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140 Actual Incinerator Way, Apt. 23
Great Inferno Village, FL
Respectable work, Chen’s father had always said, was the highest aspiration of any man. An honest trade one could take pride in. A trade that would put food on the table and fuel in the fire come winter. Respectable work. It was a nice thought, and a thing all but impossible for Chen to find anymore. Exile had that effect on a man.
His classical education in the imperial capital had taught him a great many skills. The way of the written word, foremost. How to read and write. But also to calculate numbers, to record history, and even to interpret the mysteries of poetry and philosophy. What it hadn’t taught him, however, was how to cut a purse, or slit a throat quietly. It hadn’t taught him how to lie, cheat, and steal. A shame, then, that he was surrounded by liars, cheats, and thieves. Even more a shame that the only employ he’d been able to find was in the service of the biggest liar, cheat, and thief this side of the empire.
“Pay up,” Gao Zhu spoke from the gaudy, faux gold-leafed chair he reclined in, eyes focused on the bowing man before him. His words were more a grunt than anything. An up-jumped petty crime lord, he was now a fat man. But it was the deceiving kind of fat, the kind that hid years of street muscle beneath it. There was undoubtedly a strength to the man. Not much else, however. It was quite clear to Chen that Gao Zhu wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was. But he was rich, and being rich, as it turned out, compensated for a great many things.
Paolin’s hand shook as he emptied his purse, the coins clinking one by one into the bowl, and Chen set down his quill with a sigh. Even from where he sat in the corner of the room, recording the proceedings in his ledger beneath the light of a flickering candle, he could tell the money was not enough.
“Short again,” Gao Zhu said. The words were neither a question, nor a threat. They were simply the truth.
Gao Zhu was not one who needed to ask questions. He had men to do that for him. Men with sharp blades and far too much skill in their use. He did not need to make threats, either. As it happened, those same men and their sharp blades did that quite well, too. But Gao Zhu enjoyed making threats. Enjoyed it as much as his other cherished past times of lying and thievery.
“Short again.” Gao Zhu repeated the words and the debtor before him began to shake. “What you can’t pay in coin, maybe you can pay in flesh? How about a hand?”
“My lord, I—”
A punch from one of the guards caught the man in the stomach and drove the air from his lungs. He keeled over with a wheezing breath. Kneeling now, he looked tiny in the cavernous expanse of Gao Zhu’s throne room. Wasn’t much a throne room, if one were being honest. And Chen would know. His years as a scribe at the imperial court had taught him just how good things were at the top. Nonetheless, Gao Zhu fancied the converted stable his throne room. If the word of the crime lord wasn’t enough to make it so, the entourage of thugs with their well-sharpened steel was.
“You owe me money, not excuses.” The beams of light snaking their way through the rafters fell around Gao Zhu, only partially illuminating his face. Even in the half-light, Chen could make out his smile. He was enjoying this, sick bastard that he was. A sick bastard, maybe, but also a rich one, unfortunately for all involved.
Gao Zhu rose from his chair, shaking his head.
“You’ve been short before…”
Chen knew his cue and began noisily flipping through the pages of his ledger. He also knew exactly how many times Paolin had been short on his payments, but that wasn’t the point. His employer had always indulged a touch of theatrics. The sound of the flipping pages set whichever poor bastard he was interrogating on edge. Paolin was no exception.
“Three times prior,” Chen said finally, once he figured enough time had passed.
“Three times.” Gao Zhu shook his head. He drew out the moment, clearly enjoying the fact he could have the man before him killed with a word. As it happened, he was feeling merciful that day. “You’re lucky I’m the generous sort. I expect a double payment next time.”
“You’re too kind, my lord.” Paolin couldn’t have answered quick enough. “Your generosity will not be forgotten,” he stammered, pressing his face to the ground and prostrating himself before his creditor.
Gao Zhu’s only reply was to grunt and turn back towards his chair with a dismissive wave of his hand. As he did, Paolin scampered from the room.
“Should’ve gutted the bastard,” the largest of the thugs grunted. Gripper, Chen knew by the slur of the man’s words alone. So named for his affinity for strangling those unlucky enough to cross him, he was first among Gao Zhu’s thugs. Last when it came to intelligence, though.
“If he’s dead, he doesn’t pay his debts. If he doesn’t pay his debts, we don’t get paid,” Chen said, stressing the last few words. He didn’t fancy himself one to pick a fight, but his tongue often had other plans. Seemed it was always one step ahead of his brain, ready to lash out with some insult or jibe.
“Maybe I should gut you instead?” The brute raised one unsettlingly large hand to the sword at his hip. Probably it was best not to antagonize the man. Didn’t take a classical education to know Chen wouldn’t stand a chance if it came to blows, but Gripper had been itching for a go at Chen since the day he’d arrived. There was little love lost between the two.
“Quiet,” Gao Zhu ordered before Chen could dig his hole any deeper. “Gripper, you’re not smart enough to argue with Chen. Chen, the only thing stopping Gripper from cutting out that tongue of yours is my say so. Don’t annoy me.” Gripper gave a smile and a wink at that last part and Gao Zhu eased himself back into his gold-leafed almost-throne.
Chen made a rude gesture at the big thug, but was cut short as a shadow cast itself across the floor of the room.
“I hope I’m not interrupting?” the silhouetted man at the end of the shadow spoke.
“Who the hell are you?” Gripper said, hand on his sword again.
The newcomer bowed low and swept his arm out in a complicated flourish, fingers seeming to dance to an unheard tune as he did.
“I’ve been called many things by men, lords, and emperors alike, but what are titles but an inflation of one’s ego, a superfluous precursor to a name?” The man’s words ran like a river over a waterfall, too fast and without end. “Allow me to forgo the frivolous formalities today, gentlemen, and announce, most humbly, that I am one Senesio Suleiman Zhao.”
