Chapter 3

It has been three days since my previous entry.

I am happy to report that your chronicler Gao Wenshi still lives!

Now, you may be saying: “Gao Wenshi, how can you call yourself a chronicler with such an egregious gap? The fate of the Great Ming can shift in one day! And here you’ve left out three of them? You’re as irresponsible a biographer as you are a useless scholar and unfilial son!”

And, indeed reader, those are fair reactions. I object to that unfilial bit, but we all speak harshly when we are upset.

Let me tell you. I was kidnapped!

Today I am safe and possess and ample supply of ink and pages and even spare brushes. These are luxuries I’ve not known since leaving Hanlin. But, yes, let us return to that marketplace in Hanzhou three days ago.

I had little opportunity to take notes during my capture, so we shall rely upon my exemplary memory honed by years of grueling study, grueling examinations, and grueling instruction. I shall endeavor to keep needless embellishment to a minimum.

Let us begin.

It was a bright day. The suffocating throng of commerce moved about us in all directions. The din of a thousand sales pitches rang in our ears. And there, before us, were three bandits. Armed, armored, angry, and only a little sober.

“Stand aside,” Jingwei said. Her voice rose above the clamor like a great bell. It was not a voice for asking. It was a voice for commanding.

Everyone around us complied before they realized it. And then, in the very next moment, everyone looked around in a daze wondering why they moved; wondering where the noise of the marketplace had gone; and wondering where these three hoodlums had come from.

There’s no law against carrying arms in a public space, but doing so says a great deal without using words. Their wild eyes, their shabby beards, and their piecemeal clothing said even more. The crowd found ways to give them more space. No small accomplishment in the cramped and crowded streets of Hanzhou.

There was a bubble with nothing inside it but the street, the bandits, Jingwei, and me.

Jingwei rubbed the palm of one hand with the thumb of the other. She barely looked at them. “Who am I killing today?”

She sounded bored!

“Bold words for a dead woman!” the one with the spear said because I suppose he fancied himself the leader. “The Three Calamities will make short work of you.”

“Calamities?” she said. “I think I heard of you guys. Stub Your Toe, Forget What You Walked In The Room For, and Some Dirt In Your Eye. Right?”

They rankled at that.

“Thunder Wu cuts through men like chaff!” one of the swordsmen said. His weapon was a cleaver for chopping warhorses down. It wasn’t difficult to imagine it would work even better on a person.

“Lightning Mao is wanted in five counties!” the other swordsman said. His was a thin, curved saber for slicing open the arms of duelists.

“Tornado Hong is a name feared throughout the land,” the spearman said.

The crowd murmured. They knew these names.

I should note that the classical three calamities are Fire, Flood, and Storm. Why would they give themselves a motif only to avoid it entirely? Well, let me tell you before the mystery becomes unbearable: there is no discernable answer.

Let us return to the tale.

“Ah,” Jingwei said. “Maybe one day I can join a gang with a theme. For now it’s just me and this sword.” She tapped the handle and I swear the blade nearly jumped right out of the scabbard of its own accord.

Tornado Hong pointed toward me with his chin. “What about your friend there?”

“Him?” she said. “Tell you what. Kill me and he’s yours. He’ll keep you well stocked in poetry and inane questions.”

It was very kind of Jingwei to attempt to defuse their interest in me like that.

“Lady,” Thunder Wu said. “You won’t prove anything by dying in front of all these people. Why not give up, huh? We’ve got you outnumbered.”

“You do,” she said. “But you’d need five more to make it fair.”

It wasn’t a boast. It was a statement.

“There’s a reward for your head,” Lightning Mao said. “Doesn’t need to be attached.”

“Come and collect it then,” she said.

Thunder Wu and Lightning Mao charged Jingwei. She charged right back at them. I never saw when her sword came out but three blades flashed and spun.

