Chapter 1

Xiaosong (Tieu Thong), Zhengzong Commandery

Master Vong's place was the only bar in the dusty border town of Tieu Thong, or Xiaosong as the Celestials called it. Tieu Thong was a minor logistics waypoint for Imperial troops moving to and from the Western Front. It was used more by the mercenary auxiliaries than the regular army, but because the latest campaign had just ended, the town was flooded with hundreds of demobilized conscripts left to find their own way home. Even though they were disarmed, many of them would fall into banditry being so far from home, but this only served as an excuse to levy new conscripts to wipe them out. It was a vicious cycle, intended to keep the common people perpetually weak, perpetually afraid, and perpetually dependent on their Celestial overlords.
Batista wasn't known for being much of a philosophical sort of man, but occasionally after a glass or two of Master Vong's cut-rate baijiu, his thoughts would turn to the brutality of the system. Not that he ever did anything about it. He served his term as a conscript and then signed up with a mercenary company. It wasn't much better than becoming a bandit, and there were those who would argue that working for the Celestials made you worse than any train robber or highwayman.
He sat there drinking with the rest of his escuadra. There were eight of them when they first rode out but now only five were left. They would've left empty seats at the table for their fallen comrades, but the place was too packed for such courtesies. There wasn't room enough for all the people who wanted a drink and not enough booze to go around either. The cathouse would be similarly underequipped to meet demand. It was bound to get ugly real soon. Half the town would be on fire. All the mercs and conscripts would be at each other's throats and then the regular army would shell the place to settle things down. They had an hour, maybe two before anyone with any sense got out. About half the townspeople had already boarded up and cleared out before they even arrived. Those were the smart ones.
"Gentlemen," a voice said.
It was Capitán Trieu, the comandante of their unit, Compañía Bravo. Batista raised his glass to the Capitán, as did the rest of his men.
"I wanted to speak with with you, Cabo Rodrigues," the Capitán said.
"Go right ahead, Capi," Batista replied.
"I was hoping to speak to you in private."
Batista looked around and said, "This is private as it's gonna get in this town."
"Very well," the Capitán said, dissatisfied. "I'm going to ask you again to accept the promotion to Sargento. Teniente Gonzaga wants you as his new platoon sergeant."
Normally, anyone would jump at an offer of promotion. Better pay, more perks. And yet Batista didn't respond right away. He was first given the offer when the end of the campaign was announced. He played for time then, but apparently the Capitán was losing his patience.
"What are you hesitating for?" he asked. "Do you want to go forward in this regiment or not?"
The real sticking point for Batista wasn't the responsibility that came with being promoted to sargento. Joining the professional ranks meant signing a ten-year contract. If he stayed a cabo, he would only have to re-up for another two years.
Capitán Trieu continued to press him.
"What else would you do? Tell me that. Where else would you go? You became a mercenary for a reason. You're a fighting man. War is in your blood. It's the only thing you're good for. Be honest with yourself, Cabo. This is where you belong. You may as well reap the full benefits."
"Come on, Cabo," Tito, one of his squadmates, said. "I'd rather see you be the new sargento. Hell, maybe the Coronel'll promote me to cabo ta replace ya."
"I wouldn't hold my breath, Rosado," the Capitán replied, "but stranger things have happened. Well, Cabo?"
Batista slowly ran his thumb along the lip of his glass as he thought about what the Capitán said. There were five options for conscripts: become a mercenary, become a bandit, settle down in whatever town they leave you, scrape your way back home, or die trying. Batista chose the first option. He had a knack for soldiering. He was good with a sword and not too bad of a shot either. He had a way of coming out alive when a lot of other people wound up dead. It was all he'd known his entire adult life.
What else was he good for? He wasn't selected for the Charter School, so he didn't have much of an education. The mission school taught him the basics and that was enough for him. Was he going to go home just so he could spend the rest of his life working in his parents' restaurant? Not bloody likely.
He had hesitated so long, but perhaps now it was time to admit that this was what he was meant to be doing. This was where he belonged.
"Alright," he said at last. "You win, boss."
"Good," the Capitán said. "Talk to ST Millares in the morning and he'll give you your new contract. I'm expecting great things, Sargento."
Batista glanced aside.
His worries quickly faded as he was alerted to the presence of several people behind him. Of course, Master Vong's place was packed, so there were people everywhere, but these ones were specifically approaching their table. Batista always had a way of sensing these things out. Soldier's instinct or something like that.
