Clasping my hands in respect, I greet the official as he arrives, a portly man, his robes flowing gracefully as he strides towards us. “Good to see you again, Administrator Ping. I’m sorry to disturb you at this late hour. Thank you for coming so quickly.”
Waving his hand with a smile, he shakes his head cordially. “Nonsense, Officer Rain, nonsense, I serve the people. With your many contributions this past week, how can this lowly servant keep you waiting? Come come, let us take stock of what you’ve brought today and come to an agreeable arrangement.” His fingers moving incomprehensibly, he displays some impressive mental math by quickly tallying the market value of the recovered goods before him, listing the sums out loud for me to hear, although I zone out while waiting. This sort of business is Lin’s domain, and my little wifey listens with rapt attention, often interrupting when she thinks Ping’s estimate is too low, haggling like a pro.
This is what I’ve learned about being a leader, how to delegate. Fung and Huushal are handing the bandits over to the city guard for holding, their fates to be decided upon Yuzhen’s arrival, the beautiful blonde bombshell taking her sweet time to get here. When in doubt, pass the buck, another thing I’ve learned. I’m not doing too shabby at this leadership stuff, if I do say so myself.
As for all the loot, instead of searching for the legitimate owners ourselves, we leave everything with the city officials and let them deal with that. Hooray for delegation! Even better, they were happy to pay the 10% finder’s fee out-of-pocket, meaning I don’t need to wait around for the owners to pay me. If no owner is found after a year then I get to claim it for myself, the easiest solution available. If I were a greedier man, I’d stash everything at the Freebooter’s hideout and bring it back with me to sell in Shen Huo, but that’d feel too much like real thieving.
Technically, aside from the merchandise belonging to the Empire, we could have kept everything we found and the merchants of Sanshu would have had no legal recourse. Although, if we did that, we would’ve found ourselves stabbed in the night by hired assassins, so it’s safer to declare the majority of our spoils and collect our 10%. Besides, it’d be too much of a hassle carrying everything back to Shen Huo. This way, I’m earning coin and goodwill with the Magistrate and merchants by recovering things like bolts of silk, raw ores, and treated lumber, all difficult to sell and/or transport. Any other stolen goods find their way into one of the other cities and fenced, so handing it all over is no big deal.
We kept a few portable valuables for ourselves, things like uncut gems, jewellery, accessories and rare herbs. It’s a lucrative business robbing bandits, which makes me wonder why no one bothers with it. It’s not very challenging, practically free money for competent warriors, but either way, I’m just here to do my job and raise my reputation, and judging by Ping’s hearty endorsement, it’s working. If I earn a few coins in the process, where’s the harm? Fung, Huu, and I worked our asses off for a little more than a week now, clearing the southwestern area of four other bandit groups with ease. They’re no match for Sentinel tracking and forward assaults, and they fall for the stupidest tricks. Dress in rags and flash some gold cards, and they practically come running into our swords.
Once Lin and Ping mutually agree on a number, he clasps his hands and bows to me. “This lowly official thanks you for your efforts and the efforts of your companions. What you are doing is incredibly brave and if there is anything this one can do, please do not hesitate to speak. There are many who are deeply grateful and would leap at the opportunity to repay you for your actions.”
“I’m just doing what the Marshal asked me to, no need for repayment.” Happily accepting the heavy purse with both hands, I immediately turn it over to Lin, her radiant smile filling me with joy. 210 gold and change isn’t half bad for a single bandit group.
Eyes burning, Ping leans in and whispers, “The reports say that Major Yuzhen will arrive tomorrow afternoon, along with nine other young heroes like yourself. Truly, this lowly one looks forward to seeing your formidable forces scour Sanshu clean of centuries of filth and corruption. May the Mother watch over you as you work.”
A little melodramatic, but maybe he lost someone to bandits. I’m sure it’s common enough. “I can’t speak for the others, but I will do my best. Thank you for taking care of me and I hope to trouble you again with similar work, though I’ll try for an earlier hour. Ah right, even though I’ve been here for over a week, I’ve yet to see the sights in this beautiful city. Does Administrator Ping have any suggestions of places for me to visit in the morning?”
Brow furrowed in concentration, Ping looks around frantically, eyeballing his assistants. “This lowly one dare not advise, but perhaps it would be prudent to remain in your barracks and wait until the Major arrives before undertaking any… sightseeing. Forgive me, but I am unable to offer any suggestions for your… visits.”
Hurrying away, Ping glances back several times, obviously worried. Weird, I was just asking about the sights, he didn’t have to get so worked up about it. Guess he didn’t want to oversell anything, but even a favourite restaurant or something would have been enough, the city is a maze. With Lin and her guards in tow, I mount Mafu and ride slowly back to our barracks, taking in the sights beneath the starlit sky.
Nothing like riding through beautiful city walkways with my lovely betrothed at my side. Too bad Mila isn’t here as well, we’ve had so little time to relax since we arrived, toiling day and night to capture as many bandit hideouts as we did. Other than Lin’s guards, the two of us are here by ourselves, Mila and my retinue taking a well deserved rest in the barracks.
