Never the one to overstay his welcome, Zha Yao led his new followers to the outskirts of the village where he'd shot the fat tax collector Li Tzao.
His troops consisted of the guards, except the three who stripped their armor and ran for it. Whether it was to return to their own pitiful villages to live as deserters or to inform on him was a worry for another day. He had twelve left under his command, plus four big country lads who had armed themselves with pikes and pitchforks, ever a stand-in for weapons in the countryside.
His final cohort was a skinny but wide-shouldered youth carrying a sickle. The other villagers pointed out that this was not a man, but a girl, flat as a board and more quarrelsome than a badger. Zha Yao thought of chasing the vixen back home but the challenge in her beady eyes gave him a pause. "You chose to come, sister, that's on you. It's a rough road and rougher people. Keep up, and keep out what you don't want in."
The girl grinned, showing off crooked teeth, half of one broken off. "I will cut off whatever I don't like near me. Sir."
She followed the 'sir' by planting a juicy spittle bomb in the dirt between the legs of one of her kinsmen.
Zha Yao shot his band a meaningful look. "If we fight among ourselves or give in to drink, or debauchery, we'll end up dead before long. But if we stick together, we'll get enough silver to buy the prettiest whores in the land."
As far as the diplomacy went, his was hewn with an ax, but finesse would have been wasted. The way he put it, they caught his drift. Leave the vixen be, she is our sister, as simple as that.
The girl shifted her weight from one dirty foot to the other: "Sir!"
He sighed, "What now?"
"Sir, my family was put to cleaning the landlord's manor a week ago. He's coming for a stay, that's a fact. If we barricade the side road, we can catch ourselves a fat pheasant. I know a good place for an ambush. Sir."
He rubbed his neck. "Is he a corrupt man, this landowner?"
The girl graced him with another crooked grin and rattled off the list of charges faster than a magpie, "The worst sort, Sir! He cheats the Empire by never reporting how much land is under millet, and how much is under the mulberry trees... "
She started ticking it off on her dirty fingers:
"... and what gifts he gave to the Temple of the Serene Joy...
...and how many tenants work the land...
...and he burned the tenants off their land last fall, five whole families!
...and he spoiled a few village girls even before their marriages."
Zha Yao raised his palms up before she added eating babies and consorting with demons. That list fit any rich man in the Evershining Empire, give or take a few items.
"What's your name?"
"I am called Unwanted Du," the girl's eyes glinted again with repressed anger. "Or That-Other-Du, if you prefer, Sir."
He understood the barb. The lurid tales about the Wanton Empress Du were well-loved. The list of her titillating affairs read like a census of the Evershining Empire. And the numbers were not all thanks to the abuse of her exalted station. The popular memory held it that the Empress was a stunning beauty, at least until her twilight years. The drawings in the private rooms around the Evershining Empire testified to that fact with enthusiasm. Unlike that other Du, this one was not a beauty.
"Deserving Du," Zha Yao said, "We've witnessed your righteous anger against this corrupt man! Tell me how we can bring the Emperor's judgment to him."
The ugly girl cringed. He would not win her over with a hasty compliment and pompous words. Unlike that other Du, she had standards.
Zha Yao's band had to wait a night and most of the next day before the lookout gave the signal. Their prey turned off the Imperial Highway. Now it navigated the narrower, windy track towards the estate.
He kept his face neutral. He was worried about tarrying so near the village where he shot the tax collector. But he now had men in his charge. They had to be fed, housed, armed and kept in good spirits. He judged the risk reasonable, but time did not play into his hand, so he had come close to losing his nerve and calling the ambush off. He was happy he had not.
His men coaxed a pair of leased oxen into the middle of the road. The beasts were scrupulously paid for at Zha Yao's insistence. Deserving Du and the farming boys loitered around the oxen.
The carriage had no choice but to come to a halt. The bucolic tableau of the unhurried country life unfolded in front of its occupants.
Zha Yao grew apprehensive again when he took a closer look at the carriage and its escort. The vehicle was sturdy but nondescript and was accompanied by two mounted guards. It was unfit for a rich man who owned these beautiful pasture lands. Perhaps, the estate was prepared for a minor visitor or one of the landlord's senior employees.
Before he could call the ruse off, the guards rushed the dirty peasants. In the cloud of dust kicked up by the horses' hooves, the country lads rolled out of the way.
Deserving Du charged in like a demon. She slashed the tendons on the horse when its rider pulled up to shout at them. The unfortunate beast neighed in sharp agony, showing the whites of its eyes, and collapsed. The guard went down with the horse. The vixen slashed twice more with her sickle. The road dust settled, watered with blood.
The second guard wheeled around, shouting the warning to the carriage driver, but the road behind them was already blocked off by the rest of Zha Yao's men. The guard spat and cursed them out, but it was all words. He looked to be a hired mercenary and knew how to count.
Zha Yao let out the breath he was holding. It was his turn to enter the stage. Rich or poor, the occupant of the carriage now had to be robbed.
He assumed a heroic pose. Straightening his back took far less effort than before. He held the pistol in full view.
"The people of these lands charge you with greed and cruelty!" Zha Yao declared, "I, Zha Yao, charge you! Defend your honor!"
A distressed exclamation escaped from the inside the carriage. Its door flung opened to let out a passenger. It was, unexpectedly, a woman, and, even more unexpectedly, fully composed. Another lady crouched in the depth of the carriage, but it was the one that stepped out that mattered. Her eyes did a quick survey of the bandits, Zha Yao, and his pistols.
"You, Sir," she said, her eyes fastened to the weapon in his hand, "are about to shoot your only friend."
"We don't have friends among the rich," Deserving Du spat in the lady's direction. She missed but not by much.
The older woman did not comment on Du's manners. Instead, she shook her head: "We are not rich. The lockbox I carry contains all my possessions."
Deserving Du guffawed: "Here are mine!" She lifted her bloodied sickle up in the air, getting yelps of approval from the band. "Want to see it up-close, bitch?!"
Zha Yao would not bet on which woman would pounce on the other one first, or which one would win, let alone step between the two.
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