Opening the door, Lee was greeted by an unfamiliar sound. Harsh, brassy metal punching against something harder. The noise came from several ball-like contraptions on the desks in front of him. Young women hammered away at keys that sprouted across the balls on long spines.
They were Malling Writing Balls. He’d read about such things, but he’d never seen them before. The typists studiously ignored him, focused completely on their work. Walking past them, he noticed that the keys were solely for the Cumean alphabet, the foundation of every Western language. The staff was also dressed in Western business clothing, modified for Sum Kong’s climate.
At the far end of the room was a smaller office. The words on the glass door read ‘Cheung Bik, Managing Director’ in Kuowen and Anglian. He knocked and waited.
Moments later, Cheung opened the door. He was a thin, nearly skeletal man in his late forties. He had an equally old and equally thin pair of pince-nez, and his Western suit hung limply on his frame.
“Are you Ethan Lee?” Cheung asked in Kuoyü.
He was testing Lee. Lee replied in the same language. “Yes. I’m here for the job.”
“Ah.” Cheung blinked. “Well, from what I was told, I expected someone…” His voice trailed into the woods of lost words.
“Older,” Cheung said, finally. “Well, come in, please.”
Cheung’s oak work desk was large and expansive, the better to hold all the paperwork and stationery flowing over the surface. Much of the text was in Anglian. Cheung swept some papers away, clearing the space between him and Lee.
“I’ve been told you’re running a convoy to the Northeast Province, and you need a guard,” Lee said.
“Two, actually, but yes.”
“What kind of cargo are you running?”
“Textbooks. I’m selling them to local schools and printers.”
Cheung looked surprised. “Yes, yes. How did you know?”
“Your staff is using Anglian typewriters, and your stationery is mainly in Anglian.”
“Ah. Yes, well, the price of doing business in the International Quarter is submitting paperwork to the Emperor and the Anglians.”
Lee didn’t like redirection. “What kind of Anglian textbooks, exactly?”
Cheung frowned at that. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m just curious.”
“They are Anglian-language textbooks on Western languages, science and mathematics.”
“That’s an interesting line of work, selling Western textbooks.”
Cheung smiled a little. “The Emperor insists that we master Western technology and create our own Industrial Revolution. To do that we must understand them.”
“Fair enough. But what about the Imperial Guard?”
“Eh, don’t worry about them. It’s not my first run northeast. Everything I do is perfectly legal and supported by the Emperor himself. They’ve never given me any trouble while I was there.”
“Who will give you trouble, then?”
“Bandits.” Cheung sighed, shaking his head. “There’s been an upsurge of bandit activity in the area. They like ambushing merchants who travel along the trade routes.”
“I heard Yemaitai has been encouraging them.”
“Yes, and arming them too. These days, every trader going northeast these days must have armed security. At least the Yemai spies are too cowardly to do any fighting themselves.”
Lee nodded gravely. “What kind of weapons do the bandits have? What about numbers?”
“I’m sorry. I’m not an expert in this sort of thing.”
Lee was unsurprised. Most civilians weren’t. “Tell me about the route.”
Cheung rustled about in a drawer, pulling out a map. He spread it out on the desk and pointed at a red dot.
“The first leg is by airship. I’ve booked passage to Peich’eng, here. The flight will take about fifteen hours. The second leg is by steam wagon. We’re headed to T’aip’ing, stopping in at every town along the way.” His index finger traced the route in a wriggling line. “At T’aip’ing, we make one last stop, then we take a train back here. On the train, I need you to guard the profits. I’ll consider the job complete when we return to Sum Kong. The whole journey will take about two weeks.”
“You can’t just deposit the money in T’aip’ing and have it wired here?”
Cheung winced. “I’ll be paid in Northeast liang. To make a wire transfer, I need to convert the money to kuping liang to deposit it in a bank with an Imperial charter, and then convert it again to haikwoon liang before I draw it here in Sum Kong. I’ll lose at least ten percent of the funds that way. Much cheaper to just bring the money here and convert directly.”
Lee nodded sympathetically. He’d faced similar troubles too. One liang was essentially a small silver ingot. Yuan and other lower-denomination coins were struck in copper and bronze. The kuping liang was the standard liang, used for all official purposes. But regional standards predated the kuping liang, and took precedence for local transactions. The Westerners had also insisted on implementing a third standard, the haikwoon liang, as the standard currency in the International Cities, including Sum Kong. No one, not even the Westerners or the Emperor, had brought sanity to the currency system for the past century.
“What’s the local climate and geography like?”
“Hot and humid. It’ll be summer when we get there. The area near Peich’eng is mainly floodplains, but as we go deeper to T’aip’ing we’ll be entering forested mountains.”
Lee nodded, his mind half here, the other half back in his apartment picking out what to pack. “What’s the pay rate?”
“Three pesos for signing up. Twenty centavos per day when we are underway. Another three pesos on completion.”
The yuan was equated to the peso. But unlike the yuan, the peso was accepted everywhere in Sum Kong and the other International Cities. Also unlike the yuan, foreign currencies were not accepted in the Northeast. Or, really, anywhere outside the International Cities. Lee wondered if it was an antifraud measure, ensuring the risk taker would see the mission through. He knew some merchants preferred it that way.
“That’s a lot of money,” Lee said. One yuan was equal to 0.72 liang, and most men his age earn just three liang a month. At most.
“It’s fair for someone who does wuchishu. Also, I must warn you, part of that money is for your expenses. I can pay for room and board, nothing more.”
“It’s still more than fair.”
Cheung smiled gently. “Are you complaining about being paid too much?”
Lee cracked a crooked smile. “I’ve never met a merchant who offered such high rates for such a simple job.”
“I’m also buying your silence. I hear there are Yemai spies operating here, learning about convoy routes and passing them on to their bandit friends northeast.”
“Sounds fair,” Lee said. “I’m in.”
“Just like that?”
Cheung shook his head, smiling. “Ah, nothing. Guess I’m too used to people wanting to think about things first.”
“I’m not like most people, Mr Cheung.”
“I guess not.”
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