Chapter 7: A Finger
Bao had read that a girl’s first kiss can change everything. In her case, though, things didn’t change in the way she had expected.
That night, when she finally found herself back in her bed in the clan estates, she lay there, staring up at the ceiling, head aching a bit but filled with wild thoughts of romance and adventure.
She imagined running away from Yu Zhing with Geng Long. They would travel far to the south, away from the Demon Emperor. They would get married, have children, and live near the ocean, where they would eat fresh seafood everyday and spend their time reading on the beach.
The following day, when the bruise on the side of her head was noticed, she made an excuse about falling during the night. She could hardly wait until the following evening, when she snuck out of the clan estates to the place where she and Geng Long usually met.
Except, Geng Long wasn’t there. She waited for three hours before finally giving up and returning to the clan. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. Occasionally Geng Long had other matters to attend to, although he never told her exactly what he did. In fact, sometimes she was the one who missed one of their meetings for some reason or another.
However, the following day, the same thing happened. And again the third day.
Where are you?
By the fourth day, Bao had slipped into deep sadness. It wasn’t until the seventh day that Geng Long finally appeared.
When she saw him leap over the nearby wall and then hurry up to the spot beneath the peach tree, she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe smack him across the face.
Before she could say anything, though, and before he even reached her, he spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Instantly her heart softened.
“I wanted to send a message, but I couldn’t.” Then he was in front of her, slipping his hands around her waist. He kissed her again, and that wild heat once again raced through her body.
Finally, she pushed him away. “What happened?” she whispered somewhat breathlessly.
He shrugged. “Business. And I have some more bad news. I need to go away again. A few weeks. Maybe a month or two.”
She nodded, declining to press him with any questions. “Okay,” she whispered. “I understand.”
He nodded back. “Alright, this is our last night together for a while. Come with me, I found a new place where we can watch the moon reflecting on the water.”
He clasped her hand and the two of them dashed off into the night.
During the following year, time progressed in much this same fashion as Geng Long came and went. They devised a method to leave messages, and whenever he was available, they would spend time together, although it was usually no more than a day or two every few weeks or months.
Every time they met, he would kiss her, and it felt like lava scorching her mind and heart.
When Geng Long was away, she prowled the streets on her own. After the fight with the three boys at the docks, Bao realized that she needed to be prepared for the unexpected. One night she visited the clan’s woodworking shop, where she appropriated a few carving knives from a drawer. Then, with a bit of clever manipulation of some leather strips she “found,” she fashioned some sheaths to keep them in her sleeves.
She also spent more time observing the clan soldiers training, and even began to memorize the fighting forms they practiced, which she would then imitate in her room when she was alone. Sometimes they didn’t feel right, maybe because they were designed to be used by burly, sweaty men wearing armor, so she made adjustments here and there.
Throughout the months, she only got into three dangerous situations. One of them was resolved by simply drawing her knives threateningly. In another situation, she didn’t have time to draw the knives, as someone tried to jump her from behind. Thanks to the time practicing the clan fighting techniques, she managed to throw her attacker to the ground. It was another young girl, clearly a homeless beggar, who immediately scurried off into the night before Bao could even say a word to her.
The third dangerous situation was when she ran into the same three boys she and Geng Long had fought months before. One of them wore an eye-patch now, and had three pale scars running down the opposing cheek. As soon as the boys saw her, they began to give chase.
It was a situation in which neither her knives nor her slight increase in knowledge about fighting would do her any good. They chased her for the better part of twenty minutes before she finally managed to lose them.
She began to grow familiar with some of the others who roamed the street at night. Generally speaking, they were beggars, pickpockets and the like. At most, she knew their names, and knew which ones were territorial or aggressive.
She even began to venture outside of the city, although that was more difficult because of the sheer distance involved.
Time passed by.
One night, she found a message waiting for her from Geng Long.
Meet tomorrow night. Alley behind the pork butcher.
