Iron Belly stepped out of the darkness, sword dripping with blood.
“Are you alright, colonel?” the major asked.
Ba grimaced. “The day started with a flogging and ended with assassins. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” He yanked off the mask from one of the dead men. “Recognise him?”
Iron Belly crouched beside the corpse. “Yes. He’s a paper soldier. General Gao does the old accounting trick, claiming he has more men than he does to receive additional funds and pocketing the pay of ‘paper soldiers’. He keeps a handful of real scoundrels on the books, like this man. They get a full salary, but only do dirty work for the general once or twice a year.”
General Gao stared for a moment at Ba, eyes wide with shock. Then he threw his table across the hall, crockery and wine bottles smashing to smithereens.
“You dare approach your commanding officer when your armour is dripping with blood? This arrogant contravention of military regulations might have been tolerated in Tiangjin, under your lax leadership, but here in Ganyang we do things properly!” General Gao shouted. “Report tomorrow morning. You’ll be flogged in the square.”
Ba clenched his fist to stop himself drawing his sword. “General, please enlighten me. Which military regulation does my bloody armour contravene?”
Colonel Ho got to his feet. “Questioning the orders of a superior officer is clear insubordination. Unacceptable conduct!”
“Well… very impressive,” General Gao said. “Major Cho, you know where White Wood Fortress is?”
Iron Belly cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
“The bandits have been allowed to dwell there too long. Colonel Ba, take Major Cho and fifty men and destroy them,” Gao commanded.
Ba’s eyes gleamed at the thought of laying waste to criminal scum. He bowed his head. “Yes, sir. The worms and crows shall feast upon them.” He glanced at Iron Belly, but his face was full of troubles.
“Off you go,” Gao said. “Don’t come back until they’re dead.”
Ba and Iron Belly marched from the hall, leaving Gao alone with Ho.
“Are you sure this is going to work, sir?” Colonel Ho asked.
Ba left the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed and marched to the quartermaster. Everyone had seen him ride in with Governor Rong so, despite not yet having his seal of authority, the quartermaster readily provided him with a fresh uniform, armour and weapons.
Ba thanked him and piled the equipment and clothing into a huge heap.
“Aren’t you going to get changed out of those rags, sir?” the quartermaster asked as he carried the bundle to the door.
“General Gao’s having me clean the stables. I’m not changing into silk to get it covered in horse muck.”
He retrieved his horse from outside the hall, filled its saddlebags, and rode the short distance to his new home. It was small and sparsely furnished but had all the necessities of life. Ba had never spent much time at his house in Tiangjin either, and having his own place outside the barracks, away from General Gao, seemed like a fine gift. He left behind his horse and new gear, and loped back to the military district, pausing to requisition some spades from the quartermaster.
Ba Renzhong screamed a war cry as he charged like a rhino into the midst of the bandits. A spear jabbed at him, but he ducked beneath it and tackled the brigand to the ground. His elbow knocked the criminal witless, and Ba grabbed the spear for himself. Seeing that he knew what he was doing, the other bandits surrounded him in a circle, swords and spears ready.
“There’s a dozen of us, and one of you,” one crowed. “We’ll slice you into mince!”
Ba rolled his neck around his shoulders. “I’m Ba Renzhong, known amongst men of honour as the Purple Demon. Any who flees will be spared. Those who stay will die.”
The outlaws looked at one another, eyes wide in fear. But none fled, for they had numbers on their side. Let this be a lesson to you, reader. A dozen sheep are no match for a single lion. Numbers mean nothing against skill.
Ba thrust his spear left and right, every stroke spraying red. The bandits’ blades came his way, but he dodged low and parried high. For all their attacks, the miscreants didn’t even manage to cut his robe. In a few moments, only three of them were left. One threw down his sword and ran, but Ba hurled his spear and impaled the criminal, pinning him to a tree.
This is the story of a lord who mistook a diamond for a pebble, and threw it away.
Ba Renzhong hobbled through the wide streets of Tiangjin. Guards marched ahead and behind him, and he was shirtless so that the people lining the streets could see the marks of flogging ripped into his back. A heavy wooden cangue had been locked around his neck and both wrists. Until recently, he had been Lord Ximen’s general, and presided over a number of exile sentences himself. Despite being demoted to colonel, Lord Ximen had decreed his journey to Ganyang would be made as wretched as possible.
A few members of the crowd booed and jeered, but most watched in silence.
“Ba Renzhong! You saved my son from bandits! Gods protect you!” a woman cried out.
Ba smiled, and looked for her, but she ran away before the guards could find her.
Eventually he came to the gate from which the road to distant Ganyang began. A border province a hundred days away and full of criminals and barbarians, Lord Ximen had exiled him there as a death sentence. Ba looked this way and that, but there was no sign of his little brother, Ba Jiang.
