“I am your singing telegram.”

--Clue! (1985)

 

Chapter 273 – Stolen march

 

“Very nice,” Princess Jin Hua sighed as she peeked out of the curtains of her carriage. She was reclined on a couch, a lazy smile on her lips. The smell of fragrant incense swirled around her, giving her a bewitching aura. Her royal carriage was escorted by several companies of horsemen as they rode domineeringly southwards.

 

Watching over them were a body of Wu soldiers, guiding the way towards their capital just like what they had done for Prince Chu Xiong in the past. As before, the men of Wu could not help but feel a little inferior when they compared themselves to the fierce foreign riders. The Chu contingent had been imposing enough, but the Jins were on a different level. The Jins were famed for their ruthlessly effective cavalry, and now 800 of them were riding towards the heart of their kingdom.

 

If not for the written permission from Princess Wu Liying and Huang Ming’s letter, the men of Wu would have barred the gates of Beihai and ignored the Jin delegation completely. To the defenders of Beihai who had turned away a Jin invasion previously, this was simply inviting disaster. They distrusted the Jin embassy, but they trusted the judgment of Huang Ming more. Still, unfriendly faces were the extent of Beihai’s discourtesy as the Princess of Jin and her baggage train of wedding gifts were allowed through the city fortress. From there on they proceeded unmolested on their way south.

 

Some would find the irony in the fact that the Prince Jin Bao had tried and failed to breach the city by force of arms, yet his wife waltzed past its gates with the greatest of ease.

 

As they rode south, the eyes of the Jins looked this way and that with obvious envy in their eyes. They saw the fertile lands, the temperate climate, the many travellers and merchants plying the roads to and fro every corner of Wu. Look at how rich the kingdom was, how casual the lives of the people in it. It was no wonder that the Jins had sought to go south, to move away from the cold and barren north. The Princess of Jin’s recent reforms had made life there more bearable, but it was still nothing compared to the lush and bountiful landscapes of Wu.

 

Jin Hua herself was enamoured by the change of scenery, hence her wistful praise when she took a peek from inside her carriage. The more she saw, the more correct she felt about her decision to accept Huang Ming’s invitation.

 

“Shall I refill the incense, your highness?” one of her servants inquired.

 

“No. Open the curtains, we want some fresh air,” Jin Hua said. “Yes yes, I will wear the veil,” she added impatiently after seeing their hesitation. The servants exhaled with relief, and after she had worn a silk veil that prevented unworthy people from laying eyes on their princess; drew open the carriage curtains.

 

The Jin riders protectively drew their horses in closer, as if wanting to shield their princess from the prying eyes from the rest of the world, even if there were none nearby.

 

“Back off, we want to see,” she waved irritably. They duly adjusted themselves, almost begrudgingly. As if to give physical manifestation to their worries, they discovered a dust cloud approaching.

 

The Jin embassy halted, its warriors gritted their teeth and gripped their swords. The Wu escort ahead of them were just as puzzled as they were, until they saw the banner of ‘Yin’. Their guess came true, the dust cloud soon revealed its source: General Yin Yanzhao’s black riders.

 

And at its head was the general himself, resplendent in full military regalia. His white armour gleamed in the sunlight, in stark contrast to the ominous black worn by his grim-faced warriors.

 

“General Yin seeks permission to approach,” he said as he clasped his hands in a salute.

 

Jin Hua raised a hand and beckoned before anyone could advise her otherwise. Her eyes studied the general as he dismounted and made his way closer. The general could not help but feel a thrill as those emerald eyes looked at him frankly.

 

She was just as how he had remembered her: poised, confident, graceful. All added to her natural beauty and charisma. It felt like an eternity since they had parted. Thinking back, the general felt embarrassed, for he was merely a wrecked shell awaiting death when she found him.

 

There were 800 Jin soldiers all around them, but he only had eyes for her. There was only a small gap between them. If he took a few more steps, she would be within his reach.

