42: Scouting for Problems
The forest prepared for the change in weather, the leaves falling down to create disturbed pools of yellows and oranges. In a few weeks, everything would turn red instead. Disung loved the season, recalling hunting and his mother’s joy over small harvests in her garden. Today, he found a new reason to enjoy this time, admiring how the bright colours emphasised the strands of dark auburn in Mingzhu’s hair. It made her appear like an Autumn goddess strolling in her creation. Unfortunately, she displayed no elegant or charming qualities like a deity. If anything, she cussed and raged like a demon.
“Why are you following me?!” Mingzhu huffed, stopping abruptly on the dirt path.
“Master’s orders,” Disung explained nonchalantly.
For days, he stalked her like a tiger with its prey. She moved with the grace of a swan and took hours to tire. It had been interesting to watch, especially when she practiced a dance in the evenings. It looked beautiful from afar but ended deadly; she always threw a knife after a series of spins. What she intended to use this for remained a mystery which concerned Disung.
“Whose? Master Wang or the emperor?”
The snark remark bothered Disung, who hated being Huli’s puppet. “The emperor cannot use me if he cannot find me. It is easy to avoid the calamity!”
“I do not care! Just leave me alone! Does Master Wang have nothing else for you to do?!”
“He wants us to share the mission.”
Days ago, Joaolong gave Mingzhu the task to monitor training camps; rumours spread about more establishments, built for training soldiers, in Shanhe since Weishan’s death. This hinted at the impending war which the old emperor started and his successor continued. Joaolong grew more anxious since his removal as minister made him unaware of progress.
This ominous situation provided an opportunity for the newest member of the alliance to prove her worthiness. Yet, Joaolong still believed she was the Fox so he had Disung follow. He did obey the order until he got bored. This took two days and since she remained dedicated to the mission, staying on path and checking the rumoured training grounds, he revealed himself.
“Not for a while. Linlong are visiting. Only idiots attack while the other kingdom is present. It shows the lack of security in the legendary palace.”
Mingzhu sucked in a breath, prepared to argue, but released it in a defeated slump. She stormed off ahead. “If you join me, do not get in my way.”
“Do not get in mine. I have been spying for Joaolong longer than you and more capable in these parts.”
“And I have trained with someone with far better skills than you!”
“Who would that be? Someone from the mountain clan?”
“You must be delusional.”
“Which remaining Masked Master?”
Mingzhu slowed. She stared at him, both cautious and inquisitive. “How much do you know about the mountain clan?”
They never spoke of the mountains before. She ignored Disung’s questions at every turn. Why did she ask him now? Was it because Joaolong was not near? Or Tai? Did she plan to tell something to him alone? Hope sparked in Disung, igniting a bubbling happiness in his gut.
“I know that you are part of the mountain clan.”
“Ha! Then you know nothing.”
Displeased with the response, Mingzhu continued on at her usual pace. However, Disung hadn’t finished with the conversation. He wanted answers. He would not be denied. The dreams about the past became more vivid in the passing weeks and he grew certain the girl appearing in them was Mingzhu. If these were not snippets of memories, which his trauma stole years ago, then he would be confronting his smitten feelings for her. Either outcome, he wanted clarity.
“I know the clan was nomadic in the mountains, travelling from ruins to temples and back. I know which mountain range they resided in. I know there were originally seven Masked Masters, including the Fox before he went rogue.”
“There are eight Masked Masters. You forgot the Dragon,” Mingzhu said and her lips twitched into a half smile. “You always did when you were young.”
“Ah, of course. The Dragon is…”
Mingzhu snapped shut and rebuilt her guard. A stone mask came over her expression. “Focus on the mission, boy.”
“I find talking passes the time. It keeps us alert. With that, I must ask why you avoided me when we first met.”
The only answer came from tweeting birds, disturbed by the wind rustling the leaves they hid behind.
