Chapter 14: Rooftops
Weeks went by. Sun Mai’s broken arm had long since completely healed.
Their discreet inquiries around the city earned them a bit more information about Iron Awl Hu, but regarding his connection to the Demon Emperor, virtually everyone seemed to have their own version of an explanation.
Some people said the Demon Emperor had promised him official Lordship of the city.
Others said the Demon Emperor was paying him to kidnap children to be used in human sacrifices.
There were even some people who believed that Iron Awl Hu actually was the Demon Emperor, in hiding because of a coup.
Sunan and Sun Mai were starting to get discouraged.
They even stopped fighting in the platform tournaments for a while in an attempt to keep a low profile.
One day during the second week, Sun Mai had his breakthrough. Furthermore, the technique he had been working on grew more refined. Instead of a simple blast of air, he was able to form something that almost resembled a shadowy jian sword.
As for Sunan, he continued to refine his Rebuke of the Dragon technique, and also begin to develop other techniques, especially ones designed for defense and deflection of attacks. Now that he had reached this so-called third level, he found his progress with his Qi to have slowed considerably. He could sense that a fourth level did indeed exist, but that reaching it would be much more difficult than his previous breakthroughs.
Staying out of the platform tournaments meant that they weren’t making any money, but they still had quite a bit saved up from the previous victories.
Nothing eventful happened until one particular morning in which Sun Mai was practicing with his Guqin, when they were told someone had requested an audience with them.
“An audience?” Sun Mai said incredulously. “With us?”
“Yes, Young Master,” replied the boy, one of the numerous servants who worked in the inn and called it home. “He said he’s a friend of yours. Green Tiger Zheng?”
Sunan and Sun Mai exchanged a glance. Green Tiger Zheng was none other than the man who Sun Mai had owed money to, and had chased them through the city that day.
They had seen him a few times since then in the city, but he always avoided them, even when Sun Mai called out his name and said he wanted to settle the debt.
“Send him up,” Sunan said.
The servant boy nodded and disappeared.
Sun Mai snorted coldly. “Presumably he’s heard about your victories in the platform fighting tournaments, and is worried we’re holding a grudge.”
Sunan and Sun Mai quickly straightened the room up and prepared to receive Green Tiger Zheng. They both felt a little silly, especially considering how small their room was, but there was little option.
A few minutes later, Green Tiger Zheng appeared in the doorway. Despite his height and muscular frame, he didn’t seem threatening at all, and in fact, even looked nervous. As soon as he entered the room, he clasped hands and bowed deeply.
“Greetings, Young Masters,” he said.
Sunan and Sun Mai clasped hands in return.
“Greetings, Green Tiger Zheng,” Sun Mai said. “What is the purpose of your visit? I can pay back your twenty-five spades right now, with interest.
Sunan’s brow furrowed. Didn’t he owe 50 spades?
Green Tiger Zheng’s face flickered, but he quickly bowed his head and said, “No, no, of course not. I don’t need those fift-- er, uh, twenty-five spades. Consider it a gift. I’ve come bearing an invitation. The Golden Immortal would like to entertain you for dinner, tomorrow night at his residence.”
Sunan looked over and could see Sun Mai frowning.
“The Golden Immortal?” Sun Mai asked. “Hmm. Is there a special occasion?”
“He said that he wishes to become better acquainted with one of the most promising fighters he’s seen in years.” When he said that, Green Tiger Zheng’s eyes flickered in Sunan’s direction.
Sun Mai looked over at Sunan and they exchanged the slightest of nods.
“Very well,” Sun Mai said. “We accept.”
“Excellent, Young Masters!” Green Tiger Zheng said. Clasping hands once again, he said, “In that case, I’ll take my leave.”
After Green Tiger Zheng left, Sunan began tapping the table. “What do you think he really wants?”
Sun Mai plucked a string on his Guqin. “Excellent question. Let me think.” He plucked another random string, then another. “Green Tiger Zheng. Small time loan shark. Southern market. Yams. Carrots. Star anise.” He suddenly looked up from the Guqin. “Sunan, do you like the flavor of star anise?”
Sunan thought for a moment. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Perfect. My mother used to make a wonderful dish with yams, carrots, and star anise! Perhaps the inn would let me use their kitchen.”
Sunan’s eyes narrowed. “Sun Mai, what does that have to do with Green Tiger Zheng and the Golden Immortal?”
“Hmmm? What? Oh. Right, that. Green Tiger Zheng operates mostly around the Southern Market.We went there a few days ago when we were asking questions about Iron Awl Hu and the Demon Emperor, remember?”
“Sure, I remember.”
“When we were there, I saw him lounging next to a fruit cart operated by old granny Wang. Now that might seem nothing out of the ordinary, but old granny Wang’s nephew is Wang the Leek. They call him that because his hair sticks straight up like a leek. In any case, Wang the Leek happens to operate the Silk Peony brothel!” Sun Mai triumphantly plucked another string on his Guqin.
Sunan squinted. “Okay…?”