“Who’s a what?” Gripper said, clearly taken aback by the man’s excessive speech. In the company of these uneducated thugs it was about as useful as perfume in a shit house, but still, Chen found himself interested. Wasn’t often he came across educated men in these parts.
“Let him pass,” Gao Zhu said, waving Gripper aside. “Senesio Suleiman Zhao.” He rolled the name around on his tongue as he looked the newcomer up and down. Chen did the same.
The man’s long black hair was pulled up tight in a top knot, as was the style throughout the empire. But that was the first and last of any features one would find common among the Zhong. Beneath his hair, his face was thin and complete with a bushy mustache like that of the peoples found far across the world, beyond the deserts of Mercer. Some bastard half-breed then, half Zhong, half westerner. But, no, Chen changed his mind as he considered the man’s darkly tanned skinned. He’d the color of a Mercaen. So then, what? Some hodgepodge of three different cultures? The man’s features all seemed at war with one another, each one fighting to display itself above the others.
“Zhao,” Gao Zhu said, slowly as if pondering. “I recognize that name. But Senesio? Suleiman? These are the names of a foreigner.”
Senesio stepped properly into the room and Chen took stock of the man’s clothes. A robe, tied with a cloth belt at the waist, and pants beneath. All had once been fine garments but were now a fair bit past well-worn.
“Zhao is my family name, from my father, ancestors rest his soul. Suleiman is from my mother, a hard woman from the western desert.”
“And Senesio?” Gao Zhu inquired.
The man smiled.
“I liked the sound of it.”
Gao Zhu chuckled at that.
“And why are you here, Senesio the Many-Named?”
“I was led to believe this was the place of business of one Gao Zhu, money lender, and the most infamous crime lord along the Riverroad?”
Never one to shy away from flattery, Gao Zhu perked up at the words.
“I am he.”
“The same Gao Zhu who posted a bounty on the brothers Lao and Jin Huanghze, who owed him a considerable sum of money?”
“You’ve found them?” Gao Zhu said, leaning forward in his chair.
Senesio merely nodded as he tossed two pale somethings towards the center of the room. They flopped down into the dirt to lay still. There was a noticeable shift in the room as everyone leaned forward for a better look.
Chen felt his stomach recoil as he realized the somethings were two right ears, their edges still bloody and jagged from where they’d been cut, presumably, from the Huanghze brothers’ heads.
“You’ll find the rest of them in the alley,” Senesio said, nodding towards the back of the room. “Though, I must warn you, I fear they’ve both seen better days.”
One of the guards from out back poked his head in a side door and confirmed the presence of the Huanghze brothers’ corpses. Gao Zhu was near standing now, so far was he leaned forward in his chair.
“These men have run from their debt for years. No one has been able to find them, and now you make a claim on their bounty?”
“Finding them was a matter of personal honor,” Senesio said with a slight bow. “Let it be known, if there’s one thing Senesio Suleiman Zhao cannot abide, it’s thievery.”
Gao Zhu considered the man before him with what looked a new respect, stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger. Chen found himself shaking slightly. Only partially because of the ears lying a few steps away. He knew the look on Gao Zhu’s face. Had seen it before. All too often it foretold he was about to do something stupid.
Just one day, Chen thought to himself. Ancestors above, I just want one day without someone getting gutted. Gao Zhu, however, usually had other plans.
“The Huanghze brothers cost me a great sum of money. You’ve done good work in bringing them to me. You have my thanks.”
Senesio bowed his head slightly forward.
“It warms my heart to hear that. A deed cannot be noble if done for profit alone. Nonetheless, I’ve found my nobility fails to put food on the table, most nights.”
Gao Zhu fell back into his chair.
“I said you have my thanks. That is no small thing in these parts.” He waved Senesio away with the same gesture he’d given Paolin. From behind Senesio, Gripper gave a grunt signaling it was time for the foreigner to leave.
Just go, Chen caught himself thinking. Parting Gao Zhu from coin was as easy as parting a bear from its cubs, and just as likely to end in blood.
Senesio did not budge.
“I beg you excuse my stubbornness, but I must insist on the bounty. My services do not come cheap, much less free.”
Gao Zhu gave a nearly imperceptible nod, but it was all Gripper needed to draw his sword and run it through Senesio’s back. At least, that’s what he tried to do, but his blade found only empty air as the foreigner had already sidestepped.
“Careful with that sword, my friend. Quite an edge on it. It’d be a shame if you were to cut yourself.”
Gripper cursed and swung again. Near quicker than Chen could see, Senesio slid around the slicing blade. A knee to the stomach bent Gripper over double. A second knee caught him in the chin and he stumbled backward, spitting blood and what might’ve been a tooth.
The thugs around the room seemed to all go for their weapons at the same time. Senesio cast a glance across each of them, one hand calmly resting on the hilt at his own hip. Chen hadn’t even noticed the blade was there before, but now, he slid back from his table and towards the exit behind him. The cold calm in the foreigner’s eyes gave of the look of a veteran soldier, no stranger to red work. If things went south, Chen planned to make himself scarce. Running was not something he’d learned in his classical education, but it was something he’d found all too useful as a man in exile.
“Enough,” Gao Zhu roared, rising to his feet. “If I wanted you dead, foreigner, it’d already be done. You are a stranger to these parts and unaccustomed to our ways. As such, I’m willing to forgive your…brashness.”
“Quite generous of you,” Senesio said, turning to face the crime lord. “Now about that money you owe me.”
“I owe you money when I say I owe you money.”
