Chapter 6: Finger Nails
It would be hard to find someone more different from Sunan than Bao. Sunan was born and raised in a remote village in the Northeast. Bao was born and raised as nobility in the metropolitan city of Yu Zhing, at the base of the Banyan Mountains. Sunan lived his young life having heard of the Demon Emperor as nothing more than a vague bogeyman who existed far, far away, if at all. Bao virtually grew up in his shadow.
In fact, she had even laid eyes on him on more than one occasion. He was ugly. Very ugly.
Bao was born years after the Demon Emperor had secured vice-like control over the majority of central Qi Xien. Yu Zhing had been one of the first cities to fall in his initial military onslaught, and the noble clans there had almost universally capitulated. She was born into just such a clan.
Of course, hatred for the Demon Emperor had boiled and bubbled beneath the surface, even among the seemingly servile nobility of Yu Zhing. After decades of clandestine planning, a full-fledged rebellion had been on the verge of being sprung when, all of a sudden, as if by magic, the conspiracy was betrayed, and the Demon Emperor sent the Bone General to settle matters.
Yu Zhing, and especially its nobility, was purged mercilessly. Numerous prominent members of many of the clans were called out as traitors, then tortured and executed publically. Some were burned or skinned alive. Others suffered worse fates.
Whether or not the victims were innocent or guilty didn’t matter. The heart of the rebellion was ripped out, and the smell of the burning flesh would linger in the noses of the survivors, for years to come.
Bao occasionally had nightmares about the things that had happened. Her mother had been one of the accused, and although Bao never found out whether or not she was actually part of the rebellion, it didn't matter. She was tortured and then burned alive in a public square. Other relatives had their own bones extracted and sharpened into instruments of torture which were then used to kill them. Bao's father committed suicide shortly thereafter.
From then on, she was a ward of the clan, her needs cared for, but also ignored for the most part.
Bao had always been pretty, and as she reached her teens, she began to blossom into beauty. However, there were many beauties in the noble houses of Yu Zhing, and even in her own clan. A rose growing up in a cabbage patch will attract much attention, but a single rose in a bed of roses will not. Bao was the latter.
Perhaps because of the horrors she had witnessed, and the oppressive nature of noble life in a city controlled by the Demon Emperor, Bao developed a love of reading. She read anything she could get her hands on, but especially the tales of legends and myths that most nobles frowned upon. She didn't care that people looked down on such stories, and truth be told, few people cared about her obsession, or even noticed. Of course, it wasn’t easy to keep up a hobby of reading, since books came almost exclusively in the form of bamboo or wood scrolls. Most stories were told by storytellers on the streets, but Bao wasn’t allowed to go wandering around the streets, so she really had no other choice but to read.
She would read any chance she could get, and that reading fueled her imagination with thoughts of adventure and reckless abandon. Everything that was the opposite of the drudgery of her actual life.
Eventually, she began to itch for more, and it was about this time that she realized that her greatest asset was the very thing she hated most: her boring anonymity. Since few people in the clan cared about her or even noticed her, she began to take advantage of that to go places a young noble lady shouldn't go, or do things that were technically forbidden.
It started in the clan estates, after she managed to get her hands on a servant girl's dress. On one particularly dull evening, she found a discreet place to change clothes, rub some dirt on her face, after which she snuck into the kitchens. Her heart pounded the whole time, but shockingly, nobody even looked at her. She pilfered some dried fruits and a small pot of wine which she enjoyed later in the privacy of her room.
From the servant girls' dress, things escalated. She used that very dress to sneak into the laundry room, where she stole a male servant’s uniform. As long as she kept her long hair tied up beneath the hat, and made sure her chest was bound, nobody noticed that she didn't look like an ordinary servant.
Eventually, sneaking around the clan estates got boring. Soon, she identified one section of the clan gardens where a tree made it easy to shinny over the wall, after which she began going out at night into the city.
All of a sudden, her life got very exciting. And that was also how she met Geng Long.
On her third excursion outside of the clan estates, she was prowling the streets dressed as a waif. Although homelessness and begging was officially outlawed by the Demon Emperor, in the more sketchy areas of the city, such practices were alive and well. Those were the places Bao found most exciting to visit.
She was prowling through an alley when she just happened to notice a tattered bamboo scroll lying in a pile of trash next to a door. She squatted down next to the trash and gingerly pulled the bamboo scroll out. It so old and worn out that it was on the verge of falling apart, and many of the characters were faded into near illegibility. The title read Romance of the Hen-Shi Knights. Bao's eyes instantly lit up. Wiping the scroll off with her sleeve, she was just about to tuck it under her arm and hasten back to the clan estates, when someone spoke behind her.
"Hey, little sis, Are you really so desperate for reading material that you pick books up out of the garbage?"
She spun to find a lanky young man leaning up against the wall across from her. She stood up and shrugged casually. "I just haven't seen this one before."
The boy chuckled. "If you say so. I haven't seen you before. What's your name?"
"I'm, er, Bao," she replied.
"Bao? Is that your surname or your given name?"
"Just call me Bao," she said. Bao was in fact her given name. She didn't dare to tell him her surname, as it would instantly reveal that she was from a noble clan.
"Bao it is then," the boy said. "I'm Geng. Geng Long. Long like dragon, you know?"
"Look,” Geng Long said, “I'm into books too. I know a place where you can get as many as you want."
And that settled it. After a bit more chatting, Geng Long led her from this corner to that corner, until they were in another dark alley, in front of the door of a shop. The shop was closed, and the door clearly barred. Above the door was a sign that read "books."
"A book shop?" Bao asked. "But, it's closed...."
