walked out of the kitchen, a meow caught Susan's attention. She glanced at the fluffy white cat sitting under a nearby chair.

"I'll catch up with you James," she told him. He walked off and Susan approached the white cat.

"Esther, what are you doing hiding here?" she whispered.

"Sneaking around," purred the cat, "Have you heard anything sinister?"

"Not really. If Longguo did have something planned for the gala, maybe they decided not to do it after all?"

"Why would they back out?"

"If they realized someone was on to them."

"What about Corbin?" meowed Esther.

"I still don't trust him. But that doesn't mean he's doing anything illegal...it's just..." Susan's voice trailed.

"Where is he?" the cat asked.

"Down the hallway."

"I'm going to see what I can discover about the Longguo spy," Esther decided.

"Don't get into danger, Esther..." Susan started to say.

Esther stretched, flexing her claws. "If someone messes with a feline, they're the ones in for a cat-astrophe," she gave a delighted purr and hurried away.

Susan watched thoughtfully, before turning to join Tresser outside of the kitchen.

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The Persian cat found Emperor Li somewhat apart from the crowd and sidled up to spy on him. She was in time to see Shui as he led the television crew back towards Li.

She was completely surprised to see when the emperor acknowledged the hypnotist's presence and beckoned the trio forward – in full view of Richard Corbin.

"Well, Mr. Corbin, I presume you are convinced of the plan's flawlessness?" Li said casually, with a small motion to the two journalists standing beside Shui.

Corbin glanced cautiously around; finding no one else in hearing range, he turned back towards Emperor Li. He did not notice Esther peering watchfully at them all from behind a nearby potted palm.

"I must say, I'm impressed as to what you've been able to accomplish with them," Corbin grinned.

Esther, from behind the plant, bared her fangs in a silent hiss. "So, Filbert was right," she whispered to herself, "There is a spy! ...none other than the deputy prime minister!"

Corbin continued talking to Li. "You know, I was kind of worried your people might not be able to pull it off. This hypnotism stuff is extravagant enough as it is... but when we're talking about some kind of mass hypnosis..."

"You've done your job, Mr. Corbin," Emperor Li dismissed, "The rest is Longguo's party. But I might require your presence at the patio meeting."

"I had no plans to miss that, anyway," assured Corbin. He took another sip of his drink, and placed the goblet on a passing waiter's tray. "I'd better get back, before my dimwit boss gets ambitious and decides to make this a political event."

The emperor waved him away. Corbin took his leave, and Emperor Li turned back to Shui and the journalists.

"My chief operative has everything in place, for the final most crucial stage of the Sandman Project," he said to the hypnotist.

"Your majesty," said Shui, "Permit me the honor of inquiry. Indeed, I have a few."

"Dr. Qiang. You are the chief scientist of the project; your hypnotic talent is central, yet you have little knowledge of my plans." Emperor Li noted. "Very well, doctor... You may ask your questions."

"What is the goal of the Sandman Project?"

"Sandman is my strike against this self-righteous democracy on our northern border. Very soon we shall capture our target and seize Sarrilla, marking the first step in planetary conquest."

Shui analyzed his words. "How can Longguo conquer the entire planet? We don't have the military might for it."

"We don't. Sarrilla does...in the form of their high-powered laser weaponry satellites known as SPARC."

"Sarrillian Photonic Attack Response Command," the scientist elaborated.

Li nodded. "Precisely, doctor. The Sarrillians direct the satellites via a transceiver. When we have our target, we have this device and soon the means of operating it as well."

"Our target?"

"Yes." Emperor Li's acerbic gaze burned with delight at the thought of this imminent, pursued attainment. "That is why so much secrecy, so much detail has gone into this. We now have the target practically in our grasp," he added.

"Who is the target?" Shui demanded.

"The prime minister."

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Chapter 16 - Conspiracies

Shui kept his thoughts inscrutable - behind him the two journalists trying their utmost to maintain a sleepwalking look - while Li, reveling in the near-success of his plans, gave further elucidation as to how they would play out. Meanwhile, Esther the cat remained hidden by the potted palm and endeavored to hear as much as she could.

Li was speaking. "You have recognized every soldier assigned to the security detail, certainly."

"They're my subjects."

"They will all assist in capturing the prime minister. As you know, the Sarrilian security place themselves in concentric circles to achieve the highest protection for their leader and his family. We shall use the principle in reverse. Those you deemed excellent subjects have been placed closest, and those who are not your subjects have been placed in the farthest."

"I am to, therefore, induce the trance upon them massively," Shui deduced.

"You have already provided the means to do so," Li replied, "You do recall the audio recording of Xing's flute melody, which you used in your experiments. Through the influence of my chief operative, we have attained the means to intercept the prime ministerial security communications. Every one of the guards wears an earpiece and every one of them will hear this tune."

"Yes... that would be the trigger I suggested for them..." Shui considered. He could sense tension from Samantha and Dave equally, as if they were both desperately trying to uphold their façade long enough for Li to leave and then would not wait an instant more to broadcast their exposé.

"The trigger which," continued Li, "induces the spell where they are to see whomever they were assigned to protect as their prisoner, and to see their very coworkers as battlefield enemies."

Shui gave a little dip of his head. "It is a ploy worthy of your majesty's wit. Yet...what of the journalists? You must have wished them spellbound for some reason."

"You will see what I have for them to do when we return to Longguo." The emperor's obscurity in this did not wane.

He then stood up and walked away with his security entourage. When Li had left, Esther crept out unseen from her hiding place and made her way to find Filbert. Meanwhile the scientist turned sideways towards the television news crew, who allowed their somnambulistic guise to fall.

"This might act as an unfortunate variable," Shui stated.

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Esther raced, her tail frizzed to twice its fluffy size, to where Filbert was raiding a bowl of nuts. "Filbert! I found out who the spy is!"

"You did?!" Filbert practically gave a little jump from excitement. "Who is..."

"Come on!" She seized his tail lightly in her jaws, before he could finish his remark, and gave him a little yank away from the food. "We don't have time to spare! They're going to kidnap the PM!"

At a different area of the prime ministerial palace, Stanley, Corbin, and Susan were speaking with Tresser.

"Prime Minister," Susan was saying, "I guess we have time to go over your schedule for tomorrow... just to make sure nothing has been overlooked."

Before anything more could be discussed, Emperor Li arrived. The informality of their current conversation dissolved rather noticeably when the foreign dignitary stepped over to join them, yet he spoke with cultured informality himself.

"Your excellency," the emperor began, "I hope you don't think me too abrupt or forward in my request... but would your assistant Ms. Ferry have a dance with me?"

This took everyone by surprise. Tresser looked towards Susan and she shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly in a gesture of indifference.

"I have nothing against that, if Susan wants to... she will decide for herself," Tresser replied.

The request was a diplomatic gesture, yet there was a certain appreciation in Li's eyes of her; the same Tresser had noticed when they were introduced. Susan said nothing but dutifully took Li's hand and they walked over to the center of the ballroom, the other attendees giving way, as the new melody began.

There was a stillness in the audience; all were mesmerized by Li and Susan as they gracefully spiraled together like one. The emperor's gold silk attire sparkling in the light, the secretary's slender figure in her light-pink, sequined skirt-suit, with their every step and motion perfect across the marble floor. Throughout the dance, Li's eyes never left her, as if he saw her as a marvelous jewel.

"He does seem to like her, doesn't he?" Stanley remarked.

Corbin frowned slightly. "I guess so," was all he muttered, and then turned to Tresser. "Your excellency, if you'll excuse me."

Corbin had walked away when a cat's yowl seized Tresser's attention away from the two dancers.

"Prime Minister!" Esther caterwauled.

Tresser turned to glance down at them as Esther scampered over, with Filbert clinging to her back.

"Don't meet with Li!" meowed Esther, "They're planning something real evil! They want that SPARC laser and then they'll..."

"Esther and Filbert," Tresser interrupted, "I am a bit pressed for time... I know you like to play games; however, this is a crucial matter of diplomacy."

Filbert piped up, "But Esther discovered the spy!"

"There is no spy, no conspiracy and no peril," Tresser was being well-mannered yet inflexible. "We're in the prime ministerial residence, which is extremely protected. We're in a gathering to promote peace and goodwill; talks are going well... all that remains is for my secretary to finish the dance so she can join us, and we'll resume negotiations in the patio."

Esther held back a growl; Susan had been kind to them, and now her life would be endangered merely by having to be present as Tresser's secretary. "Resume negotiations in the patio! That's where they'll grab you!"

"Esther..."

"Look, all the soldiers here at the gala - all of you," she turned desperately to Tresser's security, "were hypnotized in Longguo. You're going to betray your commander-in-chief." A couple of the security guards could not hide an amused smile, as if they thought it was ludicrous. They have no memory of it, Esther realized.

Tresser thought it ludicrous, too. He turned to his press secretary wearily. "Stanley could you...?"

Stanley scooped up both the cat and squirrel as Susan and Li, their dance ending, walked over to Tresser.

The emperor's eyes had a gleam. "Your excellency, how did you ever come by such a charming secretary?"

Meanwhile, Stanley was walking away with Esther and Filbert. "Unhand us!" the white Persian cat hissed. "The spy is going to strike and you're treating us like..."

"...misbehaving pets!" Filbert chimed in.

"Yeah! Wait, what?" Esther frowned at the squirrel.

"You're not halting the meeting," Stanley said vitriolically. "Susan's fallen for this tale you've been spreading about a spy, but I know better. Let's have it - you were sent by Samantha and Dave to stir up trouble? Give them something negative to report about the state banquet?"

Esther's eyes widened with total astonishment. "You think that's what we're trying to do?"

"You're not getting anywhere near the PM's meeting with Li, not to interfere or even listen in." Stanley was adamant. "If I don't let the press themselves get a tidbit of these discussions, like hell I'm letting two critters get the whole scoop."

Esther screeched and scratched his arm; when he gasped in surprise and pain, he inadvertently released both the cat and the squirrel. Before he could react, Esther hurtled off with Filbert after her.

Stanley dashed after them as they turned a corner - and then he halted in perplexity. Esther and Filbert were suddenly nowhere to be found.

"How do cats vanish like that?" Stanley muttered.

He was trying to determine which way the animals had fled when a newspaper reporter approached him. He was slender, with a brown suit and holding a miniature voice recorder which he held out to Stanley's face.

"Mr. Parnell, Daniel Thompson from The Gazette. We had a few questions about security at the banquet..."

Stanley's stress got to him. "Frankly I couldn't care less about any of those damn questions right now. Go to hell."

"Ok. We'll go ahead and run the story saying The Gazette has documented proof that every Sarrillian soldier at the gala was once stationed at the Sarrillian embassy in Longguo...and that you told the reporter asking about it to go to hell. I think they'll stop the presses for this one." Daniel broke into a smile and began walking away.

"Wait..." Stanley turned back at once, his demeanor wholly altered. It was not worry of an impending news story; it was shock over a realization. "Did you say...all of them?"

Esther and Filbert, meanwhile, were searching for the prime minister; they found him eventually, at a distance.

They could see Tresser and Li walking towards the patio with the combined security entourages of two leaders, along with Susan dutifully beside the prime minister. Esther tried to pursue them yet three of the palace cats suddenly sprang out and barred her way, their fangs bared in hisses.

"You're not going any further," growled one.

"You're felines too," Esther snarled back. "Come on, you've got to at least sense what I do about that tyrant. You can't let the PM meet with him!"

"We also think Li is bad," affirmed one palace cat, "but it's up to Prime Minister Tresser to decide as head of the Sarrillian government."

"Bureau-cats," chattered Filbert.

The palace cats were steadfast and looked prepared for a fight if necessary, so Esther slinked off. When they were away from them, however, she let out a hiss, "We'll double back around and see if we can get to the patio that way."

"Good thinking," Filbert replied.

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Chapter 17 - The Kidnapping

Outside of the prime ministerial palace, a little group congregated. Shui, Xing, Samantha and Dave discussed the situation at hand.

"You didn't explain this business of the prime ministerial guard being your subjects," Samantha pursued.

Shui elucidated. "If you recall I hypnotized many people who worked at the Sarrillian embassy. It so happens all the men of the security entourage were stationed there at the time. They were all either excellent subjects or subconsciously unopposed to the thought of national treason."

"Then there were atypical reassignments among the military," Samantha deduced, "at Corbin's behest."

"...and," Dave chimed in, "that would include the men at the air base."

"Li and Corbin are going to mobilize an army of spellbound soldiers to kidnap the prime minister." Samantha turned to her cameraman with excitement. "Damn it! This news story is unraveling so swiftly, we can't get this on the air before..." Realization hit them both suddenly. "We have to find Tresser fast!" Samantha exclaimed, turning back to Shui.

"To warn him?" inquired Shui.

"To film it!" Samantha insisted with desperation.

"Maybe we can get footage of you two saving him," Dave added hopefully towards the scientists.

"Actually, rescuing his excellency would be quite unproductive at this stage," Shui replied.

"You see, Shui and I are still conducting an experiment into the reactions of our hypnotic subjects," Xing explained.

"So... you're going to let the PM get kidnapped," Samantha stated.

"For science," emphasized Shui.

Xing addressed the TV crew. "You're going to let it happen too," she pointed out.

Shui straightened his eyeglasses. "Yes, which does make an intriguing side study in how you justify your noninvolvement. The two of you are, after all, Sarrillian."

Dave saw a distinction. "Journalists have to be objective about news."

"Scientists have to be objective about research," Shui countered.

They stared at each other, and then they heard people talking as Tresser and his entourage approached the patio.

"Fair enough. Let's find somewhere to hide," Samantha decided swiftly, and without any of them pondering further their action – or inaction – both the two journalists and the two scientists happily hid in the foliage of tall bushes nearby.

When they did, they found themselves face-to-face with Esther and Filbert.

"How'd you get here?" whispered Dave.

"I'm a cat and he's a squirrel," came the reply from Esther.

Everyone hushed as the prime minister walked into the clearing. The level of security ineptitude, Samantha thought, in not realizing we are here. It would be a news story unto itself. No wonder the emperor feels he can pull this off...

Tresser and Li walked into the patio surrounded by several people, which included Susan and Corbin along with a few guards. Whitmore trailed along behind his owner Susan.

As soon as they got to the center of the yard, the prime minister's security detail, the very men charged with protecting the nation's leader, trained their rifles on him and his private secretary; an assailant would find no escape from them, just as Tresser could not contest with guards so numerous, trained and deadly. The prime minister was encircled by them.

Emperor Li had a boldly amused look on his face.

"You're coming with us, Prime Minister."

The deputy prime minister, Corbin, was gleeful. "Great work, Emperor! You get the international glory of saying you captured a world leader...and I can finally take over as the head of Sarrilla!"

"You knew about this?" Tresser said looking straight at Corbin in outright disbelief.

"Damn right I knew," Corbin was smug as he outlined the scheme. "All I had to do was appoint the hypnotized guards to your security detail."

"Treason..." Tresser faltered.

"Ironically, the allure of power is something that you've never quite understood," Corbin interjected derisively. "Treachery is unfathomable to your feeble-minded sense of patriotism. But your unforeseen death in the wake of a foreign strike will be a national tragedy, leaving me in command of Sarrilla...where I'll stay permanently!"

"Not quite, Mr. Corbin," Emperor Li's lukewarm remark made Corbin do a double-take. "You see, you would only stand in our way of conquest."

"Our agreement was..."

The emperor suddenly pulled out a revolver with a silencer. There was a muffled shot, and the deputy prime minister collapsed.

Susan shrieked, though no one from inside the palace heard. The prime minister just stared at the scene, shocked, for a brief moment. He seemed helpless.

At a motion, Tresser and Susan were both seized from behind. Whitmore snarled at this and some of the Longguo guards turned to the dog with weapons drawn as Susan cried, "No, Whitmore!"

His snarl gave way for a whimper, and he glanced from Susan to Tresser and back.

"Don't hurt my dog," she pleaded.

There was a sudden commotion amongst some of the Longguo guards, and four people were suddenly hauled out from where they had been hiding behind the bushes: the reporter and her cameraman, alongside the hypnotist and his assistant.

Li took one swift, unsurprised look at the group and said, "Samantha West and David Candid. It would appear you two have an inconvenient habit of investigating events that I would prefer went unreported by the media."

"We have an inconvenient habit of getting caught," scowled Samantha. She still held out the microphone, and Dave was resolutely filming, though they were surrounded with rifles aimed squarely at them.

Li turned towards Shui. "Did you think you could fool me, Dr. Qiang? You did not spellbind them as I had ordered."

"You did not tell me the truth of my father's death," countered Shui.

"For failure, he suffered the same penalty," Li said icily, "that shall befall you and your wife..."

"You will not harm them!" came a loud hiss.

The emperor glanced away from them in surprise, to a figure emerging from underneath the bushes, and saw Esther.

"The white cat," he said softly.

There was a sudden hush that fell across the group. Esther looked around at them; realizing she had become the sudden center of attention, she purred with delight.

"What is your name, my dear?" he asked.

"Esther," meowed the cat.

"She's got a really long show-cat name, too," added Filbert as he crept out from the shrubbery to join her, and Esther growled at him.

"Esther," the emperor considered, "The star of my victory."

"Your most exalted majesty, surely this cannot be the animal..." Wu began, sounding more adamant than he would have liked to.

Emperor Li snapped, "Silence, General!"

The cat twitched her ears. "Explain," she said.

"There is a legend," the emperor began, "It has been foretold that a white cat, with eyes as pure and vivid as sapphires, would bring good fortune to the empire."

"...and I'm that cat, I see," Esther purred.

"Esther," Emperor Li spoke to her with the utmost respect, "it would be a great privilege that you come with me back to Longguo."

Esther faced him valiantly, her eyes narrow. "Cats are free animals, your majesty," she said.

"You are not a prisoner, Esther," replied the emperor, "You are my honored guest."

"...and the others?" asked the cat.

The emperor glanced at the group of captives that stood before him and then back at the cat.

"Two are defectors. As for the journalists..." his voice trailed thoughtfully.

"I am the royal cat of legend," meowed Esther, playing to her newfound rank boldly. "Am I not entitled to select my own personal attendants?"

"You may have any attendants you wish."

"I select them. All four of them."

There was an even more profound hush from Emperor Li, as if there was greater significance to her words.

"The cat of the legend has spoken," Li announced finally, "They shall come along with us... I have plans that must be implemented anyway."

"What plans?" Tresser now spoke up, "Do you expect to get away after assassinating me on Sarrillian soil, on the very grounds of the prime ministerial palace?"

"Assassinate you?" Li looked amused. "As I said, you will be coming with us, your excellency."

The hostages were dragged towards the prime ministerial convoy parked to the side. The chauffeurs had been replaced by Longguo delegation members. There was no sign whatsoever of the Sarrillian soldiers who had been charged with the prime minister's transportation, or what might have become of them.

"It's not going to be so easy," Shui said, adjusting his eyeglasses. He was walking calmly alongside Xing. "The prime minister is more strong-willed than he appears to be."

The emperor was smug. "The sole thing that could stop our getaway is your turning these hypnotized Sarrillian soldiers against me. You can snap your fingers and awaken them, but I know you won't do that. Not now," Li taunted.

"True," Shui acknowledged calmly.

"What?" Tresser stared at the scientist.

"I'm not going to risk any of my subjects being hurt. Prime Minister... I have better chances of saving you, believe it or not, once we get to Longguo." Shui spoke in a detached, analytical way.

"We're all going to die," snapped Tresser, as he was pushed into the limousine.

"How do you plan to get away?" queried Samantha equably.

"We will be taking his aircraft," was all the Longguo emperor replied, motioning the reporter to another vehicle in the convoy. He then glanced at Susan; his gaze considering her up and down, as if reviewing her like a work of fine art on display.

"She will travel with me," he ordered.

Susan fixed her brown eyes on him; as if trying to hide fear she stated, "I'd rather go with my fellow Sarrillians."

Li's reply was terse. "I don't care what you want. You're coming with me."

The state gala came to a tumultuous finish when Stanley the press secretary – hurrying to warn Tresser against the meeting – found Corbin dead and everyone else noticed the two top dignitaries were missing. By then, the hijacked prime ministerial convoy was on its way to a nearby Sarrillian airbase overtaken by soldiers who, in a state of somnambulism, had fought and won a deadly ambush against their own uniforms.

The late-night wind swept through the military airfield, up into a cloudless black sky dotted sparsely with stars. It was here they had been brought – here they knew so well, from the international flights they so frequently found themselves making for diplomacy, but now they were here for a different flight. The emperor directed the small motorcade unopposed to the waiting airplane, within which one of the Longguo pilots awaited them. The engine was already roaring in anticipation, the Sarrillian insignia on the jet's side a mockery by its misuse.

The prime minister was motioned out of the limousine at gunpoint. They halted before the aircraft, the enemy leader who had so fooled them standing only a few paces away with his top general. Diplomatic negotiations, state banquets and peace treaties...to culminate in this. Tresser was somewhat aware of his private secretary Susan being hauled out of the limousine Li had emerged from; the television crew and the two scientists were pulled out of the other vehicle.

Li held Esther the cat, who flattened her ears at the loud jet but only offered one meow of disapproval; everyone was oblivious to Filbert the squirrel as he ran beside them.

"After you, your excellency," commanded Emperor Li.

Tresser's voice was unwavering. "I'm not getting aboard."

The emperor gestured to the prime minister, whereupon General Wu pointed a pistol directly at Tresser's head. Yet Tresser did not flinch.

"I know what you want," he said, recalling Esther's words. "It's access to the SPARC weaponry, isn't it?"

Li's features molded into the allusion of a sneer.

Tresser was adamant. "How can you possibly think I would give it to you?"

Li's voice held savagery in its stillness.

"You will be receptive to my requests very soon, I'm sure."

It was then that the world exploded into war.

Bullets ricocheted off the vehicles and all looked up at the screech of tires across asphalt to see the Sarrillian security and military, arriving to reclaim their captured leader. Esther screeched and, leaping from Li's arms, ducked into the aircraft with Filbert dashing in after her.

The airfield had become a deadly criss-cross of gunfire. A dog from the Sarrillian security team sprang towards Emperor Li, and one of the Longguo delegation's dogs met the attack. Lunging at each other like wolves, they collided mid-air in a snarling, twisting heap of fur. Sarrillian military men shot at those of Longguo, the Longguo response was brutal, and the hostages were forced to the long flight of stairs leading up to the airplane's door.

Tresser was yanked towards the airplane. He tried to strike the soldiers but, at a sharp motion by Li, one of them aimed a small pistol at Tresser and shot him.

It was a dart of some kind, and hit his arm; Tresser gazed at Li with disbelief for a brief moment, before he lost his balance and fell unconscious to the ground.

"I hardly think we have to be so brusque with the rest of you," called Li over the din, turning towards the rest of the hostages, who remained silent.

Li turned and walked casually into the airplane, and Tresser was lifted by two Longguo soldiers. Another soldier roughly jabbed Susan with a rifle, whereupon she hurried after them into the aircraft and the rest followed her.

As Samantha and Dave reached the top of the steps, they turned to gaze back at the battle now raging; the journalists stood as if transfixed, watching and filming an unprecedented news event play out below, before they were unanimously yanked inside the airplane via the microphone cable by General Wu.

"Out of all those here," Li remarked, as they fell to the floor of the airplane and the door was shut, "the last I would dream of leaving behind would be the two of you."

The reporter and cameraman gazed up at him, utterly surprised by the statement.

Outside, Stanley leapt out of one of the arriving cars. He was able to see the jet in motion, and men shouting at each other.

"Shoot the plane!" cried one.

"No! The PM's aboard!"

This desperate debate was futile, as the jet taxied down the runway; with a powerful roar, it leapt into the wind, thrust towards the uncertainty of the nation beyond Sarrilla's southern border, and was airborne.

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Chapter 18 - Chaos

At the Sarrillian palace, Stanley Parnell was holding a press conference to update the nation about what was happening.

The duty that fell to him, to issue a public statement about the present situation, was one Stanley could never have expected. He had never trusted Li, yet the idea that the Longguo leader would do something so brazen was staggering to him.

The emperor had even abandoned many of his own delegation in the process of fleeing. These people now were detained by Sarrillian forces and, from what Stanley heard, all claimed ignorance of their government's actions and were all fearful as to what might now occur to them.

Stanley walked up to the podium, surrounded by bright camera lights and the unintelligible murmurs from the crowd of reporters talking amongst themselves. He tapped the podium, waited for silence, and spoke:

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Last night, our prime minister, James Tresser, was kidnapped by Emperor Li of Longguo. In addition, Deputy Richard Corbin was shot to death. We now know he was a traitor working with Emperor Li to abduct the prime minister. Sarrilla had awaited the Longguo representatives with open arms, in an effort to reconcile with our neighbor and accept their offers of peace and diplomacy. Instead, we were attacked in a deceitful and cowardly fashion, with swords concealed by laurel branches. Our prime minister was taken hostage along with his private secretary, Susan Ferry, and several others. At this time, we know the prime minister and the other hostages have been taken across the border into Longguo. We are trying to get in contact with Li's regime to determine why they have done this. That is all the information we have now; as soon as we have more, we will let you know..."

He had barely said this before a commotion ensued as all the journalists present began clamoring for his attention, with their questions shouted over each other. The press secretary picked reporters at random, starting with one of those to the front of the crowd, and they fell temporarily into charged but somewhat orderly turn-taking.

"Is it true they hijacked the prime ministerial airplane?"

"Yes, they did."

"What is the condition of the prime minister? Has he been harmed?"

"As far as we can tell, he was darted with a sedative and forced into the airplane. We don't know much else at the moment."

"How did they overcome the prime minister's security?"

"That is still under investigation. When we know more, we'll let you know."

"Who is in charge of the government now?"

Stanley hesitated, and briefly thought of saying 'no comment' however he knew that would probably make the situation – a public relations catastrophe as it was – even worse. But exactly who was in charge right now? Even he did not know.

Stanley took a deep breath and said, "The cabinet and the top military generals are governing in unison. They have everything under control and are working together to bring back the prime minister." He was sure of this, at least. "What we want to emphasize to the public," he hastened to add, "is that there is no reason to panic."

When Stanley completed his national address, he walked to the conference room where discussions were being held on the government's strategy to rescue the prime minister – what he found was, the cabinet ministers and their officials in a panic. Some were screaming at each other and others sat with their head in their hands as if in total frustration. Even the top military generals had descended to bickering.

Two of the palace cats were sitting to the side watching the scene play out.

"Look at the stupid humans," one said, "you would think the cat food had run out."

"Pitiful," said the other with flat ears.

Stanley spoke up, having recovered from his surprise. "What the hell is this! What manner of governing is this?! You guys are supposed to be professionals and remain calm!"

This caused the lot of them to quiet down a bit, though tension still hung heavily in the air. Stanley then asked, "Who is the most senior cabinet minister?"

There seemed to be ambivalence amongst them; it was the palace cats who meowed to Stanley.

"There are four, with equal seniority," hissed the cat.

"Not to mention, with the defense minister dead, the generals from the different military branches are squabbling over who should be in charge of war policy," added the other cat. "They all have equal seniority too."

"Tresser didn't leave behind anything stating what should transpire in a situation like this," one of the cabinet ministers tried feebly to justify.

"Take a vote on it," considered Stanley, pragmatically. "This is a democracy, after all."

This only resulted in the cabinet ministers glowering at one another and the minister of wildlife, Washburn, speaking up.

"One thing I'm sure we can agree on," he said, "We ought to put all flags at half-staff for the loss of our prime minister."

He ended his statement with an exclamation of pain and looking down he noticed a cat with flat ears still biting the hem of his trousers and gazing up at him. He frowned but pushed the cat away with his leg.

"Tresser's not dead yet," the foreign affairs minister, Maurice, snapped at him. "You really want to go tell everybody you've given him up for dead?"

"They'll have to accept the reality of it, sooner or later," Washburn proclaimed.

The wildlife minister broke off with another cry; the cat had bitten him again, this time hard enough to draw two dots of blood on his ankle.

"Someone get these cats out of the cabinet room," Washburn scowled.

"We can't do that, sir," said one of the guards, a little sheepishly.

"I'm a minister of the cabinet!" Washburn shouted.

"We're a national treasure," countered the cat, with flat ears.

"Yeah," agreed the foreign affairs minister, "stop messing with the cats, Landon."

Chaos had erupted in the conference room once again. Stanley raised his arms and waved them to get everyone's attention before saying, "Has anyone gotten in touch with our allies across the globe?"

The cat squinted. "What allies?"

Maurice explained, "They're all either claiming neutrality or issuing a condemnation of what happened to us, but they're all too scared to get involved. Tarruff is fortifying their border with us, though."

"We think they're waiting for Longguo to invade, so they can occupy a section of Sarrilla too. They always did want the area around that mountain," said the air force general.

Stanley was dumbfounded. "Explain why we keep alliance with them, again?"

"Diamonds," came the rational reply from the treasury minister.

"We send them a lot of grain and dairy back. It's a win-win," grinned the agriculture minister.

"Except in wartime, apparently," Stanley scowled. "So, we now have vultures waiting for scraps when Longguo raises its flag over our capitol. Why did they even take Tresser? They could have shot him like they did to Corbin. Are they holding him for ransom?"

"We don't know."

"You don't know?"

"Look, Parnell, just keep the public from getting antsy and we'll handle these negotiations," the army general joined in tersely.

It stymied Stanley, to his annoyance, and before he could retort the telephone rang. One of the clerks picked up the receiver, then turned towards the cabinet ministers.

"Emperor Li of Longguo on the line," she announced. "He's telephoning from the aircraft...they have already entered Longguo airspace."

"I'll take the call," Maurice piped up.

Washburn spun around towards him. "...and why should you get to head discussions?"

"I'm the foreign affairs minister. This means Tresser appointed me the chief diplomat," Maurice answered. "It'll be on conference call, anyway."

"Hopefully you won't make the matter worse, being the less-senior of all cabinet ministers here," Washburn baited. Maurice did not reply to this as the call was patched through.

"Good morning," Li greeted, with well-placed irony. "To which of Sarrilla's honorable representatives do I address?"

"Demetrius Maurice, of the foreign affairs ministry," Maurice spoke flatly. "Your majesty. I believe you have something that belongs to us."

Li replied with the same insouciance. "Your prime minister, or your airplane?"

"You know this can be considered an act of war."

"We are at war, Mr. Maurice," Li countered. "We have been at war from the time your government levied sanctions upon us and expelled our diplomatic mission."

"What are your demands?"

"Surrender the Sarrillian land to the empire of Longguo."

"Now, Emperor. If we do that, Prime Minister Tresser won't have any place to lead when he returns."

"If you don't, he may not return at all."

"We would like to speak with Tresser."

"The prime minister is unconscious at present."

"Or he's dead, like Mr. Corbin."

"You will see film televised of him by afternoon, provided he awakens."

"He had better awaken," snarled Maurice.

Li snarled back. "If you launch an attack upon Longguo, my military shall meet it without mercy."

Suddenly, Washburn introduced himself into the conversation. "Perhaps we can barter with something else, Emperor Li. Is there anything you would like in lieu of our territory?"

Maurice leant over to the wildlife minister and whispered to him in a voice laced with fury, "What the hell are you doing, Washburn?"

"Some diplomat you are," Washburn snapped back, loud enough to be heard on the call. "You keep on antagonizing him and we'll end up getting bombed."

Emperor Li did not seem to pay heed to their discord. "You have my demands," he said, and the line disconnected.

There was silence in the room and then Stanley spoke:

"We've got one more thing to worry about. When Li took Tresser, he took the SPARC transceiver."

"Oh, they won't guess where it is," the army general waved the worry off.

Stanley persisted, "We've got to change the code. It's been compromised."

There was unease amongst the cabinet ministers, and it was Maurice who replied. "It would take at least one month for us to hack into and hence regain access to the SPARC satellite system, to then decipher the launch code..."

The realization fell upon Stanley like a stone. "Are you saying we can't even access our own laser satellites right now?"

"The prime minister himself is the sole person who knows the current launch code," explained Maurice. "Therefore, he is the sole person who can access the SPARC system, through the transceiver he always carries. The sole way to change the code, is to know the code. In fact, each person upon attaining the office is told the existing code by the outgoing prime minister and must change it himself to ensure total secrecy."

"You mean right now the one man who can unleash a photonic holocaust across the planet is the hostage of a tyrant who probably wants to do precisely that?"

"Yeah."

"My God."

"Tresser isn't one to simply give them the code, or the transceiver.

"He'll hold out as long as he can," Stanley said, with emphasis. "Do you know what Li's regime does to prisoners who aren't compliant?"

Washburn spoke up, almost with amusement. "Come on. The prime minister is no ordinary prisoner. They have to treat him with certain dignity. He is a world leader. Plus, there are internationally ratified conventions of warfare..."

"Screw internationally ratified whatever-the-fuck!" exclaimed Stanley. "You think Longguo abides by them? Not even we do!"

There was utter silence, so great that one could hear the low purring of the palace cats who alone were at ease.

The door suddenly opened and Stanley's assistant entered the room.

"Yes Lily, what is it?" he asked.

"There's a man here who says it's urgent he speaks with you...He's asking about his cat."

"His cat?"

The man pushed his way into the conference room. "Yes, my cat Esther!"

"How can someone barge in here?" exclaimed Washburn. "What about security..." The words seemed to taper off and fall flat; Sarrillian palace security at this point had been fairly validated as ineffective.

"My name is Michael Bennett," said the intruder. "The Longguo leader was filmed holding my cat as he got aboard the plane."

"Oh...no," Stanley griped, as he sat down at the large conference table, "As if we didn't have enough problems."

"I want to know if she's alright," Bennett said as everyone in the room looked on.

As usual the cabinet ministers dithered and it fell to Stanley to answer questions. "Well, Bennett... as far as we have been able to decipher, Emperor Li is quite smitten with your cat and he seems to actually be superstitious about her presence... I don't think you have much to worry about her." Something occurred to Stanley. "Do you have any idea why he might have taken her?"

"No," answered Bennett. "We were in the region for a cat show. She and her squirrel friend have been exploring around the city almost daily since we've been here, but I don't know where they've been going."

Stanley was thoughtful with recollection. "They've been hanging around a WCAT news crew, who were also taken aboard the airplane."

"We know Samantha and Dave from back home in Faunaville," Bennett explained. "The TV network headquarters is very close to the hotel I manage there."

Stanley sought a connection, yet could find none. He searched the faces of the cabinet ministers, none of whom had any signs of epiphany as to whether this information could aid them in the country's present calamity.

"So, is there any idea as to when I will get her back?" Bennett asked.

"I am sorry but right now we don't even have a clue as to when we will get the prime minister back," Stanley replied honestly.

Bennett had a dejected look on his face and Stanley felt genuinely sorry for him. "Lily, please see Mr. Bennett is offered some coffee or tea and escort him to the exit," the press secretary told his assistant.

"No thank you; I don't want any refreshments," Bennett replied, "but please keep me up to date on how Esther is and when I will see her again."

"I promise you I will do all I can," answered Stanley. "We will call you when we have any further information on your cat."

He nodded to Lily, who then said to the man, "This way, Mr. Bennett. I'll jot down your phone number before you leave..."

As soon as they left, Stanley remarked, "I sure hope the hostages use their wit to navigate through their ordeal. That cat included. It is strange Li took her...isn't it?"

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Chapter 19 - Dragon and Phoenix

Prime Minister James Tresser could not comprehend what was happening. It was convoluted; he had a persistent inability to recall what had transpired, nor could he ascertain where he was or if he was surrounded by friends or enemies. It came with a great feeling of peril, from whence or whom he knew not, interspersed with periods of unconsciousness wherein which were the only traces of peace he could find.

The prime minister regained consciousness at last to find he was lying in a comfortable bed, with a cold towel across his forehead. The room was windowless, with pastel-peach walls and the pacific hum of central air conditioning throughout.

His eyes focused on those at his bedside. They were altogether six, unless one counted the animals to total nine. His secretary Susan, as well as Shui, Xing, Samantha and Dave all stood about him as if with worry. Esther the cat was purring and seated atop his chest, her paws tucked underneath herself to give her the appearance of a fluffy white bread loaf; Filbert the squirrel was perched on Dave's shoulder, while Whitmore the fox terrier was held in Susan's arms.

"Prime Minister, you're awake," Susan said with relief.

"You had quite an ill reaction to that dart," Shui noted, "You've been delirious with fever, and drifting in and out of consciousness for several hours."

"Where are we?" asked Tresser blearily.

"The imperial palace of Longguo," Samantha replied.

"This place is big like your mansion!" Esther purred happily. "There don't seem to be any other resident critters, either, unless you count the security dogs."