“Forgive me, I’ve not encountered such a manner of conducting business before.”
“Then you’ve never conducted business on the Riverroad, have you, foreigner?”
Senesio closed his eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling long, and exhaling even longer. When he opened his eyes again, there was a cold fire there. Hard to miss, that look.
“So be it, Gao Zhu.”
“So be it, Senesio the Many-Named.”
And with that, Chen breathed a breath of relief as Senesio backed out of the throne room, and disappeared around the corner.
Gao Zhu fell back into his chair with a self-satisfied smile. Another business deal complete, he was probably thinking.
All Chen could think was how close it had come to being a blood bath. But that was how Gao Zhu did business. Made the accounts look good, at least. Beneath the light of his flickering candle, Chen flipped to the page of his ledger detailing the Huanghze brothers’ debt and struck the number out.
Being rich compensated for a great many things, dishonest dealings among them.
* * *
Respectable work put food on the table. His father had always said as much. At his lone table in the corner, Chen looked down to the bowl before him, mustering his best optimistic smile. His work had put this food on the table, hadn’t it? If he was being honest with himself, though, food seemed too polite a name for the slop served here. But what did he expect? Drink halls were known for many things, for wine, for women, for the all too common knife fight, but not for food. But Gao Zhu’s cousin owned this particular drink hall, which meant all of Gao Zhu’s men ate cheap, which meant Chen could just barely afford it.
Gao Zhu might have been an unintelligent brute, but he knew work wasn’t exactly plentiful for a man in exile. As good an excuse as any to gut Chen’s pay every other month. One day Chen knew he’d get the man back for that. Tweak a few numbers here and there in the accounts, maybe. He could squirrel away enough money to book passage west and put Gao Zhu, and those pompous bastards at the imperial court, and this whole damned empire behind him. If only he could summon the courage to do it. He would, one day, he told himself, not really believing it. He was meant for more than this. He’d once written poetry for lords, waxed philosophical with the greatest thinkers of the empire, transcribed letters for the children of the emperor himself, even. And now, now he was here, spooning down water-thin broth and a few gristly pieces of mystery meat in a nameless, ancestors-cursed drink hall along the Riverroad.
At least the other occupants of the hall left him to choke down his dinner alone. Normally a man like himself wouldn’t last more than an hour in a place like this without getting robbed, or knifed, or both. If Gao Zhu’s throne room was full of thugs and blades, the drink hall was positively overflowing with them. And worse, most were drunk. But these were Gao Zhu’s men, and no amount of drink would convince them to cross him. Chen was valuable to their employer, and thus valuable to them. So he was safe, or something like it, at least. Whatever it was, it left him to eat in peace, and there was some small comfort in that.
Across the room several gaming tiles clattered to the floor as a man slapped them off a table and jumped to his feet. His opponent followed suit and soon the two were careening across the floor, cursing and punching. For the most part, they were ignored. They’d fight it out in time. And besides, no one was getting paid to stop it.
“Room for one more?” A voice from behind caught Chen by surprise, shook him from his idle thoughts. Before he could respond the speaker had already lowered himself onto a cushion and crossed his legs.
Chen felt what little had remained of his optimistic smile fall from his face. The thin face and bushy mustache, coupled with his darkly tanned skin, made the man instantly recognizable.
“You’re all of out of wine, my friend,” Senesio said, tilting Chen’s still half full cup to look inside.
Chen felt his heart quicken in his chest as he shot a glance across the room. No one was looking his way just yet, but he knew that would only last so long.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered at the foreigner, sharpening his words in warning. Not for Senesio’s sake, but for his own. A man out of favor with Gao Zhu didn’t often last long on the Riverroad. Neither did those seen with him. Even acknowledging such a man in passing could be as bad as plotting with him. Chen feared to think what sharing a table with him would do.
“Let me buy you a drink, that would only be polite,” Senesio continued as if he hadn’t heard the warning.
“I’ve more than enough drink and trouble both without you adding to it.” He needed to get this man gone before someone saw them together.
Senesio tipped Chen’s cup on its side and emptied it onto the floor.
“All the more reason we should talk. I’m positively certain we can help one another.” Waving a hand in the air, he flagged down a servant and gestured for two cups of wine. Chen felt his cheeks burn hot as the servant headed towards them. He turned his face away, as if that would do anything. It was already too late. Word would spread. Gao Zhu might not have been an intelligent man, but he was a suspicious one.
“You need to leave, now.” Chen said, slamming a clenched fist on the table to punctuate the sentence. He winced slightly as he did. It was a damned solid table. “I have no business with you.”
The servant arrived and gently placed two cups of wine between them.
“Most kind of you, sir,” Senesio said, and flicked the man a gold coin. The servant caught it against his chest, eyes wide with shock. You didn’t pay a servant, much less another man’s servant. Senesio, however, seemed entirely oblivious.
“Off with you then,” he said, gesturing the shocked servant away without so much as looking at him.
“What in the name of the ancestors do you think you’re doing?” Chen said, growing angry now. Seemed the foreigner had nothing on his mind but causing trouble.
“I’ve a business proposition for you, scribe. I think we can help each other, and make a fair bit of money doing it. What say you?”
Senesio smiled and flicked another coin into the air, this one aimed at the table. It clattered and bounced as it landed, the sound echoing across the room in that way only money could. More than a few heads turned in their direction.
Ancestors above, Chen cursed to himself, trying not to actively lean away from the single coin before him. Just about the only thing worse than being seen talking to a man out of favor with Gao Zhu was being seen taking money from him. Chen kept his posture rigid and his hands decidedly in his lap, remembering the stoic manners they’d drilled into him in the capital. Those watching had seen Senesio toss the money towards him, but now he needed them to see that he wasn’t taking it. That he didn’t want it and hadn’t asked for it. Not that it’d likely make a lick of difference in Gao Zhu’s eyes.
