4: War Council

Long ago, the emperor divided the kingdom into two for both his sons to rule. Shanhe, his oldest son, chose the beautiful, mountainous area while the younger son, Linlong, happily took the wild, forest lands as his territory. After each prince’s coronation, the emperor disappeared. Legends told of him returning to a shrine, for he was actually a deity set to find peace, while other rumours spread that he began training men to protect his sons. The truth remained a mystery.

Wang Joaolong read the scroll for the millionth time, despite memorising Shanhe’s history years ago. When he first entered the palace, he distracted himself from loneliness, grief and fevers through reading. The empress saw this thirst for knowledge and permitted him to learn from scholars in isolated areas. Often, he disappeared into bamboo forests to learn for months. Here, Joaolong learnt everything, from poems to idioms, but it was the strategic games that intrigued him, like Weiqi.

 

Gossip spread about his talented brain and soon his reputation became the ‘weak man with a strong mind’. It took years for the emperor to acknowledge this growth of intelligence that surpassed others and finally, on Joaolong’s 23rd birthday, he offered a position in the council. The title of minister of economics for Shanhe remained with Joaolong for four years so far. 

Unfortunately, this grand knowledge and different thinking proved to be useless in contrast to other traits. The most necessary skill was persuasion. The councilmen and emperor were from older generations, unwilling to change their views. These men had set ideologies and opinions that hardly swayed and hence, any remarkable advice was ignored. Joaolong, although part of the council because of his intelligence, felt like a lone fox among a flock of sheep. After each meeting, he felt more like an enemy for his new suggestions and arguments than an ally of the council. They dismissed all his ideas as 'youthful perceptions'. It drove him mad.

“Master Wang. Your presence is requested by the emperor in the strategy room,” a messenger announced.

 

Disung snapped out of his pensive trance and grinned, moving away from the shadows of the room. It took the messenger by surprise. “Time for some fun.”

“I am afraid the emperor did not request another master.”

The new messenger’s clueless response hinted at his origins, likely at the Shanhe border.

“Did the emperor mention ‘Ànshù’?”

Nearly no one knew Disung’s real name. Everyone referred to him by Ànshù; the emperor’s secret weapon. Already trained in an unfamiliar fighting style before joining the army, Disung baffled men with his agility and combat skills. Then, he learnt kung fu ridiculously fast. Within a year, not even a general could defeat him. Many people wished to seize that capability for themselves, offering handsome payments for dirty duties. However, Disung only accepted the empress’ invitation to become a bodyguard for Joaolong.

“I believe so.”

“Then we must make haste!” Disung said, adding a skip in his step.

The messenger led them to the secret strategy room, only accessible through the emperor’s study. Charcoal walls greeted them, with the swirling flames of white consuming the darkness closer to the emperor’s position; the opposing colours represented the opposing power. This design was complimented by a dark, oak table and red cushions near the outskirts of the room, evenly spaced. Twelve pillows suffocated under the weight of fierce men.

 

The emperor, Hong Weishan, sat at the head of the table. All of his black hair slicked back into a bun, secured by his gold crown which was adorned with green gems and clear diamonds. The robes he wore were just as extravagant, with the mix of white and silver emphasising his pale skin tone. Beside him waited Zhao Cheng, a stocky man with spreading dark facial hair that was always perfectly groomed to flow to his ears. Wrinkles crinkled his eyes and aged his devious smile, yet his charm remained. He was as agreeable as a dance house maiden. On the opposite side of the emperor sat Su Rong, general of the Shanhe army. He was in his late thirties and extremely proud of the small, brown facial air on his top lip, displaying his masculinity. The huge, buff body below his plain head intimidated many men, even Disung. Somehow, despite his unattractive and plain features, he married one of the most beautiful women in Shanhe who was expecting their third child. The emperor’s brother, Hong Guiying, sat between a few familiar councilmen. He looked similar to his brother with the same plump, pale face but eyes were filled with more wariness. The brothers disagreed often, both wanting different things from life and the older Guiying became, the more he desired to return to his property in remote Shanhe. Yet, Weishan loved to torment him to return. The current trick was promising education and marriage for Hong Biyu, the only girl in the Hong family.

