Chapter 19: Girls Younger and Skinnier
Five days passed. Bao took to meditating every morning and every night. When Mao Yun asked what she was doing, she brushed it off and told him that she would explain later.
Soon, the spoonful of energy grew into two spoonfuls, and then three. She was still a far cry from a whole bowlful.
She began experimenting with how to incorporate that energy into her fighting, but it was difficult. For the first four days, the energy was completely static, and didn’t respond to any prodding on her part.
On the fifth day, however, the energy stirred, and she managed to move some of it toward her right arm. However, the effort left her sweating and even gasping for breath. Clearly, reaching a level where using the energy in fighting would be a difficult task.
An hour after the sun set on the sixth day, Li Runfa returned to the camp, riding his horse at a full gallop. He hardly waited for the horse to come to a halt before leaping off its back to find Bao, whereupon he breathlessly explained the situation in Tung-on.
Just that morning, the Bone General had arrived in Tung-on, and a major investigation began regarding Bao and Mao Yun.
The camp was about a day’s journey from Tung-on, but Li Runfa had ridden his horse hard the entire way to make the trip in a shorter time. After explaining the state of the city in general, he got to the most important bit of information.
“They know who you are, Mao Yun,” Li Runfa explained. “The whole city is abuzz. When I first arrived, nobody was talking about you, but after the Bone General arrived, questions started being asked, and soon everyone was talking about what happened. The constables suddenly went crazy, asking for information about who was with you. Thankfully I disguised myself and even skirted around to enter the city through the west.
“The west gate was entirely burned down, by the way.
“The biggest question was the direction we left in.” Li Runfa shook his head and frowned.
Bao’s eyes narrowed. “We left to the south, then waited until we were on an abandoned stretch of road before veering off to the east. But this is the Bone General we’re talking about. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tracks us down in a day or two.”
After a moment of silence, Mao Yun said, “We can’t stay here.”
“I agree,” Third Zhou chimed in. “Let’s just go to Nansun.”
Others in the group began voicing their assent.
After a long moment passed, Bao shook her head. “No. The Bone General is no fool. He’s obviously after us because of the Ogre we killed, and we’ve virtually made a bee-line for the north. He’ll know that we’re heading for the Hen-Shi Empire, and Nansun is the closest and most obvious choice.
“He’s probably already sent word ahead to have soldiers watching for us at the Chezou River.”
No one said anything in response. Another minute or so passed in silence before Bao finally spoke again. “We go south. He definitely won’t be expecting that. Ride two days south, then head west to the Little Demon Forest. From there we can make our way north toward Daolu.”
The other members of the group exchanged glances, but no one seemed opposed.
Finally, Third Zhou asked, “When do we leave, Chieftess Bao?”
Bao looked up into the sky, where the moon shone brightly. Normally night travel wouldn’t be safe, especially in mountainous country like this, but she couldn’t stop the anxiety which was worming away at her heart. She could only imagine sight of the Bone General striding into their camp, and that thought caused her scalp to tingle.
“We leave now. Pack and be ready to go in the time it takes an incense stick to burn.”
For the following week, Bao felt like her heart had changed position within her body to rest directly behind her throat. They rode long and hard every single day, following her plan of going first south, then west.
They were as careful as possible, scouting ahead when they could, setting sentries at night, and yet none of them ever felt safe.
That didn’t stop Bao from continuing with her regimen of meditation, though, and soon she could successfully manipulate the energy within her body. She had even begun to experiment with methods of integrating it into her fighting techniques.
After a lot of thought, she even began to teach Mao Yun how to meditate and breathe, although it took him a lot longer to master the techniques than it had for her.
It wasn’t until more and more trees began to appear, indicating that they had reached the Zhang Chang forest, that Bao finally breathed a sigh of relief.
With one last look out over the plains that led to Tung-on, she led her group of ragged ex-bandits into the trees.
Once in the forest, their speed slowed significantly. Soon, the sky began to grow dark as evening approached.
It was at this point that they caught sight of a man standing up ahead of them in the forest. He had his hands clasped behind his back, and was unarmed. He merely stood there smiling, seemingly completely at ease as their group approached.
When they were about ten meters away, the man clasped hands and said, “Greetings, travelers.”
Mao Yun, who was in the lead position, clasped hands in response and said, “Greetings. I am Mao Yun. You are…?”
“I am a messenger from Lord Shu, who controls this part of the Zhang Chang forest. Since evening is falling, he would like to invite you to dine with him and stay the night in his estate.”
Mao Yun looked over his shoulder at Bao and Third Zhou. Bao cocked her head to the side, and Mao Yun nodded.
“What if we would prefer to camp on our own?” he asked.
A wry smile appeared on the messenger’s face. “This is a dangerous forest. Lord Shu would prefer for guests in his territory to remain safe in his estate, not vulnerably exposed out in the open. There are bears and brown leopards in these parts, you know.”
“I see. Please wait a moment.” Mao Yun turned his horse and headed back toward Bao and Third Zhou. Lowering his voice, he said, “The message seems clear. We won’t be allowed to set camp in this man’s territory, and it’s late. Who is this Lord Shu?”
Bao glanced at Third Zhou.
