Chapter One of Black Crest of Destiny

Mu Feng opened his eyes to the call of the rooster, for a second unsure of where he was and why he was staring into an empty flask flipped over and wedged against a stack of plates. He groped for his pillow and reached to pull his fine silk robes tighter around his body, before realizing that he was not home and not in his own bed. His body was bent and twisted against the edge of a hard wooden table, having slept face down on a puddle of spilled liquor all night. He lifted himself, stretched his sore hip, and looked around.

His three friends were still asleep, two of them snoring on the floor, another one sprawled on a narrow bench, his arms and legs dangling.

Vague memories of the night before brought a smile to his lips. They drank and ate and played dice deep into the night. Empty flasks, once containing strong spirits made from sorghum, were everywhere. Two large buckets of water remained half full.

Feng flinched against the dull pain at the base of his skull and reached for a bowl. He hadn’t drunk enough water and the headache would nag him all day.

He sat back and gulped down the water, one bowl after another, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He remembered coming to the Rider’s Inn with three of his best friends the night before. The first floor of the little inn had been packed. There were no rooms left upstairs and the innkeeper was going to ask one of his customers to find somewhere else to stay because the general’s son Mu Feng needed a place to sleep. But Feng assured him that he would be drinking all night and didn’t need a room.

He remembered the innkeeper bringing him the very best drink they had to offer, a liquor made from sorghum that had been buried in the ground for thirty years, something so exquisite that only a Tiger General’s son could afford it. Feng sipped the liquor, remembered commenting that the taste resembled the onrush of invading cavalry, like the sound of thousands of war drums slowly approaching until it becomes thunder, then breezing by and leaving an exhaustive state of calm. One of his friends laughed and told him to just get drunk.

He remembered becoming intoxicated while discussing the various sword techniques in the Middle Kingdom, and how they differed from the techniques of the Mongolian Saber. Finally they were too drunk to stand and wield a weapon and ended up arguing about military strategy.

Feng needed to hurry home. The ride back would not be long, just through a small forest, but he was to train his father’s pike unit that morning and the instructor arriving late wouldn’t look good.

The front door had been left open, and a little boy, his face filthy and his clothes in tatters, was standing outside.

The boy’s a beggar and he wants something to eat, Feng thought to himself. He took a piece of copper from his pocket and walked to the door. The boy stepped back, leaning away as if ready to run.

Feng placed the coin on the table closest to the entrance. “Here, kid. Get yourself something to eat,” he said.

Ding, face down on a bench just a moment ago, was already on his feet.

“We need to go,” Feng said. “We haven’t paid the innkeeper yet. I can send a servant over with the money later.”

“You must have paid him four times already.” Ding planted a sharp kick in one of his friends on the floor, squatting down to scream in his ear. “Get up, Wen!”

He then proceeded to the next drunk curled under a table, still snoring, and kicked him in the ribs. “Get up, Little Chu. Feng needs to go home.”

Little Chu groaned. He raised himself on one elbow and looked around. He was by no means little, although shorter and thinner than the others. “I don’t want any breakfast,” he said.

“You’re not getting any,” Feng said with a laugh. “But there’s plenty of water in that bucket.”

Ding headed for the door, his long sword dangling by his side. “I’ll get the horses ready.” He stopped by the table near the entrance. “Who left the coins here?”

“It’s for the kid,” Feng said, turning and pointing outside. The boy was no longer there. He walked to the door and pulled it completely open for another look. “He was just here.”

Wen climbed to his feet, a tall, muscular man with a booming voice. “What boy?” he asked. He lifted the bucket to his lips and drank in huge gulps before pouring the rest over his head.

“A young beggar,” Feng said. “So many of those little things around here.”

Wen’s laughter thundered through the room. “See? Even a beggar knows he can’t take money from a dead man. You drank so much last night the boy thought you were a hungry ghost.”

“Shut your mouth,” Chu shouted, smacking Wen’s back with the butt of his sword. Wen laughed even harder.

Ding returned, pulling the horses with one hand, carrying all four saddles with the other.

