Chapter 2

It has been three days in total. Here is my summary.

Hot.

Miserable.

Miserably hot.

The Silk Road sounds like it should be much nicer than this but from what I’m told it gets worse the further you go. No wonder so much money is made along this route. No one would take it if there weren’t a fortune waiting at the other end.

Another night falls and there is a glow on the road ahead like an inferno raging just over the horizon.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Hanzhou,” Jingwei says.

“Oh, dear. Did the Mongols set it aflame?”

“Of course not,” she says. “It’s getting dark.”

What the wulin consider to be an answer will never cease to amaze me.

“But how is so much light coming from little Hanzhou?”

“Little?” she says.

“Naturally I would review entries from the Yongle Encyclopedia regarding Gansu before setting out to conduct my own survey of the region,” I say. “It’d be foolish to come so far with nothing but my ignorance.”

“Yes it would,” she says in a tone that I believe she believes to be very clever but I will not justify with a response.

“On the topic of Hanzhou,” I say, “the Yongle Encyclopedia tells us it is a quaint oasis village conveniently located along the Silk Road between modern day Wuwei to the southeast and Jiuquan to the northwest.”

“Gao, when did they write this Yongle Encyclopedia?”

“Not quite two hundred years ago,” I say.

She says nothing for a little while.

And then, “It’s time for a new one.”

~~~

From the outside Hanzhou appears to be a fortress that is also a city. Perhaps that’s how all cities look this deep into the frontier? The Great Wall stretches across the terrain like an enormous slumbering dragon and touches on the northeast corner of the city. Hanzhou’s own walls, simply massive for a city, seem to borrow their strength from this close association. Jingwei says the largest garrison of Imperial Troops in all of Gansu is stationed here. All the convenience of civilization with all the hazard pay of repelling barbarians.

It is hard to imagine all of this could have sprung from a little oasis.

Also of note — The Silk Road runs straight into Hanzhou. This is a departure from the cities and towns and villages and watering holes I’ve seen so far. Those would be more accurately described as Silk Road adjacent. If one were quite demented enough to enjoy caravan travel above all other human experiences, one could ride right by the likes of Tianshui, Yongchang, Wuwei, and the rest without stopping. But to traverse the Silk Road means you must eventually come into Hanzhou and work your way through it to reach the other side if you want to keep going.

One could attempt to go around, but with The Great Wall blocking all progress to the one side and quite a bit of mountains on the other, it would be pure folly. This means everything and everyone traveling the Silk Road into or out of the Great Ming Empire must also come through Hanzhou.

And I believe they’re all doing it right now. We are caught in the tangle of what must have been half a dozen lines into the city that merged into a single deafening mob at the gate. We compete with the great caravans trying to get in to deliver their goods to the barbarian world. And those compete with the great caravans trying to get out to deliver their goods to the people of the Great Ming.

Judging by the size of the crowd we should make it inside by next week.

~~~

It only took an hour. The wulin are notoriously clever, their survival depending much on cleverness, and Jingwei is no exception.

She simply parks our carriage.

“You can’t park that here!” It’s one of the City guards.

“It’s not parked,” she says as she dismounts. “It’s abandoned.” She begins to walk away with the sack of money and the sack of food.

“You can’t park that here!” the Guard says again. I suppose he is rarely called upon to consider nuances.

Jingwei turns to the Guard. It’s a simple movement. Even trivial. Yet it possesses all the alacrity of a warrior on the offensive. The Guard stops cold. His armor jingles from it. The Guard can’t help but put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Of course, if she truly meant him any harm he’d have died before he ever touched the weapon.

“If you want it moved, move it,” she says. “Hell, it’s yours if you like.”

“What?” The Guard did not expect anything like Jingwei when he woke up today. I’m not sure anyone ever does.

“I don’t need it anymore,” she says while pushing through the crowd around the gate into Hanzhou City.

“What about your luggage?” the Guard says.