"Yeah, Esther's the only one who's been allowed out of this room," complained Filbert.

"Envious," Esther gave a little ffftt. "Anyway, if I'm going to be the reigning feline of Longguo, I ought to have perks."

"What about your human, Mr. Bennett?" the squirrel demanded.

"I'll bring him too," Esther meowed, "as soon as I've settled in, and gotten Emperor Li to release these hapless trapped humans. This place has gardens with ponds galore – full of fat fish! Dozens of fat fish! In my nine lives I've never seen them so pudgy!"

"They're called koi," said Samantha.

"Koi sushi," Esther mewed, licking her lips.

"I'm afraid, Esther, you might be seeing the whole matter in a rosy light," said Tresser, petting the cat. He allowed his gaze to wander around the room, as if studying every nuance.

"This is a cozy place, considering we're hostages," he reasoned.

Whitmore barked, "Perhaps the emperor decided it would be better if you recovered a bit?"

"He did say he wanted you alive," Susan pondered, addressing Tresser as she considered her dog's view. "If he expects to ask for ransom, it wouldn't serve him otherwise."

"Or perhaps he expects to mesmerize me into doing his bidding," Tresser stated, looking directly at Shui.

Shui put his mind at ease...sort of.

"I already hypnotized you at the gala," the scientist reminded. "I conditioned you to go into a deep trance instantly whenever I give the order. In any case, I have no intention of doing what his majesty wishes. It is my analysis that the particular thing he would request, you would likely not do anyway."

Tresser looked dubious, yet he relinquished pursuing the matter further and turned instead to his private secretary. "Susan...are you ok? I noticed Li had you ride with him..."

"I'm fine," she said, though she shifted a bit uneasily at the memory.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door; then it opened. Six guards stood waiting while one of them motioned to the little group to exit the room.

"Follow us," the soldier ordered, in the language of Sarrilla.

Susan spoke up. "The prime minister is ill. He's still recovering from that dart you threw at him."

"That's not our problem," replied the Longguo soldier, "My orders are to bring him and you all before his majesty Emperor Li and that's what I intend to do. Move!"

Tresser struggled to get out of bed, so Dave and Shui helped him. "My head feels like it was stepped on," said Tresser.

"It will wear off soon," informed Shui.

They all walked out of the room encircled by the armed guards, so there wasn't much chance of escape. The animals tagged along curiously with Esther in the lead as they climbed a stairway and emerged from what had evidently been an area of the cellar onto the palace's ground floor.

They were brought to the throne room, where they found Li seated on the throne imperiously with General Wu standing to the side. Esther gave a meow and, with tail high, padded up to hug the emperor's ankles. Li petted the cat, and then glanced at the captives.

The emperor spoke to Tresser first. "I am glad to see you have awakened. One of the men charged with the tranquilizer darts failed in properly estimating the dosage for your weight. I had him put to death."

"Emperor Li..." Tresser started to say.

"I will speak to you further in a moment," Li dismissed him easily, turning towards the television crew.

"This is an outrage!" Tresser protested. "This is a breach of international..."

"Gag him," ordered Li, and Tresser was so restrained. Susan looked from Tresser to Li and back, her eyes wide, but said nothing.

Tresser observed as Samantha and Dave were called forth. The television crew stood before the throne and waited.

"I had expected to bring you here under more amenable circumstances," Li contemplated.

"Why?" prodded Samantha.

"You know why."

"The investigative report into your embassy's fox poaching, I conjecture. What escapes me though, is why bring us here at all?" the reporter asked, "If you had planned to kill us you could have done so in Sarrilla."

Li proffered the information. "What I expect is something more of a political victory."

"In what way?"

"The respected Sarrillian newscaster, Samantha West, reading propaganda on Longguo's state-run channel."

Dave started laughing.

"Your cameraman finds this amusing," Li remarked.

"He knows me so well," Samantha said, unfazed.

"I know," said Li, "you are not easy to break. It has been somewhat of a global embarrassment for my empire."

Emperor Li stood from the throne and strode over to stand before the television news crew, his demeanor appraising.

"Nevertheless, I respect the two of you – if only by your willpower. How you resisted torture, for instance. Ambassador Qiang had been an expert in the science and once was in charge of such routine matters in my reign. If he oversaw your interrogation, I have little doubt you hold fast to your beliefs even under the worst sorts of pain."

"It became apparent to him and the others, soon after he started his...method...that there was no way we would break under pressure," Samantha informed him, "It was only a matter of time before they would realize it."

"True," agreed Li, with a sinister grin, "you do not break like the others. Not even to see your dear partner suffer before you, do you break. What would break your spirits utterly – both of you – would be to betray your precious professional ideals."

"You say that as if you mean to try them," noted Samantha.

"...again," added Dave dryly.

"Not in the same manner," said Li. "You wish to report these events. I wish they be recorded. So, I have a challenge for you."

"A challenge?" rejoined Samantha.

"I grant you the freedom to report the events that transpire," Emperor Li proclaimed. "No censorship, no prohibitions. You will even be given air time on my state channel, and permitted safe and free passage afterwards from Longguo to whatever nation you select. I wager you will be unable to maintain your objectivity, that commitment to unbiased truth, by the time you issue your report. One way or another, you will be pulled to a partisan side, forsaking your professional neutrality."

Samantha looked dubious. "We even held up under torture...you said so yourself. Are you planning to frame us?"

"No. I won't have to. Nor will it be by Shui's hypnotic influence. I anticipate you will do it of your own volition."

Samantha and Dave exchanged a suspicious glance. Li prompted, "Do you accept my challenge, then?"

"We accept your challenge," said Samantha. "So long as we are, indeed, given all freedom to film and report this news."

Emperor Li smiled, disquietingly. "That you will, Miss West."

He waved them back, and Dave filmed as Tresser was ungagged. The prime minister and his secretary Susan were then brought forth, whilst Tresser's possessions were placed on a table beside the throne. They were not many: solely his reading glasses, the cigarette case, and the lighter.

"This was what he had with him?" inquired the emperor.

"Yes, your majesty," said General Wu, bowing low.

Li studied the cigarette lighter diligently; Tresser was watching him as diligently, but in the end, Emperor Li merely opened the cigarette case and lit one of the cigarettes.

"It's not bad," he said, "The tobacco is grown on Tropical Island?"

"Yes, it's from our commonwealth," replied Tresser simply.

"Soon to be my commonwealth," he added, "I had heard it was rich in natural resources."

Tresser's eyes drifted away, but he did not reply to him.

The emperor continued speaking, "Sarrilla and Longguo are two halves of a whole. Two grandiose civilizations of the old world – from Europe and the Orient – both sought the unknown for new conquest. Each took to the sea on opposing sides, and each came to the same land mass; the two peoples encountered each other unexpectedly at the river." Emperor Li was smug. "It is destined they be united."

"However," interrupted Tresser, "you omitted that those people were wise enough to realize conflict was unnecessary and would only lead to grief for both. They decided the fair thing was to demarcate the border along the river."

"Perhaps, strategically," said Li, "Would either have shirked from battle if they felt victory had been attainable then?"

"Emperor Li, this is unreasonable," the prime minister protested abruptly, "What's to gain by pitting our two nations against each other in warfare? It will lead to senseless death and destruction – and in the end the Sarrillian forces will prevail. We're much stronger than your army."

"You're mistaken, excellency," Emperor Li sneered, "Brute force is only as effective as the strategy behind it. In hand-to-hand combat, your men are equally matched to mine. What sets your military apart from ours, is weaponry. Proper strategy would indicate to find a way around that weaponry...or better yet, take control of it ourselves."

Tresser was scrutinizing Li's words. "What weaponry?"

"Prime Minister, you are going to give me access to your SPARC weapon system. The transceiver as well as the code to operate it."

"To hell with you," the prime minister quickly answered.

"You are in no position to be so arrogant, prime minister...you should know..."

Tresser interrupted. "What is your ultimate goal, Li? Other than kidnapping me and starting an international incident."

"Global conquest and control," Li answered swiftly.

"How the hell do you think you'll accomplish that?" Tresser persisted, "Sarrilla has a very loyal army. They won't succumb to your intimidation easily, if at all."

"They wouldn't under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances, are they?" the emperor said, looking around the room, "The project I have had my scientists work on for a couple of years will have a lot to do with my goal. Victory has facets like a diamond – each one contributing to its glory."

The prime minister stared silently at the emperor and then asked, "Is the project by any chance called... Sandman?"

"Indeed, Prime Minister," the emperor replied, "Sandman is my secret weapon, much like SPARC is yours... only my weapon is foolproof. All your army will be hypnotized to the point of completely abandoning their posts and following my orders, with total disregard for yours and your generals. Those not readily spellbound will be eliminated."

This statement from Emperor Li shocked everyone in the room; everyone except Shui and Xing. He motioned for them to come forward, and they stood beside Tresser and Susan.

"Dr. Qiang, you will hypnotize the prime minister into divulging the information."

"Your majesty," said Shui, patiently, "you do not appreciate the nuances of hypnotism. I can suggest any number of things to my subjects, which they will be compelled to carry out, but when we are considering something that a man has a deeply felt subconscious conviction against it is fairly impossible."

"You ordered the guards who were assigned to protect the Sarrillian leader to betray him – something they would surely be against," Li pointed out.

"Ah, yes, by their outward claims...but were they deeply, wholeheartedly against it?" Shui smiled as he adjusted his eyeglasses. "I specially selected those who I observed were subconsciously more loyal to themselves than their duty. I am afraid Prime Minister Tresser does not conform to this category."

Emperor Li was getting annoyed. "You will attempt to coerce him anyway."

"No," stated Shui.

Li stared at him.

"I fail to see how it would further my research," Shui explained by way of justification.

The emperor was seething. "Were you not chosen by the white cat," he responded, "you might have been shot for your insolence." Without another word to the hypnotist, he directed his attention anew to the prime minister.

"Kneel," said Li, "to your conquerors."

Tresser held his head high and stood straight in defiance. "I refuse," he countered.

Li turned to the guards and at a motion, they seized Tresser; he struggled, but was struck and forced to the ground. "I see then, Emperor, this is how you achieve national unity... the same way you get such a high turnout of civilians for you at those parades," the prime minister snapped.

The statement ended in a suppressed gasp when Li pressed the lit cigarette against Tresser's neck. Samantha flinched to see the scene play out – it called to mind the hours of agony she and Dave had once endured. Li's eyes moved briefly towards her, and back towards the prime minister.

"Leave him be!" cried Susan to no avail.

Li had a smirk; he twisted the cigarette mercilessly until he saw a grimace spread across Tresser's face.

He drew the cigarette away. "Do you think by presuming to defy the might of the Longguo empire, you will achieve anything?" Li reveled, and he waved his arm in a grand gesture, perhaps more ostentatiously than necessary for the benefit of the television camera. "You should be grateful, as the imprisoned leader of a defeated land, if I were to grant you a swift death. The Longguo Dragon has the Sarrillian Phoenix in a stranglehold!"

Tresser's amber eyes shone defiantly. "You may occupy Sarrilla, but you will never conquer it."

A meow from behind the emperor made them all look towards the sound. It was the cat, Esther.

"We cats play with our prey, but this is uncalled for."

Esther had leapt up to sit on the gold throne, her blue eyes narrow and judgmental. "I insist you cease tormenting this prisoner immediately!" she said flattening her ears in annoyance.

Emperor Li smiled, "If it amuses the cat of the legend. We shall grant his excellency some time to consider his position... as well as his coming fate."

At a motion from the emperor, the guards pulled Tresser onto his feet, and Li proceeded to pet Esther on the head. He then took notice of the animal's shimmering collar.

"What stones are these, set in your collar?" he inquired of the feline.

"They're crystals," she answered.

"Crystal? I shall not hear of it, for a royal pet to be attired in a gem so commonplace! You will be given a collar of diamonds!"

To this Esther purred happily.

"At least Esther's found favor with him," muttered Dave to Samantha.

"If I know Esther," Samantha whispered back at him, "She has been trying to figure out his innermost thoughts."

Emperor Li tossed the lighter back at Tresser, and glanced at the scientists again. "General Wu, you shall accompany Dr. Qiang Shui and Xing to their office, so as to permit them to peruse any dossier that might aid in my endeavor."

"Presuming we intend to aid you," Shui pointed out.

Li ignored this statement and when Shui and Xing had been led out of the throne room, he turned to Samantha and Dave.

"Leave us," he ordered, "I have a few words for the prime minister and his secretary, which I wish to say to them alone."

"You said we could cover this news unimpeded," the reporter quickly sprang to point out. "Reneging so soon?"

"Even in democracies, officials sometimes meet behind closed doors," came the emperor's response. "Is this not so, Miss West?"

Her green eyes were narrow with annoyance. "Yes, this is true," Samantha was forced to admit.

"Esther, you have walked about the palace," Li turned to the cat, "Please show West and Candid where the video room is. It has a connection with the state channels; they may use it to edit their film and televise. Miss West, Mr. Candid, the equipment and editing programs are not very different from what you use at WCAT, I am told. You are free to break into scheduled programming when you are ready for your broadcast. I would, in fact, like you to do a preliminary report with what you have already," he added.

He seemed to have the whole thing planned out.

"When you're done with your chat," said Samantha, "I'd like to interview both you and the prime minister."

"You may do so after Esther shows you where to broadcast from." His eyes fell upon Filbert the squirrel and Whitmore the dog. "The two of you shall go with them."

Filbert gladly hopped on Dave's shoulder, but Whitmore glanced first at Susan and then at Tresser.

"It's ok, Whitmore," assured Susan and, at an agreeing nod from Tresser, he duly trotted towards the television crew.

Esther gave a meow and a swish of her tail, and hopping down from the throne led the way out. When the two journalists and the animals had left, Li turned back to Tresser and Susan.

"You seem to have taken a shine to the television crew," Tresser observed.

"The journalists are my private interest," said Li cryptically, "owing to their investigation of my fox fur industry."

"So you do plan something for them, then."

"Does this concern you?"

"Not much. Still they are Sarrillian citizens, even if they're news media. Aren't you concerned of what might befall the delegation members you left behind?"

"They are a petty sacrifice. I have no further need for them; they served their purpose," Li dismissed. He considered his high-profile captive for just a moment before saying, "You will give us the transceiver, and tell us the code to operate it, soon enough. You know fully well what we are capable of."

Tresser spoke calmly. "I know more than my secretary. If you are so certain that you can motivate me to talk then why did you bother to take her hostage?"

"Beautiful things have always been among the spoils of war..." As he spoke, he outstretched a hand and stroked Susan's cheek; she shrank back from him. Almost instinctively, Tresser stepped in between them.

Emperor Li seemed amused by the reaction.

"The war hasn't been won yet," said Tresser simply.

"I have the enemy's leader as my prisoner," Li motioned towards him. "I have killed his second-in-command. The enemy's forces have not launched a rescue operation or attempted to strike Longguo; this means they not only have no inclination of where you were taken, they're currently scurrying about like frightened rabbits. Invasion of the Sarrillian land at this stage will be but a coup de grâce!"

Tresser was quiet, and pensive.

"You see, Prime Minister," the emperor continued, "resisting in relinquishing the transceiver and code is noble but futile. I have devised the perfect strategy to bring my perfect political system into global power..."

"Your perfect dystopia you mean," interrupted Tresser.

Emperor Li studied him. "Yes," he stated unashamedly.

"One thing has always escaped me about you. Is your regime fascist or communist?" Tresser asked.

"Neither, and both," smirked Li. "They are the same. That is the great triumph of the autocratic regime! The working classes believe we seek the best for them; we do not. The wealthy believe we seek their own best interests; we do not. Yet by maintaining this belief in both great benefactors – the worker and the wealthy man, I can rule indefinitely. I am garnering the blind loyalty of both, while harming both, and furthering myself. The only people who truly benefit from this sort of political system are in fact myself and my closest, carefully chosen associates...who themselves are aligned out of overwhelming fear. Certainly, even in your government you can say that a small group rules. What else is the majority party in parliament? Sarrillian politics are inefficient though; every so often the ruling party is cast out of power, at the whims of the masses you are supposed to govern. We have a more complete hold over the populace, excellency. We have eliminated the free press, open discourse, those things that could let them know this."

The prime minister's amber eyes focused steadily on the emperor as he replied, "You don't care about your people or your nation. You care only about yourself. What a miserable pathetic leader you are."

"That, Prime Minister..." replied the emperor, "is a pointless opinion, because I rule this land and soon will rule your territory as well."

With a motion by Li, the guards surrounded Tresser and Susan, and they were escorted out of the throne room.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Chapter 20 - Flight from the Imperial Palace

Prime Minister Tresser and his secretary Susan were locked back in the holding room where, despite two Longguo guards being assigned to watch the doorway, they were otherwise alone. Susan sat on the bed, watching a frustrated Tresser pace.

"I should have listened to you, Susan, about Richard's treachery. Besides that, whatever made me think Li genuinely wished to make amends?" Tresser questioned.

"It's not your fault, Prime Minister. You had to give him the benefit of doubt...both of them." Susan glanced away for a moment and then added, "Diplomacy was always your policy, after all."

Tresser stopped pacing and as he sat down beside her, he said resentfully, "If he were alive, I'd punch him in the nose."

"May he rest in peace," added Susan.

"I've got to figure out what to do now," the prime minister thought aloud.

She leant forward and whispered to him, "We could try to escape."

"Escape from the Longguo imperial palace?" Tresser replied with urgency, "The place is as fortified as the prime ministerial mansion back in Sarrilla."

"They got through our defenses," was the quick answer.

Tresser cringed. It was true; he told himself it was the fault of the opposition's obstinacy and refusal to cooperate with his defense reforms, yet Tresser couldn't help but feel he himself had not done enough to avert this military catastrophe.

Susan continued emphatically, "If they got through our defenses, we can get through theirs. We simply have to figure out where they're weak."

"Well," Tresser figured, "it's better than waiting for help from home." Indeed, help might never come. Personally, he lamented the lack of a contingency plan, but nothing could be done about it except hope in the capable ministers he had left behind. At the same time, he knew what folly that was. "Li's right, to a point. If our people haven't mobilized by now, they're probably running in circles."

"He did seem to think things through," Susan admitted.

"Those conspiring Longguo snakes," Tresser scowled.

"At least they weren't able to find the SPARC transceiver. I'm glad. We've got something to hold over them." Susan added.

"They'll torture us," stated Tresser blandly.

They were both quiet for a long moment. In an attempt perhaps to allay their fears, Susan did not answer this, but rather opted to underscore the more optimistic issue of the transceiver.

"It must be plainly hidden, for them not to find it. It must be right in front of them," she whispered.

"As plain as a spark of light," Tresser said, allowing himself to smile.

He was fiddling with the lighter; the flame leapt out and then receded. Susan observed this with growing insight but said nothing.

They didn't have to wait long for Shui and Xing to arrive. The scientists had little to say, other than reaffirmations that they had no plans to help the emperor. A few minutes later Filbert and Whitmore came; Esther was absent.

The squirrel was riding on the little dog, and hopped down as the guards shut the door behind them. Whitmore ran first to Tresser and then to Susan, his tail wagging with delight to see them again.

"Where is Esther?" inquired Shui.

"She's hanging out with Samantha and Dave," said Filbert, "They're filming the emperor. He's so pompous I got fed up and decided to head here to see what everyone else is up to."

"You're lucky; anyone else would be shot for saying such a thing," Xing noted.

Filbert was not done with his political comments. "He gives speeches even more longwinded than you, Prime Minister."

"Thanks for your sincere observation," the prime minister answered. "I'll keep that in mind if we ever get out of here."

Then Samantha, Dave, and Esther the cat showed up at the door.

"Did you put all that footage from the throne room on TV?" Xing asked them.

"Most of it, and the abduction. Prime Minister in Peril! That's our headline," the news reporter announced.

"We considered saying something about the world watching the international fiasco, but we decided that wouldn't be balanced," Dave explained.

"A remarkable observation," said Shui.

Susan replied civilly. "I think the foreign office would categorically deny it's a fiasco."

"I categorically want a cigarette," Tresser flatly decided.

"From what we got off the wires, your press secretary has issued a statement telling the public not to panic," Samantha informed.

"Oh no," Tresser seemed to recoil, and would not elaborate as to the nature of his dismay.

"Either way, if that bulletin has been broadcast," said Susan, with a glance at Tresser, "that means our cabinet ministers and generals have seen it."

The squirrel was jumping around, more interested in another topic. "How'd the interview with the emperor go?" asked Filbert.

Samantha was cheerful. "We got some great sound bites from that interview with Emperor Li. He says he thinks he'll have taken over all Sarrilla by the end of the week, if not sooner."

"They've got a pretty good broadcast set-up too," added Dave. "We were able to get ahold of our Tropical Island headquarters, so they'll be waiting for whenever we air our big report here to pick up the telecast nationally."

"Because if we're going to die, we might as well lead the five o'clock program," said the prime minister with a look of disgust.

"We were actually planning for the News at Noon," replied Samantha obliviously.

Tresser looked annoyed. "Sometimes I wonder if you members of the media have any sense of patriotism." When Dave looked like he was about to reply, Tresser recanted somewhat, "Yes, yes, I know the old adage. That journalism itself, done well, is patriotic. No one besides media believe it, though."

"Bickering won't help," Susan said mildly. It was the first time she had ever seemed to confront her boss, and she suddenly became self-conscious of the fact. "I-I mean...with respect, Prime Minister. We can't escape unless we work as a team."

"We're not going to escape," decided Tresser.

"Kind of dour, don't you think?" Filbert posited.

"Actually, quite logical, however," Shui considered, "as the palace is heavily guarded, the soldiers are well-armed, failed escape would likely mean harsher conditions upon return..."

"Point taken, Shui," said Filbert.

The prime minister had something else in mind. Tresser pulled at the cigarette lighter until a portion of it swung out as an antenna. The rest of it opened up as emitting a holographic energy screen that displayed a homolosine map of the planet.

"What are you doing?" Samantha asked.

"Stopping a war. I'm going to obliterate Longguo, before they can launch their attack against Sarrilla."

There was silence for a moment as the realization of what this meant sank in. Esther the cat was the one who voiced the unanimous thought.

"We're currently in Longguo."

"The emperor intends to kill us anyway. We may as well die with dignity. If I didn't do this the only thing ahead are years of pointless warfare that will almost certainly result in Sarrilla's destruction. Emperor Li is correct when he says the nation is already at a disadvantage by being leaderless."

While the prime minister spoke, he tapped the energy field and drew a line across the Longguo perimeters. As he did so, the area was covered in red, highlighting the entire country as the photon ray's target. A message flashed on the screen:

AUTHENTICATE

Everyone stared at the prime minister.

"You say the code and...that's it?" Susan asked tentatively.

"That's it," he affirmed.

"No!" screeched Esther the cat, and without hesitation leapt to seize the device from Tresser. Her jaws closed on it, and it snapped shut into its lighter form as her paws hit the ground.

The cat spun about growling, her back arched, to face the humans defiantly. "Esther, give that back," demanded the prime minister.

Susan did not wait. She lunged to try to catch the cat, who sprang nimbly away and began running in circles around the room. Shui and Xing tried to assist the secretary, but Esther ended up weaving around them all to halt at the feet of the television crew. Whitmore was barking furiously but did nothing.

"Get that cat!" said a desperate Tresser to Samantha and Dave.

"I'm getting her!" said Dave happily, his camera pointed at Esther.

Tresser scowled at the two journalists. Of course, he thought, why would I imagine the media would ever help?

The door was then flung open, unexpectedly; the two Longguo guards appeared at the entryway and Esther immediately bolted out the door with the lighter still clutched in her jaws.

"What the hell is going on in here?" said one of the guards.

Tresser did not hesitate, swinging his fist and striking the soldier squarely on the jaw. He stumbled back as the captives immediately bolted out of the room to chase after Esther.

Esther was at the far end of the hallway, but when she saw the little group coming her eyes widened and she ran off, leaping up the stairway.

"Whitmore, get her!" called Susan, and the little dog gleefully pursued the cat.

Whitmore was in the lead as they all hurried outside into the garden. Esther was racing happily across a bridge that extended over a small pond when Whitmore reached her. Startled by the dog, Esther gave a screech and vaulted in mid-air.

The transceiver was dropped on the ground and snatched up by Shui. Tresser hurried over to take the item yet surprisingly, Shui stepped back.

"Wait a moment, Prime Minister. Isn't committing suicide to destroy Longguo a bit extreme?" Shui postulated.

"We're in an extreme situation," Tresser replied.

"It's not worth it," said Shui.

"I'll decide that," declared Tresser. "I have a responsibility to the people of my nation."

Shui smiled. "Fascinating what patriotism, like any other deeply held ethical conviction, can drive a man to. A comparison of your psychology and that of Miss West in this vein would be quite intriguing..." Samantha was standing between them, shifting the microphone from one to the other while Dave filmed.

Tresser was not amused. "Give me the transceiver, Dr. Qiang."

The conversation was broken up by Tresser's secretary.

"No one's noticed we're outside!" exclaimed Susan.

This was premature as the clamor of soldiers reached them from the interior of the palace. The Longguo soldiers raced out and raised their rifles; bullets struck the pathway before the escaped prisoners as all jostled to flee. Esther hissed her disapproval loudly.

The lieutenant cried out:

"Don't shoot! You'll hit the cat!"

This halted the gunfire enough for Esther to dash towards the gate leading to the woodland, and the others followed with the relentless soldiers after them.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

During all this, Emperor Li was in his study. General Wu appeared at the doorway.

"They are fleeing into the forest, your majesty."

A triumphant grin spread on Li's face.

"Excellent..." he murmured.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Chapter 21 - Wilderness of a Foreign Land

Tresser's breath was coming short as he ran through the forest, his muscles aching with the effort of trying to force fleetness. He did not have the stamina anymore of when he was twenty and in the navy.

The Longguo soldiers were not far behind, calling to each other and pushing through the bracken. Even if there was not shooting anymore, it did not necessarily mean they would be brought back unharmed; Tresser could picture the soldiers catching up and clubbing them viciously with batons. He then heard barking dogs join with the sounds of men, and batons at once seemed favorable when compared to mauling fangs. If I'd had more wine at the gala, Tresser thought, I'd think all this nightmare was the liquor.

Esther had fallen back for Shui and Xing to lead the way. Filbert the squirrel clung to the cat's back like a jockey atop a racehorse, as Whitmore followed them tenaciously. Tresser and Susan were behind them – and then there were Samantha and Dave, who seemed dually interested in getting a good camera angle of their pursuers and keeping pace with the escaping prisoners. If anything, Tresser's frustration at the television crew's indifference to the hazards besetting the group somehow gave impetus, and his stride hastened.

They ran as fast as they could, pushing their way through bushes until they reached a precipice. It was a steep drop down, with moss-covered rocks piled at the bottom, and thorny bushes clinging to the cliffside as if to affirm there would be no escape that way.

"Now what?" Dave asked. They all stared at each other.

The approaching soldiers could be heard rushing through the foliage, their attack dogs baying like hounds on the hunt.

"This way!" Susan announced, as she now took charge.

Susan led the group lengthwise along the chasm till they found an area where the land sloped in such a way they could descend. It was covered by bracken, hiding the escape route from their pursuers. At the very bottom of the cliff, they ducked into a thicket.

Here they waited until the soldiers above could no longer be heard.

Collective relief settled on them visibly. Tresser permitted himself to lean back against one of the trees, gathering his breath as he surveyed his small group of companions.

His secretary, the two defecting scientists, the television crew, and three little animals – a cat, a dog, and a squirrel. It was an eclectic band, especially with himself in the mix; however, truth was often found stranger than fiction and this motley alliance now found themselves lost together in the mountainous forests of Longguo.

No one wished to break the shaky silence at first, till finally Susan decided to. "I think we're safe for now," she uttered.

"Hopefully," Tresser replied.

Whitmore gave a bark and pushed out of the thicket, leading them all down a thin path away from the cliff.

They arrived at an area cleared of underbrush and dotted with large boulders. Trees spread out like a canopy overhead, and soft birdsong reached their ears from the topmost branches.

Filbert hopped up onto a rock and appraised the little group before giving a decided nod.

"It inevitably falls on me as the lone squirrel to lead us to the border and safety."

"Ffftt," was Esther's reply.

The squirrel directed his attention at Tresser. "Prime Minister... I think the moment has come for you to tell everyone about the secret squirrel society. Maybe then they would stop harassing you and take you seriously. As a squirrel, I can authorize your disclosing it."

"There's no secret squirrel society," was Tresser's sole response.

Filbert chattered in annoyance. "Mistake," he muttered to himself but the cat heard him and hissed.

"Stop bothering the man... he's got enough problems and this would just add to them. Besides, there is no squirrel society! Hisssss...grrrr," Esther ended with a growl.

"That's a pretty good growl Esther," the dog noticed.

"Yes Whitmore... we all know how to growl at the proper time," said Esther with a purr.

"If we could get to an ally's embassy," Tresser thought aloud, "then we would have safety... but we're better off keeping to the forest. They'll expect us to go into the town, where we'd be easy to spot."

"So where do we go?" asked Samantha.

"Left!" declared Filbert.

"Right!" meowed Esther.

"I say left," Filbert complained.

"I'm the prophecy cat, and I say we head right." purred Esther.

"Prophecy cat, who's going to bring good fortune to the empire, aka Longguo, aka Li..." Filbert chattered.

Esther hissed loudly at him.

"I say left." Filbert reiterated.

"...and I say right," Esther insisted.

"Can we quit the left-and-right debate? I get enough of that in parliament," Tresser broke in. "I say we head straight ahead."

"I agree," Susan chimed in. "Judging from the sun, that way would be north, so eventually we'll reach the Sarrillian border."

I should have thought of that, the prime minister realized with a wince. "Yes, exactly as I was thinking," he claimed instead, and glanced at the others diplomatically. "What do you think?"

"I support my human!" barked Whitmore.

"Us?" Samantha asked mischievously. She and Dave grinned at Tresser. "We're filming the mess you get into. Don't mind us."

Shui straightened his eyeglasses, speaking for himself and Xing. "We're doing important research. I have no wish to impose a new variable upon your decisions yet. Carry on."

"Majority rules," declared Susan, and Whitmore the dog then led them onward.

Esther purred, and tagged after. "So long as we're not doing it the squirrel's way, I'm in."

"This is why the country is in such a mess right now," complained Filbert, pursuing them.

The journey through the woods began. It was more difficult for the women, who still wore high heels from the state gala, but going barefoot would be worse in this thorny terrain. Nonetheless, out of everyone there – man, woman, or animal – no one was complaining about their lot except for Prime Minister Tresser.

"So many years in university for a political science degree, more years in the navy, then being elected to parliament..." Tresser was griping, "first on the backbenches, then in the opposition shadow cabinet, then elected party leader...finally becoming prime minister of the greatest nation on the face of the planet... to wander around in a damn jungle."

"Shit happens," said Dave matter-of-factly.

"I can't believe we didn't think to get the rifles from those Longguo soldiers back there," continued Tresser.

"Which Longguo soldiers?" Samantha inquired.

"The ones guarding the room where we were being held."

"We don't need rifles," declared Filbert airily.

"I would have liked to shoot back," Tresser answered with some irritation.

"Still sore over that dart?" Samantha pried, microphone at the ready.

"Yes, my arm is still sore."

Shui piped up. "I believe they were referring to the emotional rather than the physiological..."

"It's all good, Shui," said the prime minister.

Samantha spoke again, with a relentless buoyancy. "Prime Minister, you know what I tell myself when I feel annoyed at everyone?"

"Fuck everything?"

"That too, actually..." Samantha noticed. "No, I remember, no matter how bad things get...they can always get worse."

"What a novel way of lifting one's spirits," Tresser said dryly. "Anyway I don't see how much worse..."

He was drowned out by a thunderclap, and rain suddenly poured onto their heads.

"Wet water!" screeched Esther, and hid in the leafy underbrush.

"Scaredy cat!" Filbert chattered.

Tresser looked at the others with a grimace. "This would be a comedy if it wasn't so tragic."

"We've got to find shelter somewhere," said Xing.

"Over here!" Susan called.

They looked over to see her standing some paces away at the narrow mouth of a cave. She waved to them, and they hurried over to her.

"There had better not be a bear in here," said Dave, as they sought refuge from the rainstorm.

"It looks safe enough," Susan remarked, "I think we can hide out here for a while. What do you think, your excellency?"

"I think we've got better chances with the bear than with Li the conqueror," replied Tresser, deadpan. "We have nowhere else to wait out the storm. We may as well spend it here."

At this point, Shui addressed Tresser. "Prime Minister... I believe this belongs to you," he handed Tresser the lighter adding, "I apologize not returning it earlier but you did not have a steady mindset."

"Thanks Shui. You did the right thing," admitted Tresser as he shook hands with the scientist.

The cavern looked very deep. The group split up to await the rain's end, yet no one strayed too far in. Tresser and Susan sat separate from the others, on an elongated boulder closest to where the cave opened. Here they could watch the storm in relative dryness, save for the slightest mist of droplets upon their skin when the wind shifted. Whitmore hung around them, with an almost aimless quality more befitting a stray dog than one who had a master.

The patter of the rainfall outside might have been soothing in the safety of Sarrilla, yet here it was inexplicably unnerving to Tresser; to be out in this enemy land where death surely awaited, and now the rain to contend with, as if even nature opposed them. A flash of nearby lightning with almost instantaneous thunder briefly illuminated the cavern and their features, like some foreboding of an even worse thing to come.

Curiosity came over Tresser gradually. "You know, I don't think you'd ever told me about your family."

"There's no one," she shook her head slightly.

"No one?"

His secretary gazed a little blandly, contemplatively, outside to the rain and did not reply.

"Well, you have Whitmore," he offered.

"That's true," Susan said, appearing to cheer up, as she glanced at the little dog.

Whitmore looked back at her before lying down at Tresser's heels. Susan considered this silently with inscrutable eyes, and then looked down at the floor.

"It's my own fault, really; I don't interact as much as I ought to with my pet."

Pity stabbed at Tresser. "Don't feel bad. If one good thing can come out of all this, you get to spend more time together."

Her eyes lifted to face him, and fell upon the cigarette burn on his neck. It was a distinctively small and round-shaped red mark.

"That must still hurt," she murmured.

Tresser tried to diminish it. "At least if we ever get back to Sarrilla the bandage won't be very noticeable where it is."

"The burn is starting to blister," she said. "We'll need something sharp. Maybe one of my earrings."

"This might be sturdier," the prime minister offered, removing the flag pin on the lapel of his jacket.

He handed her the pin, together with the cigarette lighter. Susan set fire to the point of the needle and when it had blackened, she returned the lighter to him and leant over gingerly with the pin.

Tresser winced at the smarting that followed the piercing of the blister, but the procedure was quick and when it was done, Susan handed him back the pin without much comment.

He looked out at the rain, which had no inclination of weakening. "It seems there's not much interest among this group about safeguarding Sarrilla and getting back," Tresser said.

"You can't force patriotism," she noted.

"If it were so easy, of at least saying we could all pool our qualities towards a goal. Our goals are different. Consider Dr. Qiang, for instance. He has his own vendetta," added the prime minister, "namely that his father was done away with by Li. His wife can be expected to align with him. Meanwhile West and Candid are merely two members of the media out looking for a story..."

"What can we expect, your excellency?" replied Susan, "We're just going to have to find a way to work together if we hope to get back home. Whatever their motives are."

The prime minister sighed, and looked over at her.

"Really, the only person here who I know is on my side is you, Susan."

Susan gave a small smile at the compliment; she could tell he was being sincere. "Thank you, Prime Minister. That does mean a lot."

She was completely surprised when he handed her the lighter.

"Even though they didn't realize the item they sought was the cigarette lighter, doesn't mean they won't confiscate it if we happen to be recaptured," Tresser said. "I noticed the Longguo guards only searched me for the transceiver, so I suspect it might be safer in your hands. Then all I've got to do is protect the code to activate the weapon."

Susan took the little silver lighter from him dutifully, but she was uncertain. "Are you sure you want me to hold on to this for you?" she asked, noticeably concerned.

Tresser nodded.

"I know it might sound like something of a cliché," he added, "but that lighter is of vital importance to the nation."

"I know," said Susan, seriously.

They embraced, finding solace despite it all in togetherness. "For as awful as this situation is," murmured Tresser, "I'm glad you're here with me."

Seeing the storm was getting stronger, Tresser and Susan eventually went to find the others. They encountered them congregating not far away and in the midst of a conversation. Esther was nowhere to be seen, while Filbert was standing upright on a boulder listening intently to the farthest depths of the cavern.

"I surmise it must be at least three days to the border," Shui postulated, "so we'll have to find our food in the woods."

