7: Cabin in the Woods
The imperial city, Yinying Yueguang, blended into the landscape. Unlike the palace, buildings were painted with browns and greys, similar to the mountains, while an abundance of trees disturbed alleyways. These houses and shops formed a horseshoe which stretched around the river that spilled into the Kye Lake. The popular inn, spanning over a small waterfall, acting like a bridge, was every man’s dream; full of hearty food, endless wine and exotic women but at a high price. Disung often here visited when Joaolong was sick, wasting his time by watching people and their actions. Today, he had other plans.
Passed the city on a secret road, the pebbled ground turned into a dirt track. This cued Disung to veer off into the dense forest and follow the subtly tree markings. Each trunk had a different carved Masked Master animal. The steep incline and rocky ground that the signs led him made the walk difficult. Yet, it was worth it. At the sight of the cabin, Disung’s anxiety eased. The familiar site made him smile as he remembered the days he ran around and hunted in the area.
Over the months, the plain cabin became surrounded by a lush garden, which contained both aesthetic plants and weeds. This greenery stretched up to the windows on the sides of the house. It made the cabin appear abandoned, as did the door-less entrance that ventilated the house.
“Mother!” Disung yelled and ventured inside. The space contained a kitchen, dining area and bedroom without walls to separate rooms.
Shao Chunhua sat at the table, embroidering a pillow with bamboo trees. Relief washed through Disung; she hadn’t changed at all. That unruly, thick hair, which Disung inherited, tumbled over her shoulders and her skin looked tough like leather. She even smelled like bonfires, as always.
“My son! Is it really you?” Chunhua replied and hugged her son tightly. “You have grown too much. Sit! I will prepare some tea. Have they been feeding you well in the palace?”
“Of course. Any delicacy you can think of, I have eaten.”
“You look too thin,” she remarked and shoved a bread roll into his mouth. She returned to boil water on a contained fire inside as Disung choked on the food. “Is Master Wang Joaolong treating you well?”
“Yes, mother. You worry too much.”
“You are my kin. I will always worry. Why did you visit? You should not have left your duty,” Chunhua said, fussing over her only family.
“Joaolong is ill and my duty is pointless when the physician and servants are monitoring him,” Disung explained.
The morning felt chaotic in the palace. Disung awoke from a light slumber to a housemaid fussing about Joaolong. The master looked ghostly pale and coughed hysterically until blood dribbled from his mouth. A private physician from Yinying Yueguang tended to him.
Dried fruit from the previous day caused his throat to be scratched but the fever… Disung worried. Attacks on Joaolong were common because of his investigations into dodgy tax collections and trades. A smart man like him could ruin many tainted nobleman’s positions. Nevertheless, many people were on alert and Disung’s duty became pointless.
“I will gather some longans for you to take to Master Wang Joalong. It will give back his strength. I fed you many during your fevers as a child.”
“It will be appreciated,” Disung replied. “How is life in the wilderness?”
“There is not much to tell. The forest is pleasant in spring except for the bugs and pollen. For every joy, there is always a consequence. I have fresh air to keep me young and chores to keep me strong. The sunsets are beautiful these days. I wish you would stay to see one.”
“I would not beg you so often if I had grandchildren to stay by my side. If only my son married,” Chunhua whined as she put the teapot on the table, then searched for cups.
Nothing stopped Disung’s mother mentioning grandchildren. Each passing year, she sighed about her loneliness before describing the joy of children. It drove Disung mad. Especially now. Something else, far more important, played on his mind.
The Fox haunted him. Since the message on the Divine Gate, he had nightmares. Every shadow turned him on edge. The sound of footsteps caused him to stir. It felt like endless torment. The Fox mask wouldn’t leave his mind. But it was not his burden alone. His mother needed to know.
“The Fox has come to the Lotus Palace.”
A teacup smashed on the ground. Pieces scattered across the floor. Chunhua bent over and slowly collected the shards with shaky hands. “A-are you certain the Fox has returned?”
“The emperor received a token. There is no mistaking who left it,” Disung said and helped his mother clean the mess of pottery.
That wooden fox opened an old wound. When Disung closed his eyes, he relived the fight between his father and the Fox. They punched, blocked and kicked. Then, the Fox used Chunhua to gain advantage over Disung’s father. The man surrendered for the sake of his love and was stabbed. He fell to his knees and the Fox beat him further. Chunhua escaped and dragged Disung away from the scene.
These memories came flooding back to Disung at the sight of the token. They lost everything. They never returned to the mountains. It was the Fox’s fault.
Chunhua let out a strangled sobbed and it pained Disung to see his mother, a strong fearless woman, cry. “No…it can’t be…He has come back… We must…”
“I’ll protect you,” Disung said. “I won’t ever let him hurt you like he did to father. I promise. I will protect you.”
The mood sobered after that. During the rest of the time spent together, neither Chunhua or Disung spoke of the Fox again. They collected firewood and hunted rabbits, conversing about Disung as a child or life in the palace. They lived together in the cabin for only a year before circumstances forced Disung to enlist in the army. It broke Chunhua’s heart to see her son leave. Relief only came from the empress’s personal letter years later. That was when she offered Disung a promotion.
The sun crept closer to the mountains, signalling the end of their time together.
“Tell Master Wang Joaolong I wish his good health to return.” Chunhua handed over a bag full of herb packages and longans.
“I will. Keep safe. Tell me if anything happens,” Disung said, still worried about the Fox.
Chunhua chuckled. “I will protect myself. How else will I make sure you have children?”