Blood on the Sand

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Jiang looked for a way out of the unenviable position between an anvil and three hammers. His guts screamed against indulging Thirty Claws' sons.

"My lady! My lords!" he bowed generously to all of them. "The ballad was written by a drunken sell-out interested only in filling his pockets with silver! I have been to Zha Yao's camp and witnessed that the traitor lives with a vixen called Du. His lowly lusts do not deserve to be immortalized in songs. I will not insult my craft by repeating the lies!"

"We have a real treasure here, the honest storyteller!" Jung Hwa said. "Tell me the truth then. Where is Tien Lyn if she is not consorting with Zha Yao?"

Jiang realized squirmed, somehow sure that the Salt Bitch knew the answer already. "She is in hiding. Some rumours say she is in Sutao, some say she fled to Quantong. I know nothing more, m'lady, please believe me!"

He swallowed his bile.

Jung Hwa furrowed her brow.

He had no choice but to stagger on, "It is... it is her mother, Lady Chen Guang who accompanies Zha Yao. Along with the old war mage Zhu Zhao by name. Some minor nobles. But not Tien Lyn herself."

"I have heard enough," Jung Hwa bit off her words. "Shan Jiang the Honest Storyteller, you may stay with us."

He made to go to his knees in relief, but remembered that the Chieftain did not like it, besides, Jung Hwa already took her eyes off him, turning to her men, "From this day on, I want Mother Xho to be brought out as soon as any ship is sighted. If she senses the Contagion, burn it before it drops the anchor. No exceptions."

He had never been happier to lose a woman's attention.

"Hard times will be upon us if we cut ourselves from the Empire's bounty," Jung Hwa continued. "We will have to return to living off the demons like we have done before Thirty Claws made the deal with Wo Jia."

"As is our way," the same son interrupted her. "Since the beginning of times."

Jiang inwardly tsk'd at the young man, but with a bit of envy too. He would have never dared to--- To his horror, Jung Hwa turned back to him, not her formidable offspring.

"As was our way," she repeated after her son, but still stared at him for some unfathomable reason. The look in her eyes was not cordial.

He braced himself, wishing that the pirates just sort it out between themselves, like in the comic puppet shows when everyone killed everybody, to leave a clueless passerby with their loot. He could be that fool, and he could tell the tale afterwards.

"Everyone has to earn his living, and storytelling won't be enough," Jung Hwa said.

"I... I can sing as well." He'd dance with veils and fans if it could appease her.

"Wonderful. But let's see if you are fit to fight the demons with us."

"What?" Jiang croaked.

"Mother!" the challenger tried to argue, but the crowd grew lively with cheers and laughter drowning him out.

Someone pinched Jiang's bicep, while another newfound friend mockingly offered him a sword. Though he did not take it, they started clapping in rhythm to some barbaric but catchy tune.

He used to live for applauds, but the smirks told him that his audience did not expect him to triumph. He was the entertainment again, but not as a master that presided over their imagination, No, he was a victim, about to provide the basest of all spectacles, the slaughter. His sight and hearing started to go, as if he were at a great distance from what was unfolding. He did not even try to fight the hands that dragged him inland.

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