Feng stepped into the morning sun and took a deep breath. He reached for the harness of a gigantic warhorse, a gift from Uncle Shu last year for his twenty-first birthday. He stroked the nose of the charger, then the mane, before taking the saddle from Ding.

Little Chu turned back to the mess they were leaving behind, the empty bowls, the plates and the overturned liquor flasks. “Too bad Du didn’t want to come last night. Since when did we ever go drinking without him?”

“He wanted to,” Ding said, “but he was vomiting and he couldn’t get up. Must have been something he ate at the whorehouse.”

“He ate at the brothel? What kind of meat do they serve there?”

Ding simply laughed in response but stopped and turned quizzically to his friend. “Why don’t you ever go to the whorehouse, Feng?”

Feng finished saddling his horse and leaped onto the massive charger. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Feng’s father is a Tiger General. He can get any girl he wants,” Little Chu said, pulling his horse toward the road and squeezing its belly with his stirrups. The horse lurched forward.

“But then he’ll have to marry her!” Wen shouted from behind, hurrying after his friends. “I’d rather pay some money to amuse myself so I’m not stuck with a wretch in my house.”

In a moment, they were on the main road riding at a comfortable pace. The road wound into a forest and began to narrow, and the four friends naturally merged behind one another and proceeded in a single-file line.

It was still early in the morning and the ride home would be short. Feng began to relax a little. His father would be furious if he found out his son was too drunk to come home the night before and couldn’t even return in time to train his pike unit. He might have even forbid Feng from leading his men again, a position Feng had to beg for over the years.

Feng’s father, General Mu, one of four Tiger Generals in the empire, was known as the General of the Uyghur Border. The portion of the Great Wall that he guarded, and the North Gate opening into the City of Stones, faced the land of the Uyghurs and was the final stop on the Silk Road before entering the Middle Kingdom.

General Mu’s city was one of few fortresses built in a valley along the northern mountain chains. It was low enough to lose the advantage of elevation that so much of the Great Wall depended on, but flat enough for travelers and barbarian traders to meet in this border city. Over the years, General Mu had effected heavy punishments on any Chinese for harassing or discriminating against the foreigners, and despite countless skirmishes against the Great Wall, the City of Stones was never attacked in earnest. Commerce thrived. At a time of heightened tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarian nations, Chinese and Uyghurs, Tartars and Mongols assembled in the same bustling marketplace in the center of town and bartered. The city seemed oblivious to the politics of the Asian kingdoms.

The general’s only son, Mu Feng, was placed in command of the pike unit but he was never permitted to confront the barbarians. The archers, the cavalry, and the anti-siege personnel were all deployed during border skirmishes with the Mongols and Uyghurs.

Feng’s pike units were never battle tested. He never understood why. In military matters, his father always sought his advice and often adopted his strategies. In simulated battle, Feng had proven again and again that he was capable. Yet, his father never trusted him in a real war.

Feng and his friends breezed along the narrow forest road, with Ding in front, Feng following from a short distance and the other two closely behind.

Moments later, he noticed two rows of men standing in a line, blocking the road and completely motionless.

“Slow,” Feng said, just loud enough for his friends to hear. “Bandits.”

Ding reined in his horse and slowed to a walk. “Small-time bandits trying to rob the general’s son. Wait till they find out who you are.”

Wen sent his horse lurching forward. He stopped in front of the bandits, so close he could easily barrel his warhorse into them. “Why are you blocking the road?” Wen shouted.

None of them answered. They just stared.

“If you don’t step aside we’re going to run you over!” Wen continued, his booming voice echoing through the forest.

 The bandits remained silent, motionless. Wen reached for his sword. Feng held out his hand, fingers outstretched, and motioned for him to stop.

“There’s only ten of them,” Little Chu said in a low voice. “And they’re on foot.”

“Get out of my way,” Feng said, his voice loud and firm. He reached into his pocket and produced a metal plate with intricate carvings. “We’re military officials. We have important business in the City of Stones.”

A short bandit with a gray topknot lowered his arms and broke into a smile. “Military officials,” he said, slowly, as if trying to pronounce every word. “Exactly what we’re waiting for.”

Feng didn’t respond. Soldiers earned modest salaries, they were well trained and armed, and very few of them traveled this road. For a small team of bandits to block the road waiting for soldiers to rob didn’t make any sense.