"I am getting rather hungry," Xing admitted.

Samantha turned towards her companion. "Dave, do we have any of those breadsticks we got at the state gala?"

"All out," Dave replied.

Susan looked questioning. "You took breadsticks from the gala?"

"They weren't feeding the press," Dave justified.

"Count your blessings," responded Tresser.

"Not to fear, lowly humans," came Esther's meow. They glanced over to see the Persian cat trotting over happily with a limp mouse dangling from her jaws. Esther threw it down before them.

"Mouse. Tonight we eat good."

"Yeah..." said Samantha, "No thanks...I'll pass."

Without warning, the mouse appeared to revive and ran away as fast as he could. "You stupid feline," the rodent laughed.

"Damn it, I thought you were dead!" hissed Esther racing after the rodent.

"Esther, that probably pairs well with a side dish of wriggling octopus," Tresser called after her.

Whitmore barked, "I'll help you corner him, Esther!"

"Whitmore, stay!" Susan shouted, yet the dog had already chased after Esther and the escaping mouse.

"Which returns us to the matter of our want for food," said Shui, addressing the others.

Susan swung around to face the group; her eyes looked full of worry. "We'd better follow them. What if they get lost?"

"Might be a good idea," Filbert now commented, "This cavern is deep. I can hear something distant... not sure what."

"There probably is a bear in here," Dave grumbled, illuminating the way with the light atop the television camera.

Susan went ahead of them all, at a brisk pace almost a run, till they found Esther and Whitmore both poking at a crevice in the side of the cave wall behind a rock. The ground in the mousehole seemed to slant downward, but neither of the two small carnivores could reach the mouse in its narrow hideaway.

"Damn rodents have a hidden tunnel running under the cave," Esther was growling.

"We gotta dig him out," declared Whitmore, his terrier instincts at the forefront.

Esther purred. "Ok, dog, here's what we do..."

"Whitmore, there you are! Don't run off like that!" Susan scooped up the fox terrier, who gave her face an acknowledging lick but was notably more preoccupied with the cave's rodent situation.

"Where would we be if we got separated from you? We'd probably get lost," Tresser said, to which Whitmore, his interest in mice suddenly dispelled, wagged his tail happily at him.

"Oh no! Humans!"

They looked up to the very top of the cave walls to see a small flock of little, dark-feathered birds with big black eyes. The birds were perched on the edge of tight nests fastened somehow to the face of the rock.

"We finished building these. We have eggs. Begone, humans," squawked a bird.

Filbert questioned, "What the fuck? What's with the birds?"

"We're swiftlets. We live here."

"We're trying to get out of the rain. We'll head on our way after the storm passes," assured Shui.

"Sure...after you steal our nests again!" chirped the swiftlet.

"Again?"

"Bunch of humans came in here and yanked our nests off the cave walls. It's a miracle none of us lost eggs."

Tresser's amber eyes were wide. "Then those nests in that dessert weren't from farmed birds?"

The swiftlet flock gave a united chirp of astonishment. "You humans put our nests in dessert?"

"That damn tyrant Li! He did it again!" Tresser exclaimed, "Messing with endangered animals! ...and making me look like I'm going along with it."

"If you leave our nests alone, we'll tell you something good," tweeted the swiftlet.

"We have no interest in your nests..." the prime minister began to say, but Samantha got ahead of him.

"Deal," she told the birds, "What do you know?"

"The deep recesses of this cave contain a secret," sang the swiftlet. "We call it the grotto of revelations."

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Chapter 22 - Grotto of Revelations

Tresser led the group down the dark cavern, with Esther padding alongside him with her tail high, and Samantha and Dave directly behind shining the way with the television camera's light. Filbert was right about having heard something in the cave depths: water.

Thin lines of water cascaded down at intervals from the top of the cave walls. These narrow waterfalls then met, drawn through channels that had evidently been carved in the rock by man, which carried the water on either side of the downward-sloping path they followed. It was not a steep incline, yet it was enough to tell they must certainly be going below ground.

"I wonder if we're doing the right thing exploring deep into the cave like this," said Xing dubiously, "we don't know where it leads exactly."

"But aren't you curious about what the birds said? Even a little?" Susan urged.

Shui spoke up receptively. "It might be worth examining."

"There's definitely a story here," Samantha agreed.

"...and we're going to get it all on camera!" added Dave.

Tresser glanced back at them briefly. "At this point we don't know where we are in the forest anyway. I say let's press on."

The animals still had their ears alert to some sound in the cave depths, unheard to the humans.

"I still hear something," the squirrel chattered. "Pebbles or something."

"I hear it too. More of those damn rodents," hissed Esther.

"I hear something faintly," Whitmore barked.

"You're not trying hard enough," Esther meowed. "You canines have hearing as sharp as us felines."

"Are you sure those are mice, Esther?" Filbert inquired.

"Got to be," mewed the cat.

"They sound louder than mice," said the squirrel.

"They're fat mice."

"That's still too loud for mice."

"There's no scent here," Whitmore interjected.

"Except for mice," Esther licked her lips.

Filbert was insistent. "Can't be mice."

"What do you think they are?" Esther flattened her ears.

"Bats," declared Filbert.

Esther hissed. "Those are flying mice."

"Why don't we continue ahead and see what we find?" Whitmore yapped, tail wagging, as he tried to settle the dispute.

The cave tunnel suddenly grew brighter, till it opened out into a grotto. The roof was made of some kind of glass, and the sunlight filtered through water above to create ethereal patterns on the cave floor, while the water channels that had followed the path with them now divided to encircle the octagonal area. The group could once or twice discern the silhouettes of koi swimming peaceably overhead.

"This has to be the so-called grotto of revelations," marveled Susan. "It's beautiful... I wonder who designed it?"

"We're underneath the palace pond," Dave realized.

"I didn't know of this grotto," commented Xing.

"What's this?" Filbert's voice from the farthest end of the cave made them all turn.

Two jade statues - one of a dragon, the other of a phoenix - seemed to stand vigil over a column of ancient Chinese writing also carved into jade. Above was the image of a cat engraved in a circle of shimmering white nacre. The water streams joined into one here and vanished behind the jade, falling down a crevice as if to a subterranean river.

"There's a cat drawn here, so it must be important," Esther meowed. She padded over and stood below the dragon statue, balancing briefly on her hind paws to get a close look first at the cat, then at the outstretched paw of the dragon. "Say, this looks weakened or something. This place must be very old."

"Look at the writing!" Whitmore barked, gazing up at the inscribed words.

Samantha translated the Chinese. "It says... 'The glory of Longguo awaits the white cat from abroad, with eyes pure and vivid like sapphires. The cat brings good fortune to the empire. The cat will interpret the mandate of heaven; the four she selects will interpret these words. The cat is fifth, the completion.' "

Shui gave some insight. "You see, in Oriental tradition, five is an important number. There are five elements and virtues. It is sort of a number of destiny."

"There's also writing below this inscription," remarked Dave, "but this part's not written in Chinese."

Shui was the one who read it to them.

"Unravel the pearl's unknown

for on you, rest dragon and phoenix fate

as does revelation of the throne

the one to assume, the other to await -

Yet only when the white cat issues her decree

Shall unite the nations of Longguo and Sarrilla."

"That last part doesn't rhyme," noted a disapproving squirrel.

Tresser was more concerned with the significance of the inscription. "Unite the nations...Does that mean, under one banner?"

"Who knows," murmured Xing.

"I've got to make a decree," purred a cheerful Esther.

"But if you're the four people chosen by the cat..." Susan postulated, as she faced the television crew and the scientists, "and Esther is the cat of the prophecy...then you'll be able to determine what it says...couldn't you?"

Dave looked dubious. "There can't be veracity to this, can there?"

"Emperor Li seems to think it," Susan put forth.

"You're right, Susan," Tresser agreed, "and what's more...if he places so much importance on this legend, then it's incumbent upon us to find out whatever it signifies before he does."

"Do you think it might aid our escaping Longguo?" Shui asked.

"Possibly," said Tresser.

"Learning anything the emperor doesn't already know would definitely help," Susan said with conviction.

The four people chosen by Esther turned back to the enigmatic ancient words.

"Well, it's obviously something...um...unknown," decided Samantha. "Like it says."

Shui studied the words. "Dragon and phoenix are probably referring to Longguo and Sarrilla. Those are their national symbols."

"So that means the fate of the countries depend on our unravelling this?" Dave glanced at him circumspectly.

"That's worrisome," Samantha said.

"I have faith in you, chosen humans," Esther purred importantly.

Samantha looked over at the fluffy white cat. "Esther why couldn't you have picked someone else? We're supposed to be impartial."

"Ffftt," replied Esther.

"What's all this about 'one assumes' blah blah blah?" Dave asked.

"I don't know. Skip it for now," decided Samantha.

"The easy way out," Shui smiled with a glance at his pocket watch.

"What about 'revelation of the throne'?" Samantha inquired.

"Revelation of something regarding the throne...the reign...learning who reigns...? Who reigns rightfully? Maybe?" Xing questioned.

"That does make a lot of sense, dear Xing," Shui said.

"You should've picked squirrels," Filbert interrupted.

"What?" Esther turned to him.

"Squirrels! We could unravel that prophecy better than humans any day." Filbert was adamant.

Whitmore gave a yap. "Don't squirrels have enough problems if they're supposed to run a secret government society?"

"Don't encourage him, dog," meowed Esther. "Let the humans sort this out."

"What we have so far," Shui summarized. "The four of us must determine who reigns rightfully because the fate of the two nations depends on it."

"Something, something, something, but Longguo and Sarrilla will combine anyway after an announcement by the white cat," added Dave.

Shui continued, "The key to finding out who the throne rightfully belongs to must be..."

"The actual pearl," Samantha exclaimed.

They all looked at her expectantly, and the reporter explained her deduction. "The cat on the dragon's pedestal is carved out of mother-of-pearl. It's the only object here made out of it."

"It does sound like it could unlock the secret," Shui agreed.

"I think that whole prophecy thing means more than only that," meowed Esther.

"They're the ones who are supposed to interpret it," Filbert pointed out.

"Yeah, but I'm the one who appointed them," hissed Esther. "I should have some say."

"Should've picked squirrels," reiterated Filbert.

"There's sulfur here," Xing commented. She was examining the edges of the stone wherein the mother-of-pearl was set.

"Dragons are usually depicted with a burning pearl as a sign of knowledge," recalled Shui.

"Pearls of wisdom," realized Tresser.

"Do we have to set fire to it?" Dave conjectured.

Susan leapt to speak in hurried enthusiasm. "We can use the lighter," she said, pulling the device out; then, almost embarrassed of her excitement, she glanced at the prime minister. "If you think that's all right, your excellency?"

"Certainly," Tresser agreed swiftly. He could see how enthralled she was by the mystery, and to an extent he was absorbed by it too.

Susan reached up to the mother-of-pearl circle with the cigarette lighter. A flare burst forth as flames surrounded the nacre, giving the image of a burning pearl between the phoenix and dragon statues; it seemed a striking sort of yin-and-yang in this underwater grotto, contrasting with the aquatic light patterns that played across the floor. Susan stepped back, and the little group watched in fascination.

The jade stone in the center, with a rumble, suddenly gave way to bare a panel of white marble. Etched in the marble was a single sentence written twice; once in the language of Longguo, once in the language of Sarrilla.

Samantha read the words aloud: "The man who leads Sarrilla is the heir to the Longguo throne."

There was a hush; everyone turned towards Tresser, who was staring at the ancient inscription in shock. "You're the true emperor?" Esther meowed.

"That can't be," Tresser said, seriously. "I don't have any ancestry from Longguo."

Susan was thoughtful. "Unless it was so far back, documentation of it was lost, and not passed down by word of mouth..."

Tresser shook his head adamantly. "But it's impossible! Besides, I have no loyalty to Longguo," he protested, as if it made a difference to the lineage.

"I bet that corrupt deputy PM Corbin knew something of it," Esther hissed, "It's all his fault we're in this mess now - that damn spy."

"Corbin?" Filbert chattered cheerfully. "Oh, no! There's no way that's who I heard on the phone! The spy couldn't possibly be Corbin!"

All eyes turned to the squirrel.

"What?" screeched Esther, "why not?"

"The emperor's spy was a woman," explained Filbert matter-of-factly.

There was a coldness that seemed to permeate the group as their entire image of what was going on became twisted and topsy-turvy. It coincided with the snap of a revolver being pointed at them...

Tresser was aghast. "Susan?!"

Susan smiled. "You fell for this so easily."

They were instantly surrounded by dozens of Longguo soldiers who sprang out of the darkness, having been lying in wait till the order. At their head stood their unlikely commander Susan Ferry, triumphant and delighted, aiming her gun point-blank at Tresser. The fox terrier Whitmore stood at attention beside her; it was a strange sight to see the little dog with such military poise.

"But Susan, why?" Tresser implored, "How?"

"Is it so hard to understand? I've been with the emperor all along," Susan explained easily. "His majesty has been very interested in this prophecy, and only those selected by the white cat could unravel its secrets. That's why we planned out this whole escape into the woods, for me to lead you here."

Tresser's mind was reeling, yet the puzzle did fit together in a ghastly sort of way. At that instant Whitmore snarled and leapt - at Susan.

The little dog bit her on the ankle and she dropped the miniature revolver out of surprise. "You damn canine!" she shrieked.

In the midst of this distraction, Esther leapt caterwauling onto the outstretched paw of the dragon statue; at once the floor underneath the encircled hostages gave way, and with exclamations of fear or surprise the whole little group suddenly plummeted down an abyss. Before the astounded spy and her soldiers could react, Esther and Whitmore bolted in after them.

Susan stood at the edge of the void and gazed down into the murkiness. It was not so profound that the fall would have killed them; the sound of rapids could be heard but not much else.

If there are rapids, there's an outlet, she thought. "Where does this lead?" Susan demanded.

"We don't know, commander," the lieutenant replied.

"You don't know?" She faced the soldier with such harshness that he cringed.

She turned back to the square-shaped opening in the center of the floor as the panels receded and the trap door was shut anew.

"We'll find them," she snapped to the guards that accompanied her, "The border is so guarded even the squirrel won't get by."

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

The small group washed ashore on the edges of the underground riverbank, where the rapids had pacified, some distance away from where they had fallen. Samantha coughed and tried to determine the whereabouts of her cameraman. She found him a short distance away, lying on his side.

"Dave!" she exclaimed, shaking him by the shoulder.

"I'm ok," he said as he pulled himself up with a groan, and the two of them immediately examined the television camera.

"Is everything alright?" Xing's voice reached them, and the two journalists glanced over to see she and Shui had pulled themselves out of the river.

"It's fine. Our TV equipment is waterproof," replied Dave with pride.

"Shui, your watch...?" Samantha inquired with worry.

"No problems," the hypnotist said, retrieving it from his vest pocket. "It's a miracle it's dry."

They reunited with Tresser a few paces away. He had pulled himself to a boulder along the side of the shoreline, and was looking worn out. The three little animals surrounded him at his heels; the cat Esther was licking herself dry, her blue eyes black with annoyance.

"Nice going, Filbert," hissed Esther, "You could've told us some time ago and we'd have been prepared for a shocking revelation."

"Can I help it if you jump to conclusions?" the squirrel countered, "Why'd you assume the secret agent was a guy?"

"Fascinating!" Shui spoke up analytically, "Susan Ferry was able to conceal her plot without even subtle hints of her perfidy. This merits further research."

"Whitmore," wondered Samantha, turning to the fox terrier, "How come you didn't defend your master?"

"Susan was never kind," the little dog whimpered, lying flat with his head on his paws. "She saw me as part of her image instead of as a friend."

"Why does Susan have something against the PM?" she asked him.

"Against the nation of Sarrilla - the PM's little more than an emblem to her," the dog explained, "She could work alongside him and the rest of her colleagues at the Sarrillian capital impersonally, then rage later in private on how the lot of them were self-righteous representatives of a decadent democracy and should be eliminated." Whitmore recalled her terminology with ease; he had heard it quite often. "I don't know why she's against Sarrilla. She wants to see the country fall, the more spectacularly the better."

The squirrel jumped into the conversation ready with another conspiracy. "Maybe she's Shui-ed."

"Certainly not," said Shui with affront.

"Poor misunderstood Shui," Samantha added.

"Susan's just a bitch, Filbert," hissed an irascible Esther.

"She has the lighter," said Whitmore dismally.

"She can't do anything without the code, right?" Filbert turned hopefully towards the prime minister, and his gaze was followed by the rest of the group.

Tresser looked sad. He gazed silently at the cigarette case he held and when he looked up at them, he said sarcastically:

"I can really pick my employees, can't I?"

No one knew what to say.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Chapter 23 - Dragon Consort

Pacing back and forth at the imperial palace, the emperor was fuming about the fact the guards had not brought back his prisoners and how the white cat had also gone missing. He was visibly upset and complaining to the general when Susan appeared at the doorway to his office.

"Wu!" he was saying, "How inept were the guards! They were supposed to not let them go farther than the grotto...I want them punished!"

The general kept silent. He knew better than to interrupt the emperor during one of his frequent tirades.

"No reason to worry," Susan said equably.

"You obviously have information for me, Commander. Speak up," Emperor Li demanded, and sat down behind his desk.

"This is of interest to you," she replied as she put the lighter on the desk before him. "They are hiding in the forest, that's for sure, but they cannot get across the border without being noticed. Eventually, they will be caught... and the cat went with them willingly."

"No matter if the cat went willingly. She's sacred. Do not even try to say something negative about her. It would bring a curse," the emperor said with a very serious tone. "I am, however, impressed by the fact you were able to secure the SPARC transceiver."

"The device was easier than I thought... as far as the cat is concerned, perhaps she is trying to persuade your prisoners to return," she evaluated.

"Leave now, General." Emperor Li told Wu. "I will summon you again when needed."

Emperor Li clapped his hands and dismissed Wu. The general left quickly, and Li turned his full attention to Susan.

"Come here my dear," the emperor said to her when they were alone. "You truly are my best treasure."

He walked to a map spread out on the center table and motioned her over to it.

"Perhaps our fugitives will head to the heavily populated places," he speculated.

"I very much doubt they will head for the cities," Susan observed, "Even if they were to seek refuge in a sympathetic nation's embassy, they would be too obvious on the way there."

The emperor nodded his head thoughtfully, adding, "Most of their supposed allies have abandoned them anyway. They most likely intend to head for the border through the woodland."

"Well," Susan commented, "The probability they take a route following the water channel is high... it's possible the underground rapids meet up with the river at the border. I believe many tributaries feed into the border river from up here on the mountain. That said, it's next to impossible to know which one of the many underground water outlets they emerged at. My guess is somewhere around here." She pointed to a spot on the map and added, "That's two to three days distance."

The emperor did not comment on this, instead, Li sat down at the chair situated before the table and looked at Susan steadily for a minute or two, then said, "I recall when you first visited Longguo some years back that I was still fomenting the political upheaval and we met. You comprehended what I meant of two nations with an entwined destiny, something that at the time very few of my associates had the foresight to even fathom."

"My reasons are the same then as now, your majesty... Revenge," she said almost matter-of-factly.

"Revenge..." Li thought out loud, "To me it was always power. I had set out for expansion alone... that is, till my plans were first foiled. Then, I too came to seek revenge."

He was pensive, and Susan spoke again.

"You know what motivates me," she said, "you've known it from the day we met. But I don't think you've ever told me what motivates you."

"There are men who are kings. Then there are great men whose names live on through their conquests," answered Li, "This is the difference between ruling an empire and building an empire. That is where my aspirations lie: the tribute of history."

"They say history is written by the victors," Susan observed.

"Which is why I must be victorious," replied Li, "But when anyone stands in the way of victory, that person must be dealt with mercilessly, as an example to others who would aspire alike. A great conqueror cannot afford failure and the inefficiency it produces towards his goal."

"Do you never fail, your majesty?"

"I always get my way," he said. "With the television crew it has been unexpectedly long in coming. But in the end, when Sarrilla is falling, I will get my way with them."

Susan's eyes drifted across the map, along the painted outline of the border river, as he continued speaking:

"It is a matter of war strategy and maneuvers. My best maneuver of all was allowing you to be my chief operative in Sarrilla. Susan Ferry...you are enticing."

This was the first time Li had unambiguously said anything of the kind to her. She lifted her gaze from the map; the emperor was regarding her again.

"As brilliant a spy as an actress. You gave a magnificent performance in front of the prime minister when you pulled away from my caress. Presumably that shows you are loyal to me."

Susan saw the opportunity she was waiting for. She had seen how, the few times they had met in person at international gatherings, he looked at her with desire in his eyes. It had been several months she had been using her flirtatious skills to groom him into seduction. Li might think he was seducing her, but the reality was it was she who had led the way. Now the moment had finally arrived.

She approached him, put her arms around his neck and gave him a deep firm kiss. "Was there ever any doubt?" she whispered to him.

"Never," he replied.

He took her hand and led her to a door situated near a far-left corner of his office. When opened, the door revealed an elegantly designed bedroom with a huge bed made of mahogany wood, mirrored walls, blue silk drapes that shone brilliantly when light hit them, and a bell by the bed that would summon servants to bring whatever food or beverage the emperor had a whim for. As they entered the room he let go of her hand and proceeded to remove the cloak he wore over his shirt and trousers.

Susan walked over to the bed and removing all her clothes, lay down and stretched her naked body on the cool sheets that covered the bed; she tipped to one side, facing him and saying, "Most satisfactory place for a grand leader such as yourself."

Following her lead, Li stripped naked and went to her. He lay on the bed beside her and embraced her.

"You are the most beautiful woman I have had in my arms," he said.

She responded by raking her fingernails down his back gently, making him shiver.

He did not answer, but kissed her passionately for a long time; Susan responded with the same vigor, and except for the occasional groan from either one, they had sex in silence. As their bodies entangled with passion and heat, the intensity made them both perspire. Li was practically insatiable and she realized that, as a lover, he was quite good. He had plenty of vigor for a man in his sixties and it made her wonder how many women were at his bid and call, and whether she would succeed in persuading him that she should be selected as the preferred one.

Eventually, he released her, looking down at her body and then into her eyes saying, "We shall drink to our moment of victory. The conquest of Sarrilla and the expansion of my realm."

The emperor turned away briefly and opening a drawer from the nightstand next to the bed, took out a small silver-tinted vessel and two equally small cups decorated with dragons. Susan watched carefully as he poured the content of the bottle into each of the cups and handed her one of them. She sniffed it and noticed a strong scent of liquor.

"Must be quite strong wine for so small an amount to be offered, your majesty," she said to him.

"It is not the strength of the drink that is what makes it be rationed my dear," he replied, "but rather its rarity. It was found in an ancient temple surrounded by bricks of gold and it must only be consumed after a victorious battle. I consider having won the battle over Sarrilla because I have their leader, their deputy is dead, and they are most likely in turmoil over who will give orders because they have not even tried to retaliate."

"So, we drink to your victory then, your majesty," she said.

"Indeed." The emperor put the cup to his lips, sipped it and looked at her in expectation.

Susan knew her cue, and swallowed the contents of her cup in one drink; feeling the heat of the liquor go down her throat, she leaned over to him and kissed him as she pressed her body to his. He inhaled deeply and, dropping the cups onto the floor beside the bed, they had sex again.

This time after it was over, the emperor lay back on the bed and after a few moments of silence between them, declared:

"You have been my most faithful agent; now you shall be my wife. I shall notify the temple priests immediately... one of them will preside over the ceremony tomorrow morning; then I shall present you to the people."

A sliver of a smile crossed Susan's lips. "Will there be any celebration ceremony?"

"As soon as the confiscation of the Sarrillian territory is completed," he answered, "We shall have the most elegant reception the planet has ever seen, and I shall declare a national holiday where celebrations shall be manifest in the streets."

"His majesty must be aware I have no suitable clothing to wear," she answered, as she lay her head on his chest facing him, "How may I show my respect in public to my master Li?"

"You shall have whatever you wish, my lotus blossom," Li replied and added with emphasis, "I shall have my tailors fashion the most elegant dresses for you to wear... tonight, in fact, I want to see you wearing one of them at the supper table. You shall provide them with measurements immediately."

"Yes, your majesty," was her only reply.

He embraced her and they both fell asleep. About an hour later, they awoke and after they were dressed, the emperor summoned his servants and tailors, ordering them to take her measurements and demanding she have at least one outfit ready to wear for that evening's meal, reminding them failure meant death. The servants bowed and escorted Susan to a room where they proceeded to take her measurements quickly.

When they had gone, Susan found herself in spacious living quarters similar to those of the emperor but with a more feminine touch; the curtains were a rosy pink as were the silk sheets on the bed. Just then, there was a knock on the door and she opened it to find a woman who bowed and announced:

"His majesty Emperor Li has sent me to be your personal servant, and he told me to give you this perfume which he wants you to wear tonight at his supper table, and this vase of roses to place on the vanity near the mirror."

"Thank you," said Susan simply, as she took the roses and scented vial from her hands. "I don't need you now. Go," she ordered the servant.

"As you wish, my lady," said the woman, bowing once again and walking away.

Susan closed the door and setting the perfume down on the nightstand near the bed, walked over to the vanity placing the vase of roses on it. She sat down on the stool facing the mirror and took a rose studying it. It was a rare species of purple rose grown in the emperor's royal gardens and it had a very strong scent that permeated throughout the room.

She smiled to herself.

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That night, there was a knock upon Susan's chamber door. She had just gotten out of the shower and was drying herself; she grabbed a bathrobe that she found hanging in a closet and she opened the door to find the same woman servant who had delivered the flowers and perfume earlier in the afternoon.

"Forgive the intrusion, my lady... I must deliver this garment to you...for the supper this night with our most supreme leader."

She bowed and outstretched her arms with a white cardboard box tied with a shiny satin sash that ended with a large pink bow.

Susan took the box and asked her, "At what time is the supper to be served?"

"In one hour, my lady."

"Very well. Leave now. I will summon you if needed."

The woman bowed again and left. Susan closed the door and throwing the bathrobe on the bed, took the perfume the emperor had gifted her and placed drops of the scent over her body. It was an exquisite perfume with an aroma that filled the room. When she was finished, she put on undergarments, brushed her hair and then opened the dress box.

What she saw made her gasp. She took out the dress and stared at it for several minutes; noticing all the details.

It was completely made of golden silk. Embroidery of a deeper hue ran throughout it, of dragons, except around the high mandarin collar where the embroidery changed to flower blossoms that cascaded down the sleeves. The dress itself was long, down to her ankles, and close-fitted. In the box there were also a pair of slipper shoes with a small heel, of the same golden color as the embroidery on the dress.

"Fit for an empress," she whispered to herself.

She quickly dressed and took one last look at the mirror, then realized no lipstick had been provided in the box. This annoyed her but she decided to not comment it to Li, because she was not sure if it was his preference for her to not wear it. Indeed, he had never said one way or another.

She walked out of the room and along the hallway met with some guards talking with the woman servant who had been appointed to serve her. They all bowed when they saw Susan approach.

"Which way to the supper table," Susan asked simply.

"Down this corridor, my lady. Allow us to escort you," one of the guards told her. Susan nodded in acceptance and followed them.

They soon arrived at the dining room. Emperor Li was already seated there, at the head of the table. The almost perpetual frown he carried dissipated when he saw her. Susan smiled coyly at him and Li stood up from his seat.

"Sit down here...to my right side, my dear. We can talk more easily in closer proximity," he said.

Susan approached the chair as the servants rushed around trying to appease the emperor's demands of serving the food and pouring wine into the goblets. The emperor took her hand before she sat down and twirled her around as if to inspect her.

"Do you approve?" she asked him.

"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "The perfect woman to occupy the throne beside mine."

The food was plentiful and delicious; as they ate, Li spoke about his plans for an expanded Longguo and how he would carry out the executions of all those who refused to submit to his rule. Susan listened and nodded. She noticed he was in a very good mood and she wanted to keep it that way.

Soon, the main meal was finished and the desserts were delivered. The emperor clapped his hands and ordered the servants:

"Leave us! I shall ring for you if you are needed."

They left quickly and it was then the conversation between Li and Susan turned to their relationship.

"I have notified the temple priests that they are to preside over our wedding tomorrow morning at ten. Your personal servant has delivered the dress you will wear to your room. The entire event will be transmitted to all of Longguo and the people shall revere you alongside me or meet death."

Li paused here to grasp a goblet of wine and, lifting it high in the air, he said with a smile:

"To us."

Susan lifted her goblet and replied, "To loyalty."

They clinked the glasses and took a drink. Susan rose from her seat and bent down over Li, as his eyes looked at her body steadily from top to bottom. She put her hand on his crotch and squeezed gently, making him groan with desire. He took her by the shoulders and sitting her on his lap, grabbed her hair, tilted her head back and kissed her with force; his hand cupped her left breast gently over the dress, and he caressed it. After a while, he released her.

"Go now to your chambers," he whispered to her, "I have business to tend to. Tomorrow after the wedding, we shall spend time together again."

She nodded and rising from his lap, turned and walked out of the dining room. She did not look back until she reached her chamber door and once in the room, locked herself in.

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Chapter 24 - Enigma

During all this time, the emperor's escaped prisoners were trudging their way through the forest. Having decided the Longguo forces would expect them to follow the river as a logical course, they deviated from the water as soon as they emerged from the cavern, Filbert assuring that he could help them collect their bearings if so necessary by climbing the trees.

The rainstorm had long since ended, leaving the ground wet. For a long time, the group walked in silence, deep in their personal thoughts until finally the animals started discussing the prophecy again.

The squirrel brought up the topic first. "You're obviously the cat of the prophecy, Esther. If you're going to make some sort of a decree of good fortune for Longguo, then does that mean they're going to win the war?"

"War is a human issue," replied the cat elusively.

Whitmore the dog listened to the debate until he noticed Tresser lingering behind everyone contemplatively, so he ran to him and walked in silent solidarity alongside.

"I can't believe she was a traitor," Tresser said simply.

"It was Susan who first approached your deputy," Whitmore explained. "She knew he was resentful you had been selected party leader instead of himself, and he would be more than willing to commit treason if it meant he'd be the new prime minister. Not that the emperor ever planned to let him be, but it was convenient to let him think so."

"Yet, Susan warned me about Richard Corbin..." Tresser began to say, only for his voice to trail off.

"Warning you about Corbin was part of the plot, you see. It was to entrench Susan's loyalty in your eyes," explained Whitmore. "You wouldn't have dismissed Corbin so close to the gala, you'd never have believed him if he outed Susan as his liaison, and the emperor planned to do away with him anyway so there was no great loss. She distrusted Corbin anyway; he was too proud and she felt he might compromise the scheme. For that matter I never thought him trustworthy either. If you selected him as your deputy and you could not trust him, how could we?"

As Tresser reflected upon this, his shoulders drooped with exhaustion. "I'm not a very good leader, it seems. I'm a poor judge of character."

"Anyone could have been fooled," Whitmore barked. "Especially by Susan. She even fooled Esther, but Esther hisses and doesn't give a damn. Then again, Esther is a cat. Cats tend to say 'I don't care' and plot revenge."

"Perhaps that's it, Whitmore - I do care. It's how much deceit there is. The level of faithlessness and disregard for the concept of loyalty..." Tresser found his voice trailing again. "Then to top it off, what was written in the grotto."

"The prophecy? But that's exciting," Whitmore wagged his tail.

"That prophecy isn't true," Tresser interjected.

"I've seen you more than once at state events," said the little dog. "You have the manner of a born head of state, not just an appointed one. I think you are Longguo royalty even if you don't believe it."

Tresser did not bother to answer him. No one here could possibly comprehend, he thought, feeling lonelier than ever.

"Prime Minister!"

He glanced up to see Samantha and Dave falling back to where they were. The reporter pointed her microphone at him, while the photographer had the camera ready on his shoulder. Tresser inwardly recoiled as he realized they must have been listening to his conversation with Whitmore. He felt so drained, the press was the last thing he had the desire to deal with at the moment.

"We had a few questions..."

"As you generally do," said Tresser, a little peeved.

"Why are you unhappy about the prophecy?" Samantha asked. "This is like the legend about the Sarrillian royalty having had an heir, only better; this one is real!"

"I can't be the emperor of Longguo," Tresser insisted, without justification.

"Do you think it means you're going to conquer Longguo?" offered Dave.

After considering this, Tresser brightened up a bit.

"Well," said the prime minister, "it's right on our border, and they have plenty of natural resources...though it is big for a commonwealth."

Samantha asked swiftly, "You'll have to appoint a governor then, until they hold an election, won't you, your excellency?"

"Isn't that quite a long way off, presuming?"

"We'd want an interview with him anyway."

They succeeded in eliciting a laugh from the prime minister, and this cheered up the atmosphere a bit.

"Leave it to the press. Miles away from home, out in the forest wilderness of an enemy country, and you're plotting your next interview!" exclaimed Tresser. "We don't even know where we can find food out here.''

"Esther and I can catch something for you humans!" Whitmore barked, but Tresser petted the dog on the head and waved off the offer.

"What is the first meal you'd have when you get back home?" Samantha asked, forgoing the answer to her first question; it was an unusual move for her during an interview, yet it went undetected by Tresser.

"That's rather optimistic," the prime minister commented, "to say when I get back...but ok. I'd like some cinnamon rolls."

"Cinnamon rolls?"

"I generally like to have them around lunchtime," he reminisced, "which would be around about now. They're made following a special recipe."

He hesitated and let his gaze wander into the canopy of tree branches above, with the birds singing and the light wind stirring the leaves. It struck him how long it had been since he last had such a peaceful stroll outside the security-tight confines of the prime ministerial palace garden.

"You know, some time before, I'd missed being able to walk around without the security retinue. Now, what I wouldn't give to be back home..." The prime minister shook his head with a little smile. "What are your viewers going to think when they hear me saying all this?"

"Oh...we weren't rolling," Dave said, embarrassment upon his face.

"We've got to save the camera's battery, so we can film all the way to the border," Samantha added as justification.

Samantha and Dave hurried off, leaving Tresser in good spirits but wondering.

"They weren't even filming," he remarked to Whitmore. "What was the point of this interview for them?"

"I think they just wanted to cheer you up!" barked Whitmore.

"I think you're right," said a happy Tresser.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Not long afterwards night began to fall, testament to how long they had been wandering out here. Time had indeed flown, so fast they had hardly perceived its passage.

Tresser gazed up at the dusk sky, which was gradually being dotted with an emerging swath of stars. We must be exceedingly far into the wilderness for the stars to be so clear, he thought.

"It's getting late," the prime minister stated.

Esther the cat squinted happily. "Purr-fect for prowling," she remarked.

Tresser was less content with the thought. "We ought to find somewhere to spend the night," he said. "Soon the forest will be pitch black."

"I can see in the dark," meowed Esther.

"You're the only one," Filbert pointed out.

"Exactly," emphasized the cat, "so I can lead us, and we can travel by night, which no one will expect."

"When do we sleep?" whimpered Whitmore.

"In the day, like is proper," hissed Esther.

"Proper for cats," chattered Filbert.

"Actually, both views make a lot of sense," Tresser reasoned. He glanced at the television crew and the scientists, who were bringing up the rear of the travelling party. "Should we make camp or keep walking?"

"We would be interested in your comment, Prime Minister," Samantha flipped the question.

"Yes, be as detailed as possible for the research," Shui smiled.

Tresser disliked this weight where the decisions were left to him, and where he had solely the three bickering animals as advisors. It reminded him of cabinet meetings back in Sarrilla.

"We build a campfire and settle down. It's much safer than walking aimlessly through the darkness of the forest at night."

He said it with so much resoluteness, nobody questioned it. Xing offered to build the fire and in short time the group was sitting around it getting warm.

The closeness of the campfire lent itself to friendly conversation. They all sat around, except for the cat.

"Esther, aren't you going to hang around here and get warm?" asked the squirrel.

Esther answered with a ffftt. "It's good prowling hour. Besides there's no food here. May as well get some."

With that she sauntered off into the bracken.

Tresser gazed into the dancing flames. It was true about the food - he felt his body aching from having not eaten anything for an entire day. The last thing he had eaten was the salad at the gala. It was the longest he could recall having been this hungry.

"You know it's quite easy to be captivated by staring into fire," Shui's ever analytical voice interjected into his thoughts. "I believe that's one of the methods ancient man used, if the historical records are not to be faulted."

Questions still played in Tresser's mind like the flames. Perhaps there could be some answer found to them if he were not so hungry; yet he knew concurrently this was not the case, and it was his own misplaced emotions at fault.

"Shui...honestly," he asked at last, "Did you hypnotize Susan? At any point?"

"No, Prime Minister."

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Chapter 25 - Reconnaissance

Far in Sarrilla's capital, Stanley woke up on a sofa in his office. The first rays of sunlight were streaming through the window.

