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!”
Iron Belly stepped forward, but Ba held out his arm to subdue the major, and shook his head. Although fire flashed in Iron Belly’s eyes, he took two paces back.
“Is there any reason you’re still here, exile?” General Gao demanded.
Ba slid his foot beneath a particular severed head and kicked it. The grisly trophy hurtled through the air and struck Ho’s helmet, knocking it from his head. “As commanded, I slaughtered the criminals of White Wood Fortress, including their leader. I would have thought you would want to inspect the man’s face to verify his death. Goodnight, general.”
He whirled on his heels and marched out of the hall before his anger overwhelmed his discipline, Iron Belly hot on his heels.
“Provoking the general was not wise, sir,” his friend said.
“It seems I provoke the general every time I breathe,” Ba said. “He clearly has a vendetta against me. It might be an idea if you keep your distance, or I fear he’ll come after you too.”
Iron Belly sighed.
The next day Ba Renzhong attended the square. The entire garrison had been summoned to witness his flogging. Without waiting for instruction, he stripped from the waist up. An attendant offered him a wooden gag to bite on.
“Take that away,” Ba said.
“Colonel Ba Renzhong, formerly general in Tiangjin,” Colonel Ho started to read from an official document, “you have committed insubordination to a superior officer in the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed. Fifty lashes are your punishment. Consider your poor behaviour as the pain comes, and improve your ways.”
Ba kept his eyes fixed on Gao and Ho. The first strike made him clench his jaw, but he knew the pain would get much worse. The square utterly silent, save for the sound of the whip cutting into his flesh, reopening the barely healed wounds on his back. The Purple Demon stared at his antagonists, straining every sinew to keep himself from showing a glimmer of pain. Blood flowed, but there were no tears. Eventually, the final blow was struck. Gao marched away, but Ho approached Ba.
“Your new assignment,” Ho said, slapping a small scroll into Ba’s hand and wandering off.
Ba unrolled it, ran his eyes over the orders and laughed bitterly.
Iron Belly and dozens of soldiers, including those who had been on the White Wood Fortress mission, surrounded him. “What’s that?” Iron Belly asked.
“My new orders,” Ba answered. “It seems I’m to dig graves for some beggars who died of frostbite. It’s almost as if General Gao doesn’t want my injuries to heal.”
Iron Belly frowned. “I’d help you out, but I’ve just been ordered to inspect an outlying watchtower. It’ll be night before I’m back.”
“Don’t worry, Colonel Ba,” a soldier said. “We can help you dig.”
Another nodded. “If you hadn’t foreseen that ambush, we would’ve died yesterday, and our children would be fatherless. A little spadework is the least we can do.”
Iron Belly grinned. “Excellent! I’ll see you later, sir.”
Ba hobbled towards the graveyard, the soldiers supporting him for the first few steps. But pain didn’t mean much to a man like the Purple Demon, and soon he was walking on his own two feet. Passers-by bowed their heads in greeting, and he returned the gesture.
“This is an odd city. Governor Rong is a kind soul of unremitting virtue. General Gao is a treacherous dog,” Ba observed.
A soldier called Ren said, “We soldiers are all local boys, but the officers like Gao are usually sent here as punishment. Gao’s predecessor was a good man, but he choked to death on a fish bone.”
Fan, another soldier, scowled. “Some say it was poison. But perhaps it’s true. And perhaps I’ll get home tonight and find the Mystic Queen of the Ninth Heaven waiting in my bed.”
The soldiers offered to do all the digging for Ba, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Help was one thing, avoiding his duty was another. The soldiers dug as quickly as they could so he had less to do, but even with their help his wounds felt worse than ever after digging in hard soil.
Grateful, Ba bought the soldiers and himself some supper. Once the meal was done, he bade them goodnight and went home. As he approached he saw three masked men waiting at his door, their swords drawn.
The Purple Demon scooped up a pebble from the road and hurled it at the nearest ruffian. It struck his eye socket and he fell to the ground with a cry. The other two men raised their blades and charged. Had he a sword, Ba would’ve cut them down like a farmer with a sickle. Unarmed and wounded, he retreated.
They ran after him, but, from the shadows, a sword struck fast as a serpent, stabbing through one man’s chest. The other miscreant paused and turned, and Ba leapt upon him. A flick of the wrists, and he wrenched the sword free, and cut down the other assassin.
Who saved the Purple Demon? Read on, to find out.