I remember that I was struck by an incongruity at that moment. In stillness Jingwei resembled a tiger. Explosive strength just waiting to strike. In action she resembled a crane. Soaring and serene, as untouchable as the clouds.

Wherever Thunder Wu swung his great cleaver, Jingwei was not there.

Wherever Lighting Mao struck with his curved saber, Jingwei’s sword deflected it.

The more she perplexed them, the angrier they became. Their aggression turned to fury. And their fury turned to clumsiness. She was toying with them. You could see it in her face. It wasn’t a smile. Not exactly. But it was the closest she’d come to one since we met. She was taunting them. It would have been less cruel to cut them down at the start.

Tornado Hong couldn’t bear the insult any longer and leaped into the fray!

How could Jingwei fend off three foes at once? How could any technique defend against three different weapons?

Well, I couldn’t tell you. Because that’s when I was overcome by the weight of a deep and suffocating darkness.

Later I learned it was a sack.

~~~

I woke up to more darkness. I might not have known I was awake if not for the throbbing headache. I tried to get up, but my limbs would not comply. Every effort was met with the infinite weight of numbness.

Gruff voices grumbled at each other somewhere in that dark. I could not make out the words. Maybe they communicated entirely through a series of grunts.

One of them came closer, grumbling the whole time, and yanked the sack off my head. Tornado Hong’s face filled my view and I came to prefer the sack. He looked at me with the kind of affection one ordinarily reserves for a persistent rash.

I looked past Hong. The lighting was poor, but I could see well enough to notice the dirty walls and mismatched furniture. A bandit’s hideout! Probably an abandoned building somewhere in the city. I tried to speak but could only gag.

Tornado Hong grumbled some more and reached into my mouth which did nothing to help my gagging. He pulled out a sock that had been stuffed further down my throat than I would have considered possible. I remember hoping it was a fresh sock as the gagging was replaced with a coughing fit. Hong put that to a stop by punching me in the stomach.

Truly a master of bedside manner.

“Don’t kill him,” someone said. A woman I couldn’t see.

My organs demanded air but none of them could agree on how to get it. Everything hurt and the room was spinning.

Hong grabbed me by the coat and yanked me up off the floor. He sat me on a couch and smacked my face. The gagging and the coughing subsided and I managed, at last, a few shallow gasps of air.

“He’ll live,” Hong said without enthusiasm.

The numbness in my limbs gave way and I felt rope around my ankles and wrists. Very coarse, low grade. Too stiff to be bound tightly, but then it didn’t need to be. There wasn’t much risk that I could fight my way out.

Tornado Hong pat me on the head, roughly, and got up as a woman, I assumed the one who spoke earlier, came down a staircase. Maybe this was a basement? Quite dark and no windows. She held a pipe in one hand. A curl of lazy smoke crawled out of her mouth. She possessed a serpentine elegance without moving a muscle.

She looked directly into my eyes as she spoke. “He’s no good to us dead.” She puffed at her pipe. “Not yet, anyway.”

Promising!

Hong huffed. “We should just kill her. Him too.”

One of her eyebrows arched ever so slightly. “If it were that simple, she’d already be dead. Him too.”

Hong took a deep breath to launch into an objection but let it out in a huff. She was right.

So, Jingwei was alive then. I was surprised to realize this wasn’t as surprising as I thought it would be. Hong survived, and with no apparent injuries, but what of Lightning Mao and Thunder Wu?

“It’s simple,” the woman said. “We’re holding this one to draw out the other one. Then we kill him in front of her. She’ll be completely demoralized in that moment. That’s when we kill her.”

“Excuse me,” I meant to say, but all that came out was a croaking whimper of a sound.

It got their attention all the same. I cleared my throat and tried again.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think you should kill me,” I said. It came out hoarse but at least it was words this time.

She smiled. “No?”

“Well, my family is rich,” I said. My voice was scratchy but gaining strength. “You could get quite a ransom to deliver me to them alive.”

“You don’t look rich,” Hong said.

