21: Wang Joaolong's Saviour
Since the beginning of the hunt, Mingzhu watched Cheng. She risked everything for a moment with him. He knew truth and she wanted answers. How did you save us during the fire? Why did you marry my sister? How did she really die? All these questions haunted her. She needed closure before the festival. Otherwise, she would die ashamed of her past naivety.
Cheng stayed alone for most of the hunt. Earlier, he paid a group of bandits handsomely to kill many men. Mingzhu thought nothing of it. The hunt provided the perfect opportunity for assassinations. Everyone took advantage of the danger, just as she planned to do.
Quietly, she raised her throwing knife. She didn’t plan to end his life. Yet. The idea of killing someone still terrified her. It reminded Mingzhu of her father. All those years ago, he did not care about the blood of innocent that stained the clan. She could still see the black eyes of her father and it made her shiver. If she took a life, would her eyes be as wild and feral?
A boar squealed in the distance and Mingzhu risked glancing away from her target. Far below Cheng, to the left, she could make out a fallen man. A bulk animal huffed at him. He slumped in defeat.
Why aren’t you fighting? She wondered. Since the hunt started, she’d seen men claw free from snake pits and try escape a tiger’s teeth. Why is he giving up so easily?
“That is not my concern,” Mingzhu told herself. Her eyes returned to Cheng, who remained frozen as he listened to distant noises of a fight. She raised the knife again.
One blunt dagger bounced off the hay target while the other sank deeply in the compound. The dagger on the ground had a yellow ribbon; it belonged to eight-year-old Mingzhu. She glared at the smug boy, a couple years older than her, who had aimed perfectly. They had grown up together but despite this, they shared rivalry and hatred rather than a close friendship.
“I win again!”
“I let you, boy!” Mingzhu snarled back, unwilling to acknowledge his real name.
Master shook his head – full of hair in his youth – and paced behind the children. Most were focused on learning this basic skill so he kept his attention primarily on Mingzhu and his son. They always caused the most trouble.
“This is not a competition. There is no winner or loser.”
“But the loser would be dead in a real dangerous situation,” the boy replied. “I would have saved her life.”
“You save her life but did not help her learn. What would she do if alone when an enemy approached? I expect better from you,” Master told his son. The boy hung his head in shame and Mingzhu poked her tongue at him.
“As for you,” Master said to Mingzhu, “accept and ask for help. You need to put more strength in your throw. You are too scared of the impact. Do not focus on the hatred of a person or yourself, but the need to save someone. Imagine you are saving your sister or Duckling from harm. Try again.”
Juan never got into danger. She remained by their mother’s side, safe and sound. The truth made Mingzhu bitter. Instead, she thought about Duckling. Since the little girl followed Mingzhu around like an imprinted chick, everyone gave her the odd nickname. Her mother died at birth and Master’s family adopted her. Mingzhu secretly adored her.
“Relax. Aim. Breath. Throw.”
Mingzhu let the tension ease out of her body and forgot her surroundings. She lifted her arm and aimed the dagger, focusing on the hay barrel. The straw morphed into a face of a man; he had Mingzhu’s fierce eyes and her stubborn lip but the rest of his features were strong and gruff. Hatred radiated from him.
“Forget hatred. Focus. Save someone.”
Mingzhu tried to morph the image into Duckling in danger. The man grabbed the girl and laughed. At the sound, the dagger pierced his straw face.
The knife left Mingzhu’s hand. It dived through the air, piercing her target. The boar squealed. Cheng ran. Anyone near did the same. Except the weak man.
Saving a life is far greater motivation than hate. You have forgotten that. Master told her these words when they met again after Juan’s death. As always, he was right. She wanted to prove that she had grown since then.
Despite the unwillingness to aim at the new target, a hum of satisfaction went through Mingzhu when approaching the dead boar. The blade pierced straight through its eye, into the skull. A perfect shot. Yet, it’s neck had been sliced open. This was not her doing.
The weak man, covered in blood, dropped his knife. Mingzhu respected his attempt to fight. She cocked her head – a very birdlike trait to do – to study him. His eyes looked delirious. The boar’s blood did not hide his angelic face nor did the daggy clothes disguise his identity.
“Wang Joaolong?” She muttered in disbelief. Why was he here? Why was he in this state?
The man groaned and vomited on himself. Muscles across his body twitched. His eyes rolled back into his head as he fell completely flat on the ground. He coughed and sputtered, then foam bubbled at his mouth. Mingzhu felt completely lost, her eyes flickering between the arrow wound in his shoulder and his feverish face. Just her luck; she saved a man dying of both poisoning and wounds.
“If you die after I wasted my chance for revenge, I will make sure to strangle your spirit. I curse Disung for leaving you like this! Where is he?” Mingzhu grumbled, trying to manage her fury. “If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't save you. Be thankful I am indebted and my sister knew some things about plant poisons. Otherwise, you would rot here for eternity."
