39: Deception

The maid proved difficult to control. It baffled Joaolong how she survived as a slave since she struggled to follow orders. Then, whenever she messed up, her temper flared. Although these characteristics could be subdued over time, Disung made it worse by constantly teasing her. Joaolong worried his plan would fail, to the extremity of reinforcing fear into Cheng to maintain power. Still, he felt loyalty was far beyond his grasp and so, he plotted.

In the stories of many gods of the land, love was the greatest tool. It divided kingdoms, united enemies and often dictated fate. Joaolong wanted to use it. To ensure Mingzhu did not betray him, he planned to make her fall in love with someone he trusted most. Thankfully, she already showed interest in Disung, although in strange ways. In theory, it seemed perfect except in practice…

“May the gods spit on your soul!” Mingzhu seethed.

Joaolong watched her stomp into the courtyard, her clothes soiled by a dark liquid. The tea set she held shone, covered in tea itself. The cracked cups hinted at the trouble during preparation.

Disung failed to muffle his laughter. “The infamous maid of Lotus Palace gets scared by bugs.”

“I am not afraid of ridiculous bugs and your mischief!”

“Then why yelp like a wounded animal?”

A heaviness settled around her, as if recalling something mortifying. As quickly as it came, the sombre atmosphere left and she returned to latching onto anger. “Just never touch me, boy! Or else I will shove a bug in a place you never wish was!”

The pair bickered often in the past two weeks. It began over Disung’s constant questioning and curiosity then exploded when pranks got involved. To warn him to stop asking her things, Mingzhu gave him water mixed with salt after training. By the time he realised, he had gulped half of the contents and coughed chaotically. She smugly argued the salt would fix his sickly sweet act towards her. However, Disung leapt at the opportunity at the immature play. So, the pranking game turned into a routine. Each morning, one would wake to a disaster and then attack the other throughout the day. Joaolong simply watched the havoc rain, as he currently continued to do.

“Make the tea again,” Joaolong demanded of Mingzhu, not glancing up from his carved fruit. It always took her fifth batch to get the taste right.

“I have done that twice already!”

“And you will do so again, with manners and with an uncracked teacup. Refuse to do so and I will strip you of the right to explore during the Moon Festival.”

Currently, the Moon Festival was the best way to force the maid into submission. She cared about that celebration, to the extent of asking to be absent from duties and persuading to be given an alibi about her whereabouts. Despite Disung’s constant questioning and Joaolong’s inquisitive stares, Mingzhu kept quiet. Although Joaolong agreed with the conditions, he used the desperate need of help to his advantage. Soon, Disung would be the long-term answer.

Mingzhu glared but bowed politely. Each strained muscle showed her unwillingness to obey. “As you wish, Master Wang.”

The maid left and Disung’s eyes followed her, a smile on his lips. He sought her out often, even before the alliance, and his interest peaked as days went past. This gave Joalong confidence in his plan.

“What did you do to her this time?”

“Not much. I just bothered her about the mountain clan and Moon Festival but she kept tight-lipped. Then I flicked a few rocks and large bugs onto her back. She froze as if turned to ice from a snow storm.”

“You need to stop taunting her.”

“Yes,” Disung grinned. “But I cannot help myself. She did put itching plant leaves in my bed yesterday.”

“You are both as foolish as each other. I will not be surprised if I wake to find you fighting to the death.”

“Rest assured, Joaolong. She refuses to fight in combat.”

“That is because—”

“She is not the Fox,” Disung interrupted.

Suspicion grew around Mingzhu and the Fox’s identity. Wherever someone discovered a token, the maid always appeared close by. Yet, Disung refused to believe it. To him, Mingzhu acted too impulsively and ill-tempered to be an assassin. Joaolong knew better and that was why he planned to monitor during the Moon Festival.

“A wise farmer remains wary of wolves.”

“Who are the wolves though?” Disung asked rhetorically. “We are watching her like wise men but in the same breath, we prey on her like animals. She has good instincts to be wary of us. What if she asks of Bai Juan?”

“You know what to do. Give her the truth she can handle.”

“Which proves my point! There are no wise farmers in this situation.”

Joalong sighed. After a moment, he let his arms drop into a pool of turquoise robes. The fruit, carved into a bear, lay forgotten. “If we reveal how involved we were with her sister, this alliance may be ruined.”

“Is that all that matters to you now? For years, you have been wanting to keep honour and dignity. Any alliances were formed from mutual ambitions and understanding. We remained honest with Bai Juan so she understood the consequences. Why are you being so controlling and secretive with Bai Mingzhu? Does she know the risk involved? Is that fair?”

“That is the only way to win!” Joaolong snapped. The faces of Yenay and Jiang flashed before his eyes. Their image haunted him, causing nightmares and a deep resentment against his weak self. Good-heartedness and intelligence did not save them, nor help him. “We cannot defeat the enemy by waiting for loyalties to arise that accept the possibility of death!”

“This is unjust and you know it!” Disung retaliated.  

 “That is your own perception! You are too blinded by good character to see the larger plan ahead!”

The words echoed around the room and drifted passed the open door. Tai, who had returned with many scrolls after a long errand, stopped in his tracks. He looked between the two and turned around, avoiding the fight.

Before leaving himself, Disung finally responded. “I truly despise the man you are becoming.”