Ardashir raised a hand to help shield his eyes from the icy desert wind. The sleeves of his linen robe swathed his hand, offering it a little warmth against the nocturnal chill.
“I told you we should’ve gone north,” he said, words muffled by his headscarf. “The valley’s more sheltered than the open desert.”
Sithil-Horak squinted a glare at him. “Everyone runs north,” she hissed. “The Koreshadur send a bird to warn of the escape, and the valley gets sealed at both ends. Heading east has bought us hours, and if we can reach the Temple of Mahin we’ll be safe.”
Ardashir glanced back, grateful to get his eyes out of the oncoming sandy wind. The fires of Ralakkai were hidden behind the soaring dunes, and there was no sign of pursuit. Yet. The Koreshadur were skilled hunters, and once they realised the escaped prisoners had gone east it would be a race to the temple. Assuming Sithil-Horak was right.
He looked back east, and his companion waved a hand to her back. She was taller and more brawny than most women, and he was glad to use her as a windbreak.
“What crime did you commit?” Ardashir asked her. In prison, it was a question you didn’t ask. But on the run, he was curious. He had been accused of treason because his fool cousin had become involved in a plot to topple the emir. To be consigned to the same prison as traitors, she must have done something terrible.
Gertrude and the others were glad to finally return to The Sun Dancer. Their stolen gunboat, renamed The Tiger’s Eye II by Tristan, had not taken long for the crew of pirates to hijack, and they were delighted with the small arsenal of weaponry its former owner, a bounty hunter, had left them. It was a tight fit with twenty of them squeezed into a ship designed for fewer than half a dozen, and they were grateful when they were safely aboard The Sun Dancer and could escape the gunboat’s confines.
The bald, bearded, bloated form of Captain Brasidas was waiting for them.
“I was having a ship refitted, after we saw The Tiger’s Eye crash,” he told Drusus, the first officer who had been in command of the mission. “Everyone ok?”
Drusus nodded. “No thanks to Ump’gomptar.”
Brasidas scowled. “The engines are straining to get to him, and we’ll incinerate the compound the instant we drop to sublight.”
Gertrude stared at the tablet’s screen for a moment, scarcely believing that the Murovians had covered up the Emperor’s murder, or that Drusus was responsible, at least in part. Then she tossed the tablet onto the deck and crushed it beneath her boot. She found a coil of rope inside the gunboat, and tied it around the landing gear. It was still night time, but dawn would not be too far off.
Gertrude tossed the rope over the cliff edge and began the descent. It was a good deal easier than climbing up had been, particularly with the tranquilliser rifle and ammunition bandolier slung over her shoulders. Once she reached the base of the cliff she checked on the unfamiliar alien that had been trying to hunt down Drusus, and had terrorised the native Naxonians in the meantime. The armour-clad alien was still unconscious, but she shot his exposed reptilian arm with another tranquilliser dart just to be on the safe side.
Wep, the leader of the small Naxonian group she had travelled with, was just coming around. He shook his elongated, narrow head groggily, and washed his small eyes with his long, pink tongue. Standing on his hind legs, he towered above Gertrude’s six feet and three inches.
“This is the demon that has been plaguing you,” she said, thrusting the barrel of her rifle at the alien hunter. And then she remembered he couldn’t understand a damned word that came out of her mouth, and hoped her gesture got through to him.
Gertrude eyed the stranger for a long time. He seemed content to watch her through the augmented vision of his mask, and was in no rush to start the hand-to-hand fight he knew was coming. His species was an utter mystery to her. He could have been a man in exotic armour, or a robot with advanced personality software. A bandolier of tranquilliser darts ran from shoulder to hip, but he had no pulse pistol holstered in his belt. She smiled at the thought of her flint knife being the deadliest weapon either possessed. Gertrude tossed the blade aside. She didn’t know the make, but she knew armour, and the most dangerous thing her knife could do would be to shatter and get a fragment in her eye.
He ran at her and she tried to sidestep, but he was too fast. The hunter tackled her and attempted to pin her down, but he hadn’t reckoned on her left arm. The artificial limb shrugged off his efforts and grabbed his arm. She tried throwing him off of her, but he weighed far more than she had expected, and even the metallic might of her robotics couldn’t shift him. Instead, she tore off the armour covering his upper arm, revealing slimy, reptilian scales.
The hunter hissed. “Last mistake, little girl.”
She lashed out with her synthetic arm, but he grabbed the metal with both hands and gradually forced it to the ground.
He laughed at her helplessness. “Weak, like all your kind. I’m twice as strong, even if you are a cyborg.”