Batista turned slightly to see five conscripts standing there. Southerners by the looks of them. They were a long way from home. He really didn't want to have it out with them. Maybe they'd be smart enough to leave them alone.
"I can't help but notice you guys have three bottles," one of the conscripts said.
"So you can count," Batista replied. "Sorry, but I don't have a biscuit for ya."
The conscript was trying to hold back his temper, but it wouldn't take much to push him.
"Liquor's a bit tight 'round here," he said. "Don't ya think it's a bit greedy for five guys to have three whole bottles to themselves?"
"My escuadra lost three men," Batista said. "I'd say it's an even trade."
"We lost 68 out of our hundred!" another one of the conscripts shouted.
Batista rolled his eyes.
"Doesn't sound like somethin' ta brag 'bout."
The irony-impaired conscript fumed, "I'm not braggin'! I'm sayin' we've got a lot more right to that booze than you mercenary bastards!"
Though the escuadra got the liquor in honor of their dead, Batista wasn't above making a deal with the conscripts, so he told them, "Pony up twenny thousand chips an' I'll give ya a bottle."
"Twenty thousand chips!?" the irony-impaired conscript balked. "That's almost a month's pay!"
Twenty thousand chips was about what they paid for all three bottles. It was, after all, cut-rate baijiu. Batista was sure that their fallen comrades wouldn't mind them turning a bit of a profit off their deaths. They'd do the same if they were in his place.
"If ya don't have the chips, wait a while an' ya can get it on discount," Batista said.
"What the hell're you talkin' 'bout?"
"Second-hand," Batista replied with a grin. "Outta the pisspot. Gimme 'bout an hour."
"Fuck you, asshole!" the conscript snapped.
Capitán Trieu had heard enough and stepped in to break it up before it escalated any further. He snatched one of the bottles off the table and thrust it into the arms of one of the conscripts.
"Take it," he said, "with the compliments of Compañía Bravo. Take it and go and don't molest my men anymore."
The lead conscript and his irony-impaired comrade weren't too happy about this, but the other three seemed much more eager to just take the booze and go.
"C'mon, Beto," one of the others said, "let's just take it and go."
Though the lead conscript--Beto--looked like he wanted to do something to salve his wounded pride, he backed down when Batista gave him a look that made it clear that if he wanted to try something, he wasn't going to live long enough to become a bandit.
"Goddamn mercenaries," he grumbled under his breath as he and his companions walked away.
Now that the possibility of a showdown had passed, Batista lightened up a bit and mock-complained to Capitán Trieu, "Hey, Capi, that was Dolf you just handed off."
"And it was probably Soldado Veracruz's biggest contribution to the regiment," the Capitán said. "This powder keg will go off soon enough without you boys playing with matches. Get any drinking and whoring you plan on doing out of your system and be back in camp before midnight. I don't want any of you here when the Regulars come in to lay down the law."
"Roger that, Capi," Batista said.
Once the Capitán left, the escuadra was free to return to their drinks. After three rounds of toasts for each of their dead comrades, the two bottles of baijiu were pretty well spent. About half of one bottle was left, so the escuadra took turns taking swigs from it as they staggered over to Madam Eng's. While sharing a bottle might sound unsanitary, Batista was pretty sure the alcohol killed any germs and by this point he had had enough to drink that the thought of catching something from Tito or Miga were far from his mind.
Speaking of catching something, there was already quite a crowd gathered at Madam Eng's. Even though it was well into the evening, she hadn't opened up shop yet. So long as the Celestials were sending men to fight and die trying to subjugate the Viet, she wasn't going to be hurting for customers, so she could afford to limit her business hours to jack up prices. Still, it had been eight months since any of them last had a woman, so the trip was worth their while.
There was a raised platform that extended from the front porch. It was where the barker would drum up business and show off some of the choicer wares, not that most of the clientele could afford to be too picky.
The barker was quite a character. Claimed to be a quarter Celestial on his mother's side. It was probably a lie, but he made an impression and there was no one better at working a crowd in all the town, not that he had to do much to drum up business.
"Welcome, gents, welcome," the barker said genially. "There are a lot of you boys out there looking for some action tonight. We've only got so many girls to go around, so we're gonna have an auction for first go. You buy yourself thirty minutes. After that, you can peruse our menu and make your reservations at the front desk on a first come, first serve basis."