“There’s nothing in there I could possibly want or need.”

She must have thought I already got out.

I exit the carriage with my extra papers and brushes and ink bundled up no thanks to the Guard inspecting his new carriage. It’s difficult to write and carry these things.

“What are you writing?” It’s the Guard. I haven’t time for this!

“I’m her chronicler. Excuse me.”

“Is this your carriage?” he asks.

“No. It used to belong to a nice old couple. Um, they’re dead though. Excuse me.”

“Why are there arrows sticking out of it?”

“There were bandits. Excuse me.”

“Why is this side covered in blood?”

“Because they aren’t bandits anymore! Excuse me.”

“How many bandits were there?!”

“I couldn’t say. There were many fractions to keep track of. Please, excuse me!”

The Guard is still calling after me, but I’m writing this down and pretending I can’t hear what he’s saying. I’ve lost track of Jingwei but she is no doubt waiting for me on the other side of the gate.

~~~

It took me another hour to make my way inside.

Immediate impressions of Hanzhou City.

Beijing is loud and huge because it is the heart of the greatest Empire in the world. Hanzhou is loud and huge because someone put too much of it in one place. It is a forest of buildings without space enough to walk between the trees. The streets are packed beyond capacity with carts and people and everyone is yelling to be heard over everyone yelling. Traffic moves so slowly that it is likely zoned as temporary housing. There are people everywhere and they are all in a hurry to get somewhere else. Rudeness in great supply. Weapons and outlandish fashions are everywhere. Probably the influence of so many foreigners. A canopy of drapes and signs and towers and buildings packed up against one another blots out the sun. The city exists in a perpetual twilight of its own shadow.

In short, this is ten gallons of city in a five gallon jug.

No sign of Jingwei. I lost sight of her recording my initial impressions of the city! Damn my diligence! How will I ever chronicle the adventures of this singular hero of the wulin if I can’t so much as follow her?

But wait.

It’s a test! A simple one at that because, of course, you don’t begin with the most difficult lesson. If I cannot find a hero of the age hiding among Hanzhou’s people, then I do not deserve to chronicle her! If wuxia stories have taught me anything, and they’ve taught me a tremendous amount actually, it’s that everyone drinks and everyone talks when they drink. Therefore every wine vendor is well-stocked with both wine and information.

I need only interrogate one to track her down.

There is a way to these things of course.

The vendor will be cagey, there will be banter and it will be laced with ironies and double-meanings. And then probably also triple-meanings that are ironic after the fact when I realize what the second meaning actually means rather than what I assumed it meant when he said it. In the end I will have to bribe him. Probably he will send me to a back alley where I will be ambushed.

From there I’m unsure. The hero of the story easily defeats the ambush and learns from them where he must go next. I could perhaps defeat an ambush of court stenographers assuming none of them are of senior rank.

Nevertheless, I will think my way out of those troubles when I come to them. I am very clever!

Yes. I will begin my search at a wine house. The nearest one is called Bottomless Zhao’s. It looks like the kind of place where A Punch In The Face is complimentary with your order.

It must be a jianghu bar!

For readers who are not so fully versed in these matters as I, let me explain.

Yes, jianghu means “the rivers and lakes,” but you will not find these features on any map. It’s a metaphor referring to the wild places. Jianghu is everywhere the law is not: the forest, the marsh, the mountaintop, the bandit fortress, the wrong alley, or the bad neighborhood.

The wulin is a society within this jianghu world. Bandits, beggars, mercenaries, warlords, wizards, martial artists, hermits, and lunatics populate the wulin. They gather in innumerable clans, schools, cults, and sects. These groups are aligned with and against one another via alliances, secret alliances, rivalries, and ancient feuds. Ultimately, these groups are caught in the tangle of the loyalties and ambitions of the individuals within them. It’s every bit as dangerous as it sounds.

