THE FEMALE GENERAL
In Da Wei, it was the 63rd year of Qing Yuan. It was March, and the spring season was at its full bloom. The light drizzles shrouded the city with mist, and the land had dampened due to the continuous pitter-patter of raindrops.
In Jing Cheng, the roof tiles of the the Xu Family’s house had become bright and clear after the rain, creating a glorious and clean texture. Those tiles which were delivered from Yun Zhou and had the semblance of a half-moon. It was said that these tiles would look as if they were illuminated by the glow of fireflies in a bright, moonlit night. The tile-making process was rather complicated, and the tiles came with a heavy price. The price of a whole roof built with these tiles was equal to a common family’s decades of hard work.
However, in the capital city, the Xu Family’s satin and silk business was on demand throughout the country, and the price of a whole roof built with half-moon tiles was nothing but a drop in the bucket to them. Master Xu was the prince’s esteemed tutor. He had two sons. His elder son, Xu Zhi Heng was outstandingly talented and was a student at Han Lin Academy. Since young, he was praised by everyone in the capital city of Jing Cheng. When Xu Zhi Heng was eighteen, he was married to a young lady from a family of generals. The He Family’s Second Lord’s first daughter, He Yan, became his wife. The He Family’s Eldest Lord’s first son, He Ru Fei, had been presented the title of General Fei Hong by the emperor himself. The marriage of two people, one with civil virtues and the other with martial virtues, was indeed the perfect union.
“Furen, is there anything you desire for?” A young servant girl wearing thin clothes asked with a crisp voice as she handed over a cup of hot tea.
“I’m going out for a walk.” He Yan answered and finished the tea in one shot.
“But it’s raining outside…”
“It’s fine, I’ll use an umbrella.”
The servant girl looked at this young lady. The Xu Family was a family of scholars, and all the ladies here dressed up elegantly, including her mistress, He Yan. However, she had a stingy temperament, which made her incompatible with others. Yet, when she wore the azure blue camlet satin dress, He Yan actually looked very gorgeous, and her heroic and distinct features only emphasized her beauty. Her eyes were clear and distant just like the translucent water of a lake… Unfortunately, she was blind.
He Yan wasn’t blind at birth. Just after three months of her married life, she suffered from a mysterious disease, and had a high fever for two days and two nights. When she woke up the next day, she had lost her eyesight. The Xu Family tried to find highly qualified doctors to return her eyesight, but did not succeed. Since then, He Yan didn’t go out frequently. After all, it was inconvenient for a blind person to go out.
He Yan walked towards the arbor located in the middle of the courtyard’s pond.
She had been married to the Xu Family for a year. She had lost her eyesight after the first three months of her conjugal life. She then spent the next nine months learning how to live without her eyesight. She adapted well. It was just that she would occasionally miss her life before her marriage, when she could see. Now, she could hear the sound of raindrops making ripples on the pond water. She could listen the red carps in the pond fighting for food… but she could not see.
An unseen spring scenery could still be a beautiful scenery to a person who couldn’t see.
Maybe it was because she lost her eyesight too soon that she couldn’t remember Xu Zhi Heng’s appearance very well. All she could remember was the Xu Zhi Heng she had met when she was 14. He was a young boy clad in green, smiling warmly as he offered his hand to her. The present Xu Zhi Heng would not offer his hand to her anymore. Even though he treated her gently and politely, she could definitely feel something faintly blocking their relationship.
But she wouldn’t tell anyone.
Her years of experience in the army had taught her how to deal with a man. As expected, she never learnt how to carry herself like an elegant woman of a noble family. While she was forlorn and bored, she could only see Xu Zhi Heng doting on He yiniang. After that, she had lost her eyesight, but she got back her leisure time. She felt she was fortunate as she would not be able to see those heart-breaking scenes anymore.
