Zha Yao's eyes were glued to the two feuding women, so the small gray bird popped into his view like an omen from the Celestials. It fluttered right into the middle of their tightening circle with loud chirps.
"Is this one of your sisters, Du?" Zha Yao asked. The frantic ball of ruffled feathers continued to throw itself at his men, beating its wings so hard, it should have ripped its chest into two.
"Stupid pest!" Du flailed at the bird, missing it by a hair. The frenzied thing flew higher up in the air, and then shat on its assailant's face.
A more sophisticated audience might have kept their jollity in check, but Zha Yao's men howled with laughter.
Du wiped the white splatter from her reddening cheek with a dirty sleeve and scowled.
The bird flew up even higher, then suddenly shut its inane screeching, and landed on the top of the ambushed carriage. In its place, Zha Yao would not have stayed this close to Deserving Du.
"Silence," Zha Yao commanded. His men shut in their howling. He turned to his prisoner, "The lockbox is no longer yours, Mistress. It belongs to the humble of the Empire."
"You may take it by force, Master Zha Yao. But it is magically sealed. Anyone who tries to force the lock will die, and all my silver will transform into mercury," the woman explained. She sounded friendly, and he could not detect falsehood, something that frustrated him.
"I am Lady Chen Guang," she brought her hands together under her chin and bowed like a supplicant. "I wish to confer with you, Noble Outlaw Zha Yao. Then I will open the lockbox for you, and accept your judgment."
"I will allow them to plead for their lives," Zha Yao declared and walked a few paces down the road.
"Madame?" he beckoned for the lady to approach. She did so, unhurriedly.
Zha Yao watched her walk towards him. He now understood what made the woman look so special.
She was old, past her thirties, yet beautiful. The hardships of life wilted the slum dwellers in Xichon like the spring frost burns down the blossoms. This pampered lady knew nothing of labour and poverty, so the soft beauty of youth hardened like a blade after quenching with years.
"I am Lady Chen Guang," the woman repeated, "Lord Chen Xi's widow."
She gave him a moment to react, and when he did not, she nodded to her own thoughts and went on, "Sir, pardon me for being direct. Did you steal that name along with the pistols from a certain young imbecile?"
Zha Yao saw no reason to lie, "I shot a man for these. He was a fool."
Lady Chen Guang closed her eyes for a moment. Was it a prayer? "You have done me a great service, Master Zha Yao. You've avenged my husband's death and my family's demise."
She kneeled in front of him. But the way she'd looked at him was no different than if she'd looked down at him from a throne. "Han Zheng shot Admiral Thirty Claws who was a guest in our house. The Emperor took exception to our family for the murder."
Zha Yao understood it now. "The sobbing girl in the carriage must be the untouched peach from the tallest branch! I've never reckoned to meet her."
Lady Chen Guang's eyes flashed with anger. Zha Yao noticed with amusement that she shifted herself to stand between him and the carriage before she spoke again, "For the time being I am ruined and fleeing for my life. But I will turn it around..."
She paused and repeated each word, like driving a nail in with a hammer, "I. Will. Turn. It. Around."
So far as he knew, the Celestials heard proud words like that a thousand times a day and did not care. He should tell her that, but in her own way, Lady Chen Guang was no less compelling than Du.
"No matter what else happens to you, My Lord, in your moment of need, find me. I will dress you in silks," she added.
So I am a Lord now? "You are hardly in a position to entice me with charity, Madam."
The lady's eyes softened, and she lowered her voice, "You can see every noble as an enemy, Lord Zha Yao - and they will unite against you. But there is no harm in having some of them siding with you. Or be willing to help you."
"Open the box, Lady Chen Guang." Was she a demon's friend or a faery's to lie so smoothly? The images of glory sprung up in his mind with a renewed vigour, both scary and exciting.
"Open the cursed box," he said hoarsely and turned on his heels.
She glided after him towards the carriage.
The small bird took off when it saw them moving. If it was not just a dumb bird, he'd suspected it of spying and leaving to report its findings.
Lady Chen Guang ordered the driver and the surviving guardsman to lift the lockbox out of the carriage. While she worked the ivory panels, Zha Yao regarded her daughter. The 'Peach' was a young girl with a strong family resemblance to Lady Chen Guang. She inherited the beauty but did not yet own it the way her mother did. She was of an age with Deserving Du, but the exact opposite of Zha Yao's vixen. All in all, she was pale, fragile and frightened into breathless silence. That terrified yelp was probably the only sound she had made in a while. Zha Yao smirked, Lord Fool had cow dung for his manhood, not just his brain.
Even before the lockbox's lid fell open, Zha Yao's attention was back on Lady Chen Guang. She made a fluid motion inviting him to the chest and its contents.
"We will take the silver, and you can keep your lives," Zha Yao declared loud enough for everyone to hear.
He indicated one of the former soldiers: "You will replace the dead guard. See that the ladies reach Sutao safely, and then return to us. The share of the take will be set aside for you." The man looked pleased with the arrangement.
"Deserving Du. Pick two men, and throw the corpse into the deepest ravine. Then bring the oxen back to the farm. Catch up with us afterward."
"Men are fools," she muttered, but when she patted the dead guard down a sort of contentment spread over her features.
Zha Yao's and his small band covered as much distance as they could before setting up their camp. He was tired, but sleep did not come. He crawled out of his bedroll and stared into the fire for a while with a pre-dawn apathy of an insomniac.
Deserving Du stood the watch. Her back was to the fire, and to him. Even her back looks sullen.
He went to the vixen and caught her chin. Now, he finally had her undivided attention.
"I don't like being called a fool," he said evenly.
She glared back at him for a bit. Zha Yao pursued the staring contest until she finally let out a frustrated sigh. "I'll find a name for you yet."
"Zha Yao would do," he told her.
"It isn't your name," she snorted. "You hesitate before responding to it."
"I like it."
"I don't!" she jerked her chin out of his fingers. But her lips brushed his fingertips. "I'll give you a better one."
A man could only win so many battles in one day. "You do that."
Chirping echoed his words, the familiar frantic chirping.
Du bit back an oath.
Zha Yao stepped away from her to look for the weird bird that was awake before dawn. Finally, he spotted it. He could not tell its colour in the dark, but it was the same size as the crazed one that shat on Du.
It made a few circles above their heads as if to make sure it had their attention.
Zha Yao watched the dark shape until it stopped circling and dashed to the east. When it shrank away to a dot, now going south, he told Du, "East to Sutao. Then south, to the Province of Shantong. That's where I am heading."
"It's just a dumb finch," she whispered, but without much conviction.
He liked it when she stood so close to him.
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