44: Hirane's Lover

Disung refused to sit idly while Mingzhu risked her life to destroy the training camp. He wanted to be reckless too. So, instead of waiting in the forest for an emergency whistle, he came up with his own plan. Using the charcoal from earlier, he created black, three claw marks on his face and ran down into the mountain of tents.

The soldiers on duty paraded sparsely across the grounds, providing Disung easy access to sneak through the dark pathways undetected. The layout felt familiar and a wave of nostalgia washed over him passing recruit and officer tents. It had been years since he trained in these types of camps, surrounded by fresh air and rewarding challenges. Each day brought great exhaustion which Disung craved to keep sharp and fit. He missed the equality among his comrades and longed for the extra teaspoon of freedom accompanying the isolation of the area. The palace bound him to the hierarchy, political correct behaviour and slavery through invisible restraints. The pranks he played were attempts to keep him sane, otherwise he would not cope.

“Who goes there?” The chef glanced around his domain like a bird wary of predators.

The kitchen was one of the few properly built structures in the area. Thick logs stood strong to be foundational pillars, while bamboo, tied together, created walls and helped reinforce the straw ceiling. The materials, or lack of, showed the priority had been reducing cost rather than durability. This reaffirmed the camp was formed by Huli and not the past emperor, who liked to display his wealth to boost morale.

“Chef, the general wishes to speak to you,” Disung shouted from behind the black bamboo. “The rations have changed.”

“Again?” The man mumbled curses under his breath.

As soon as he emerged from the building, a forearm clamped around the front of his throat. Disung used his other arm to secure the grip and apply more pressure, forcing the man downwards to submit. The chef struggled and eventually, collapsed, unable to breathe. Tossing aside the man, Disung ran inside to collect any vases with oil, grease and other flammable liquids. While juggling these pots, he spotted the array of powders on the back table stored in large bowls. One caught his attention, the white crystals reminding him of mischief from years ago. He discovered certain types of salt changes the colour of fire. Instead of burning a mix of oranges, it blew up into a white flame. He smirked, remembering the horrified face of their cook in camp as his brew boiled on top of a magical fire. They all thought the spirits returned to the mortal realm to warn them of danger. If only there was enough salt to make the new recruits share similar fears…

“The armory!” Disung exclaimed in excitement when an epiphany struck him.

Unwilling to waste a single second, he bolted out from the kitchen, carelessly kicking the chef who remained weak on the ground. He placed a few pots in a safe space, near the edge of the camp, and honed in on the armory. No soldiers stopped him, most marching to the distraction in the centre of the grounds. This gave Disung the ability to steal standing torches and set tents aflame in his wake. Once he reached the armory and blacksmith, a half-constructed building, he grinned at the metals littering the grounds and items inside. The armours and swords which hung on the walls looked far from normal, their colour and thickness contrasting greatly. He overheard Rong mention at the end of this rein, Weishan wanted to experiment with different metals for new swords. Apparently, Huli shared the same intention but expanded it to all military items. Alas, Disung’s confidence and he acted.

After placing a few pots inside, near the unusual equipment, he set the building alight using a nearby standing torch. The fire, although slow to start, devoured the structure as he ran away. Behind him, he glanced back to see the orange flame contain spurts of turquoise and green before exploding further. Chunks of metal flew into the air and reached higher than his initial expectation. They must store explosives in there too, he thought absent-mindedly, already focused on his next action to ignite chaos.

Grabbing another torch and carrying the bow and arrows – stolen before destroying the armory – in a vise grip, he returned to his remaining pots. He tore his clothes into bundled balls, pierced them with the arrows and dipped each into oil. With a steady hand, he readied his bow and lit the arrow head, pleased when the material immediately caught fire, and pulled back the bow string. The first shot flew through the air and he watched the experiment to determine the weight effect and flame. The fire flickered but grew once it hit a nearby tent. Excited by this success, Disung lit another.

“Put the arrow down!” A man ordered in a husky voice.

Disung winced, disappointed to already be caught. He turned around. The man was huge, his muscles bulging from under his robes. The silver belt showed his status as the general, as did the embroiled grey emblem on his chest. The sword by his side begged to be withdrawn and the man held his hand against it, as if hearing its call.

