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 slapped Wu on the shoulder. “It was certainly impressive. So impressive, in fact, it made a rumour circulate.”
The smile fell from the One-Horned Goat. “Oh?”
The Purple Demon kept his eyes on the road. “I heard that you were helped by four wanted criminals you were harbouring: Roaming Tiger, Wandering Phoenix, the Jade Lion, and the Steel Shadow. Gossips said that Roaming Tiger himself flung the Scarecrow King from a tower.”
Wu Jin bowed his head. “Colonel, I would never jeopardise the safety of Fort Silverheart or compromise the interests of the empire.”
At Fort Silverheart, Wu Jin showed Ba around the fortifications. The Purple Demon kept his eyes sharp, ready for nefarious tricks from General Gao, but all he saw when he inspected the defences were soldiers on duty and solid foundations. When he learnt some soldiers had been killed by the Scarecrow King, Ba instructed Wu to give the money intended for the men to their widows.
“Most generous of you, colonel.”
Ba grunted. “If a man gives his life in service to the state, a little money is the least the state can give in return.”
He rested in Fort Silverheart for two nights to give his men and mules some rest, then bade farewell to Wu Jin and set out for Ganyang.
When the Purple Demon returned to Ganyang the city seemed almost like home. He rode through the gate, but the guards all looked away. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he wrapped his hand around his sword’s handle.
“What’s going on?” Ba demanded.
The soldiers looked at one another, but failed to meet his gaze. “We’ve been ordered not to say, sir. General Gao will have our heads if we do.”
Ba ground his teeth. “I was planning to go home, but perhaps I should visit the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed first.”
One of the soldiers, whom Ba recognised from the attack on White Wood Fortress, shook his head vehemently. “If it please you, sir, go back to your home. That would be wiser.”
Ba thanked the man, spurred his horse to a gallop and raced through the streets of Ganyang. Peasants leapt aside and white sweat streaked his horse as he pulled up outside his home. The Purple Demon jumped from the saddle and ran into his house, sword in hand.
Someone was sobbing. Ba sheathed his sword.
Lina was kneeling beside a memorial tablet upon which Ba Jiang’s name was inscribed. She looked up at Ba Renzhong, tears flowing down her face.
The Purple Demon knelt beside her and took her hand in his own. “What happened?”
Lina swallowed. “We got your message, and Ba Jiang went to bring you the medicine. But on the way bandits attacked, and he was killed.”
Confusion furrowed Ba’s brow, tears ran down his face. “I never sent any message. Did you think I was ill?”
His sister-in-law stared at him. “The message said you were dying of fever and to come quickly. Iron Belly had been sent away on official duties, so Ba Jiang went alone.”
Ba wiped away his tears. He knelt before the tablet, bowed his head and clasped his hands. “Little brother, forgive me for failing you. I will see to it the rites are performed and pray for you every day. And I will make General Gao pay for this.”
He got to his feet and headed for the door, but Lina ran in front of him. “Please, brother! Even if you want to punish that dog Gao, you must retrieve Jiang’s body first. The bandits who slew him still have his corpse. They’re in Spotted Turtle Valley.”
The door burst open and Iron Belly came in. Seeing Ba, he threw himself to his knees, bowed his head and clasped his hands. “Colonel Ba, please forgive me! I just heard what happened. If I had been here… you left your family in my care, and I let you down.”
Ba drummed his fingers on his scabbard, but even in the throes of grief his reason was powerful enough to eat his rage. “This was not your fault. An officer cannot disobey orders, and a man cannot be in two places at once.” The Purple Demon beckoned for Iron Belly to stand up. “But you can do something for me now. Stay here and protect Lina whilst I go to Spotted Turtle Valley and retrieve my brother’s body.”
“Ba, don’t be a fool. Even you can’t take on a bandit camp by yourself.”
Ba’s eyes flashed with wrath. “I will ask politely for little brother’s body. And if they do not give it to me they will learn why men call me the Purple Demon.”
Grief and rage burned within him. Would Ba avenge his brother? Read on, to find out.