“One of our women was raped last night,” the bandit continued.

Ding moved forward, closer to Feng, his hand on his weapon, and whispered, “There’s more of them in the forest, on both sides. Maybe a hundred.”

Feng nodded and turned back to the short bandit. “You’re not listening. Civilian crimes should be reported to the magistrate, not the army.”

“The criminal was a military official!” the short bandit shouted over Feng’s voice.

“I see,” Feng replied, fighting to remain calm. His heart was pounding.

His hand naturally reached into his pocket to touch a bronze plate, half the size of his hand, which he always carried with him. He still remembered the day, so many years ago, when he was afraid to climb onto a horse for the first time, and he went to bed that night feeling disgraced and useless. His father came to his bedside and gave him the little bronze plate. It was embossed with an image of a fierce tiger. His father told him that if he carried it in his pocket, he would be able to do anything he set his mind to, because the tiger had the power of the Tiger General, and these powers were meant for the strong and courageous. Much later, he realized that it was a standard pass used by the Tiger Generals’ messengers. But he kept this one particular plate on him every day.

The situation in front of him required much more than strength and courage. A hundred bandits gathering to surround a few soldiers when very little money could be made? Something was very wrong.

“Bring your evidence to the magistrate and he’ll assign officers to investigate,” Feng said. “But blocking the road and randomly harassing any soldier is plain stupid. Harm the wrong soldier and you’re all going to be killed.”

Chu pulled up behind Feng. “They’re behind us as well. We’re surrounded.”

“The criminal may be you!” the bandit continued, pointing the butt of his saber at Feng. “Why don’t you come with us to the magistrate and we’ll talk about it in front of him?”

Feng’s heart skipped a beat. So they weren’t looking to rob. They were looking to abduct and they were waiting for the right moment to strike. He drew his horse back, opening up the space in front so he could see everything around him, aware that they were in grave danger. How could this be happening?

Feng felt his heart racing faster than he could withstand. They were on horses and the bandits were not, and that extra speed was their only advantage. He didn’t notice anyone on the road earlier so they couldn’t have installed too many traps or ambushes behind them. Turning around, charging through the bandits in the rear, staying on the main road and riding back toward the Rider’s Inn seemed like the only course of action.

“After all, you look like a sleazy rapist to me!” the bandit shouted for all to hear. There was a roar of laughter.

“How dare you!” Wen shouted, drawing his sword. “Do you know who he is?”

Feng reached out in alarm, hoping to grab Wen and gain his attention. But he was too far away. Wen’s loud voice pierced through the thundering laughter.

“He’s General Mu’s son! Do you all want to die?”

The bandits fell silent, but only for a second. With a roar, the men from both sides of the forest charged. Feng drew his sword, spun his horse around, and shouted, “Retreat! Back to the Rider’s Inn!”

His friends reacted, turned, and broke into a hard gallop. The bandits were swarming in like floodwater. Feng had never encountered a real battle before, but if they were out to kidnap for ransom, then he, and not his friends, would be the prized possession. He needed to lead the bandits away from his friends if they were to have any chance of escaping.

Feng turned around and charged at the short bandit with the topknot, flying past him and slashing him across the face, almost cutting his skull open. The bandit died instantly. Feng stabbed left and right, kicking his horse’s belly, urging it forward, trying to break through the ring of hostiles.

Then, he heard Wen shouting from behind. “Feng’s stuck back there! Feng’s stuck back there!”

“No!” Feng screamed as loud as he could. “Back to the inn!”

He knew they heard him, but in the distance, he saw them approaching as fast as they could.

“No!” he shouted again. A spear flew across the air and struck Wen in the belly. He bowled over and fell from his horse. The bandits surrounded him and stabbed him over and over again.

Feng stared in disbelief. “Wen!” he shouted. They weren’t out to kidnap. They were out to murder. He kicked his warhorse and charged into the dense rows of bandits, slashing and stabbing as hard as he could, hoping to get to his other two friends before it was too late.

Then, he heard Chu’s horse scream, lurching back and dismounting its rider before collapsing.