He sat up, ran his hands through his hair, and tried to make sense of the hectic mess that the past day had been.

He had evaded telephone calls and interview requests from the news media all yesterday. The difficulty of answering their questions was compounded by a video simulcast on both Longguo state television and the WCAT news network: Prime Minister Tresser being forced to kneel, Susan pleading for him in the background, and Emperor Li gloating to the camera that he would have seized Sarrilla in a mere week's time.

Stanley had taken it upon himself to telephone WCAT's editor, Ted Hughes, who had received contact by his employees in order to coordinate the broadcast; however, Ted explained, he had no way of contacting them himself, nor did he have any information other than what his network had reported. Stanley knew even if Ted had more information, it was debatable whether he would divulge it outside of a news report, and attempts to coerce the media to do anything would likely lead to a lawsuit that, in Sarrilla, would quickly become a very public scandal.

Other than the video, nobody had heard anything from Longguo ever since the telephone call from Li. The government was at a standstill. These things took their toll, till at last Stanley had collapsed from lack of sleep.

Stanley headed straight for the restroom, where he splashed water on his face and looked dully into the mirror. I wonder if the cabinet ministers and generals have gotten their act together yet, he thought.

He walked back to his office, pondering what he could do next, when a commotion outside drew him towards the window.

There was a gathering on the sidewalk outside the prime ministerial palace. A trumpeter was playing a mournful tune and people were tying flowers and small Sarrillian flags to the gate of the mansion.

"What the fuck," Stanley muttered, and headed towards the conference room.

He stepped in and Maurice separated from a group of generals clustered about a table and walked over. The cabinet minister looked disheveled and overwrought. "Stanley, no one can agree on what strategy to use," Maurice announced.

So, nothing has changed in twenty-four hours, Stanley thought. "Maurice, you look like shit," he said instead.

"You don't look so great yourself," Maurice replied.

"They've set up a fucking vigil on the eastern side of the PM's palace," scowled Stanley, adding, "With little flags and sappy music."

"Even the public knows Tresser's a goner," Washburn interjected with a smirk.

"Then it's our job as the government to make them realize there's still hope," Stanley said.

To which Washburn laughed.

"Oh, you think that's amusing, Washburn?" Stanley said with irritation in his voice. Washburn fell silent.

Maurice interrupted, "Tarruff's issued a statement that if the Longguo army gets all the way to our capital, they'll recognize Li's regime as the legitimate government of Sarrilla."

"Tarruff can fuck off," Stanley snapped.

"In all fairness, we had the same policy when it came to Longguo's coup," Maurice replied pacifically.

"...and look where it got us," Stanley countered.

"You had to write up the statements supporting it, as Tresser's press secretary," Washburn broke his silence.

"I understood his politics and agreed with enough of them to be his campaign manager, and then later his press secretary, though there were some things we didn't agree on privately. Diplomacy with dictators was one of them. I would have cut relations with that Longguo tyrant way before their embassy's arctic fox poaching..."

Washburn interjected, "Then why worry so much about what happens to Tresser?"

Stanley faced Washburn. "James Tresser is still leader of Sarrilla, according to the constitution. You talk like you'd sooner have the premiership yourself."

Before he could retort, Stanley spun about and headed towards the table where the generals were huddled around, pouring over maps. "We should be planning an invasion of Longguo," the press secretary proclaimed loudly.

"You're right," agreed Maurice, "if you like, I can go over to the defense ministry offices to see what are the exact number of troops available..."

Hearing this, Washburn jumped almost jealously. "Why the hell should you get so much authority? You're the most junior cabinet minister here."

Maurice stiffened his body defensively. "Well, I'm in charge of intelligence anyway. I should take over Corbin's defense minister duties."

"Some intelligence." Washburn was derisive. "You don't know where they're holding Tresser."

To this, Maurice smiled in a vindicated manner. "I received new information about that a few minutes ago."

It surprised most there, especially Washburn. "By whom?"

"Little bird told me. Agent P-94."

The foreign affairs minister stepped away to the window and opened the glass pane, whereupon a pigeon fluttered to the window sill. The bird flapped one wing in a sort of avian salute and cooed, "Agent P-94 reporting, minister."

"This is what we spend our tax dollars on," scowled Washburn.

"He's from the pigeon branch," Maurice explained reasonably.

This did not appease Washburn. "Why do we need a pigeon branch? Do they have better aim than our missiles?"

Stanley ignored him and addressed their atypical secret agent. "What've you got for us?"

The pigeon obliged. "His excellency was being held in the palace till a bit past sunrise Longguo-time, when he managed to escape into the adjoining woodland. Not even Emperor Li is sure where he is, except that he's somewhere in Longguo between the palace and the border."

Stanley prompted, "Do we know where he is?"

"No," replied the pigeon. "But word is other captives got out with him. We're not sure how many."

Washburn sarcastically spoke up, "Well, why don't you send your reconnaissance team to actually find him. You'd think they'd spot him from the sky."

The pigeon had an explanation. "The forest has a thick canopy of trees, and many hungry predators in the branches with a taste for poultry."

"Sarrillian bravery at its finest," Washburn snickered.

Maurice was excusing. "To be fair, the pigeon branch is mostly a messaging division."

"So the prime minister is currently camping out in an enemy forest," Stanley weighed.

"Well then, we can bomb the imperial palace, can't we?" urged Maurice.

Washburn's eyes widened. "That'll totally destroy diplomatic relations with Longguo."

"They kidnapped our prime minister. I think diplomatic relations with Longguo died at the state gala," Maurice retorted.

"You don't have the authority," snapped Washburn.

Maurice looked about to counter this, but pursed his lips instead and fell silent.

Perched off to the side, a cluster of palace cats looked around the room from one human to the other. "Quite unacceptable," hissed one, and the others gave purrs of agreement.

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Chapter 26 - Shui's Research

Tresser and the rest of the little travelling group woke early to the second dawn of their misadventure and the first of precious liberty. They hastened to set off again, and walked for what felt miles. It must have been less, fathomed Tresser, as hunger had a way of making the trek seem worse than it was. Before long, the trees opened out into hilly terrain; it was sloping and meadowlike, yet there were large cherry blossom trees dispersed across the landscape, secluding the little group enough so they could relax on the soft grass in the shade and gather their strength for the journey. The animals took to playing tag, while the humans lounged under the canopy of fragrant flowers.

From where they were, Tresser could tell they were descending the mountain. Trees lined the horizon with what looked like a faraway road and more mountains distantly, yet Tresser could not see any towns anywhere. They were isolated in the wilderness.

"At least the weather is good," remarked Samantha.

"Yes, with the sun out. I hope it keeps," Tresser agreed.

Despite this positive point, there was still the matter of food. This was now the second morning of being on Longguo land without anything to eat. It was starting to weigh on them, though not one of them made it very manifest, how hunger bore down with weakness in their limbs and the beginnings of a cloud where the right words escaped them as if through a sieve. If idle chitchat was to be made, it was purely for the sake of keeping oneself awake, for the tendency was there to sleep through the hunger though it would accomplish nothing.

Shui spoke up. "I have completed a preliminary analysis of the three of you."

"You've been analyzing us?" Dave questioned.

"I'm always analyzing something," replied Shui.

The prime minister tipped his head. "What have you concluded, Dr. Qiang?"

"You are alike."

Tresser looked as dubious as Samantha and Dave.

Shui gave further details. "The comparison lies in your resolve towards your individual convictions. Each of you are willing to go to great lengths to uphold them."

"I hardly think I could have much in common with a ratings-hungry TV crew," Tresser replied.

"No less than we with secretive politicians," Samantha retorted.

"You are also each loathe to admit it," Shui added, straightening his eyeglasses.

"Fighting like cats and dogs," Filbert chattered, "Esther and Whitmore get along better than you guys."

Shui had not completed his lecture. "There remains, however, one key distinction between you – other than the object of your convictions..."

"The fact they have those convictions speaks volumes already," interrupted Tresser. "They'd choose an exclusive story over patriotic loyalty."

"Journalism done right is patriotic," Samantha practically hissed at him.

Shui ignored their bickering as he continued speaking. "Samantha and Dave, you are both certain of yourselves in your capacities as journalists. Prime Minister, you doubt your skills as a leader."

The blunt remark made Tresser at once self-conscious. Were his thoughts so open to be read?

The hypnotist smiled knowingly, as if none of this could be hidden from him. "Some work must be done with you in this area."

"No." Tresser was adamant. "I'll have none of it. And I don't doubt myself...that's preposterous."

Shui gave him an appraising look. "You don't feel you have a right to doubt yourself. Because..."

He lingered, and Tresser suddenly found himself holding a breath uneasily as he waited for Shui's next words.

"Because you feel you have a duty to the Sarrillian people," Shui completed the sentence and gave a second, milder, smile.

Tresser hesitated with shock; then his gaze fell down to the grass. "Yes. You're right. I'll admit that."

Shui's eyes shone mischievously. He pulled out his notepad and began scribbling something.

While Shui was writing, Tresser looked over to the journalists.

"Could I ask you something?" he ventured, "How was it you were able to..." He broke off here, not certain how to proceed with the delicate question, but Samantha picked it up.

"Withstand the electric shocks during captivity?" she finished his sentence.

"Yes. I am sorry... maybe I shouldn't have brought it up..." Tresser was genuinely apologetic.

"It's alright," Samantha replied, "I really don't know how or where I found the strength at that moment. Sometimes I think I was just lucky but... I've dealt with it and I'm over it. Life goes on."

Despite her assertion there was still a distant look in the reporter's eyes, a dismal sort of look shared by her cameraman at the recollection. The ordeal evidently still beleaguered their memories though they would not admit it. Tresser had not wished to wound them, and felt a little awkward.

Shui's untactful observations continued. "Actually, the lot of you have subconscious concerns that could be worthy of study. For instance, Samantha and Dave, I hypothesize you each have shied away from marriage because you worry about leaving the other prematurely widowed."

"Stop prying, Shui," Samantha squinted at him.

"I supposed I'm concerned whether I might have the stamina to survive torture," said the prime minister, changing the subject.

Shui interrupted, "My exposition to his majesty, pertaining to the strengths and weaknesses of your personality, was forthright. It is my analysis you would be quite resilient under duress."

"Still," Tresser looked doubtful; he eyed Shui sideways.

"Immaterially," smiled Shui, continuing his explanation, "I postulate that should you be brought before Emperor Li again, such treatment will not be inflicted upon you."

"You think they'll kill us first?" said Tresser with a serious countenance.

"That, Prime Minister, is one of the aforementioned shortcomings you presently have. You ought to weigh the possibility of a positive outcome more favorably. I wonder if that tendency affects your demeanor in politics, as well... It would be a fascinating study, don't you think, my dear Xing?"

"Yes, quite so," was her response, "It might make an interesting contribution to our research on the matter."

Tresser raised an eyebrow and glanced at the others in the group. They said nothing, except for a shrug of shoulders by Dave.

After an hour of resting, the little group decided to continue on their quest towards the border with Tresser leading the way. Shui and Xing had fallen to the back of the group and were comparing notes and discussing them in whispers. At some point, as if they had settled something, Xing spoke up to the others.

"I suggest we go in this direction. I know of a village hidden within this forest. I hail from there."

They all stopped walking suddenly and Samantha asked, "Why didn't you tell us this before?"

"The village is ancient and considered sacred by the general population of Longguo," Xing replied.

Shui chimed in, "It would have been unwise to speak of it earlier."

"Why?"

"Our research was still in progress. Now that we've completed the first half of our test, I see no need to keep the three of you in the experimental conditions."

Xing was smiling at him. "A very precise and proper explanation, as usual."

Tresser realized the implications through his hunger. "We've been wandering around on the verge of starvation in these woods for a whole day when we could have had access to food and some vestige of civilization?"

"Alas, yes," Shui said easily. "It was necessary for Science."

Esther eyed the incredulous Tresser. "You know," meowed the cat, "you didn't have to be hungry. I keep telling you humans there are plenty of mice."

"What's the second half of the test?" Tresser questioned leerily.

Shui merely smiled. "Nothing quite so drastic, Prime Minister."

"May I ask to sit it out? Whatever it is?" the prime minister asked, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Samantha turned to Dave. "There's obviously a lot more to our story, I see."

"Yep, but don't worry... I brought plenty of film," Dave answered as they resumed walking, this time with Xing in the lead.

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Chapter 27 - The Village in the Forest

Eventually, the group arrived to a waterfall about seven feet tall and surrounded by lush greenery. They followed Xing and Shui to an area behind the rushing water and into a cave tunnel, which they followed for about five minutes time; it led them out to a sunlit clearing where the village was.

It was a beautiful sight to behold. Flowers of all colors and variety blossomed all over, with small traditional houses sprinkled among them not far one from the other.

To the side of these, was a series of small waterfalls cascading in overlap one with the other, into a creek shallow enough for children to wade in. The water was clear and clean and there were some people filling jugs with it. In the middle of this was an area evidently used as a cooking spot for large gatherings. There was a spit placed over a fire and someone was tending to multiple fish being broiled; the smell of seasoning permeated the air. It was such a delicious smell it filled Esther, Whitmore and even Filbert excited at the thought of the availability of food.

"Fish!" cried the cat and dog in unison, as they ran towards it with the squirrel hanging on to the dog's back.

"Where there's meat, there'll undoubtedly be other forms of food too...like nuts!" chattered Filbert.

The people in the village looked up as the group walked into the clearing and laughed when they saw the animals circling the frying fish. They petted the cat and dog offering them some of the fish and laid out some vegetables and nuts for the squirrel, who promptly set to eating.

"Xing!" shouted many of the people, as she waved to them. They knew of Shui but were curious of the others.

Xing introduced everyone and explained that Tresser was the leader of Sarrilla. The village elder made his way to the front of the gathered crowd and pointed to Esther.

"She looks like the cat of our ancient prophecy."

"Yes," replied Xing, "that has kept us alive since Li respects her."

Esther let out a long meow. "And Tresser here is Longguo royalty."

"Yeah, the stuff written in a secret grotto we found back there said so," Filbert chimed in enthusiastically.

A surprised and enthralled murmur rose from all those in hearing range, and Tresser cringed. Why did the animals have to make such a fuss over this? It was bad enough how he disliked the idea, but now the eyes of all had turned upon him.

"A foreigner?" remarked one with surprise.

"How can that be?" another demanded.

"Exactly my point," Tresser interjected hopefully, but the village elder shook his head.

"If the cat says it, it must be so," said the elder, and all questioning of the matter silenced - to Tresser's dismay.

"I like these people," decided Esther. "I think I'm going to bless this village, being the prophecy feline."

The elder turned towards the crowd and proclaimed:

"We must have a great feast, to celebrate the white cat, her guests, and the visit of our dear Xing and Shui."

Tresser looked worried. "So long as the food isn't still moving," he said emphatically.

One of the other villagers gave a knowing smile. "Someone fed you that octopus dish, didn't they?"

"Regrettably," said Tresser.

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The food that evening was, as Tresser happily saw it, normal.

It was a tremendous bounty. Instead of each family dining in their homes, they all gathered around the bonfire in the center of the village as was the custom here when they were to celebrate a momentous occasion. All the people of the village urged Esther to regale them with the tale of how they had fled from the imperial palace, and Esther, who seemed to like putting the prime minister on the spot, made Tresser tell it instead.

Tresser ate ravenously, yet he still obliged. Everybody expressed admiration for their courage in escape, which according to them was virtually impossible. The prime minister decided to keep many of the details to himself though, partly because of embarrassment that it was really a serendipitous event, and partly because it had come about when he had attempted to annihilate the entire country of Longguo with the SPARC device. The others seemed to realize his train of thought and stayed quiet about this aspect as well.

At some point, Xing began playing her flute and all the animals from the village gathered around her, mesmerized by the sound; some forest wildlife emerged as well and stood by, enjoying the tranquil environment the music produced. Afterwards, a small group of musicians joined into an impromptu ensemble to play lively music and everyone began clapping and some danced. The bright, sweet tune of Oriental instruments filled the air.

Everybody ate, laughed, sang and danced until late into the night. But the party was not without tension. Tresser worried news of a gathering could alert the Longguo forces to their presence at this village, and perhaps Shui worried of it too; the scientist seemed restless, which was unusual for him.

Besides this, some of the villagers had questions for Tresser. It emerged through conversation that many of them were members of an underground movement, committed to ousting Li and reinstalling whomever was the true emperor by birthright; however, they seemed to be unwilling to tell Tresser the name of the underground leader, if they even knew it themselves. Regardless, they prodded Tresser on liberating Longguo.

"You have sanctuary here, but the people of Longguo suffer outside this village," said one, with a hint of acrimony, "and had been suffering even while Sarrilla held festivities with Li."

"Your majesty," added another, more diplomatically, "as the rightful ruler of Longguo, surely you must have a plan to depose this cruel tyrant."

"I'm not royalty," insisted Tresser, "but I'll do everything I can to help liberate your country."

Samantha heard and leapt to ask, "Is this an official statement that, if you get back, first thing on the agenda is to attack the Longguo empire?"

Tresser eyed her sideways. "After everything that I've been through, and the disrespect Sarrillian hospitality has been shown, I think we're within our international right. But for all we know an attack is being launched at this very moment."

"Or what you truly think," said Shui, turning towards Tresser, "that no one has done anything and negotiations have stalled."

Again with the insightful Shui, thought Tresser, I can't hide anything from him!

"Li will not admit we have escaped," added Shui. "To that end, negotiations are still ongoing, as are my tests."

"You mentioned tests," Tresser said dubiously. "Please enlighten us, Shui, as to what they are."

"Patience, Prime Minister," replied Shui, with a smile and sip of his drink.

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Chapter 28 - Search and Seizure

The night was quiet and uneventful, but Tresser lay awake for half of it worrying about endless problems. However as the next day drew on, his tension lessened; the village was a haven of peace and, were it not for knowing a manhunt was indubitably taking place across Longguo to recapture him, he would have been entirely at ease here. Tresser decided it was best to hide out at the village for now, and one of the animals could send word across the border for a rescue. Filbert gleefully volunteered for this.

"Carrying out this mission is my solemn duty as a squirrel, prime minister," said Filbert, saluting with his tail. "You can pay me back in walnuts."

So long as you get the message through, thought Tresser with doubt, but did not voice his reservations.

Filbert continued chattering, "Though I have to admit I'm a little worried about leaving you squirrel-less. How will you cope?"

The coiled figure of Esther, who had been sunning herself in a basket, lifted her head upon hearing this. "He doesn't need a squirrel, damnit," Esther hissed, "He's got a cat here."

"You're jealous because you're ineligible for membership in the secret squirrel society," responded Filbert haughtily.

Whitmore was the only one who stayed next to Tresser, tail wagging furiously and looking up at him with unadorned admiration.

It was late that afternoon when the tranquility of the village was shattered. One of the townspeople came riding in on a horse, halting its gallop in the midst of the village clearing. Fear was alight in the man's eyes.

"Li's soldiers approach!" he cried. "A whole troop! They come to our village."

"How far are they?" asked Samantha.

Tresser felt his body tense. "They found us," he said simply.

"You have no time to flee," interrupted one of the village elders. "Follow me."

She led them into one of the houses swiftly, to a small corridor that led to the bedrooms, but halted here and pressed against the wall. A portion of it opened to reveal a secret storage room. It was narrow, yet surprisingly spacious; a few blankets were neatly piled in one corner, but nothing else.

"Hurry, hide inside!" she said. "The emperor's men will not find you here."

"There must be something we can do..." Tresser began to protest, only for Shui to tug him into the little room. The rest of the escapees and the three little animals hid inside as well, and the door was shut.

There was enough room for them all comfortably. They were in darkness – except for the light atop Dave's TV camera. It filtered underneath the very bottom of the hidden door, seen as a glow from outside their hiding place.

"The light!" Samantha whispered urgently.

She reached over to obscure it, and Dave flipped the small switch on the side to shut it, thereby casting the room into veritable pitch-blackness.

Tresser leant against one of the piles of blankets, worry encroaching upon him perhaps as readily as the soldiers outside. It felt to him as if the very sound of their breath could alert them to their searching enemies, and that they were no more defended than cowering mice in a hole. The ignominy, hiding in such a manner, frustrated him. Surely, they could assist the townspeople somehow.

He could hear footsteps entering, the villagers' pleas, the soldiers' demands; they all spoke in Chinese, and Tresser could only surmise what they were saying. Only he and Dave, Tresser realized, were not privy to the language – and whatever was being said did not bode well. There was seriousness on the faces of all who understood.

It was times like this Tresser wished he had taken up studying it instead of relying so much on translators, but there had scarcely been need as both the previous Longguo administration and Li's saw fit to hold their international dialogue in Sarrilla's tongue. He whispered to Samantha, who was nearest. "What are they saying?"

"They're searching for us," the TV reporter replied, "The villagers deny that we're here."

"Is that all they're saying?"

"The soldiers say that if they don't hand us over to them, they'll burn the village down," Samantha said flatly.

"Where's Shui?" asked Filbert.

They looked around the narrow confines.

"Wasn't he here a moment ago?" Tresser wondered.

"He must be outside," reasoned Xing, who appeared at ease.

"Outside!" whispered Dave.

"Aren't you worried?" asked Samantha.

"Not at all. My dear Shui can defend himself accordingly," smiled Xing.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

The villagers were pleading for their lives when Shui walked out into plain sight. "Good afternoon, General."

General Wu sneered at him. "Dr. Qiang Shui. I take it you're surrendering in an attempt to convince us the others have left already?"

"Actually, they're all still in the village," Shui said. "We intended to stay here for awhile."

"Decided to turncoat to save your own skin, I see."

"Not exactly," replied Shui as he straightened his eyeglasses.

As Wu gave a signal to his men to point their rifles at the scientist, Shui wasted no time in clapping his hands. "Sleep!" he called, and the entire squadron of soldiers' expressions went blank.

Wu whipped around looking at all the entranced soldiers around him, and then back at Shui with utter astonishment and fright; the scientist smiled at him.

"Now, General," said Shui, "I suggest to you that you return to the emperor and tell him you did not find us here. Otherwise I shall give a suggestion to your men...and I have complete assurance they will accept whatever suggestion I tell them."

"I could easily leave and inform his majesty upon my return," Wu stated defiantly.

"You could, but I don't think you will. You're hiding something from him, General. I might point this out, should you cause our recapture."

"He would never believe you," insisted Wu.

"Would you like to gamble it?" posed Shui.

Wu hesitated and then, defeated, turned and left.

Shui addressed his subjects. "Accompany General Wu back to the palace. You will all awaken along the way there, without recollection of what happened here at the village."

When Wu and the troop of soldiers were gone, and the villagers profusely thanked Shui, he returned to the other escapees and told them what happened.

"I knew all those soldiers were my subjects," Shui said.

Filbert looked over at the hypnotist questioningly. "How could you tell? You hadn't seen them."

Esther the cat was the one to reply. "Shui sense."

"Shui sense," scoffed Filbert, "What the fuck?"

"Sense of Shui. It's like cat sense."

"Wait," Samantha interjected, "so you have Li's soldiers hypnotized?"

"Oh, not many. About half of the palace guard," Shui demurred, which did the opposite of diminish.

Tresser looked at him incredulously. "If you have half of the palace guard hypnotized, does that mean we could have escaped earlier?"

"Perhaps but again, I was conducting a valuable test," replied the scientist, adjusting his eyeglasses.

"Ok, no, Shui," said Tresser, "You really must halt this."

"I object to that. Research is fun." Shui then added, "In practical matters, the guards who usually surround Li are not my subjects. So in the throne room, we are relatively helpless. However most of the soldiers in other areas of the palace, such as the outer guard and interrogation chambers, are hypnotized. I have them conditioned so that anyone who claps their hands and gives the order to sleep can induce the trance. A safeguard you see, in case Xing were to ever find herself in danger and I am not around."

"That's good to remember. Too bad we couldn't have gotten tape of it," said Dave, and as Samantha spoke up agreeing with him, Tresser shook his head.

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Chapter 29 - Crossing the Border

Esther the cat had been flat-eared all day. Her blue eyes were black, and she hissed at anyone who tried to pick her up. The rest of the group were readying to leave on the last stretch of the journey towards the Sarrillian border, something which Esther expressed discontent over.

"It's a bad day to venture out of the village," said the cat morosely.

"If we stay around here," Xing insisted, "the soldiers might come back."

"Better to stay here and eat more fish," Esther insisted.

Tresser, who had overheard the debate, chimed in. "If it wasn't so much urgency, I'd agree with Esther. Without the lighter, I have no way to smoke my cigarettes when we leave here," he admitted.

"Prime Minister, permit me to ask..." Shui began, "approximately, how many cigarettes do you smoke a day?"

"One or two... why?"

"I could assist in the cessation of that habit... it would not take long to..."

Tresser halted him. "I like my habit."

The scientist decided to not pursue the matter further for the moment. It was obvious to him the prime minister found it to be a frivolous issue; nothing more was said about it and their attention was turned to a small group of elders who arrived to extend well wishes to the prime minister and to offer advice.

"Whether you are, or are not, blood heir to our throne, the fact you are accompanying the white cat on her adventure means a great deal. You were dragged into this for a reason."

It never ceased to amuse him how the villagers viewed the whole charade as Esther's adventure, and not as the adventure of the humans or, what he viewed as more accurate, the lamentable mistakes of misplaced trust.

Besides words of encouragement, the travelers were also given two horses and a cart for the journey. They were fine-looking creatures that seemed partly thoroughbred, but they were accustomed to drawing carts. Both were hitched to the vehicle and after all farewells and best wishes were said, the little group boarded and off they went.

Xing drove the cart, with Esther and Filbert sitting shotgun beside her. Whitmore started out sitting beside Tresser in the back, but seeing how the dog kept looking to where the cat and squirrel were, Tresser told him to go ahead and sit where he could get a better view of the road. The dog bounded over to sit with the other two small animals.

Tresser found the drive tranquil. Samantha and Dave were filming everything – "Getting some b-roll," Dave explained – and Shui chatted with Xing while Filbert and Whitmore looked around at the landscape with all alertness. Esther sat in a lump, pining over the seafood they were leaving behind.

For his part, Tresser found solace in planning out what military strikes he should order done to Longguo as retaliation for kidnapping him. His mind wandered as he watched the two horses trotting briskly down the path and listened to the debate starting to transpire over the group's next move.

"I believe we're going to reach an intersection soon," reminded Shui.

"We have two ways to go," said Xing, "We either take the main road to the border or the long way around through the hills."

"How long is the long way?" asked Samantha.

"We get there at dusk," Xing replied.

"Not cool," said one of the horses with a shake of his head. "Too much walking."

"We'll certainly stop to rest if we do that," Shui assured.

"That means arriving even later," Filbert pointed out. "The longer we linger in this country the more chance the emperor's people will catch us. We'll save lots of time by keeping to the main road."

"Unless the emperor's people are waiting for us along the main road," Xing postulated.

Samantha chimed in. "The last time Dave and I tried to save time was when we were trying to get to an interview with the governor of Tropical Island. We decided to take the station's helicopter there."

"What happened?" asked Whitmore.

"The helicopter crashed." Samantha said dryly.

"Not cool," neighed the other horse.

"Stop scaring the horses," Filbert complained.

Esther's eyes were squinted. "It's bad to go the short way and it's bad to go the long way. Moral? Let's go back to the village and eat fish."

Shui was studiously straightening his eyeglasses. "It would appear, Samantha, that subconscious trauma inclines you towards preference of a longer but more psychologically secure path to our destination."

"Whatever you said," replied Samantha. "And we have no opinion. We're just here because we're documenting this historical moment. Right, Dave?" The two journalists smiled at each other.

"Way to pile on the pressure," said a sour Filbert.

"Should I make a decision?" ventured Prime Minister Tresser.

"No," said the animals unanimously.

"If we only knew if the main roads were safe, we could go directly," said Xing, "and be there twice as fast."

As they debated this, the horses keeping to a trot, they came upon a furred creature sitting on the side of the road. It was a monkey.

"Maybe that monkey would know whether the army is nearby," speculated Filbert.

"Why would the monkey know?" Whitmore yapped.

"Because monkeys climb trees like squirrels," explained Filbert.

"Don't demean yourself, Filbert," growled Esther. She remained sitting in a loaf of long white fur with black eyes. "Even if squirrels generally lack humility."

"Still sullen over the fact we can't stay around the village seafood," chattered Filbert, "Esther, there'll be plenty of fish the sooner we get back to Sarrilla."

They slowed the cart. As the horses halted, they saw the creature had bananas stacked in a pile behind it, in varying degrees of ripeness but all fresh and in good quality. He was chewing on a bright yellow one.

"Wow! What a bunch of bananas!" yapped Whitmore with his tail wagging.

The monkey lifted his lips into a grin. "Yes. They're mine. My name is Hou-Zi. Would you happen to be the prisoners escaping the palace?"

"Yes," said Whitmore forthrightly.

"Don't tell him!" Esther gave a hiss, swatting at the dog with a sheathed paw.

"Ow!" yelped Whitmore.

Esther's back arched as she spun around to face the simian. "How do you happen to know about escaping prisoners?"

Hou-Zi had an unshakable grin. "All the animals of the forest know about you."

Samantha glanced at the cat, who did not seem satisfied. "That's reasonable, though, with the amount of traveling we've been up to," the reporter pointed out.

"Never trust a monkey. They're too damn cheerful," hissed Esther with flat ears.

This did not elicit anything but indifference from Hou-Zi, who continued munching on the banana. "Someone told me the nice lady called Xing who plays a flute was going with them."

"That's me," Xing acknowledged.

Hou-Zi nodded his head. "They also said your music is beautiful; that you like to play it in the palace gardens. That said, I never got to hear for myself," he shrugged. "I never wandered farther than the human village place."

"Why is that?" asked Dave.

"If I stay around this area, I get more bananas," Hou-Zi said.

"I don't see any banana plants," scowled Esther, "just bananas and a monkey."

"Oh, Esther, let's be nice," Whitmore yapped, his tail still wagging relentlessly. "Why can't we be friends with him?"

"Trusting dog," hissed Esther.

The monkey looked perplexed. "Why even try to leave Longguo? There's plenty of food."

"Really?" Filbert the squirrel twitched his whiskers. "Everything I've heard was that here in Longguo, there wasn't enough food for animals or humans."

The monkey grinned again. "They don't know how to get food."

"That's not food. That's fruit," said Esther.

Tresser spoke up diplomatically, "We have other reasons for leaving, besides food. For one thing, Sarrilla is my home."

Hou-Zi relented, "Typically, I'd say you're in a heap more danger trying to get across than you are here. But in your case, you're in a heap of danger wherever you are. From what I know, the emperor really wants you back, and it's not going to be pleasant when you are brought back," he added with a bite of the banana.

"Then you can see what haste we have to get to the border," Tresser said.

"Do you know how guarded the roads are leading to the border?" asked Samantha.

Hou-Zi thought for a moment. "The only soldiers I've seen are at the river. They don't expect anyone on the main road. I think you can travel directly, and no one will notice."

Shui checked his pocket watch. "We'd ought to get on our way, then," he said. "Thank you very much for the information."

"Good luck. You'll need it," said the monkey, with a grin that seemed more of a sneer.

Esther growled, but Samantha petted her on the head as Xing started the cart down the road again.

"I don't like monkeys," said Esther when they were out of hearing range.

"You're irritable, Esther," said Filbert, "You look like you want to bite someone."

"Good idea," considered the cat.

The horses trotted down the path for a long time peacefully.

"My Shui, you haven't said a word lately," remarked Xing, "You're usually chatty."

"I'm analyzing something," said Shui enigmatically. "Xing, we might find getting across harder than we think. If the Longguo army is stationed on this side of the river and there are few soldiers on the roads inland, then it may be safe to presume that when we do encounter them, they will be numerous."

"Once we get to the border, we'll have the help of our own border guards," Tresser said with certainty, "We have the most well-trained military on this planet."

"Every country says they're the best," Shui pointed out.

"Yes, but it's only true about Sarrilla," smiled Tresser.

"Sarrilla is the only country with a secret government of squirrels," Filbert reminded them all smugly.

"You and the fucking squirrel society," hissed Esther, "There is no–secret–government–of–"

She could not finish her statement before the roar of a vehicle caught her ears; everyone looked behind to see Longguo soldiers in a black pickup truck. They were driving squarely towards them, and shouting something in Chinese.

Esther let out a furious caterwaul. "I knew we shouldn't have trusted the monkey!"

"Go!" Xing tried to drive the cart faster; the horses' hooves began to thunder down the path as their canter turned into a gallop. Yet the car was relentless.

"We can't outrun automobiles," she lamented.

Prime Minister Tresser stood from where he was sitting and leant over to the front of the cart. "Give me the reins," he said, nearly snatching them from her in desperation.

He gave a cry to the horses, who suddenly reared and lunged forward, and as if recognizing their new driver picked up a speed that hitherto had seemed to elude them. They had now gained momentum, and they lay their ears back and coursed ahead like the rapids of the grotto. Tresser directed them off the trail, to the rocky bank of the creek, while the soldiers' pickup was forced to follow the adjoining main road as it began to incline above them. The cart was rattling as it traversed the stony terrain.

The television crew in the back seat seemed oblivious to any peril. "Get the shot, Dave!" Samantha was poking the cameraman.

"I'm getting it!" he said as he filmed.

Tresser steered the horse-drawn cart while the automobile raced tenaciously alongside on the main road. One of the Longguo soldiers in the back of the pickup lifted a weapon, and Esther instantly recognized it.

"Darts!" screeched the cat.

The soldier aimed the rifle in their direction; darts rained down around the little group and the cart weaved from side-to-side as Tresser tried to evade them.

Instinct was at the forefront. Keeping his grip on the reins, he used the whip to lash at their pursuers until the whip caught upon the dart rifle; Tresser gave a harsh pull and the soldier lost his balance in the pickup, toppling over backwards as the rifle was ripped from him. The pursuing car swerved sidelong and was left behind as it reached the end of the paved road.

No one could believe it, and there was a little exclamation of joy from everyone in the cart. Filbert gave a jump into the air, cheering ecstatically, "You won my vote!"

The moment of triumph was soon to be interrupted when Tresser looked back at the path and realized they were careening headlong towards yet another vehicle full of Longguo soldiers. He jerked sharply upon the reins, and the horses bolted left; the cart swung sideways from inertia, but did not overturn.

It shook violently as it splashed through the creek to the opposing bank, beyond which was a field – and then it came into view. The international river, with the small town beyond the border-house and bridge and the Sarrillian flag flying cheerily in the breeze.

The border! Safety at last! Tresser yanked hard on the reins and the horses lurched to a halt.

"Get the hell outta the cart," neighed one of the horses.

It was hardly necessary; they were already dismounting. The Longguo soldiers at the border joined with the ones hurling themselves out of the vehicles, all with dart rifles, in pursuit as the little group sprinted desperately towards the astounded Sarrillian border guards. Tresser was waving at his soldiers, the expectation of victory alight in his eyes.

"Shoot!" Tresser called to them.

"We can't shoot across the border; we have to call the incident in," one of the Sarrillian guards informed him.

Tresser was in disbelief. "What do you mean you can't shoot! They're after us!"

"We need to get approval from the prime minister," shouted the guard.

There was a moment of stunned silence; then Tresser shouted back:

"I'm the prime minister!"

No such bureaucratic impediment held back the Longguo guards, who fired incessantly at the little group. Tresser was outraged at the irony of it all and the expression on his face let it be evident.

"Dave, get a shot of that!" Samantha cried, pointing to the increasing number of Longguo soldiers coming up to stand atop the rise of the hill.

"Every animal for himself!" cried Filbert as the escapees now scattered in flight towards the border line.

Esther was fastest and dashed across the bridge into Sarrilla, ahead of the others. "Feline immunity! I have feline immunity!" she practically shrieked, her tail held high.

No one aimed for Esther, anyway. All rifles were trained diligently upon Tresser, who was the prize captive in this burgeoning war. He ducked, feeling the slash of air as one of the drug-laden projectiles whizzed past his cheek, at once marveling at the soldiers' bad aim and fearing that any moment one of the darts should hit their mark.

Shui and Xing, meanwhile, were next to reach the bridge. They held out their passports. "We're seeking political asylum!" Shui stated.

Filbert raced across the bridge railing. "Squirrel balance, don't fail me now," he chattered.

Samantha and Dave ran up to the dividing line on the bridge; rather than crossing into Sarrilla, they poised themselves in the midpoint of international territory. Dave focused the camera back towards Longguo, while Samantha held up both of their press cards to the Sarrillian guards.

