8: Weak Man's Tricks
What if I die testing my body? Joaolong wondered. As a sick child, he never expected to be putting himself at risk. Yet, here he was; lying in bed from ingested poison by his own hand. Over the past few years, he began building a tolerance to a range of poisons. This testing served to defend him against sly assassination attempts. As a smart man in charge of economy, who interrogated every tax and income, many people wanted him dead.
The Fox was a new foe. Joaolong remained unsure how the master would attack. What was he after? Why come alone? Who would he target? The unanswered questions irritated him. No one could provide clarity about the situation. Not even Disung. Therefore, Joaolong prepared; yesterday, before dawn, he mixed a poisonous mountain plant into his tea. It took a whole day to recover – faster than most poisons – and Joaolong watched the palace fall into chaos. They panicked over his illness, half insistent the Fox attacked while others stayed true to their belief Joaolong had a weak body. All were surprised when Joaolong emerged from his chambers the next day.
Wu Tai, a personal eunuch, accompanied him around the palace. Tai was a pure-hearted man that remained optimistic despite the world’s injustice. A noble family set him up for thievery in retaliation for capturing their daughter’s heart. They hated his poor heritage and refused to be tied to it. After mutilation and being sold to the Lotus Palace, Joaolong took the boy under his wing. In secret, Tai learnt to read, write and educate himself. To repay this kindness, he swore loyalty to Joaolong.
“You scared me,” Tai admitted.
“I apologise,” Joaolong replied as they left the garden. “It was necessary.”
“Your tolerance is already great against many-” Tai stopped himself before mentioning poison, fearful of spies overhearing, “-medicinal tea. I do not understand why you continue to push yourself.”
“I have many enemies.”
“Your body is naturally weak. I worry you might kill yourself by accident one day.”
Joaolong chuckled. “Many noblemen will rejoice.”
“Because no one ruins their secret trades and fraud. I wish not to think of it. Shanhe would fall into chaos.”
“What is happening over there?” Joaolong asked, diverting the topic.
In the main, concrete courtyard, men practiced fighting rotating dummies and attempted fast-paced swordplay. They all wore navy robes with the Shanhe totem on their chest. Only two people dressed differently; Su Rong and Disung. Su Rong, general of the Shanhe army, was dressed in black while Disung’s brown robes hung loosely on him. Disung trained with a tall, lanky and hunched teenager while the general added his advice from the sideline.
“Broaden your shoulders and widen your legs!” Su Rong shouted at the new recruit, Duan Xingyi. Joaolong had seen him around the palace flirting with noblewomen.
“Try to hit me,” Disung taunted.
“Ahhh!” Xingyi shouted as he ran forward, his fist colliding with nothing but air.
“Eyes on the target and keep close to your enemy on the attack. Otherwise, they will predict your moves too easily.”
Xingyi tried again, bouncing on his feet and throwing a few punches at a short range. Disung easily blocked them, his defence having greater strength than Xingyi’s attacks. Then, Xingyi tried a low kick, chosen not because of an opening but due to a lack of flexibility to extend a leg higher. He hadn’t been stretching.
The recruits that trained in the palace were lazy. Instead of stretching every sunrise, they did as they pleased. Their diets remained rich and luxurious, exactly like it had been growing up in a wealthy family, while others lived on minimum rations. The worst part was the training, where they whined about the tasks. Disung told Joaolong tales about the training camps in the mountains; the tough experience formed strong fighters. In the palace, men couldn’t be groomed the same way. It was the reason why the emperor sent the Crowned Prince away.
“You are weak. Let us see if you can prove yourself in defense,” Disung said and stepped forward.
At first, Disung did a familiar sequence of punches and Xingyi blocked them well. However, when Xingyi raised his hand because he relied on the pattern, Disung grabbed it and twisted it until Xingyi was at his mercy.
“Do not rely on basic combinations. Look at my eyes. Look at my body. They reveal my moves. If we fought in a war tomorrow, I guarantee that the enemy wouldn't use Shanhe's basic combinations to fight,” Disung scolded. "Think, don't assume."
Joaolong smiled from afar, hearing the words. It was rare that Disung acted wise in a fight instead of running his mouth. He had a bad habit of babbling.
“Practice on a dummy and I don’t want to hear complaints about the pain. In a real fight, you won’t have any recovery breaks,” Rong interrupted. He turned to the spectators. “This isn’t a show! You are distracting my men!”
“Joaolong! I thought you were ill!” Disung yelled, pushing passed Rong.
Joaolong leaned on Tai and approached slowly. “I hoped the fresh air would speed up my recovery.”
“You look better than yesterday. Did the vomiting stop?”
“Excellent. Then you can fight with me!”
Joaolong laughed. “I think General Su Rong would be a better opponent than I.”
“I can beat that old man with my eyes closed,” Disung boasted, purposely aggravating Rong. Despite the insult, Disung had great respect towards the general.
“What did you say?” Rong exclaimed, taking the bait with a cocky grin. “Never insult your master.”
“What will you do about it?”
As simple as that, the men fought. Each man’s movements were well-practiced, hitting each other with precision. Rong attacked aggressively, Disung struggling against his size. He ducked and weaved, all the while chatting nonstop to distract his opponent. This included remarks about Rong's age, questioning on how he snared a beautiful wife and insults on his attacks.
“Who do you think will win?” Tai asked, watching from a safe distance.
“I am not sure. The general has a great reputation too.”
“How much will you bet?”
Tai took a moment to deliberate. “One red ring.”
Suddenly, Disung and Rong both ran to grab swords. They mirrored each other, pacing around an invisible circle. This time, Disung attacked first; he crouched low and swung for Rong’s legs, then quickly struck again from up high. Rong struggled to avoid the blade as it came from different heights within seconds. The clank of metal filled the air. Disung slashed. Rong blocked and stabbed. The men lunged at each other. Joaolong felt mesmerised by the display.
“The emperor is watching,” Tai suddenly said.
Cued by this, Joaolong began coughing hysterically. “General Su Rong and Master Liu. I am taking my leave.”
As they walked away, Joaolong briefly glanced back at the emperor and the prince beside him. He continued to hunch himself over and forcibly cough as he walked along the path out of sight. The ‘weak man’ appearance continued. For the sake of Joaolong’s pride and dignity, he maintained his safety for today. If they discovered the intelligent man was strong, his life would be in jeopardy.