There were a hundred men in the tavern, but you could have heard a pin drop if it weren’t for the sound of one-eyed Angsfarn, the best ratter hound in the bay, who was lying on Karl’s table, munching his way through a whole bowl of nuts.
“Well? What happened next?” Theodulf asked. The greybeard had barely touched a drop of his mead. His horn would get dusty if he didn’t move soon.
Karl kept them waiting a moment longer, just to let the anticipation build. “I’d like to say I stood my ground and slew it there and then. You all know I’m no coward, but given a choice between fighting a monster like that and surviving, I’d sooner flee and live to fight another day.”
Little Ongar squealed with excitement, and his mother hushed him.
Karl drained the dregs from his tankard and held it out for the wench to refill, again. “I slipped through a narrow doorway, certain a beast big as an ox wouldn’t be able to follow. But it was sinuous, as silent as an owl, and as fleet as a falcon. I never got more than a few feet away from the great hairy beast.”
He sighed and stared into his tankard, beery reflection gazing back at him. “I glanced back and saw its soulless eyes staring at me. Filled with hate they were, and numbered more than I could count.”
Ba beckoned forward the soldier who carried the scrolls. “In Spotted Turtle Valley I found evidence of collusion between imperial army officers and the bandits who slew my brother,” he said, his eyes squarely fixed on General Gao. “Confess your crime and surrender yourselves into my custody, or face the consequences.”
General Gao threw his head back and laughed. “What are you going to do, exile? Accusing your superior of criminal behaviour is a serious mistake!”
The Purple Demon whipped his sword from its scabbard and struck Gao’s head from his shoulders. Silence filled the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed. For a long moment the corpse remained upright, until it toppled from its chair with a crash.
“This is an outrage!” Colonel Ho shouted. He jumped to his feet and drew half an inch of sword from its scabbard before Ba’s blade sliced through his shoulder and cut him in two.
Ba Renzhong turned to face the ranks of men, most of them sat at their tables, evening meal growing cold. “I have clear evidence of General Gao and Colonel Ho’s association with criminals, and executed them, in accordance with the law, when they refused to be imprisoned. As senior officer, I am assuming the position of general. Are there any objections?” he asked, sword dripping blood.
Ba Renzhong took a fresh horse from the military district and set out for Spotted Turtle Valley alone. A short distance into his journey he spotted a cloud of dust behind him. The Purple Demon tied his horse to a tree, unsheathed his sword and hid up the road, ready to ambush whoever was tailing him.
He kept his eyes fixed on the road, gazing like a hawk focused on its prey. But when the approaching horsemen drew near, instead of Colonel Ho, Ba saw men who had fought alongside him at White Wood Fortress.
“What are you doing here?” Ba called, emerging from the rocky wayside and sheathing his sword.
The soldiers, perhaps fifty in all, turned to face him. “Colonel Ba! We received a message from Major Cho to come and reinforce you, to help you recover your brother’s body.”
Ba mounted his own horse and beckoned for them to follow. “Good. But stay behind me if it comes to fighting. I’m going to get Ba Jiang’s corpse even if I have to carve my way through a thousand men.”
Ba Renzhong set out for Fort Silverheart the next day, accompanied by a hundred soldiers and mules carrying pay and supplies for the distant fortress. After many days of marching, he finally reached his destination, and was met by Wu Jin, also known as the One-Horned Goat, on the road.
“Colonel Ba, a pleasure to meet you. I trust there was no trouble on your journey?” Wu asked, bowing in the saddle.
Ba Renzhong shook his head and returned the bow. “You are to be commended, commandant. I saw neither hide nor hair of a brigand on the way here. If only Ganyang itself had such secure roads…”
The two men rode at the head of the column, winding down the road to Fort Silverheart.
“It used to be terrible around here. Fortunately, the emperor’s reflected virtue enabled me to apprehend the local bandit leader, a skilled and vile creature known as the Scarecrow King,” Wu explained, a smile on his face. “After his capture, mopping up his underlings was as easy as catching a one-legged tortoise.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.