Ba Renzhong’s hands were bound, and he was escorted through the streets of Ganyang, into the military district, and thrown into prison. After several hours contemplating his predicament and meditating on his fate, he approached the bars and asked a guard to come closer.
“It’s likely I’ll be dead tomorrow. I’d like my last meal if I may,” Ba asked.
The guard laughed. “Sure, sure. I’ll get you a bowl of empty air and a cup of nothing! As if General Gao wants you stuffing your face. The army can’t waste money paying for a criminal’s gluttony.”
Ba folded his arms. “A final meal is an ancient principle and decreed in imperial law.”
“He’s right, you know,” Iron Belly said. He strolled to the cell, bearing a tray. Ba’s nostrils twitched at the smell of steaming dumplings and fresh-cooked beef.
The guard scowled. “These are General Gao’s orders, sir. They must be obeyed.”
Iron Belly smiled. “I’m going to give my friend his last meal. You can look the other way, or I can bruise more than your pride. It’s entirely up to you.”
The guard sighed. “Fine, but if General Gao asks about this, don’t expect me to lie for you.”
Iron Belly waited until the guard had left before sliding the tray under the door.
Ba sat cross-legged, pulled the tray close and helped himself to chopped beef and hot dumplings, chopsticks darting like a hummingbird’s beak. “Thanks, Cho. How are my little brother and his wife?”
Iron Belly paced outside the cell. “Worried sick. They both wanted to come here, but I warned them against it. As a military man, I can come and go a lot more easily. Speaking of which, Governor Rong is far away. I sent a messenger after him, but you’ll be tried at dawn, and he won’t get back in time. The only way to avoid that is if we get you out of jail tonight. I’ve spoken to some of the soldiery, and we can break you out with a click of the fingers.”
The Purple Demon washed down the food with the wine his friend had brought. “No. If I flee, there’s every chance General Gao will take it out on my brother. I can’t endanger his life. Tomorrow, I shall meet my fate like a man.”
Iron Belly sighed and got to his feet. “Well, I’d better go to the temple then. Perhaps the gods and Buddhas will rescue you.”
“Wait a moment,” Ba said, standing up. “We haven’t known each other long, but you’ve been a good friend. Thank you, Cho.”
Iron Belly bowed his head. “I’d forgotten what it was to be a real warrior until you turned up and threw that soldier into a dung heap. But I’ll save saying goodbye for the last moment. They say the divine often rescue the virtuous.”
Iron Belly left him, and Ba spent the night making peace with destiny as best he could. Fiery rage still boiled in his veins, but if he fled, his brother would be at risk. There was nothing he could do but succumb to injustice.
The sun rose all too soon, and guards roughly bound his hands behind his back. An escort of soldiers dragged him to the square in the middle of the military district. Hundreds of men surrounded them, preparing to watch his misery. General Gao sipped wine, reclining on a couch atop a small dais. Colonel Ho stood beside him. Ba was hurled to his knees before them.
“Impertinent wretch, do you confess to molesting Lady Wen? Throw yourself upon the court’s mercy and leniency may be shown!” Colonel Ho shouted.
Ba raised his head and then his voice. “I am innocent. If this court is interested in the truth I shall not suffer retribution for a crime I did not commit.”
Colonel Ho glanced at General Gao, who nodded curtly. “Very well,” Ho said. “I sentence you to death by beheading.”
“And who are you to do that?” an angry woman’s voice thundered over the square.
Ba, and everyone else, turned their heads to see an silver-haired woman marching towards the dais. A dozen guards hurried after her, and Ba could only watch open-mouthed as she drew near.
“Lady Rong,” General Gao growled. “What can I do for you?”
Lady Rong put her hands on her hips. “On whose authority is this trial being conducted? Where are the witnesses? This is a travesty!”
General Gao spat. “Lady Rong, I am the chief military officer of Ganyang, and with your husband unfortunately absent it falls to me to discharge the legal duties and uphold imperial law here. The court is no place for a woman. I’m sure you would be more comfortable at home.”
“Wretched fool, I am the cousin of the emperor himself. How dare a jumped-up urchin like you order me around? As for authority, there is no proof whatsoever that this innocent man,” Lady Rong continued, flourishing a hand at Ba, “has done anything wrong.”
General Gao got to his feet, and beckoned to one corner of the square. Lady Wen stepped forward and glided in silence to the dais. Ba tried to catch her eye, but she ignored him, and stopped beside Lady Rong. General Gao bowed to her, and she returned the gesture.
“Tell this esteemed court what the vile exile did,” General Gao commanded.
Lady Wen looked from General Gao to Lady Rong. The whole square was silent, awaiting her words.
What will Lady Wen say? Will Ba be condemned or reprieved? Read on to find out.