They were attacking the horses. Without horses, there would be no hope of getting out alive. Feng leaped off his mount and sent his horse away, wielding his sword with both hands like a battle axe and carving a path to Little Chu. But it was already too late. Chu was completely surrounded and stabbed from all directions at once, multiple spears and swords deeply embedded in his body. Dark blood poured from his mouth, and with his last breath, he screamed, “Run, Feng!”

Feng stabbed a bandit in the ribcage, pushed his sword all the way in until the hilt slammed against his chest, and with a roar, shoved the writhing body into a crowd of enemies. He grabbed someone’s saber and swung wildly behind him, fighting off those attacking his back while shielding his front with the dying bandit. He planted his feet on the hard ground, sensed where Ding was, and pushed his way through.

Ding had already fallen off his horse but he was hiding behind two trees standing very close together, in front of a narrow gap that only one person could penetrate at once, and he was able to hold back his attackers.

Feng forced his way to the two trees, dumped the dead bandit he had been pushing into the gap to seal it, and circled around the smaller tree. “My horse is still alive,” he said. “Let’s go!”

He whistled for his horse, grabbed another saber from a dead bandit, and with a weapon in each hand, leaped out from behind the trees and slashed at his nearest enemy.

The bandits were hardly skilled swordsmen, poorly coordinated and never trained to fight together. But there were so many of them.

Feng had hacked through and created an opening when his warhorse broke through from behind. The massive charger was kicking and stomping the enemy, pressing them back, throwing them into disarray.

Ding was right beside him. Feng noticed he was covered in blood, perhaps some of his own blood, and his heart sunk. “Go!” he shouted. He slashed another bandit in the neck, lodging his blade in the man’s collarbone.

“Careful!” Ding shouted from behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Feng noticed a spear flying at him. Ding leaped forward, crossing in front of Feng and blocking the spear with his body. He collapsed, the warhead deeply embedded in his abdomen.

“No!” Feng wrenched himself free, hacked down another enemy, and leaped onto his horse. He grabbed Ding and dragged him onto the saddle, smacking the horse with the side of his saber, sending it surging forward. They were on a warhorse, one of the best in the army, and the bandits originally sealing off the road were out of position. Many were killed, others couldn’t climb over the dead bodies littered across the narrow path, and Feng’s warhorse met little resistance.

Ding yanked the spear out of his belly, and with a shout, threw it into the closest bandit. A stream of dark blood flew from his mouth.

Slowly, Ding leaned his full weight against Feng’s back, fading out of consciousness. Feng threw away his saber and reached back with one hand to clutch his friend’s belt, preventing him from falling over. He urged the horse on and the powerful stallion responded, charging forward at breakneck speed. The shouts and insults from behind were fading and in a moment, Feng found himself riding in silence.

His back was soaked with Ding’s blood. Ding’s breathing was becoming shorter and quicker.

“Ding! Wake up, Ding!”

How could this be happening? Where did these bandits come from? He had originally thought they planted the ambush to capture him so they could demand money from his father. Even that was hard to believe, that a few hundred untrained ruffians would dare confront a fifty-thousand-man army. They easily could have captured Wen and Little Chu when they fell off their horses. But they rushed in to kill, without hesitating a step, as if taking them alive was never considered.

At the thought of Wen and Chu, Feng felt a squeezing pain in his chest. They were gone. They were drinking and laughing and bickering just last night and now, they were gone.

There was a little side path branching off from the main road and a small house hidden behind a row of trees. He pulled his horse’s reins toward the little house. It looked like the home of a local peasant. He had never spoken to a peasant before; much less asked one for help. He was the son of a Tiger General, high above the rest, and never in his life did he have to visit a peasant. Normally, the peasants would be kneeling in front of his father’s mansion instead.

But with Ding dying behind him, it didn’t matter if he had to bow to a beggar.

Feng reached the front door of the hut, dismounted, and dragged his friend’s unconscious body with him.

He took a deep breath and pounded the door with his fist.

An old woman pulled the door open. She looked at Feng from head to toe, then at Ding, before waving for them to enter. “Come on in,” she said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t knock. He’s bleeding to death, you know.”