“Ah, of course. I’ve offended you by offering too little for your services.” Senesio nodded at Chen’s reluctance to even acknowledge the coin. “My apologies. Though, I hope you can understand, I was shorted a great deal of money this morning.” And with that, he up-ended an entire purse of coins onto the table.
Son of bitch. Chen visibly deflated as what few heads weren’t already turned towards them joined the rest of the room to watch the cascade of coins clatter to the table. He was a dead man, now. They both were.
“That’s all I have on me, I’m afraid, but I’m more than willing to split the profits from our little business venture with you. Combined with this engagement fee, that should be more than enough in return for your services, I expect.”
“There isn’t any business venture, and there isn’t any us.” Chen sighed. “At least, not beyond that the fact that both of us are now dead men, thanks to you.” He fought the urge to look at the room full of men watching them. Maybe if he ignored them, they would think he was acting under Gao Zhu’s orders. But even as his mind tried to cling to some desperate scrap of hope, he knew it was useless.
Senesio seemed not to have even heard the words or noticed the attention of the room now focused solely on them. Instead, he leaned in close.
“So about our endeavor. Soon, I’ll return for another audience with Gao Zhu to claim the bounty on the Huanghze brothers.”
“He’ll have his men kill you.” Chen spoke each word nice and slow to drive the point home. That too, went ignored.
“The next part is where you come in, my friend.” Senesio smiled and produced a sagging bag from inside his robe. “Hold this bag over the flame of that candle on your desk for a few moments. When it starts to hiss, toss it at Gao Zhu’s guards. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Senesio tucked the bag into Chen’s robe before he could protest, then leaned back with a self-satisfied smile.
“Easy money if ever you’ve heard of it, huh?”
“Are you ill?” Chen was genuinely curious now. How could the man not realize this would never work? They’d be lucky to even set foot outside the drink hall before being dragged off in chains to be questioned, then killed. “Did you take a blow to the head recently? Are you just damned insane?”
Senesio laughed as he stood up.
“Worse than all that, I’m ambitious.”
Then he turned and walked out of the drink hall, a sea of heads turning to follow him as he passed. Before the door closed behind him, several men rose quietly and exited as well, hands reaching into their robes where Chen was sure they kept more than a few knives.
When the door finally swung closed, the sea of heads turned back towards Chen.
“Well, then.” He sighed again as his eyes drifted across the faces of the men watching him, then the still-stunned servant huddling in a corner, and finally, down to the two full cups of wine in front of him.
“Might as well die drunk,” he said with a shrug, then downed the first cup in a large gulp. He reached for the second, but fell short as a hand caught him by the back of the neck and dragged him from his chair.
“I think it’s time we had a chat,” Gripper’s gruff voice came from behind as Chen was forced towards the side door. “Outside.” A shove sent Chen face first into the door and he stumbled through, out into the alley.
* * *
As it turned out, Gripper had lost a tooth. Senesio had knocked it clean out of him in the throne room, left a big gaping hole in his smile. Not that Gripper’s tooth was any concern of Chen’s right about now. Before this was through, odds were he would lose far more than just a tooth. Gripper and the two thugs with him would see to that.
“I’ll ask one more time before I start in with the blade.” Gripper’s fist caught Chen on the cheekbone, set his vision to spinning, slammed him into the ground. “You was plotting with that foreigner. Tell it true.”
“That wasn’t a question,” Chen mumbled through the blood on his lips, shaking his head to stop himself seeing double. Not the most clever of responses, he had to admit, but he wasn’t exactly thinking straight, what with the beating he was getting. And, it seemed he’d found some courage in the face of his certain demise. If he was a dead man walking, he might as well make the most of it. He drew himself up to his full height, stepping out of the shadows of the alley and into view of the silver moonlight from above.
“Tomorrow morning, I might be dead,” he said, acting on the swelling courage as he rose to his feet, unsteady. “But Gripper, and listen close, this is the important part,” he spit a glob of blood to the dirt, “you’ll still be stupider than a shit brick, and half as useful.”
Gripper only smiled at that, and Chen’s newfound courage wavered.
“You won’t be dead by morning. We’ll take our time with you, scribe.”
Chen swallowed hard, his courage suddenly naught but a distant memory. He’d never seen those that Gao Zhu took his time with, but he’d certainly heard them. Heard their screams from the special room Gao Zhu kept in the back. Screams that echoed out, day after day, until they became almost commonplace, almost able to be ignored. And then suddenly, they’d stop, and somehow, the silence that followed would be even more terrible than the screaming. Chen made to swallow hard again, but found his mouth too dry.
“Gao Zhu don’t take betrayal light like.” The big man leaned close, his features becoming all too clear. The various scars crisscrossing his face, the patchwork beard poorly trimmed along his cheeks, and that gaping hole where his tooth used to be. “He’ll have us cut into you good, and let me tell you, I’m gonna enjoy this one.”
“Why not get a start on him now?” one of the men behind Gripper suggested as calmly as if he were proposing what to eat for dinner.
“Now there’s a fine idea,” Gripper said, a blade already in hand.
“Take me to Gao Zhu,” Chen managed to stammer, leaning away as Gripper brought the blade to his cheek. “I can clear all this up.” Chen had never been a fighter, had hardly even touched a blade. Words had always been his weapon. But now, as the cold metal of Gripper’s knife tickled his cheek, he found those woefully inadequate.