Joaolong and Disung took their positions, leaving one cushion vacant. The Crowned Prince wasn’t attending, as expected. He found these meetings a bore and preferred spending time parading his power than using it wisely. Life would become hard once he ruled.

Directly in the centre of the room, a wooden replica of both kingdoms burdened the table. This included every cliff, every mountainous terrain, every lake and dense forest area across the lands. There were figurines that represented divisions in the armies and clumps were placed chaotically across the board. The last meeting briefly discussed warfare but it appeared obvious the emperor played with the idea of attacking Linlong by himself.

“The session is in progress,” Cheng announced and the servants heaved the doors shut, locking themselves out. “During the last battle council meeting, we discussed the possibility of declaring war against Linlong. Today, we must put it aside to discuss the threatening appearance of the Fox. We have all heard of his murderous ways and need to prepare because of his arrival.”

A single pin could’ve dropped and all ears would hear it as loud as a scream; the room turned eerily quiet. None wanted to accept the Fox had returned. During this, Weishan lifted a dusty, wooden box in front of him to show all the men. After replacing it back on the floor in front of him, he opened it using a hidden key from inside his robes. The contents – an ancient scroll – was only meant for the emperor’s eyes but for some reason, he willingly shared it. Instead of parchment or wood, words were written on thin, rock planks joined together by threaded string.

“I understand many of you have heard stories of the Mountain Masters as children through various fables. This was purposeful, so that the truth about these assassins was washed away to be rumours and nonsense. It is with great regret that I reveal to you the truth. This scroll contains all the information about the original Mountain Master leader and the emperor’s knowledge from each generation. You may pass it around and seek clarity about our situation, despite most of you containing no royal blood. It is my wish and a necessity for the meeting. But be warned. Any word outside this room about such secrets will be met with beheading.”

Each person carefully passed the lump of stone around, slowly revealing the truth. The men were like bugs, with huge eyes and emitting strange noises of understanding, their emotions overshadowing their bright robes. When the scroll reached Joaolong, it was warm to touch. No black market or thief could’ve gotten him this much riches in knowledge.

In the beginning, the stones briefly summarised the time when lands were partitioned between sons. Part of Joaolong was disappointed it didn’t include a hint further in the past, where history was murky in detail because of endless wars and destruction. No one knew about the time before the ‘Great Emperor’ that split the lands. However, the scroll did explain the missing emperor.

After retiring his title to his heirs, the old emperor fled to the mountains with loyal followers and friends, creating a temple that trained men to watch over his sons. Joaolong remembered Wang Yenay, the empress, first telling him this story after his parents died. The mountains hid the sacred temple and no ordinary man lived to disclose its whereabouts. From this simple mission of protecting the emperors and maintaining peace, a culture bloomed. Those that excelled in martial arts diverted in technique to create their own style. Hence, Mountain Masters were formed and identified as animals; monkey, snake, pheasant, panda, tiger, fox and wolf. The old emperor became the leader of all of the warriors and known as the Dragon. Every three years, two Mountain Masters visited the emperors of Shanhe and Linlong and surveyed any possible dangers, as well as shared wise advice on ruling.

On the scroll, each emperor documented which Mountain Master visited and the effects. In the recent generations, the tension between these mysterious men and the emperors rose dramatically; all war-preventing methods were written in angst. The last entry was from the current emperor, who stated the Fox and Pheasant visited more than twenty years ago to threaten him to keep peace with Linlong. After that, no Mountain Masters came as routinely, implying something occurred at their temple.

Joaolong handed the scroll over to Disung.

