“There is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that.”
--Lt. Col. Frank Slade, 'Scent of a Woman'
Chapter 134 – Peerless
At the Li Clan’s residence, Sunli saw that her guest was someone familiar.
“You are…” she said hesitantly, having only seen the person once before fleetingly.
The man nodded in acknowledgement. He was tall and broad shouldered, his hair tinged with streaks of grey, his face weathered and his jaw chiselled. The small but visible signs of aging and weariness added dignity and made him appear wise and formidable; tempered by the worldly look in his grey eyes that have seen too much. This was an attractive man in his prime years: experienced, confident, yet responsible and burdened.
She hastily rose to salute him, a man who was an equal peer in rank to her father General Zhao Tong.
The person in question was General Yin Yanzhao the White Star, Wu’s pillar of defence in the north, the vigilant and powerful shield that had deterred the Jin barbarians from sweeping south outright. He was the latest in a long line of patriots that had defended the north loyally, a position passed from son to son for many generations. His father General Yin Yanxi was a Great General of Wu as well, a peer of Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong, though they had never crossed paths due to different areas of responsibility.
Unfortunately General Yin Yanzhao appeared to be the last of the lineage: his wife died in childbirth and children perished in unfortunate circumstances.
There were many stories and songs about the valour and sacrifices of his troops as they battled harsh winters and Jin raiding parties alike. The family tragedies served to add colour and a humanizing aspect to what was an epic saga of bravery and unflinching loyalty.
Their steadfast adherence to their duty earned lavish praises and admiration. Though the current King of Wu was distracted lately and the northern border was neglected due to Gao Fang’s misadventure in Wei, the elite soldiers of General Yin did not waver, standing fast and enduring the lean times due to the diverting of supplies and material to other fronts.
Such was the respect General Yin Yanzhao commanded that the Jins trusted in his honour to escort their Ambassador Aidi to meet the King of Wu for what was thought to be diplomatic talks. Unfortunately the result was a tempestuous royal banquet that ended with Lord Aidi being humiliated, and the threat of war with Jin did not subside at all.
That banquet was also the venue where Sunli had seen General Yin Yanzhao. The general had escorted Lord Aidi and his gigantic female bodyguard into the banquet, but after the brief introduction he was all but forgotten. Thinking back, Sunli thought it was not right for such a distinguished military man to be treated as a mere valet. As one of those who had forgotten about General Yin due to the dramatic events of that day, Sunli felt mortified.
General Yin Yanzhao returned the salute, giving her the proper respect as a fellow soldier deserved.
That one gesture was enough to move Sunli: it was not until she had encountered Huang Ming that her skills and dedication as a soldier were truly appreciated. But after all that was said and done, Huang Ming was not a career soldier himself.
Even her father General Zhao Tong treated her with kid gloves despite her martial skills. It was only the desperate necessities of the campaign in Wei that she was given actual combat responsibilities, and she performed it with aplomb and finally earning a fearsome reputation.
Still, there were still whispers and doubt spoken of her actual prowess. For instance, her battle honours and combat citations from the campaign in Wei were given as almost an afterthought by the King of Wu. The monarch was far more interested in Huang Ming. Though Sunli did not begrudge her fiancé for it, it would be a lie to say that she was completely immune from thoughts of envy.
What was it Huang Ming had said? ‘For a woman to do a man’s job she has to do it twice as well to be thought as half as good.’
Furthermore, General Yin Yanzhao the White Star was an accomplished warrior and looked upon as a role model for soldiers. To receive something as innocuous as a proper salute with all the accorded esteem and honour from him was inspirational and it filled her with pride.
“Zhao Sunli, yes?” the general queried despite knowing the answer.
“Yes sir,” Sunli replied, still tense.
General Yin Yanzhao smiled benignly. “You are a veteran in your own right, no need to be so formal,” he said. He gave a once-over at her weapons and armour strewn on the ground.
“You were conducting maintenance?” he asked.
Sunli nodded as she felt her cheeks heat up, and she hoped it wouldn’t show up in her tanned complexion.
“So you’re not beneath doing your own cleaning,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“They are my weapons sir, I am responsible for them,” she replied.
General Yin Yanzhao nodded with approval, pleased by her attitude. Then his lidded, grey eyes stared directly at Sunli, as if studying her as she stood as taut as a drawn bow.
“Not bad, you have great form. You truly live up to your reputation, and you are a credit to your illustrious father,” the general praised.
Sunli did not feel uncomfortable from his frank stare, rather she stood straighter and her chin rose higher. How often can one brag about being personally commended by General Yin? There are countless stories about the general, like his father before him; sharing weal and woe with his elite soldiers of the north, treating them as if they were his sons and brothers.
“The general is too generous with his compliments,” she said modestly, inwardly gleeful with the assessment from such a celebrated military man.
“Let us be at ease,” the general said gently, yet there was an authority in his voice would not brook any dissent.
Sunli exhaled and stood at ease with her feet apart.
“Sir, if you are here to see Sir Huang Ming, he has been called to the palace,” she said, trying her best to maintain a stoic mask.
A shadow flickered over the general’s face and he shook his head.
“No, I’m not here to see him, though it would be nice to do so at another time,” he replied wistfully.
“Sir?” Sunli asked.
“No, I’m here to see you, Zhao Sunli,” the general said. “I have heard stories of you, and I want to see for myself the one they call the War Goddess.”
This time Sunli knew she could not hide the blush from her cheeks.
“I did not give myself that nickname,” she said in what she hoped to be her most neutral tone.
“That is what makes it all the more praiseworthy,” General Yin Yanzhao chuckled. Then he bowed his head slightly and looked away, as if embarrassed.
“If you care for it, perhaps we can discuss the campaign in Wei over a meal?” he asked softly.
It was as if a thunderbolt had struck Sunli, her eyes widened as she stared at the general.
“Unless, of course, you are busy,” the general added, giving the weapons and armour on the ground another look.
“No, of course not,” Sunli said quickly. “It would be my honour to accompany the general,” she added with all seriousness.
General Yin Yanzhao smiled.
“No, it would be my pleasure,” he said.
The son of the north,
An invitation did he bring forth.