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.”
Ba shook his head and clenched his fists, staring at the starry sky. “What a world this is, where men like Gao can prosper. We should tell Governor Rong.”
“Maybe not. Whispers say it was Gao who tried to have Rong killed, but you saved him. If you force a confrontation, Gao might try a second attempt on the governor. He and his wife are the only bright sparks in Ganyang.”
“Very well. We’ll go back to the graveyard and throw these wretches in an empty grave.”
Together, the two men disposed of the three bodies, carrying them the short distance to the graveyard. One of the graves had been left empty because the corpse it was meant to house had been torn to pieces by wild dogs. Ba and Cho tossed in the three assassins and filled in the earth. By this time, the wounds on Ba’s back were feeling worse than ever.
“You should have a hot bath,” Iron Belly advised.
Ba grunted. “I’ll be fine. A few days of lighter duties and I’ll be back to my best.”
The two men walked back towards Ba’s house, when they heard a ruckus from the direction of the gate. Suddenly, Ba forgot his pain and remembered his duty, marching to the sound of confrontation.
“What’s going on?” he called to the guards in the towers flanking the gate.
“Some idiot claiming to be a scribe wants to enter the city. But we can’t open the gates at this hour,” a watchman shouted down.
“What’s his name?”
A smile like a thousand suns spread across Ba’s face. “He’s my brother. Let him in at once.”
The gates opened and Ba saw not only his little brother, but Ba Lina, his sister-in-law. The pair laid eyes on him and ran to embrace him. Ba introduced his family to Iron Belly, who bowed low.
“It’s an honour to meet the Purple Demon’s esteemed brother and sister-in-law,” Iron Belly said. “If you ever need help, do call on me.”
Jiang smiled broadly and returned the bow. “Big brother wrote to us, and said there were only two bright sparks in Ganyang’s darkness. The first is Governor Rong, and he named you the second. My thanks for being a friend to my brother.”
For the first time since arriving in exile, Ba felt truly happy. All four of them went back to his house and spent the night drinking tea and swapping stories.
“I’m very happy to see you,” Ba Renzhong said between sips of tea, “but you really shouldn’t have abandoned mother in Tiangjin. We’re all the family she’s got.”
Jiang and Lina swapped a smile.
“But soon, that family will be a little bigger,” Lina said. “We had to come now, because if we waited any longer, the road would be too arduous for a pregnant woman.”
The Purple Demon beamed, kissing his sister-in-law on the cheek and slapping Jiang’s shoulder. “Well, I’m happy one of us has been enjoying himself these past few months!”
The discussion turned to baby names, hopes for the future, and reminiscing about Tiangjin.
Ba stared into his teacup, contemplating his reflection. “Did they find Guan Shi?”
Jiang shook his head. “Roaming Tiger has lived up to his name. Nobody’s seen him for a long time, nor Wandering Phoenix, the Jade Lion or the Steel Shadow.”
The Purple Demon smiled. “Good. That means they’re still out there. Perhaps one day I’ll get my hands on them after all.”
His little brother sighed. “You’re like a dog trying to catch an arrow in his mouth. Just let it go.”
Ba was glad to see his brother and sister-in-law again, so he changed the subject and soon they were chattering away like birds at dawn.
Thumping on the door chased away the tranquillity at the table. Ba raised his voice, “Who is it at this early hour?”
“Colonel Ho. Open the door at once!”
The Purple Demon pressed his finger to his lips and gestured for Jiang and Lina to get out of sight of the door. Once they were hidden, he undid the latch and swung it open. Colonel Ho, flanked by a pair of lackeys, awaited him.
“The gate guards reported your brother and his wife arrived during the night. I trust they’re settling in?” Colonel Ho asked.
The Purple Demon’s eyes narrowed. “Did you knock on my door to ask about my brother? Or do you have orders for me?”
Ho took a message from his belt and handed it over.
Ba unrolled it, ran his eyes over the order and scowled. “I’ll pack my things and be on my way before sunrise.”
Colonel Ho smiled. “No need to rush. I’ll be sure to look after your little brother if he runs into trouble whilst you’re gone.”
What became of Ba Renzhong on his task? Read on to find out.