This was all pretty standard. You could easily lose half your pay on the better looking girls. New arrivals in particular could get really pricey. Batista never really understood the fixation on virgins. Better to have a girl who knew what she was doing, one who'd already squared herself with the line of work she was in. Better for everyone that way.
"Now, ordinarily we save the best for last," the barker continued, "but tonight we've got something special for you high-rollers in the audience. Just came in today. Gents, I present to you, a genuine Celestial!"
Two of Madame Eng's boys led up a pale girl with jet-black hair dressed in fancy silk robes. Even from a distance, Batista could see the empty look in her eyes. He'd seen it before in the lines of captives being frog-marched to the prison camps. There weren't too many girls who became whores by choice, but some took it harder than others.
Gesturing to the girl, the barker said, "Now, we're not talking about some Charter School graduate who got kicked out of the capital but a true, born and bred high-class Celestial. How did we get such a catch, you ask? Well, a good salesman never gives up his secrets, but this little angel here was thrown out of Heaven and we were there to catch her. And now she's all yours if the price is right. I don't have to tell you, gents. This is a once in a lifetime experience. I certainly hope you haven't spent all your pay on Master Vong's horse piss."
This brought a fresh round of laughter from the regulars. Madam Eng and Master Vong had a friendly sort of rivalry. Their businesses generally complemented each other, but they and their employees made quite a show of disparaging the other side. Madam Eng's barker was the best at it, though.
"Without further ado, let's start the bidding at a hundred thousand chips. Do I have a hundred?"
A hundred thousand chips pretty well excluded anyone but officers. Batista didn't care if she really was an angel from Heaven. No girl was worth a hundred thousand chips for a half-hour tumble. If he just waited a while, he could get one for a few thousand. That was about all a whore was worth.
He wasn't planning on bidding on the first run for any of the girls, but they weren't going to open the doors until the auction was done. While everyone's attention was on the auction, he could weave his way through the crowd to get closer to the door. He didn't have to be first in line, but he didn't plan on being last either.
"One hundred!" someone shouted.
Now that someone had taken the bait, the pace would pick up.
"We have one hundred," the barker said. "Do I hear one-ten?"
"We have one-ten. Can I get one-twenty?"
"Two hundred!"
"Two hundred thousand chips! Can I get two-ten?"
"I have two-twenty. Do I hear two-thirty?"
"I'll take her," a voice said. "Ten dan for the night."
The crowd parted a bit for the owner of the voice. It was Coronel Obrado, the comandante of the Regimiento de Rionegro, Batista's outfit. He wasn't known for frequenting the cathouses, but maybe someone told him about the Celestial. Ten dan was a lot, though, almost as much as Batista made in a year. The things people with money do...
"Te, ten dan..." the barker stammered. "I, ah... Anyone willing to top that? Anyone?"
No one answered, of course. The barker pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead.
"Hoo..." he sighed. Regaining his composure, he tucked away the handkerchief and pointed to the Coronel, saying, "Well then, you, sir, get to bed a genuine Celestial for ten dan. Come right on in and we'll get you signed up."
The boys guided the Celestial back down the platform and a couple more came out to escort the Coronel in. His adjutant and a couple bodyguards followed him in. Idly, Batista wondered if they were all going to get in on the action. Probably not. The Coronel never struck him as the type who liked to share.
The auction continued. There were five new arrivals and thirty-one more experienced girls in total. There wasn't nearly as much fanfare for them, except for the top three.
Once the auction was done and the first-comers were all led inside, the barker said, "Alright, boys, that takes care of the first half hour, but there's still five and a half hours left before we close up. I see some familiar faces in the crowd, but a lot of you are new to our establishment, so let's lay down the rules.
"We've only got thirty-six girls and a whole helluva lot of you boys. You pay for fifteen minutes, unless it's one of the Three Queens. You get thirty minutes with them, but they don't come cheap. Now, I don't know what establishments you may have frequented elsewhere, gents, but we break in our new girls easy, so they're only working half-time tonight. Those of you who get along well, we got four girls who'll take groups. No more'n four of you at time, though.
"Any of you with a mind to be greedy, you've gotta pay an extra ten percent for every additional slot you take. We can only serve about five hundred of you boys a night and there's more'n any five hundred here. Be nice and share like your mama taught ya.
"Line up double file right here and come sign up. Pick your girl and your time. We don't have that much room in the lobby, so only the people up next can sit around in there. The rest of you'll have to wait outside. When your turn comes up, check any weapons and valuables at the desk. You'll get 'em back when you're done.
