Chapter 9: Under the Pillow
At first, the ruffians were following Bao as she ran through the city, but eventually Mao Yun and Underchief Wang took the lead. Bao considered ducking into a side alley to lose them, but decided against it. Although it seemed crazy to suddenly join with the people who had kidnapped her and threatened her physically, for some reason, Mao Yun made her feel safe. That coupled with her desire to escape from Yu Zhing and all the horrible memories there was a powerful driving force.
Mao Yun and Underchief Wang wasted no time leading the group out of the city, utilizing a remote, crumbling section of the north city wall to sneak out into the night.
Once outside of the city, they headed north, walking about an hour under the moonlight until they reached a cave network, an oft-used way station and supply depot that the group had used for various criminal purposes.
The group was exhausted, and quickly spread out into the various caves, where they instantly fell to sleep. Mao Yun led Bao to a small side chamber where a small cot was propped up in the corner.
“You sleep on this,” he said, laying the cot out. “I’ll guard the door. I don’t trust Underchief Wang.” With that, he lay up with his back against the door, which would make it impossible for anyone to enter the room without knocking him aside.
Bao nodded. If someone had told her a few days ago that she would be sleeping alone in a room in a cave with a strange man, she would scarcely have believed that it could be possible, and yet here she was.
The following day as the group ate some rice millet, Underchief Wang stood up, cleared his throat, and said, “Listen up everyone.
“Our old Chief is dead, and our group is a thing of the past. From here on out, I’m Chief Wang, and I’m in charge. Anybody got a problem with that?” His gaze flickered toward Mao Yun, who didn’t look very happy, but didn’t say anything.
Chief Wang nodded and continued, “I say we make our way north. Things are going to be too hot in the city for us. The further north you get, the less presence the Demon Emperor has. We head to Fan city, or maybe Mt. Dao. We should be able to do some business there. Agreed?”
Nobody offered any objections, so the matter was settled. After eating, the group ransacked the cave hideout for provisions, then set out to the north. They stayed off the public roads, heading through countryside, camping at night and eating mostly off the land. To Bao, it was a life vastly different than the one she had lived before, and for some reason, it was invigorating.
She began to train in fighting with Mao Yun. He was far larger and stronger than she was, but in her mind that was a good thing. She needed to be able to deal with opponents just like that, and as the days went by, she became more adept at defending herself.
After about a week of travel, a mountain peak appeared off in the distance, which according to Mao Yun was Mount Jing, the location of Gor Shan, one of the five most famous mountain peaks in Qi Xien.
Ironically, although Bao had never traveled outside of Yu Zhing, she knew much of Gor Shan, whereas Mao Yun, who had actually been there before, was unfamiliar with the legends behind the place.
“Gor Shan is associated the Dragon Shui Long as well as the Phoenix Li Huang,” Bao explained to Mao Yun as they sat on a sun-soaked boulder, eating a lunch of rice and wild vegetables. “According to most of the stories, Dragon Shui Long encountered Phoenix Li Huang when she was looking down at a long, empty valley. When she said the emptiness of the valley made her sad, the dragon roared, and the entire valley became a river. And that’s where the Chezhou River came from.”
Mao Yun shrugged. “Nice story.”
Soon they were passing Mount Jing and heading in the direction of Fan.
One morning, Bao woke to find the group abuzz with conversation. Chief Wang had taken to sending some of the men out as scouts, and one of them had just returned with news that they had spotted a traveling merchant.
Chief Wang immediately declared that it was gift from the Heavens. He quickly selected ten men, including Mao Yun, who he took with him to “relieve this merchant of some of his goods.”
They returned an hour later bearing chests and sacks full of dried meat, silk, and other goods.
Later, when she and Mao Yun were eating dinner together, Mao Yun grumbled, “We’re turning into bandits.”
Bao swallowed a mouthful of cured pork and then said, “So?”
He sniffed. “I just never thought I would be a common bandit.”
“What were you before, then?”
He shrugged. “Not a bandit.”
She decided not to push him any further.
Eventually, they reached the Fei River, and their progress slowed as Chief Wang began to focus more on finding merchants and less on traveling. Soon, they were robbing people almost every other day, and Bao realized that Mao Yun was absolutely right. They were bandits, and she was one of them.
Bao’s duties were relatively domestic; she cleaned, packed bags, tended to equipment, even cooked. Although she had never done any such things before, the actions seemed to come naturally.
Some of the men, especially Chief Wang, tended to cast inappropriate glances in her direction, but thanks to Mao Yun, nothing ever happened.
One day they reached a riverside trade outpost, where Chief Wang finally agreed to spend a few days of rest and relaxation at a sprawling inn. They had accumulated quite a bit of wealth in their weeks of banditry, and this would be their first time to truly enjoy themselves in a civilized manner.
On the first night, Mao Yun and Bao decided to buy some food and wine and enjoy it together away from the other bandits. Chief Wang had extravagantly agreed to arrange for private quarters for everyone, so Mao Yun joined Bao in her room to drink and eat.
Before long, the wine was flowing through Bao’s veins, and she was laughing and singing. Mao Yun joined in, and eventually the evening turned into a blur.
When the stabbing sunlight woke Bao up the next day, Mao Yun was slumped over the table, and she lay fully clothed in the bed, her head pounding and her tongue dry.
After stumbling downstairs to get some food and water, she returned to find Mao Yun awake and rubbing his temples.
“Well that was fun,” he said, chuckling.
