The shootout had left Cheung shaken. When they rolled into town they discovered the nearest inn had closed for the night. After a brief debate, they passed the hours before sunup parked outside the inn. The risk takers took turns to guard the wagon, while the civilians tried to rest. Tung and Lee had more luck getting some sleep than Ayan and Cheung.
In the morning, Cheung haggled with the inn owner and passed her a handful of chiao. In exchange, she allowed them to park the wagon without checking in. Cheung’s local contact lived near the town market, so the four of them set off together, goods in tow.
They ran into the procession exactly four minutes later.
“What’s going on?” Cheung muttered, mainly to himself.
The market square was empty, the stalls shoved to one side. At the far end was a tall stage. People lined the streets, workingmen and peasant women and rich people and everybody in between. A drummer sounded off at regular intervals.
Lee craned his neck, looking for the drummer. Among the four he had the best view, by virtue of being nearly a head taller than the average Northeasterner. The others were squashed in, tiptoeing to no avail.
A group of men appeared. They marched in twos, led by an older man. The leader wore the insignia of a tuichu, a captain. The two men behind him carried large, stylized banners. The last man beat a drum in short tattoos. Every single man was armed: the captain, bannermen and drummer with a Webster revolver, everybody else with Blaser rifles and swords. All wore dark green brigandines. These were not the ceremonial armour officers wore for parades. They were for war, dull and weathered, occasionally scratched and pitted, but otherwise in immaculate condition. As they approached, Lee sensed a powerful chi emanations radiating from the soldiers.
They were Imperial Guard.
In the middle of the formation was a battered man in tattered clothing, his neck enclosed in a heavy muchia, what Lee’s father would have called a cangue. Pieces of paper stuck to the wood proclaimed his name, address, and crimes.
“Damn,” Lee muttered.
The Imperial Guardsmen manhandled the prisoner up the stage, forcing him to his knees. One of the Guardsmen drew a long sword, while his colleagues levelled rifles at the prisoner’s head. The captain launched into a monologue, entirely in the Northeast dialect.
“What’s he saying?” Lee whispered.
“I’ll translate,” Ayan said. “‘This man, Maca of the Dahuri clan, is an enemy of the people. He conspired with the Westerners to undermine our great nation. Against the laws of our land, he imported illegal Western religious texts to spread the foreigners’ lies. The magistrate has found him guilty of high treason. The penalty is death.”
The executioner blurred. Maca’s head flew clean off his shoulders.
Imperial Guardsmen were all trained in the wuchi arts. The executioner had moved so swiftly, Lee barely caught the motion. They were the Emperor’s answer to Western sorceries. Their training and equipment was top-notch, their brigandines specially enchanted to provide superior protection,. With the country officially at peace with the foreigners, the Emperor had turned the Imperial Guard on what he called enemies of the people. The purge had begun shortly before the end of the I Chuan Uprising, and had never stopped.
As the Guardsmen dispersed, Cheung bounded through the crowd, rushing for the stage. Lee followed him, keeping his head down and chi suppressed. He did not want the Guardsmen to see him.
Cheung was frozen, staring wordlessly at the head. Lee tapped his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“That was…that was my friend. My customer.”
Lee raised his eyebrow. “I’m sorry. Did you know—”
“We need to leave the town.”
“We’ll talk later. Anyone associated with him is a suspect. We don’t need the trouble and I can’t afford the bribes.”
Lee nodded. Then a heavy hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. It was the captain, flanked by his soldiers. Every single one of them had their hands on their swords or pistol butts.
“You! Foreigner! What are you doing here?” he demanded in Anglian. “Why are you armed in my town?”
“I’m not a foreigner,” Lee said slowly in Kuoyü. “I’m a member of the Shen Kang Shen Kang Risk Takers’ Guild. We all know foreigners can’t be risk takers.”
Slowly, slowly, Lee unsnapped a pouch on his belt and pulled out his membership card. The captain snatched it from his hand, squinting at the fine print next to the punched holes. The words declared the owner was one Ethan Thomas Lee Yungji, mixed-blood, accredited member of the Shen Kang Risk Takers’ Guild
Lee licked his lips, glancing around. There were eight of them. Not good odds, but Tung was coming up behind them.
“I don’t believe you!” the captain shouted, now in Kuoyü. “I think you stole it—”
“I can vouch for him,” Cheung cut in. “He works for me.”
The captain looked down at the slight old man. “And who are you?”
“I’m just a merchant from Shen Kang, on my way to visit Magistrate Kong. This man saved me from a bandit attack yesterday.”
“What business do you have with the Magistrate? What’s your name?”
Cheung smiled ever so slightly. “Kong Min has…interesting tastes in furniture and clothing. I am but his humble supplier, here to show him my wares. I have an appointment with him in a quarter of an hour.”
The captain blanched. Then he focused his attention on Lee. “You. Don’t cause any trouble in my town. Understand?”
The captain jerked his head. The Guardsmen left. As soon as they were out of earshot, Cheung muttered, “Fanatics.”
Tung and Ayan rushed up to them. “Is there any trouble?” she asked, her hand too-casually resting on the butt of her holstered C86.
“Not right now,” Cheung said. “But they executed my customer. There’s no reason to stay in this town.”
“We need to go before the captain realises the Magistrate isn’t expecting any visitors,” Cheung said.
“Fine.” But the look in her eyes said they would finish this later.
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