Sanshu is a stunning place with breathtaking vistas around every corner. A city of splendour and excess, the colourful curved roofs and stunning architecture sits amidst a carefully modelled network of artificial ponds and canals. Full of ornate bridges and spiraling walkways, the city has many elegant pagodas, artistic manors, and massive Cassia trees blooming in every colour, spacious and serene, empty but for a few servants or slaves scurrying about, their heads lowered in humility.
It’s the perfect city to live in, as long as you’re wealthy and lack empathy.
Unlike Shen Huo, there are no slums in Sanshu. In fact, there are no ‘regular’, working-class people living here either, only affluent families, officials, and guards. While it takes a veritable army of servants and slaves to keep everything running, there is little difference in treatment between the two groups, every action dictated by their employers. If for some reason a servant were to displease their employer, they risk being thrown out and banned from the city, assuming they survived the firing process. When the smallest manor would cost millions in gold, it is a mark of honour, wealth, and prestige to live here. There are restaurants and markets and such, but anyone who doesn’t own a home and isn’t sponsored by someone who does must vacate the city at night.
The guards and civil servants live in the city, but there are strict rules on how to behave and where they’re allowed to go when not on duty, treated like second-class citizens. I guess seeing plebeians doing leisurely activities might upset the wealthy, an unwelcome reminder that the filthy commoners are people too. As a workaround, when the guards are off duty, they often ride south of Sanshu City to visit the Trading Square.
Less than an hour’s walk from the city, the Trading Square is surrounded by a sprawling network of hovels, exposed residences of the poor souls who work in every facet of Sanshu’s industries. Whether it’s mining, fishing, farming, or production, the warehouses are all found outside the city and people gather in the Trading Square to buy and sell. Further down, the multitude of rice paddies built around the Xiangmi river almost mirrors the city interior when viewed from the walls, man imitating nature to some extent. An interesting contrast, the villages feral and unrestrained, its occupants banding together for survival and safety, whereas the city is neatly ordered but home to calculating, ruthless inhabitants who fight viciously among themselves in the shadows.
I’m starting to think most city dwellers are giant hateful assholes, and experience isn’t proving me wrong.
Then again, they might be like that by necessity. The city is safe from outside attack, but the interior is finite, as are any profits to be made, leading to competition for wealth and prestige through back-door deals and cutthroat politics. On the other hand, beset by bandits and wild creatures, the commoners live scared lives with only a few intermittent patrols to keep them safe, leaving them no choice but to work together. The merchants aren’t interested in saving lowly lives; so long as the losses don’t outweigh the costs of hiring guards, why bother? Simple math and cold-blooded pragmatism.
Deep down, the merchants and bandits really aren’t all that different, which is why I don’t feel bad about technically stealing from the merchants of Sanshu. No one has even bothered to send a message, much less thank me in person for recovering their merchandise, those ungrateful bastards. Besides, I really like spending money, and I can’t spend any if I’m broke. I’ve already decided to keep Mafu for myself, forget having him as a ‘work quin’, watching him wiggle around on his back while I rub his belly is just too cute. I should find him a sweet, friendly quin to mate with, get me some adorable, butt-wiggling quin pups. Atir would’ve been perfect but Mila went off about Atir’s ‘illustrious’ pedigree and wartime contributions, looking down on my little wagon quin.
Sweet as she is, Mila can be a real handful at times, a princess with an attitude who is both willing and capable of kicking my ass. Then there’s Lin, adorable and lovable, always supporting me with a smile on her face for as long as I’ve known her. I love them both for very different reasons and I’d be hard pressed to choose between them, but luckily, I don’t have to. Mila challenges me while Lin supports me, and I’ve found myself counting down the days until our marriage. I’ve been celibate for eighteen months now and I’m starting to go crazy with desperation, drooling over every woman in sight. I have needs…
“Hubby, you’re staring…” Blushing, Lin shrinks down into her scarf, adorably bashful over the strangest things. She’ll leap into my arms or snuggle in my lap in front of the world, but a short glance with only her guards around and suddenly she’s a demure, proper lady.
Then again, her guards are kind of intense and they don’t like me very much for some reason. Mute and mysterious, they ride behind us, present at all times. Smiling at Lin, I go back to watching the scenery and enjoying the cool breeze on my skin. Another group of servants hurry past us, dressed in hooded robes to hide their individuality and humanity, sticking close to the manor walls as if trying to melt into the stone. Displaying themselves is against the law, the slaves and servants just part of the background here. The more I see of the world, the more I want to go home, hug my family, and never leave. Human rights are almost non-existent, only basic survival protected underneath the laws of the Empire.
Leading the way across a bridge, we move in single file. As we near the middle of the bridge, a handful of servants begin to make their way across from the other side, coming towards us with their hoods drawn, heads down and shoulders squared, almost blending into the shadows. My eyes narrow and I slow Mafu to a stop. Something about them bothers me, but I can’t quite place it. They’re off somehow, different, and different is usually bad.