The prime minister was last, just from the circuitousness in trying to dodge the onslaught of darts. Tresser bounded onto the bridge, and was so amazed at the two journalists' unconcern he waved to them to move to safety. Samantha and Dave took a few casual steps backwards into Sarrillian territory, still filming all the while.

Tresser was nearly at the border line when a shrill cry reached him. "Help!"

Tresser glanced back to see Susan's little fox terrier. Whitmore was running but still lagging behind, trying desperately to reach him, even as darts assailed the bridge.

Whitmore! Against better judgement perhaps, Tresser turned back, sprinting a couple of paces and scooped up the little dog. He looked up, just as a sharpness pierced his leg; he lost balance from the sudden pain and they both fell into the river.

"Are you getting this, Dave?" Samantha exclaimed.

"I'm zooming in!" Dave assured.

Tresser felt himself floundering as he tried to hang onto Whitmore yet contend with the pain and numbness in his leg. He kicked out, frustration weighing upon him as a knowledge of swimming was found useless in his injury, and was somewhat aware of the journalists recording, of the border guards shouting, and of when Shui handed Xing the pocket watch before leaping into the river and helping him to the Sarrillian shore.

Tresser collapsed on the grass. Whitmore freed himself from his grasp and, shaking the water off himself, looked on as others surrounded Tresser.

The prime minister realized the Sarrillian guards had joined his travelling companions who were all standing about him. At the same time, he found a drowsiness slowly settling and in such a state preferred to gaze up at the clouds; they were white and sparse, against a peaceful light blue sky. Tresser knew the drowsiness was induced and drew his eyes away from the clouds, towards the now-subdued pain in his leg, to catch sight of the sedative dart embedded like a porcupine quill.

"Not another one of those damn darts," scowled Tresser as the effects began to overtake him.

"Don't worry, Prime Minister," assured one of the guards, "You're safe now on Sarrillian soil."

"No thanks to you," Tresser snapped, "considering we had to drag ourselves across the border."

Shui was gazing inscrutably towards the guards on the Longguo side, as if studying something there; he glanced back at the prime minister and smiled reassuringly – or worryingly.

"Just try to relax," was the last thing Tresser heard before he passed out.

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Chapter 30 - The Return

A groggy Tresser stirred in his bed, eventually opening his eyes and noticing everyone surrounding him in expectation. He realized he was in the Sarrillian border-house, and for the first time since the debacle of the state gala, he felt safe. Whitmore was beside him on the bed, his head resting on Tresser's arm and tail wagging.

"What a blessing to be back on free Sarrillian soil," Tresser said.

"Who should tell him?" the squirrel asked.

"I'll do it," Samantha said, "It's my job to report news anyway. Prime Minister, we are in occupied territory."

"How can that be?" asked a squinty eyed Tresser.

"They shot the Sarrillian guards at the border and marched their army in. The townspeople didn't want to deal with it so they surrendered peaceably."

Tresser swallowed a couple of times, nervously. "You mean nobody did anything to stop them?!"

Samantha nodded and added, "The rest of Sarrilla is fine. The Longguo army has not been able to advance further in. They weren't able to fit their tanks on the highway connecting to the next town, you see."

A visibly angry Tresser exclaimed, "Well! That's a miracle! Another thing, what are the top generals doing?! Has no one taken charge?!"

"Forgive me for pointing this out, prime minister..." Samantha added, "your deputy is dead... maybe the Sarrillian government is trying to regroup and figure out a strategy?"

Tresser sat up in bed, muttering obscenities and putting his head in his hands. He had such a headache that he might have stayed lying down in other sorts of circumstances, but this was too outrageous.

"Who knows what they'll do to me now," complained the prime minister. "It's bad enough I keep getting poked with these damn darts. I've gotten so many of them I'm probably getting fucking immunity."

"That's a fascinating conjecture," Shui analyzed, "Prime Minister, would you mind donating a blood sample to aid with a study of subconscious influence on drug efficacy? It's for science," he added seriously.

Tresser was getting red in the face.

"Shui, perhaps you should ask him later," Xing suggested.

Shui took a notepad from his pocket and wrote down a few lines then put it away. He said nothing else on the matter.

"Incidentally, Esther was right about the monkey," Samantha added, "Turns out the Longguo army had bribed him with that pile of bananas. His job for them is to keep watch near the border for any escaping political prisoners."

"Damn darts and damn monkeys," was Tresser's surly retort. He was still clutching his head in his hands, trying hopelessly to fend off soreness. "I have a headache."

It was an understatement. He had an incisive pain, like a tightness in his forehead reaching down to his eyes, which made him crave lying down to attempt sleeping it off despite his fears of what might await them.

"You have no headache," replied Shui easily.

When he said that, the prime minister immediately felt relief. "Thank you, Shui. The headache is gone."

"You're welcome," smiled Shui.

Dave changed the topic. "I can't be the only one still amazed how you handled those horses back there."

The squirrel Filbert hopped onto the blankets. "Yeah, where'd you learn to drive carts like chariots?"

Tresser tipped back in bed again. "Well...I've been known to do some fox-hunting." The way he spoke, it inadvertently sounded like a feeble excuse.

"With that horsemanship? I pity the fox," quipped Filbert.

Esther swished her tail, with a different viewpoint to the enigma. "It's something innate. Perhaps from your royal ancestors from Longguo...didn't kings in ancient days lead the calvary during wartime?" She spoke assuredly.

"I'm not Longguo royalty," Prime Minister Tresser insisted. Yet the cat only squinted her eyes and purred.

Approximately one hour afterwards, three Longguo soldiers came to the room where the group was. They were led by the emperor's second-in-command, General Wu, who stood at attention at the doorway.

"By order of our supreme commander," began Wu, "You are to be brought back to the palace to await judgement by his royal majesty Li."

Tresser stood up and took a couple of steps to the side, until he halted, a bit unsteadily, and faced them. He took a deep breath before speaking:

"Your 'supreme commander' as you call him... will regret this... and you can tell him I – James Tresser, Prime Minister of Sarrilla – has said so."

A smirk spread across the general's face as he replied:

"Before long there won't be a Sarrilla. Nevertheless, tell him your message yourself, while you still have life."

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The little group was escorted out of the border-house by a throng of Longguo soldiers. The prime minister cringed to see the Longguo flag flying above occupied Sarrillian soil, and found he was briefly contented by a blissful idea of Li's forces eventually shooting whomever was the one of his cabinet ministers so slipshod as to permit the capture of the town. The daydream was marred when he remembered that would mean Longguo had made their way to the capital, and after that he was simply repulsed by the thought of how he must look internationally, being paraded back to Longguo as a recaptured prisoner.

Tresser's hands were tied, but with so many weapons trailed upon him he didn't see much chance of flight anyway. No one else was bound; however, he knew fully well Samantha and Dave weren't going to escape – not when they were in the thick of a developing news story, anyway – and Shui and Xing seemed to a certain point accustomed to relenting to the soldiers by sheer virtue of having dwelt so long in dictatorial Longguo. Whitmore refused to leave Tresser's side, and Esther as the prophecy cat was expected back at the palace – and with the promise of the luxuries there, all too happy to return – whilst Filbert had thought about staying in the border town and making his way back into Sarrilla, but swiftly decided he should accompany the others back after, he claimed, he overheard some of the occupying soldiers saying something about using local wildlife to train their attack dogs.

So that was that, and the whole group returned to the imperial palace by afternoon.

They were led into the throne room, before Li. Esther scampered over to the emperor and leapt onto his lap. He stroked the cat. "My legendary feline. I knew your presence amongst my escaped captives would bring them back, just as your presence here will bring good fortune to the empire."

Esther purred loudly in reply, and Li added, "I had this commissioned for you, upon your safe return." The emperor motioned to a servant, who stepped away and returned with a red silk jewelry box embroidered with dragons. He bowed and opened this to present a shimmering diamond collar with pure gold accents.

"It's shiny!" The cat's blue eyes gleamed delightedly.

"Great," muttered Filbert, "Now we'll never leave Longguo."

"You were never going to, anyway." Everyone looked at the entryway to see who had spoken, and it took Tresser a moment and a double-take to recognize her.

It was Susan Ferry, accompanied by a retinue of Longguo soldiers. But the prime minister had never seen her attired in any way other than the standard skirt-suits and office wear that were Sarrillian civil service dress code. She wore a glistening gold qipao dress, and had her brown hair up in the exotic Longguo formal style. It seemed almost as unusual to him as the authoritative look in her blue eyes, which presented itself together with a certain cleverness and self-recognition of it.

Li extended a hand to Susan, which she took gracefully. "May I present to you her highness, Susan, consort to Emperor Li of Longguo," he announced.

Tresser did not seem to know what to say.

Samantha, of course, was both tactful and inquisitive. "Congratulations. When was the wedding?"

"Fuck that shit!" exclaimed Tresser, "Susan, do you know what you're doing?"

Susan, ignoring Tresser, answered Samantha. "The wedding was yesterday."

"With our marriage began the next phase of Longguo history, as did the next phase of my plans...bringing me to the four of you." Li addressed Shui, Xing, Samantha and Dave, and as he spoke Esther's tail started to swish irritably. "The white cat's selection of four was for the sole purpose of reading the ancient words. As this has been done, your special positions have henceforth been relinquished. West and Candid, my agreement with you stands. Dr. Qiang however...you and Xing shall live, for now. It is a privilege I grant to few deserters. Whether you keep your lives or not rests upon whether you acquiesce to my reign."

Shui and Xing gave a little bow, but neither replied, and Tresser had the notion they were probably scheming something as usual.

Esther however, was incensed at what she viewed a slight. "They're my chosen servants," she hissed disapprovingly.

"I shall get you a thousand servants in their place," declared Li. "You shall be honored at every state gala and have a portion of all the treasures from the lands I conquer. Your kittens shall be the foundation of a new royal breed."

Esther thought about this, and then gradually lifted her ears. "Actually, that's a pretty good trade-off," she considered.

"Ok, yeah – we're screwed," said Filbert the squirrel.

Meanwhile, Susan's gaze was upon the prisoners, and Tresser felt his heart stop for a brief moment when she pointed at the little dog Whitmore.

"That ungrateful creature," she said, with the hint of a spiteful smile, "deserted me and the Longguo army at the grotto, and aided these prisoners in their escape."

"Shoot the beast," ordered Emperor Li.

"Hold it!" a hiss broke forth; Esther took a huge leap and landed squarely in front of Whitmore.

"If anyone harms this dog – a curse will fall upon the nation, and the man who pulls the trigger."

Emperor Li stared at the cat, and even the guards seemed to shy away. "Why?" demanded Li.

Everyone turned to Esther, to see how she would justify this. Esther didn't flinch.

"This dog and I together represent yin and yang," Esther declared. "This canine is being placed before you in these circumstances to test the empire, your majesty. To remove either one of us would disrupt the balance of chi in Longguo."

Susan was laughing. "That's hilarious! Why..."

Li however was serious. "See that this dog receives the finest care here in the palace," he said.

Susan turned sharply towards him in astonishment, whereas Esther purred smoothly:

"You are a wise human, your majesty."

"If you ask me, the dog is the wrong animal to shoot," Susan scowled at the cat. Esther hissed back.

"Do you venture," Li faced Susan menacingly, "to address the royal cat of the legend with such disrespect?"

"No, your majesty," was her sole, swift response.

Li turned back to the prisoners. "They said, Mr. Tresser, that you are the blood heir to the Longguo throne."

Tresser tried unconvincingly to contest it, once more. "Emperor Li, the legend must have about as much credence as the one of Sarrilla's own monarchy. There cannot possibly be descendants left," he maintained. "Never mind this spurious notion that I would somehow be of the Longguo royal bloodline."

"If true, however, I should dispense with you as soon as possible. I am not yet convinced myself," Li then changed the topic. "At this moment, not only do I possess the Sarrillian border town across the river, but I have several ships surrounding your precious Caribbean commonwealth of Tropical Island. Your inept ministers seem at a loss as to whether I shall advance further into the mainland or capture the island."

The prime minister was surprised, yet Li appeared to be addressing Samantha and Dave. With a slight shrug as if their reaction had scant importance, Li turned again towards Tresser.

The prime minister spoke, "You think taking a small farming town and surrounding a tiny tourist isle shows the world the might of the Longguo empire?"

"I think holding you shows the might of my empire," Li corrected, "My forces have already reached Dew-Vale City."

This was news to Tresser, as well evidently as to Samantha and Dave; the reporter scribbled something in her notepad. Dew-Vale was the most populous city along Sarrilla's south. "You have not taken Dew-Vale City yet," Tresser asserted, without knowing.

"The city has been very obstinate," the emperor admitted. "It seems the people there are not as acquiescent as those of the border town."

"Then you've finally encountered some red-blooded Sarrillians," Tresser quipped.

"I am still deciding a course of action. They believe their ill-placed opposition will halt Longguo progress into the territory."

Something about Li's words sounded foreign to his ears, and the prime minister quickly realized what it was.

"...territory?"

"Sarrilla is no longer a sovereign nation. It is merely a territory, soon to be a Longguo province."

Tresser wanted to hit him.

...and he did, right across the chin. Li stumbled back as five Longguo soldiers leapt to seize Tresser and hauled him backwards, guns drawn and pointed at him.

Susan stifled an amused smile. Li rubbed his chin and stared Tresser down.

"You have decided the fate of Dew-Vale for me."

Tresser had a sudden inexplicable shiver run through him, like being pierced by a draft of winter's icy air. "What fate?"

"I will turn it over to Susan," Li replied evenly.

The enigmatic response at once lessened the prime minister's feeling of worry, to replace it with that of perplexity. He glanced at his former secretary and lover, who had no reaction except a mild smile.

Li turned and left, with Samantha and Dave chasing; they were trying to get an interview from him. It was all Tresser could do not to groan with exasperation. Susan meanwhile had turned to the general.

"Let the wind do my bidding," she murmured to Wu, who bowed reverently and stepped away.

Tresser stood apprehensively where he was, saying nothing, till Susan walked over and stood directly in front of him.

Her ocean-blue eyes sparkled with mischief, and Tresser realized she knew he had something he wanted to say, and was granting him the opportunity – the luxury – to say it. In reality, all he had was a question. It had nagged at him, like a thorn, ever since the revelation of her espionage at the grotto.

"Susan, you tricked us. Your side has now recaptured me. We're at the mercy of Emperor Li..." She nodded in affirmation to all he said, yet said nothing herself; at last, Tresser prompted:

"I rather thought you'd tell me why you did this and what your plans are now."

"Why would I do that?" she replied indifferently.

The reaction surprised Tresser, and he found himself seeking an answer to it even though he felt Susan's concealing the information was unnatural.

"You don't truly believe I'd give you a monologue about my motives, do you?" continued Susan. "Gloating is an easy way to have your plans foiled. With all regard to his majesty's fondness for it," she added.

"But how do you expect me to know the reason?"

"You have more answers than I ever did, your excellency. You merely don't have the courage to put two and two together."

With that she waved him off, leaving Tresser to be escorted away feeling entirely adrift in a sea of confusion.

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Chapter 31 - To Lead a Nation

Stanley did not know how long he could keep up the façade of orderly command in Sarrilla. The public was starting to realize that had been taken with Tresser.

Yesterday a newspaper reporter had hounded Stanley as to how the cabinet was managing to govern in unison, and when Stanley maintained it was like any council, like the councils of Vergledia, he was met with a follow-up question as to the nature of a skirmish he'd heard from a source had happened between the ministers of agriculture and commerce.

Stanley denied it, like a good PR agent, and said their dispute had been merely academic over legal wording. The truth was the two men had punched each other out over whether agriculture's secretly chartering a plane to escape the country "in case" constituted treason. But, Stanley had figured, the public doesn't need to know that.

Adding only to the unease and potential embarrassment was how Vergledia's councils did appear to have more judgement in a plan of action - albeit one Stanley cringed at.

"Vergledia is now closing their border," explained Maurice of foreign affairs, when Stanley had returned to the conference room. "They say they're worried about an influx of refugees...you know, when Longguo takes over..."

"My God, our image is being tarnished internationally," Stanley interrupted.

"They're not sure what'll happen. Our prime minister was recaptured after all. We're at the brink of war."

"We must look like wimps for letting that fiend on Longguo's throne get away with this." Stanley suddenly had a realization. "What do you mean, recaptured?"

"Here's the brief, if you want a good laugh," Maurice said humorlessly.

Stanley took the manila folder from him and leafed through it. He hesitated, reading one of the pages, before looking up at the cabinet ministers with visible astonishment.

Maurice spoke again. "Twenty casualties, all soldiers stationed at the border. No civilians yet. All our intelligence indicates Tresser was taken back to the Longguo palace."

"Birdbrain intelligence, mind you," added the wildlife minister, Washburn, with a sneer.

Stanley watched them incredulously. "You mean he was in Sarrilla?"

"Well, it was Sarrilla," Maurice responded.

"We heard Longguo's supreme leader might be re-naming the place," added Washburn carelessly. "I can't even pronounce it. I think it means something like 'first victory'."

"What kind of cabinet ministers are you?" exclaimed Stanley, "You first let the prime minister get kidnapped, now you let enemy forces march into one of our border towns."

"Hey, it's just one of those things," Washburn waved the matter off easily, "Security failings on the one end, now strategy missteps..."

"Strategy missteps?" Stanley interjected, with noticeable outrage as he slammed the documents back onto the table. "This says our damn border guards wouldn't fire when their commander in chief directly ordered them to! If Longguo hadn't done us the favor already, I'd have them all put to death for treason!"

"You would?" Washburn scoffed, and then shouted, "You're nothing but a penny-ante bureaucrat, Parnell!"

Stanley's reply was swift and to the point:

"Thus speaks the forgiven traitor who was once in cahoots with the dishonorable and deceased Governor Victor Ulrich."

The room was silent for a moment as they all let the suppressed piece of information float. Washburn looked down at his feet and said nothing in return. Meanwhile, the palace cats sat and purred contentedly.

"Do we know how Tresser's doing?" Stanley pursued.

"They're holding him separate from the others," Maurice answered with certainty.

The treasury minister, meanwhile, looked exasperated. "Fine way for Longguo to treat our prime minister, when we're sending them all those foreign aid packages..."

"Hold on..." Stanley stared at the treasury minister. "We're sending that warmongering dictator across the border what?"

"Economic and humanitarian aid... It looks good internationally."

"They're not even a third-world country!" Stanley lost it. "They have water and food over there! If the people don't have any it's because that asshole Li - who screwed his own economy, mind you - pilfers it all for himself! ...and you say we're still sending them foreign aid? After their overt acts of war?"

"Our taxes at work," Maurice scowled.

"Did Tresser know about this?" Stanley demanded.

"Did you ever tell him?" the treasury minister asked tentatively.

"I didn't know," Stanley growled.

"There you go," he smiled.

Stanley had enough. "You people are pathetic!" he exclaimed. "I could run this country better than all of you!"

Everyone stared at him. Washburn smirked, "You haven't got the guts."

Stanley response was a swift punch in Washburn's face.

Washburn sprawled on the ground. Shocked exclamations and murmurs tapered quickly down to silence.

"Arrest him!" shouted one of the other cabinet ministers, pointing at Stanley.

To the contrary, one of the generals saluted instead. "Mr. Parnell... I've been waiting for someone to do that to him for years."

"You can't agree on anything," Stanley shook his head, and spun around and left the conference room.

The ever-present little group of palace cats, observing everything, exchanged questioning glances. The eldest feline among them twitched an ear.

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Stanley returned to his office, feeling stressed. It was half-an-hour later that there was a knock on the door, and he opened it.

Maurice stood at the door with a number of manila folders clutched in one hand and flanked by two of the generals.

Stanley was point-blank, and did not let them speak first. "Honestly at this point I don't care if you arrest me. I'm on the verge of resigning anyway. I can't stand to see how you're letting the nation die in Tresser's absence."

Maurice was equally blunt. "You have been selected to act as interim prime minister."

Stanley stared at him for a moment disbelievingly.

"You're scheduled to take the oath of office within the hour as you're technically not already a member of parliament," Maurice added.

Stanley recovered himself. "Look I don't know what the cabinet is thinking but..."

"The cabinet was overruled," said Maurice.

"Overruled?" Stanley exclaimed in surprise. "How could the cabinet be overruled? What government agency is above it?"

"The cabinet," repeated Maurice, now terse, "was overruled."

Stanley half-expected Maurice to add the standard response as intelligence director of being able to neither confirm or deny; apparently he was unwilling or forbidden to explain. He decided not to press the matter further. It was evident any protest against the decision would probably be overruled in the same manner, too.

"The sooner we get on with protocol the better," Maurice went on speaking, "the war with Longguo has taken a new turn."

From the deadly seriousness about him, Stanley realized instantly it was not a good turn.

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Chapter 32 - Two Cities

Following the scene in the throne room, Tresser had been placed back in the holding cell, this time alone. He wondered where the others were.

At least it's still relatively comfortable here, he thought, considering the place. It was the same brightly lit one he had awoken in when he had been brought to Longguo, with the windowless peach walls and air conditioning, more a motel room than a holding cell, and he could only surmise why the courtesy. Perhaps he was in less danger than he thought? The prime minister had difficulty sleeping from his worries that evening but at last exhaustion took its toll and he passed out.

He woke what felt like several hours later, which must have meant it was morning, yet he could not be certain without a clock anywhere and he was still isolated. He started to speculate on how attempts at peace might be going. Maybe they were in the process of negotiating for his release. In that event, was his being kept solitary in this place a sign the negotiations were going well, or badly? He tried not to think about if the reason might, instead, have to do with his alleged bloodline according to the prophecy.

Hunger was gnawing at him again, and he alternately toyed with the idea they might bring food while at the same time doubting if it was wise to eat anything here lest it be drugged. Being so alone was starting to prey on his nerves strangely. He also found that he genuinely missed the others - even Samantha and Dave.

Finally, what seemed like even more hours later, Tresser heard footsteps beyond the door, which then unlocked as two soldiers stepped in alongside Susan. She was still attired like Longguo royalty, but it was a different dress than the one he had last seen her with. Tresser simply felt relieved to see another human being at this point. Susan, even if she had been working as a spy, was nonetheless someone he had known for a long time as a colleague; of all those on Li's side, he felt relatively safe speaking with her.

"Susan, I'd like to speak with a Sarrillian representative," was the first thing Tresser blurted out.

"What you'd like and what you'll do are different," she responded, though not sternly. "You're a prisoner, Prime Minister, not a houseguest."

"If Li's government wishes to bargain with Sarrilla, they must be given some proof of my life," he contended.

She did not address it. "They'll bring food shortly. I'll see that you're permitted to shave, too."

"Where are the others?"

"The scientists are serving as attendants to the royal cat Esther. Meanwhile the journalists have been entertaining themselves with filming a report on our military advancement. His majesty is quite pleased with the concept and is having it aired as a special on the state network."

"Somehow, none of that surprised me," Tresser grumbled. It was frustrating he was the only one locked up, whilst the others were given some level of freedom about the grounds and had not made any attempts at escape.

"You'll all be brought before his majesty in about an hour."

"What does he want?"

"The code for the SPARC laser, is one thing."

"You know I can't give that."

"It won't make much difference to your fate anyway," she replied ambiguously.

"Li said he won't stop at Sarrilla. He'll end up destroying the whole world," said Tresser.

"...or conquering it," Susan corrected.

"Susan, I don't care if he promised you gold or power or the glamour of marrying into royalty...you can't let him win."

"For what? The pride of standing up for Sarrillian values?"

She was so derisive, the prime minister felt it was useless to insist at the moment. He inquired instead:

"Li said you were going to decide something about Dew-Vale City."

"Oh yes, Dew-Vale. I find myself short of breath merely thinking of the place. The wind has been blowing north-ward all day," she waved him off.

"So?"

"I let the wind do my bidding."

Tresser then realized what it meant, and he was determined to not let it come to pass.

"You're going to gas Dew-Vale with chemical weapons," he stated.

She smiled indulgently.

"In the name of humanity, you can't, Susan."

"You were very willing to burn up an entire country, at a word, with that doomsday laser."

"That's...quick. And I regret having weighed the option, anyway. The people of Longguo are not at fault for their leader." Tresser pushed the awkward irony of the recollection away. "Susan, what you're thinking of doing is different on many levels. Chemical weapons were outlawed alongside nuclear bombs many years ago because they're barbaric. The international outcry..."

She cut him off. "The international 'community' is like any other, with backstabbing cliques and outward decorum and hidden fears. They care about their own little countries, their four little borders. No one thinks about how what happens to their neighbor might one day happen to them." Susan then shrugged her shoulders. "Anyway, Longguo can manufacture everything essential itself, so sanctions are not something we need be terrified of."

"You can't gas the city," he insisted, "You can't slaughter so many innocent human lives... civilians... women... children... You must call the airplanes back."

She seemed amused. "You speak as if it were forthcoming."

"Isn't it?"

"It's in the past," Susan emphasized.

Tresser was horrified into silence. He stared at her, as if he believed it to be a poor joke.

"There is no more Dew-Vale City," she twisted the knife, "There hasn't been since early morning. Dew-Vale graveyard is more accurate, at least till Longguo can repopulate it."

"I never thought of you as a murderer."

"You never thought of me as a spy," she replied easily.

Once more, he found himself fighting to find an answer.

"I will wipe Sarrilla out of the memories of mankind," she continued fervently, "You and the nation you stand for will both cease to exist. The phoenix will be swallowed by the dragon."

He reencountered his voice, and it was livid. "It's genocide of your own people...!"

"What is the old adage? The one treated coldly by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth?"

She had an unusually twisted smile, which Tresser could not interpret if he had cared to at the moment.

He persisted, "Sarrilla gave you everything, Susan. You had one of the highest civil positions in the nation. You had no reason!"

"I would worry less about the fate of your people, Prime Minister, and more about your own," she said sinisterly before stepping out of the room.

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In Sarrilla, Stanley had called a hurried cabinet meeting after the attack on Dew-Vale. It was a calamity, and Maurice tallied the dead and injured like the results of a macabre horse race, fueling fury against Longguo in everyone around the table. For all attempts at avoiding war, conflict had been thrust upon them, and Stanley was adamant that the enemy should face it too.

"What's the largest Longguo city near our border?"

"Shanjiang."

"Shanjiang as a tribute for Dew-Vale. Make their people suffer like ours did. Raze the city. Slaughter them all."

"Women and children?"

"They didn't give a fuck about our women and children," Stanley retorted. "They want a return to the indiscriminate bloodshed of ancient warfare? We'll oblige them. On their damned land."

Maurice tried unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. "Shall I scramble our fighters?"

"The sooner the better," Stanley growled as the foreign affairs minister left the conference room.

Stanley returned to his office. It was peculiar perhaps that he was still working out of the press secretary office, having now taken on the duties of a wartime leader, but he did not expect to keep these new responsibilities indefinitely. The sooner Sarrilla could be returned to normalcy, he figured, the better.

The last he expected was for his mother to show up to the office, having apparently waited here for him.

"Stan," she told him, "I would not bother you at such a busy moment but when I heard you were currently leading Sarrilla in the prime minister's absence, I thought the proper time had come to tell you some secrets I have kept for years...it concerns you."

Stanley sat down, looking at her with a perplexed look on his face. "Mother... must this be the moment..."

She interrupted him, "Your father was the former Longguo emperor."

"What?"

"We met while he was visiting Sarrilla and...we had a love affair... but traditions were strong in Longguo and his family refused to permit him to marry a foreigner. He returned to Longguo to an arranged marriage and a short time later I found out I was pregnant with you."

"You kept this a secret all these years? Why didn't you tell me before?"

"Because your father had a son and a daughter with his wife, and they would've inherited the throne... it was pointless to say anything, at least until you were grown up so you would have your own career established...and when I heard you were now leading Sarrilla...facing off with the tyrant who overthrew your father...I felt you must know the truth." She drew in a breath. "You're the last surviving heir to the Longguo throne, Stanley."

"Thank you for telling me," he said finally and, getting up from his seat, gave her a hug. She hugged him back and left the office.

As he sat back down, a meow made Stanley alert to one of the cats under his desk.

"So now you know," said the cat, looking up at him with round eyes.

"Did you know?" Stanley remarked.

"We make it a point to know everything," replied the cat casually.

"Feline diligence," accepted Stanley. "Still, if I'm the leader of Longguo, then I've..."

Suddenly, a dreadful realization of irony came to him, and before he could do much more than stand from the desk the foreign affairs minister walked in clutching a manila folder.

Maurice had a look of vengeful pride on his face as he recounted:

"The city of Shanjiang has been obliterated. Would you like the current total of casualties?"

Stanley fell back into the office chair, astonished at the turn of events, but his military training took over and he concealed it well from all but the observant palace cat.

"No...that's alright Maurice. I'll let you know."

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Chapter 33 - Of Cats and Kings

Stanley spent the rest of the day practically sequestered in his office. He had instructed the cabinet and generals to inform him straightaway if and when Longguo should respond to the counter-strike.

Two more of the palace cats wandered in, joining the cat who had remained, curled up and purring, on Stanley's lap. They were drawn to him, it seemed, having perceived his concerns, and feeling perhaps as if by their presence they might offer some peace.

Stanley could not see any way they could help by being there, save as a demonstration of solidarity. Still, the cats were never barred from anywhere in the palace; his office was no exception.

The conflict spun round and round in his thoughts. Li's actions, his reactions, and the tragedy of the past. Finally Stanley voiced these thoughts aloud to the listening cats.

"I guess I wonder, if I had known but an hour earlier...would I have made the decision to bomb Shanjiang." Stanley ended the statement dully, with a tone slowly turning jaded.

The cat twitched his tail. "No one said being a leader was easy. There are kings who have so much respect for the responsibility, they feel not even their ancestry qualifies them to make those decisions forever. Human choices can never be infallible. Yet in the end, whether it be in your bloodline or not, every ruler must do what they think is best."

"Li does what he thinks best for himself," Stanley noted sourly.

"You have the interests of Sarrilla at heart," the cat meowed, without answering him directly, "With your newfound knowledge, you now have the interests of Longguo as well. Maybe the two don't have to clash. Phoenix and Dragon have always complemented each other, like Yin and Yang. We have every certainty you can lead Sarrilla and, eventually, Longguo."

The cats sat straightly with their tails coiled around their paws. Stanley watched them, and gradually a little smile returned to him - the first since he had learnt the truth of his ancestry. "You cats have a lot of wisdom."

"We're cats," was the concise explanation.

"I can see why the old kings of Sarrilla kept you around," he added appreciatively.

At this point, his secretary walked into the office. "We have Emperor Li on the phone. He asked to speak with you."

Stanley had expected this from the time his leadership had been announced, and especially after the decimation of the respective cities. "Put him through here to the office phone."

Stanley let the telephone ring twice before lifting the receiver and introducing himself. "Stanley Parnell speaking."

"Well," said the emperor on the other line, "I see you have wasted no time in installing yourself as the de facto leader of Sarrilla." Discussion of the military strikes were wholly omitted.

"Get to the point," said Stanley, "what are you calling about?"

"Our point of interest is Tresser," Li answered succinctly.

"Are we going to rehash an old conversation?" Stanley responded. "Give us our prime minister or suffer the consequences."

"You dare to play with Tresser's life?"

Stanley stood up from the desk, now shouting back:

"Your mistake, Li, is thinking I'm the same as Prime Minister Tresser. I don't give a fuck about your threats. Your palace will go up in a ball of fire because I don't care who I have to sacrifice in order to save two nations!"

So saying, Stanley hung up sharply.

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In Longguo, the telephone line had cut off. Li spun towards his servants furiously.

"Find out everything you can of this Stanley Parnell. What his background is, where he lives, who he sleeps with! Every detail, at once!"

The servants bowed, and when they left Li turned to Susan and Wu. Esther was also here, sitting atop Li's desk as she watched the rattlesnake sideways; the diamond collar she now wore shimmered strikingly in her long white fur.

Susan spoke first. "Stanley? Oh please," she grinned, "you mean to tell me the only one who has the guts to take charge is the press secretary?"

"He is not to be feared, then?" inquired Li.

"He's got a military background," explained Susan, "but if he's the only one, out of a bevy of top generals and cabinet ministers over there, to step forward...it shows the world he's leading a bunch of dimwits."

Esther flexed her claws. "I'm pretty sure the world knows they're a bunch of dimwits. Have you ever watched parliament meet?"

"He's in the early stages of command," Susan strategized. "I wouldn't be surprised if a few of his new subordinates soon remember he's technically their subordinate and try their luck at overthrowing him. So he's got to deal with internal discord on top of us. The perfect storm for Sarrilla."

Li's eyes darted towards General Wu. "Mobilize our army to the north. Defend against any further incursion into our land."

"As you command, your majesty," said Wu, and left.

Susan spun to face Li. "That's all? A defensive stance?"

"For the moment," responded Li.

"Now's our chance," declared Susan with elation, "We can attack!"

"Not yet," replied Li.

"Why not?"

"The day is not auspicious."

She stared incredulously at him.

"It is a monkey day," he added by way of explanation.

"A monkey day," Susan echoed.

"I get that totally," meowed Esther, from her perch. "You gotta avoid monkeys like the plague. Bad shit happens when you don't."

Susan was silent briefly, then dipped her head. "Your majesty, if you might grant your unworthy consort the privilege of voicing her humble view."

His stern expression seemed to soften, rather unexpectedly. Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing Susan act in such a way, so unlike her and yet so quintessentially of Longguo. Or the secret truth for Li, that he was gradually coming to regard her in a way he had never regarded any woman before. "Of all the imperial flowers, you are the most honored, gracious, and loyal. You may speak openly."

"This tendency towards superstition is a lot of bullshit," she snapped, the venom returning to her voice.

Li did not react. Susan continued:

"If there's a prophecy or whatever over the white cat, then I see no reason to be observing any of this other Eastern metaphysical lore especially when victory is at hand. Longguo has the white cat and so her paw of approval already. That's what...we...wanted," she ended a little flatly.

"I have no paw of approval on monkeys," Esther interjected. Susan shot a withering look at her.

Li replied tolerantly. "The cat is a small tiger. The energies of tiger and monkey clash. We hold off on the attack till tomorrow."

So saying, he turned and left. Esther purred and hopping down from the table, chased after him.

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Chapter 34 - Song of a Caged Bird

Food was at last brought, and Tresser was gratified for it even though it was stale bread and water.

Susan and a retinue of guards were present as he ate. His worries eased themselves just a bit – if they were feeding him, then at least they did not wish him to die of hunger. Perhaps Longguo's diplomats were coming to a compromise with Sarrilla's and they were close to releasing him. He ventured to ask Susan if hostage negotiations were going anywhere.

"What negotiations?" asked Susan.

"That answers my question," responded Tresser dismally.

"You're about as dependent on our mercy right now as a caged bird." Susan spoke flatly. "What we can do to you is limited only by our imagination...and our imagination can be lethal."

"You really agree with all this," he murmured, rather dejectedly.

"I have my reasons."

"Then let me know what they are," he looked up directly at her.

He could see her tense briefly. But she gave no answer.

"Li is waiting for us. Finish eating already," she ordered instead.

After eating, he was led out to the throne room by four guards who held him at gunpoint. When he reached the room, he found Li waiting there. Also here were the others: Shui and Xing, Samantha and Dave, Esther, Filbert and Whitmore. Evidently they had all been called before the emperor.

Samantha was the first to speak, holding out her microphone. "Prime Minister, are you ok? No one has been permitted to see you."

"I'm fine," he answered. He was focused on Li, who smiled smugly.

"You have heard of Dew-Vale," Li stated.

"I've heard," responded Tresser curtly.

"The retaliatory strike by Sarrilla fell upon Shanjiang this morning," added Li indifferently.

"At least," Tresser snapped.

"I think there is no longer question of the dragon and phoenix's warfare, just as there is no longer any question about the Longguo royal family's survivor." Li fixed his eyes sharply upon the captive prime minister.

Weariness intertwined with new worry. "I've told you," insisted Tresser. "There's no way I could be Longguo royalty. And furthermore I have no interest in your throne. The only thing I would like is for our countries to arrive at a peace before more blood is shed."

Surprisingly, Li seemed to agree with him.

"What you say is true about not being Longguo royalty. We have already received word of who is – corresponding duly with the prophecy."

The prime minister was tentatively relieved. "Who is that?" he asked.

"Your press secretary, Mr. Stanley Parnell," Li said.

Tresser stared at him in disbelief.

"Mr. Parnell," Li elaborated, "is apparently the result of an affair the late Longguo emperor had with a woman across the border. That bastard is now currently heading the Sarrillian government until your supposed rescue."

"Stanley," Tresser echoed thoughtfully, in a whisper.

Li continued speaking. "So you see, though you may be the elected leader of Sarrilla, you are not heir to the Longguo throne."

