Scarlet Heroes

The Journal of Zahir al-Din, Chapter One
Big Trouble in Little Xian

It was with an inward groan that I observed Shiro Matsumoto and five of his Hatchet Men enter my humble shop. Whatever the young gangster wanted, it was going to be trouble. He feigned interest in several of my goods (including a particularly exquisite dragon skull replica made from only the finest imitation ivory – on special, this week only!) before he got to the point.

It seemed there was a minor functionary in the local Dockside district government who had accepted bribes in the past to look the other way, lose cargo manifests, or misfile customs reports when Shiro’s crew were importing their illicit goods. However, when they approached her to expand their deal, for an additional fee of course, she refused.

I was unsure what this had to do with me, and said so. That was when Shiro gave me that lecherous grin of his and told me the official was the District Registrar, Xiuli Song. This time my groan was audible. Shiro, curse his cretinous face, just grinned wider.

I don’t know how he found out, but Matsumoto had learned that Mrs. Song and I had a tryst some years back. I had broken it off, because I was increasingly uncomfortable with her being married, no matter how much she reassured me that the marriage was a sham.

Matsumoto assured me that all I had to do was talk with Xiuli, explain that taking the bribe and not standing in the way of his drug ring’s expansion was in everyone’s best interest. If I refused, well, he felt it was possible that someone might tell her husband, Sub-Prefect of Police Bai Song of our affair. He had a feeling that might happen. And he wondered that if the Sub-Prefect of Police took a sudden interest in my curio shoppe, would he find anything that interested him?

The subtext was about as subtle as being hit in the face with a surprised emu. I got the point. Besides, he said with that disgusting grin, maybe I would enjoy meeting with her “for old time’s sake”. I half expected him to waggle his eyebrows. The sheer force with which I rolled my eyes seemed to have pushed him and his entourage out the door.

I sighed heavily, then called Ali out from the broom closet where he had conveniently disappeared into, and had him take a message to Xiuli. Once Ali was gone, I took out my spellbook. I thumbed through it to find the spell I wanted, then performed the initial rituals and offerings that would allow me to cast the spell by making the final words and gestures at a later time. I hoped I wouldn’t need it, but whatever was going on, I knew this wasn’t going to be simple.

It occurred to me that for someone like Shiro to have to lean on me to get a job done that he must be pretty desperate. Maybe there was more going on around here than met the eye. I decided to call on an old friend for information. Qiang and I were schoolmates in our younger days, although these days he was a top professional burglar. We’ve done business before, and I knew that he was always careful to keep his ear to the ground for any rumblings in the status quo among the underworld types.

I sent word to Qiang through our usual drops, and then went to the old decrepit shrine and waited. He arrived without my seeing him do so, and greeted me warmly. He produced a bottle of rice wine, which we shared before I got down to business. Once I explained the situation, he seemed willing to share what he knew. There was indeed more here than met the eye. Apparently some of the low ranking members in Shiro’s organization noted some odd changes in his behavior of late, particularly strange errands he would go on, taking only his most trusted men with him, disappearing sometimes for days at a time. No one knew where he was going, not even the other bosses.

This definitely sounded suspicious, so I decided maybe following Shiro would be my next move. I started successfully tailing him soon enough, but unfortunately, trying to get a close look at what he was doing drew some attention from his thugs. I was able to escape them by casting my spell, sending them all into a deep slumber. I didn’t worry too much about his men informing on me to Shiro, however; how would they explain that I got away because they fell asleep? My newfound magic was still a secret. If I kept throwing around spells like this, however, that would change.

By then Shiro had disappeared out of sight. The spell wouldn’t last long anyways, so I decided to check back at the shop and discovered that Ali had returned with Xiuli’s response. I was to meet her in two hours at an old cemetery. It was a good choice, it was mostly older graves; anything of value had been stolen long ago, and few mourners ever came anymore. Most people believed it haunted (and, to be fair, it probably was) so would give it a wide berth. We would be as safe from prying eyes as we could be.

By now, it was dark, and while the moon had risen, the dark clouds left the cemetery shrouded in shadow. I lit my little lantern and found her sitting on a weathered bench in a small overgrown plaza. Seeing her after so long brought up many memories. She is a tall woman, with many attractive tattoos. Not many knew she was really Shou Blooded, a fact that would limit her political advancement if it got out, but her heritage gave her a statuesque beauty that few could match.

After exchanging the kind of awkward pleasantries that only ex-lovers can, I told her what had happened today, and what Qiang told me. She confided that she felt that this particular bribe was some kind of set up. She was being targeted for some reason, she was sure, and if she accepted it, that she would get caught. I asked her if she knew who would do this. She said she didn’t.

I gently asked if it could be her husband, if he had found out about our affair and was trying to get back at her. She said no, definitely not. I asked her how she could be so sure. She hesitated and then told me that things had been good for the first time in their marriage. They were actually happy. Besides, if it got out that the Police Sub-Prefect’s wife was taking bribes from drug smugglers, it wouldn’t do his career any favor. Shiro had also told her he knew of the affair and threatened to expose her. She was debating on whether or not taking the bribe would do less damage to her marriage.

