Ba’s heart skipped a beat as he awaited Lady Wen’s reply.
“In the flurry of a snowstorm, I mistakenly identified Colonel Ba Renzhong as my attacker,” Lady Wen said. The soldiers gasped in shock, and she went on. “In the bright light of day, it is clear that this man is innocent and ought to be freed.”
General Gao’s eyebrows writhed like slugs on a salt pile, his mouth agape like a volcano’s maw.
“Men, you heard Lady Wen,” Lady Rong called to her personal guard. “Unbind Colonel Ba this instant.”
Ba struggled to stand, but was helped to his feet by two of Lady Rong’s soldiers. They untied his wrists and handed him a wineskin, which he emptied with a single gulp.
“General Gao, you imprisoned this man wrongly and sought to behead him. Perhaps an apology is in order?” Lady Rong asked.
The general raged to his feet, kicked the couch so hard it crashed off the dais, and stormed away from the square, Colonel Ho right behind him. The soldiers lining the square chattered to one another and dispersed, a few coming up to Ba to congratulate him, or Lady Rong to thank her.
“I owe you my life, Lady Rong,” Ba said, clasping his hands together and bowing low.
The elderly noblewoman smiled. “Nonsense. My husband told me you saved his life from bandits upon your arrival in Ganyang. I was merely repaying a debt.”
Ba rubbed his sore wrists. “You have my undying gratitude nevertheless, Lady Rong. How did you persuade Lady Wen to change her mind?”
Lady Rong looked this way and that, and then lowered her voice. “Lord Wen loves gambling. Unfortunately, he’s not very good at it. His brother, General Gao, offered to pay off his debts if Lady Wen pointed the finger at you. Luckily, I managed to pay off the debt first, and Lady Wen owed me a great favour.”
Ba nodded. “Do you know what General Gao has against me? He’s detested me ever since I arrived, but I don’t know why.”
Lady Rong shook her head. “I heard a small rumour that he stands to profit somehow if you die, but I don’t know any details. Be careful, Purple Demon. He’s not going to stop, and I might not be around next time.”
Ba bowed his head, and the governor’s wife walked away.
Iron Belly, who had kept his distance whilst Lady Rong was speaking, approached. “Well, I’m not sure she’s a god or Buddha, but she certainly fished you out of the pot just before you boiled!”
Ba slapped Iron Belly on the back. “It must have been all those prayers of yours!”
His friend grinned. “Let’s celebrate! We’ll go to your place and I’ll cook you and your family my famous hot pepper fish stew.”
Ba and Iron Belly wandered out of the square, heading for the Purple Demon’s home.
“I’ve never heard of your fish stew.”
Iron Belly grunted. “You’re new in town. Once you taste it, you’ll wish you could have it every day. Go on ahead, I need to buy the ingredients.”
Ba returned home, opening the door to the cheering of Jiang and Lina.
“Thank the gods you’re safe, brother!” Jiang said.
The Purple Demon smiled and explained to them how he’d been spared. “And Iron Belly’s going to be here soon to cook the celebratory dinner for us.”
While they waited, Ba and Lina played chess whilst Jiang poured the wine. All three polished off what was left of the beef, and by the time Lina had beaten Ba twice in a row the Iron Belly was back and the stew was cooking.
“You’ve married a master strategist, brother,” Ba remarked.
Jiang laughed. “I make the money, and she does the thinking. We’re a match made in heaven!”
Soon it was time to eat. Ba was three cups deep, and full of joy. Iron Belly was right – the stew was exceptional. Less than half a day ago he had been a moment from death, and now he was safe and sound, in his own home, with his family, his stomach full of stew. The wheel of fate turns, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, and it had certainly turned in Ba’s favour… for now.
But the transition from night to day can change things utterly. A day of food and happy chatter gave way to a drunken stupor. It was deepest night when somebody thumped on the door and stirred the Purple Demon from his slumber. Ba drew his sword, ready to give any assassin a hot steel welcome.
He flung the door open, poised to strike. Colonel Ho saw the naked blade and his eyes widened.
Ba cocked his head to one side before lowering his sword. “My apologies, Colonel Ho. I heard a knock at the door and thought it might be a sordid miscreant.”
Colonel Ho cleared his throat. “Given what has happened recently, General Gao thought it might be better for all concerned to clear the air. He’s therefore given you a plum job, delivering pay and supplies to Fort Silverheart.”
Ba raised an eyebrow. “Fort Silverheart is several days away. What’s so special about it?”
Colonel Ho tapped the side of his nose. “If anyone has died or deserted, the officer delivering the pay traditionally keeps the excess silver. Depart at sunrise, and receive a full report from the garrison commander, Major Wu Jin.”
Ba nodded. “Ah, I’ve heard of him, he’s known amongst men of honour as the One-Horned Goat. Tell General Gao I’ll be back soon.”
From prison to hot pepper fish stew, Ba had had quite a day. But what would the future bring? Read on, to find out.