Feng was more thankful than surprised. He lifted his friend, as gently as he could, and dragged him into the little hut. There was nothing inside except for a small bed and a table, with a brick cooking stove in the corner.

“We were attacked by bandits, there were four of us, and . . . ”

The old woman sneered. “Stop barking like a neutered dog. You lost a fight and you want to hide here. Put him in the bed. I’ll boil some towels to clean his wounds.”

Feng ignored her insolence, dragged his friend to the bed, placed him on his back, and tucked a coarse pillow under his head. Blood was dripping everywhere. He yanked open Ding’s shirt and sucked in his breath. “No . . . ” he whispered. “No.”

Ding was awake then and he looked at Feng with a blank stare.

The old woman brought a bucket of water and with one glance, turned around to leave. “You should’ve told me earlier. I wouldn’t have had to boil the towels if I knew that he was almost dead.”

Feng climbed onto the bed, his hands trembling, lifted his friend’s head and wrapped his body in his arms. “How do you feel, Ding?”

“I’m cold.”

“I . . . I’ll find you a blanket. I’ll . . . ”

“No. Don’t leave.”

Feng held his friend tighter. “I’m here. I’m here.”

“What happened, Feng?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wen and Chu. They’re gone?”

Feng nodded.

Ding gasped for air. A sob escaped his lips then, and a trickle of tears rolled down his face. “I’ll . . . I’ll see them soon.”

“No!” Feng said, suddenly finding his voice. “Stay with me, Ding. Stay with me.”

“I’m sorry, Feng. You and Du are left behind. It’s still better than drinking alone. Tell him to stop eating stuff at the whorehouse.” Ding tried to laugh at his own joke but only managed a choked sob. “How could there be so many bandits here?”

Feng shook his head, unable to respond.

“I’ve never heard of . . . of so many bandits . . . ” Ding’s voice was trailing off, and suddenly, the room was completely silent. Even his light gasps for air faded.

“How did we fail the people?” Feng whispered, struggling to speak so Ding could hear him. “Why did so many turn to crime?”

He heard Ding take his last breath, and he felt his friend’s cold, limp body sink. He was dead. For a moment, the tears wouldn’t flow.

“Why are the people discontented?” Feng’s broken voice managed to say as he held his friend’s body closer, his own body beginning to shake. He felt like vomiting and he thought he was going to faint. His eyes were squeezed so tightly together his tears couldn’t flow.

He threw his head back to scream.

“Stop barking like a neutered dog,” the old woman said from across the room. “He had a gaping hole in his chest. Did you expect him to live?”

Feng collapsed on his friend’s body and wept. He shook with every sob, his clenched fists pounding the bed with every convulsion.

The door flew open and a large group of peasants carrying thick bamboo poles charged in. They formed a circumference around the door, each staring in a different direction, their bodies poised to react. Feng lifted his head and slowly began to recognize them.

“How dare you break my door!” the old woman shouted. “Get out of my house! I’m going to report you to the magistrate!”

One peasant drew a sword halfway out of his bamboo pole and the old woman fell silent.

A tall man with thick eyebrows and a short beard came in. He glanced once at the old woman, then at Ding’s body. “I’m sorry.”

“Uncle Shu,” Feng said, his voice trembling. “Wen, Chu, and now Ding. They’re all gone.”

His father’s brother was here, a powerful man of great skill and military prowess. At least Feng was safe now.

Uncle Shu came to the side of the bed.

“How did you find me?” Feng asked. “How did you know?”

His uncle pulled a ragged sheet and covered Ding’s face, shaking his head. He took Feng’s hand and led him to the table on the other side of the room. “Sit down. I need you to calm down and tell me what happened.”

“I . . . we . . . ” Feng couldn’t find words all of a sudden. He was so relieved to see his uncle and even more relieved to see the army’s very elite, trained by his uncle, gathered around him. Strange, they were dressed as peasants and their weapons were concealed in bamboo poles. Why would his uncle need to travel under disguise?

“You’re safe now, Feng,” Uncle Shu said. “Tell me what happened.”

Feng couldn’t respond, his hands still shaking.

Uncle Shu motioned for one of his men. “Bring the young master some liquor.”