“Ah, my friend! How have you been?”

“Ànshù? What are you doing here?” Rong asked in disbelief. As soon as the words left his lips, he noticed the flaming arrow in Disung’s hand and the collection of kitchen vases around him. To confirm his fear, Disung gave a guilty smile. “Do not tell me the commotion in the camp is you.”

“The camp needs some remodeling is all,” Disung replied casually, lowering his bow.

“I should have known,” Rong mumbled.

“You indeed should but now you have learnt the lesson and can stop me next time.”

Rong unsheathed his sword and rested it near Disung’s neck. “There will not be a next time.”

Cocky and confident, Disung smiled and pushed the blade away with a single finger. The force, although soft, was enough to puncture his skin and blood gathered at the blade. “Be careful. The pointy end of this is sharp. You would hate to injure your pupil.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You are my reason!” Disung lied and acted dramatically shocked. No smile rewarded his theatrics. “You are at fault! Weeks ago, you left the palace and your recruits without a farewell. What else was I supposed to do when you did not reply to my letters after that?! Then I thought this would catch your attention!”

“They were not letters! They were jokes and gossip!”

“The snake did steal the cakes from the baby!” The misunderstanding in Rong’s expression disheartened Disung. The great general did not see the truth behind the words. Maybe Disung had hung around Joaolong too much, for he found codes in most letters without trying and started to assume others would understand too. “Jokes and codes keep us safe. The baby is Hong Weishan, the snake is the new emperor and the cake, delicious and irresistible, represents life. I wrote it this way so if a recruit intercepted the message, it meant nothing to them.”

“That is pointless. We do not teach soldiers to read anymore.”

This was new change to the recruiting process. The old training camps nurtured growth in all aspects of learning, not solely combat. The soldiers were meant to protect the emperor and to do so, must be able to notice any obscure letters or behaviour. Disung learnt to read, write, observe human habits and fight, along with his comrades. Weishan prided himself on this tradition of learning, following the wisdom of the past Shanhe emperors. It also greatly encouraged more men to enlist as soldiers for education.

“What if a soldier comes across an important letter? What if the letter held the fate of the kingdom? What if the fact they could not read the letter killed everyone?” Disung questioned, perplexed by the change. Rong remained silent, expressing a hidden agreement, as if the training was out of his control as general. “Ah, it is the new emperor’s wish for his subjects to remain worthless. His paranoia has grown instead of diminished since Hong Weishan’s—sorry, I mean the baby’s death.”

“You cannot say such things, in code or bluntly stated.”

“I will keep my mouth shut if-” Disung paused for dramatic effect, finding amusement in Rong’s frustration, “-you let me go.”

“Do you remain ignorant to the chaos you have caused? Not here but your gossiping in the town. Already, the people clung those sweet words you say and whisper of Wang Joaolong as their hero. For he was born with the soul of a wise man, the intelligence of a thousand emperors and heart of a mothering bird. Wang Joaolong will not live as he is! The past emperor let him be, for the love of the empress, and his intelligence. Alas, you saw the restraint and jealousy in council meetings. No emperor is pleased by someone more witty and clever than he. Hong Weishan restored his inferiority by brandishing Wang Joaolong’s ideas as his own. That was why Wang Joaolong remained. The new emperor is too self-centered and impulsive to follow in the same steps. Already, he has clearly tried to assassinate the man since youth and it is getting worse. He will blame this destruction of a training camp on someone smart like you master! Your whisperings in the village and antics tonight will be the destruction of your life!”

Dread filled Disung’s body. Argh! Why is the emperor always after Joalong’s head? It cannot be over simple jealousy! Then, has he learnt the truth? No. There is no evidence. The only person that share the secret are the empress, myself and… the Fox. Disung’s stomach dropped. The Fox could form an alliance with the emperor. It would explain the extreme measures Huli placed to disgrace Joaolong and undermine him. If so, they had to leave Shaneh soon. There was no time for gather allies and create the performance needed. After the Moon Festival, they had to simply run. 

“Get out of the way, old man! Unless you want to be uglier than normal!” Disung yelled, hearing the groans and cried of men in the distance. He raised his bow and fired a few more arrows.