Mingzhu rolled Joaoloang over, swallowing her disgust at the mixture of blood and bodily fluid. She shoved her fingers down his throat, coaxing him to vomit. She saw Juan do this to the children in the village after they ate a toxic plant. It took a few dramatic heaves before Joaolong vomited again, barely retaining consciousness. Smooth fluid dampened the ground. When no more came, no matter how much the man heaved, Mingzhu lifted him onto her back. They looked ridiculous; a small woman carried a full-grown male over her shoulders like an animal. The weight made Mingzhu buckle but she persevered, gritting her teeth. They needed a safe haven to recover.
When the ground turned rocky, a cave gleamed ahead. Mingzhu thanked the gods; most of her energy had dissipated and giving up seemed the easier option. They squeezed through a narrow gap in the rocks, covering themselves in dirt, moss and tiny bugs. The inside appeared more pleasant; no snakes hid inside, they could stand up in the space and a fallen tree, caught by the boulders, provided coverage from above.
While Joalong lay in safety, Mingzhu started a fire a few metres outside. An assortment of dry twigs gave life to a spark made by rocks, turning it into a small flame. After a few minutes, it extinguished. Mingzhu cooled the charcoal and mixed it into Joaolong’s water carrier from his belt. Juan showed her this trick when they lived alone; it helped absorb poison in the system. Just like the children years ago, Mingzhu forced Joaolong to drink the liquid by holding his nose closed, then wiped any that spilled down his chin. After, she turned her attention to the wound.
“What would Juan do? What would Juan do?” Mingzhu muttered to herself, panicked. Her usefulness died. Joaolong needed Juan. She was the healer. If only Mingzhu died instead of her. “I should inspect the wound first? Yes. Of course. I cannot do anything if I do not see the damage.”
Mingzhu tore the robes around the arrow. However, she decided to rid the whole top of the tunic to remove the smell of vomit. This led her to find Joaolong’s bandaged chest. Between Joaolong’s pectorals, a long, rectangular object protruded through the bandages. Mingzhu took it out and discovered it was a jade amulet with a detailed lotus flower. Around the edges, the words ‘true prince’ were inscribed.
“True prince,” Mingzhu whispered in awe.
Master kept paintings of this. He once explained the significance to her. According to Shanhe customs, the emperor’s first wife’s children could claim the throne, surpassing concubine children. To prove their status, they were given a jade token.
“The mission is to maintain peace by regaining control over Shanhe. If the emperor remains greedy, the true heir will take his place,” Master said.
“There is no need to be cryptic. The only heir is the concubine’s son,” Mingzhu replied.
Master ignored her and continued his stroll through the mountain village. “The mission is more than kill the emperor. Please understand that when you enter the palace.”
“You are a sly fox,” Mingzhu muttered to her master, wherever he was. “You should have just told me the truth.”
There was a larger scheme at hand. The Masked Masters were aware of the empress’s child and the pendent outside the grave proved the boy lived on. They wanted her to remove the emperor because they found a worthy replacement. This meant a great change awaited Shanhe. And all this time, she was left in the dark. Typical. The mountain clan still had not trust in her.
“I will keep this safe for now.” Mingzhu pocketed the pedant. But how was Joaolong involved? It must have been why he was shot by an arrow.
Joaolong let out a guttural groan. It reminded Mingzhu that she needed to fix the wound. The typical small arrow puncture had morphed into a mess, the arrow broken and splintered among the torn flesh. Under Mingzhu’s disgusted eyes, it started to bleed again. What should she do?
“Stop the bleeding,” She instructed herself but hesitated. “If I leave the wood in there, it will get infected. Just like that farmer from the hills. I have to get rid of it first.”
Carefully, Mingzhu picked the the splinters from the skin which caused more blood to dribble down the man’s back. She splashed small amounts of water from her own flask to wash away the blood and continue working. Throughout the process, she muttered to herself to keep focused. Master and Juan were healers, not her. She needed to keep her wits to save him.
The last part seemed the worst; she needed to remove the top of the arrow. Mingzhu took a deep breath before reaching into the flesh in search of the spearhead. The squishing sound made her shudder. Mangled flesh guided her fingers to touch something unnaturally hard and smooth. Too bad if it's a bone, she darkly thought and ripped the object from its lodging.
“Argh!” Joaolong screamed as the pain dragged him from unconsciousness. As soon as the sound left his lips, he became limp once more.
Mingzhu washed the wound after that, aghast at the amount of blood that poured from Joaolong’s body. Maybe she had killed him. She used the bandage from his chest, and even sacrificed her face covering, to add pressure and dress the wound. Nothing else could be done. She was not Juan; she was the warrior, unable to heal. Whether Joaolong lived was up to him.