I suppressed any residual possessiveness I may have still felt for her and told her I was glad for her that her marriage was better and wished her the best. She thanked me with a peck on the cheek. I told her not to accept the bribe. They had drawn me into this, and I wouldn’t let them threaten my friends. She seemed surprised at that, but thanked me again, and we parted.

I went home, closed up the shop, and retired to my room. There would be a lot to do tomorrow.

I woke in the small hours of the morning. I thought that if Shiro knew about the affair enough to threaten us both with it, he must have found some evidence. I don’t think that Bai Song would just take some criminal scum’s word about his wife’s fidelity. If he had evidence, he probably kept it close to him. That meant in his home. If I could break in and steal the evidence while it was still dark, I could nullify his threat. It was common knowledge that Matsumoto never woke before mid-morning, and often slept even later.

I consulted my spellbook, finding a spell that may help in the break-in which would allow me to transmute any substance from one state to another. I could render a lock into a gaseous form and blow it away like a puff of smoke. I also packed a long knife in my belt and a few other items in a satchel. I was no professional thief, and briefly considered contracting one, such as Qiang, but felt that not letting anyone know it was me would be better. I don’t think Qiang would give me up willingly, but if he were put to the screws… well few men’s loyalty extend that far.

So armed, I made my way to Shiro’s house. The back entrance was completely shrouded in shadow. I’d need my lantern on a low setting to see what I was doing, but it wouldn’t be bright enough to draw much attention if I kept the hood down. I was just tip toeing to the door when four black clad figures with short black blades leapt from the shadows! Assassins! It was a trap! My knife was in my hand in an instant, and with thanks to the minor enchantment I had placed on it cut one down before he could react. The others lunged at me, one cutting my robe and giving me a deep gash. I lashed out again with my magic-enhanced blade and two more fell. The remaining one was far more competent than the other; he gave me two more bloody wounds before I managed to stab him somewhere important enough that he crumpled like a marionette whose strings were cut.

I left the bodies, confident that there would be no sign of them by the first rays of dawn thanks to whomever employed them, and fled back home. As I bound my wounds, I wondered if the assassins were there for me, specifically, or if they were there as a general precaution against thieves trying to steal the blackmail evidence… or to steal… what, exactly? It must be pretty important to hire assassins to protect. Important enough to kill over. This definitely wasn’t over an extra shipment or two of drugs every month.

Whatever it was, I was angry now. My life had been disrupted, someone I considered a friend had been threatened, and now I’d be bloodied. Shiro came into my shop and pushed me around. I’d had enough.

Well, evidence or not, whatever was in that house was important. So I decided I’d fix that. I packed a bag and headed back. It was foolish, but this time I didn’t hide who I was or what I was doing. I walked to within several yards of Shiro’s house, casually lit several flasks of oil, and threw them at the building until it ignited like a treant at an effreet convention, then left.

I probably should have had more sense than to go home. I did at least have sense to give Ali the day off. And good thing too. It was only a matter of hours, after my anger dissipated into a haze of gut-wrenching fear, and as I was just finishing packing up my satchel with some items to take into hiding with me, when a well dressed man carrying a very fine and unpleasant looking sword entered my shop with six very competent looking hatchet men entered my shop. I slung my bag over my shoulder and picked up my staff.

The man asked me if I was going somewhere. I replied that I had considered taking a small sabbatical. He gave me a smile that said he wasn’t amused. He asked me if I knew who he was. I looked closely at him, at the insignia worn by his men. Mansur, I responded. He was Mansur, one of the wealthiest and most influential drug den proprietors in dockside. He nodded at my acknowledgement. He informed me he’d soon be the most influential drug proprietor in the entire city, but I have been getting in his way.

I realized what was happening; Shiro’s bizarre secret meetings were with Mansur, who had bought his cooperation somehow. If Xiuli accepted the bribe, a trap would be sprung, and her graft would be discovered. This would simultaneously shut down Matsumoto’s boss’ whole drug smuggling operation, and cause the Sub-Prefect of Police to step down in shame. With both the district registrar and sub-prefect positions open, someone sympathetic to a change in leadership could be appointed. Mansur would go from being a drug den pusher to a drug kingpin practically overnight.

Mansur applauded when I finished my explanation. Too bad, he said, that I would never be able to tell anyone. He drew his deadly sword with a flourish and his hatchet men fanned out to hedge me in. While the assassins were one thing, I knew if I faced an expert swordsman like Mansur obviously was, I’d have likely been dead in seconds, and that’s without his expertly trained hatchmen along.

Fortunately I had one trick still up my sleeve. I finished casting The Least Alchemy of Forms, and changed one cubic foot of air around Mansur’s head completely solid. The spell wouldn’t last long enough to kill him, but it didn’t need to. He dropped his sword in surprise, which drew the attention of his men who were suddenly confused about what was happening. I made a dash straight through the middle towards the door, striking with my staff’s enchantments as I went, downing two of Mansur’s men before I was able to make it to the street and flee into the crowd.

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