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.
“No, sir!” Iron Belly shouted. His call was echoed by the men who had followed Ba into the Hall, and then every man sitting repeated the chorus.
Ba Renzhong wiped clean his blade and sheathed it. “I am in need of a second-in-command. Cho Feng, you have proven yourself capable and honourable, and worthy of the rank of colonel. I promote you thus. Please go to Lord Rong. Apologise for disturbing him at this hour, explain what has happened and ask for confirmation of my new position.”
Iron Belly bowed low and left to do as he was bid.
“Should we dig graves for them, sir?” one of the soldiers asked.
The Purple Demon shook his head. “Gao and Ho colluded with criminals for the purpose of murder, betraying their countrymen and their emperor. Take the bodies a mile outside the city and leave them for the beasts. In death, at least, they’ll serve a useful purpose.”
Ba left the Hall of feasting men and entered the private quarters set aside for General Gao. Inside chests and under tables, silver and golden ingots gleamed. The wardrobes were full of silk garments; the drawers were crammed full of jade jewellery. Ba ignored the trinkets and garments, hunting for something more valuable: a reason for Gao’s hatred of him.
Eventually he came across a locked drawer. The Purple Demon’s muscles swelled, his eyes bulged, and he ripped the drawer open. Inside were numerous scrolls. One by one he unrolled them. Many were copies of those he had found in Spotted Turtle Valley, several were of debts owed by various senior officials in Ganyang and further afield, and a handful were from Lord Ximen.
Ba ran his eyes over his former master’s words, scarcely believing the provincial governor of Tiangjin would be so petty and vindictive as to bribe General Gao to kill him and make it look like it was Ba’s own fault he ended up dead. And yet, the words were down on paper, plain as day.
“Little brother, it seems you are not yet avenged after all,” Ba murmured to himself.
Someone knocked on the door.
Iron Belly entered the general’s quarters and closed the door behind him. “General Ba, Lord Rong was deeply saddened to hear of the criminal behaviour of Gao and Ho. He’s confirmed your appointment as general and invited you to dine with him and his wife tomorrow.”
Ba Renzhong nodded. “Good. Tomorrow we’ll work through Gao’s pretend paper soldiers, removing them from the wage list and interrogating them about his wrongdoing.”
Iron Belly pulled up a cushioned chair and nodded at the open drawer. “Anything interesting?”
Ba tossed over a letter Lord Ximen had sent. His friend read it, eyes widening in shock.
“What are you going to do about Lord Ximen?” Iron Belly asked.
The Purple Demon raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure. I might throw him off a mountain. But that is for another day.”
The following evening, General Ba left Iron Belly working through the list of paper soldiers, and went to the governor’s palace to dine. It was a small affair, Ba being the only guest dining alongside Lord Rong, Lady Rong, and their immediate family.
“I cannot rejoice at any man’s death,” Lord Rong said, “but Gao’s removal is like the sun bursting through the clouds after a month of rain. Ganyang will be safer in your hands than his, General Ba. Of that, I have no doubt.”
Ba bowed his head. “The governor is too kind.”
Lord and Lady Rong made polite conversation whilst their sons and daughters peppered Ba with questions about his battles against bandits and Gao’s execution. All expressed their sadness at the death of Ba Jiang and promised to attend the funeral rites.
“It must be hard being so far from your childhood home,” Lady Rong said. “Tiangjin is too distant to travel there easily.”
“It is far, but my sister-in-law lives here now, and I have a good friend in Colonel Cho to support the military of Ganyang.”
Lady Rong nodded. “Of course. But there’s no man under the sky who would not be happier with a good wife than being by himself.”
Ba cleared his throat. “I have not had much opportunity to consider such matters. Serving the empire as an officer occupies most of my time.”
Lady Rong smiled. “Consider it now. A man needs a wife. Surely you would not be against marrying into our family?”
Ba dropped his chopsticks.