“The Fox has visited alone. Such an event has never been recorded before. Why has he come?” Guiying asked while Disung read.

“It is a threat to me,” Weishan replied bitterly. “Foolishly, when I was in my youth, I agreed to keep peace between Shanhe and Linlong.

Had I known that Linlong would raise the price for their harvests, I wouldn’t have agreed.”

“The wisest of men could not have predicted this,” Cheng chimed in.

Disung muttered Joaolong’s thoughts. “The cost wouldn’t rise if you hadn’t blocked the rivers flowing into their land.”

“Have you something to say, Ànshù?”

“Emperor, I merely state an observation that the dammed rivers may have affected the amount of produce in the last few seasons at Linlong,” Disung replied with reckless confidence that Joaolong envied. No one else dared to speak this way to Weishan. Simple, blurted words posed a risk to their lives. Disung, however, had nothing to fear. He could kill a man within seconds. This awareness nourished his reckless behaviour.  

“Ànshù, you may have a seat in this council but I can strip you of it as well.”

Several men tried to add their own opinion on the matter. The older councilmen, as usual, sided with the emperor both out of their own stupidity and fear of defying him. Rong and the lieutenant general found sense in Disung’s statement and tried to reason. It was a chaotic stew of opinions, each flavour trying to overpower the others.

Joaolong calmly interjected before the heated words turned violent. Somehow, his quiet input was heard among the shouts. “Master Hong Guiying, are your properties near the border doing well?”

“Oh, yes. It is manageable.” The man was caught off-guard.

“What about your livestock? I noticed on the reports that your breeding has decreased.”

Guiying flushed. “It is true. Since the damming upstream, the grass and plants have struggled to adapt to the change. My herd is still adjusting and due to the poor quality of foliage, breeding the best calves has been difficult.”

“How are your estates in the south-west, Master Lei Yujin?”

The old councilman sat straighter, the white whiskers on his face pointing in attention. “They are adequate.”

“Is the amount of produce the same as it was three years ago?”

“No…but…”

Three years ago, rainfalls were significantly less than expected, leading to the possibility of drought. Shanhe had a rough landscape and drought would bring more hardships on everyone. Damming three major rivers, running into Linlong, had been Cheng’s recommended strategy to prevent drought. Most councilors, with large estates, latched onto the plan immediately. The emperor agreed without having any formal meetings with Linlong. Since then, tensions between the kingdoms rose. Just as intended.

 “Nonsense! The damming has sustained Shanhe’s civilians for years, providing plentiful supply of water and giving farmers richer soil. We are all in agreement that Linlong blames the damming for their increase in produce costs when it is not true! They are a greedy kingdom and wish us to suffer!” Weishan shouted and glared at the council. “Our meeting is about the Fox!”

Everyone fell silent once more. Cheng spoke first, his words pensive yet steady. “If you suspected trouble from the infrequent visits of the Mountain Masters, perhaps this proves your intuition. The Fox has come, after all these years, alone. From the scroll, each visit from this clan has been polite, respecting values of hospitality and treatment of royals, and often finished within days. The Fox has broken this unspoken code and acts independently.”

“A rogue assassin is a dangerous one,” Rong murmured.

“Then what does he want?” A councilman asked.

 “There is another option. Maybe he is not rogue and his partner is hiding,” Joaolong stipulated, knowing his answer would anger the emperor. “The military training camps have increased recruits and we have blocked rivers. The Masked Masters are supposedly wise and would suspect a war is approaching. This would mean you broke your vow years ago so they—”

“He wants power!” Yujin rudely interrupted. “Your majesty, he sees your progress and riches, and has turned jealous. I suspect the Mountain Masters removed him from their clan due to his ambitious desires to rule. That is why he is alone.”

        

Of course, Weishan loved this answer and any other possibilities ignored. As usual. It made him feel powerful and envied, stroking his ego more than necessary. Before he complimented Yujin, a fit of laughter filled the air. The sound vibrated off the walls, the amusement even present in its echos. This noise came from Disung.

