23: Woman in the Hunt
The search for Joaolong continued without luck. Many people visited the valley after the fight, hoping to scavenge forgotten prey and riches. This soiled tracks and any footprints Disung followed belonged to commoners or other bandits. Infuriated, he eventually decided to scan from higher ground.
On a cliff edge, where the shrubbery cleared, he happened upon another fight. Two commoners – judging by their clothes – were trying to steal from a young man. The petite boy, covered in filth and charcoal, defended himself without a weapon. The blackness smeared over his eyes looked like a mask from afar. Must be a nobleman’s son, Disung thought. Or someone else who doesn’t want to get caught.
The boy, who looked no older than sixteen, ducked and weaved around the men’s attacks. One of the older men lunged forward, using his sword to strike, but the boy dodged by rolling underneath him. As soon as he passed the first man, he ran towards the other and attacked the unsuspecting prey. He jabbed multiple points on his enemy’s body hard enough to bruise. The second man fell down. Disung’s jaw dropped; the boy defeated an opponent within seconds. The army recruits in the palace couldn’t compare to this.
The boy remained wary of the withdrawn sword, ensuring each maneuver avoided the sharp blade. It looked poetic, as if the boy were dancing; each move was graceful and light-footed. Then, without warning, he turned on the offensive. He kicked the man’s inner thigh and moved away from the swing of the sword. Quickly, he stepped around to the man’s back and kicked behind his knee. The man continuously tried to use his weapon – showing his lack of skill in swordplay – but the boy found more opportunities to kick or jab.
The man had a lucky slice. The boy attempted to bound away using a handstand flip but the tip of sword caught the robe. It cut through his waistband, the garment underneath, and managed to shallowly slice part of the boy’s neck. When he boy landed on his feet, his clothes hung open and revealed a small frame and bandaged chest. Both the men and Disung gawked at the two identifiable bumps hidden under fabric that weren’t masculine traits.
“You are a woman!” The man exclaimed. In an instant, the frustration and exhaustion in his face changed into a dirty and lustful expression. “I do like a feisty woman after a bloody battle. Give up, little lady, and I won’t turn you in.”
The woman snarled. She turned as ferocious as a tiger and her next attacks came too quickly to block. The man was hit all over his body, the pain evident with each sharp exhale. The fight ended with a roundhouse kick to the side of his face. This rendered the man unconscious. As he fell, the woman, who balanced on one foot, returned to a stable pose.
“Bastard,” she muttered.
What was that?! Disung was bewildered. The whole technique astounded him. He had to know more so he emerged from the shubbery. “Is it safe to come out?”
The woman startled. “Stay back!”
“I mean no harm. I was sorting out my own problems with thieves and ruffians, and came across you. That fight was impressive. Where did you learn to hit like that?”
“It is none of your concern.”
“Oh,” Disung's eyes darted guiltily at the woman’s bandaged breasts and bare midriff. He saw the defined muscles in her body contract with each breath. It was rare for a woman to be so fit. Most Shanhe beauties spent their days fussing over embroidery and tea. This girl was different and it fascinated Disung almost as much as the cranky maid at the palace. “Your clothes...You look…”
The woman blushed furiously and turned around, attempting to cover herself. Disung, taking on the role of a gentleman, took off his own large outer tunic and draped it over her. She quickly put it on properly. The excess material made her look small and adorable.
Awkwardly, Disung brushed his fingers through his hair – a habit he inherited from his father – and waited for an expression of gratitude. Instead, the woman remained distracted by his bare chest. He grinned at her reddening cheeks and the curses at herself. This shyness showed her inexperience with men; she likely wasn’t bedded or married. For some reason, it pleased Disung.
“Keep looking. I do not mind,” he said cheekily. Her own behaviour made his embarrassment fade.
“I-I w-would never waste my time on a p-pathetic excuse of a masculine body,” she sputtered. “You have no hair anywhere on you. It only proves all this time I was right to call you a boy and not a man.”
“I have hair where it counts,” Disung said and winked.
“Y-you fiend!” She burst out, her whole body turning pink in mortification. “Stop fooling around and find your precious master! Wang Joaolong is in a grave danger! You owe my men dozens of gold rings for helping you fight and saving him! Stop toying with me and go to him!”
“Your men?” Disung questioned. Was she referring to Han Ying? Was she the boss they talked about? That just made her even more interesting.
"Han Ying won't be far. He just left the cave down the slope and to the west. It looks like a pile of fallen boulders. A tree trunk covers the top," the woman stated. She stepped toward the cliff edge. Her eyes scanned for something far below.
“What are you looking for?” Disung asked, still not ready to part. He had questions about her combat.
“Can I at least learn your name?”
“Never, Liu Disung. It will bring you misfortunes,” she replied, a hint of smugness in her voice. The woman jumped off the cliff.
“No!” Disung shouted and ran to save her. Over the edge, no body fell to its death. Nothing appeared unusual.
A glimmer caught his eye and Disung turned his head to the right. There, the woman gracefully bounded down a dirty path that protruded from the cliff face. This led to a dense forest area on a new mountain.
Disung sat back on his heels, smiling giddily. His heart beat loudly but couldn’t determine if the adrenaline or her made him buzzed. It had been awhile since he met someone so upfront and dangerous. He was impressed. “I think I’m in love.”