“You’re right to say so,” I said. “As a jeweler must know a gem’s worth at a glance, so a bandit must size up strangers for profit. But this gem is deceptive! I dress simply because I am a scholar. Moreover, a professor. And where? The Hanlin Academy itself!”

Her eyebrow arched again. “Only the wealthiest sons of the Empire are admitted to The Academy.”

I could feel my dark fate turning around!

“If his family’s so rich, and we start blackmailing them, how do we know they won’t hire a hero to rescue him?” Hong said. “Or, even worse, they could bribe a marshal and bring the law into it.”

Smoke leaked from her mouth. It clung to her on its slow way up to the ceiling. “It’s not always bad when you think, Hong,” she said.

She came toward me like a snake. Slow and elegant. A trail of blue smoke hung in the air behind her. A knife appeared in her free hand. It spun and danced in her fingers with an ease that was immediately uncomfortable to witness.

I’m not ashamed to admit I was squirming away without realizing it. You would too, reader!

She kneeled down next to me. I tried not to cough on the smoke streaming out of her pipe.

“Quit squirming,” she said.

“Am I?” I said.

She made one motion with the knife. A slash so quick I could only infer it when I felt the stiff, inferior rope slacken from my wrists.

“Let me be clear,” she said as she stood up. “I’m untying you because no one wants to help you use the bathroom. The only way out of here will be locked six different ways. Do not entertain thoughts of escape. Killing you will be only a minor inconvenience.”

They left me there. That was day one.

Trapped in that basement, I had nothing to do but form an escape plan. I started by deducting as much information as possible via observation.

At breakfast on the second day I learned the woman’s name. Six Devils Lin. The Three Calamities worked for her. Goons for hire I suppose. Perhaps Hanzhou had a bustling hoodlum labor market. Perhaps I could exploit the dynamic between them? Afterall, if The Three Calamities’ loyalty is for sale, it is only a matter of negotiating its price.

At lunch I learned Lightning Mao and Thunder Wu survived as well. So, no one died in the marketplace duel.

At dinner I learned Jingwei was still in Hanzhou! The Three Calamities were already closing in on her. I tried not to think about how my death was an integral part of their scheme.

It occurred to me that my escape plan was more of an escape goal. Yes, Pay The Mercenaries More Than Your Foe is a valid strategy with a robust military history, but let us consider that I have no money at hand and would therefore have to pay them in promises.

No, this wasn’t a plan. It was a suicide method. I would need a new plan.

And then I had a new plan! The Hanlin Academy does not make a habit of graduating fools, reader.

The first step of this new plan was to tell Six Devils Lin all about it! I waited until Hong, Mao, and Wu were off doing whatever crimes or errands needed doing that night. Even bandits have a schedule to keep.

“You could marry me,” I said.

Lin had brought me some tea because they were vicious criminals but not barbarians.

We sat in the basement on opposite sides of a simple table. I’d arranged the furniture earlier in the day to better accommodate the act of living there. I even set up a makeshift office on a smaller table where my books and notes were arrayed for proper editing. Sure, I was a hostage, but did I have to be uncomfortable?

She said nothing. Smoke coiled from the end of her long pipe.

“Your family would never allow it,” she said without a hint of emotion. A lifetime of bluffing had turned her voice into a cold thing that could only state facts.

“They would object, that’s true,” I said because sometimes you must concede a battle to win a war. “But my family is also far away. Their objection would come too late to affect the marriage.”

“I have a very high standard of living,” she said. The basement did nothing to demonstrate this, but I took it to mean that she would not accept a husband of low rank.

“Then it’s a fine coincidence that you would be the wife of a high-ranking bureaucrat!” I need not tell you this was a bluff. True, I belonged to the prestigious Institute of the Veneration of History within the Hanlin Academy renowned across the wide world, but mine was one of those many posts that fail to conjure wealth out of thin air.

But I figured the truth was a problem I could solve if I survived.

