December 5th, 1892.
This is where It will end.
You need to know this place before we proceed.
What hits you first and stays with you at all times is the Incense and factory smoke that fill the air and force you to feel their vapours getting in to every inch and pore of your skin. It’s thick and it covers the streets in a disorientating wave that can over power the uninitiated. From the ram shackle wooden houses and shops, hang tattered and aged black and red paper lanterns dangling amongst dim orange lamp lights and luminous welcome signs. The black lanterns are in memory of the Emperor’s dead son, Zi Kun-
“Gone so young, claimed by the plague. Not just him though, half the city fell to it Penn! Half the city! Thank the Gods for the Yilao Medical Corps, without them you would have returned to a tomb.” Was what Lady told me with a heavy heart when I returned from the war. She was unaware I had lost my mother and brother in that plague but how was she to know.
The buildings are compact, have three floors and rise up high to pack in their many residents. This makes narrow alleys in every gap available, perfect for criminals and prostitutes to skulk around in and hassle visitors and foreigners.
This city is loud and alive. It roars spite and corruption. There is no escape. There is no freedom. It’s citizens are trapped until death, to slave and sweat and fuck and duplicate and repeat. No wonder the royals refuse to even acknowledge it in their decadal tour of the Empire.
Wild animals also run through the streets. From chickens, dogs and cats, to pigs, peacocks and even donkeys. Min Kin has it’s own animal kingdom. They usually stay out of our way though-
“After all, Mi Kin does belong to man… And in turn, man belongs to the Fěicuì lóng… The Emerald Dragons.”
Everything in turn, belongs to the Fěicuì lóng…
My name is Li Penn. Through these streets I walk. By it’s own nature, my stride is confident and precise. As I turn the corners and traverse the seemingly endless maze of food vendors and counterfeit goods market stalls, the commoners notice me and begin to tidy away their messes and filth. Hushed whispers begin spreading to their children to rush inside and stop their playing, to escape the gaze of the man they all fear.
And fear I suppose, they should.
To them I am a man of great stature. To them the piss and dirt filled gutters that are on almost every street corner should try to make the effort to look presentable to me.
I was born here and raised amongst these people and now I am above them. That used to fill me with pride and now it fills me with shame. I have worked for the Fěicuì lóng since I was eight, from the lowest level of petty hustler to the elite level of Left Hand. Once I wore rags now I wear a black suit blazer, vest and trousers that fit my thin body perfectly, with shoes I can afford to be polished twice a day. My white mandarin collar shirt is always fixed where it should be; to the top and my black bracers are clipped over it keeping my trousers in position. A black bowler hat sits over my slicked back jet coloured hair and never moves unless I am bowing to a lady of importance of course.
Mother always did teach me to be polite to women.
I check the golden pocket watch which is tightly tied to my belt. It’s twelve o’clock, almost time for me to go to Lady’s. I have some business to attend to first, and keep moving through the streets. I take out my box of matches and a cigarette from my breast pocket and light it up. Smoking clears my mind. Helps my nerves.
I have a right to be nervous.
By the time today is through, I predict half this district will be in flames.
“Mr Penn!” Jian-heng suddenly calls out to me from his grime coated bakery, causing me to nearly drop my cigarette and pull out my six shot revolver to blast him away. I restrain my trigger finger and notice the smell of rotten pastries lingering out the side of the building as I enter reluctantly.
“Make it quick.” I order, calming my nerves. Truth be told, the distraction is useful. Jian-heng is a small rotund man in chef’s garb. He’s dimwitted and blind as a mole but he can cook a good meal. It’s also a shame about his hygiene or lack there of especially when It comes to his business.
“Mr Penn, awfully sorry to bother you.” He stutters. “I’ve been waiting for an hour for you to come around-”
“Yes. I know this is the time of day on a Friday you usually do your rounds and check up on the Captain so, I was wondering if I could pass on some news to you regarding some neighbourhood disturbances.”
