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It was midday and it was dark.
Ming Han rode through the village gates without even a glance at the posted guards. There was no need. They all knew who he was. They watched him with a restrained kind of dread, as if he might turn on them at any moment. A gust of wind brushed across his skin, dredging up the heavy scent of blood and death. The stench of carnage filled his cock with heat and lust. He'd need to visit the tavern tonight to work off all his dark energy.
The air was moist and smelled like rain. His horse pranced beneath him, eager to get back home to the quiet peace of its stall.
He rode up to the governor's palace and handed his mount to the groom. Opening his saddlebag, he grabbed the soiled black hair of Gornoth's severed head and pulled it out. The groom gasped and stepped back.
Ming ignored him. Taking the palace steps two at a time, he made his way inside. A thunderous rumble from an approaching storm rolled through the palace, making the lights flicker. He took his time as he made his way to Governor Silver's office. There was no need to rush. This was a glorious moment, a moment to savor--his enemy's blood coating his battle armor, his enemy's head in his hand.
Two guards were posted on either side of the office door and, upon seeing Ming, they blocked his entry with their spears. Ming advanced on them slowly, letting them study the filth and gore that covered his armor. When he was within five feet of them, he lifted Gornoth's head so they could see it more clearly.
Ming continued to hold the head up and remained silent.
The elder of the two guards studied the head, then Ming. "Where is Captain Po Yang?" heasked.
Ming lowered the head. "He died in battle."
The guards hesitated, unsure if they should let him in or not.
"The governor is waiting for my report," Ming said. "I think it would be unwise to detain me."
Both men stood at attention, lifting their weapons from the doorway.
Ming entered and advanced on the governor's desk. The man looked more worn than Ming remembered from their first meeting last spring. His hair had gone white-gray and there were a number of small worry lines around his eyes and mouth.
Governor Silver looked up as he approached, sighed and placed his pen on the desk. Ming took two steps forward and dropped the head on the desk facing the governor.
The governor stared at it for a few seconds, then said, "Where is the captain?"
"He's dead," Ming replied.
Silver took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Thunder rumbled in the distance and it began to rain. "That's too bad," he said. "He was an excellent soldier."
Ming said nothing. He couldn't think about Po's death yet, it was too fresh and raw.
Silver gestured to the severed head. "This your kill, Ming?"
"Captain Yang said many complimentary things about you and your military talents. He thought very highly of you. He even told me he considered you his equal on the battlefield," Silver said, getting out of his chair to pace. He stopped by the window and stared out.
Ming felt the sorrowful weight of Po's death fill the void in his heart. "Captain Yang was a very kind man. He thought highly of all the men who served under him."
"He will be a hard man to replace," Silver said, thoughtfully. He turned around to study Ming. "How long have you been a mercenary?"
"All my adult life, Excellency."
"I understand you grew up an orphan. You never knew your parents?"
Ming shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, Excellency, that is true."
"Who trained you to fight?"
"I trained myself, sir."
Silver folded his arms across his chest and fell into a short brooding silence. "Can you suggest anyone to replace Captain Yang?" he asked.
"May I humbly suggest myself, Excellency?"
"Are you sure you can do this, Ming?" the governor asked. "Are you sure you can keep the men in line? You're kind of young for such an important position."
Ming met the governor's nervous gaze. "Yes, sir," Ming said. "I am sure I can handle the men."
The governor fell silent for a long time, watching him. "I need you to be absolutely ruthless to our enemies, Ming. Can you do that?"
"I know of no other way to be, Excellency."
"Good. Then I hereby appoint you to the rank of captain. From now on, you only answer to me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Excellency," Ming said. "I understand you completely."
The tavern was stuffy and smelled of the damp from outside. Ming came in, shook the rain off his cloak and made his way to the table in the back. All his fellow mercenaries were seated there, and fell silent as he approached. They nervously moved aside and made a place for him to sit.
He sat down and was offered a drink from the serving maid. He took it, nodded to her in gratitude, and pulled a long sip. He placed the glass on the table and leaned back in his chair trying to will the ache from his muscles.
His men glanced from one to the other. Finally, Lou spoke up, "With all due respect, lord, may we ask what the governor said?"
Ming looked up. "He congratulated us on our victory and appointed me captain."
A tense hush fell over the group. Lou looked as if he'd been struck in the face. "But..." he stammered. "You are one of the youngest men in the group. Why wouldn't the governor choose someone with more experience?"
"I have a lifetime of experience," Ming said and sipped his drink.
"Yes, lord, but--"
Ming stood up and pulled his katana from its scabbard. The noisy tavern grew quiet as patrons cast wary looks at the mercenary table. He placed the blade against Lou's cheek and glared at him. "But what?"
Lou glanced around at the other mercenaries. Finding no support, he held his hands up in surrender. "Nothing, nothing. I am very pleased for you, lord."
Ming met each warrior's gaze one by one until he was satisfied that no one else wanted to challenge him. He replaced his weapon and took his seat. Everyone relaxed a little.
"How many of Gornoth's men are still hiding in the mountains?" Ming asked.
Jinn, a short Asian warrior with a wide pale scar across the bridge of his nose, said, "About eleven, lord."
Ming frowned. "What are the chances they will regroup and find another leader?"
All the mercenaries looked at one another. Lou swirled the remainder of his drink around in his glass. "The chances of that are good."
Ming watched the tavern patrons laughing and drinking. No one seemed to have a care in the world. "Then we must hunt them down and kill them before they get the chance."
"When do we start, lord?" Jinn asked.
Ming stood up, ignoring the fatigue in his muscles. "We start tonight."