“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”
--Harvey Dent, ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
Chapter 165 – Jaded Dragon
“Ms. Zhao, is there something wrong?” General Yin Yanzhao asked politely. There was a hint of formality in his tone, as if he was anticipating yet another a no-nonsense meeting with the War Goddess.
Sunli shook her head. “No, this is something unofficial.”
General Yin’s handsome features brightened. “Oh? Well, that is an unexpected pleasure.”
Sunli tilted her head quizzically.
General Yin gave her a wry smile. “We only meet if something regarding the Imperial Guard. You declined my every offer of a meal or an outing, it seemed that you are avoiding me unless it was absolutely necessary,” he said self-depreciatingly.
“Um. I had things to do,” Sunli fibbed.
“So you say, every single time,” General Yin said lightly and waited as Sunli stood stiffly before him. He allowed her to stew under his gaze for a few moments, but sighed when he saw the Amazon’s face was stoic like stone.
“Well, what can I do for you?” General Yin asked, defusing the awkward atmosphere.
Whereupon Sunli placed on his table the wooden case from Lin Hua.
“What is this?”
“It is a present, sir,” Sunli told him, using Lin Hua’s precise words.
General Yin’s brows rose, and he quietly opened the box. The look of anticipation gave way to one of shock when he saw the greenish sword within it.
“The Jade Dragon Sword…” he whispered, his voice cracking.
“I was told that this belonged to your family,” Sunli said.
“Indeed, this belonged to my father. And his father before him,” he said softly. He looked up at Sunli, his eyes shaking with emotion. “How did you come by this?”
“A friend of mine gave it to me,” Sunli said as she erased the image of Lin Hua’s mischievous smile from her mind.
“A friend ‘gave’ it to you?” General Yin repeated in disbelief. “I never thought I would see this sword again…”
“You said it belonged to your father?” Sunli asked.
“Misfortunes of war,” General Yin chuckled humourlessly. “You know the circumstances of my father?”
“The Great General Yin Yanxi,” Sunli replied. “My father often spoke of him, though they have never met. He grieved when Great General Yin passed away.”
Yin Yanzhao smiled wistfully. “People of their age tend to keep tabs on each other.”
“We only heard the official reports, that the Great General died while surrounded by overwhelming odds,” Sunli said.
Yin Yanzhao’s expression turned dark. “Yes, that is true,” he said. “He sortied out of Beihai after reports of a Jin incursion. The governor of Beihai was worried and ordered him to investigate. He never returned.”
He sighed heavily. “I still remember the last time I saw him. My wife was ill that day, but I wanted to follow him. He told me to stay home with my wife and assist the governor to guard the city.”
“It was a trap by an overly ambitious Jin warlord. He wanted to score some merit and make a name out of himself, and so conjured this ruse. He challenged my father to a duel, and my father was winning until the warlord’s men shot him in the back,” Yin Yanzhao narrated.
“I am sorry,” Sunli murmured.
Yin Yanzhao shook his head. “It is all in the past. So much had happened that year, I have become numb to it.”
Sunli kept quiet. She knew what happened that year: the governor of Beihai died in an accident, Yin Yanzhao’s wife passed away and Yin Yanzhao himself had fallen into a stupor, drinking himself senseless and sometimes disappearing for weeks at an end.
For a time Beihai was in confusion. Only an unusually severe winter that year stopped the Jins from actually invading. It also cut Beihai from the rest of Wu, and the city had to fend for itself.
But after a period of mourning, Yin Yanzhao returned like a new man. By the time the King of Wu heard what had happened, Yin Yanzhao had taken charge of both civil and military administration of Beihai and did his job so well that he was appointed as the sole authority of the city instead of the usual separate governor-and-general dynamic.
The tragedy of his father Yin Yanxi left a siege mentality in Beihai, and Yin Yanzhao took upon himself to shoulder all the responsibility. Yin Yanzhao established himself as the bulwark of the north, fighting off the sporadic Jin raids and ensuring the safety of Beihai. All decisions, big or small; were ultimately decided by him, earning him much praise from the people.
All of which contributed to the shock and disbelief that rose when Yin Yanzhao uprooted himself away from Beihai to be the new Commander of the Imperial Guard in the capital city.
Sunli wondered if she should ask him about it. Her eyes quietly studied General Yin who was running his fingers along the Jade Dragon Sword, almost in a daze.
“You said this is a present, but… this gift is too heavy,” General Yin said as he closed the box.
“It is your family heirloom, sir,” Sunli pointed out.
But General Yin still refused. “It brings back too many unpleasant memories. Your friend found it and gave it to you, you should keep it.”
“I prefer spears, sir,” Sunli said blandly.
General Yin blinked at her. Then he laughed. “Very well, I accept. But tell me, how did your friend find it?”
Sunli shrugged. “My friend is a broker who deals often with travelling merchants. Actually, my friend wanted to know about the green material in the sword. Do you know what it is?”
General Yin laughed. “Of course. My father told me all about it.”
Sunli waited for the general to say more. But after several heartbeats, it was evident that the general was keeping mum.
“Well, what is it?” she asked.
General Yin wagged a finger in reproach. “It took you so long to seek me out for personal reasons, and even then you brought nothing but bad memories with you,” he said, a benign smile taking the sting out of his words.
Sunli frowned. “My friend would be more than happy to compensate you for the information…”
“That is another matter. What about you?” he teased.
“That is why I said you should keep the sword…” Sunli muttered.
The general pretended not to have heard her. He sighed and shook his head soulfully as if distressed and stricken.
“I am hungry. I can tell you all about the sword after some food,” he said.
Sunli narrowed her eyes. “I’ll buy something. What would you like to eat?”
The general hemmed and hawed. “I can’t decide. I will know once we get there,” he said, his eyes gleaming mischievously. It reminded Sunli of the look that was on Lin Hua’s face earlier.
General Yin then became solemn. “If it is really too much to ask, then it is fine. I’m too old to beg for a simple dinner together.”
Sunli exhaled. “No, sir. Not at all,” she said.
“Excellent!” the general said and rubbed his palms. “I know a place, you will love the food…”
“Whatever you decide, sir,” Sunli said numbly.
She could not help but feel defeated.
The general was persistent,
And played on her conscience.