Rong did not stop him. “What shall I report to the emperor about the destroyed camp? He will not believe in ghosts and gods that sought vengeance like the men are screaming. I will be amazed what he accepts as the truth.”

An epiphany struck Disung like lightening, sending currents crawling on his skin. It almost matched his coloured flame explosion. The chaos in the camp presented a grand opportunity to sever any enemy alliances. Disung whispered this idea to Rong, who looked at him in dread.

“I will be hunted.”

“You will not. At least, not by our emperor. It is the only answer he will accept that does not blame Joaolong.”

“You play a dangerous game.”

Disung smirked. “Greater the danger reaps a greater reward.”

“I am only doing this because I owe you and my wife adores you. If I get caught, I will turn you in.”

“And if you live easily for the rest of your days, I will rub it in your face who made it so.”

The two men separated; Rong joined his terrified recruits while Disung snuck through outer pathways of the camp. Escaping proved more difficult than anticipated, especially when all soldiers were on alert to look for the female intruder. Several times, he almost got caught and narrowly avoided danger by hiding inside tents and taking different paths. The best route to leave was the way he came in, as the trees gathered right near the tents. As he stealthily made his way through the camp, a weird feeling settled in his gut. Then, he heard something. The sound reminded him of a dying bird since the whistle lost its strength and turned airy. For a strange reason, he knew Mingzhu was in trouble.

Seconds felt like long minutes. His legs didn’t move fast enough. The whistle stopped. Disung heard blood roar in his ears. Wasps soared in his stomach, churning his insides. The image of Mingzhu without a frown stole his thoughts. It broke his heart. He needed to save her. Otherwise, he would make them all pay.

In a fateful moment, he looked left and spotted a man pinning someone. Disung dug his heels into the ground and turned sharp towards the scene. Mingzhu bucked and kicked the man but she remained helpless in his stoic grip. His fingertips crept along the edges of her mask. The tent material flapped from Disung’s speed as he ran faster than he had before. He was almost there.

“Touch her and I’ll kill you!” he shouted and tackled the soldier. They fell to the ground. Adrenaline pumped through Disung. Grabbing the soldier’s head, he slammed it into the dirt. He lowered his voice to a hideous snarl. “Keep your filthy mortal hands off my Hirane!”

He was ready to kill him. He wanted to. A dark mist came over him, fogging his senses. Every punch sent a thrill through him. A smile crept on his lips at the sound of bones breaking. He fell into the trance, as he did many times before, and became a beast instead of human.

“That costume destroys your dignity far more than I could!” Mingzhu burst out laughing like a maniac. The sweet sound pulled Disung like a puppet and the brutality than destroyed his conscious disappeared. “Who are you pretending to be?”

“Your lover,” Disung replied, his voice uneven. The energy, ridiculously powerful and flowing seconds ago, seeped out of him. This left his bloody hands to shake and scream over the pain they endured because of his savage intent. What had he done? It took a great internal fight to convince his usual smile to return.

“You look ridiculous!” More laughter poured from Mingzhu’s petite frame as she stood. Awkwardly, she offered her hand to help him up but looked the other way, embarrassed at the gesture.

“You talk big for someone about to give away our identity,” Disung replied and used her to stand. He did not let it go and dragged her to run away. “Why is it that I am always saving you?”

“This is the first time you have saved me.”

“Does that mean I cannot call you a fair, helpless maiden yet?”

For once, Mingzhu smiled. All the harsh lines that carved her face disappeared and in their place, were soft creases. She looked radiant especially when the happiness reached her eyes. In that breath, which Disung lost, she appeared far more beautiful than anyone he ever saw. Just like that, he became beyond smitten by her.

“That will not happen, even in your dreams,” she taunted as they ran into the forest.

The heat in the field increased, as did the panicked cries and orders. The fire worked beyond expectations and burnt down half the camp, rendering it useless. Smoke filled the air and for once, the forest was illuminated at night. Disung and Mingzhu found refuge in the cool, dark depths of the woods at a high vantage point. They watched everything unfold and wore wide smiles which grew when they looked at each other. How odd it seemed that their loathing from childhood changed into the complete opposite emotion. They used to fight each other but now, fought together. Something shifted between them that night and Disung felt the term ‘friendship’ felt too lenient of a word.