"Last but not least, the rules about our girls. You can do just about anything with them, but lay off the rough stuff. You mark up any of the girls in any way and it comes outta your pocket and outta your hide. If she says no, you best stop. If you have some complaint, think you're not getting your money's worth, you can talk to the front desk and we'll work something out, but if you think you can work frustrations out on our girls, we will work frustrations out on you. We clear?
"Alright, mind the rules, do what you came here to do, then make way for the next man. We've got busy night ahead of us and we wanna have as many happy customers as we can get. Now line up like I told you. Double file, double file."
The crowd gathered around the front of Madam Eng's house awkwardly converged into the two files as directed. Some of the ones who were new to Tieu Thong started scrapping for a better place in line. Anyone with a little more experience who was really committed to getting the pleasurable company they came there for held up their hands even if it meant taking a hit or two. You see, the barker didn't mention it during his spiel about the house rules, but among them was a particularly useful fact to remember about Madam Eng. In spite of her age, she was said to have very sensitive ears and the last thing she wanted to hear was a commotion around her house.
About a dozen of her boys came out the door with clubs in hand to lay down the law. If you were caught throwing a punch or shoving someone around, you got a good crack to the skull. Only a couple fools were dumb enough to have a go at the boys, but they were very good at what they did and unlike most of the prospective customers, stone-cold sober. By the time about ten our so troublemakers were laid flat, the others started to settle down.
With order restored, they could conduct their business like civilized men. Batista wasn't at the front of the line, but after Madam Eng's boys thinned out the herd, he had a pretty good spot. While they were waiting, Tito called out to Batista from his place further down the line.
"'Ey, Bat, wanna sign us all up for one a' them group deals?"
"Not jus' no but 'ell no," Batista replied. "I got enough a' snugglin' with you bastards in the damn field. 'Sides, they only let four in on the group deals. Another one a' you woulda had ta die."
"Alright, alright, Sargento Huevos Grandes. Be that way then. Me an' the rest a' the boys'll sign up for that Messaly bitch. She looks like she knows how ta treat a man right."
"Y'all have fun makin' a mess with Messaly. An' I ain't been pinned yet, so ya can stow that sargento shit."
"Dammit, quit your jaw-jackin'," the guy behind Batista complained. "Eng's boys're gonna start bustin' heads again."
It just so happened that one of the boys was looking their way, which Batista took as his cue for eyes front, trap shut, as if he were in the chow line during recruit training.
When his turn came up, the retired prostitute acting as receptionist at the front desk said in a bored, mechanical voice, "Pick your girl, pick your time."
There was a chart on the desk listing all the girls and their availability. While Capitán Trieu gave them until midnight to get back to camp, Batista figured the Regulars would start shelling before then, so he wanted to get an early slot and get out. Fortunately, there were still some immediate openings after the first round, even a couple of the more decent options.
"I'll take Addy at 2130," Batista said.
"Standard course?"
"I'm not payin' extra for anythin' fancy."
"Two thousand chips."
Batista pulled out two strings of chips and placed them down on the desk. Even though it was standard to have two hundred five-chip coins on each string, the receptionist thumbed through them all the same. No one with any sense tried to short-change Madam Eng, but occasionally there was someone who didn't have that much sense to them.
When the receptionist was satisfied with the count, she then checked off the slot on the chart and handed Batista a chit etched with the girl's number and the time. Pointing to the waiting area on the other side of the lobby, she said, "Take a seat and you'll be called when it's your turn."
Batista took a seat as he was told. Some cathouses had decor that flaunted what the business was there for with lots of tacky paintings and sculptures of naked women and such, but Madam Eng's place could pass for a fairly well-to-do inn or at least as well-to-do as you could get out here.
A serving girl came around with complimentary tea for the men in the waiting area. It was said to be a special brew that promoted male potency. You were expected to drink it whether you wanted to or not or else it would be seen as an insult to Madam Eng. Batista didn't want the tea to sober him up too much, but declining the tea could easily get him kicked out. It was piping hot and terribly bitter, sharpening the edges Mater Vong's baijiu had made fuzzy.
Before long, three of Madam Eng's boys came into the waiting area. One of them said, "Two, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, come with me to third floor."