Bao’s heart lifted, and she smiled. It had been nearly two months since she saw him last.
The rest of the night and the following day passed in a blur that seemed to last forever. When it was finally safe to sneak out into the night, she hurried through the city to the appointed spot, heart pounding harder and harder by the moment. However, the person waiting for her wasn’t Geng Long.
It was an older man, wearing the clothes of a working man, along with a broad smile. As soon as she realized it wasn’t Geng Long, her hands moved toward the knives in her sleeves.
The man held his hands up in front of him placatingly. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m a friend of Geng Long. He got tied up at the last minute and won’t be free for another hour. He sent me to bring you to him.”
Her brow furrowed. “Where is he?”
The man smiled. “On a job near the south market. He told me to give you this.” The man pulled out a bamboo scroll that had been tucked into his belt, and handed it out to her.
It was a brand new copy of Romance of the Hen-Shi Knights. Inwardly, she was shocked. A scroll like this would be very expensive, even if it weren’t new.
She took the scroll and smiled, then nodded to the man.
He turned and began to lead her to the south part of the city. Eventually, they reached an alley just across the street from the main market. The man knocked in what was clearly prescribed fashion, and the door slowly opened.
“In here,” he said, ducking quickly into the doorway.
Bao followed close behind.
As soon as the door shut behind her, she felt something hit her in the back of the head, and everything went black.
She awoke to find herself in almost complete darkness. She was laying on a wooden cot, in an iron cage. She blinked groggily, then sat up and gingerly touched the back of her head. It was painful, but there was no blood. Despite that, she felt nauseous and completely out of sorts.
Where am I?
As she looked around she realized she was in a room filled with cages, at least ten of them. They were all empty, except for one on the opposite side of the room from her, where a huddled figure lay sleeping on the cot.
There were no windows, at least none that she could see.
Groaning, she swung her feet over and sat up on the cot. That immediately led to a wave of dizziness, but after a moment it passed. She suddenly thought of her knives, but a quick check confirmed that they were gone.
About that time, she heard indistinct voices, and a very faint light revealed a doorway in the side of the room. The light was spilling from underneath the door, which was closed.
As the light grew stronger in the doorway, the voices grew clearer. When she realized that one of them belonged to Geng Long, her heart surged.
He’s here to rescue me! she thought.
Soon, the voices were distinct enough to make out a few words.
“Always busy,” said Geng Long. “Just… time for this stupid… my own plans.”
The other voice was gravely and deep. “We have to watch out.... Make some big money and we can get… if you know what I mean. Heh heh.”
Suddenly, the crack of light beneath the door went dark. Apparently Geng Long and the other man were walking right by it.
“What’s this girl to you?” asked the gravely voice.
“Oh nothing, one of my many projects.” Geng Long chuckled. “I set her up for a whole year, believe it or not.”
The gravely voice laughed. “So you knew all along she was nobility?”
The voices began to fade away.
“Of course. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been worth it. So much money for… have enough money to get out of here… join the….”
“Join them? Why not join us… we’re the ones… going to be…”
And then they became too indistinct to hear clearly.
Bao sat there on the cot, her hands gripping her trousers tightly. Her heart felt cold, empty and sinking. Tears began to well up in her eyes. She clenched her jaw and closed her eyes, causing the tears to seep out and roll down her cheeks.
The tears streamed down, but she refused to weep.
She couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning she realized that there actually was a window in the room, a very tiny one up in the far corner. Around dawn, the room began to light up, and soon thereafter a fat man with a beard opened the door and slipped a tiny bowl of millet congee into her cage, as well as the other cage in the room.
Bao’s mind was filled with questions, but she didn’t give voice to any of them. When the fat man left, she tried to start a conversation with figure in the far cage, but whoever it was refused to speak.
That afternoon, she finally slept, all the way until the fat man returned with dinner, a bowl of plain noodles with sesame sauce.
