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.
“Forgive us, sir, we couldn’t afford a third one,” the headman said, kneeling before Ba.
The Purple Demon folded his arms. “What’s the meaning of this?”
The headman frowned. “Every few months an officer comes to ensure our village is able to secure the general’s favour. We pay silver, and General Gao doesn’t add us to the permitted list.”
The villagers gasped, and the headman explained. “It’s a list General Gao gives to bandits, naming villages they can raid without fear of retaliation. Surely you know this?”
Ba Renzhong growled. “It’s time to do something better with your money. Keep the silver if you need it for food. If you can spare it, Red Blossom Temple’s roof is in need of repair, and a donation would gain spiritual merit for the whole village.”
The headman bowed, and the villagers did likewise. “Yes, sir. Thank you for your kindness.”
Village after village, it was the same story of extortion by General Gao, the man whose duty it was to protect the people but who preferred to fleece them. On the way down the mountain path, Ba began to wonder about persuading Governor Rong to replace the wretch.
Ba returned to Tiangjin, his back hurting once more. When he had been with his brother, happiness had swallowed the pain, but after a day of travel and with cold deepening, his wounds felt fresh. Upon reaching the gate, he nodded a greeting to the guards and headed inside. Flakes of snow were falling, and he made his way home.
Ba was halfway down an alley not far from his house when he saw a beautiful young woman walking the opposite way. The Purple Demon stood to one side to let her pass, and lowered his eyes to avoid making her feel uncomfortable. Her footsteps crunched in the snow and came to a stop right next to him.
“That mark!” she squealed. “You must be the famous Purple Demon!”
Ba Renzhong was mostly famous for capturing bandits and cutting men in two, and he found the adulation unusual and unexpected. He raised his eyes, and one eyebrow. The lady, hair black as night, skin pale as milk, was staring at him intently.
“I am Ba Renzhong, known by some as the Purple Demon,” he confirmed. “Excuse me, miss, I need to get home.”
He took a step, but she moved to block his passage. “Help me! I’m being attacked!” the woman shrieked at the top of her lungs.
Ba took a step back, eyes wide with confusion. “What are you doing?”
The deceiver ripped her own dress and messed up her hair. From both ends of the alley soldiers poured in, spears levelled. The woman ran to them and the soldiers parted to let her through. Ba’s hand went to his sword, but he didn’t draw the blade.
“Well, well, what have we here?” Colonel Ho said, walking between the soldiers. “Explain yourself, Colonel Ba.”
Ba removed his hand from his sword and bowed from the waist. “I was making my way home when I encountered a stranger in this alley. I stepped aside to let her past, and she asked my identity. The moment I confirmed it, she tore her clothes and screamed blue murder, but I never attacked her.”
Colonel Ho stroked his chin. “What do you say to that, Lady Wen?” he called to the woman, who was hiding behind the soldiers.
Upon hearing the name of General Gao’s sister-in-law, Ba groaned.
“He’s a liar! He said he was going to take his frustration with General Gao out on me! I demand justice for this outrage!”
Colonel Ho nodded. “We cannot take the word of an exile over that of a noblewoman of unremitting virtue. Colonel Ba, surrender your sword and be bound. Unless you wish to reject the law and declare yourself a criminal?”
The Purple Demon clenched his fist so hard the knuckles cracked. If his brother had been far away, he might have chanced flight, but if he escaped then Ba Jiang would be made to pay instead. So he whipped the sword from its scabbard faster than a swooping hawk. Colonel Ho took a step backward, fear quivering his face. Ba gritted his teeth and tossed his sword to the ground.
“Governor Rong is a good judge of character. I am sure he will see justice done,” Ba said, holding out his hands.
Colonel Ho stepped forward and bound his wrists. “He is. Sadly for you, he was called away unexpectedly a short time ago. But do not worry. I am sure General Gao will give you all the justice you deserve. Guards, take him away!”
A peerless warrior of matchless skill was no match for one lady’s accusation. Ba Renzhong is destined for the chopping block, but will fate step in to rescue him? Read on, to find out.