Batista double-checked his chit. His girl was Number Nine. He and eight others got up and followed the boys out of the waiting area, stacking their teacups on the serving girl's tray as they went by. Opposite to the waiting area was a curtained-off changing room. Along two of the walls were rows of cubbyholes for the customers' stuff. To ensure no one brought in any weapons, you had to strip down to your skin under the watchful eye of a pair of boys who also made sure nothing was stolen while the customers were being serviced. Once you stowed your stuff, you changed into a light jinbei and slippers. That was further incentive to get an earlier slot because you knew Madam Eng only had so many jinbei and they certainly didn't have time to wash them between uses.
When the group was done changing, their guide led them out of the changing area and toward the stairs, which were all the way at the end of the main hallway, past all the first floor rooms. They stuck to the middle while other boys were going from door to door, kicking the first rounders out of the rooms. With compliments, of course, for the premium customers who paid extra at the auction.
The third floor was reserved for the top-ranking girls. There were four deluxe suites and eight regular rooms. The two bodyguards of Coronel Obrado were posted outside the door of one of the suites and three doors down was the room Batista would be using.
When Batista stepped into the room, his girl for the evening was setting the timer on the dresser. She was about Batista's age, maybe a couple years older, wearing a red corset trimmed with black, stockings to match and not much else. Her hair was pinned up, but judging from a few loose strands, it was naturally curly. Funny the details you pay attention to.
"You must be Addy," Batista said. "Ready ta do some multiplyin'?"
Addy rolled her eyes. She must've heard that one before.
"It's your fifteen minutes," she said. "How do you wanna spend it?"
"Nothin' fancy," Batista replied. "It's been a while, but I figure we can get two rounds in before time."
He was going to have to get two rounds in to get his money's worth because the first go was over quickly. Eight months was a long time to be out of practice. All the baijiu probably didn't help either. Anyway, it wasn't like he had anything to prove to her. He might not be the best, but he was far from the worst.
He was taking a leak in the pisspot over in the corner when he heard the some ruckus in one of the rooms nearby. Some people were noisier than others. He didn't think much of it, but then he heard a girl's voice, barely muffled by the walls.
"Iya! Yamete! Hanashite!"
A man's voice growled something far less distinct. If someone was getting too rough with one of the girls, Madam Eng's boys would take care of it. In any case, it was none of Batista's business. What did it matter to him?
And yet, without even thinking about it, he was getting dressed and wandering to the door.
"What are you doing?" Addy asked. "You've still got nine minutes."
Batista wasn't listening to her. It was like his body was moving of its own accord. He opened the door.
"I'm not stopping the clock," Addy said. "And you can't get a refund. Hey!"
Batista went out into the hall. The noise was coming from Coronel Obrado's room. One of Madam Eng's boys was engaged in a staring contest with the Coronel's bodyguards, but not doing anything. For ten dan, the Coronel probably bought himself the liberty to bend the house rules a bit.
One of the bodyguards took notice of Batista and said, "Nothing to see here. Go back to your room."
Whatever bizarre impulse brought him out there, the bodyguard's warning should have been enough to turn him right back around, but all good sense had left him.
As he continued to approach the door to the Coronel's room, the bodyguards took up a ready stance and one of them said, "This is your last warning. Go ba--"
If Batista was thinking straight, he wouldn't have done what he did. However, he was like a marionette following the tug of the strings. The one bodyguard couldn't even finish his warning when Batista slipped past his guard, delivered two sharp blows to the ribs, seized his arm and drove his face into the floor. When the other bodyguard moved in to attack, Batista swept his legs out from under him, then took hold of his head pounded it against the floor until he stopped moving.
The one boy of Madam Eng's called on his fellow at the other end to back him up. Before they could double-team Batista, though, he had kicked in the door to the Coronel's room. Coronel Obrado was busy struggling with the Celestial girl on the bed, pinning down an arm with one hand while struggling with the sash at her waist with the other.
Startled and angry at the sight of Batista's intrusion, he barked, "What the hell's the meaning of this!?"
Batista answered him with a punch to the jaw that laid him out flat. The disheveled and terrified Celestial girl stared at him in confusion.
"Come on," Batista told her.
He didn't wait for her to agree with him. He snatched her up and holding her tight, burst through the window. Leaving a whore he paid for in the middle of their session, picking a fight with the Coronel's bodyguards, breaking one of Madam Eng's doors, punching out the Coronel himself, stealing the most expensive girl in the place, and now jumping out of a third story window. It was difficult to say if this was the height of his madness or just par for the course.