“Go on.” I sigh.
“Well- It is a little tricky…”
“Jian my time is incredibly valuable as of late and it does not need to be wasted on dramatics, please do get to the point.”
He goes red from embarrassment. I had to scold him otherwise he would have took all day to spit out whatever information he has.
“Ah yes, sorry sorry.” He says to me clearly upset at his behaviour. “I recently noticed some men hassling Miss Lao. Do you know of Miss Lao?”
Do I know of Miss Lao. Of course I know of Miss Lao. She is one of the most attractive bits of skirt on this whole street who might I add, has laid with me numerous times.
“The dancer at Ruby’s, yes I know of her do go on.” I reply stroking my chin and taking another drag on my cigarette.
“Well yes the men were demanding money from her. I heard something about, if she didn’t pay up by the festival of the Dragon on Monday eve then they would… Well you could imagine the threats of vagrants Mr Penn. They are the cancer of this city.”
I place a hand on the baker’s shoulder and smile half heartedly. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention Jian, it will be looked in to as soon as time permits.”
He smiles back as if my courteous nature is a gift from the Gods themselves. I place a bronze Yuan in his palm as I shake his hand as payment for the information. You have to give a little to get a little.
This would actually be interesting if I didn’t know what today was going to bring. We get paid to keep rabble like vagrants where they belong; in the sewers. In this city there is a difference between the homeless and the vagrants. The homeless did not choose their situation whilst the vagrants are rabid and viscous rapists, thieves and murderers who dwell and thrive in the bowel of this place. They simply have no class. They don’t even have homes like most criminals or beds to sleep in.
For them to actually dare to come out in to the light and demand payment, probably means one of our organization is on some form of take from them and is looking the other way. Which leads to the theory that if they have enough money to put someone on the take then they probably have enough money to have built a small army under ground.
This may come in useful later. I exit the bakery and continue on my way to the Captain’s house. It creates a dead end around one of the alleyways and is crawling with young gang members. The house is guarded by Red Dog, the Captain’s chief body guard who’s greeting I ignore as I enter.
The captain’s not a nice man but he’s good at collecting pay around these streets from the lower level gang leaders, and he keeps order when it needs to be kept. My main problem with him is he likes to rough up women. That’s why today is going to be quite enjoyable for me. See, he went too far the previous night and cracked a whore’s jaw at the brothel, Rubies. Safe to say that the girl will be out of service for a long time to come.
“This reflects badly on me.” I tell him once I am sat across from him at his desk on the top floor. I have the window to my back looking out to the street below.
He is lanky and ugly, wearing a makeshift maroon suit that he thinks makes him look smart. It doesn’t.
“What does?” He says, his voice as coarse as stone as he places his hands on to the creaky wood table that separates us. This room is practically empty apart from the two chairs and the table. It’s the Captains supposed business room.
I light another cigarette and he does the same. His men are downstairs getting intoxicated whilst we conduct our dealings. I stare at him for a moment in unflinching dominance so he understands that I am not here to play any games.
“Fine.” He backs down. “I went too far with the slut-”
“Excuse me?” I say to him leaning forward, looking stern. The Captain shouldn’t have called her that.
“The slut who I beat. I shouldn’t have hit her that hard it wasn’t right-”
“Listen to me and listen good. You have lost the right to call that woman anything derogatory. Not even whore. You tell me her name. Her real name. You know it, so tell it to me. And I swear to the Gods if I hear you call her slut once more…”
He looks lost for words like a little rodent caught in the path of a predator twice it’s size.
“I don’t remember-” His pride is getting the better of him.
“Captain, If you make me repeat myself one more time I will throw you from that window.”
“Mia Xiao.” He mutters. “Her name was Mia Xiao.”
“Good.” I lean back and take another drag. “You have the weeks collection for me?”
He reaches under the table and without effort unfastens a bag strapped to it. Sliding the bag across the table towards me, I stop it with my right hand. It feels a little lighter than usual.
