Man and woman
“I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow in the knee.”
--The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Chapter 207 - Man and woman
“This is a war bow, not a hunting bow,” General Yin said sternly.
He was standing a few steps away from a tense Princess Wu Liying. She was dressed in a manly fashion, her long hair tied in a pony tail. In her hands was a war bow almost dwarfed her frame, with an arrow loosely nocked.
“If I am going to learn something, then I should learn everything about it,” the princess replied confidently. She was not daunted by the bow, after all she was already somewhat proficient in archery. Though the war bow was much bigger and heavier, it did not seem all that different than the hunting bows that she had used in the past.
“Where did you even get this?” the general wondered aloud, his eyes looking accusingly at the princess’s minders and bodyguards. They kept their eyes low and avoided meeting the general’s look.
Princess Wu Liying herself blithely ignored the question. “What should I do first?” she asked instead.
“Breathe,” General Yin Yanzhao murmured.
“Shouldn’t I raise the bow and aim first?” the princess demanded.
General Yin grinned, a touch of mischief that shed years off his weary eyes.
“Sure,” he said. “Aim at the middle target board. Take your time. Do not worry about hitting the target, focus on getting the feel of the draw. Wait for my order before release.”
Princess Wu Liying’s pretty forehead creased. She was sure the general was pulling a prank on her, but nevertheless she obliged him.
“Nock,” the general said softly.
The princess straightened her shoulders and raised her war bow. Determined not to lose face, she confirmed that her fingers were holding the arrow and bow-string correctly. Satisfied at her preparations, she glanced back at the general and nodded.
“Draw,” the general ordered next.
Wu Liying took a deep breath, exhaled and pulled the arrow and bowstring back. Her eyes squinted towards the target boards in the distance, and adjusted her aim accordingly towards the middle one.
Then she waited.
It felt like forever as her taut muscles felt the opposing force from the flexing bow. The animal sinew bowstring was seemingly biting through the glove into her hand. Her fingers began to tremble from the effort, and the ache soon travelled up her wrist into her arm, past her elbow and magnified the pressure she was feeling on her shoulder. Every slight shiver from her finger tips caused a grating and stabbing sensation in her body.
Try as she might, her bow arm shook from the strain. Tears began to squeeze from her eyes. It was not just due to physical hurt, but also the shame of her weakness being displayed so openly.
The command came almost too late for her. The tears stung her eyes and the pain made her threw aside all her previous determination. She opened her fingers and the arrow shot out, the twang of the bowstring echoing the relief that she felt as the immense pressure disappeared from her shoulder.
By this point she did not even care where the arrow had landed. Nor did she hear the shriek of panic from the side.
From the first order to the arrow’s release, only half a minute had passed. Yet the princess was already perspiring heavily, the sweat mingling with the tears on her face. The last remnants of her pride and dignity prevented her from wiping it away.
It also prevented her from looking at the sad arrow that had landed precariously near one of her maids. It was nowhere near the target board.
“Harder than you think?” the general asked. “Most archers can only hold their stance for a few seconds, which is why they are constantly drilled to aim and let loose as quickly as possible.”
“You did it on purpose,” the princess said, her puffy eyes glaring accusingly at him. Only by leaning into her war bow like a walking stick kept her upright on her swaying legs.
He smiled, an admittance of his guilt. “It was to demonstrate the difference in power required for war. You are experienced in hunting animals, but killing a fellow man is a different beast all together. An animal has claws, fangs and a thick hide, but men have steel weapons, shields and armour.”
General Yin reached out and held the princess’s shaky hands. The observers around them drew a deep breath as he gently opened her stiff fingers and prised the war bow away from her shaky hands.
The princess’s flushed expression turned redder, but she did not pull away. She allowed the contact to last as long as it did, and resisted the temptation to rub her fingers when he finally took the bow away.
“This is not a weapon you can use with just sheer willpower. You need years and years of harsh physical training to use this,” he said. He then splayed his hand near her face, so that she could see the lines and thick callous on his palm.