“Take…take me to Gao Zhu. I can explain this all. I wasn’t plotting. I wasn’t, I swear. I can explain everything. The foreigner approached me. I told him to leave me alone, ancestors honest truth.” The words fell from him like dribble from a wailing baby. He was well aware of it and didn’t care in the slightest. Death was always a possibility when working with men such as these, but as Chen had come to learn in his six years exiled from the capital, some fates were worse than death. One of those fates was staring him down now.
Gripper pressed harder and the blade began to cut into Chen’s cheek. Its icy cold was only warmed when a stream of blood swelled up to run down his chin and neck.
“Had you marked as the tricky sort since the day you got here, I did. Knew you couldn’t be trusted.” Gripper was leaning in close now, intimate almost, a gleam in his eye. The hand that held his knife was steady, unflinching, but his other twitched, fingers jerking to life, then pausing, before jerking again. Eager, almost. As if itching to wrap around Chen’s neck and squeeze the life from him. Gripper gave a low, throaty chuckle. He was enjoying this. Lived for it, most likely.
“Don’t kill me,” Chen pleaded, all dignity lost as he stared down death itself.
“Not quick, I won’t.”
Chen squeaked and closed his eyes at what was to come.
The sound of a blade through flesh, then a splatter as blood slapped against the ground. Chen gasped and reeled backwards, hands reaching up to what was certainly a fatal wound. Instead he found only his skin, mostly unharmed but for the small cut Gripper had left on his cheek.
“Hands off my business partner, if you would be so kind,” a voice called out, calm and sure. Senesio’s voice. Chen didn’t know whether to groan or cheer. Still had a choice between the two, though, which meant he was still alive. That was something.
“Stay,” Gripper said, jabbing his knife at Chen before turning to face the foreigner.
Senesio stood in alone in the alley, cleaning something from the blade of his sword with a rag. Blood, Chen realized, as he spotted the still-twitching bodies of Gripper’s men face down in the dirt.
“The scribe and I have business to attend to, if you’d be so kind as to excuse us,” Senesio said, once his blade was clean.
“Well there’s the truth, finally. You two was plotting.”
“Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to plot, sir,” he said, stepping forward, one hand pressed to his chest. “In fact, I’m insulted you would insinuate anything of the sort. My honor demands you apologize.”
“Fuck your honor, foreigner.”
Senesio frowned at that.
“Now, that, you see, is a problematic suggestion.” He held up his blade, as if offering it for all to see. “I’ve just finished cleaning my sword. I’d rather not dirty it again so soon.” He took a step closer to Gripper. There was a fire in his eyes as he did. The same cold anger that had stared down Gao Zhu earlier. In the face of that stare, even Gripper seemed a small man. Chen could swear he saw the brute inch back ever so slightly, as if he was fighting a losing battle against some primal instinct telling him to run.
“My partner and I have business with your employer. Bad business, as luck would have it. But there’s no reason it needs to include you.” Senesio blinked and the fire was gone from his eyes. His features relaxed into a friendly, almost welcoming, smile. He gestured a hand towards the door to the drink hall. “Why don’t you go inside and have a nice drink? Wait for this all to blow over?”
Gripper didn’t budge. Whatever instinct telling him to flee must have lost the internal struggle. He tucked his knife back into his robe and reached for the sword at his hip.
“It don’t work that way here. If you’ve got business with Gao Zhu, you’ve got business with me.”
“Pity,” Senesio said. He stepped forward and flicked his wrist. It didn’t look like much. Almost like he’d waved his blade in Gripper’s face a moment.
Gripper tried to react, moved to parry the attack, but found his arm severed at the wrist. From where he stood, Chen watched as Gripper’s jaw fell open, eyes locked on the stub at the end of his sword arm. Senesio already had the rag back in hand, was wiping fresh blood from his blade. A moment later, a trickle of red ran from Gripper’s throat. He let out what Chen could only assume was a single, shocked gurgle, then collapsed in a heap to the dirt.
A snort burst from Chen’s nostrils. Gripper was dead, or, soon to be. Not that it much mattered. He wiped a drivel of snot from his upper lip and felt he could laugh, could cheer. Gripper was dead, and yet he himself still drew breath.
Maybe he could live through this. If he was quick, stole a horse, he could get out of town. Could put a full night’s worth of the Riverroad between him and Gao Zhu before dawn. That would give him a good chance of escaping. He could go west, to Mercer, maybe. Hell, beyond Mercer, even. If he rode far enough, he’d no longer be a man in exile. If he rode far enough, he’d just be a foreigner a long way from home. Maybe then he’d have a chance of finding respectable work. Now there was a thought Chen liked.
“Right, then. Time to pay a visit to Gao Zhu. We’ve business to conclude.” Senesio sheathed his sword.
And there was another thought. Chen liked that one a good bit less, but before he could protest, Senesio’s arm wrapped around his shoulders.
“Let’s go get rich, my friend.”
“Maybe it’s best we don’t,” Chen stammered, fighting the arm guiding him towards the road, and inevitably, Gao Zhu.
“Nonsense,” Senesio said with a laugh. “We’re partners now, remember?”
Chen didn’t remember agreeing to that, but as they stepped over the three corpses the man had made without even breaking a sweat, he shuddered. Didn’t seem he had much choice in the matter.
* * *
Even late in the night, no one entered Gao Zhu’s throne room unannounced. The night guards looked damned confused when the two of them walked up to the front door and Senesio requested an audience with the crime lord. Were it any other man at his side, Chen would’ve tried to wrestle his way free and implore the guards to protect him. But if experience had taught him anything, two guards would be child’s play for Senesio.
Thus, was his predicament, pinned to the side of one murderous bastard, marching his way forward to face another, arguably even more murderous bastard. Not exactly how he’d planned to spend his night.
