Chapter 2
On the Run

Xiaosong (Tieu Thong), Zhengzong Commandery

Somehow, Batista didn't break his legs when he jumped out of Madam Eng's house. He kept moving, like a machine, not stopping until he was near the outskirts of town. Only then did he come back to his senses. It was like the snapping of a rubber band, sudden and jarring. He had trouble staying on his feet.
"Let me go," the girl said in Celestial.
He looked at her in confusion. He remembered the auction and he had vague memories of walking in on her with Colonel Obrado, but why was he holding her now?
He set her down on her feet for starters. Like him, she was barefoot. The hem of her fancy silk robes dipped in the mud where they were standing. Batista held his head, struggling to get his bearings.
"Where am I?" he asked himself. "What am I doin' here?"
Because he wasn't speaking in Celestial, the girl only cocked her head. His Celestial wasn't great, what he learned as a conscript, but it'd do.
"Who the hell are you anyway?" he asked the girl.
"It is manners to tell your own name before asking it of others," the girl replied.
Batista had never heard of that one before, but he wasn't exactly an expert on good manners.
"Batista Rodrigues," he replied, "of..."
He paused, remembering when he punched Coronel Obrado. He couldn't very well consider himself a member of the Regimiento de Rionegro anymore, now could he?
"Never mind. Now tell me your name."
The girl drew herself up and replied, "I am Suzuki Masako of House Suzuki."
House Suzuki? That sounded mighty fancy.
"Are you saying you're some kind of noble?"
"My father is Lord Kunihiko of House Suzuki."
Nobles were almost never found on the surface. They had their floating cities and the Capital Beyond the Sky. Was Madam Eng's barker telling the truth about her? It couldn't be.
"Nobles don't come down here," he said. "Who are you really?"
"I am Masako of House Suzuki," she insisted.
She pulled back her sleeve and exposed the underside of her wrist. Tapping it with her finger, the embedded crest glowed bright blue. She was an honest to God noble after all.
"I'll be damned..."
She proved that she was a noble, but that didn't explain what she was doing here on the surface.
"What are you doing here?" Batista asked.
The girl--Masako--averted her eyes for a moment before telling him, "I was kidnapped by enemies of my family and sold as a slave." She then folded her hands in front of her and bowed low. "Thank you for saving me from dishonor, Batista-xiansheng."
Batista looked around warily and replied, "Don't thank me yet, sister. I don't know what we're supposed to do now."
"Take me to Lingmu County," she said. "It is my family's land. Take me there and you will be rewarded."
Since he was out of a job, a noble family's reward sounded like decent consolation.
"Okay," he said. "Where's this Lingmu County at? What province?"
"Tiandao Province."
Tiandao? That was half a world away. He cursed in his native tongue.
Composing himself, he said, "Alright, alright, I'll get you there. Somehow."
Masako bowed to him again, excitedly saying, "Thank you! Thank you!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, calm down. We're talkin' 'bout some twelve thousand klicks as the crow flies an' we sure as hell ain't crows. We've got no money, no weapons, an' it ain't gonna be long before folks come lookin' for us."
"What do we do?" Masako asked.
Before Batista could answer, there was an explosion, followed by several others and blasts of machine gun fire. The riots had begun and the Regulars were moving in to put them down.
He took hold of her arm and said, "For now, we move. All this chaos is gonna buy us some time."
Looking at her and then down at himself, he added, "We need to do somethin' 'bout this. Come on."
He led her out of town to the web of rice paddies that covered most of the real estate for the next few klicks. The farmers were dirt-poor and reasonably hostile to outsiders, but the two of them weren't going to get far dressed as they were. If they could get some food and water for the road, even better.
If there was a way of marking the homes of kind-hearted fools, Batista didn't know it, so his only choice was to pick a hut and try his luck.
Before he left for the hut, he took hold of Masako by the sash around her waist and started trying to undo it.
"What are you doing!?" she exclaimed, he hands frantically working to keep the sash in place.
"If this goes wrong, you need to shed these layers an' make for the rice paddy," he told her as he was working on the knot. "Stay low an' keep movin'. Maybe you won't get shot."
"Shot?" she asked, as if it never occurred to her.
The thought of it was enough to get her to stop fidgeting. Once Batista had the knot undone, he held up his hand and said, "Just wait here."
Leaving Masako about fifty meters off, he approached the hut. Most of the locals were all Viet, but Celestial had some currency as a common language. Batista's Celestial was better than his Viet and he certainly couldn't pass for a Viet himself, so he tried leading with Celestial.
"Excuse me. Hello?"
The door opened and a scrawny farmer pointed a cheap hunting rifle at him. Low caliber, single shot, breech loader. The only thing a rural civilian was allowed to have. Still enough to kill if that single shot hit the mark.
"This is my land!" he shouted, his own Celestial a little worse than Batista's. "Get out of here!"
Batista held up his hands.
"Hey, hey! Wait! I'm from town. The soldiers hit my house. My wife an' me escaped. We need a place to stay for the night. We were wonderin' if--"
The farmer nudged his rifle to reiterate the threat.
"Get out or I shoot!"
It wouldn't have been a bad idea to just cut his losses and back away, but Batista knew they didn't have the time to be going door to door until they found a more receptive host.
"Come on, friend. Help a neighbor out."
"I'll count to three! One!"
"Listen to me, please."
Batista sighed.
"There's no talkin' to some people."