“I’ve heard the name,” Third Zhou said. “But that’s about it. However, this far north, and this far into the forest, I doubt he’s anything more than a, uh–” he cleared his throat “–than a bandit.”
Bao smiled. “I see.”
If they’re bandits and they want to attack us in the night, what would stop them?
“Fine, we play along. But make sure everyone has weapons in hand or ready to draw at a moment’s notice.” Third Zhou nodded and began to spread word, while Mao Yun headed his horse back toward the front of the group.
And that was how, roughly an hour later, they found themselves attending a feast in the middle of a bandit fortress.
Lord Shu’s “estate” was exactly that, a stronghold with wooden walls that housed what appeared to be no less than thirty bandits, plus family members and some servants and workers.
Bao and her group were treated cordially, and were not threatened, but considering how heavily armed Lord Shu’s people were, she immediately started to get worried.
However, they weren’t even asked to remove their own weapons, so she, Mao Yun, Zhou Third, and everyone else allowed their horses to be stabled, and then entered a large hall where a feast had been laid out.
Lord Shu was younger than she would have imagined, with a flashy smile and green robes.
Formal introductions were made, in which Mao Yun claimed that they were armed escorts traveling north to Daolu to look for work. When it was announced that Bao’s title was Chieftess, looks of shock could be seen on the faces of Lord Shu’s men, whereas wry, embarrassed smiles could be seen among Bao’s followers.
As the formalities proceeded, Bao continued to wonder what exactly was going on. There had to be a trick or a con being played, although she wasn’t sure what.
And then it began.
“Chieftess Bao,” Lord Shu said, raising his drinking vessel, a traditional northern style cup, bronze, and essentially large enough to contain one mouthful of alcohol. “Allow me to toast you!”
She raised her own glass and nodded, and together they drank, downing the mouthful of clear alcohol. Ordinarily she might have worried about poison, but all of the alcohol was being served from the same casks. As soon as the liquid entered Bao’s throat, it burned like fire, and she had a hard time not coughing.
What is this? It was much stronger than what she and Mao Yun usually drank together. Bao could immediately tell that the alcohol was at least twice as strong as their prefered yellow wine, perhaps even three or four times as strong. As was the custom, she immediately refilled her glass.
“So… Chieftess Bao,” Lord Shu continued. “How did a… young woman like yourself come to lead this… mighty group of armed escorts?”
“Oh you know,” she replied with a cool smile. “Coincidence.”
“Ah, coincidence.” He raised his glass. “Let us drink, to coincidence.”
Her expression the same as ever, she raised her glass and drank again.
After some more idle conversation, Lord Shu suddenly said, “Chieftess Bao, I’m not sure about where you’re from, but up here in the north, it’s customary to return the honor of a toast with a toast of your own.”
Is he trying to get me drunk? she thought. At that, she almost laughed. One thing she had noticed after she began to build up the strange energy within her was that alcohol affected her differently. Whereas before Mao Yun could usually drink three glasses to her one, over the course of the past week or so, her alcohol tolerance seemed to have doubled.
“My apologies Lord Shu,” she said. Refilling her glass, she raised it high and said, “To you, Lord Shu. Many thanks for your hospitality.”
They drank. And then again. And again.
All of a sudden, a loud banging sound rang out as Mao Yun slammed his hand down onto the table.
“Enough!” he shouted. “This is preposterous! Chieftess Bao is, is….”
“Is what?” Lord Shu prompted.
Mao Yun bit his tongue.
Smiling, Lord Shu raised his voice and said, “A little woman! That’s what!”
His men chuckled.
“A frail, little woman!” Lord Shu declared.
Suddenly, a spark ignited within Bao, an anger that she barely managed to prevent from appearing on her face. At the same time, the energy within her stirred. Perhaps it was because of the alcohol, or the anger, or a combination of both, but in that moment the energy began to flow through her in a way it never had before.
Bao could feel it coursing through her blood vessels, and as it did, she was astonished to find that she could identify the difference between the blood and the alcohol that was flowing through her.
Grim expressions had appeared on the faces of Bao’s people, and yet Bao suddenly smiled coldly.
“Now now, men,” she said, raising her own voice. “Lord Shu is right. I’m just a woman. Unlike him, a would-be farmer living in a log cabin in the woods, leader of pack of lice-ridden dogs who lick their own master’s ass in the hopes of finding a bit of food leaking out the back that tastes better than the trash he serves them for dinner.”
Gasps could be heard among Lord Shu’s men, whose faces quickly turned stony. Many a hand suddenly came to rest on the hilts of daggers and knifes, causing a similar reaction from Bao’s people.
Lord Shu’s eyes flickered with flames of anger. However, before he could respond, Bao continued, “Lord Shu, please forgive my men. They are used to the civilized behaviour of cityfolk, and are unfamiliar with the manners of pig farmers like yourself.” Lord Shu’s eyes went wide, and he opened his mouth but Bao cut him off. “I come from Yu Zhing, where true men can drink far more than the few swallows you’ve taken. In fact, I know many girls younger and skinnier than myself who could likely outdrink you even if your drink were more watered down than I suspect it is already. Therefore, if it’s a drinking contest you would like, then a drinking contest you shall have. Unless… you’re afraid?”