Business hours were long concluded and at this time of night his employer, or former employer, Chen supposed, would see no one until morning. Or, so Chen thought until the front doors swung open and they were ushered inside.
The converted stable Gao Zhu claimed as his throne room was dark at this hour, the few candles flickering along the wall thoroughly failing to do much besides highlight exactly how dark it was.
Still, it would have been difficult to miss the greeting party that awaited them within.
At least twenty armed men stood in the center of the room, swords already drawn, the steel dark but for the occasional beam of moonlight that caught a blade and set it to glowing a pale, thirsty silver. Some even had shields. Looked almost like proper soldiers, they did.
“I’m surprised to see you back so soon, Senesio the Many-Named. I thought I’d sent you on your way.”
Chen hadn’t even noticed Gao Zhu was on his throne, so dark were the shadows up there. But when he squinted, he could just make out a large, dark shape leaned forward in the seat.
On instinct, Chen bowed low and formal. Gao Zhu was likely to have him tortured and killed, but maybe with manners alone he could reduce that sentence to merely death. A doubtful proposition, but just about the only one he had.
Senesio, on the other hand, refused the proper greeting, his back kept straight.
“Forgive me, I don’t intend to overstay my welcome in your town. I’ve just a bit more business to conclude, then it’s back to a traveler’s life for me.”
“Business meaning killing me, I take it? That’s the general consensus among my men.”
“That would be correct.”
Gao Zhu grunted in response, and then crowd of men at the foot of his throne shifted perceptibly. Ready to strike on a moment’s notice, no doubt. Maybe it’d be a quick death, Chen hoped, feeling optimistic.
“My lord,” he said, tongue and brain working in sync for once. He was just about out of options, but the plan forming in his mind was the best thing he had. He fell to his knees a few steps ahead of Senesio. Nothing in him wanted to be close to that crowd of armed thugs, but if this was going to work, he was going to have to sell it completely.
“My lord,” Chen repeated, bowing low even though he was already on his knees. “Surely by now you’ve heard what happened in the drink hall tonight?”
Chen felt his hair stand on end as Gao Zhu’s gaze turned to him.
“I’ve heard of your betrayal, Chen, if that’s what you mean? Always were too smart for your own good. Maybe I should let Gripper gut you like he’s always asking.”
“That might be a tad difficult,” Senesio mused from behind, voice low.
“Huh?” Gao Zhu snapped his eyes to the foreigner.
“My lord!” Chen needed his former employer’s focus if he was going to make him his employer once more. Seemed a better option than death, or torture. Gao Zhu might have been an unintelligent man, but he knew enough to understand men learned in letters were few and far between outside the capital. That, combined with a convincing explanation, could win him back his job. And have the added bonus of saving him from a slow death under the instruments of Gao Zhu’s torturers.
“What I’m sure you’ve heard happened in the drink hall is mostly true, however, let it be known I have never colluded with the man behind me. I owe allegiance to none save you, Gao Zhu.”
“Is it a common occurrence that men just walk up and throw money at you?”
Chen almost smiled at that. The more they spoke, the more his fears fell away. It might’ve been they were in Gao Zhu’s throne room facing down a host of men in his pay, but in a contest of words, Chen could be the only victor. Of this, he was certain.
“It was an uncommon encounter to be sure,” Chen agreed. “But I did not touch a single coin of the foreigner’s money. Ask any man of honor who was in that drink hall tonight.” He cringed at that last part, a bit of an oversight, he realized too late. Men of honor were few and far between these days. But the point stood. He had not touched the coin, and he knew it.
Gao Zhu pondered a moment in silence. Chen had spent enough time near the man to know he was thinking. Strike while the iron is hot, he told himself.
“Furthermore, you yourself have said I am a smart man—”
“Too smart for your own damn good,” Gao Zhu corrected.
“So tell me, then, would a smart man be seen colluding with one such as the man behind, me in plain sight, in a drink hall owned by your very cousin? What could a man expect to come from such a thing? Surely, had I planned this meeting, I would have held it in a place of secrecy?”
Gao Zhu was silent, but Chen knew what that meant. The man’s brain was working. Slowly, perhaps, but working. He would come around, now, it was only a matter of time. Chen couldn’t help but indulge the pride rising inside him. It was starting to look like he might make it out of this alive, after all. It was a beautiful thing, when his mind and tongue decided to work together. What grand things they could accomplish.
And what grand things Senesio Suleiman Zhao could destroy.
“This is sound logic, I must agree. My partner — I mean, the scribe, makes a fine point. We have never met before tonight.”
Gao Zhu seemed to tilt his head at Senesio’s words. Chen felt a change in the air of the room, felt the blood go cold in his veins. He inhaled, raising his voice to object, but the damage was already done.
Gao Zhu might not have been an intelligent man, but he was a suspicious one.
“An error, if you’ll forgive it, my lord,” Senesio said with a slight bow. “Admittedly, I was not blessed with a mastery of language. Sometimes my words…betray me.”
“No!” Chen stood and stepped closer to his former employer. “This is a misdirection, my lord! The foreigner is lying.”
“Lying? So you mean he and you have met before tonight?”
Ancestors damn it! No, of course that wasn’t what he meant.
“No, my lord. I mean—”
“Enough! We’ll get the truth from you one way or another, Chen.” Gao Zhu gestured to his men. “Keep the scribe alive. We’ll question him later.”
As he spoke, one of the foremost men in the crowd punched Chen in the forehead with the hilt of his sword. His vision burst with stars and he was tossed to the side, stumbling off-balance until he slammed into the wall and collapsed.
“As to our Many-Named friend,” Chen heard Gao Zhu speak through the ringing in his ears, “well, the pigs prefer their food in bite-sized pieces.”