Bao sat down across from him and handed him some of the food. It was at this point that she noticed a scroll hanging on the wall next to the window, which contained a few lines of poetry. She didn’t recall having seen it the day before, so she said, “What’s that?”
Mao Yun looked over and laughed. “You don’t remember? Just before you passed out, you suddenly leaped up and wrote that poem. You almost seemed like you were in a trance or something.”
Bao squinted her eyes and looked at the poetry. “What’s that third character? I don’t recognize it.”
Mao Yun laughed again. “I’ve never seen it either. Last night you said that it read ‘Wyrm’, whatever that means.”
Bao recited the poem out loud.
The shining Wyrm strides ever north
The graceful Bird due south takes wing
Bao shook her head and thought little more of it. After all, this was her first time getting truly drunk.
When Mao Yun and Bao finally emerged into the light of day, they found that the entire trading outpost was abuzz with news of a fight that had occurred the night before which resulted in the death of one of the hired guards. According to the rumors, the man’s head had literally exploded during the fight, a shocking scene which was described by another guard, who claimed to have witnessed the entire fight.
“It was a gray ghost, a woman, with a jian sword!” he said. Few people believed him.
The days passed at the inn, and Bao started to get bored. However, it soon became apparent why Chief Wang had agreed to stop in this place. It wasn’t just because he sought rest and relaxation; rather, this was the type of place where local ruffians tended to gather. And Chief Wang was recruiting.
By the time the final day came, their group numbered 30 in total, quite an increase from before. Chief Wang also purchased some supplies and arms, ensuring that their bandit group was now much better equipped than before. To Bao’s surprise, he even bought her a pair of long, thin knives, not crude carving knives like the ones she had used before, but fine steel, sharp and deadly.
She wanted to refuse, but accepted in the end.
The group never reached Fan. Chief Wang found a some caves near a tributary of the Fan River where he began to build a fortress to serve as the group’s headquarters. From there, the bandit group began to exert its authority in the region.
Chief Wang issued orders that all members were required to participate in raids, which Bao wasn’t happy about, but couldn’t avoid. The first raid she participated in was more of a con than a raid, and there wasn’t even any fighting. The second raid did devolve into fighting, although Bao managed to avoid having to participate.
Eventually, Bao’s friendship with Mao Yun deepend. They often drank together late into the night, although never to the point of passing out like they had that first time. Bao soon learned that Mao Yun’s father had been an important man. Although Mao Yun never explained the specifics, she got the feeling he was a highly ranked official, perhaps even a general, who defied the Demon Emperor and paid the price. She also learned that Mao Yun had a sister, Mao Mei, although they had been separated for years, and he had no idea where she was in the vast world of Qi Xien.
One night after Bao had been drinking in Mao Yun’s quarters, she headed across the hall to her own room. After barring the door, she walked toward the bed and had just begun to unbutton her collar when she realized she wasn’t alone.
Chief Wang was slumped against the wall by the door, staring up at her with drooping eyes. Clearly he was drunk.
“Hello, Bao,” he said, chuckling.
She tried to jump back and unbar the door, but he lurched to his feet and blocked her way.
“What do you want, Chief?” she said warily, trying to clear her spinning head. Her eyes flickered to a nearby shelf, where lay the two knives Chief Wang had given her as a gift. She hadn’t strapped them to her arms when she went to drink with Mao Yun, a decision she instantly regretted.
Chief Wang licked his lips, his eyes wandering up and down her body. “Oh, I think you know what I want. Weren’t you just about to take your clothes off? Why did you stop?”
She backed up toward the bed, even as he walked toward her unsteadily.
“Chief, you’re drunk. Let me take you back to your room.”
“My room? Oh, your room will do just fine.” His lips twisted into a sneer. “Now get out of your clothes, or do you want me to cut them off of you!”
He lunged forward, somehow managing to grab both of her wrists, and then pushing her down onto the bed. She grunted as his knee jabbed into her side. She could smell the alcohol on his breath, along with the aroma of garlic and mutton.
“I’ve been wanting this for a long time,” he said, releasing her wrist to grab at the collar of her shirt.
That was all the chance she needed.
Even as he began to rip her shirt off, her left hand slipped under her pillow, and closed around the hilt of a knife. This was one of her original weapons, a carving knife she had pilfered from the workshop back in the clan.
Before Chief Wang knew what was happening, her hand shot out from under the pillow and stabbed the knife into the side of his neck. Blood instantly spurted out, and his eyes went wide. Not waiting for a reaction, Bao pulled the knife out of the wound and then ran it viciously across his throat, sending a waterfall of blood down onto her face. He made a gurgling whimper, and as his grip on her right hand loosened, she shoved him off of her. He toppled over onto the bed, and she straddled him, then began to stab him in the chest, once, twice, three times. Five. Ten times. And she didn’t stop.
Blood was everywhere, soaking the sheets, causing her hair to stick to her face. It smelled both sweet and pungent at the same time. Bao was breathing in ragged pants as she plunged the knife into Chief Wang over and over again. It was almost like she wasn’t in control of her own body, as if some powerful force were raging inside of her, causing her to become consumed by fury.
Finally she stopped for a moment to catch her breath. Looking down at Chief Wang’s mangled, bleeding corpse, she gritted her teeth and then slowly stabbed the knife into his right eye, all the way to the hilt. Then she twisted it.
“Fuck you, and fuck the Demon Emperor,” she snarled.