He studied the prime minister before adding:

"This means I have no urgency to kill you...unfortunately for you."

Shui chimed in. "Such time-consuming inefficiency! Emperor, I can extract the information you wish from him under hypnosis."

"Shui!" protested an appalled Tresser.

Li eyed the scientist with suspicion. "You were quite insistent, Dr. Qiang, that he was of the character to resist divulging the code. So too, did you have the audacity to refuse to be party to this."

The scientist adjusted his eyeglasses with a smile. "Ineptitude is perhaps as irksome to me as it is to you, your majesty. Hypnotism is a practical science; practicality frequently bares enmity with inefficiency. I wished to complete my test, you see. Psychological methods can oftentimes be even more excruciating than the physical, if applied properly."

Li looked surprised, but impressed. "So, you are not so soft as I had conjectured. I see you did learn something from your father."

"Shui, you can't mean this seriously!" Tresser objected when the hypnotist walked over.

"Now, excellency, don't try to resist. It's not in your best interest," Shui said, rather pointedly, and dangled the gold pocket watch before him. "Sleep."

Tresser could not help but cast one glance at the watch, and his amber eyes took on a blank look.

"You are completely relaxed, deep in the spell." Shui studied him for a moment and then spoke. "Do you know the code to operate the SPARC transceiver?"

"Yes."

"Very good."

There was a hush throughout the throne room that seemed to last an eon, then Shui spoke again.

"Forget the code!" he exclaimed. "It is wiped from your mind. Even now you cannot recall it..."

Li was outraged. "Seize him!" he cried, and the soldiers flung themselves upon the scientist.

"Wake up! Wide awake!" Shui called, and Tresser seemed to reorient himself; the soldiers brought the scientist before the emperor.

Shui explained. "He would never have revealed the code anyway; his resolve is too strong. Now you have to get through my suggestion on top of his personal willpower. I hypothesize that your failure in this is certain."

"Your insubordination is equal to sedition, and you no longer have the shield of being necessary for my plan," Li said sharply. "Tell me – for I fail to see your reasoning."

"His mind knows the code, so you can't kill him. But he cannot make himself recall them. Only I can do that."

The emperor faced the hypnotist, who was tranquil and awaiting what he knew would be the predicted response. At last, Li said, "I would not intend to test your autohypnotic ability to resist duress. I intend to test Xing's."

Shui glanced briefly at Xing. Li continued speaking:

"In any event time is fleeting. Sarrilla is already struggling without a leader. The energy ray is inconsequential to conquering them at this point. If it is too much bother, I will forgo it and dispense with the lot of you. Failure is inefficiency, Dr. Qiang – and your failure here is your last."

Shui was surrounded by the guards; as he turned to leave with them, he glanced briefly at the prime minister.

Tresser gazed at him steadily. "Dr. Qiang Shui...that was courageous."

"Don't worry about me," Shui gave a small smile and walked away with the guards, who also escorted Xing. Esther leapt hissing from Emperor Li's lap.

Emperor Li then turned to Tresser with a scowl. "If you cannot tell me the code, your existence serves no further use. You will be executed soon."

The prime minister was astonished, even as the soldiers pulled him out of the throne room. "Emperor Li – you can't truly mean this! Why can't we come to some sort of a peace agreement?"

"I'm not interested in peace," Li waved him away easily.

Whitmore snarled and tried to leap at the guards, but Tresser halted him.

"Stay, Whitmore," Tresser ordered sharply, and the little dog – obedient but uncertain – fell back whimpering as his chosen master was forced away from the throne room.

The emperor turned to Susan, who wore a cold smile. "Does this please the royal consort?"

"Very much so," she replied.

She stood and, with a bow, left the throne room. Whitmore chased after her, a howl rising in his throat. "Susan!"

"Get out of my sight, you useless mutt." She spoke with such resentment that Whitmore halted at once, his eyes large and sorrowful.

There was an obscure emotion in Susan's gaze. "Dogs only bring trouble," she added, bitterly, and walked away.

Esther hissed, leaping to Whitmore's side. "You don't need her for a human. Come on, let's find Shui."

Li turned to the remaining two present – Samantha and Dave. "You will videotape what befalls the former leader of Sarrilla and add it to your report. After you televise it, you may return to Sarrilla."

He's really letting us go? Samantha still did not believe it, but she did not pursue it either. She could tell her cameraman shared her skepticism. "So, who do you feel won the challenge?"

"The challenge is not over," said Li. "You still have to televise your report."

She glanced at her notepad and scribbled something down. "I request an interview with the prime minister," Samantha stated, looking back up at the emperor.

Li smiled with amusement. "What use could it serve? To chronicle the last words of a condemned man?"

"It's not unheard of. It usually makes for a riveting exclusive."

The emperor observed Samantha, whose green eyes were fixed on him coldly.

He relented. "I underestimated all of you, it seems. Samantha West, you are granted your interview. You have half-an-hour with him."

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Chapter 35 - Honoring the Ancestors

Whitmore huddled in the hallway, a dismal sight. The little terrier whined sadly, while Filbert tried to console him. Meanwhile, Esther strolled back and forth before them, fangs bared in frustration like a caged tiger.

"Look, I'm a squirrel," said Filbert, "so my kind get along great without people. But I know it means a whole lot to you...one human rejects you, the other one led off to die..."

"You realize that makes it sound way worse than it is?" Esther growled when Whitmore's whine grew higher-pitched.

"I know you're both trying to help..." Whitmore whimpered, "but it's even worse than all that. I don't know who my human is."

Esther flattened her ears. "Why do dogs feel they must have a human? I don't think your ancestors the wolves saw being wild like the end-all of the world. They survived well enough on their own, and when they did get a human they chose him or her - not the other way around."

"Do you really think that's how it happened, Esther? Do you think they actually chose the cavemen who would be their first humans, instead of the other way around?"

"Why wouldn't they? Of course, we cats are better at picking, instead of just settling for cavemen. That's why my ancestors got a whole country to worship us felines."

"Well, if I am going to pick my human, then I pick...the prime minister. He's actually treated me like a friend, and now he's in trouble...I don't know where he is, but as his dog I've got to find him." Renewed resolve shone in Whitmore's eyes.

"First, we find Shui."

"How come?"

"Because he's Shui," chimed in Filbert. "His Shui-ing could come in useful."

"Ok," agreed Whitmore, "let's go."

Shui was waiting patiently in another windowless holding room. There was no furniture in this one at all, but the lighting was bright.

He glanced expectantly at his pocket watch when three men pushed into the room. They were burly soldiers taller than Shui, with brutish, stern appearances.

"As anticipated," Shui said nonchalantly as he put the watch back in his vest pocket. "Sent to physically punish those who deviate from his majesty's designs. Maybe you can inform me, however, as to where my dear Xing is."

"You want to know about your wife? General Wu has her," said one, with a sneer. "He's taken over the post of State Security commissioner."

"I have no doubt her fate will be even less pleasant than yours," goaded another.

Shui did not indulge them with outburst. "No doubt," he replied, terse.

He evaluated them swiftly.

"The three of you seem sleepy," Shui began.

The guards, however, laughed. "You think we're going to fall for that?"

"Ah, yes," relented Shui. "Hypnotic susceptibility has been documented to exert more influence upon those with high intellect. Perhaps the process would be unnecessarily time-consuming with you."

"We're going to knock some respect for the emperor into you, smart-ass," the guard growled.

"A pity it must resort to this," Shui sighed, removing his eyeglasses slowly.

From outside the room, the animals' fur frizzed when they heard the sounds of a one-sided struggle, thuds and grunts of pain that were clearly someone incapable of fighting back.

"They're beating him up! We gotta get in there!" squeaked Filbert.

They tackled the door desperately till it opened, whereupon the animals flung themselves into the room before halting in amazement.

Shui's movements were swift and impressive. Years of martial arts training were evident as he beat up the guards that were surrounding him.

The guards, having been unable to land one punch themselves, now all lay in crumpled heaps on the floor. Shui placed his eyeglasses back on the bridge of his nose and fixed his eyes on the animals. "Why, the fauna. I hardly expected your appearance here."

"So our scientist is both bookish and badass," Filbert chattered approvingly.

"A kick ass Shui!" exclaimed Esther the cat, "That's cool."

Shui did not reply to this. "I must find Xing. Have you perchance seen her?"

"Nope," Esther meowed, "we thought they were holding her with you."

"General Wu took her," Shui replied grimly.

Filbert leapt onto his shoulder. "We'll tag along and help."

"What about Tresser?" protested Whitmore.

"The PM can wait," Filbert said.

"They said they were going to kill him," Whitmore whimpered, but Shui had already hurried out the door and the others were following along.

They came to a wide, octagonal room, with brick flooring and a high ceiling held up by columns along the walls. Wu was holding Xing by an arm, perilously near a pit in the center of the floor. Shui hesitated at the entryway.

"Dr. Qiang," the general stated curtly.

"General Wu," responded the scientist in like fashion. He glanced at Xing, who looked as if she would have been struggling against Wu's grip if she were not so afraid of falling.

"You know well what this place is," prodded Wu. "I was present the day you accompanied your father."

"Yes," said Shui.

Wu pushed Xing into the pit.

Xing landed roughly on the stone ground. As she stood unsteadily, the sounds of an ensuing scuffle reached her from overhead.

She looked up to see two bright eyes watching from the shadows. As she watched them back, the tawny figure stepped out into view, licking its lips expectantly. It was a puma.

Xing screamed and hid her face against the wall, just as Esther jumped into the pit and landed in between her and the large wildcat.

"A munchkin," noted the puma with interest.

"Actually, I'm a Persian," explained Esther.

"We can discuss it over dinner," the puma decided.

"Look, cousin," Esther meowed, "You don't want to eat her. Look at her. She's thin."

"Easy for you to say," growled the puma, "You look well-fed. I haven't eaten in weeks."

"Who's keeping you locked in here and hungry, anyway?"

"The humans above-ground. I believe their leader is called Li. He comes rarely when they throw food in."

"Starving a cat! The outrage!" hissed Esther. "I must speak to him about this."

"You explain things to him while I'm eating," dismissed the puma, taking a paw-step towards Xing.

"Not her," growled Esther, arching her back.

"And why should I listen to a tiny feline?" The puma flattened one ear.

"We're cousins thrice removed," Esther declared.

He lifted the ear again. "How so?"

"You see my uncle had a fling with a puma..."

"Wait," the puma settled down, its paws underneath itself like a housecat, "was that Great-Grandmother Lian-Hua?"

"That's her," purred Esther.

"Cousin!" cried a happy puma.

"Can I leave?" Xing hazarded. "I don't want to spoil the family reunion."

"Then it's true about the family rumors! My great-grandmother was a cougar," he said with squinted eyes and a smile.

"Uncle Fred traveled a lot because his human was a sailor. That's how he ended up at a Longguo port town and escaped into the forest one moonlit night," Esther mewed, "From what I was told, his human was frantic, only for Fred to show up a few minutes before they were to cast off and saunter into the boat."

"I'm going to try to leave, now," determined Xing.

"Not yet, Xing," hissed Esther.

"Xing?" the puma's eyes widened. "You're Xing? Flute Xing?"

Xing hesitated. "Yes..."

"Sorry," the puma's whiskers drooped, "you've got to excuse how I was acting before. Hunger does that to folks."

"You know," Esther purred, "they have these giant fish in the ponds outside. I haven't tried them yet, but they look tasty."

Shui was peering down holding a rope in his hands, with Filbert the squirrel sitting on his head. "Grab hold of this rope, Xing, and I'll pull you up."

Shui helped Xing climb out of the pit, and then they embraced.

"Are you all right, my dear Xing?" asked the scientist.

"Yes Shui..." she said, looking down and seeing a flattened Wu sprawled on the ground, "I see you've been busy yourself?"

"Not more than the usual necessity. This peculiar incident reminds me," continued Shui, "I might not have calculated all possibilities before when we were in the throne room. You see when considering a prisoner of Emperor Li, one can save him from questioning if he does not know the information, but not necessarily from the interrogation itself."

Filbert looked confused. "Huh?"

Shui seemed a little awkward as he straightened his eyeglasses. "It is probably best that we find the others," was all he said.

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Chapter 36 - The Execution

If the first holding room that Prime Minister Tresser had been in could have been described as cozy, this was anything but. The only comparison was that it was windowless, but this room was drab and dark, with no place to sit; cinder-block walls enclosed a space narrow enough as to be not more than a few paces in either direction, and by its dreariness only supplemented the ominous knowledge to which Tresser had resigned himself to - that these would be his final moments.

It was one of the inevitabilities of war that if a leader was captured by the opposing army his fate should be exile or execution, and of these the most militarily astute was execution. As he was reflecting over this the door suddenly opened, and in walked the television crew: Samantha West and Dave Candid.

The guard said something in Chinese, to which Samantha nodded briefly, and the door was shut behind them. Tresser observed quietly, allowing them to speak first, as Samantha awkwardly reached into a pocket of her blazer and retrieved a small package of matches from therein.

"We brought you this," she said, handing him the matches. "I know you were lamenting before you had no way to smoke the cigarettes."

He seemed visibly appreciative that they should have recalled it. "Thank you," he said.

The prime minister lit one of the cigarettes, yet his thoughts were mired elsewhere; at last, he asked them, "Did he say how long until...?"

"He said we had about half-an-hour to speak with you," Samantha said.

He nodded pensively but replied nothing. Samantha and Dave had sympathy in their eyes, but they were steadfastly keeping to their duty.

"It's not the first time we've covered an impending execution, though it is the first time we've covered one of a world leader."

"Tomorrow this will be a political outrage," Tresser said. "In a year it will be round table commentary. In a century it will be history and in a millennium it will be all but forgotten."

Samantha was adamant. "But someone has to report it, for those living today."

Tresser seemed distant in his thoughts. "They say the Sarrillian king was betrayed by one of his advisors, who thought that - in the absence of an heir to the throne - he could claim he had some right to power. The plot might have worked were it not for the carriage horse, which heard everything...and when the animal told the populace, they overthrew the would-be dictator. With no descendants of the true king to be found, the people decided the only just way of selecting a leader would be by election...after a few years, if they felt this person and his faction were doing what they wished, he would remain; if they felt they wished a different leader they would elect a new group into office...and so democracy was born on our land. Born with a caveat few recall - that the people of Sarrilla would govern this way till a descendant of the true king were found, and so they wrote into the constitution that if that day ever came, they would revert to pure monarchy. Those living today...knowledge and ignorance...and futility..."

Tresser glanced up suddenly, as if broken out of a daydream. "I'm sorry. I'm wasting...our time."

"No, you're not," assured Samantha.

"I wish we could help you," admitted Dave.

Tresser shook his head. "You are both prisoners of a different sort," he replied.

"How do you mean?" Samantha asked.

"Over my years in political office, I learned about the quirks of your profession by having met with so many journalists. I imagine journalists learn the quirks of politicians in the same manner," he added. "You feel it unethical to insert yourselves into the event playing out before you. I sometimes complained about it, of course, but it is admirable in its way. You're trying to inform civilians, not persuade... I suppose that's what you meant by journalism, done well, being its own variety of patriotism."

His knowledge of their ethics was surprising to both of them, and welcome. "We're observers, Prime Minister," Samantha acknowledged, "not participants."

"That's your duty," he accepted, "You're covering a war, and this is one of the events of that war. If filming on a battlefield, you wouldn't abandon your responsibility as journalists to help injured soldiers, let alone make news by saving an important prisoner who is to be put to death."

"Yes," Samantha replied. "There's one controversial exception though... it wouldn't be abandoning the responsibility if it was purely for humanity."

"This isn't a matter like that; I wouldn't be conceited in assuming so," Tresser smiled wryly. "Even if it were, there is nothing you can do."

Samantha glanced at her notepad; both she and her cameraman seemed troubled by the whole matter. Tresser spoke up again, as if he seemed to know what they were thinking.

"I don't hold you to attempting any type of rescue, nor do I begrudge you filming my execution," Tresser continued. "If there was anyone going to chronicle what befalls me, and my last words, you two would be my preference."

"How so?" asked the reporter.

"You're fair," he said.

Samantha managed a smile. "I think that may have been the first time a politician has complimented us on that."

The prime minister focused meditatively on the cigarette he held; then, as if trying to push aside despondency, glanced up at the television news crew again.

"What questions did you have for me?" he asked.

"Do you have any comment on the impending war?" Samantha got straight to the point.

"It's so needless... there is no reason this should be happening. What's the point of it? We were at peace, and so was Longguo until Emperor Li got ahold of the country."

"What message do you have for the people of Sarrilla?"

"Never forget Sarrillians are known for their bravery and tenacity. We must fight to the end."

"What message do you have for the people of Longguo?"

"You people of Longguo deserve to be free. You must fight against the dictatorship controlling all aspects of your lives. Join the Sarrillians' battle to defeat the cruel emperor Li." The prime minister seemed to reconsider his words, and then added a little tentatively, "Do you really think he'll let you air that?"

"He wants to try us; a deal's a deal," said Samantha. "In any case we'll find a way to broadcast the tape."

"Good luck," he said, sincerely. "I hope you succeed."

"How would you like to be remembered?"

"That I tried to keep Sarrilla a safe and free nation."

"What regrets do you have politically?"

"I never did get those defense reforms passed. I wonder if this would have transpired in this manner, if I had. I suppose if it was destined to." He paused for a moment, let his cigarette drop to the floor and stepped on it to put it out.

"I guess I have a lot more personal regrets," he said, softly.

They were all quiet for a brief moment. Before anyone else could speak, the door swung open again and Emperor Li himself walked in accompanied by at least eight guards.

He swept the room with a glance and simply said, "Follow me."

Samantha glanced from the door back to Tresser. "Your excellency," she said, extending her hand.

The prime minister had just enough time to shake it before he was dragged away by the guards. His hands were tied behind his back, and he was escorted out into the hallway. Samantha and Dave followed, the camera rolling.

They walked in solemn silence, skirting the large garden - the bright sunlight awash on the foliage a contrast to their dignified if sepulchral procession - until they arrived at an open space surrounded by concrete walls, pocket-marked by what were undoubtedly bullet holes. It was the firing squad area.

Tresser hesitated at the entrance to the courtyard, but he was unexpectedly and brusquely pushed down the corridor by one of the guards. "Keep on ahead."

He looked over at the soldier with mild surprise, but he complied wordlessly. Samantha glanced questioningly at Emperor Li. "I thought you were going to execute him."

"Not by firing squad," said Li simply.

They were directed towards a room within the compound's walls that was quite bare except for two tables - one impressively wide and rectangular, the other small and octagon-shaped - both elegant, of new ebony wood with elaborate carvings of dragons on the sides, and level to each other. The walls were of stone, and in the absence of windows there was not much light, giving the chamber a rather medieval look; except for the fact it was pristinely clean.

It was the wide table that piqued Samantha's interest and even brought a sort of misgiving to her. It had at both ends what seemed like a large ship's steering wheel upon an axel, coupled with ropes of thick jute fiber apparently loosened or drawn up by turning the wheels in one direction or the other. This could have been done by two men, but the small remote control that lay upon the octagonal table served as a less-strenuous way of operating it.

Samantha looked over to Tresser. He had a serious look on his face and was visibly under stress. She felt sorry for him; as far as she could tell he had done nothing to deserve this.

Then there was Susan. She was seated casually on the large table, sipping from a glass of cold water, with the nonchalance of having some knowledge still exclusive to her, the emperor, and the Longguo soldiers who had escorted their captive. Her sharp blue eyes studied everyone who had walked in, in particular Tresser, as if she hoped to gauge emotions, yet she did not say a word.

Samantha held to her impassivity. "What are you going to do to him?" she asked.

Samantha, Dave, and Tresser stared at Emperor Li, whose demeanor was an unseemly pride:

"Propaganda has excelled in the contemporary belief that mankind is somehow more humane than it was ten-thousand years ago. The only difference is then things were done openly. The world has increased in hypocrisy, not humanity; every nation has merely modernized its cruelty, even the well-intentioned. Not even Sarrilla can lay claim to the contrary."

Tresser fidgeted slightly, while Samantha and Dave kept their eyes fixed on Li as if waiting for the inevitable elucidation. Susan mutely placed the water glass atop the octagonal table and took the remote control. She stood as Li gestured to the large ebony table with its extravagant contraptions.

"The word torture itself comes from the Latin torquere - to twist. That speaks to how efficient the rack is," said Li. "The person is tied and by twisting these wheels, the ropes stretch him to his full length; maintaining such a position, on such a hard surface, with the strain upon the muscles and joints - this is excruciating enough. Most interrogations are done by drawing the ropes so taut the bones dislocate." He turned, as if with a sudden thought, to Samantha. "Ms. West, I'm sure you can speak of all these things more at length than I."

Samantha could - the memory of injuries from the helicopter accident now mingled intolerably with those of the electricity ordeal. "What does this have to do with the execution?" she pursued.

"A great deal," he replied sagely, "for what were to happen to a man if the ropes were drawn even tighter than this?"

Emperor Li grinned at the prime minister.

"That is how you'll die...your excellency."

Tresser had gone pale but when he spoke, his voice still held conviction. "No matter what you do to me, Sarrillians will be in an uproar and will rebel. It's in our nature to want freedom."

"So then," interrupted Samantha, "you're going to kill him on the rack?"

Emperor Li glanced at the television reporter. "Do you disapprove, Miss West?" The haughty look in his eyes was almost gloating, as if he thought he was extracting a hidden trauma.

Samantha avoided the question and countered with her own, "He doesn't know the code. Why torture him, let alone to death?"

"I can answer that," Susan interjected with a sneer. "He's a representation, like shredding a flag."

"He's a human being," Samantha added, "No living thing, human or animal, should suffer such a horrible manner of death."

"Do you have any comment on that, Emperor?" asked Dave, still holding the camera as he filmed.

"There are no human rights, only privileges which are mine as the victor to grant," was the response from Li.

Silence befell the room as the meaning of his words sank in. After a very long minute, the silence was broken when the emperor turned and headed for the door.

"Aren't you staying for the spectacle?" Samantha asked him, "I would think you find this sort of thing to be entertaining."

"I've seen it before," Li smirked, and left with indifference.

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Chapter 37 - The Rack

Tresser had gone silent. The shock of it all was overwhelming, but he was now reacting to the situation at hand. He wanted to live. The prime minister reasoned fast and decided he would not submit to torture. He had been rather compliant when he thought he was being led to a quick and supposedly dignified death before a firing squad, but not now.

Susan motioned to the guards and ordered, "Rip off his shirt."

A struggling Tresser was dragged to the rack; the guards pulled off his jacket and both shirts he wore unceremoniously, and subdued him at last when one of them hit him in his stomach and he fell over in pain. He was thrust onto the contrivance, bound and stretched out supine with his arms above his head.

Tresser looked over at Susan, who was watching him with noticeable enjoyment of his predicament.

"His excellency, the right honorable prime minister of Sarrilla," she said in mocking tone of voice.

Tresser felt weary. Weariness of the sort that comes when one is thinking through a problem and cannot find a satisfactory solution.

"This instrument might be a somewhat ancient method of torture but it's just as effective as the others," Susan continued, gazing down at him snidely. "Li was undecided between this and electricity, but I thought the medieval vibe made better visuals."

The remark added to the unease overhanging Samantha and Dave, yet neither replied.

It was Tresser who spoke. "Susan, you're going to do this? I never would have thought you could be so cruel. Somehow, it seems more like something Richard Corbin would have done."

"Corbin!" she practically laughed aloud. "He had a new degree of stupidity. When he learned I was a Longguo agent he went along foolishly, thinking I would influence Li to give him a position of authority. It was so damn easy to seduce him...almost as easy as seducing you."

It was a momentary shock till Tresser found his voice, and asked, "Then you were the one Corbin was having the affair with?"

"You fool, of course it was," sneered Susan. "You never realize the most blatant things, even when they play out right in front of you in your own office. That's why no one in parliament respects you."

"Unbelievable," was the only thing Tresser murmured.

She pressed a button on the remote, and the pulleys started to rotate; Tresser flinched as the ropes drew back, hauling him in either direction, but he made no sound. When she tapped the other button to halt the contraption, he had been stretched out to the point it was uncomfortable to move.

A single drop of perspiration shimmered on Tresser's brow, which broke into a frown.

Meanwhile, Samantha and Dave stood nearby, filming but worried. The news reporter whispered, "Dave, what do we do?"

Her cameraman fidgeted. "What can we do?"

"Is it really getting involved...?" she questioned.

"We're already involved," Dave muttered grimly.

Were they? She looked about at the soldiers who stood at attention on the very edges of the chamber, holding their rifles dutifully. They seemed quite bored by the cruel proceedings, yet their hawklike eyes watched everyone present - especially the television crew.

"Complicity," Samantha wondered, almost to herself. "I can't believe Li found a way to use us for propaganda. Yet trying to halt what's being done - if there's some way to - there's no neutrality to be found. It's a paradox of journalistic bias."

"There's no paradox about what Tresser's going through, however," Dave said bleakly.

Indeed, there was certain exigency to the situation for Samantha, who found she felt more empathy than ought to be felt towards any actor in a news story. She knew how it was to be at the mercy of the merciless...

The prime minister meanwhile, had not lost heart. Susan had been his trusted assistant for so long; had it all been farce? He was trying to reason with her as he tried with parliament, the same negotiation that always fell on deaf ears.

"The people of Sarrilla will not bow to a leader they do not accept," he was saying, "Li will not be able to gain their allegiance by this brutality..."

"Then we'll despoil the land," she replied easily, "this is a pristine example of why you're such an inept ruler. Your death would be service to Sarrilla, if they were deserving of it."

The pulleys began to rotate anew, the ropes stretching his body ever more severely till he was laboring to breathe. But the extent of Susan's hatred, unreserved and unprovoked, was enough for Tresser to fight all instincts that sought to preserve his strength and he cried out desperately, "Susan if you're going to kill me, at least let me know why?!"

The words seemed to strike a chord. Was it remorse? ...pity? ...or something else, darker? that caused her to halt the rack and gaze down at him introspectively.

"The point," she said, almost tenderly, "is to destroy Sarrilla."

The faintest gleam shone from her hand, and he saw she held the lighter that had been stolen from him. Tresser watched it with a quiet resentment. One of the lamentable things was that he would leave this weapon in the hands of the enemy, although they did not know how to operate it. Even now, he made a willful attempt to recall the code but he found it was impossible to remember, something which might have been frustrating in other conditions but that he was presently thankful for. Shui had done a good job with the hypnosis. He watched Susan silently as she flicked the lighter on and observed the flame glow brightly. She kept her eyes on it as she held the lighter over his forehead. Tresser tried to draw back, but could do little more than flatten himself to the table. He could feel the heat from the small plume of fire, reaching out ominously onto his face, as the warmth felt when one stood close to a fireplace.

There was the slightest turn of her wrist, and pain shot across his cheek; his body convulsed in a desperate reflex for flight, yet the restraints were unyielding and he only hurt his arms more. He was unable to do more than wait in what seemed endless agony until she lifted the fire away; when she finally did, the burn stung horribly. Unemotional, and without saying anything further, Susan snapped the lighter shut and dropped it onto the small table near the rack.

Tresser shivered slightly. He glanced sideways and saw Samantha and Dave still taping the scene, though the reporter was whispering to the cameraman. He wondered briefly what they were saying, and decided it was something to do with camera angles, for Samantha motioned to either side and then they both wandered closer but kept filming.

The full tribulation began once more, increasing its level with every turn of the wheel. Apprehension besieged Tresser, and with it traces of dismay crept into his eyes. Severe pain assailed his whole body - the ropes cut into his flesh - it seemed to him the joints of his arms and legs were being straightened out in an unnatural way - there was tightness about his ribcage - he could feel the muscles of his shoulders being wrenched painfully in such a way that hurt the bones - the ache on his back was piercing...

Tresser heard a snap.

He was powerless to withhold his scream, wrested through ravaging pain in his arms and shoulders; he suddenly knew if he were to survive this ordeal he might be incapacitated for some time. That snap was clearly the sound of bone.

Susan stopped the rack from moving and evaluated Tresser, his gasps for breath now insipid from overexertion.

"I'm surprised that was your first outcry. You hold pain better than I thought you would," remarked Susan.

The prime minister's entire body felt so hurt he could not steady his thoughts on any one thing, save the agony. The pain centering in his shoulders cascaded down his back, and the corners of his eyes watered from it in spite of his refusal. He tried to read her face but she showed basic disinterest in his pain... It was very raw and conspicuous now, this sentiment of hatred towards him, but not to him; he was perceived as nothing more than an emblem.

He found himself wishing silently they would put an end to him already, only to realize this was counterintuitive, as the conclusion they had planned would be even more horrific than his present suffering. He hoped his stamina would falter out of exhaustion. Surely it would be more humane to fall unconscious, and hence to fade into an oblivious death before his captors could rouse him.

His present tormentor would not permit such charity. Susan was meticulous, as detailed as she had been in her secretarial façade, and in one shocking moment he realized this slackening and tightening of the rack's terrible agony was to effect; it was how this torture was done. In that instant, his last fantasies of rescue or escape perished.

When Susan noticed his surrender, the faintest smile touched her lips.

"I think you actually had feelings for me, James Tresser. How pathetic."

"Is it so wrong that I cared?"

"How much do you truly care?"

It was posed with the same delicate tone, certainly imbued with trickery. The thought took him aback, and his throat suddenly felt dry. Tresser's eyes fell upon the glass of water beside her; frost shimmered on the vessel and he could just make out the large ice cubes that buoyed atop, as well as imagine the cold, light taste of the liquid on his throat. He looked longingly at it but did not say a word, least of all of his thirst. He knew better than to ask for water.

Unfortunately for him, Susan had noticed his preoccupation with the water; she took the glass pointedly and drank from it herself. Tresser cast his eyes away.

Susan watched him for a long moment before she spoke again.

"I wonder if I could sway you to renounce your loyalty to the nation for the simplicity of a cold drink of water."

"I took an oath and I intend to uphold it," Tresser responded, his voice steady. "Kill me."

Susan gazed at him, awkward under the sudden spotlight she had been placed under.

Samantha could not hold back a small gasp. The parallels were striking; his was a different ethical code, a different place and pain and purpose, but it was at its heart what she had once done. It was a dignity of spirit, universal to those whose beliefs and principles outlived them. Dave saw the distress in Samantha's eyes and laid a hand briefly on her shoulder.

"We can't let him die," Samantha whispered to him.

Susan, however, seemed incongruently sympathetic, though there remained an unyielding acridity in her blue eyes. She gazed down at him and spoke.

"It is one of our world's cruel ironies, that I should have you break your vow so as to keep mine."

There then lay lethal resolve in those eyes, and with despair Tresser instantly knew the sadistic game that she had been playing had ended. "We are both determined people," Susan continued, "I have no doubt you will successfully maintain your piteous patriotism to your end, no matter how long we should take here. Then again...it isn't necessary for me that you break your oath."

Perhaps none was more stunned than Tresser himself; he just stared at his former secretary. It seemed abstract to him, like some kind of nightmare. Not conceding even a bit of compassion, Susan added malevolently:

"What will they say back in Sarrilla, upon hearing how the prime minister was torn into pieces alive?"

That was it. Samantha had determined this would be the defining act of cruelty that would, albeit fleetingly, pull them away from the sidelines, and Dave agreed with her in this.

Samantha shoved the microphone in front of Susan. The television crew now stood directly beside her and her victim. "Do you have any message for the citizens of Sarrilla?"

Susan looked directly into the camera's lens; annoyance tinged her tone from what she perceived a frivolous interruption.

"Yes...you will all suffer worse."

At this she struck the button for the final time, the rack was set in motion - and Samantha leapt for the remote control. Susan had not expected this.

The guards, themselves taken by surprise at what was an unforeseen revolt, now reached for their own weapons. Dave was faster. Recalling what Shui had suggested to the guards, he faced them and clapped his hands. "Sleep!"

They halted as if given an order by their superior, then sudden perplexity faded into blankness and their eyes closed.

Samantha was struggling with Susan for the controls. They knocked into the small table, whereupon the glass of water fell to the ground and shattered, and Samantha succeeded in wrenching the remote out of her enemy's hands when Dave threw the microphone cable around Susan from behind and tugged her backwards. She fell hard to the ground with a sharp gasp.

A brightness caught the corner of Susan's eye; her sight fell upon the shards of glass from the broken vessel beside her. Taking advantage of the moment, she seized one of them and tried to stab the reporter. Samantha's reflexes were catlike and, grabbing Susan's wrist, squeezed it down upon the rotating wheel until the pressure and pain was too much for Susan to handle; she shrieked, and released the glass piece. Dave tried to use the cable to encircle Susan more, and while she tussled futilely with the cameraman, the news reporter raced to Tresser's side.

The prime minister was screaming in pain. Samantha pressed a button on the remote control to stop the instrument, and then reversed the wheels so the tautness of the ropes diminished and Tresser fell back limply.

His eyes were closed, but he was alive - though his breathing was shallow and he was shaking. Dave hurried over to Samantha so that they both stood at Tresser's side.

"You are going to be ok, Prime Minister," said Samantha.

Tresser did not react to them; he only shook his head, distraught.

"Prime Minister!" Dave shouted at him.

He blinked his eyes and the trauma of what had befallen him ebbed as he seemed to gradually perceive who they were; he gazed first at the reporter, then at her cameraman.

"Samantha... Dave," Tresser replied weakly.

They both smiled gently and nodded.

"You two...saved my life," he stated.

There was a somewhat awkward hesitation lasting only a moment. The reporter and her cameraman proceeded to untie the prime minister. He was too tired and in too much pain to lift himself from the rack, and found he could not even lower his arms. They were numb and sore; the muscles seemed to be tight in a spasm that radiated excruciatingly, petering into weakness in his hands, the latter of which he still had the mobility of.

"Your shoulders look as if they might have dislocated..." Samantha observed, "It will probably hurt when we try to move them, but I don't see any other way to get you off of here."

"There's no other choice. Let's do it," Tresser replied.

One at a time, they brought both his arms to his sides and helped him sit up, Tresser moaning in pain all the way through. Now that his hands were lowered, the prime minister noticed the inflamed, bleeding marks on his wrists left from the rope, but something else was nagging at him. He said in intermittent gasps:

"The...transceiver. She had the SPARC transceiver."

The cameraman produced the cigarette lighter from a pocket. "I've got it, Prime Minister," he said.

Samantha took interest. "You snatched it? I wonder what kind of quote we'd get from her over that."

Dave gave a guilty smile. "I doubt she's open for interviews. She's kind of tied up..."

They glanced over to the floor on the side, where Susan was sitting. Dave had succeeded prior in tangling her in the microphone cable; she was now offending them vociferously. "Fuck you! ...damn tabloid media and that contemptible excuse of a prime minister! You think your obsolete democratic ideals will get you anywhere? You'll never escape. When Emperor Li finds out what you've done, you'll all meet your fate on that thing!"

"Do you think we ought to gag her?" asked Dave.

It was waved off by Samantha. "Now Dave, let's not lower ourselves to their unbecoming level. Freedom of speech."

Tresser however, was ill; he retched and leant his head forward.

"Go easy," said Samantha, "Don't try to get on your feet right away."

The television reporter held him gingerly by the shoulders; Tresser took a few long breaths, until the nausea subsided.

"I think I'll be fine," Tresser eventually forced himself to say. It was the most he could muster. Between the pain of two dislocated shoulders, to say naught of the burn across the side of his face, the prime minister concluded he was dying - though he could not determine how accurate this was. Tresser felt lightheaded at least, and Samantha appeared aware of it. She spoke for a few minutes of frivolous matters, trying to distract him from his misery, though he still winced occasionally as they helped him loosely put his shirt and jacket back on and stand up.

They all walked out of the room and halted at the entryway. Samantha asked, "Ok. Does anyone remember where the broadcasting room is located?"

"I think I saw it around the corner, here... at the end of this corridor," Dave replied, motioning to a hallway that seemed to loop around a patio area in the center of the building.

As they made their way, a sunlit glow off to a side path caught their eye and, Samantha, being the ever-curious reporter, turned to it; they all stopped in amazement of what they saw.

It was a small garden, encircled by the palace building, with benches and a waterfall in the center that fell into a small pond teeming with Koi fish. There were exotic flowers growing abundantly all over, and a ray of sunlight made the three people glance upward to see a circular sunroof above their heads. To the right was a small water fountain carved out of marble rock with a steady stream; upon further inspection the trio discovered it was cold and refreshing.

"Beautiful place," the prime minister observed, "Pity that it hides such cruelty."

They quickly filled up a canteen Dave had been given by the villagers, and he helped Tresser hold it up to his mouth to drink. He gulped down the water thirstily.