Just the night before, they were drinking the finest liquor the little inn had to offer, and they were laughing and playing dice late into the night. Feng remembered, during a debate over Mongol military tactics, Little Chu said to him, “The Mongols may have the strongest cavalry in the world, but horses can’t climb walls. I can drink a bucket of liquor and still defend the country.”

A flask of liquor was placed before him. Feng turned to Uncle Shu, “I let my friends die.”

He didn’t wait for his uncle to respond. He grabbed the flask and emptied it in his mouth, gulping down the hard alcohol without taking a breath. He planted the flask on the table and tried to shake his head clear, the alcohol already affecting his vision.

“You shouldn’t be drinking like that, young man,” he heard the old woman say behind him. “Here, drink some water before you vomit all over my table. Not that I don’t already have to spend all day cleaning up your friend’s blood.”

Feng grabbed the bowl of water placed in front of him and drank everything in one gulp.

“Take her outside,” he heard Uncle Shu say. “Give her some money for her troubles but ask her to leave us alone.”

Feng began to feel dizzy, incredibly drunk for a single flask of liquor. Maybe that was what his uncle wanted for him¾something to numb his senses and help him forget. “Where is my father?” he asked.

He lowered his head onto his arms, leaned against the table, and closed his eyes. Just the night before, he had slept in the same position on a similar table. His friends were alive then.

He wanted to sleep. Nothing made sense anyway. His uncle was here and very soon, he would be taken home. His father would summon the army and all the bandits would be rounded up. And soon after that, he would find out why his friends were slaughtered in broad daylight, why even a Tiger General’s son could be attacked on his own land. But meanwhile, he was dizzy, heavily intoxicated, and he wanted to let everything go.

But it was not meant to be. Very quickly, the effects of the alcohol disappeared. He didn’t want it to leave his head, didn’t want his escape to be over so soon. He remained still, head in his arms, resting on the table with his eyes squeezed shut. Maybe, if he tried not to move, he would eventually fall asleep and have sweet dreams.

“Sir, the young master is unconscious,” one of the soldiers said.

“Bring him to the carriage,” Uncle Shu replied.

“Do we need to secure him? Just in case he wakes up before we get there?”

“No need. He won’t wake up for another day.”

Feng’s heart began to beat so hard he thought his ribs would crack. His uncle was abducting him! He remained still and waited. Soon, two men lifted him off his seat and dragged him outside. He kept his eyes closed, his arms limp, his head hanging.

They lifted him into an enclosed carriage, settled him on his back, and walked away.

Feng pretended to be unconscious. Outside, he heard the shuffling of at least a hundred men, numerous horses and carriages, and above the noise, he heard his uncle giving orders to depart.

“You stay with the young master,” Uncle Shu said.

Someone climbed into the carriage with Feng. He placed his sword on the floor and shouted, “Go!”

The driver seated outside the carriage cracked his whip. They eased forward, then fell into a steady speed. Feng waited. The road became smoother and the horses were picking up their pace. The heavy pounding of warhorses gradually moved to the front of the carriage, leaving only a few soldiers to protect the rear. The attack units had moved, and it was time.

Feng suddenly reached out and grabbed the sword lying on the floor of the carriage. He drew the weapon and pinned the blade against the soldier’s throat before the poor man had time to react.

“Where are you taking me?” Feng asked in a quiet voice.

The soldier shook his head. “You . . . You were supposed to be unconscious . . . ”

Feng pressed the tip of the sword harder into the base of his throat, piercing the skin, drawing blood. The soldier froze.

“Answer me!”

“We’re going to the City of Eternal Peace.”

Feng’s eyebrows knit together. “General Wu’s fortress?”

The soldier nodded. “Young master, we didn’t mean to . . . ”

“Why is my uncle doing this?”

“I don’t know.”

“When you left our city, what did he tell you the mission was? Who’s the enemy?”

The soldier shook his head again. “No one. No enemy. We came to escort you to the City of Eternal Peace. That’s all.”

“What did he know about Captains Ding, and Wen, and Chu? Did he mention their names?”

“No, young master. He never mentioned the captains. He didn’t say anything.”

