34: Will of the Unwilling

The final part of the funeral occurred late in the night, when much of the chaos had dissipated. Disung and Joaolong had stumbled out of the burial cave to be met with guards and cries from the crowd. Soldiers arrested Disung immediately. The worst was the slow reaction from everyone over Joaolong’s grave wounds. They watched in horror and unhurriedly called for help. Had it not been for Cheng, who raced around like a headless chicken, Joaolong may not have lived. Again.

Someone wanted the man dead. In the palace prison, Disung mulled over and over about the Fox’s involvement during the remaining daylight hours. It made sense if he was attempting to assassinate Joaolong; he always left vague messages in the life-threatening situations. However, to hire other assassins to kill Joalong ruined this theory. Huli, again, appeared to be the perpetrator; he had an extremely good reason to act, especially if he knew the truth about Shanhe bloodlines.  

 “Boy.”

Disung raised his head. In the doorway stood Mingzhu, holding a bowl of soup with her usual, angry expression. Her dishevelled hair fell from its style and framed her narrow face, the auburn streaks matching her temper. As she approached, she stumbled and relied on the guard to keep upright. It ruined her nonchalant act and Disung couldn’t help but laugh as soup splattered onto the floor.

“That is quite a performance. Can I expect another?”

“Shut up!” Both the guard and Mingzhu shouted together.

“I expect you to clean this filth up,” the guard ordered.

Mingzhu glared at him. Oh dear. Disung knew to intervene. She would be punished if she insulted an emperor's soldier. “Why are you here? I expected Wu Tai.”

“Everyone else fears the great Ànshù. I was the only servant willing to attend since Wu Tai tends to Master Wang,” Mingzhu explained, irritated by the situation. She carelessly shoved him the bowls in her hands. “Eat. I am leaving.”

“So Joaolong is recovering,” Disung stated, sighing in relief. “Thank the gods.”

“He was stabbed three times and the wounds just missed his vital organs. But there are still many opportunities for him to die.”

Disung chuckled. “You are terrible at comforting others.”

“I don’t comfort others.”

“Ah but you did last night,” Disung teased with a wink. He grinned when he saw the guard raise his eyebrows, happy to eavesdrop.

 “I hope you rot in here,” Mingzhu snapped, flustered by his playfulness.

“Speaking to a master like that means we certainly have changed roles. Now I am being punished and you arrive to watch my humiliation with crude remarks.”

“Good. You deserve it.”

“Can’t you try to be nice?”

“Shut up and drink the soup. It tastes disgusting, like rusty keys,” Mingzhu said. “I will leave, as I expect you to do later after being released.”

“Wait! Don’t go! I need a favour!”

“Do it yourself, boy.”

“Please! For the empress! For Lin Jiang! I can’t do it trapped in here!”

The maid's stride faltered. Seconds ticked by. Slowly, she turned back around. “Speak.”

“You are still acting like a master,” Disung mused.

“And you act like a snotty boy. Speak. Unless you don’t want this favour.”

Disung held his hands up in defeat. “Fine. Tonight, place a flower in the river for me. I want to commemorate the empress and emperor but cannot inside a cell. I would be forever grateful if…”

Mingzhu rolled her eyes. “You will live. Just drink the soup.”

“You are persistent about the soup.”

“And you are persistently getting on my nerves. I should have poisoned it!” With that, Mingzhu stormed away.

“I think she likes me a lot,” Disung said, answering the guards curious glance between the empty doorway and prisoner.

The smell of food wafted the prison cell. A smaller bowl sat beside the soup, filled to the brim with dried berries. The colour looked odd, the dark red hinting at a poisonous taste. Yet, Disung shoved them into his mouth regardless of the warning.

Deep in the mountains, these berries grew on wild bushes. Often, children mistook a similar fruit for it and would run home with swollen lips and red faces. Disung vaguely remembered daring friends to figure out which berry was safe to eat; most of his childhood was fuzzy because of trauma the Fox caused. Luckily, he could still envision a blurry face of a girl with large purple lips and angry eyes. He recalled her screaming at him and being so angry that her hair looked on fire… just like Mingzhu.

No, Disung dismissed. Last night’s dream played with his memories. It can’t be Mingzhu. Could it? Ever since they met, she felt familiar and acted like she had some grudge against him. Also, there was that pet name ‘boy’ and the drunken stories that matched the Masked Masters. It had to be connected. Next time they met, he would make her talk.

“This is too complicated,” He sighed and started gulping the watery soup instead. 

It tasted terrible, lacking meat or a good serving of vegetables. When his mother cooked, she ensured soup had more chunks than liquid. This food strayed far from that quality and even had that metallic taste Mingzhu warned of. On the third sip, the rusty flavour grew stronger. Then, something hard hit Disung’s lips.

What on earth...? An object swam in the soup. With cautious fingers, Disung poked around the bowl. He felt something hard meet his touch and swirled it around, fishing it out to look. To his pleasant surprise, he discovered a key that matched to cell lock.

It tastes disgusting, like rusty keys.

Disung smiled at the lack of subtlety. The maid never failed to amuse them. When did she even get the keys? Was it in her fall? Or did she grab them earlier? Why did she help him? Disung’s grin grew with each question. If the prince decided to execute him – which Disung doubted – then Mingzhu had saved his life. He vowed to repay her kindness but after questioning about the past. He needed more answers before trusting her.