She did not recoil from the close-up but instead she took in every line, crease, scar, bump and vein of the weathered appendage.
“See this? This is the price one would need to pay,” he said.
But the princess was distracted. He had positioned his open hand so that she could look through between his fingers and see his face.
“Now, do you really want hands like these?” he asked softly.
Startled out of her trance, the princess hastily looked away.
The general interpreted it to be the negative, thus he said, “You can carry on practising archery for hunting, but not with this.”
Unable to meet his gaze, the princess could only nod and keep her head low.
“Good,” the general laughed. “If the king finds so much as a blister on you, there would be a hell to pay. I would not want to be one responsible for ruining your marriage prospects!”
“What marriage prospects? Hmphh!” Princess Wu Liying scowled in annoyance.
“But I have heard that the king had approached Huang Ming with such an offer,” the general teased.
“Nonsense!” the princess sputtered. “Nothing of the sort, it’s all rumours and pure slander!”
“Oh? Are you that unwilling? But Huang Ming is a young man with a boundless future. He is after all your Grand Tutor, and now entrusted with a great responsibility in Chu.”
“Some tutor!” the princess snorted. “Other than some letters about nonsensical, philosophical topics, he has yet to teach me anything useful.”
Then, as if realizing what she had said, she hastily added, “I had asked him for advice on how to change the education system in our kingdom, but all he gave me were boring and pedantic ideas.”
The princess blushed, wondering if she sounded like a maiden being caught out.
“A-anyways, he is already engaged. Hm, enough about that rascal! This princess will retire now,” she said with some shred of royal dignity. Without waiting for the general’s reply, the princess flipped her ponytail as she turned away.
Her maids and bodyguards quickly sprang into action to fuss about her as they left the training grounds, leaving the general chuckling bemusedly.
Once he was alone, the good-natured look gave way to a cold and calculating expression.
“Such youth,” he said cynically.
He snapped his fingers, and a figure clad in black suddenly appeared from the shadows.
“Monitor the princess. I want to know what are in Huang Ming’s letters,” he said.
“Mm. Any other news?” the general asked.
“Huang Ming is supporting Prince Chu Xiong against Prince Chu Feng. Huang Lang is expecting a child soon. General Zhao Tong is drilling and training his troops relentlessly: they often march for days at end.”
General Yin smiled at the notable exception in the summary.
“Still no sign of Zhao Sunli?” he asked conversationally.
His subordinate was glad for his entirely black clothes, for it hid the sweat that was rapidly gathering on his back.
“At last sighting, she was still in General Zhao Tong’s camp, but General Zhao continuously ignored our messengers for her,” he answered.
General Yin exhaled derisively. “Keep doing it, for appearances sake. It gives us the excuse to spy on his troops. What about General Huang Zheng?”
“There have been increased traffic of caravans to and from Tigertrap Fort lately, it seems General Huang Zheng is stockpiling supplies,” the subordinate reported.
Yin Yanzhao frowned. “What sort of supplies?”
“Materials for making arrows, mostly wood and glue. Dried foodstuffs and wine for the troops, fodder for the horses, and other construction materials. Nothing unusual, though the quantities do seem larger than usual. We have yet to get any of our agents into the fort itself.”
“He is in command of our border’s front. Maybe he was wary after what had happened to Huang Ming in Beihai. Rightfully so,” the general mused. “And what of Huang Ke?”
“It seems that he is currently being punished for some infraction. Maybe it is because he had brought his wife to the fort.”
“The Great General indeed, not even relaxing the military rules for his own son,” Yin Yanzhao commended sarcastically. “In what way is Huang Ke being punished? Is his pay being docked?”
He could see his minion’s hesitation.
“Well?” Yin Yanzhao demanded.
“He is on latrine duty, sir.”
“He’s gathering shit everyday.”
The spider nimbly weaves,
But some things, it is unable to perceive.