On the fourth day I awoke to a commotion as Incandescent Hong swept my studiously arranged books and notes and brushes from the desk and into my pack like he was collecting garbage.
I got up to protest but found my arms and legs were already tied up and my mouth was full of what I hoped was not another sock. Volcanic Mao loomed over me while checking that my gag was tight enough.
“Shut up,” he said.
I hadn’t said anything.
He made a fist and then there was nothing.
A dull throbbing heat came to me out of the darkness. Then nausea. It was my pulse.
I heard voices from a thousand miles away. Some yelling? Too muddled by distance to make out a word of it. Something tugged at my head and the darkness was replaced by a blinding white light.
I groaned but it got stuck somewhere in my throat. Wait, was that a sock? I tried to cough. Nothing came out but it pounded in my head. There was an emptiness where the nausea had filled me and new information rushed in to replace it.
The sun. We were outside. It was still morning. I was standing but only because I was being held up. People were yelling at each other.
“Toss me your sword!” someone said just behind my own ear. A woman. Six Devils Lin!
Was that her arm holding me up? Was that her knife pressing against my spine?
“You came alone?” someone said ahead of me. I cracked one eye open and saw a blurry patch of gray standing against a backdrop of blinding daylight.
It was Jingwei! This was the trap!
I shouted a warning but it gurgled to death behind the sock in my mouth. Six Devils Lin tightened her grip. The point of her knife dug into my back to remind me how much more was behind it.
My senses were returning but there was still a thick fog between them and myself. I had a vague sense of being in an enclosed space. An alleyway?
“Count of three,” Jingwei said. “I drop the sword. You drop the meat.”
“One,” Lin said.
Fine details were still beyond my reach but I knew Lin’s soldiers had to be hiding nearby. If only I could signal to Jingwei before it was too late!
“Two,” Jingwei said.
I struggled and there was a white-hot spark of pain in my back. The knife!
“Three,” Lin said.
The fog lifted from my vision as Jingwei took the scabbard from her belt.
She held it out.
She tossed it at my feet.
Except she missed my feet and the bottom end of the scabbard slammed right into my gut like a punch.This had a number of effects. All of them beneficial in hindsight but none of them pleasant at the moment.
First, the sock ejected from my mouth. I was thankful for that but surely there was an easier way?
Second, I doubled over in pain from the impact. This knocked Lin off balance since she was still holding me.
Third, she had to release me to keep from falling over completely herself.
Fourth, no more knife on my back, I realized, while falling to my knees!
Fifth, Jingwei must’ve started running as soon as she threw her sword because she was already planting her foot on my back and launching herself at Lin who now lacked her human shield.
Sixth, I heard their collision and the clatter of Lin’s knife against the ground. I doubt it was her only one.
Seventh, three roars rose as one. I looked up and pushed through the tears that had welled up in my eyes.
Incandescent Hong led the charge with Volcanic Mao and Blazing Wu following close. They’d been hiding further down the alleyway behind Jingwei. Their weapons spun and flashed. They cursed and howled as they moved in for the kill.
Nothing stood between them and Jingwei. Nothing worthy of notice anyway. Just a useless heap on his knees gasping for breath like a fish wrapped up in scholar’s robes.
Indeed, all three men ignored me entirely. They were right to do so. But then it took them completely by surprise when they tripped over the scabbard I’d stuck between their feet!
Hong kicked it so hard I feared my arm would rip out of socket. I held firm. He stumbled forward and almost caught himself but Mao and Wu barely had time to look surprised before they were half-trampling and half-falling into him. They collapsed in a howling and cursing tangle of limbs and weapons. Each attempt to extricate the former from the latter injured one or more of them.
I started to stand on legs that weren’t quite up to it yet but then Jingwei yanked me up by the back of the collar. We were already running by the time my feet found the pavement.