She sat quietly in the arbor, recalling her years in the army. It was also a fine spring day like today, and it was drizzling too. She had taken a seat in the middle of the soldiers, smiling as she drank a bowl of liquor which heated up her whole body. The very thought of this fond memory filled her with enthusiasm. Suddenly…
He Yan held onto the handrail as a burst of sweetness gushed through her throat, and she spit out a mouthful of blood with a ‘puff’ sound.
Someone’s footsteps approached slowly.
He Yan asked cautiously: “Xiao Die?”
No one answered. The footsteps stopped. He Yan frowned, “Yiniang?”
After a moment, a woman’s voice resounded in her ears: “Good hearing, Furen.”
She felt intrigued, and her sharp and accurate intuition made her take precautionary steps subconsciously. He Wan Ru was always gentle and graceful and didn’t talk to her much. Her sudden arrival, her talking in such an arrogant tone… it made He Yan feel uneasy.
This was absurd. He Yan was never qualified to be the matriarch of the Xu Family and was only an ornament adorning the family. Her uselessness could be emphasized by the fact that she could not stop He Wan Ru from taking her husband away, and more importantly, how could a blind person possibly be a threat? He Wan Ru neither had the necessity nor a reason to harm her.
“What’s the matter?”
He Wan Ru caressed the hairpin near her temple. It was a gift she had received from Xu Zhi Heng the day before. She withdrew her hand as she suddenly remembered the fact that the one standing in front of her was blind. She said tonelessly: “Furen, you are pregnant.”
He Yan was stunned.
“The doctor who usually checks your eyes took your pulse a few days ago. You are pregnant.”
He Yan was slightly happy but at the same time, she was at a loss. Before she could utter a word, she heard He yiniang sigh: “It’s a pity.”
The smile tugging at the corner of He Yan’s mouth faded, as she asked: “What’s a pity?”
“It’s a pity you can’t keep this child.”
He Yan snapped: “He Wan Ru! How dare you!”
Her willow-leaf shaped eyebrows frowned, her gaze became as sharp as a blade. Although she was blind, she looked captivating. It even made He Wan Ru’s hair stand on end for an instant. After a while, He Wan Ru composed herself and said: “These words are not only mine, General He.”
As the words, ‘General He’ came out of her mouth, He Yan felt pins and needles pricking her scalp.
She asked: “What do you know?”
“Everything I should and should not know. General He, how can the He Family and Xu Family let you stay alive when you keep such a big secret?”
He Yan was speechless.
Before having a general like General Fei Hong, the He Family was just like any other noble family in Da Wei, all on the verge of declining. Nineteen years ago, two wives from the He Family gave birth to two children at the same time. He Family’s Eldest Furen gave birth to He Ru Fei, while Second Furen gave birth to He Yan.
The rank of nobility should have been given to He Ru Fei, but He Ru Fei was frail and the doctors said he would not be able to live past three years. If He Ru Fei died, the He Family’s rank of nobility would be taken back, and the whole family would lose everything it had required centuries to build.
The He Family discussed it and made a bold decision. They made He Yan replace He Ru Fei and sent the frail He Ru Fei to live in the temple as He Yan.
He Yan grew up using He Ru Fei’s identity. Although she was borne by the second wife, she lived as the child of the first wife. She considered herself a boy ever since she was a kid and showed great interest in learning the martial arts. When she was fourteen, she secretly applied for the Fu Yue Army and gradually gained fame as she fought in the battles, and, consequently, the emperor himself granted her the title of General Fei Hong. It would have been an honorable occasion to meet the emperor himself at the palace.
By this time, He Ru Fei, who was sent to the temple to ‘convalesce’ had returned.
He Ru Fei hadn’t died, and instead grew up peacefully till he turned eighteen. He looked agile and graceful, healthy and handsome. Thus, everything was back to its original place.
He Ru Fei met the emperor in He Yan’s stead and became the General Fei Hong, while He Yan remained as He Yan. Everything wasn’t as difficult as they thought it would be. To prevent others from finding out this secret, a stipulation was made. He Yan always wore a mask in the public, as no one had ever seen He Ru Fei’s face. Later on, He Yan was arranged to marry the young and talented bachelor student of Han Lin Academy, Xu Zhi Heng, by the He Family.