 

But he knew his place. He was from a country that had cool relations with her kingdom. She was a princess, he was a mere general. Now he even had to kneel before her on one knee as per protocol. The irony was that when she rescued him, there was no talk of such stifling protocols. They were friends who could talk freely without minding the proprieties.

 

Once he had recovered, he had to maintain a distance.

 

There were times when he had considered leaving Wu and defect to Jin there and then. There was even the choice of gifting Beihai to her once he returned to the city. But what then? At most he would be raised as a provincial lord.

 

He would never be able to close the gap. Unless he could give her the entire Kingdom of Wu. Only then he would be by her side and watch over her closely as a trusted confidante. After all, Wu was already a rotting house, and one merely needed to kick the door in.

 

As a renowned scion of the Yin family, he could have stepped up to deal with Tong Xuan and Gao Fang, but he ignored them, allowing the twin scourge to worsen Wu’s situation further. He bided his time, recruiting soldiers that were only loyal to him and would obey his orders without question.

 

At least, that was the plan.

 

For now, he still had to maintain the illusion that he was a loyal and patriotic general of Wu. He had to suppress his thoughts of grandeur and wishful thinking for the moment, even if the very source of them was right before him.

 

General Yin Yanzhao opened his mouth to speak, only for someone to interrupt.

 

“Reporting! A message from the Wu capital!” the messenger exclaimed. He ignored the still kneeling general and presented a missive that was taken up by one of the princess’s handmaidens.

 

General Yin Yanzhao closed his mouth, the moment was ruined and he could only stew in silence as the princess took the letter and read it. He understood his place and the situation, but what could be so urgent that she left him waiting? Was a letter more important than his actual, physical presence before her?

 

His mood worsened as he could see the traces of amusement on her face as she read the letter.

 

Amusement? Or delight?

 

Did she ever show the same reaction for the ones he had written to her?

 

His heart leaped. Who wrote the letter? The general could imagine a smile carved underneath that thin silk veil. He had seen the smile before. Many times, when he was convalescing in her palace; telling her stories from Wu.

 

But today, even it was hidden; it was not for him.

 

“A mass wedding?” the princess said with an arched eyebrow.

 

It was as if thunder had gone off inside Yin Yanzhao’s head.

 

‘Why is it him again!’

 

He trembled with impotent anger as the princess carefully folded the letter and kept it on herself, ostensibly to read it again later. Only then she turned her attention back to him.

 

“We finally meet, General Yin,” the princess greeted.

 

Only a few words, but it was enough to quell the discontent within him that had threatened to overspill. He knew she made it curt so as not to expose their relation.

 

Again he trembled, but this time it was from excitement. How laughable, a grown man in his prime, stirred by this young slip of a female.

 

Ah, but what a female she was…

 

“General Yin bids the Princess of Jin welcome,” he said neutrally and bowed his head, wishing he could just stare into her eyes directly without inviting gossip.

 

“We have read the letter. Please inform Sir Huang Ming that we accept his proposal,” she said, and once more the general felt as if something had just hammered his skull.

 

“Proposal?” the general repeated hoarsely.

 

The princess tilted her head. “Yes, for us to witness the mass wedding. Are you not here to take our word back to him?”

 

General Yin Yanzhao ignored the stabbing pain as his nails dug deep into his palms when his fists clenched. Did she think he had been reduced to be a mere errand boy for Huang Ming?

 

Damn that kid!

 

General Yin wanted nothing more than to clarify matters to the Princess, but he swallowed his anger and saluted once more.

 

“I will do so. This general withdraws,” he said and rose to leave.

 

“We will meet again, general,” the princess told him.

 

He nodded, somewhat mollified by her parting words.

 

‘We will.’

 

Once he had turned away, his face became like that of a graven idol.

 

‘I can no longer tolerate him.’

 

 

His hope burst,

The general cursed.