I looked back. The Explosive Gang littered the alley. They got loose from one another but they were so sliced up from disentangling from one another that pursuit was a foolhardy enterprise. Only Six Devils Lin still stood and she did so with considerable effort. She pressed both hands tight to her left side as she hobbled toward her comrades. She winced with every step.
I supposed the marriage was off.
~ ~ ~
The Fragrant Horse is a lovely teahouse with a terrible name. Perhaps its owner lost a bet. Judging only by every horse I have ever seen, it would be most difficult to believe anyone in the history of the world has ever referred to anything about one as “fragrant” without counting euphemisms or irony.
If there is a single advantage to the chronic overpopulation of Hanzhou, it is exceedingly simple for one to disappear into its crowd. An hour later we were sitting in a teahouse doing our best to look like we weren’t running away from anything, especially not a big sword fight.
That meant hiding the sword. It was wrapped in a spare robe and stuffed as far into my pack as we could manage. My plan was, if questioned, to claim that it was a large brush for writing out ceremonial banners.
Jingwei’s hand kept gravitating to rest on the hilt no longer hanging from her belt, like scratching an itch on a missing limb.
“To be honest, I didn’t know whether or not you were going to rescue me,” I said.
“I didn’t rescue you,” she said with all the emotion of a cabbage. It was the first thing she’d said to me since the incident.
“It certainly felt like a rescue,” I said.
“Had nothing to do with rescuing you. I got history with that woman,” she said.
“Six Devils Lin told me you killed her sister,” I said.
“Someone had to.” She said it like she was reporting a fact.
A fair point, I supposed. The wulin are often called upon to deliver justice that would otherwise evade the law.
“And it would’ve stayed history if you hadn’t dragged it up,” she said.
“When did I do that?”
“When you said my name.”
“Oh, is that all it takes then?” I said in in a rather more rude tone than I expected. It had been a trying few days and I was feeling brave.
Also her sword was wrapped up and she couldn’t get at it immediately.
“Tell me, does the mere mention of your name always bring about calamity?” I said.
I had the sense her fingers wrapped around the air where the handle of her sword should’ve been. She took in a deep breath and released it slowly.
“Every action has its consequence, Gao,” she said. “If your books didn’t teach you at least that much then they’re more useless than I thought.”
“Then it seems the consequence of their kidnapping me was a rescue,” I said in an effort to return to our original topic.
“Wasn’t a rescue. They thought they had something I wanted. They were wrong,” she said with a little too much emphasis I felt. “But they didn’t know that and it lured them into the open so I could get them off my tail,” she said.
“It’s bad enough they were using me as bait, but you were too?!” I said much louder than intended.
Everyone around us tried to look like they weren’t staring but they did a terrible job of it. We went silent and soon lost their attention.
“Am I only alive because I was a useful way to settle an old score?” I said. Or, more accurately, hissed.
“Not the only reason,” she said in a quiet calm voice. “A woman travelling alone draws more attention.”
“I had no idea I was so talented. Bait and distraction. All at once!”
“Gao,” she said.
“No, no. Thank you for this. I see now the error of my ways. It would’ve been a waste of my skills to lock them away in the halls of academia.”
“You made yourself bait when you kept following me around after announcing my name to half the scum in town,” she said.
For the sake of our friendship I allowed this point to go unchallenged.
“All I did was turn your mistake to our advantage,” she said. Again, too much emphasis. “And it saved your life, so what’re you complaining about?”
“The indignity of it all!”
“Which would rather be? Dignified or alive?” she said.
“Is it so greedy to desire both?”
“What we want and what we get in this life ain’t the same,” she said.
She was right of course.
There exists a philosophical argument that would favor the dignified corpse over the embarrassing life. The broad strokes of the argument fell into place in my mind but I pushed them away before they took on a complete form.
It occurred to me in a flash that nearly knocked me out of my seat that The Academy’s focus on teaching abstract principles applied to purely hypothetical situations, while certainly illustrative and illuminating, could go to hell. It was better to be alive.
Even though I had been held captive for three days and nearly killed on the fourth.