“Another question then. Why do you keep calling me boy? I can assure you in various ways that I am a man,” Disung retorted.
Relief washed over him when Mingzhu turned a delightful shade of pink at the insinuation. She was adorable when trapped by his jokes and insults. Each time, she acted like a child fooled by their parents for the first time. Disung felt certain he would never tire from seeing her red cheeks and confused expression. It almost made up for her avoidance about discussing the mountain clan. Almost.
“You act like a boy! Immature, stinking and a nuisance!”
“If you keep saying that, you will hurt my feelings.”
Mingzhu looked ready to slit his throat. “You ask me question and then dare—”
Disung covered her mouth with his hand. Quickly, he whispered in her ear to stop any noisy struggle. “Although I am riveted by our conversation, I need you to be quiet. Listen. We are near the suspected training site and there is someone else in the woods. I thought you were well-trained to hear such things.”
Mingzhu bit his hand. He retracted it and held his breath to supress an exclamation of pain. When he looked down, teeth imprinted his saliva-soaked skin.
“Serves you right,” Mingzhu whispered half-heartedly, distracted by the woods.
After listening more to the voices the wind carried, they both firmly suspected people were near. Silently, the odd pair snuck between trees and braced their feet on the uneven terrain. Disung copied Mingzhu step for step, until he got into the rhythm and kept up with the same incredible, silent footing. They stopped every so often, listening and changing directions in unison. During the final pause to assess, they clearly heard a woman screaming and ran.
Two men restrained her; one held her wrists in his large hand while the other pinned down her legs, slowly pushing up the skirt of her dress. He moved aside his top layer of tunic and with great haste, dropped his pants. Just as the fabric reached the ground, he suddenly rolled across the rocky ground. Disung stood above him, a vicious glare cutting him into pieces. Meanwhile, Mingzhu beat the other man using a fighting combination consisting of three, repetitive jabs. Finally, when he curled up in pain, she hit his neck artery. At the agonizing contact, he blacked out and met the grass below.
“Get up!” Mingzhu barked at the crying woman between pants.
Disung intervened, ensuring his voice remained gentle and caring. “Are you hurt, Miss?”
“N-n-no,” the woman stammered and fresh tears rolled down her rosy cheeks. Thin wisps of her brown hair clung to the wetness and got caught on her long lashes. Judging by her plain dress, both in style and colour, she was a commoner.
“I will not ask for details. Are you from Hirane?”
The woman nodded, unable to steady her breathing between chokes and sobs.
“Bastards!” Mingzhu growled and grabbed one man’s dagger.
“Do not kill them.”
“They must be punished!” A string of curses followed her demand.
“Then slice their foreheads a little. It bleeds like a waterfall in the rain season and should scar well. That will be punishment enough in Shanhe.”
Needing no further permission, Mingzhu carved into man she knocked unconscious. The pain did not stir him and he remained lost in darkness. Blood poured out and Disung used his body to block the woman’s view. She shook and curled into a ball like a child. Unsure how to handle the situation, as well as distract her from Mingzhu’s bloodlust, he tried talking to her in a soothing voice. A timid smile, breaking the rhythmic sobs, rewarded the attempt at comfort.
Meanwhile, Mingzhu continued her gruesome work. Disung risked at the mutilation to inspect the men’s clothing. They wore few layers and the top cream tunic had navy trim. On their left breast, the Shanhe emblem – a navy lotus flower – shimmered in the sun.
“Soldiers,” he murmured, recognising the uniform.
Apparently Mingzhu heard him and replied to his observation. “Bastards dared to rape their own kingdom’s people. They deserve to die in war… not that the officers will keep them with these new scars…”
“Are you done?” Disung asked, gesturing to the traumatized woman to hint at leaving soon.
Something changed in Mingzhu’s eyes; they lost their fierceness and anger. Instead, a sadness rippled in them, like fallen petals on water. Then, for an instant, her expression softened. She dropped the dagger and left the men. Both had ‘rotten egg’ carved into their foreheads, nearly indistinguishable with all the blood pouring from the cuts.