The armed men split apart at Gao Zhu’s words. Instead of a huddled crowd, they spread into a semi-circle, advancing towards Senesio one step at a time. When they were completely around him, they closed the circle, trapping him within, only a pace or two away on all sides.
Chen’s vision was still shaking, his mind reeling with thoughts of suffering for ancestors knew how long under the tools of Gao Zhu’s hired torturers. Despite the darkness of the room, a single candle came into focus on the wall above him. Concentrating on it, Chen squinted and blinked until his vision steadied.
“Before we go any further,” Senesio’s voice called out through the room. “It is only fair I warn you gentlemen, I am a somewhat proficient swordsman.”
From high up on his throne, Gao Zhu laughed at that.
Following the sound of the voices to get his bearings, Chen pulled himself to his feet. When he looked towards the circle of men, he found Senesio looking back at him, mouth moving again.
“I’m sure your men will make a good go of it, Gao Zhu, but again, I have to warn you, my fighting prowess is known to be inflammatory.”
Chen rested a hand against the wall as he almost toppled over. His thoughts were still swimming from the blow. Senesio continued shouting.
“In fact, some have called my style rather fiery.”
Chen frowned. What was the foreigner on about? Senesio waggled his eyebrows.
The circle of men moved a step closer, and Senesio drew his sword.
“Ancestors above, scribe! Set the damned bag on fire!”
The bag…? Chen frowned. The bag? The bag! He patted at the front of his robes, feeling for the bag Senesio had given him at the drink hall. When he finally pulled the lump from an inner pocket, it was heavy and sagging. Almost felt to be full of sand, but as Chen lifted it up, a few grains of a heavy, black powder escaped from inside to tumble to the floor. A tad more explosive than sand, Chen thought, recognizing the substance.
Hold it over a candle, he remembered Senesio saying. When it starts to hiss, throw it at Gao Zhu’s guards.
It all happened in a fraction of a moment, but to Chen it felt damn near a lifetime. There are moments in a man’s life, he figured, when great decisions had to be made. Decisions that changed the course of one’s destiny, that altered the history books, that heralded the rise or fall of empires. Also, decisions to save one’s own ass. This was one of the latter.
The flame had barely caught the edge of the bag, had just begun to lick at its coarse exterior, when a putrid black smoke burst into the air. Chen recoiled from the sting of the stuff in his nostrils, and even as he reared back to throw the bag, it began to hiss, spitting fiery sparks like tiny meteors.
The men surrounding Senesio turned as the hissing caught their ears. One even raised a shield as if to deflect the incoming projectile. Chen had never been the athletic type, but he lobbed the bag high above the crowd of men, and his aim held true.
Trailing a stream of acrid black smoke, the bag soared into the air, then tumbled down among the ranks of Gao Zhu’s men. Those closest to it dove away, tossing their weapons to the ground in a desperate bid to escape. Others hunkered down behind their shields, preparing for whatever was to come next.
As it happened, that wasn’t much.
Potent mixtures of black powder had been pieced together long ago, but though they were praised for their explosive qualities, few had been successfully weaponized. This particular mixture was no different.
For several agonizing moments, the room was entirely still, everyone waiting for the inevitable explosion. Instead, the bag simply continued to sizzle and hiss, more and more acrid smoke filling the room.
First, one man coughed. Then another. And another. By the time the black smoke reached Chen, it seemed the entire room was full of nothing but choking, coughing men, most bent over to their knees, struggling for air. This, was when Senesio struck. Chen just caught sight of the man, lunging toward the nearest opponent before the rolling smoke engulfed him.
He didn’t see much of the fighting through the haze of choking smoke, but he heard just about all of it. He heard the coughing of men cut short, one after another. Heard a brief clash of steel on steel, followed by a scream. Even the fall of footsteps, someone running to escape the carnage.
The vague silhouette of a man dashed towards the edge of the thickest part of the smoke. Something flashed behind him, red and curved. A blade, Chen realized, as it reflected the angry red of the burning bag for but a moment as it slashed down into the running man’s back. He stumbled, then collapsed entirely, lifeless eyes and slack jaw becoming all too clear as he slid to a stop not a step in front of Chen’s feet.
Soon, there was no more coughing, the only sound the beating of Chen’s heart in his chest, and the slowing hiss of the Senesio’s burning black powder. But soon, even that faded, leaving the room in silence.
Atop his throne, Gao Zhu had remained above the sea of smoke, and now he leaned forward in his chair, eyes squinting to see what had become of the unseen battle.
Chen did the same, but his effort was wasted. Before he even focused on one spot, a figure burst from the smoke. His skin was plastered black, his eyes the only color on his person. And even those were red, no doubt burning something fierce from that much time in the smoke.
The man pulled at the skin on his face and it peeled away, slipping free as if it were falling off of him. Chen’s stomach churned at the grisly sight, until he realized it wasn’t skin coming off the man’s face, but fabric. A cloth that had been used to cover his mouth. As the man pulled the last bit of it off, an only slightly smoke-stained mustache emerged, along with a gleaming smile.
His sword hung low at his side. He might have been injured, but covered in the amount of blood that he was, it was impossible to tell.
He moved with the same unmistakable swagger, however. He gave Chen a slight nod and a wink as he passed.
“Good throw for a scribe.”
Chen couldn’t help but smile at that, until a curse from above caught his attention and he turned to Gao Zhu.
The crime lord was standing now, a knife in hand. He’d long ago stopped carrying a sword. He had men to do that for him. Or, he’d had men to do that for him. Now, however, he had no one but himself, his former scribe, and Senesio with a decidedly murderous look in his eyes.
“Pardon the interruption,” Senesio said, advancing on Gao Zhu. “But rest assured, you have my full attention now.”
