11: Escape

The night seemed too peaceful. Disung lazed on the roof of Joaolong’s residence, restless. No breeze cooled his skin nor noises startled him. Nothing appeared odd. Then, an explosion of shouts alerted Disung to act.  

“Ah-ha!” he exclaimed to himself, knowing his gut instinct never failed. Without hesitation, he ran towards the chaos.

For many nights under the watchful eye of the moon, he waited for the assassin to reappear. Dreams of his father’s death plagued him and his mother’s tears brought a fierce determination to avenge his family. He could still hear the screams of his village fall into destruction because of the Fox. Tonight, he would get his revenge.

The Fox ran outside the imperial building. The mask sent a cold sweat down Disung’s back. Fierce eyes met his. His hiding spot – in the shadows of plants – turned useless and he stepped into the moonlight.

“We meet again, Fox.”

The Fox attacked. They readjusted themselves to a strong stance and lashed out with a twisted punch to Disung’s face. When this was blocked, the assassin swung their right leg. It hit Disung in the ear, shifting him off-balance.

“I just wanted to talk in peace but I see that you disagree,” Disung muttered, trying to keep his voice nonchalant despite the pain echoing in his head.

Disung lunged and the Fox backed up, relying on agility and quick thinking rather than brute strength. Their defensive stance appeared unstable and ever-changing, which seemed impractical in combat. It confused Disung but nevertheless, he didn’t stop. He tried a few times to hit the assassin with the palm and ridges of his hand. On the fourth try, he made contact with the Fox’s sternum. They stumbled back. Then, seeking an opportunity to escape, used the closeness of pillars to glide them onto the roof. Disung grabbed their foot, delaying the escape. The Fox tripped over but managed to push themselves onto the tiled roof.

 

“After all these years, you have not changed at all,” Disung spat as he joined his opponent and landed a heavy strike on the Fox’s ribs.

 

“Do you not remember? You made a family into a widow and father-less son! You destroyed a village full of innocent people!”

 

Finally, he felt it. The trigger for that familiar tingling was always an emotion, such as rage or desperation. It ate away at his conscious and left him nothing more than a beast, removing the carefree smile from his face and leaving a bloodthirsty glare. Everything slowed and out of habit, Disung focused primarily on reading an opponent’s movements and actions rather than fight. After, he would copy and use the same style to defeat them into humiliation. This technique earned him the name ‘Ànshù’.

However, it took longer to process the Fox’s fighting pattern. The style strayed far from traditional fighting of Shanhe. They reacted with light-footed movements and used multiple, small jabs aimed at pressure points or joints to harm the enemy. The most difficult part was balance; the fighting stance seemed fluid, changing constantly. The Fox used a foot or hand to move around and add power to their attacks; the style looked like a performance. All these technical elements would’ve taken years to master.

 

Too focused on this analysing while blocking the swift attacks, the Fox hit Disung just above his knee. He buckled over, losing full function of his leg and struggling against a sudden pain in his lower abdomen. During this neutralisation, the Fox fled.

 

Disung swore. When the pain in his leg subsided, he joined the guards patrolling. It would be useless to search alone and be ambushed; the Fox could kill him. I let him get away, Disung thought angrily himself, gripping his blade handle tighter. Father, I vow to avenge you. I won’t let this murderer escape me.

Just as the soldiers agreed to check Lady Gaze, the empress emerged from the imperial building. She had retired for bed, her hair swaying on her silken robes and the painted symbol on her head smeared off. Jiang followed behind, an unreadable expression on her harshly featured face. Strangely, she didn’t wear her usual maid uniform and instead, had a lovely, turquoise gown. The other maid with them wore a semi-sheer teal material to cover her face. There was something suspicion about their ill-fitting clothing and how close she stood near Jiang. Disung couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Yet, no one else batted an eye.

“Empress,” Disung greeted and dropped to his knee. “It is not safe to be outside.”

“I heard the Fox was inside the building and panicked. To stay inside would mean I trap myself. It is fortunate that I ran into you, Liu Disung.” The empress smiled kindly, her voice gentle.

“I will summon a guard for your protection immediately,” Disung replied and stood. Unease burdened him about the maid accompanying the empress. Jiang always kept close beside the empress, not other maids.

 “That is not necessary. My concern is Wang Joaolong. Please return to his side, as is your duty. I fear the worst if the Fox attacks him when he has just recovered.”

“I understand. Excuse me, empress.” Disung turned his back unwillingly and prepared to leave. Too late, he realised he should have trusted his gut instinct.

The strange maid flew out of the ill-fitting disguise. The material pooled on the ground, revealing a black outfit. They put their fox mask back on as they ran into the darkness of Lady Gaze. Almost everyone, including soldiers and Disung, were too stunned to act instantly. For the second time that night, Disung lost the Fox.