Ba’s heart skipped a beat as he awaited Lady Wen’s reply.
“In the flurry of a snowstorm, I mistakenly identified Colonel Ba Renzhong as my attacker,” Lady Wen said. The soldiers gasped in shock, and she went on. “In the bright light of day, it is clear that this man is innocent and ought to be freed.”
General Gao’s eyebrows writhed like slugs on a salt pile, his mouth agape like a volcano’s maw.
“Men, you heard Lady Wen,” Lady Rong called to her personal guard. “Unbind Colonel Ba this instant.”
Ba struggled to stand, but was helped to his feet by two of Lady Rong’s soldiers. They untied his wrists and handed him a wineskin, which he emptied with a single gulp.
“General Gao, you imprisoned this man wrongly and sought to behead him. Perhaps an apology is in order?” Lady Rong asked.
As the clock struck midnight, Feng-jing shifted in his chair. He was having a small snack, just a bite of sticky rice cake, when the wooden chair lifted up and he soared out the window. His sweater sleeve snagged on a branch, but he barely felt the rip. He dropped his half-eaten cake. “Hey,” he heard from below, as the pastry hit the helmet of a motorcyclist. His heart palpitated as the breeze whipped his black locks.
“Dad!” he yelled. No response.
The chair dodged Taipei’s various glowing signs and street lamps. As Feng-jing passed above lanterns held by a single string at the temple front, he remembered that thin thread of bracelet on the fortune teller’s wrist. Years ago, Mom took him to the night market, like she did every Friday. She had her fortune read and, on that day, made him do it too. She ushered him into the crammed booth. All he wanted was a scallion pancake, but as he looked at the fortune teller’s gaunt face, he shivered and forgot about that flaky treat. He wrote his name for her, at her request, in his messy elementary scrawl: 馮敬 Feng-jing. The fortune teller stared at it, her lips unmoving.
She looked at him with luminous eyes, “Twelve/twelve,” she said finally, tracing the strokes, counting them aloud. “Your twelfth year, when the hours are even – twelve/twelve – you will realize what you long suspected.”
Ba Renzhong’s hands were bound, and he was escorted through the streets of Ganyang, into the military district, and thrown into prison. After several hours contemplating his predicament and meditating on his fate, he approached the bars and asked a guard to come closer.
“It’s likely I’ll be dead tomorrow. I’d like my last meal if I may,” Ba asked.
The guard laughed. “Sure, sure. I’ll get you a bowl of empty air and a cup of nothing! As if General Gao wants you stuffing your face. The army can’t waste money paying for a criminal’s gluttony.”
Ba folded his arms. “A final meal is an ancient principle and decreed in imperial law.”
“He’s right, you know,” Iron Belly said. He strolled to the cell, bearing a tray. Ba’s nostrils twitched at the smell of steaming dumplings and fresh-cooked beef.
The guard scowled. “These are General Gao’s orders, sir. They must be obeyed.”
Iron Belly smiled. “I’m going to give my friend his last meal. You can look the other way, or I can bruise more than your pride. It’s entirely up to you.”
‘Your family is not left behind.’ It’s the unofficial slogan of the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force. Family units are supposed to be more stable for long-time missions, according to the higher-ups. I don’t think this can be applied to the Masons, somehow. Dad says ships like ours are really like small towns back home. All the good bits are on show for people passing through. The bad bits are hidden away behind closed doors and twitching curtains. Dad isn’t into people. He likes rocks, you know, anything from boulders to the layers that make up worlds. Mum, she likes bugs. Not bugs as in creepy-crawly types, with wings and feelers. She’s into the type that you can only see with a microscope, the ones that can either kill or cure you, depending on your luck I suppose.
Me? Well, I am into people. I love watching my fellow crew and listening to them. My teacher said I will make a good anthropologist someday. Listening when I wasn’t supposed to – that’s how I found out about the Masons. I mean, ‘reassigned mid-mission’? Did anyone in the crew really believe that? Come on. The way their quarters were sealed off for two days, and the first officer looking as yellow as a backer bat. I swear he was going to puke when I saw him in F section. Not to mention the way the senior staff talked in whispers for ages after the Masons were reassigned. Something really bad happened.
Ba Renzhong closed the door and started to gather the things he would need for his journey. As he donned his armour, he explained the situation to the others.
“I’ve been sent to inspect several villages that may be harbouring bandits and stolen property,” the Purple Demon said. “Jiang, Lina, stay here. General Gao has it in for me, and I don’t want him to take it out on you. Cho Feng can see to your needs.”
Iron Belly growled. “I should come with you. There could be an ambush. Again.”
Ba Renzhong slapped him on the shoulder. “I can look after myself. My brother and sister-in-law I leave to you, friend.”
The villages were nestled in the mountains that rose around Ganyang, the rocky paths too steep and precarious for a horse. Ba left the city behind, the cold piercing his armour. Even before he reached the first village, snow started to fall, and tiny patches of ice made the path treacherous.
An odd thing happened at the first village. Before Ba even opened his mouth, every villager turned out in the square and the headman presented him with two silver ingots.
I don’t have magic. And I don’t smell either. Well, not smell in the sense of pee, or BO. In fact, if Mum didn’t insist all her phoney potions need a drop of jasmine or sandalwood, I wouldn’t smell of anything other than lavender shower gel.
I’m reminding myself, so that when I see Miss Snippy-tits – sorry, Miss Snippleton, the headmistress who makes Hades look like fun – I have my story straight.
God, I hate to be called by my full name. I get to my feet and face the secretary and make myself breathe calmly.
“Yes, Miss.” They’re all Miss. It’s the only way I remember them.
“You can go in now.” She manages to make it sound like a favour.
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.”
I went there to kill myself, not to solve the mystery.
I kind of hoped it was true, that there really were ghosts in the old railroad warehouse. Maybe they would grab my soul and keep it there, and I could hang around and see if anyone missed me. Then again, leaving was the point. Nothing good would ever happen in this shit town.
The stories had been going around for weeks, bigger every time because people here did nothing but talk. Odd flashing lights. Noises – rattling, a dog barking, a baby crying. They said the ghosts of the old railroad’s dead had come back to ride the warehouse down into hell.
I said this town was hell, and it was just trying to get away like the rest of us. Besides, the reservoir was its destination; the river had eroded lower and lower into the canyon over the decades, leaving the warehouse perched on the edge of its seat, waiting for something to happen. One of these days, the warehouse would escape. Tonight it was my turn.
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!”
Victor sat on the edge of the bed, surrounded by underwear and socks and ladies’ things that he wasn’t quite sure what they were or where they were meant to go exactly. He frowned and blinked once, slowly. He tore his gaze away from the chest of drawers and wondered if he should call his wife…
…Elsa lost socks. Not purposely – it was just something that happened, something that happened to everybody, so she didn’t mind or take any particular notice. Except when she had to buy new socks, or worse, when socks she’d just bought went missing. There was nothing worse than being mildly inconvenienced. Elsa lost other things too, on occasion, but Victor always remarked upon the missing socks. There were supposed to be two socks after all, a pair, so one sock on its own was not right.
“Connor, put that down, poppet, there’s a good boy,” Elsa said, looking away from her washing basket for long enough to stop her grandson swallowing one of her Wade Whimsies. It was the owl one too, her favourite. She would hate for him to swallow that one.
She cleaned toddler drool from the porcelain owl and set it back on her Welsh dresser before lifting Connor from his chair and placing him on the kitchen floor. He gurgled happily, said, “Na na na,” and then proceeded to pull dirty laundry from the basket.