“You don’t fight fair,” Gao Zhu growled, watching the man approach.
“Fair is a subjective term. I much prefer to think I do things the old way.”
“The old way? And what in the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Senesio smiled as he put a foot on the first of the stairs to Gao Zhu’s throne.
“It means by any means possible.”
“Fuck you, you foreign bastard!” And with that Gao Zhu launched from his throne, throwing himself at Senesio.
It was an impressive leap, Chen had to admit. Despite the accumulated fat of years spent eating well and sending other men to do his dirty work, the thug-turned-crime-lord still moved rather quickly.
Unfortunately for him, rather quickly was far too slow to get the better of Senesio.
To Chen’s eyes it merely looked like Senesio had sidestepped the flying fat man, but when Gao Zhu hit the floor he collapsed like a bag of rocks and didn’t move again. Chen hadn’t seen Senesio strike a blow, but the blood slowly pooling around Gao Zhu’s chest was more than enough confirmation.
Chen expected he’d feel more relief at the sight of his employer dead. Something like what he’d felt when Gripper went down. Instead, there was only a sense of numbness. Shock, maybe. Might be it’d take a while for everything to sink in. For now, however, all he knew was he wasn’t going to spend the next few days dying slow at the hands of hired torturers. That was something. A damned fine something, as it happened.
Senesio had the rag he’d worn back in hand now. With long, slow strokes he wiped the blood from the blade of his sword. The blood of near twenty men, slain not moments before. And that wasn’t counting Gripper and his friends. Chen had expected to feel relief at the death of Gao Zhu, but as he realized he was standing alone in the room with only Senesio, his expectation of relief was replaced with one of dread. And then Senesio laughed.
“Quite a convincing act you put on there, my friend.”
Chen winced. He had tried to distance himself from the foreigner, hadn’t he? It’d seemed a damned fine plan when twenty of Gao Zhu’s men were staring them down. Now, however, he realized the true threat had been beside him the entire time.
“I had to find a way to get to a candle,” Chen said, thinking quickly. It was a flimsy excuse, he knew, but the best he had.
“Ah, of course.” Senesio gave him a knowing wink. The excuse had fooled neither of them. “Quick thinking on your part. I knew there was a reason I liked you.” The man sheathed his now mostly clean blade, then walked over and placed a hand on Chen’s shoulder.
“I had intended to ask Gao Zhu this question, before he…” he looked over at the corpse, “…fell. Really wish I had, as it happens.”
Chen knew what was coming next. He’d worked with all sorts of thugs and criminals during his time in exile. They were always out for themselves, always looking to profit at another’s expense. He was sure Senesio was no different.
“Don’t kill me and I’ll tell you where Gao Zhu kept his money,” Chen said, heading off the inevitable question.
“Kill you?” Senesio frowned at that. “Actually, I had half a mind to hire you.”
Chen was sure he’d heard wrong.
“Well, if it’s not too forward of me, it appears you’re short one employer.” He shot a quick glance to Gao Zhu’s body. “And you are a scribe, are you not?”
“I am,” Chen said, still unsure what was happening.
“Perfect! Then I’d like to engage your services. I’ve long been in search of a personal scribe. A biographer, if you will, to record my adventures, and the like. I’d be happy to pay handsomely.”
Chen coughed a bit of acrid smoke from his throat and tried to steady his nerves as he spoke.
“Let me get this straight. You want to split Gao Zhu’s money with me, then hire me to be your biographer?”
“Who said anything about splitting the money?”
“You did? At the drink hall.”
Senesio leaned in close, then patted the hilt of the sword on his belt.
“Perhaps you misheard?”
Chen swallowed hard, the memories of what the man’s blade could do all too recent in his mind.
“You know,” he said, reevaluating, “I think you’re right. Silly me.”
“Speak nothing of it,” Senesio said with an all too friendly smile. “So you’ll take the job, then?”
Chen sighed. He had the strong suspicion that turning down the offer would end poorly. But it was work, and it would pay well. Unless he’d misheard again.
“I’ll cover the fees for your necessary materials, of course. Quills, ink, and the like. And food and lodging, while we travel.”
Chen gave himself a moment to think over his options. It didn’t take long, considering how few there were. He could try to escape, and he’d probably die. He could give Senesio the money, refuse the job, and maybe make it out alive. But he’d probably starve looking for work. Or, he could take a chance. Take a chance and trust this foreigner. This Senesio Suleiman Zhao.
“Promise you won’t kill me?” Chen said, accepting his fate.
Senesio looked insulted.
“Of course I won’t kill you!” He grew serious. “I need your services far too much for that.”
Well, that was something. Earlier he didn’t think he’d live through the next few days. Now, at least, there seemed a chance he would. That was progress, wasn’t it? Slow, and painful, maybe, but progress nonetheless.
Chen held out his hand. Senesio clasped it at the wrist and gave it a good shake, then slapped him on the back.
“I’ve a feeling this is going to be the start of a long and prosperous relationship.”
A murderous foreigner and an exiled scribe. Quite the pair they’d make. Chen could only imagine the trouble that lay ahead of them.
Respectable work, his father had always said, was the highest aspiration of any man. Chen was sure the work they’d do would be far from respectable, but it was certainly better than serving a crime lord. He figured he could live with that, for a time.
It was a step closer to respectable work, after all, if only a small one.
Thank you for reading "Respectable Work" -- I hope you enjoyed it! If you did, please take a moment to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads so others can enjoy it too!
If you really enjoyed this story, feel free to make my day by downloading it for $0.99 on Amazon. As well, it appears alongside three other stories in my Kindle / paperback anthology, Nine Parts Bluster and Other Stories.