That night, it took a while, but she managed to fall asleep.
The next day, before the breakfast was served, the door burst open and the fat man stalked in, joined by a tall, muscular young man with a square jaw. They walked over to the other cage, which the fat man opened. He stepped in and physically dragged out the prisoner, a young teenager who looked vaguely familiar to Bao.
The fat man shoved him up against the iron bars. “This is your last chance. Tell us something that will help!”
“I don’t know anything!”
The fat man spat on the ground. “Wrong answer.” He turned toward the burly young man. “Alright, Mao Yun. Do it.”
The burly young man Mao Yun grimaced. “I don’t feel--”
“Shut it!” the fat man said. “You know your place here. Be a coward on your own time. DO IT.”
With that, the fat man grabbed the prisoner’s forearm and slammed his hand up against the bars.
Mao Yun’s jaw clenched and he stepped forward. Suddenly, a long, sharp knife appeared in his hand.
“What are you doing?!” the prisoner shrieked. Then he began to babble. “I’m telling you, I don’t know anything. My uncle! My uncle has gold hidden… in his bed! Hidden in the bed or in the-- No-- STOP--”
Mao Yun’s meaty hand grabbed the prisoner’s pinky finger and cut it off.
Blood spurted, and the prisoner screamed in pain. The fat man threw him back into the cage, tossed a rag in his direction, then picked up the finger and walked out of the room.
Mao Yun followed, and as he passed the cage, he looked over at Bao. Their eyes made contact for a brief moment before he was gone.
Later Bao realized why her fellow prisoner looked familiar. He was from another of the noble clans, someone she had seen earlier that year on some formal occasion.
The following day, three men came to take him away, and he never returned.
More days went by in a blur.
One noon, the fat man opened the door, yet again joined by Mao Yun.
After unlocking Bao’s cage the fat man said, “Come with us.”
Clenching her jaw, she stood up from the cot and followed as he led her out of the room. Mao Yun followed a few paces behind her.
She was led down a few corridors to a meeting hall which was filled with numerous unsavory characters. As soon as Bao laid eyes on these people, she knew who they were. Ruffians. Thieves. Criminals.
There were at least 20 of them, one of them being the man who had led her to this place that night several days ago. Geng Long was nowhere to be seen. The man in the seat of honor was obviously their leader. He wore fine silks and furs, and sat on a raised platform that put him above everyone else in the room. At his right hand sat a swarthy man with a perpetual sneer, and to the left was a beautiful woman.
Other than the beautiful woman, everyone else in the room was male. There were tall ones, short ones, young and old, all sorts. But Bao could tell that they were rough, violent people.
The fat man led her to a position a few meters in front of the leader, then said, “This is her, Chief.”
The Chief looked her over for a moment, then spoke, his voice smooth like oil.
“Why won’t your clan pay the ransom for you?”
As soon as she heard the words, Bao’s suspicions were confirmed. She had been kidnapped for ransom. She couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “Ransom? I’m nothing to my clan. You might as well have kidnapped a tree from the garden.”
The Chief frowned and tapped his fingers on his knees. “You’d better come up with something to get them to pay. Otherwise we’ll start cutting off fingers. Why do you say you aren’t worth anything?”
Anger sparked in Bao’s heart, and she looked away.
The Chief snorted. “What do you think, Underchief Wang?”
The swarthy man standing next to him chuckled. “Maybe she got taken to the Demon Emperor’s bed one too many times.”
That provoked laughter from the others in the room.
Bao’s face flushed with anger, but she refused to reply.
A moment passed, and the Chief said, “Take her back. We’ll try one more time before sending a finger.”
The fat man and Mao Yun led her back to the iron cages. After the cage door clicked shut, the fat man walked out. Mao Yun also turned to leave, then paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder at her.
“Try to think of something,” he said. “Otherwise… you know.” His jaw clenched, and he shook his head. Then he closed the door and was gone.