"Thank you," said Tresser, yet he had a worried look as Dave moved the empty canteen back. "I'm certainly appreciative you both helped me... but in so doing, you have likely sentenced yourselves to the same fate, and I will still be put to death. I see no way to escape the palace confines."

"Maybe there isn't a way to escape - but we weren't going to leave you there." Samantha then smiled encouragingly. "What we can do is air this videotape for everyone to see. That's probably more of interest to us, though," she added a little apologetically, with a glance at Dave.

The prime minister smiled weakly in reciprocation.

"In any event, I am eternally indebted to you - and I mean that seriously."

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Chapter 38 - International Communiqué

Stanley had not expected Li to contact him again so soon after their last conversation, so when he took the call his vitriol shone through.

"Have you finally come to your senses, Li?" Stanley said, "This is a losing battle for you. Release our prime minister."

"How feeble a request, when I still hold some of your towns at the border," Li countered. "I scarcely would have thought it, of the former Longguo emperor's bastard son."

Stanley fell uneasily speechless.

"I know all about you, Mr. Parnell," Li said, "and there is a difference between us – you care what happens to the Sarrillian people, and in fact to the Longguo people as well. I couldn't care less."

"Let the prime minister on the phone."

"You'll see him, shortly. Not at the moment."

"What proof is there that he isn't already dead?" Stanley practically growled. "Put Tresser on the telephone!"

"Your nation's beloved prime minister is currently being torn apart limb by limb on the rack."

There was silence, and the emperor added:

"It will be televised worldwide soon. I'm still deciding whether it's worth it to send the remains back."

"Your kingdom will burn." Stanley slammed the phone down.

The two palace cats were watching Stanley fixedly as he rested his head in his hands and tried unsuccessfully to settle his whirling thoughts. "The prime minister has been killed," he said to the cats, at last.

It was met, to his surprise, with an ill-tempered ffftt.

"The way our enemies lie! He's alive," said one of the cats.

Stanley studied the feline. "How are you sure?"

"Cat sense," meowed the tomcat, and bared fangs in a hiss. "So...what manner of death will befall the emperor?"

Stanley considered the options open to them. "He might be laying a trap. Li almost seems to be goading us to attack. But Tresser's death must be avenged... and if we don't do anything, we look weak to the rest of the planet..."

"I told you Tresser's not dead," hissed the cat. "Not that it should preclude us from bombing the hell out of Longguo."

Stanley started to walk away, to the irritation of the cats, but then he turned back at the doorway.

"I don't know how Emperor Li dies yet," he said in belated answer to them, and vanished out the door.

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Dave refilled the water canteen before they returned to their original path; eventually they came to a door that had a symbol of a camera on it.

Tresser was helped in. He could scarcely discern much through the pain, and sank with gratitude into the soft office chair they led him to, even though he found his body hurt no less here. His eyes wandered upwards and fixed on the two journalists standing next to him.

"You're going to air that tape?"

"Worldwide," replied Samantha.

"I think we'll be able to edit a proper news package to go with it," added Dave, "This should be the lead on pretty much every broadcast tonight."

Tresser gave a short nod, in evident pain, yet he mustered a small smile of support for them. "Get the news out," he urged.

They returned his smile warmly and hurried to their posts.

The journalists had most of it done already; the voice-over was all that remained, as well as including the recent footage of what had happened to Tresser. Samantha and Dave managed to contact their editor, Ted – who was extremely glad to hear from them – and they were instantly given a signal to one of WCAT's satellites so they could broadcast as soon as they had the film ready.

"I do wonder how long we've got here to wrap up our news report and air it before they find us," Dave whispered.

"We have to work as fast as we can," replied Samantha.

Tresser meanwhile, tried to stand from where he was seated, only to stumble. Dave and Samantha helped him back up. "I've got to get to the telegraph," he said. "If I can contact Sarrillian forces..."

"That's right – you used to be telecommunications in the navy," Samantha recalled.

"Yes, before running for office," he answered.

They led him to the chair, and lifted his arms so he could reach the telegraph. "Do you think you can manage it?" inquired Samantha as Dave placed the headset atop the prime minister's head.

Tresser nodded. The thought of contacting his military seemed to reinvigorate him despite his injuries. Samantha and Dave left him to this task, while they worked on theirs – editing and broadcasting a news report, as fast as they could

.

"How do we report that we rescued the PM?" the TV reporter speculated as she gazed at the film on the monitors before them, "If I phrase it improperly, it'll look promotional, won't it? Then again it must be said to our viewers; to conceal it would be unthinkable and go against everything we stand for."

"So what if it's promotional," said her cameraman, "Higher ratings never hurt. I agree with you Sam – it has to be told. It's part of the story. Otherwise it's censorship. Just say it however you can, and let the viewers decide for themselves as usual."

"That's the key," said Samantha, and turned to the microphone.

Samantha gave her report seamlessly; juxtaposed with some film of Tresser's ordeal, she said, "It was then that we made the decision to get involved..." She turned to her cameraman for his opinion.

"I think we can cut to sound-on-tape," said Dave.

From his post at the telegraph, the prime minister was cheering, "I've got ahold of them!"

"You did?" Samantha asked. "What do they say?"

Tresser was listening to the code being sent over the wire as he conveyed the message to the TV news crew. "They say they'll be here within the hour... An hour?" He was dismayed. "We might be dead by then!"

The journalists glanced at each other, then turned back to their report. Dave looked over the film playing back on the screen. "Look at that, Sam... How can we be short footage for the news report?"

The reporter examined the pictures and the script.

"We're missing a sound bite," decided Samantha.

Samantha and Dave unanimously turned to Tresser; Dave with the camera rolling.

"How do you feel?" asked Samantha.

The injured Tresser stared at them for a brief moment with a somewhat incredulous look before saying:

"I can't comment on that – I think it would finally bring about the apocalypse."

"Golden," Samantha smiled, turning back to the editing equipment.

Moments later there was a meow, and little white paws poked under the door. Samantha hurried over and opened the door to find Shui, Xing and the animals.

"Samantha and company," Shui smiled. "I had a hunch you would head for the video control room. I trust you're all well?"

"Yeah, thank God. How did you escape?" Samantha asked.

"Did you know we have a kick ass Shui?" purred Esther happily.

"Man, we could've gotten that on camera," lamented Dave.

Shui was demurring. "I always found morning martial arts exercises to be relaxing."

Filbert meanwhile had hopped next to the telegraph, where Tresser was tapping out a reply message. The prime minister glanced at the squirrel, who stared back at him and asked:

"What happened to you?"

"Emperor Li," responded Tresser dryly.

Whitmore gave a little howl and began licking his hand, as if it would make him feel better. Esther, however, swatted Whitmore with a paw. "Stop howling, dog. The bad people might hear."

"But my poor human!" Whitmore whimpered.

Tresser just sighed.

Shui took one look at him and inferred swiftly. "I see he put you on the rack."

"A kick ass, perceptive Shui," said Samantha.

Shui straightened his eyeglasses with an apologetic smile. "As you are indubitably aware, my father held a position for a time that oversaw the questionable fate of his majesty's prisoners. Prime Minister, I dare say you're the only victim I know of who has escaped with his life."

"I owe my life to them," Tresser said, with a glance at Samantha and Dave.

The two journalists were modest, but they were concerned. The ever-diligent Shui noticed it.

"Something about how the situation played out is conflicting to you, I see," the scientist said.

"No... not at all," Dave said. "We're just trying to figure out the best way to report it now."

"It had to be done – we couldn't let a human being die so horribly," Samantha said staunchly, "At the same time, we try to avoid interjecting ourselves into the story we were covering. It's...difficult to explain."

"Fascinating," analyzed Shui. "Do you realize you are deliberating over the professional morality of something that the layman would neither comprehend nor care about?"

"That doesn't make it any less important," insisted Samantha.

"Perhaps, but it is a remarkable psychological study," said Shui, adjusting his eyeglasses again.

The squirrel however was gazing at them in awe. "Samantha and Dave?" he began, "You saved the life of the prime minister of Sarrilla?"

The awkwardness returned to Samantha and Dave, unabated from when they had first realized the full significance of having saved a world leader from a terrible fate. Tresser's prominence had never been at the forefront of their minds; they had in fact acted out of compassion. Tresser was observantly and quietly considering their reaction.

Filbert was chattering.

"You two will be national heroes now! You'll get medals of civilian honor! You'll get titles! You might even get your own day, and the key to the city, and a lifetime supply of nuts and..."

"I suppose we will," said Samantha with a resigned sigh.

The television crew turned back to their editing, to the perplexity of the squirrel.

"I don't think you totally get how important this objectivity thing is to them," Esther said.

"What's to get? Who wouldn't want a lifetime supply of nuts?" answered Filbert.

The cat hissed. "Their job is like their life to them Filbert. It might be some time before people simply look at them as the press again. I'd hate to see how it'll be the next time they just try to interview ordinary people on the sidewalk."

Tresser, meanwhile, was pensive as he returned to the telegraph.

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Back in Sarrilla, the soldiers manning the telegraphic communication devices had received Tresser's message with surprise and relief, still visible on their faces as Stanley and the others walked into the room. "What has he said?" he asked urgently.

"He's at the Longguo palace. He requested backup, which we said we can get for him within the hour."

Stanley nodded sharply; finally the soldiers were thinking for themselves, as he had directed. "Are you sure it's him?"

"It's his signature, though its being tapped out weakly," said one of the soldiers.

"Signature?" asked Stanley.

"Every telegraphist has an individual way of tapping out messages that's subtly different from anyone else. He says they've been torturing him," added the soldier. "Apparently the other hostages helped him, but there's a high certainty of them all being recaptured. He says we are to bomb the palace, where he is."

Stanley was silent momentarily, and then gave a brief nod of his head.

"Tell him he's the commander-in-chief," said Stanley.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

When Tresser was receiving the reply, the combined weakness and wounds finally became too much for him; his hands fell unsteadily from the telegraph, and he could only stop himself from fainting by resting his forehead upon his knees. The headset he was wearing dropped onto the floor.

He must have fainted after all, for the next thing he knew he was lying on the floor with Shui and Xing kneeling beside him. His whole body throbbed with pain.

"Prime Minister," Xing posed, "we should set the bones. I have nursing skills and know how to do it. The longer it takes for you to receive medical care, the worse it is for your injuries."

Set the bones...? In his semi-conscious state it took a moment for Tresser to grasp what that signified, and when he did it came with the terror of enduring new pain. He forced himself to reason the matter coldly.

"I don't know if I can withstand it," he managed, honestly.

"I don't think we have time," Dave interjected.

Xing lifted her head, "If we find somewhere secluded, then we might treat the injuries before we're found."

Dave looked a little surprised. "Oh, no... I mean..." The cameraman glanced at the reporter, and the others followed his gaze. Samantha was desperately tapping at the keyboard in front of her, while a bar on-screen that gauged the film processing inched along; a percentage marker above the bar was stubbornly entrenched at 15 percent.

"Export, damn it!" Samantha cursed at the editing program.

At once, there was fervent pounding on the door, and the breath of all those within halted.

"Times up," growled Esther.

"Not till they get the door open," countered Shui, steadying his eyeglasses.

A short while later, Longguo soldiers thrust open the door, and Susan walked in to see Esther sitting on the chair where Tresser had been. No one else was to be found.

"I request to see the emperor," meowed the cat immediately. "His prisoners have escaped."

"I know that firsthand," snapped Susan. "Do you know where they are?"

"Take me to the emperor," Esther replied enigmatically.

"Follow me," Susan agreed, rather terse.

The cat hopped off the chair and trotted out the door as the emperor's consort led the way. The soldiers followed as an escort.

Not one of them heard when the editing program sounded a beep as the bar filled to 100 percent, the film processed and placed in queue to be broadcast on international television.

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Chapter 39 - A Tale and a Trade

Within the broadcast room, the little group of escapees crawled out from the cabinets below the monitors. Tresser especially had to be helped out; he withheld exclamation as sharp pain speared through his shoulders again.

"Looks like Esther managed to lure them off," observed Shui.

"We...aren't going to escape without her, right?" Filbert glanced at the others.

"We might have to," Dave acknowledged.

"Then I'm off to get her," Filbert declared. "Squirrel on a mission!"

"Filbert get back here," Samantha chided, but the squirrel had already vanished out the open door.

"Whitmore, don't you run off too," Xing looked at the little dog, the last animal in their group.

"I stick with my human," the dog asserted, looking loyally up at Tresser.

Together they ventured out into the palace hallways surreptitiously with Shui leading them, keeping pressed against the walls in the manner of hiding animals. They reached an intersection and peered around the corner tentatively. "All right," whispered Samantha, "What's the plan?"

"Run like hell," responded Shui.

"Run like hell? How is that a plan?"

"Can we simply go somewhere to hide?" Tresser spoke feebly, "The combat airplanes should be here soon, and..."

"We really should be quiet, so we're not heard," interrupted Xing, and the prime minister, too much in pain to dispute it, obliged.

Footsteps were heard coming down the corridor, and a feeling of fear overtook Tresser. Whitmore gave a low growl.

"Quick - in here!" whispered Samantha urgently, and they all ducked into the side room she directed them towards.

They found themselves in an elaborate bedroom - the emperor's quarters.

"Well, it's a place to hide," decided Dave; he spoke in a whisper. "They probably can't imagine we'd dare come here."

"We might be able to tend to your wounds now," Xing said to Tresser.

Tresser could not care one way or the other at this point; the soft bed was all that beckoned to him, with his imagination playing that he would be able to fall fast asleep in it - something he knew impossible here in the Longguo palace as they were in danger of being recaptured. It's inevitability anyway, the prime minister reasoned, so I may as well try to rest for however long. He did not vocalize his thoughts as the others helped him lie down carefully.

He noticed his reflection in the mirrored walls and his sight fell on the burn across his cheek. Now that he could see it, the blister looked larger and worse than he had thought it was. Perhaps he had merely hoped it was less, and had been denying it to himself long enough to believe it.

"Medicine has advanced a lot," said Samantha delicately, perceiving his preoccupation, "I had some bad electrical burns. They applied an ointment in the hospital that healed them quickly and even prevented scars."

He knew this, though the idea of being seen with the injury for whatever span of time and what he envisioned public comment to be like - alternately pitying or derisive, depending upon political inclination - disheartened him.

"You're going to have to gag me." He held no pretense anymore of being able to endure silently; that had been lost upon the rack. "They'll hear and recapture us."

Shui chimed in helpfully. "Hypnosis has been used quite successfully in the management of pain."

"Typically this is done under anaesthesia. I doubt very much a hypnotic trance can do anything comparable."

This was nothing less than posing a challenge to Shui, which Tresser realized when he saw the enthusiastic glitter in the scientist's eyes.

"Relax," said Shui.

"Oh no," said Tresser, as Shui began to retrieve his watch, "Shui, if you're going to do this, return my memory of the SPARC code. We have the transceiver back. Better that we have the means to use it, too."

Li was in the imperial study, watching the state network on the television screen, when Susan and the soldiers walked in together with Esther.

Esther, her fluffy tail swishing, leapt onto the center table maps. "Your majesty, I'm glad to see you. There's a lot I want to bring up."

"Yes," Li agreed. "Where are the others?"

"Escaped," the cat replied.

"Do you know where they have gone?" he asked.

"You would not be worthy if you could not find them yourself," Esther meowed, her blue eyes squinting at him.

Li turned to the guards at the doorway. "Search the palace grounds. Emphasis on the outside. They will likely try to get back into the woodland..."

"Your majesty," growled Esther, interjecting, "it has come to my attention that there has been a starving cousin of mine on the premises... a puma, who has not eaten in weeks! How can a fellow feline be permitted to starve in the imperial palace!"

He turned back to her, surprised. "Does this displease the royal cat of legend?"

"Indeed it does."

Li turned matter-of-factly to one of the soldiers. "Lieutenant... select two prisoners and feed the puma."

"No," hissed Esther, "I've already dealt with it for you."

Her statement surprised Li. "You have?"

"I let him out," purred Esther happily.

There was silence. "You let the man-eating puma out," echoed Li.

"Yep! This way he can pick his meal."

Without managing to conceal his worry well, the emperor glanced again at the soldier.

"Lock the doors."

When this was done, leaving the two soldiers, him, Susan, and the cat sealed in the imperial study, his pallor gradually eased and morphed into a little smile of perceived deduction. "The wisdom of the legendary cat. Letting the wild beast out to dine on our fleeing enemies. Unfortunately, my dear feline, I do not wish all of the captives to meet their fate that particular way."

Esther flattened her ears.

Suddenly there was a flash of gray fur, and Filbert leapt down from the bookshelves to land squarely atop Esther's head. "Spy squirrel to save the kitty in distress!"

"What the fuck?" Esther blurted out, as the squirrel clambered down.

"Come on, let's go!" Filbert tried to lead her off the table, yet Esther stopped him with a paw on his tail.

"Hold on Filbert, I'm not going anywhere."

"Um...you're not?"

"Why do you think I want to leave?"

"You can't mean that! What about your friends back in Sarrilla?"

A shadow fell over the two animals, and Filbert looked up to see Li standing over them. "Where have they gone?" the emperor posed.

Filbert was tentative. "I don't know who you mean?"

Li was astonishingly faster than Filbert, seizing the surprised squirrel and dangling him over the rattlesnake enclosure. "Where have my prisoners gone?" The snake, noticing movement above its den, uncoiled itself and slithered to the center.

Filbert stared down at the hungry reptile, terrified. "Hey... what ever happened to name, rank and serial number?"

"Put the squirrel down," Esther hissed.

"Into the snake enclosure?" Li seemed to tease her.

"Safe, onto the table," Esther replied, her tail lashing.

"Once I get an answer from him, we can discuss possibilities," Li responded.

"You want to risk upsetting the balance of yin and yang?" Esther contended.

Susan had a vindicated smile. "Wasn't that the dog?"

"Oops," Esther realized.

"I don't know where the people went!" Filbert exclaimed. "They were out in the hallway...in front of the broadcast place...last I saw."

Li released Filbert - tossing him towards Esther. The squirrel righted himself and backed away towards the cat, as the emperor stated, "Although I lost a lot of money from the arctic fox incident, Longguo still has department store interests in the fur trade. The latest of our line of five-pelt squirrel shawls that came down the line only had four."

"Ruthless, aren't we?" Filbert shuddered.

Esther looked thoughtful, and then her ears perked up decidedly as she scampered to a side door, announcing:

"Your resourcefulness has proven you worthy!"

Filbert turned in surprise. "Wha-?"

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Within the bedroom, Shui had put Tresser back into the trance, and after Xing had rendered him first aid, Shui proceeded to address the issue of the code.

"The suggestion to forget the SPARC code is cancelled. You now remember the code, and will easily recollect it whenever you wish."

In the middle of this, a cat's yowl interrupted, and at once the door was opened and stern Longguo soldiers flooded the room to drag them all roughly out.

To not be woken from hypnosis the correct way had a jarring effect on the nerves. It was a sudden burst of tachycardia, followed by an unusual swirl of hurt, confused emotions tied to no origin. Tresser was yanked from the bed, his mind still trying to orient itself, and forced with the others into the adjoining room - the imperial study, where Li waited for them all. Susan was also here, as well as a wide-eyed Filbert saved by this turn of events.

"Traitorous cat," Whitmore snarled.

"Gullible dog," Esther hissed. "Acting like I don't know what I'm doing."

Whitmore looked like he wanted to attack her till Tresser said, "Stay," and he complied, albeit with annoyance.

Li laughed. "You fools - you heroic fools! Is this journalistic objectivity at its finest?"

He had little interest in Tresser. His eyes were fixed upon Samantha and Dave, and Tresser noticed it.

"It's a tightrope, isn't it?" Samantha countered. "Yet what you were doing wasn't the execution of a prisoner of war. This was overkill, even for torture, and I know."

"You were here to cover the story impartially, were you not?"

"You didn't bring us here to cover the story. You brought us here because we are the story."

The corners of Li's mouth jerked upwards into an indulgent smirk. Samantha continued speaking:

"There was no reason to torture Tresser. Even your fascination with Esther - you took real interest in the prophecy when she brought us into it. None of this would have ever happened had we not done our investigative report so long ago...would it?"

"You are more than I estimated, Miss West... more indeed."

The emperor was regarding them almost with admiration, mingled incompatibly with a sort of cruel satisfaction.

"I wish to take Sarrilla, yes, but my plan had been to place Governor Victor Ulrich in the post of prime minister," Li explained. "Beholden to Longguo, he would have been a figurehead for my rule. The hypnotized Sarrillian guards were my own insurance, if Ulrich decided he would betray me. Then you came along...and my plans burned in the pyre your camera's light set. To seize Sarrilla now ceded to my revenge upon you. It was not only that you had dared and succeeded to expose my affairs, or that you had lived. It was that the two of you had been willing to sacrifice everything for your beliefs under torture, and then you lived without seeing those beliefs utterly decimated. Ambassador Qiang failed, but I would not. I would destroy your spirits in the one way that would hurt you: your loyalty to those piteous ethical principles."

Tresser listened to Li's conspiracy being laid bare for the first time, in total shock. It was the sudden feeling of diminutiveness on the heels of realization: he was a paltry role in the theatrical play of Li's grand scheme. What sort of jarring correlations acted out in the world, where a seed of petty rancor could blossom into war among nations! Yet the emotion was not as much as that of Samantha and Dave. He could see unsettlement upon their faces, to hear something they had already come to know.

"Taking Sarrilla is not so difficult," added Li. "To leave the nation leaderless, I need have only assassinated both of its rulers, so my men could have easily done away with Mr. Tresser when I ordered Corbin's elimination. That wouldn't have served my plan to break the two of you; the prime minister was a perfect pawn to that end...someone in and of himself irrelevant, save as a trophy, yet as a newsmaker someone who you must speak with personally but keep on a pure professional basis. So too though I'd like the weapon, even SPARC is unnecessary. The Sarrillian forces are so weighted with their own bureaucracy, they can be defeated swifter than they would like to admit."

"You thought up all this," Samantha emphasized, "not to assist in conquest...but merely to place me and Dave in a situation where there was no impartial solution; to force us into betraying our profession's standards."

"I succeeded. You betrayed them."

Samantha thought about this. "It's a paradox, what you ended up setting out. That's what disclosures are for."

"You cannot think you've won," replied Li.

Samantha sighed. She did not seem triumphant, nor did Dave; if anything, they seemed reconciled to the ambiguity. "There is no winner. In any case, we fulfilled our side of the agreement and you can judge the results. We agreed to your challenge so we could film and televise our report across Longguo - exactly as in a democracy."

The emerald fire returned briefly to her eyes, like the last ember of a fading light. As if it were accentuating her words, the even reporting on the television ceded to two speakers - Tresser and Li.

"One thing has always escaped me about you. Is your regime fascist or communist?"

"Neither, and both. They are the same..."

It was Li, lauding his wiliness in having fooled a nation. Now he himself had been fooled! How had they videotaped the speech, meant solely for the ears of the prime minister and his Sarrillian operative? Samantha and Dave must have hidden around the corner.

The emperor turned away from the screen, aghast, to the reporter. She smiled back.

"No censorship, your majesty."

Li glanced from Samantha to the television screen and back, as if still trying to let the realization settle, and then he said rather defiantly, "Perhaps a win for the popular knowledge, Miss West, but it remains to be seen what anyone will do about it."

"Getting people to do something about it wasn't and isn't our job anyway."

"As stepping in to play heroes wasn't either. Well," said Li, and left it at that.

"And now?" Dave posed.

"I keep my word," Li replied, "as a matter of honor. You are free to leave Longguo." It was, in its way, mockery.

"What of the others?" asked Samantha.

"Firing squad will do acceptably."

"They wouldn't even be here, nor have had all that happened to them, if it hadn't been for our presence. We're to leave after we pretty much inadvertently staged world news?"

"You will wonder about that forever, won't you," stated Li.

The reporter and her cameraman turned briefly to each other and then, in tacit understanding, back to Li. Samantha spoke.

"In the same way you proposed an agreement to us, now we would like to propose one to you."

It was plain now how much Li enjoyed these games of wit and so he entertained the notion. "What might that be?"

"Let the others go, alive and safe..." Samantha let her words rest, "...and we'll stay."

Shock rippled through the little group. The proposal was unthinkable to Tresser, who was wholly repulsed by the idea of leaving his journalist rescuers to sure death. "Samantha...Dave..."

"We have an agreement," Li grinned, interrupting him.

Susan was astonished too, for a different reason. "You're letting the enemy's leader go? Easy as that?"

"He was never the intention here," replied Li easily.

"I thought the intention was to humiliate and subjugate Sarrilla," Susan snapped. Li did not reply to her.

"We do," Dave pointed out to Li, "want to see they actually reach their destination..."

"We can view from the security cameras along the border. You will be able to see them depart the palace and the country in that manner." With that, the emperor merely jerked his head towards the others as a sign they were free to leave.

Tresser did not wish to go, even as Longguo soldiers surrounded them as an escort to the outside. "We can't leave Samantha and Dave behind..."

"Let's go with it, your excellency," Shui said, pulling him towards the exit.

"Esther, you're really staying?" Filbert the squirrel looked back at the cat.

"Uh...between being a house-pet or being royalty? I stay. Tell Bennett to pack things," purred Esther.

Reluctantly, Filbert bounded after the others.

Tresser cast one last look back at Samantha and Dave, but they did not look back.

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Chapter 40 - Year of the Cat

They proceeded to the palace exit escorted by soldiers, and Whitmore the dog staying close to the prime minister. Tresser could feel the lighter's weight in his inside jacket pocket as they walked.

Li forgot about the SPARC transceiver, he realized.

His mind was still contemplating Samantha and Dave's sacrifice, and somehow the lighter became a mere footnote.

Tresser made up his mind right then, that if Sarrilla were to win the war, the two journalists were deserving of recognition. It was impossible to forget that they were the reason he was still alive. He would find a way.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Back in the throne room, the only ones left behind were the two journalists, Susan, the emperor and Esther the cat.

Li took a sword from a scabbard and looking straight at the reporter, spoke:

"To think, once more, the acclaimed newscaster Samantha West and her videographer David Candid... prisoners."

There was a fiendish delight in his eyes at the thought.

"Then again you both are indomitable even as captives. But in the interest of a courtesy, I shall once more offer you your lives. As lead program host and head videographer respectively on my state television channel, you would each enjoy a celebrated and luxurious existence here in Longguo with the lone caveat that you televise, solely, whatever I tell you to."

"We are not propagandists," Samantha replied.

"What Samantha is saying holds for me as well," Dave said.

Li studied the shining edge of the sword. "In my regime, you either obey or die. You both knew that, when you offered to stay behind."

Neither of them disputed the assertion.

"Your broadcast," Li continued, "was a dishonor, internationally; not to mention the loss of valued billions in sales of arctic fox furs. Yet I meant it when I said I admired your willpower, and your fearlessness. It is a pity you do not work for me, and a loss to the Sarrillian military that you are newscasters; you have the valor of warriors. So, I will grant you a death becoming of warriors."

Emperor Li gestured with the sword, and their sight followed the motion till resting on the rattlesnake.

"The Longguo viper, a species of rattlesnake found only in these mountains," Li explained. "Its venom is the most toxic of any animal on the planet."

Dave reasoned swiftly. "You plan for us to commit suicide."

"Supposing we didn't?" Samantha asked.

He raised the sword, to lift her head by the chin with the flat of the blade, so that his eyes transfixed on hers.

"Then I, personally, will kill you... and order the execution of everyone who dwells in Faunaville."

"Find a new threat," meowed Esther.

At this, the emperor looked away from his prisoners and at the cat. She was sitting on the center table with the maps, her tail coiled about her paws.

"My human Mr. Bennett is in Faunaville," she explained.

Li spoke sharply. "I am your master now, Esther."

Esther persisted, "Bennett and his wife were always kind to me and I want them to come live here at the palace with us, to share in all this luxury."

"Did you truly think I would permit two commoners to live here – let alone from a subjugated land, and much less as anything than slaves?"

"Unquestionably!" Esther meowed her fur frizzed, "I'm the cat of the legend! The one who is going to make a decree bringing good fortune to Longguo..."

"Yes," he said interrupting her, "and I am the ruler of Longguo."

He turned back to Samantha and Dave, who were quiet. "What is your decision?" he prompted.

Before Samantha or Dave could answer, Esther let out a caterwaul, and leapt at Emperor Li.

It was unexpected, so that the emperor lost his balance and fell backwards, colliding with the snake enclosure that shattered into glass shards as he slammed to the floor. Esther sprang back, her back arched, her ears flat, and her lashing tail doubled in size.

"The only good fortune that could come to the empire," the white cat hissed, "would be to depose you."

Then an unsettling sound made the emperor's breath seem to come short. He turned slowly to see the rattlesnake coiled on the floor, at eye level beside him, its tail shaking and its head raised in the deadly pose.

There was a bolt like a dagger in flight, a mingled cry of fear and pain, together with the unavailing writhing of desperation, as the snake sank its long, tapering fangs into Li's neck.

"Go! This way!" screeched Esther to Samantha and Dave.

The cat led the television crew, and they dashed out of the room; the emperor could care less about them presently. The snake was hissing and readying for still another strike as Li lifted the sword high, and brought it down swiftly.

That was the end of the rattlesnake, but not of its lethality. The sword clattered out of the emperor's failing grip; Li tried to stand and walk forth, as if reaching towards something across the room, when faintness overcame him, and he stumbled back onto the ground gasping for breath.

Throughout all this, Susan had been observing in silence and had seemingly been astounded into immobility. She watched her husband with wide eyes.

"If you kept a viper, you must have the cure for its bite," she said.

"The anti-venom," he replied, his voice hoarse, "it's in the cabinet there..."

Susan ran to the place and rummaged through the contents, at last finding the precious item.

"Is this it?" she asked him, showing him a vial.

"Yes," he said, desperately.

She let the glass vial fall to the ground, and crushed it into pieces with her heel.

The world suddenly seemed to halt, and the emperor just stared, with hushed, incredulous shock, at his wife. Susan smiled coldly.

"You were only half correct, Emperor," she said. "Failure is not inefficiency... Inefficiency begets failure."

The emperor glanced from the dead snake to her, his eyes wide with fear as she continued speaking.

"I shall be the new, sole empress of Longguo," Susan smirked, "and at last the nation of Sarrilla will be eradicated into the history books. You were too caught up in your own pompous awe of being leader to be competent in that."

The emperor could not find his voice, and in his astonishment could think of doing little more other than watch her in silence. It was obvious the snake venom was taking effect quickly, for his breath was already shallow and he had been taken with sudden pallor. Unexpectedly, General Wu raced into the room. In the many years the general had held a military post, this was the first of open fright in his voice and on his face.

"Your majesty! There is an uprising! The people are storming the palace...they are in an outcry over the film that was broadcast..."

The words were heard by Emperor Li, heard almost too well; they were the final indignity to have been bestowed upon him by his two archenemies Samantha and Dave. Yet the emperor's eyes were locked upon Susan, and he seized the sword, but had not the strength to lift it nor himself from the ground. There was now no escape from the poison that mingled with his lifeblood, traversing swiftly through the artery leading to the heart. His stare turned blank and he fell back dead.

Wu saw this, shock now in the place of trepidation; he merely looked at Susan. She had not flinched, nor evinced any emotion, even as she now turned to face him.

"Gather our troops," she said calmly, "and quell the uprising... and if you come across the prisoners that the departed Li released, bring them back to my presence. Oh... and take him out of here."

"By your command," he said, with a salute, "...your majesty."

Her smile bore triumph.

══════ ∘◦❀◦∘ ══════

Chapter 41 - Earth and Fire

Tresser and the others were walking down the corridor when the distant sound of airplanes reached them, and Tresser knew they were the Sarrillian fighter jets swooping down to attack. At that moment a Longguo soldier hurried over with a sharp order, "Return to your posts with the prisoners. The palace is under siege."

"What...?" the guards looked at each other in astonishment.

Shui saw an opportunity. He karate-chopped one of the soldiers, and when they were all on the floor they hid in the nearby throne room. The room was empty and seemed all the more vast because of it.

Shui turned to Tresser. "Those airplanes, I surmise, are Sarrillian," he said.

"They're going to decimate Li's empire finally," affirmed Tresser.

"Stay here. I might have a plan to settle my own scores with Li and save our lives too."

"Where are you going?" Tresser nearly exclaimed.

Shui merely smiled. "Trust us," he said and hurried away with Xing following him.

Tresser then addressed Whitmore, who was still at his heels. "Follow them," he told the dog.

Whitmore protested and was loathe to leave, but he obeyed his master in the end. Tresser was now alone, and his injuries were hurting again; it was not long after when Wu showed up and aimed a pistol at him.

"The phoenix once more immune to the fire," he quipped, "I have been told by Empress Susan to bring you back before her."

"Empress Susan?" Tresser echoed.

"Li is dead," answered Wu.

Tresser observed him speechlessly and Wu said, "Which makes it all the more interesting. You see, as leader of the underground I had waited for his death...only now... Perhaps it was just as well you did not die as first planned from the dart upon being captured."

"So... the overdose wasn't accidental!" Tresser exclaimed, his secret suspicions justified.

"No Longguo soldier would be so foolhardy as to be careless with imperial orders," Wu elucidated. "The overdose was carried out by one of my men who was prepared to endure the consequences for the sake of our new revolution. I had expected you to die, and Sarrilla in an uproar would invade Longguo and end Li for us. It mattered little if the Sarrillians chose to raise their flag here. It would be easy to rally the Longguo people against foreign occupiers, and even easier to oust a government already weakened by infighting over its own leadership. That is no longer convenient. If Stanley Parnell is the true heir to the throne, a Sarrillian occupation will be seen as welcome restoration of the true ruler."

"Then the underground is fighting for a lie?" said Tresser.

"Oh, it's no lie," Wu quipped. "The resistance will accomplish its stated goal of bringing a new ruler to the nation. That will be the only new thing." He had gained an indulgent smile. "Everything will be as it is now - save one difference. The ruler... will be me."

"You intend to turn Longguo into a banana republic."

"Your own country, Prime Minister, is two assassinations shy of becoming a banana republic." Tresser uneasily remembered the gun was still pointed at his forehead, as Wu continued, "I can bring that figure down to one right now."

Tresser reasoned the words through. "You can, but you won't?"

"You would be the only one respected in your government to take the Sarrillian leadership back and safeguard my new Longguo regime. Therefore, I want you to return, provided you cooperate. When you are back in Sarrilla, turn your eyes away from what transpires in Longguo."

The people in Longguo had treated Tresser with kindness, and he had given them his word that Sarrilla would stand with them against dictatorship. Yet Tresser was astute enough, even through his injuries, to recognize the folly in trying to argue for them at gunpoint. He still had the politician's fine grasp of quid pro quo, together with the comprehension of inevitability he must eventually go back upon word given to someone. That person, he decided, would be General Wu.

"Yes," Tresser replied bluntly.

They then heard a click, whereupon they spun about to see Susan standing at the door pointing her mini-revolver at them. Wu hurried to redirect his pistol's aim, just as she pulled the trigger; only one shot rang out and Wu collapsed onto the floor.

"You just shot him in cold blood."

"Oh, does that offend your sensibilities?"

"Not as much as your willingness to torture...or your unwillingness to explain why."

"I told you, Prime Minister, I'm not a fan of gloating and clichés like you see in the cinema. I'm not even one for exotic, prolonged deathtraps unless it's to achieve a desired end. A well-aimed gunshot works way better, I've found."

As she spoke, there was movement upon the ground: General Wu. He was injured, yet still alive. Tresser noticed Wu's hand reach for the pistol lying beside him, and as the fingers closed upon it, Susan shot sideways at him.

This time the bullet struck him directly in the head, and the general moved no more.

Susan turned unflinchingly back to the prime minister. "Where were we?"

"There must be a reason you haven't shot me yet."

"The nation of Sarrilla must see their leader die."

Tresser, irrelevantly in the moment, found himself wondering why he could not accustom himself to her appearance in Longguo formal attire. At that moment Samantha, Dave and Esther hurried over to stand at a distance.

She continued speaking, "In a way, I feel bad it's you who must stand in my way. You have such blind loyalty towards your nation, it's honestly sad."

Susan was gazing at him almost mystified. It struck Tresser she must have thought he knew more than he did of some enigmatic thing, and he became acutely aware of a certain powerlessness in his lack of knowledge. She gave an embittered smile.

"It is easy to keep things in the dark from you. Maybe you really are so incompetent," Susan decided. "Let me tell you of statistics, Prime Minister... four little numbers printed on cold white paper with a story behind them. They were once not numbers, but a blissful Sarrillian family. There was a young woman, happily married to a military physicist talented for his age; they had two children together...twins, a boy and a girl, no older than three... they adopted a pet puppy to complete the home."