"Exactly," Geng Long replied, grinning. He then proceeded to break into the shop, albeit carefully, in such a way that, after leaving, no one would be able to tell that they had come.
After slipping into the darkness of the shop, Geng Long said, “Alright take a look around and pick one or two. Old man Guo is virtually blind. As long as we bring the books back in a few days, he’ll never be the wiser. Hurry up, I’ll stand watch.”
Thus, Bao made her first real friend.
In the following weeks and months, she spent most days reading in the gardens of the clan estate, and most nights gallivanting with Geng Long. It was an exciting life, albeit slightly dangerous.
On one particular night, Bao met Geng Long in their usual meeting place, and she had a small sack slung over her shoulder.
“What’s that?” he asked.
She grinned. “I managed to get my hands on some nice food and wine.” Although Bao was used to the fine delicacies available in her clan’s estates, Geng Long was not. When she showed him the contents of the sack, his eyes gleamed with anticipation.
“I know the perfect spot,” he said. “Come on.”
He led her to the Yu Zhing docks, where they sat down beneath the eaves of a warehouse and began their late-night picnic.
They had been eating and chatting for only a few minutes when suddenly, a shadow fell across Bao’s legs. She looked up to see a swarthy teenage boy looming over her, flanked by two other teenagers.
“Well look who we have here,” the boy said, grinning maliciously. “Geng Long and his mistress.” He cracked his knuckles.
Geng Long and Bao both scrambled to their feet.
“Screw off, Peng Lin,” Geng Long said.
Peng Lin snorted coldly. “This is our territory. If you wanna have a tryst with this slut, do it somewhere else.”
Geng Long’s hand clenched into fists and he took a step forward. “I dare you to say that again!”
Geng Long was about a head taller than Peng Lin, but Peng Lin had much broader shoulders and far thicker arms; if Geng Long looked like a race horse, Peng Lin looked like an ox.
Peng Lin spit onto the ground at Geng Long’s feet. “I said if you wanna have a tryst with this slut—”
Geng Long roared and leaped forward, swinging wildly at Peng Lin. The blow just managed to graze him, causing him to stagger backward a few paces. He spat out a mouthful of blood, wipe his mouth clean, and then growled, “You’re DEAD, Geng Long. Boys, you get the slut and hold her down, I’m coming for her next!”
As Geng Long and Peng Lin began to batter each other with fists and feet, Peng Lin’s two companions advanced on Bao.
Her heart pounded as she backed up until she ran into the wall of the warehouse. The two boys chuckled as they closed in.
Bao was a young woman who had never been in a fight in her life. However, she had seen many an exhibition match between soldiers in the clan, and in her boredom, had even spent some time watching them train. Even though she didn’t have a lick of experience, she knew how to fight, at least on a theoretical level.
As the boys reached out to grab her, something strange happened. Her pounding heart suddenly went completely calm. Everything seemed to slow down. Her eyes flickered down for a brief moment as she confirmed that laying on the ground near her left foot was a knife, which she had brought along to cut the slab of cured donkey meat.
Her eyes flickered back up, and suddenly she sprang into motion. Before either of the two boys could react, she lunged forward and grabbed one of them by the forearm, then kneed him in the groin with all the strength she could muster. The boy instantly let out a muffled squawk, then dropped to the ground and rolled into the fetal position.
The other boy was so taken aback that he froze in place.
Bao whirled, ducking down to grab the knife and then jumping forward toward the second boy. By this point, he had overcome his initial shock, and just managed to dodge to the side and avoid the wild slash of the knife.
Then he swung out with his right fist, landing a blow directly on the side of Bao’s face. Pain lanced out into her head, and colors flashed in her eyes as she was knocked off balance and toppled to the ground. The knife clattered off to the side.
Then the boy kicked her in the stomach, or at least he tried to. The kick actually connected with her hipbone, which hurt the boy’s foot more than it hurt Bao. Ignoring the pain, Bao tried to struggle to her feet, but her head was still spinning.
“You’re dead, bitch!” the boy growled, lifting his leg back to kick her again. Before he could, Bao forced her head to clear and then pushed herself into a lurching near-somersault, crashing into the boy’s legs, one of which was planted firmly on the ground, the other of which was just beginning to kick.
Yet again caught off-guard, the boy tumbled to the ground, and as he did, Bao grabbed his shirt with her hands, pulling herself across his body toward his head.
“I’ll show you who’s the bitch!” she whispered. Grabbing his hair with her left hand, she jabbed her sharp fingernails into his right eye.
The boy screamed as blood spurted out of his damaged eye. He then tried to push Bao off of him. In response, she wrapped her legs around his waist in the same way the clan soldiers would do when wrestling, then slashed at his face with her fingernails.
Suddenly, she felt someone grab her by the arm. Geng Long.
“Bao, let’s get out of here before the city guard comes!” He pulled her off of the boy, who immediately crawled away from her, moaning and clutching his bleeding eye.
Geng Long clasped her by the hand, and they scrambled into a nearby alleyway.
They ran through the city as fast as they could, eventually finding themselves on a rooftop overlooking a river. As they sat there catching their breath, Geng Long looked over and said, “Are you okay?”
She nodded. Somewhere along the line, her heart had begun pounding again.
“You’re bleeding,” Geng Long said. He reached over and touched her jaw, tilting her head so that he could see the side of her face, where the boy had struck her, opening up a little tear near her ear.
“It’s nothing,” she said, reaching up and brushing the blood away. “I’m fine.”
Bao suddenly realized that Geng Long’s face was only a few inches away from her own, and he was looking into her eyes.
For some reason, she found herself leaning forward, and suddenly, felt a warm explosion of heat on her lips as he kissed her.