Trust me. I’ve read many books about it.

Now that I have equipped you with a superficial but sufficient understanding of the jianghu, it is time to cross straight into that world by striding into Bottomless Zhao’s winehouse!

Inside the decor immediately puts one in mind of a dungeon. It’s packed with ruffians and darkness. Everyone in here looks like a streak of bad luck on a particularly bad day.

And there, sitting, at a communal table, is Jingwei!

I was quite looking forward to bantering with this Zhao fellow to track her down. The double meanings, the ironies, the bribes. Alas, perhaps another time at another winehouse. I must look at the bright side for now. Finding Jingwei like this must have saved me at least an afternoon of trouble.

I clear my throat and speak loud enough to be heard over the clamor of wine jugs, and laughter, and boisterous conversations. “Jingwei!”

Reader, there is nothing so silent as a room full of rowdy drinkers who have all gone quiet.

The ruffians turn their icy glares toward Jingwei. She sits there ignoring them in favor of her wine. She heaves a weary sigh like someone has launched into a long and terrible joke she cannot bear to hear for a third time.

A hundred murmurs ripple through the wine house but they all sound the same: “Is that her? The murderer? There’s a reward.”

Jingwei appears to have a reputation and it has beaten us to Hanzhou.

She says nothing and sips at her wine.

There is the rustling of small, quiet movements from a dozen people trying to mask the sounds of reaching for their weapons.

“I don’t want trouble,” she says to no one in a loud and clear voice. “Just a drink. I’ll finish it and leave.”

The patrons near Jingwei back off as the patrons further away close in. A circle is forming. Slowly. Carefully. Everyone moves as if a tiger is sleeping in the middle of the room.

Everyone is around her now. Everyone is armed. But no one dares brandish their weapon. If the crowd pushes me any further back I’ll fall right out into the street. There is an energy in here. An escalating tension.

“Doesn’t matter what you want,” someone says out of the rabble surrounding her. “There’s a reward posted for your capture!” This leads to a lot of nodding and chuckling from the crowd.

Jingwei empties her bowl and sets it on the table. “Yeah? Plan to split it fifty ways, do you?”

Everyone was looking so puffed up and brave until she said that. Now they’re thinking about the reward they don’t want to split with everyone else in here.

“I finished my drink,” she says. “Now I’m leaving.”

No one responds. She gets up and the rabble steps back as one. She grabs her sword and everyone moves back two steps. She was only adjusting the scabbard at her belt.

I suspect she did that on purpose.

She moves toward the exit and the crowd parts with shuffling little footsteps to allow her by. Their embarrassed glances seek the room for anything that isn’t her eyes. There’s some grumbling but nothing loud enough for me to hear properly.

She shoves right past me and leaves Bottomless Zhao’s without a word. The ruffians are still there gathered up in a lumpy circle around an empty seat. They turn to me. Ideas are swirling around in a soup of anger, confusion, and wine.

I bow and leave.

Jingwei is walking away from Bottomless Zhao’s. Not in a hurry, but fast enough that it’s difficult to compose these words and reach her.

I catch up and a shiver seems to run down her spine.

“That was amazing!” I say.

She whirls around with a ferocity that knocks me back a step. “It really was,” she says. “You put a bounty on my head in the time it took to order a drink!”

Technically she put the bounty on herself and, moreover, she must have done it before we met. But this does not strike me as the time for corrections.

She turns and keeps walking away. I follow as best I can.

“Where will you go?” I ask.

“None of your business,” she says.

“By Imperial Edict, everything in Gansu is technically my business,” I say.

“You aren’t built for this life,” she says.

“Perhaps you’re right. Those ruffians at Bottomless Zhao’s saw me with you. They heard me call you by name.”

“Yes. That’s why I’m leaving,” she says.

“They’ll want to know where to find you.”

“Even better that you don’t know then,” she says.

“Do you think they’ll ask me politely?”

She keeps walking. She says nothing.

