“Most will end up here, covered in the poisoned earth, awaiting merciful oblivion.”
--The Narrator, ‘Darkest Dungeon’
Chapter 171 – Target test
General Yin Yanzhao handpicked several elite soldiers to accompany him on the trip to Beihai. Sunli were unfamiliar with the stern-faced soldiers who had followed General Yin to the capital. They were not part of the Imperial Guards whom she trained, but part of his own personal guard.
Sunli greeted them with respect, only to be rebuffed with cold stares and set teeth.
General Yin noticed her curiosity.
“They have been with me the longest,” he told her quietly. “We have been through thick and thin together, we all have lost something. I trust them with my life, and they have entrusted theirs to me.”
Sunli understood, she had seen similarly affected men in her father’s army. But General Yin’s elites were unpleasant and joyless. They had a chilling demeanour, unfriendly to the point of being hostile; their eyes hard and unfeeling as graven idols. All were scarred and bore their wounds stoically, their bearing severe and as tense as a wound-up spring.
Thus the only source of discourse in the journey to Beihai was the occasional small talk between General Yin and Sunli. At first Sunli was non-committal, only responding with the briefest of acknowledgements.
Then the general changed tack and took pains to point out the military merits of this or that geographical feature or historical battlefield. This sparked more interest from Sunli who was more interested in such martial discussion.
The trip took on detours as the general delighted in showing off his knowledge and experience, and what was supposed to be a week of hard riding became a month of almost leisurely sightseeing and hunting wild game together.
Two days before finally arriving at Beihai, General Yin took Sunli to a nondescript field. The ground was scoured and scarred, the vegetation sparse. It was unremarkable in any way, except for a single withered tree.
“Where is this?” Sunli asked.
“This is the site of a battle, some thirty years ago. My father fought in it,” General Yin told her.
“What battle was that?”
General Yin smiled grimly. “It was just a small action in the bigger scheme of things, nothing glorious enough to be recorded. This place does not even have a name.”
Sunli nodded and asked, “Why have you brought me here?”
General Yin pointed at the dying tree. “I want you to understand the true nature of war.”
Sunli stiffened, causing the general to chuckle.
“I am not belittling your experience,” he soothed. “You have already made a name for yourself in that campaign in Wei. No, what I am referring to is the legacy.”
“Tell me, have you given thought to the effect that you have caused?” he asked conversationally.
“Effect? What effect?” she asked.
General Yin laughed. He pointed to the distant tree.
“Can you hit that tree from here?”
Sunli tilted her head quizzically but obliged. She unslung her bow easily shot an arrow into the trunk of the gnarled tree.
“Well done,” the general praised, but Sunli was not pleased as the target was not very far.
“Are you trying to slight me?” she asked. “That was hardly a test.”
“Oh, but it is,” General Yin said. “Just not in the way you think.”
“What do you mean?”
General Yin pointed at her bow. “Tell me, what was the process of your shooting?”
“Get to the point,” Sunli demanded.
“Indulge me,” the general urged.
She suppressed her annoyance and in a slow manner, nocked another arrow. The War Goddess glanced at the general before launching the arrow, hitting the tree once more.
“Have you taken a close look? Are you satisfied?” she asked.
“Good grip, good eyesight and good bow. Is that all?” the general commented.
“What else is there?” Sunli snapped.
General Yin pointed a finger to his head and then at his heart. “What about the mind that remembers your training? What about timing your breath with your heartbeat to steady your aim?
Then he pointed at her. “And of your decision to shoot in the first place?”
“You told me to,” Sunli said accusingly, as she digested his words.
“What made you obey me?” General Yin persisted.
Sunli did not answer. He was a general, yet she was not really in his chain of command. They were acquaintances, but not really friends to give each other favours. So why did she indulged on his request?
“Now you’re thinking,” General Yin said encouragingly. “Some people never even considered such things. Kings and ministers argue and bicker, and so we soldiers go to war for imaginary lines on a map. The sages told us to be loyal and obey the authorities, that there is a natural order to things. To question them would introduce unknown variables; variables that would lead to uncertainties. Uncertainties that would breed chaos.”
Sunli remained silent, and the general took it as a sign of her attention.
He expounded: “Don’t tell me you have never cursed the likes of Gao Fang and Tong Xuan, for sending soldiers such as yourself into danger. And for what? What had all the bloodshed accomplish? Our kingdom of Wu went to war, sacked several cities and razed the countryside… only to be driven back in the end. Your Huang Ming gained us a strategic fort in Tigertrap Pass, but the imaginary line on our maps shifted a few inches.”
Sunli’s head bowed in thought, her eyes taking a far away look.
“You understand, don’t you? How many comrades have you lost in those battles? Was it worth it?” he asked softly.
The harsh glare she gave him was answer enough. General Yin pointed to the withered tree which was now decorated with two of Sunli’s arrows.
“This… this is the legacy of war. This is ‘glory’. This is what remains after a battle. The fallen are forgotten, their corpses returned to the earth. Only the survivors would remember them.”
“I tell you this, because you are on track to be a great leader of men. I am sure there are those who are surprised and disappointed when I up and left Beihai for the ‘comforts’ of the capital city… that I have tarnished the legacy of my family by leaving.”
He laughed hollowly.
“But what do they know about the true meaning of legacy? How many of them even knew this place existed?” he asked, gesturing to the desolate field.
“I went to the capital because I intend to stop the pointless wars and waste of lives. Sacrifices must be made, but they must be for reasons we soldiers can believe in.”
General Yin Yanzhao looked deeply at Sunli.
“For that purpose, I need people like you.”
A responsibility to bear,
A burden to share.