“The village is not far,” Mingzhu stated. “We shall take her back. The detour will not hinder our plans.”
Indeed, she was right. Uphill and beyond the thickest of trees, Hirane came into view. The village looked like a large, farming town filled to the brim with food markets. Buildings stood tall against the grassy, sloped hills, overlooking animals and crops on patches of flat land. For years, it grew in size and became an agriculture hub. The preparation of the upcoming Moon Festival showed this large population with people littering the streets to organise decorative goods and festive food. Colourful banners and lanterns stretched between balconies and roofs, cluttering the air. Some musicians took it upon themselves to play upbeat music in the streets to maintain a bright atmosphere.
The woman stuck closely to Mingzhu, rather than Disung, as they walked along the streets. It showed the traumatic happenings in the forest already tainted her perception of men. Unfortunately for her, she did not know Mingzhu had a temper and would not be kind with her words. The gods blessed them thought as this rough personality remained hidden and for once, Mingzhu appeared as a protector rather than a snarky woman. It was a pleasant surprise and lasted until they immersed themselves into the crowd.
Eventually, they stopped at a small market stall, built from planks of wood. Bright purple and white blankets covered most of it, contrasting against the blues and green of neighbouring stands. The older woman, standing behind the store, hunched over and bartered with a commoner about the price of scarf. At the sight of her kin, who shared her flat nose and swollen eyes, she approached and ignored the customer.
The mother opened her mouth, ready to scold her daughter, but upon seeing her fearful eyes and trembling lips, she sighed and led her inside the house behind them. They talked in hushed voices, low enough for their words to remain unheard, while younger brothers and sisters served customers outside. Disung made Mingzhu stay, until they guaranteed the woman’s welfare, and eyed the items laid before them.
The stall sold an arrangement of accessories for women. Scarves and handkerchiefs laid on the edges of the table, while the hairpin jewels glittered in the sun and flaunted their unspoken vows to loved ones. Masks lined up next to them; each reflected a tale about the gods and legends on the land. Disung saw Mingzhu pause at one mask, intrigued by the design. A cream colour created a foundation to the mask, then bright red and orange flames flicked up the slanted sides in swirls. Black outlined the thin eye holes, shifting the mask from stunning to an eerie elegance.
“Are you familiar in the folklore of the Dragon and demi-goddess?” Disung asked curiously.
“I think the story inspired lots of their crafts. Look! This pin must be the only thing that does not relate to any legend!”
The hairpin weighed down Mingzhu’s hair. Disung smiled at his sly hand and placement, then whistled at the jewels. He tucked a loose hair behind Mingzhu’s ear so it did not hide the accessory. The pin was long and golden, twisting up to the end to form a bird’s body and head. The head outstretched, as if the bird wished to sing its melody to the world. Small, red opaque gems covered the body while a collection of long, oval gems represented wings, flecked with purple and blues. Mingzhu looked beautiful with it and Disung’s heart fully agreed with this thought, encouraging a blush to stain his cheeks.
“You are beautiful when you look like a lady,” Disung admired, entranced by her.
Mingzhu glared and put the hairpin down. “You are delusional, boy.”
“You should wear it. Under Master Wang’s orders.”
“Last time I checked, you were not a sickly nobleman. Stop fooling around. We have greater matters to attend to.”
Stop fooling around. The phrase caused a mischievous grin to surface. Joaolong learnt long ago to avoid the words, as it only made Disung more enthusiastic to act out. For days he kept a low profile and spied on Mingzhu. Now, he wanted fun, encouraged by the order to calm down, and anticipated her raw reactions to his taunts.
“What should I do!” Disung wailed and caught the inquisitiveness of onlookers. He hid is smug smile at the drama yet to unfold. “My love rejects my gift to her! Oh, the gods can hear my sorrow! How can she be so cold!”