It doesn’t matter.
“Boss I actually wanted to talk to you about someth-”
“Bao.” I interrupt him with his birth name, calmly. He doesn’t expect it and it throws him off. No one has called him that in years, he’s thinking about what to say, how to come back at me, I can see the cogs in his mind trying to process it.
It doesn’t matter.
“I-” He stutters.
“Bao. This is the end of our professional relationship. Recently I had a… Well. The specifics will not trouble your little mind so, I’ll save you that long and I’m sure tedious explanation. You are going to be my-” I sit forward. “Kindling of sorts.”
He looks horrified. Good. “Excuse me?” He asks timidly.
“Kindling. You know what this is?” I am purposefully patronizing.
He nods and gulps at the same time. “Yes.”
“I’m going to burn you.” I tell him this calmly, leaning back again and taking a drag.
After a few tense moments he bursts from his chair and leaps to the other side of the room. He grabs a gun from beneath a crate and aims it at my head but I am quicker and already have my golden dragon decorated shooter aimed at him from my lap. One shot rings out and it splatters the Captain’s brains all over the walls. He falls back and cracks his head on the floor boards.
I don’t move yet. I can hear the Captain’s men charging up the stairs rapidly, their footsteps beating against the worn steps. They are shouting at each other aggressively.
I aim my gun at the door with a steady hand.
Seconds later the first breaks through and he gets a bullet in his throat.
The second comes in straight after and his forehead is taken out.
The third gets it in the heart.
The fourth and fifth are too high to even have their knives out. Two more shots later and they roll back down the stairs, blood leaking from the holes in their heads.
Out of bullets now. And I hear the door man enter and begin moving heavy footed through the house. No time for reloading. I’m going to have to take Red Dog out with my hands. Now I stand, place my gun on the table and quickly analyse the situation.
Switch blade on my belt. I un-clip it and click the button so that the knife edge springs out. Holding it down by my side I do one more quick scan.
If it comes down to it I could possibly use the butt of the gun although, I know Red Dog, I grew up with him. He’s a prize fighter, the butt of a gun would be like hitting a boulder with a chop stick.
The giant of a man, bull rushes in and almost trips over the corpse pile of his friends. He looks at them and then up at me, clearly distraught.
“Mr Penn?” He grunts before his face goes red with pure rage. He screams and runs at me but I turn on my heel at the last second and slash his face. He slams in to the table and I bring the knife down on the back of his head.
It’s safe to say Red Dog’s fighting speed has improved greatly since I last watched him in the cage. He manages to send an arm flying and whack the blade out of my hand before it sticks in his skull. I instantly grab the gun with my other free hand and crack it across the man’s cheek as he rises up. It hardly affects him so I swing the gun again this time almost breaking the handle off.
Red Dog still doesn’t go down.
He punches me and almost knocks out a tooth. I quickly recover and land a fist in his throat. He splutters and stumbles back and I take advantage of this by spearing him in to a wall. He slams his head back on the wall and I place my palm over his face.
After I repeatedly bash his skull against the wall, Red Dog slumps down leaving the contents of his head all over the bricks above him.
I have some of his brain matter splashed on my hands. I wash it off in the sink before I exit the house. Other than seeing Lady, there’s no reason to really clean my hands… They are going to get plenty more bloody before the day is through. A local young gang member I don’t recognise, runs over to me and asks what happened.
“You do me a favour boy.” I tell him handing him a silver Yen. “Go inside to the top floor. Then once you have had a good look around I want you to head over to the Dragons, you know where they are?”
“Good. Tell them exactly what and who you saw here today. You know my name?”
He nods once more.
“Of course you do. Tell them I will be at Lady’s within the hour and they can find me there.”
He doesn’t respond but heads in side apprehensively. I watch him go and then leave the area quickly, making my way to the Tea House.
Preparations need to be made.