Her voice revealed a raw emotion previously hidden.

"Then one day it was all taken away before her eyes - in a spark of light."

"My God..." Tresser exclaimed, with stunning realization, "You? I was told about the incident, but they never told me the names of people involved."

Samantha looked from one to the other. "Someone please explain all this?"

"On the day the SPARC weapon was being first tested," Tresser recounted, "two children from the base, chasing after their pet, inadvertently wandered into the target area. It had not been cordoned off properly. Their father, one of the physicists developing the laser, forgot his post and tried to save them, just as the ray was fired...obliterating the entire family...except for his wife, who witnessed the accident..."

"Oh, so they did keep records, then," Susan scowled with disgust. "The military denied it. Every official claimed it was out of his jurisdiction, or else pledged to help, only to do nothing in practice. Even the newspapers eventually decided the incident could not be verified and gave up investigating. But that was not the worst. The powers that be, wanting at that time to keep their new weaponry secret, tried to expunge the incident from public history. Everyone who knew us either developed sudden forgetfulness or met a mysterious end in the course of a month. They even wiped the birth of my children from the record. All that was left were pictures and mementos - all of which soon burned up in an inexplicable house fire that was first declared to be arson then conveniently found to be an electrical fault. This is the legacy of your proud nation."

Tresser felt sick to his stomach - sicker than he had felt before. "I didn't know any of that."

"As I said," she practically snarled at him, "You don't even know what happens in your office. But I don't blame you - exactly. You were newly elected to parliament a year after. I blame an ungrateful system that gave this as its reward to a family that served Sarrilla loyally."

Her bearing softened, enough to return the gentleness to her complexion Tresser recalled from all the time she worked for him. "Li needed inside information; I wanted to destroy Sarrilla. It was easy to work my way up the civil service echelon. What Longguo couldn't arrange for me, I could win through feminine wiles. Eventually I reached the honored position of being the prime minister's private secretary."

"What you're doing is wrong."

"What happened to me was wrong."

"But what can I do, Susan?"

"Become a statistic yourself."

Her manner had hardened anew, the brief moment of humanity faded away into the coldness of vengeance. "I don't care whether it's you personally or the leader of the opposition or some nitwit backbencher from parliament. It's whomever happens to be the prime minister of Sarrilla - the person who holds that top office, that title, and what it signifies - and that man just happens to be you, James Tresser. The last leader of a nation that placed itself on the altar."

"But Susan... lies...torture...murder..."

"Can you honestly say, Prime Minister, you wouldn't have done as much or worse than I have? Can you say you don't already do these things daily? You, who know what power is like?"

Samantha and Dave glanced at Tresser, yet his manner was subdued, for he had no answer for her.

Susan pulled the trigger - and the revolver clicked harmlessly.

There was stillness like the refrain of a gong, wherein she examined the cylinder and, finding this empty, permitted the gun to fall from her hand.

Tresser then spoke, with earnestness. "There is no way to recompense for such a tragedy, but I am sorry."

Her eyes watered, the first time he had ever seen it from her, but she blinked it away swiftly. "Do you really think that is enough?"

"There is nothing more I can offer you," he said bluntly. "I wish I could."

She was quiet, and cast her sight from him towards the floor. The prime minister continued speaking, though his injuries were causing him noticeable pain and he looked very much in need of rest.

"The laws are explicit regarding high treason. You will be brought back to Sarrilla to face execution. That is what the law decrees from the time of the regency; it is only parliament who can grant pardon nowadays, and even if I were to symbolically voice objection, I see no other fate possible. Even if you were to somehow be exiled, I know fully well you would return. Your vengeance cannot be satisfied and it would be unceasing peril for the citizens of Sarrilla. This is what I feel the worst about," he added, "I feel sorry for what shall lead up to your execution, because I can legally do nothing to halt it."

The television reporter, Samantha, interjected, "What do you mean?"

"The penalty for high treason," Tresser said drearily, "which everyone has forgotten is Sarrilla's written law... is to be lashed to death."

Samantha and Dave gazed, stunned, at Tresser. To learn such brutality had never been abolished in Sarrilla was astonishing enough, but they slowly drew wider implications.

Susan had a sneer across her face. "Well, the Sarrillians should be happy then," she said, "Wouldn't that be considered a poetic justice for what was done to their leader?"

"The punishment is inhumane... draconian," Tresser stated.

Susan snapped savagely at him. "If you profess to be sorry, don't." Her blue eyes blazed vindictively. "If I could, I would do everything I did again. You're only sorry because you don't have the guts to do anything about this or any other law. You can't even get the damn budget passed. It's not because you and your pitiful democratic values are merciful. There is seldom difference between public, parliament, or dictator calling for blood. The world will see an exhibition of how irredeemable Sarrillian hypocrisy is; sadism while they condemn the same of their opponents."

Tresser found himself defensive. "It's very different. You must answer for disloyalty."

"I was never disloyal," she countered.

"What are you saying?" Tresser asked her in surprise.

"Everyone is loyal to something," explained Susan. "That could be ethics, or ideals, or loved ones, or dreams... you of your people's future, I of a simple one lost to the past. Some are merely loyal to themselves. The reasons why might be admitted to all or hidden away, but all of us are doing what we see as correct. What's honorable to one is betrayal to another, because right and wrong are subjective things. One nation proclaims a hero whom the other labels a villain. Another person will be repudiated by the world, but forever feel in her heart what she did was justice. In the end, Prime Minister, they were all loyal."

The prime minister gazed at his one-time private secretary. Susan looked him straight in the eyes and added:

"If you ever really cared about me...you would kill me now. Let me die with dignity. My soul will then be free to go be with my family."

There was silence in the room; except for the battle cries of the two armies that were facing each other around the palace, everything in the room was still. Tresser's eyes watered.

Tresser gave a brief nod and, with a step back, pulled out the cigarette lighter. He went through the motions quickly to bring up the targeting map and set the coordinates, until at last the authentication prompt awaited the coveted code.

"Thank you... James," Susan said.

Tresser hesitated and glanced up as she added, "If you were of royal blood, Mr. Tresser... I think you would be a benevolent king."

He watched her steadily for a long moment, then spoke a single word softly:

"Sandman."

There was a sudden spark of red light that illuminated the surroundings, a beam that fell upon Susan from the sky. The brightness was so great it hurt the eyes; one could not see beyond it, and when the light faded there was merely dust.

Tresser leant against the gold throne, letting the transceiver snap shut in his hands. The wounds were starting to pain him more, and he allowed himself to sink to the marble floor. Samantha knelt beside him, with Dave on one knee and the ever-present camera dutifully on his shoulder.

"Sandman," considered Samantha, "wasn't that what Emperor Li called the hypnotism project?"

"It's also the code for the SPARC laser," Tresser replied weakly. "Li had the code... unbeknownst to him... all along."

The rest was a blur for him. The Sarrillian soldiers streaming into the throne room with the accompaniment of the Longguo populace who had stormed the palace alongside them; Shui and Xing had apparently turned the tide of the fight within the courtyard - for nearly half of the Longguo guards aided the revolt under hypnosis; the little dog Whitmore bounding up and licking his face; while the cameraman Dave filmed all and the reporter Samantha spoke into the microphone for a report he was sure would air later that night. From his soldiers there were questions and reassurances and messages from home, but Tresser's thoughts were faraway, on what could have been, but would never be.

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Chapter 42 - Resonance of Mistrust

Tresser did not recall the voyage back to Sarrilla, or when exactly he had been sedated. He would have probably protested the sedative had he realized; the pain of his injuries was bad, however the idea of being drugged was something he had enough of. He opened his eyes sleepily to find himself in a hospital bed, and the first instinct was no longer relief at being home but worry that he was still in captivity.

Fear had surprising resilience, and it was only when he was greeted by the doctors, one of the palace cats, and none other than Stanley Parnell that his concerns were allayed.

Stanley spoke first. "I've brought you this paperwork the cabinet don't know what to do with, get-well-soon wishes from countless foreign ministers, and a cat."

"To hell with the paperwork. Give me the cat."

The cat hopped onto the bed and settled next to Tresser, purring loudly. There was silence for another moment, as if both Tresser and Stanley had something to say but were uncertain of how to; Stanley at last was the one who decided to state it, bluntly.

"I must go to Longguo. If I'm the last heir to the throne..."

"I know," said Tresser, "In fact, your obligation aside I'd need you to. Without any leader they will likely end up in civil war, unless Sarrilla invades," - Stanley seemed to stiffen slightly - "but I don't think doing so would be fair to the Longguo citizenry; they did help us."

"I'll stay until you select a new deputy," Stanley assured.

Tresser nodded in a quiet affirmation. Stanley added, "I still want to thank you for hiring me, first as your campaign manager and then for me to have the privilege of being press secretary..."

"You won't require my good reference, Stanley," the prime minster insisted. "As the reigning emperor you have job security for the rest of your life."

"It's genuine," Stanley said earnestly. "It was an honor to work for you, your excellency."

"Likewise, I don't think I'll ever again have a more capable press secretary," Tresser hesitated and added, "your majesty."

The words were stunning somehow to Stanley, to hear them from his distinguished former employer; he turned to leave, though he seemed a little nostalgic.

Tresser dismissed this easily. "We'll still speak and see each other to discuss trade and also at summits."

When Stanley left, the next to enter was Maurice with further wishes for a swift recovery. The prime minister still watched him, with the leeriness of an injured animal being kindly treated by strangers.

"Might you and the rest of the cabinet merely be interested in who I choose for my deputy?" Tresser cynically said.

The foreign affairs minister seemed nonplussed at the retort. Tresser realized his reply was unnecessarily contemptuous and found himself struck with sudden remorse.

"I'm sorry," Tresser said, "I didn't mean it to sound that way."

The foreign affairs minister couldn't help but feel bad for his superior. "Don't worry. You've been through a lot," replied Maurice with sincerity.

The prime minister nodded his head. "Thank you, Maurice... for your understanding... now, there is something I'd like you to find out. Please look up the background of Susan Ferry and any link she might have had with SPARC."

"I'll get right on it, Prime Minister, but there is something you should know. She was Corbin's mistress," Maurice divulged.

"How did you know about that?"

"I walked into Corbin's office one day and found them in each other's arms. I didn't think it was very important to mention... just another office romance, which sometimes don't last very long... but it did strike me about Susan that she could hide things very well, that she was a fine actress as well as an industrious secretary. In any case, Corbin was eager to hush it up. How did you think I got him to do that about-face to support my side project in parliament of planting trees?"

"I see." Tresser said simply. He was pensive for a while. Maurice noticed it and remained silent so as to not interrupt the prime minister's thoughts. Tresser finally broke the silence saying:

"Keep this quiet, just within your ministry for now."

"Yes, your excellency," he answered.

Tresser was still deep in thought after Maurice left, and melancholy had returned to him. He still could scarcely believe, of all those who surrounded him, there was more camaraderie amongst those of the little group who had survived this misadventure with him than his counsellors. Corbin's lust for power, after he had granted him the post of second-in-command, still dismayed Tresser. It was not flippant either to say Tresser was, though he did not voice it, tormented terribly by the recollection of Susan poised over him, with the cruel assurance on her lips that he would be shortly torn to pieces.

The cat noticed how brooding he was. "Are you all right?" asked the feline.

"I'm fine..." his words lingered, "I suppose I find the tranquility here such a strange contrast to everything that happened..."

Tresser had a sickening tremor at the memory, enough for his voice to falter at this feeling of utter vulnerability. It was not the triumphant image that would infallibly be set out by the publicity office; it was the intimate reality of a human being left frail and shaken, not by his mortality but by the person who would have been his executioner.

The lingering fear subsided when the cat bit him.

"Ow," said Tresser.

"Enough," hissed the cat, "You're the country's leader. What's more you were in the navy years prior. Ffftt."

Remarkable how nothing like this ever happened to me in the navy, when we could have been captured by the enemy, thought Tresser. He focused instead on the softness of the bed, the security - he hoped, for after all that had happened he could not be sure of this anymore - of the hospital room, and tried to push his memory of the torture and betrayal far away.

Tranquility was cherished, but once again hard to come by. It seemed all the cabinet ministers and officials had something they wanted to bring up with the prime minister; ostensibly affairs of state and yet more well-wishes, but the majority of them were secretly curious how hurt the prime minister was and had their own agenda in mind. Tresser could tell this now, and his cynicism towards them increased, though it was less disheartening and more irritating.

When he overheard some whispered words in a conversation between two of these officials, to the effect of "he doesn't need to see them", he suspected something amiss.

Tresser asked, "Who's outside?"

"The other escaped hostages. It's nothing for you to concern yourself with, Prime Minister."

"What about them?"

"They want to come in, but of course we haven't let them."

"Let them in," Tresser responded, aghast they had been kept out.

"Your excellency, two of them are members of the media and the other two are foreigners..."

"Let them in," Tresser insisted.

"Prime Minister..."

"Is there a reason you're trying to prevent me from seeing them?"

The bluntness of his suspicion, bordering upon accusation, made them recant. Moments later, Samantha, Dave, Shui and Xing walked into the room, and Whitmore accompanied them.

Tresser brightened up, and suddenly wondered if he looked a little naïve to be so happy to see them again, yet they were as happy as he.

"How else would we get a good sound bite for our broadcast?" justified Samantha cheerily, "Do you have any comments, your excellency, now that you're safe back in Sarrilla?"

"I consider myself lucky to have overcome this," the prime minister replied. "By the way, where are Esther and Filbert?"

"Outside with Mr. Bennett, Esther's owner," Dave explained. "He's very happy to have his cat back - and from what we hear she's happy she'll get to keep the diamond collar. Filbert is telling everybody who will listen that the fact a squirrel was present is part of the reason we're all alive."

"...and for my part, I'm happy I have a new human," barked Whitmore, who had joined the palace cat in snuggling up to Tresser's side.

Tresser had for the moment felt better, but it was impossible to forget how both his arms were in slings, and a large bandage was covering the burn on his cheek; the sense of profound vulnerability returned to him inexorably as he imagined once again the sorry state he must look, and then he forcibly willed his despondency into disdain.

"I can't stand these slings..." Tresser remarked, annoyed. "I can't do anything with them on. I can't look at my paperwork by myself...let alone eat or drink by myself... I think it might be a very long time before I feel fully well again. The shock of it all..."

Samantha piped up, "Everybody knows you're convalescing. Everybody understands it."

"I don't know..." Tresser continued, "I'm quite terrified of my own cabinet ministers. I'm equally frightened of the civil service officials. I feel I ought to increase my security, yet I find myself wary of the guards... and additionally, I must decide on who to appoint as the new deputy prime minister."

"Do you have anyone you are considering in particular?"

"I am between the ministers of foreign affairs and the treasury. Both are experienced, responsible men, and neither one has any scandals for you people to relish reporting," the prime minister added wittily at the journalists.

"Give us a week," smiled Samantha, "we'll find one. That's half the fun."

"Incidentally," Shui said changing the subject, "is the minister of foreign affairs the man we spoke to earlier?"

"Yes," replied Dave.

"Well, I may have seen him in the stairwell kissing passionately with a blonde lady..."

Samantha and Dave hurtled out the door; Shui had a smile on his face.

Xing turned to him demandingly. "Shui! You made that up!"

"It was for science, dear Xing." Shui now turned towards Tresser, "Prime Minister, it has come to my attention that you have a certain hesitancy in how or whom to select to replace members of your team."

"Well Shui," replied Tresser with a melancholy look on his face, "Truth is, I'm not sure whom to trust anymore."

Shui and Xing looked at each other briefly and then back at Tresser; Xing spoke up, "Prime Minister I believe you have a need for confidence in yourself. You have always been a clever leader."

"Thank you for your assessment Xing, but I'm not sure what to do about it," he answered.

"Your excellency," said Shui adjusting his glasses, "I can help you with that."

"What are you up to, Shui?" asked a suspicious Tresser.

Shui smiled. "Relax," he said.

A half hour later, Samantha and Dave returned to Tresser's room and found Shui and Xing still there. Tresser looked a bit drowsy.

"Shui," the reporter said, "about the story you mentioned..."

"Yes, I'm quite sorry but when I said the foreign affairs minister..."

"You don't have to apologize for getting the ministries mixed up!" Samantha hurried to say.

"Yeah, this is a better story," Dave chimed in, "At least the foreign affairs minister is divorced."

Shui and Xing exchanged a look, while Tresser just stared at them. The two journalists were happily watching the video they had taken.

"I can't believe we caught the Treasury Minister necking with a blonde," said Samantha. "This will be headlines at five."

Dave glanced up from the camera viewfinder. "I wonder what his wife will say when she sees this tape."

"Let's find out!" Samantha exclaimed. "I saw her downstairs!"

Samantha and Dave zipped out the door again.

Tresser glanced over at Shui with a look that said 'What did you do?'

Shui was analyzing, "Truly remarkable...I may be more perceptive than even I consider."

Before anyone could respond, a man hurried to the doorway.

"Your excellency," he said anxiously, "Did you see a TV crew around here?"

"Are you looking for them for a reason?" Tresser spoke gingerly.

"No! Not at all..." he stammered.

He was trying to find a justification for his inquiry when Tresser spoke again.

"I think your wife might know where they are."

"Oh my God!" he exclaimed, and raced off.

Tresser turned to Shui with a slight grin on his face. "Oh Shui... Now the government has another scandal to muddle through so early after I'm back."

"Consider it a positive thing, prime minister," smiled Shui. "Now you know which of your two colleagues to appoint as your second-in-command."

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Chapter 43 - History of a Cover-Up

The convalescence of Prime Minister Tresser was all over the news and kept making headlines for about the two weeks he was in hospital. During this time both the scientists as well as the television crew made routine visits.

Samantha and Dave received accolades for their reporting of the events in Longguo and the follow-up in Sarrilla. Ted Hughes, their editor, far from removing them from covering the executive branch anymore, said they were now the perfect people to do so - he trusted their professional judgement even in the face of acquaintanceship implicitly, it seemed - and in fact had assigned them to a human-interest feature that would act as a documentary of the prime minister's recuperation in hospital.

The prime minister's new PR agent did not like the idea of a documentary and tried to dissuade him from doing it but Tresser would hear none of it, so every day Samantha and Dave would visit him at the hospital with cameras in tow. He would receive them happily, and even the doctors would later admit he seemed to improve when around those who had survived the abduction alongside him. Shui explained that was a psychological association, and Xing added it was due to the brain attempting to heal from mental anguish.

"Can we quote you both on that?" Samantha asked as she was writing it down.

"Of course," answered the happy couple.

Once the slings were removed, there was a tedious regimen of physical therapy to regain full mobility, which Tresser would have found utterly odious were it not for Samantha and Dave's insisting they wanted to film each attempt. Samantha, as it happened, endured much the same thing for her hip after the helicopter crash she and Dave had been in some time before, and adding to this they understood his perduring recollection of the torture more than they openly admitted. He could coax their experiences from them now more readily than back in the forest, as even to the reporter and cameraman themselves their conversations were now of the rare variety where both parties shared comprehension.

This day they found the prime minister was sitting up on the side of the bed. He had a noticeably better complexion, and he greeted them as warmly as ever.

"You look like you're feeling better," Samantha  observed.

"Yes," he said cheerfully, "they say I should soon be well enough to complete the recovery at home. I'll be discharged in a couple of days."

"This is news," remarked Samantha.

"You have an exclusive," he added, "The publicity office is planning to tell the rest of the news media in a few hours."

As soon as Dave set up the tripod and camera, Samantha jumped into her list of questions:

"Any new ideas to implement upon your return to office, Prime Minister Tresser?"

"I'm now writing a contingency plan." Tresser replied, "I'm devising a line of succession heading past the deputy prime minister, but I hope I'm not mistaken in doing so."

"Why do you think it would be a mistake?"

"If someone too corrupt and ambitious falls somewhere in the line, I'm worried it might lead to a rash of assassinations."

"That goes back to security, wouldn't it?"

"Our security has been shown to be grossly inadequate. Frankly this all hinges on those defense reforms I've been trying to pass."

A knock on the open door preceded the arrival of the foreign affairs minister, Maurice, who was holding a manila folder.

Tresser greeted him, and then added to the television crew, "Samantha and Dave - as I told you - besides his duties as foreign affairs minister, I've appointed Maurice to be the new deputy prime minister."

"Our network would like an interview with you, Mr. Maurice," Samantha asked.

"I'll see what my schedule looks like. Maybe over the weekend?" the man replied.

Tresser interrupted, "Did you need to speak with me, Maurice?"

"It's not important," Maurice said casually, "I came by to let you know that the paperwork allowing Dr. Shui Qiang and his wife Xing to remain in Sarrilla as residents is ready for you to sign. Also this..."

He produced a case, within which was a pair of eyeglasses. The prime minister examined them swiftly, then tried them on and glanced at a newspaper on the small table.

"They were done to your specifications," the foreign affairs minister assured.

"Thank you, Maurice," Tresser replied, taking the eyeglasses off and placing them in a pocket.

When Maurice left, the news reporter inquired, "So, what's up with the glasses?"

"Officially, I sent my reading glasses for some repairs," Tresser said inattentively.

"...yet they were returned to you by the foreign affairs minister," Samantha noted.

"That is the official account," reiterated Tresser.

"What's the unofficial account?"

"You mean the truth? I'll only tell you off-the-record."

"That's no fun," complained Samantha.

Tresser was insistent. "National security."

"You're getting nitpicky. Ok, fine. Off-the-record."

"Hidden in the eyeglasses is a cyanide capsule."

They said nothing for a moment, and finally Samantha asked, "I thought that was only used in espionage?"

"It was. But it's a failsafe I decided on if ever the guards are so incompetent as to let me once more be kidnapped and placed at the mercy of another person like Li. While I'm glad to know I can endure torture if it came to that, I don't want it to come to that again if I can help it at all."

Samantha gave a nod, pensive and quiet. The possibility of facing such an ordeal more than once was, to a certain degree, taken for granted by her and Dave as being inextricably entwined with their line of work, but Tresser's view was not a wholly incomprehensible sentiment to her. "Do all the cabinet ministers have something like this now?"

"Not unless they were to request it," said the prime minister. "I'm still the only person who knows the SPARC code anyway, not even you two anymore. I had the code changed."

Glancing at the clock in the wall, Samantha turned to her cameraman and said, "If we don't get back to the TV station, we'll never make the five o'clock newscast."

Dave added, "We'll be by to see you tomorrow!"

"You two have been visiting quite regularly," Tresser remarked, as they were gathering their camera equipment, "almost as much as Shui and Xing."

"Officially, we're only here for our feature story," Samantha discounted.

"I'm sure that's your main interest," Tresser affirmed, "though I suspect you two also visit because you unofficially care."

"Off-the-record?" she countered, with the hint of a smile.

He smiled in reciprocation, and the two journalists left with a brisk pace, almost like two cats scampering away after some mischief.

They should receive some recognition for rescue, thought Tresser, but I don't know how.

He knew to them being showered with medals and titles would be a burden. Ironically, because they didn't act for accolades, their actions would merit some sort of honor. He noticed how demure they behaved when spoken to publicly about the event, answering all their colleagues questions yet downplaying it. They did not seem to know how to handle the role of interviewee, being more accustomed to the role of interviewer, and wanted to avoid viewers perceiving their interactions with him as potential bias.

"News-people have strange standards, not just for politicians but for themselves," Tresser mused to himself, "I wonder what party they did vote for."

"Nobody," spoke a man, and he looked over to where the speaker stood at the entryway, "Neither of the two are registered to vote."

It was Maurice. "I did their full background checks back when we learnt they had been kidnapped with you," he explained, as he walked back into the room. "Same for the two scientists. We thought it might prove useful."

"That's reasonable," Tresser accepted. "Maurice, I thought you had returned to the office?"

"Just stepped away for a moment," he said, "I gathered the information you'd requested, but I didn't want to speak about it when West and Candid were here. They are after all, still journalists; even they acknowledge that." He presented Tresser with the manila folder he had been carrying. "The dossier on Susan Ferry. Furthermore, I was able to locate someone who was involved in the cover-up."

"Then there was a cover-up?"

"Incident AC-194 in the SPARC development project," said Maurice.

An hour later Tresser was introduced to a certain Captain Doherty, who seemed quite honored to meet the commander-in-chief but whose inordinate conceit, even when recounting and admitting the entire operation, grew during their conversation to irritate the prime minister. Doherty was one of those who had overseen the scheme, it emerged. He was fair and rather small in stature, with darting motions evocative of a mouse, and with sharp eyes that held a somewhat conspiratorial gleam.

Doherty told him everything, and Tresser saw it had transpired exactly as Susan had said it. Yet it was the extent of the official smokescreen that astounded Tresser.

"I take it the acting PM at the time authorized it."

"Oh no, your excellency. It became routine to handle such things ourselves. Why trifle the chief with it? He never knew anything other than the initial accident report."

"You have to ask him for authorization to fire in a damn war. I presumed you'd have to ask him to authorize everything else."

"Not home matters, Prime Minister."

Doherty had a smile on his face. Tresser realized it was a fair matter of pride for a segment of Sarrilla's espionage and civil service, in that they could so neatly and plausibly conceal facts and rewrite documents within their borders to portray what they wished, when they wished.

"What ministry oversaw it, then?"

"The Ministry of National Affairs. This was before its amalgamation into Foreign Affairs and Defense. However, even the National Affairs minister wasn't told. He would've been surprised, had he ever learnt about what his ministry was doing!" Doherty added, almost exultantly.

"He might have been more surprised at your amount of hubris," snapped Tresser. "The lengths you took were revolting."

"Well, she wouldn't shut up."

"Did you really expect her to, considering what happened? Her whole life was destroyed."

"But considering the highly classified matter of the weaponry being developed..."

"If one of our intelligence agents gets killed on a classified mission, we don't treat the family like this." Tresser was furious. "Simply to shut her up? You had at least a dozen other Sarrillians - our own innocent civilians, mind you - shot for not playing along with this farce. If you were going to do all that, I'm surprised you didn't take the faster route of having her shot."

"We didn't want to do that, Prime Minister."

"Why?"

"The general in charge thought she was pretty. It seemed a shame... We figured she could just remake her life anyway."

"Are you still doing things like this?"

Tresser had his amber eyes locked squarely on the man, who fidgeted but did not answer him.

Tresser spoke in a murmur. "I thought only defense needed reform."

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Chapter 44 - Ashes of the Phoenix

One month later, Stanley officially assumed the Longguo throne as the rightful emperor. Having proven to be heir by blood, his leadership was welcomed there.

A week after that, Tresser had recovered and returned to parliament. As he walked into the room, followed by his faithful dog Whitmore, the other members of parliament stood to give him a standing ovation, as a matter of protocol to show national solidarity. He had, after all, survived a particularly brutal kidnapping and the nation had been saved from foreign invasion. Once the formalities were out of the way, however, the tit-for-tat of politics returned.

Tresser glanced over the sheet of bullet points drawn up for him and reiterated his views of the need for defense reform. He used what had happened to him as proof much needed to be done in that area, including an increase in funding for the military. This was always a point of contention with the opposing party members who immediately spoke up.

"Does the prime minister really want us to follow his advice," the leader of the opposition scoffed, "given the fact he was so trusting with the late Emperor Li... A foe of our nation?"

Laughter filled the chambers on the opposition side, while the prime minister's side was silent. Some opposition backbencher, in their usual flippancy, hurled a crumpled piece of paper towards the prime minister.

Tresser, however, reacted with subconscious immediacy.

He was overcome with an indescribable emotion and promptly hurled the crumpled paper back to the opposing side. It bounced irreverently off the opposition leader's head, to delighted cheers from his own party and exclamations from the public gallery – and total shock of the opposition who, up until now, had never seen him act in such a way.

Up in the press gallery, Samantha and Dave were filming all that transpired. Beside them Esther the cat and Filbert the squirrel both peered down at the unravelling scene.

"Samantha," Dave mused as he filmed Tresser, who was now tearing up the sheet of pre-planned bullet points with a flourish, "Do you think he still counts as clueless, or is he now corrupt?"

"Neither," said Samantha, peering with suspicion off to the public seating area. "I think there's a third variety – Shui-ed!"

Shui and Xing, who were seated here, looked over to her and unanimously smiled.

The parliamentary session over, Tresser glanced up at the public and press galleries and, seeing the others, waved to them and gestured towards the lobby. They met and from there went together to his office in the prime minister's residence.

"What did you do to me, Shui?" demanded Tresser with an agreeable smile when they were in his office.

"Actually, Prime Minister, all I did was bring out your inner aggressiveness, which you had suppressed in an effort to practice diplomacy within the parliamentary halls amongst your colleagues," replied Shui, adjusting his eyeglasses.

"Shui-nalysis," purred Esther.

Both, Shui and Xing had been applying for Sarrillian citizenship. Tresser signed the necessary documents for them right then and there, and added that they would receive funding to continue their hypnotism research as government scientists for Sarrilla.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs handles immigration. Their office is a block down from here," the prime minister informed them, and turned to Whitmore. The fox terrier sat beside his desk, wearing a bright new collar that designated him as the prime minister's pet. "Whitmore, could you show them there?"

Whitmore led the way happily, and with a wave Shui and Xing followed him out of the office.

"That leaves the two impartial observers," Tresser said, turning to the reporter and her cameraman.

Samantha and Dave fidgeted, but neither one answered. Tresser interpreted easily.

"You're wondering if you failed in Emperor Li's challenge by rescuing me."

His blunt statement surprised them, and they tried to disavow it but Tresser stopped them.

"You don't have to worry about offending me - I'm not angry. I admit I was a bit surprised myself at being rescued by two members of the media."

"Not as surprised as we, your excellency," unveiled Samantha, "We don't regret helping you, and we're sure if it were to play out again, we would jump in just as readily. But there is no justification for it within our professional tenets; it was an arbitrary decision made out of our own biases. I know no one sees the matter as important - like Shui says, it's something the layman doesn't care about. But we even privately considered resigning over it, before deciding it would make little difference. What shocks us most is we thought we hadn't failed at all, until the conversation you had with Susan..."

"For what it's worth, I don't think you failed," Tresser interjected. "You didn't rescue me to influence the outcome, or out of revenge against the emperor, or even out of patriotism for Sarrilla or Longguo. You did it out of sheer humanity."

"No we didn't," Samantha said, wearily, "If it had been for humanity's sake, then the rules would have applied to Susan too. We realized we were perfectly willing to stand by and film whatever would befall her, should she be taken back to Sarrilla."

"She was a conspirator," Tresser replied.

"She was still a human being," Samantha countered.

"That's not a paradox of journalism per se, that's a paradox of philosophy," Tresser pointed out.

"We still can't claim to have intervened out of anything more than we personally felt bad for you," the reporter insisted.

Tresser thought about this and then laughed sheepishly. "I'll grant that. Frankly, what you took issue with was that the whole thing was staged news."

Her green eyes widened, and she hedged. "Well..."

The prime minister spoke again. "Li having me tortured was less psychological warfare and more playing with your sensibilities. That's different than Susan's penalty, which would theoretically happen whether or not you were present. You two purely see your role as being there to report truth. As a result, you don't distinguish; you see each person as a living being with an equally valid story to be told. But if you discover a story was concocted for your cameras, then what's left in your eyes is only the humanity of the situation."

The television crew thought about this, and Tresser added, "Strangely, I'm grateful all the more. You both saw me as a fellow human being, not purely as my title. Other than my close family, I don't feel anyone has done that in years."

The look in his amber eyes was genuine; both Samantha and Dave returned it as a smile.

"I think you can understand that...members of the media," he finished meaningfully.

"I think we can," Samantha acknowledged.

"Which brings me to an impasse," said Tresser, "Anyone else would snatch at a chance to be given some high civilian honor or title in recognition of their actions...but if I know you two well enough, from all of us traipsing about Longguo, I think I know something you would prefer...if you're willing to take something off-the-record first?"

"Certainly," she accepted.

He walked quietly to the window, and pulled the drapes shut. Samantha and Dave observed curiously as Tresser walked back to the desk; he hesitated, as if considering his words.

"In Sarrilla," began the prime minister, "there is a secret government, passed down by inheritance, with the duty to serve as an unwritten, unseen check-and-balance on the office of prime minister..."

His admission resulted in surprise from Samantha, Dave, and Esther - and an exultant reaction from Filbert. "I knew there was a secret society of squirrels!" Filbert rejoiced.

Prime Minister Tresser smiled, a bit awkwardly. "Not exactly," he said and, retrieving an animal whistle from his desk, blew a soundless note on it once.

Instantly, he was surrounded by a small throng of cats; the cats that made their home on the palace grounds.

Filbert stared, mouth agape. Esther purred. "...and cats will rule the world!" Her eyes glinted.

"Eventually," purred the other cat as a response.

Tresser explained, "The beloved pets of the Sarrillian king were given this solemn task after their master perished, to ensure no one tried to assume the throne till the true prince or princess was found. The cats were exceptionally loyal to the royal family, so to this day - even though the notion of surviving Sarrillian royalty was wishful thinking - their descendants live in the palace with the duty of overseeing the prime minister and preserving democracy. It was thought far too important to be entrusted to humans. Actual governance of the nation though, is left to those elected by the populace, as well as trivial decisions - such as who is to be in the cabinet, for instance..."

"I always said Corbin was a rat," hissed a cat.

"A purely human error of judgement," excused Tresser, and turned back to the television crew. "Our feline overlords, if you will, see that the prime minister himself abides by certain rules to ensure democracy is maintained. For instance, if someone were to ignore the constitution, disrespect the results of an election, and try to overstay their time in this office...that would be quite unacceptable."

"But those are not the most important rules," meowed another cat, and turned to a kitten. "Why don't you tell them?"

"All palace cats are reserved the finest cuts of fish," purred the kitten, "...and all areas of the palace are open to us - including the drapes."

"I was wondering why the drapes looked a little ragged," Samantha considered.

"The point I am coming to," said Tresser, "is there are certain rules whomever holds this high office must accept and abide by. I cannot say for your entire network - that would be reckless. But the two of you - wherever you work, or whatever situation may come - may forever interview the prime minister of Sarrilla."

He glanced around for approval. "Is that an acceptable addendum to the rules?"

The collective purr of the cats surrounding him was affirmation.

Samantha and Dave's eyes shone, and Tresser knew he had indeed found a tribute they would value greatly.

"Now, the day I'm not prime minister, the person who is does have a right to give you a line of 'no-comments' whenever he meets with you," he pointed out. "But I think it would reflect badly on his party."

"It would reveal some truth about that person, too," Samantha replied.

"Perhaps it would," Tresser acknowledged, and shook their hands. "Samantha West and David Candid. Until we meet again."

"Likewise," she smiled, "and thank you."

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The television crew left the prime ministerial residence and walked to their news van, which had been parked nearby, while the two animals Esther and Filbert padded alongside them.

Filbert still looked sour. Dave prodded playfully, "So what if there aren't an armada of squirrels running the government behind-the-scenes?"

"There ought to be," scowled the squirrel.

Esther the cat, however, had been prancing around with her tail high ever since they had left the office. "Now that we know the secret government thing is true - wouldn't the other also be a big deal?"

"What would?" asked a curious Samantha.

"If the other legends were true..." Esther elaborated with a purr. "Suppose...the Sarrillian royal family did have heirs, only they had stepped out of power and sight willingly, for some reason, and even now..."

Dave laughed. "Oh, that's a myth. Not even a rumor."

"But if it were true," Samantha said, her emerald-green eyes sparkling, "it would be a damn good news story, wouldn't it?"

Standing silently at his office window, Prime Minister James Tresser watched as Samantha, Dave and the animals got into the WCAT news van and drove off. He observed the vehicle as it receded to the distance; they turned a corner and were out of view.

Two of the palace cats sat at a short distance from him, in the center of the office; apart from them, he was alone. One of the cats meowed:

"Your popularity is at an all-time high in the polls. Now would be the time, if you wanted to claim it."

Tresser shook his head solemnly. "No."

"You are the only one at present. You have the right. Why not?"

Tresser did not face them. He gazed out the window, pensively, as he spoke. "Our nation is better as a democracy."

The cats exchanged a glance, but said no more. With a dip of their heads, they scampered out of the office.

Tresser walked back to his desk and, retrieving both the cigarette lighter and case, leant back in the chair. He placed the transceiver-lighter atop the desk and opened the silver cigarette case; he removed all the cigarettes, then poked at a small latch inside the case until a second, smaller compartment unlocked.

Inside it was solid gold, inscribed with the emblem of the long-lost Sarrillian royal family.

"Loyalty to future, not past..." he pondered, with a regretful smile.

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