 “What is it that you find hilarious at this critical moment?” Cheng asked Disung in a panic, who still held the scroll open.

“I apologise, council. I am unable to control myself by this belief from the previous emperor that the Mountain Masters were part god.” More laughter followed the statement.

Weishan’s face turned red in the soft glow of candlelight. “You dare insult my father!”

Joaolong gave Disung a warning glare, silently pleading him to stop. In these vital, tense moments, Joaolong had to remind his bodyguard proper etiquette and behaviour in political situations. He recalled their first dreadful year together as master and guard. Both men were adapting to hormonal changes from upcoming manhood and had different personalities that didn’t fit together. Disung pushed every rule and boundary, then Joaolong was punished alongside him despite always abiding by rules. It took months for Disung to remove his tunnel vision and look at the future consequences of his actions.

 

“My apologies, your majesty. I spoke inappropriately. I accept my punishment, if given.”

          

“Master Wang Joaolong, he needs lashings. Publicly.”

           

“I understand,” Joaolong replied.

           

“Where were we?”

The discussion about the Fox continued and Disung kept his mouth shut. Primarily, Cheng and Weishan did most of the talking, Rong adding his own opinion on occasion. The council agreed to increase the guards at the palace in response to the Fox’s arrival. The gate into the Lotus Palace would be more strictly monitored with approved passes for anyone coming or going. Finally, someone needed to be on constant alert for the assassin.

           

“Ànshù, you will cease duty as Wang Joaolong’s guard and begin hunting the Fox. I want his head by the next full moon,” Weishan informed.

           

“Your majesty, you need to persuade me more why I should go against the empress’s wishes.”

           

Weishan’s lips dropped into a scowl from the defiance. “I could have your head for that remark!”

           

“I can’t fight without a head and by doing so, it’ll make the Fox’s mission easier.” Disung kept his tone playful, as if joking with a friend. “You would do him a favour.”

Joaolong felt the hairs on his neck rise, waiting for the emperor’s anger. Once, he argued against the emperor in a bad mood and had been beaten by a paddle so hard he contracted an infection. The wooden paddle punishment was meant as a form of ‘family discipline’ because of his adopted relationship with the empress. Joaolong suspected Weishan enjoyed beating something else than a servant.

           

“A hundred men will be guarding me.”

           

“And none have experience with the Fox,” Disung replied smugly.

           

Cheng’s ears perked up. “Are you confessing you’re acquainted with the Fox?!”

 

“Your majesty, my guard’s behaviour is unacceptable and I am forced to admit he drank wine before arriving, unaware of the meeting. I will seek a suitable, severe punishment and he will be reprimanded when the meeting ends. Please accept my apology on his behalf,” Joaolong said and withheld his own anger. He wanted to punish Disung for his accidental confession. How could someone so deadly be so stupid?

           

The apology was accepted with a simple nod. Weishan remained frustrated by the meeting instead. “I am ashamed that this is my best war council. You are all fools! It is not only Ànshù but most men in this room that should reflect on their behaviour. I gave all this information to you and we have limited plans on how to act! You are dismissed!”

Every member bowed and left, feeling dissatisfied by their attendance with the emperor. The meetings were always difficult, commonly ending with an insult. Joaolong veered away from the usual path to his chambers and walked over to the library to seek guidance.

“Late night study?” Disung inquired. “Do not ponder over this matter. The emperor is an idiot if he believes I’ll leave my duty to you. It is an honour and privilege serving you and the empress. She will convince the emperor to let me remain by your side.”

“The emperor is still the emperor. You must remember his position and act accordingly,” Joaolong sighed. “But I am truly grateful for your loyalty. Without it, I would have crumbled years ago.”