“What’s the matter hubby?” Lin’s voice is calm as I ponder, and at the sound of her voice, the servants look up as one, their eyes determined and unwavering, their bodies straightening up and readying for conflict.
They’re not servants, servants would have waited until we finished crossing, servants would never make eye contact with anyone. Glancing back, another five ‘servants’ make their way towards us, encircling us. Drawing my weapons, I speak to the guards in the language of the People. “Protect Lin and watch my back. Kill any who stand in our way.”
So much for the gratitude of merchants.
Responding instantly to my directions, Mafu charges full tilt at the ‘servants’ and I punch the leading one in the face with my shield, his body flying off the side of the bridge. The others leap back and draw daggers, but Mafu is upon them, a week of bloodshed honing his instincts for battle. With an adorable squeak of anger, he chomps down on the closest assailant and rattles him back and forth with an audible crack. Carrying the corpse, he rams his way through the other assailants, trampling over them as we run unchecked across the bridge.
Immediately after stepping off the bridge, assassins garbed in black leap out from the shadows, brandishing their swords and blocking our path. Rage rising in my chest, I roar wordlessly, desperately blocking and parrying as Mafu continues forward. With spears and shields, Lin’s guards are a whirling defense around my little wifey, cutting down any who approach her. In the thick of battle, I realize that these assassins are targeting me, only a token force sent against the guards to keep them busy. “Get her to safety, head for the Barracks!”
Charging into the assailants, I smash them aside and create an opportunity for Lin to escape. Without hesitation, the four guards break through, their quins soaring past and leaving only myself and the dead in their wake. Lin’s plaintive cries fade quickly as her quin breaks away from me. The circle quickly closes around me, no one leaving to chase her which fills me with relief. Well, it would have been nice if her guards hesitated a little, I mean, I’m sort of important too…
Lin’s safe, that’s all that matters.
Riding in a tight circle, I lash out with both weapons, cleaving through flesh and bone, killing any who come within reach. More assailants stream out from the meandering streets, converging on my position and I fight my way back to the bridge. Silent and relentless, dozens of them come at me from both directions only to be cut down, but there are too many, the bridge too wide for a proper choke-point. Two swords can’t block four, and they surround me slowly and methodically. After minutes of desperate fighting, Mafu and I are bleeding from a dozen gashes. Arms numbed from repeated blocking and striking, still more assailants continue to arrive, throwing away their lives to chip away at me.
Soon, the bridge is covered in corpses and the black-garbed assassins finally showing signs of hesitation as they glance at one another. My body covered in blood and back to the railing, I stare out at them in challenge, mouth stretched in a grin. “What’s the matter children? Step forward and die, I’ve other people to kill in the morning.”
Mafu’s pained murmur pierces my heart and my anger rises once again. He’s not like Zabu, bloodthirsty and tough as nails, Mafu’s just a sweet little quin, happy to run around and have his fat belly rubbed. Swallowing my anger, I snarl at my assailants. “Run and tell your masters, Falling Rain of the People is not a man they should have crossed. I will find them and teach them the error of their ways, this I promise.”
With one last burst of strength, Mafu charges forward and leaps through the air before splashing into the canal below. The cold water engulfs me and shocks me into clarity. Submerged beneath the water, Mafu begins to paddle away from the bridge, the water turning red around us as the gore and viscera sluices off our bodies.
Thankfully, the canal has no dangerous animals lurking beneath the murky waters and after a minute, Mafu surfaces for air, our assailants choosing not to pursue us. Sputtering, I find my bearings and direct Mafu to keep swimming. Before long, we emerge from the canal onto land, calling out to my torch bearing retinue. Rustram barks out orders as he approaches, setting a guard around me. “Officer Rain, Lin made it back safe and unharmed. For thieves to dare target you, this one asks you give the order. Send us out and paint the streets with their blood.”
“No, my quin’s injured and needs treatment.” Already, Mafu’s head is drooping as he mewls quietly, seeking comfort from me, and I get him moving back towards the barracks. Patting him gently, the little quin seems miserable over his injuries, exhausted by his efforts. Men choose to fight, but quins don’t get a choice, trusting in their riders. I failed little Mafu, let him get hurt, but I’ll find who did this and make them pay for attacking my quin and wifey. “Send someone to inform Officers Fung and Huushal of the attack, have them gather with us. Set a round-the-clock guard and hunker down. We wait for Major Yuzhen to arrive. These weren’t common thieves, the city doesn’t have any. Whoever ordered this attack lives inside Sanshu, there’s no doubt in my mind. I want to talk to all the bandits we’ve oath-sworn, find me someone who knows the city.”
Thinking back, I realize this explains Ping’s weird attitude. I must have stepped on someone’s toes, either by keeping something or killing someone. Probably some angry old rich bastard, and Ping thought I was doing it deliberately. I guess bandit hunting is a little more complicated than I thought.
Nothing is ever easy.
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