Faster than the farmer could react, Batista seized his rifle and dropped him with a single good punch. He went down like a sack of potatoes. Unfortunately for Batista, the farmer's wife started screaming when she saw her husband drop and her screaming woke up their kid--hard to tell if it was supposed to be a boy or a girl--, who then started crying. Even if the next hut was half a klick away, he really didn't need them making a lot of noise to draw people to his position.
Normally, he'd take a dim view to threatening a civilian woman, but he didn't have much time. He pointed the farmer's rifle at the wife and shouted, "Shut up!"
The woman kept screaming, which told him she was either too terrified to listen or that she didn't know Celestial. His Viet was terrible, but he'd have to make do somehow.
"Shut mouth!"
Terrified, the farmer's wife clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle her screams. Still keeping the rifle pointed at her, he held out his off-hand to try to calm her down.
"No hurt," he said in his clumsy Viet. "Shut mouth." He pointed to her kid and said, "Shut mouth kid."
The farmer's wife awkwardly reached out for her kid and took him up in her arms to try to get him to quiet down. Batista didn't know much about kids himself, but he had to hope the damned thing would shut up soon. The farmer's wife was shaking like a boozer four days since his last drink. It was enough to make him feel a little guilty, but considering was going to happen to him if he got caught, a few minutes of terror was a small price to pay.
While the farmer's wife was trying to calm down the kid, Batista called out to Masako, "Get in here!"
Masako shuffled in with one hand behind her back holding her sash in place. When she saw the unconscious farmer, she gasped. Thankfully she didn't scream. Batista motioned for her to come around in front of him.
To the farmer's wife, he said, "Clothes off." Expecting the worst, she started crying, so Batista had to tell her, "No hurt, no hurt. Clothes off." He then told Masako, "Swap clothes with her."
Clutching her robe tighter over her chest, Masako said, "Surely you cannot expect me to just disrobe right here."
"That's exactly what I expect, princess."
"A, at least turn around."
Batista rolled his eyes.
"Listen, if I turn around, she's gonna go for a knife or somethin'. You ain't got nothin I ain't ever seen. Now hurry up."
"You cannot possibly--"
"It'll be a lot worse for you if they catch us."
That sobering thought was enough to put her objections to rest. She unwound the sash and took off the three layers of silk robes. Under that was a white cotton robe and under that was a two-piece shirt and skirt of even lighter material. He wasn't making a point to appreciate what the highborn girl had to offer, but it wasn't much. Sure, she looked nice enough, but he preferred his women curvier. And with a few more years of experience.
Masako was blushing profusely as she donned the farmer's wife's pants and tied the strings of the ao yem. Even after she put on the shirt lying near the wife's mat, there was still a pink flush to her cheeks. The wife was less embarrassed, but she did look a little shamefaced. It was some honor thing she and her husband were going to have to work out later. Speaking of which...
Batista handed the rifle to Masako and said, "Hold this."
The way she held the rifle, you'd think he handed her a snake.
"Just hold it," he told her. "I don't want ya shootin' her, but I don't want her thinkin' my guard's down neither."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
He didn't answer her, or at least not directly. He yanked off the farmer's pants, prompting Masako's head to snap forward. Batista quickly changed into the farmer's clothes, keeping an eye on the wife the whole time. Wearing Masako's long white under-robe, she just sat there holding her kid, only keeping one eye on Batista and her husband. Batista was kind enough to dress the farmer in the jinbei he got from Madam Eng's rather than leaving him lying on the floor in just his loincloth. Batista could've done with some underwear for himself, but he would have to do without.
He took the rifle back from Masako and then went over to the wife. She shrank from him, but at least she didn't scream. He picked up one of the layers of Masako's silk robes and held it up to the wife's face, saying, "This yours. You sell."
He wished he knew how to say he was sorry for the trouble. The robes ought to be more than enough to compensate them, but hopefully they'd have the sense to try selling it in the next town or else it might just prove to be trouble for them. It was their problem, though.
There wasn't much to be had in the hut, but he also took a gourd bottle, a hand sickle, straw hats for the two of them and the couple's sandals. It would be enough to get them started.
He handed Masako the wife's hat and said, "Put this on and let's get outta here. Don't forget her sandals. I have a feelin' you wouldn't get much farther barefoot."
Masako bowed to the farmer's wife and said, "Please forgive this intrusion. When I return to my homeland, I will see that you are compensated."
"Come on," Batista said in annoyance. "She can't understand you anyway." He gave the wife a wave and told her, "Good night."
He took Masako by the arm to move her along. Once they were a good distance from the hut, he tossed the rifle into rice paddy.
"Why did you do that?" Masako asked.
"Only has one shot," Batista replied. "Won't do us much good. Besides, peasants aren't supposed to be walkin' 'round with guns."
"You didn't have to steal from them," she said.
"Oh, yes, I did," Batista replied. "And there's gonna be a lot more stealin' before we get to Lingmu. I don't plan on takin' anythin' we don't need, but I mean to survive an' if you wanna survive, you're gonna do what needs doin' an' you're gonna do it my way. We clear?"
Masako took offense to this, saying, "I have never been spoken to so brazenly in all my life."
"Jus' remember that I saved ya from plenny worse life experiences tonight an' if ya don't wanna find out what that woulda been like, you'll do as I say, right?"
"I suppose I have no choice."
"Ya always got a choice, princess," Batista replied. "It's jus' a matter a' what choice ya wanna live with."
And while it certainly didn't seem like all this started entirely by his own choice, there was no going back and he made the choice to see it through to the end, whatever that end might be.