18: The Hunt
The annual hunt occurred in the woods to the far left of the palace, away from severe mountainous landscape. It took a half day journey therefore, most people camped the day before, including the emperor. By the time Disung and Joaolong arrived in the afternoon, bright tents littered the field.
Nothing exciting happened for the rest of the day nor night. Either people drank to hide their nerves or slept early to prepare their bodies. Disung complained loudly throughout his guard duty, wasting time by eating a ridiculous amount of food or playing pranks on drunken people. The acts were harmless but proved his lack of maturity. For this exact reason, Joaolong enjoyed Disung’s company. The carefree attitude encouraged him to forget his own worries, including the empress’s wish. The stress and pressure of this request made it hard to sleep.
The next day, both men dressed in dark greens and browns to camouflage into the landscape. The cheap fabric – hanging loosely to conceal their weapons – blended with commoners clothing. The only sign of their nobility were the badges on the horses’ saddles.
“Keep your bow ready to draw from the very start today,” Disung advised.
“This isn’t my first hunt,” Joaolong said as he led a black stallion – a present from the empress – to the arena.
Disung shrugged. “I have a feeling today will be different from previous years. More dangerous than ever before.”
Overnight, the open area transformed into a half-fenced yard. The emperor oversaw everything from a substitute throne on a makeshift platform. Already, many men stood on the grass, ready to charge into the forest. The line into this area wound for metres. Men walked through a small entrance on the fenced side and gave a worker their identification documents for verification. This gave solid evidence to families to confirm whether their relative died in the hunt. Last year, not all bodies were found.
“Master Wang Joaolong! Ànshù! Join us,” Huli invited when his eyes spotted Joaolong entering the arena.
The prince and a few younger noblemen, both from the palace and imperial city, had gathered together in front of their horses. Their clothes, although plain in colour, oozed wealth from the material glimmer, patterns and intricate embroidery. Joaolong raised his eyebrows at their outfits. Only fools paraded their fortune in a hunt full of varying status and no rules. It made them targets for thievery.
“I fear my company isn’t preferred especially with a reckless guard. It would be a disgrace,” Joaolong replied when he approached.
“We were just discussing your guard. It seems he has been mischievous. I heard he played games with other competitors. Mao Gengxin was just confessing that Ànshù hid his weapons and left little clues as if it were a child’s treasure hunt. He had to climb a tree to retrieve his sword.”
The men all chuckled, the alcohol in their hands helping raise their spirits.
“I hope you will not punish Ànshù. A great warrior needs practice in different scenarios to keep sharp. These actions were as harmless as they are foolish,” Joaolong said.
“I understand but I cannot be so merciful next time. Thank fate that he misbehaves during a merry occasion or else I wouldn’t be forgiving,” Huli replied, showcasing his authority. “Drink?”
Disung stretched his hand out towards a goblet. “I would gladly accept—”
“We must not or I fear we embarrass ourselves,” Joaolong interrupted and restrained his guard.
“There is nothing wrong with a drink of comradery before a grand event. I am the Crowned Prince and you will drink if I order you.” Huli filled a cup that matched his own with contents from a flask. On this cup, a gem had fallen off but Joaolong didn’t dare mention it. Growing up in the palace gave him the experience of Huli’s short temper and wrath over small things. Once, Huli's toy sword got covered in cobwebs and he beat a eunuch until blood splattered on the ground. The violence matched his father's.
“To the most magnificent hunt and those who prosper!” Huli cheered.
“To those who prosper!” The chorus of men repeated and raised their cups before drinking.
The wine tasted incredibly strong, fermented over a long period of time. It burned Joaolong’s throat and he gagged at the lingering sweetness on his tongue. However, he forced himself to drink the whole contents. Huli would claim him rude and defying if he left a single drop.
“Another?” Huli suggested.
The prince’s smile gave Joaolong goosebumps. Their relationship had never been pleasant and the prince only showed pleasure if Joaolong suffered. Something was wrong. If felt like his eighteenth birthday celebration again.
“Men! Listen closely!” The emperor stood and held up his hand, signalling a eunuch to hit the gong. The ringing grasped everyone’s attention. They all gawked at Weishan’s bright red and gold outfit, symbolising happiness and luck for the festivities. The suitability for a day full of bloodshed was questionable.
“Princes, noblemen, farmers, labourers and others alike. I welcome you to the annual hunt of Shanhe!” Applause echoed throughout the area. “Today there can only be one victor and that man will have the honour of his wish being granted. Whether it be a wife, riches or position in the Lotus Place, it can be yours to obtain. How? You must bring back the most impressive kill! But heed my warning: do not be foolish. This is no ordinary hunt. Lurking in these woods are savage creatures and dangerous men. I will let you decide which is more vicious. The hunt will finish in the late afternoon, when the flower has fully bloomed and the gong rings at the final hour.”
The emperor placed a silver, mechanical flower in front of him and winded its small lever. At first, the flower chimed and the bud opened a fraction. By the afternoon, the petals would fully bloom. “Let the hunt begin!”
Another gong ring ignited pure chaos. The crowd spooked the horses, the poorer men ran in frenzy towards the forest and onlookers of the hunt cheered. Three accidental deaths occurred from trampling within minutes. The emperor clapped his hands, enjoying the gruesome entertainment.
Joaolong and Disung restrained their horses and patiently waited for a clear path. Once the crowd dispersed, they prodded their horses to trot away. Disung sung loudly, annoying the emperor as they ventured into the forest. The song fit the theme of the hunt, telling tale about envy and murder.
We lived in danger, untouched by woe.
Our blood ties distant as time flowed.
In the battles, you found riches while I found a lover.