“You wear simple robes and carry no badge. I wonder how high your rank could be.”

Deadly and observant! You might think my plan was undone. But you must remember that impromptu debates are part of The Academy’s curriculum. I had trained my entire life for a moment such as this.

“Quite a low rank, of course,” I said. “A mere adjunct professor within the highly regarded Institute of Historical Veneration. But, my family is quite rich, as we’ve established, and it would be a simple matter to bribe whomever is required to put me in a more profitable position. Surely, that life would pay you better than this one.”

Still nothing. But then the eyebrow arched. “They don’t pay bureaucrats shit,” she said.

I struck back without a moment’s hesitation.

“The pay is low, this is true, yet many bureaucrats find ways to become rich,” I said in my very best impression of a ruffian making a black market deal.

Of course, bribery and corruption are the twin banes of government. They are crimes against the Emperor Himself and, moreover, they are a direct violation of the will of Heaven. But we were, after all, speaking of fictional bribes gained from the fictional influence of a fictional office that I had already decided never to pursue. I felt the scenario was sufficiently removed from reality to avoid an ethical dilemma.

Moreover my life was on the line. I could say anything under duress and disclaim it at a later date.

“You might say anything to save your skin,” she said.

I wondered if Six Devils Lin regularly kidnapped scholars and was an old hand at thwarting this exact escape plan.

“It’s true,” I said. It was risky to confirm this for her, but I was feeling emboldened by my performance so far. “For instance, I would easily agree to marry a known criminal well below my own station. Who knows what else I might stoop to!”

She seemed to be thinking it over.

“Let me ask you this,” she said at last. “What happens to Jingwei?”

“Who cares?” I said.

The eyebrow arched. “I care,” she said.

I had not anticipated this. Nevertheless I maintained my cool demeanor. It helped to focus my attention on the final sip of tea at the bottom of my cup.

“What is the fate of one wandering vandal to the future wife of a vice-governor?” I said. I thought to give myself the second most impressive rank I could imagine. Going with a full governorship was, I felt, being greedy even in the hypothetical.

Lin took a deep pull from her pipe. She held the smoke for a long while. So long it made my own lungs ache for air. At last blue smoke spilled from her mouth.

“Jingwei killed my sister last time she came through Hanzhou,” she said.

My heart sank.

“And I won’t reset until she dies for what she’s done.” Lin said. There was a predatory glint in her eyes. It was the first hint of emotion I’d seen from her.

I might have said, “Ah.”

“Are you finished?”

My expression must have answered in the affirmative because she took the cup from me and got up to leave.

“Your ambush won’t work,” I said. It came out in a rush. Like the words knew they would be among the last I ever spoke.

Lin paused. “No?”

“I only met Jingwei on the road! By chance!” I said. “I’ve been in this basement longer than she’s known me! My death won’t mean anything to her! She might even consider it a favor to be rid of me!”

Lin puffed on her pipe. “We already established that you would say anything to save yourself.”

“Including the truth!” I said. My voice cracked.

She thought about this for a moment. “If she tries to rescue you then I suppose we’ll know you’re lying now.”

Lin started walking away again.

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

She opened the door and turned to me. “You’ll be dead either way. What’s it matter?”

She stepped through the door and closed it behind her. Locks clanked shut.

Let us take a moment to consider my fate.

If Jingwei truly was a valiant hero of the age, then she would be inclined to rescue me out of principle and then Six Devils Lin would kill me immediately to gain an advantage over her.

If Jingwei was nothing more than a wandering sellsword, then she would have no motivation to rescue me and then Six Devils Lin kill me so I wouldn’t cause her trouble.

I was alone with nothing but the deep, dark, sinking feeling of two separate dooms. I hoped the knowledge of certain death would release me from all mortal concerns and I might find some sense of enlightenment or at least tranquility.

Instead it was insomnia.

~~~

Chapter 2
Chapter 4