20: True Masterminds

Disung grinned, loving the feeling of sore, overworked muscles and an adrenaline rush. It had been awhile since he became like this. When guarding Joaolong, tea occurred more than battles and drove Disung mad. Thus, he rejoiced in the danger and thrill of the annual Shanhe hunt. It was the only day where he spent hours constantly exerting himself.

“For that damn deer!” Disung yelled and charged towards the enemies.

Majority of the men rode horses, giving them a distinct advantage even on rough terrain. Disung had to act quick and clever to get them dismounted, while avoiding the firing arrows. To his dismay, the archers followed Joaolong.

“Han Ying! Take care of the others!” Disung yelled and bolted towards the escaping bandits.

“There are five of them! I cannot fight well against one man!”

Disung groaned and threw a blade from his belt. It took all his strength to make the knife reach the closest bandit behind him. It landed near his chest, causing the man to fall off the horse. “Now you have four!”

Meanwhile, the archers kept firing at Joaolong, raising their bow towards the sky to shoot at greater distances. Disung prayed none of the arrows hit the target. He would not live with himself if his friend died. The vow he took years ago to protect Joaolong rang in his ears and he chased the enemies.

The horses slowed on the rocky track but Disung still struggled to catch up by running. Between panting breaths, he picked up a few fist-sized rocks and threw them at the horses. The force hurt his shoulder. A rock hit one horse and it bucked off the rider, frantic and scared by the sudden jolt of pain. Although it fixed one issue, it caused another; the horse went wild all over the path. To pass, Disung had to go off-track.

 

The landscape beside the path either steeply inclined or declined. Disung chose the downward slope. He ran at an angle, using his aching muscles to maintain an awkward grip on the rock. The wild horse faded into the distance and he went back on the track. Suddenly, he heard a cry of pain: Joaolong got hit.

The noise of a dying friend turned Disung into a beast. The heavy panting subsided and the burning in his muscles lessened. Then, the familiar tingling awakened his body and he ran faster than he ever had before. The last archer came into view and Disung threw another rock, aiming for the horse’s hooves. The horse tripped over the stone, forcing the archer to plummet forward as the animal toppled.

The archer skidded along the track, grazing most of his bare skin. He caught sight of Disung. Impressively, he quickly pulled himself up and stumbled away, forgetting the mission regarding Joaolong. Disung pursued.

“I think we need to have a talk. Who sent you to kill Wang Joaolong?” Disung asked when the man trapped himself at a dead end.

 

“Argh!” Crook – Disung gave him the nickname based on his slanting eyes and askew, broken jaw – shouted and ran forward with an arrow.

Disung dodged the spearhead easily, keeping his hand behind his back and manoeuvring like a snake. The lazy stance only aggravated the man more and he continued to slice at the air. Disung remained playful, despite feeling light-hearted, and strategically waited for Crook’s energy to burn out. After blood loss, serious injuries and running, he would be utterly drained within seconds.

“Who hired you?”

“Someone that will soon have more power than anyone!” Crook yelled and charged again.

The men moved together back and forth, Disung refusing to attack. Truthfully, he had a wicked streak and pretended to lose so his enemy’s defeat was more satisfying. The dark entertainment made Joaolong disappointed. As if hearing his friend scold him, he stopped playing with his prey and pinned Crook up to a tree by his neck.

 “Who sent you?”

“Please! Let me live!” Disung pressed down harder on Crook’s throat using his forearm. “Zhao Cheng! He hired us! I swear!”

 

“Why?”

“Wang Joaolong has something he wanted! That is all I know! We were to give him all of the man’s possessions! If we did the job, we would be handsomely paid! Please, spare me!”

Cheng knew about the pendant. The garden message from the Fox appeared unwelcomed in Disung’s mind. They were warned about this and by none other than his nemesis. They overlooked Cheng because of the past. This does not mean the Fox is a good man, Disung thought, clenching his teeth. There is something he gains from helping Joaolong. I have to figure it out before he kills someone.

However, the answer didn’t make sense. Since camping and the start of the hunt, Cheng wasn’t seen. He couldn’t have poisoned Joaolong. Disung stood watch all night and the tricks he played on others were to purposely lure the enemies closer. The only time Disung couldn’t protect Joaolong was with the Crowned Prince…

Cheng, the meek man, was just following Huli's orders. The removal of Joaolong meant Huli had no threat against the throne. He must’ve poisoned Joaolong by the wine. Disung internally beat himself for not drinking the damn goblet instead. It infuriating him how easily Joaolong became submissive and politically correct at dangerous moments, pushing his etiquette onto Disung. This wasn’t the first time either. Another poisoning occurred at one of Huli’s birthday celebrations. No wonder Joaolong recognised the symptoms; the prince used the same poison from years ago.

Crook groaned. Disung loosened his grip and the man dropped to the ground. To stop the noise, Disung kicked the bandit across the face to render him unconscious. Now, he had to find Joaolong before Huli did.