“Why am I being escorted to another Tiger General’s city? Where’s my father?”

“I’m just a soldier, young master. You know we only receive our orders.”

Feng took a deep breath. “I’m going to kill you if you don’t tell me.”

The soldier stared, wide eyed, but said nothing.

“You don’t believe me,” Feng said, his voice cold, angry.

The soldier shook his head.

“I’m the general’s son. I can kill a few of you for entertainment and no one would do a thing.”

“We’re the general’s soldiers, young master. But we’re also your soldiers.”

Feng paused, his sword beginning to lower. “You’re the people’s soldiers. You fight to defend the people, not to defend my father or me. Don’t ever forget that.”

“I won’t, young master.”

Feng spun his sword around and hammered the soldier’s head with the handle. The soldier collapsed.

Feng reached for the soldier’s peasant clothing, about to strip him, and hesitated. He had never worn the coarse fabric of a common man, much less the filthy rags of a peasant. He could almost smell the soil stains on the straw sandals. But his own clothing was reeking with dried blood, and changing into dirty canvas would not be so bad.

Feng cursed himself for worrying about the quality of his clothes at a time like this. He quickly stripped the soldier, dressed him in his own bloody robes, lifted the unconscious body with one hand and the sword in his other, and kicked the carriage door open. He threw the soldier halfway out, face down, and released a long, tortured cry.

“Young master!” one of the riders in the rear called. The soldier shot forward, closing the distance between himself and Feng’s carriage. Feng threw his sword out the partially opened door. The soldier outside just evaded the flying sword and was barely recovering when Feng leaped out, slammed into him, and sent him flipping off his horse. Feng recovered his own position on the speeding mount, grabbed the reins, planted his feet in the stirrups, and squeezed the horse’s belly. The other guards were charging up behind him. He noticed a side road ahead, saw his opportunity, and brought his horse thundering down the little path.

The guards followed. Feng reached for the sword hanging from his saddle, suddenly spun his horse around, and charged directly into his pursuers. He knew how these men were trained—knew where their weaknesses were—and with a single pass, slashed each of them in their sword arms.

“Young master!” someone shouted. They recognized him. He ignored further shouts from his demoralized pursuers, certain now that they would stay behind, not only because they were injured but because no one wanted to fight the general’s son.

He kicked his horse and rode as hard as he could, heading directly for the City of Stones. He tried not to think of how his friends had died that morning, how hundreds of bandits had waited for him in ambush, how Ding had died in his arms.

His uncle could have encountered the slaughter in the forest and traced his tracks, and Ding’s blood, to the peasant woman’s house. But there was no way to understand why his uncle was out there looking for him, his elite unit dressed as peasants, and why he drugged his own nephew.

As far back as he could remember, the empire was at peace within its borders. There were skirmishes with the barbarians in the north, and he had heard of short wars with the island nations in the south, but within China, people lived well.

He remembered the quick briefing he received from two officers right before he left for the Rider’s Inn. They had told him that the Venom Sect was suddenly active in this area but no one knew why. Feng recalled asking the local government to become involved, saying that the military shouldn’t interfere with civilian criminals.

The Venom Sect was a powerful group of poison users, rumored to be five hundred members strong and headed by a ruthless leader named Red Cobra. The officers had told him yesterday that Red Cobra had also been spotted in the area. Feng had laughed and asked how much snake venom it would take to poison an army.

Then they told him that General Lo had been killed by the Silencer. They had been expecting news of this for a long time, ever since he was ordered to invade Mongolia and capture an undefeated barbarian king simply known as the Silencer. General Lo had walked into Mongolia with only two hundred men in an apparent act of suicide. As of yesterday, they still hadn’t found his body, but all his men were dead and the Silencer took no prisoners. Some even said that the Silencer was seen personally killing off the Chinese soldiers.

But none of these events should have had anything to do with what happened to him that morning. The bandits were clearly not members of the Venom Sect. They were thugs, carrying hard, steel weapons that they didn’t know how to use, fighting in plain view instead of killing from the shadows.

The haze was lifting, Feng thought to himself out of nowhere. He shook away his thoughts, looked up, and realized he was rapidly approaching the City of Stones. It was almost noon.