And it was time for lunch and I hadn’t eaten all day.
And Hanzhou was a pit of corruption, and too loud, and too hot out, and every shift in the wind brought a new unpleasant animal stink from I don’t know where.
It was better to be alive.
I let out a sigh and felt the anger leave my body with it.
“Well,” I said at last. “I’m glad to be alive.”
“And I’m glad you’ve run out of ink,” she said.
A thought occurred. My eyes must’ve gone wide because Jingwei’s immediately narrowed in suspicion.
“What is it?” she said. “What did I say?”
“This city is packed to the brim with merchants!” I said. “There must be someone selling ink!”
“Must there? Really?”
“Surely not,” she said.
“And spare brushes! You can never have enough extras. You learn that the hard way, let me tell you.”
Jingwei rubbed at her temple. It had hardly been more than an hour since her last bout, and yet enough internal energy had already accumulated to pain her. I thought a change of topic might lessen her suffering if through no other method than distracting her from it.
“But for now we must settle this business about your name,” I said. “There must be something I can call you that won’t bring ruin upon us.”
“Qi Xia,” she said.
I nodded. “May I presume you did not choose this name at random?”
“You’re a scholar,” she said. “Your presumptions won’t stop until your pulse does.”
“It’s just that Legendary Gallant is a rather conspicuous name.”
“It’s aspirational,” she said.
“And a fine aspiration it is,” I said. “But since it is unusual, it will draw attention. If you are comfortable with drawing attention, then I may as well leave.”
“That’s a thought,” she said a little too happily I thought.
In fact it was probably the least dour thing I’d heard her say. Clearly my plan to lessen the pain of her internal energy build up was working!
“What about Qi Xiao as a compromise?” I said.
“Little Legend?” she said with so much enthusiasm you’d think I suggested she chew her own hands off.
“It too is aspirational.”
“Barely,” she said in a scornful tone that ought to be levied exclusively at one’s nemesis.
“Ah, but that makes it even better for your disguise! You are so very far from a little legend after all.”
You must remember that mine was a life spent in grueling study and rigorous debate. I select words not merely to make my point, not merely to make it eloquently, but to plant ideas in the minds of others so that my quite eloquent points seem less like opinions and more like inevitability.
Jingwei wore a stoic mask like everyone in the wulin. But they aren’t perfect masks. Anyone can decode the subtleties that betray what hides behind them. It only takes time and a perceptive eye. While I’d known Jingwei a short time, I’m very learned. And, as a result, very perceptive. She hid her inner thoughts from me as best she could, but I watched as the idea took root all the same.
“Fine, who cares. Qi Xiao.”
Reader, I am a genius.
“What’s our cover story?” she said.
“We don’t look suspicious, and now I’ve got a shitty name, but that won’t help us for long if our stories don’t check out,” she said.
“Ah. Well,” I said. “Marriage played into my previous plan and that nearly worked.”
“No,” she said and rather quickly, I felt. “Keep it simple. “You’re a scholar. So, you’re in Gansu on official business.”
“That’s essentially true,” I said.
“Less for you to get wrong that way. We’ll say I’m your bodyguard.”
“I need a bodyguard?”
“Hey. I get to have my sword that way!” she said. A hungry glint sparkled in her eyes as she yanked her bundled up sword from my pack.
“Just hold on!” I said. “Why would a simple scholar need a bodyguard?”
“You’re weak and sheltered and clueless,” she said. “You’ve got a head full of books, but it’s as good as a head full of rocks out here because you don’t know people, or real life, or anything useful. You’d end up dead in a ditch without someone holding your hand.”
“But would anyone truly believe that of me?” I said.
That stony mask fell over her face once more. Then the scantest smile crept out from the left corner of her mouth. She wrangled it into submission. It took several tries before she could stamp it out fully.
“I think you’ll manage,” she said.
I was honored that she would place the crux of our plan in my hands!
The duck noodles we ordered an eternity ago finally arrive.