Mingzhu grabbed his tunic, the threat expressed by the viciousness of the tug. “Liu Disung, shut it. We need to pass undetected. This is no time to become a mockery.”
“She threatens to leave me! Have I not done enough to sate your romantic dreams?! What shall I do with my broken heart if so?! If only you accept the token of my love! See the promises I give inside each jewel! Am I still not worthy?!"
A crowd gathered, their interest piqued. Whispers travelled among the people over the lover’s quarrel. Mingzhu let go of the tunic and squirmed, uncomfortable with the attention. Blotches of red skin marked her embarrassment.
“What would you do, sir, if your wife refused you?! Can you pass on advice to my sorry soul?”
“My love, have I not done enough?! I have answered to all your desires! You ask me to embrace you and I have! You ask I take you in the woods and I have! You ask we explore brothels and I have! You ask me to do things I did not believe my body could do but I did them! You ask to be wed and I made it so! Now I ask of you to accept this token of my love. Look at these jewels. Do you not see the yearning of my heart?”
“Fine!” Mingzhu shouted. Her face looked indescribable, full of anger and humiliation. She thrusted the hairpin at the mother, who reappeared during the display. “How much?”
“Ah! It is a miracle, people of Hirane. This hairpin made it so! She accepts my love!” Disung exclaimed and he threw his arm around Mingzhu. To his hidden delight, she did not push him away. The acceptance of contact sent a tingle where their bodies met.
The applauding crowd voiced their relief. Many of the young men approached the stall in earnest, convinced the craftsmanship held spells and good fortune for love. Whereas women glanced longingly at the ‘couple’ and the jewellery that kept them together.
“Fool. Now the soldiers will discover strangers came to Hirane and were the ones that wounded their men,” Mingzhu whispered.
“No. Now the family will have great income and the girl will not need to venture far from home to bring profits. Besides, the Moon Festival is near and everyone travels across Shanhe. We are safe from spies,” Disung assured her in a soft voice and faced the mother instead.
“My daughter insists anything you want is free… Will you tell me what happened? She was meant to draw some flowers to expand our hairpin designs for the festival. I have never seen her like that and she lost all of her drawings. Ever since she was a child, charcoal or a brush was always in her hand. It worries me.”
Mingzhu spoke. “Animals attacked her on the path. We rescued her. That is all.”
The mother looked fleetingly towards her home behind them. In her eyes held deep empathy and pain. However, she perked up to be a perfect saleswoman. “Our hairpins are made for confessions of love and symbolise unity. You chose a unique style. It is about the freedom of the heart to love as it pleases.”
“That is a load of—”
“Excellent,” Disung interrupted. “Thank you for a splendid expression of our love. As you witnessed, it is truly magical!”
“Are you interested in anything else?”
“Is this free too?” Mingzhu pointed to the flame mask she eyed earlier.
“You have good taste, Miss. The mask is the only one of its kind. If you wish, it is yours without payment as well to express gratitude for saving my daughter.”
Without a minute to waste, the pair bundled up their gifts and left. Disung upheld the physical contact for all to see and suspected the long strides towards the forest intended to end this as soon as possible. After the tree cover welcomed them, Mingzhu vented her anger at the lover display through physically demanding pathways and tarnishing insults at Disung. Only after an hour, it felt safe to talk about as the frown vanished from Mingzhu’s face.
“What is the mask for?”
“Because you are an egg! Since you stupidly announced our arrival, as well as mentioned Wang Joaolong in Hirane, we need to hide our identities if we find the training camp.”
“We will not be found. Besides, Joaolong only wants verification that the camp is real and a count of the soldiers. No more. We do not need to be seen.”
“Then that will be done for Master Wang but for that woman, the demi-goddess, Hirane, will act.”
Disung gulped audibly and a bad feeling settled in his gut. For once, he regretted his foolish actions as he saw Mingzhu preparing to do her own.