Sun Mai sighed. “Come on, Sunan. Even you know that Iron Awl Hu runs all the brothels in the city. If Green Tiger Zheng is close with Wang the Leek, then obviously he’s connected to Iron Awl Hu’s gang. Now, the Golden Immortal is supposedly just a fighter. I’ve never heard any talk that he works for Iron Awl Hu. But now, one of Iron Awl Hu’s flunkies comes to invite us to have dinner with the Golden Immortal? This just weeks after we killed that Demon Emperor soldier who was also working for Iron Awl Hu?” He shook his head. “Too many coincidences.”
“You’re saying that the Golden Immortal works for Iron Awl Hu.”
“I’d definitely make that bet. And it makes sense too. Why wouldn’t the top fighter in the city be in cahoots with the top gang boss? The only gang boss, really. It’s probably not even a secret. We never thought to care about it, so never asked anybody, and it’s not like people just randomly chat about that kind of thing.”
“So you think this dinner with the Golden Immortal is a trap or something?”
“Then what do you suggest we do about it?”
Sun Mai grinned. “We need some black clothes.”
The city walls of Daolu were enormous, towering things, but most of the residences within the city itself were one story tall. Some two story structures existed, mostly in the commercial districts, with the only larger structures being the various temples, guard towers, or other government buildings that rose up high above everything else.
Thankfully, that night was moonless and also overcast. Sun Mai and Sunan were dressed in all black, with black cloths tied over the lower halves of their faces. They crouched in the shadow of one of the guard towers, which rested atop one of the smaller walls that divided the city into its various sections. From this vantagepoint, they could overlook the sizeable courtyard residence occupied by the Golden Immortal.
Getting into this position had not been difficult. Sunan and Sun Mai had long since discovered that it was possible to use Qi to make their footsteps lighter and faster. Sun Mai actually seemed more adept at it than Sunan, but both of them could use this skill to run and jump from rooftop to rooftop, making it much easier to get around the city.
“Nothing’s happening,” Sunan whispered. “We’ve been here for an hour already.”
Sun Mai sighed. “He’s probably asleep already.”
“I have an idea. You must know where Iron Awl Hu lives, right?”
They exchanged a glance.
“Good idea,” said Sun Mai.
They proceeded to leap from rooftop to rooftop as they headed toward the north part of the city.
It didn’t take long before they were perched on the eaves of a two-story wine shop, looking down at a residence that was easily three times as large as the Golden Immortal’s. It had been built in the shadow of the city’s largest temple, which was dedicated to the Enlightened Goddess.
“That’s it,” Sun Mai said. “Iron Awl Hu’s mansion.”
“Seems pretty quiet too.”
They observed the residence for roughly an hour before finally deciding that they had wasted their time. However, it was in that exact moment that bright suddenly flared in the main courtyard.
A well-built man could be seen standing in the courtyard, wearing a long robe of brocaded silk. He was flanked by two men with Ox-tail Daos strapped to their waists, one of whom held an oil lamp in his left hand.
Two additional men could be seen, thuggish looking brutes. They stood a few meters in front of the man in the silk robe, and between them knelt a figure who appeared to be a woman. The thugs were holding the woman’s wrists and shoulders at a painful-looking angle, and her hair was draped down, concealing her face.
Sunan whispered, “Is that…?”
“Yes,” replied Sun Mai. “That’s Iron Awl Hu.”
Even from this distance, Sunan could tell that Iron Awl Hu was a fighter, and almost immediately, he began to speculate as to whether or not he could use Qi.
After a moment passed, Iron Awl Hu began to speak. Despite how far away they were, Sunan and Sun Mai could still make out the words being spoken, thanks to their Qi-enhanced hearing.
“Where did you find her?” he asked.
One of the men holding the woman responded, and his words instantly caused Sunan’s heart to go cold. “A farm outside the city.”
“I see,” said Iron Awl Hu. “Well, girl, tell me what you know.” He reached forward and lifted the girl’s face up by the chin.
It was none other than the pregnant young woman they had saved from the Demon Emperor soldier.
“I don’t know anything!” the young woman said with a growl. Despite the tears staining her cheeks, her eyes flashed with anger.
“That’s what people always say. I can make you talk one way or another, why not just do it the easy way.”
“Just kill me!” the woman said. “I know you killed my husband, you murderer!”
Iron Awl Hu chuckled. “I’ve killed a lot of people. Tell me about the two boys. The ones who slew the soldier. Who are they? Who are they working for? Who have they told about me?”
When the young woman didn’t respond, one of the brutes twisted her arm a bit, provoking a whimper of pain. “I really don’t know, I promise!”
“I see.” Iron Awl Hu stood there quietly for a moment. “Very well. I guess it doesn’t matter. The boys will be dead by tomorrow night anyway.” He turned to the two men with the Ox-tail Daos. “Get rid of her. Feed her remains to the dogs.” With that, he began to walk away.
Simultaneously, the thugs with the Ox-tail Daos stepped forward and began to draw their weapons.
By this point, the killing intent burning within Sunan’s heart couldn’t be contained. Without even consulting Sun Mai, he dashed across the rooftop, vaulted over a wall, and then leaped into the courtyard. It only took the space of a few breaths of time to accomplish this, and before the two thugs had even finished drawing their weapons, Sunan was only a few meters away from them.
In the blink of an eye, Sunan’s hands had twisted into claws like that of a dragon. Even as the two thugs turned to look his way, eyes flashing in surprise, Sunan planted his left foot and then slashed out with both hands.
“Rebuke of the Dragon!”