Those in the palace always schemed and plotted to obtain power, which left everyone weary about loyalties. Joaolong only trusted four people at most. It made him envy quaint villagers in the rural areas, where gossip was the biggest issue and everyone valued others hard efforts to use the land. There were always friendly faces, no assassination and no restless nights. Joaolong could still remember his parents smiles after a hard day of work.

“A Mountain Master has entered the impenetrable palace too easily. We must find if there are similar cases in the past or any information about the Fox. The more we learn, the more prepared we can be and discover the true reason of his visit. Whether we consult the emperor or not will depend on his intentions.”

“We both know the Fox visits because of war. Everyone can feel it coming. More and more men are training to be soldiers, wives are stocking food supplies and babies are popping out regularly.” Disung paused. “I wish I could say it’s the Fox’s intention to stop it but he isn’t that simple or kind-hearted. Those councilmen may be right and the Fox is seeking gain from the battle to come.”

“Speaking of the Fox, you almost revealed your heritage back there,” Joaolong said in a disapproving tone.

“Call me stupid and be done with it. No one is more irritated at my own outburst than I. We can rest easy that the emperor will never connect the truth.”

“I will have to publicly punish you. You upset the emperor.”

Disung sighed. “Do ten lashings in the courtyard alongside servants. Our emperor loves shame more than physical marks. Also, I get to see some beautiful maidens to ease my sorrows.”

“Go to the dance house for maidens to prey upon.”

“My reputation is jaded there… Actually your reputation is.”

“What do you mean?”

“No sensible woman would flirt with the deadly Ànshù. I had to use an alias,” Disung replied with a huge grin. "Before you reprimand me, I have given you some advantage. The rumours about your illness causing impotence has depleted."

"Do not pretend to be a hero."

The men entered the study and searched up and down the aisles for useful information about the Mountain Masters or the Fox. Joaolong briefly read over some scrolls, collecting any that took his interest. Unfortunately, he already knew this search was pointless. Only the black markets had information about the Mountain Master legends. Also, his ally could have greater insight. He needed to write a letter tonight.

“Mountain Masters. Established by the emperor from five generations past to both protect and advise his sons. This was to retain peace between kingdoms. Location unknown. The Fox was one master in the clan but his malicious intents and murderous ways got him exiled,” Disung said and handed Joaolong a book.

The title, 'Mystic Mountains', pulled at the optimist in him and he began to read.

A drawing of a naked woman, accompanied by an erotic story, made him blush. Disung burst into laughter and Joaolong glared at him, unamused. He should’ve known better. A maid sneaked in the fictitious love story and hid it within the floorboards. Most of the palace knew about it.

Disung took it back off him and flicked through the pages. “No wonder the women of the land are infatuated with you. The male character in this is also a silent and brooding type, with a troubled past. You are both so alike and I bet, when you are in love, you will whisk a lucky maiden off her feet.”

“I am not silent nor brooding,” Joaolong replied monotonously. Disung laughed even harder so Joaolong hit him with a nearby scroll. “Do that again and I will kill you.”

“Mother would not be happy about that. You would deprive her of grandchildren and for that, she will avenge my death,” Disung smugly replied and hid the story back in the floorboard. “If you want information about the Masked Masters, you could ask me.”

“I already have asked you dozens of times. You are a limited source since you can only tell me what you remember. If I asked about where the temple is or how big the clan has become, you could not answer.”

“Fine. I'll help you find a scroll,” Disung grumbled but the hunt did not last long.

The men gave up the searching after half an hour and returned to Joaolong's chamber, located in the nobleman’s residence near the front of the palace. The room was large and decorative, divided into three spaces by sliding paper doors. In the centre room, paintings hung on the cream walls and an antique table was put over an embroiled carpet. It begged to be used for tea. At the rear of the room was a porch, leading to the gardens.

Disung bowed to Joaolong and prepared himself for a quick getaway, smiling. “Goodnight, loverboy.”

Joaolong threw a pillow at the empty space his friend had been.