“Do you think they’ll believe me when I say I don’t know where you’ve gone?”

Still walking. “Fine,” she says. “You don’t have to stay, but you don’t have to follow me either. Go anywhere else. You’re slowing me down.”

“On the contrary!” I say. “Were it not for me, you’d still be languishing in that dungeon of a winehouse.”

She comes to a stop and turns to me. It’s practically a lunge. She opens her mouth to say something but nothing comes out and she closes her mouth.

She does this two more times.

She rubs her temple again. In all my reading about the wulin, I never considered what a strain it must be to possess the excessive internal energies that are naturally cultivated by extreme martial prowess.

“You’ve got to stop making my head hurt,” she says.

“I could find a reputable acupuncturist.”

One of her fists tightens. This must be a particularly bad attack.

“Look,” she says through clenched teeth. “Just keep quiet.”

Easily done, I write rather than say. Ha!

“And make yourself useful.” She slings the sack of food off her shoulder and hands it to me. Notably, she does not consider it useful for me to also carry the money.

She walks off again. I follow.

Still walking. Jingwei’s every action contains a martial efficiency. Even this walk through Hanzhou is more like a march. We’ve made several turns down alleys and side streets now. It seems random, but she moves with such powerful intention I’m convinced she knows the way. I couldn’t hope to retrace our route. The city is a maze of crazy, crooked streets.

“It occurs to me we’re walking deeper into Hanzhou.”

“Yes,” she says.

“That’s probably the worst way to leave town.”

“We aren’t leaving,” she says.

“Oh. Where are we going, then?”

“This way,” she says.

An excellent point, but a more philosophical answer than I was hoping for. I shall try again: “While cartography was not the focus of my studies, I must confess this way seems to be the most indirect route to get to anywhere.”

“We don’t want anyone from Bottomless Zhao’s following us,” she says.

“Would any dare to follow you?”

“A few,” she says.

“But you defeated twenty stalwart foes without a single stroke!”

“First, they were more drunk than stalwart,” she says. “Second, anyone still breathing isn’t defeated. Third, most of them were useless cowards. A few had ability, so I reminded them about sharing the reward with the rest to keep them from acting on it.”

“Most brilliant!” I say.

“Not really. All it does is trade one problem for another.”

“And what is that?” I say.

“It’s not so bad to share the bounty only a few ways. Therefore, those few with ability are already after us.”

“Why is there a bounty on your head?” I ask.

She says nothing.

“Someone needed killing,” she says at last. It is the great tragedy of the wulin that they become outlaws for correcting those rare injustices that are beyond the purview of the law to correct.

Still walking. Marching.

She takes a left and then a right. Then another left and another right. We’re seeing the backs of many shops and residences. We emerge in the middle of a bustling open-air marketplace filled with merchants, customers, and passersby yelling at each other. Everyone haggling for prices and competing for attention. It’s just like every other part of Hanzhou I’ve seen so far but I suppose the street here is almost wide enough to admit two people to pass one another, so it qualifies as a marketplace.

Jingwei slices through the crowd without slowing down. I should mention this is not the sword type of slicing. It’s entirely a matter of navigation and some shoving.

I follow in her wake as best I can.

Note taking difficult.

Everyone weirdly sweaty.

That guy smells.

Very rude phrase. Will not record it.

Elbowed in head. Unintended, yet no apology.

She stops and I bump into her arm. I’m reminded of granite.

“They’re here,” she says.

And, indeed, there in the churning sea of humanity before us, three men stand out. Two of them have swords. The third has a spear. I don’t recognize them from Bottomless Zhao’s, but everything about them reminds me of everyone I saw there. Their beards are unruly. Their eyes are wild and hungry. Their clothes are a patchwork of styles and sizes. It’s as if they became bandits by adhering to a checklist of cliches.

“There’s a fourth somewhere,” Jingwei says.

“But there can’t be!” I say. “I’m nearly out of ink!”

~~~

Chapter 1
Chapter 3