Slowly, you grew envious of my plunder.
Over years we spilled blood but the worst was rather,
When you killed me, your own brother.
The upbeat melody echoed around the trees. Days earlier, the first summer rain came. It had blessed the wilderness with nourishment and the greenery looked magnificent. Flowers smiled brighter and raindrops twinkled on every leaf. However, this beauty was a trap. It hid steep slopes, sudden cliffs and deep valleys. Animals weren’t the only thing to fear in the hunt.
“Keep your bow ready,” Disung reminded again, more protective than usual.
“You are acting strange.”
“I am always strange.”
“Yes but today you are worse.”
“You have a mission from the empress. We cannot fail. Our actions will change Shanhe. There is more pressure than before,” Disung explained. “Stop. Deer to our left.”
The men paused near a small stream, watching the sunlight twinkle and animals come to quench their thirst. A water deer drank deeply from the flowing water, poised on the bank. Its fluffy ears twitched, listening for any predators. When it lifted its head, thin, drooping tusks emerged and water droplets dripped from the sharp end. Joaolong readied his bow and fired.
Archery always interested Joaolong. He found the precision and skill involved admirable. He never intended to learn it though; he only aimed to gain a council position and fight against poisons. Nothing else. Then, Disung suggested practicing archery months after becoming a bodyguard. It provided a form of protection when no one could help. The hunt provided perfect training opportunities over the years.
The deer bucked. The first arrow sliced through its fur and embedded itself into the animal’s flesh. Joaolong rapidly fired another arrow at its chest. The deer plummeted to the ground. Blood wept from around the arrows. They had their first kill. It would be great bait for something more impressive.
“Joaolong, you need to practice! You wasted two arrows to bring the deer to the ground. You must get your nose out of books and into exercise,” Disung taunted as they dismounted their horses.
Joaolong playfully shoved Disung’s head away to clear his path to the deer. However, something else had the same idea. A group of men crossed the shallow part of the river bank and waded to the corpse. Disung leapt into action, running clumsily towards them.
“Hey! Stop! That is our deer! Damn thieves!”
The strangers froze. Water splashed at their knees. All four of the men had thick dark facial hair and similar features, showing they belonged to the same family. The main weapons were small knives, restrained in their belts.
The leader – a young man with sleek black hair, a patchy beard and aggravated skin engulfed by acne– stood up straight. “It was our kill first!”
“Don’t you touch it!” Disung yelled and sprinted to the dead water deer. “I will skin your hide instead of the animal!”
“You can try,” the man replied, bracing himself to an attack. “Why do you hesitate? Are you admitting you are not the greater man who brought down this kill?”
“I would not say greater,” Disung replied and smiled cockily. “I am the greatest. Give up now.”
“Arrogance is a displeasing feature. No wonder you plan to steal our deer!”
“You are stealing our deer! It has two arrows that were shot by my companion. Do not touch our prize!”
“There is a knife on the other side. It proves the kill is ours!” The man kicked the deer over to prove his claim. A small blade protruded the animal’s shoulder joint.
“That shot would not have killed it. Therefore, the deer is ours,” Disung argued and moved closer to the corpse, ready to take it.
“Then I, Han Ying, challenge you to a battle!”
Disung cocked his head, astounded. “Over a deer?”
“We need to win this hunt or our hides will be skinned by someone far scarier than you.”
“So be it. I accept your challenge but get ready for a quick defeat.”
Disung hit his fist into Ying’s unguarded. Winded, Ying stumbled back and Disung whacked his ribs on the right side. It looked too easy. Joaolong watched Disung continue his onslaught against Ying, who struggled to defend himself. He knew Disung withheld most of his strength and purposely toyed with the teenage boy. It wasted hunting time.
“Disung—” Joaolong began to interrupt but lost his words at the sight of a blade.
Ying withdrew a hidden sword. Disung froze. His eyes bulged. Slowly, he grabbed a long, straight stick from the ground.
“You will insult me if you use that,” Ying said.
“Which will it hurt more? Your feelings or-” Disung grinned and lunged forward. The stick whacked the man’s thigh, “-your bones?”
Embarrassed, Ying charged forward with the sword angled to cut upwards. Disung sidestepped around his barrage of attacks with ease. The desperation to win made Ying’s moves predictable. The sword swung forward to slice his enemy apart sideways but Disung bent backwards, using the stick to support his weight as the sword grazed the air above. Once it vanished from sight, Disung snapped back into a strong stance and prepared to block the next attack. The sword and stick banged together repeatedly as the men bounced on their feet. Ying extended his arm and Disung blocked the blade, positioning the stick to run parallel to his body. Exerting his strength, he flicked the sword over his head and to the other side, then readjusted the stick to withstand the sword’s force. From this angle, Disung had the advantage of using his dominant side. Ying pulled back and raised his sword above his head to strike downwards but it only sealed his fate; Disung closed the distance between them and punched Ying with an uppercut to his chin.
“Finish him and let us leave,” Joaolong said drowsily. He felt uneasy. A tiredness suddenly hit him. Concentrating seemed too strenuous. His eyes became lazy, blurring the scenery surrounding him. What was happening?
Meanwhile, Disung twisted his body and hit Ying on his side, then his wrist with the stick. This forced Ying to drop the sword. Then, to finish, Disung punched Ying on his nose. A gross crunch filled the air and Ying fell to the ground. Blood coursed down from his nostrils and his pupils dilated. The battle stick pressed at his throat.
“I yield. You win,” Ying groaned.
“Did you see my victory, Joaolong?” Disung asked as he helped the boy to his feet. “Joaolong?”
Joaolong struggled to answer.