24: End of Hunting
The last hour of hunt seemed darkly comical. Men from a variety of backgrounds raced to return when the gong rang throughout the land. They dragged their finest kills to the presentation area and huddled around the corpses, wary of others. One man died trying to snatch a mere bird from a rival.
The emperor stood by the mechanical lotus which fully blossomed. He eagerly listened to every man present their kill as an offering to him. A large eagle made his eyes twinkle and he applauded at the sight of a wolf. The Han family boar received a remarkable amount of enthusiasm but the farmer with a dead fox won. Symbolism triumphed over kill difficulty. Many people believed even a tiger would have lost compared to this fox. The farmer requested a wife to give him sons to continue work the farm and the emperor accepted, promising a beautiful woman to be delivered in a week. After that, everyone dragged their kills home to feast on with family.
Meanwhile, Joaolong wandered through dreams of his childhood. At first, his parents appeared. They were an average couple with no remarkable qualities except their dedication to work and care for Joaolong. They taught him the best they could about fairness and life, encouraging him to play with other children with no consideration about wealth or status. Then, on Joaolong’s eighth birthday, the village suffered from a plague and many people died, including his parents. That day, he lost part of himself.
The only reason he persevered and lived was because of Yenay. During that time, she involved herself in political issues and the emperor agreed to this interest, seeing it as a distraction from their dead son. She invested all her time into saving people and that included Joaolong. He still remembered her walking towards him like a goddess as he whimpered by his mother’s bedside.
Even during isolation because of the illness, she broke rules to be by his side. The nightmares of his parents’ death fled when she sung sweetly to him. She felt like another mother, granted to him by the gods. He couldn't believe she wanted to adopt him.
“And did you know what the proud and extravagant emperor did?” Yenay asked, nearly finishing her story.
“What?” Joaolong croaked, his voice hoarse from days of crying.
“Empress, it is time to return.” Jiang waited by the door.
Yenay sighed and kissed Joaolong’s fevered forehead. Tenderly, she stroked his cheeks and acted reluctant to leave. “He ran to find his finest scholars and requested they write a tale for his son. This story told not of his accomplishments but of all of his mistakes.”
“Why would he do that?”
“So his son could learn from them. The wisest men reflect on themselves, not gloat to others. Joaolong, I hope you grow up to be a wise man, just like the second ruler of Shanhe.”
It felt bittersweet to leave the memories behind and wake up to reality.
“You finally stir,” Disung said gratefully. “I’m relieved.”
Every inch of the room had gold or red decorations that contrasted against the dark hues of the wood in the chambers. Joaolong tried to sit up but groaned at the sharp, throbbing pain in his shoulder. The bowl of soup on his bedside table smelt strongly of medicinal herbs and he was quick to drink it, hoping to alleviate the pain. It tasted like burnt grass and overripe fruit.
“Where am I?”
“Yinying Yueguang’s finest Inn. I dare not risk returning you back to the palace in a weak condition. Especially when the person wanting you dead resides there.”
“It is too early to spout nonsense,” Joaolong replied. “Did we win the request?”
“No. A local farmer won a wife by killing a fox. You only won the worry of a specific maiden. She sent fruit to your room,” Disung said.
The name didn’t need to be spoken. Instantly, Joaolong knew the gifts were from Xioali. The romantic feelings she developed for him complicated their relationship. She was to be empress. Joaolong was to be a scholar. Their lives weren’t compatible. Yet, he couldn’t bluntly reject her love, both because of their lasting friendship and her unpredictable reaction.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Disung asked, stealing Joaolong’s attention.
It took a while to push passed the fogginess in his head and remember the details from the hunt. “The hunt started. We killed a deer and you got into a fight... Bandits came for me. Have you learnt why?”
“I did not want to worry you,” Disung admitted, his eyes looking like a guiltily child. “Forgive me for not speaking sooner. On the night before the hunt, I overheard some information when I hid someone’s dagger in a hole. Men were drinking and loudly rejoicing about the bounty for your head. I was anxious during the hunt and assumed everyone was after you. I thought it best if you did not know. You were already under pressure by the empress.”
“The bow,” Joaolong realised and sat up straighter. The motion, although small, intensified the throbbing in his skull and the ache clawed down to his shoulder. “That is why you were insistent on the bow. Who set the bounty to kill me?”
“Zhao Cheng.” Disung bitterly added, “the Fox’s warning was right.”
“It cannot be. Zhao Cheng is harmless.”
“I believe the Crowned Prince controlled him,” Disung explained. “He must've blackmailed Zhao Cheng. I know for certain that the poison was in the drink you shared with the Crowned Prince.”
“What of the others that drank? Are they affected?” Joaolong asked but Disung shook his head.
“The prince has improved his tactics. The cup was laced with poison, not the wine itself. I saw it discarded in a dried up riverbank during the hunt.” Disung paced around the room, angry but powerless to do anything. “I failed as your guard. I beg of you to punish me. If your saviour had not come and acted—”
“My saviour?” Joaolong questioned.
Disung smiled like a smitten teenage boy. The change of mood was frightening. “Bai Mingzu.”
No one spoke that name except Bai Juan. During her time in the palace, she happily shared every detail about her sister. Their bond seemed incredibly strong. After Juan’s death, no one found the sister. Most assumed she died or didn’t exist at all. “You speak of a ghost.”
“She was like a ghost. One minute, she was fighting and the next, she was gone. I do not understand how anyone could think a woman so tough was dead,” Disung mused and looked at his grazed knuckles. “It took a lot of coaxing for the Han brothers to reveal the woman’s identity. At least now, the acne on some of their faces isn’t their main concern anymore. Nor is their next meal. I paid them handsomely for the information as well. To compensate for other things. If they hadn’t spoken, we would have been in a bad position. Bai Mingzhu is clever and learnt a lot about you and I in this hunt.”
The trouble never stopped. They were under the watchful eye the Crowned Prince but now, a rumoured dead woman showed interest in them too. This put Joaolong in a confining position, incapable of doing anything he intended. He ground his teeth to suppress his irritation.
“There is something else.”
Disung showed Joaolong a wooden Fox token. “It was found in the cave. There is no message on it. He took the jade pendant. I think he used Zhao Cheng to distract us from his true intention,” Disung whispered. “The Fox won again.”
Joaolong wanted to yell or curse. Or both. "We need to talk to your mother. She knows the most about the Fox."
"No." Disung shook his head. "Over the past ten years, I have struggled to learn much about the mountain clan and I am her son. She won't tell you. When she heard the Fox returned, she clamped up. It broke her."
"We have no choice."
"Joaolong. I said no." Disung looked murderous. He hardly defied Joaolong and the shadow cast across his face warned not to push the idea.
So, Joaolong wisely backed off. "Have I really only been asleep for a few hours?”
“If it makes you feel better, you have been unconscious for three days.”
That only made him feel worse.