Xu Zhi Heng was handsome and gentle, considerate and polite, and her mother-in-law was never harsh to her—it was a perfect marriage. He Yan thought so too, until today. Yet, the tender mask was being torn off, revealing the bloody truth… it made one’s heart cold. This situation was even worse than the hardest battles she had fought.
“The decoction you had drunk that made you blind was instructed to be sent to you by the elders of your family. But as you know, the dead tell no tales. If you live, you will be your family’s greatest threat!”
“When you drank the decoction, the lord was watching you from the next room.”
“When you die, the Xu Family and the He Family will only feel relieved. Just blame yourself.”
He Yan laughed loudly.
What was there to blame?
Blame her for substituting He Ru Fei for the He family’s benefit? Blame her for being obsessed with martial arts and becoming a soldier? Blame her for killing the country’s enemies and fighting for peace on the battlefield? Or blame her for being granted the title of General Fei Hong by the emperor himself, and letting He Ru Fei accept it in her stead?
Blame her. Blame her for being a girl. She could not achieve anything honestly and uprightly for her own name, because she was a girl. She deserved to be sacrificed and to pave a path for the He Family’s son, because she was a girl. After all, she overestimated the He Family’s kindness and underestimated the He Family’s selfishness.
And Xu Zhi Heng… she must have been blind all along to think he was a good person.
“What are you laughing about?” He Wan Ru frowned.
“I’m laughing at you,” He Yan talked in her direction, emphasizing each word: “You are so ridiculous that you make me laugh. I will die because of this secret, and what makes you think you’ll live since you keep this secret too?”
He Wan Ru sneered: “You are still so obstinate when you are facing death! Guards——”
Several guards appeared and in a matter of seconds encircled He Yan.
“Finish her off!”
A fragile willow branch could still be a weapon. It could be as soft and as flexible as a woman’s hand. It was clearly a light and young twig with tender green shoots on it, yet it was like a sword embroidered with flowers, easily brushing away the enemy’s weapon.
He Wan Ru had heard of General Fei Hong before—she was aware that this woman was brave and skillful in warfare unlike any other normal woman, but she had never thought that the rumors could be true until she saw He Yan fight with her own eyes.
He Yan was blind, but she could still take on ten people by herself. She kicked away the guard in front of her, as if she was planning to break through this ghastly backyard, mount on a horse, and leave before anyone could stop her.
However, she suddenly fell from midair, like a wild goose shot by an arrow. The blood she spat out splattered on the grass, like small spots of wild flowers.
That cup of tea… the tea her maid, Xiao Die gave her… it was probably the cause…
She had lost her vision, and now she lost all her five senses, one by one. She had been a person truly blind to the cruelty of life, losing the battle she had fought so desperately before.
They did this foolproof preparation, just to kill her.
“Fools! Do it now!” He Wan Ru yelled anxiously.
He Yan wanted to raise her head but someone hit her leg hard from behind. She felt excrutiating pain on her knees and heard something snap. Her legs tottered, making her knees bend. The next moment, someone punched her from behind.
The fists that hit her felt like raindrops falling hard on her, making her viscera hurt like hell.
They wouldn’t hurt her with swords and blades, they wouldn’t leave a trace of evidence on her body.
Someone pulled her hair, dragging her towards the pond, and pressed her head into the pond brutally. Her eyes, nose, mouth and neck submerged in the water, making her unable to speak. She realized that she was drowning in the pond water and she struggled to get back up, but the surface of water was getting away from her, bit by bit. Suddenly, it was as if she was back in her homeland. While she was in a tranced state, she could hear the old folksong, the song she had sung when she was with the army… she could hear everyone reading books out loud in their own local accents… and He Wan Ru’s voice, filled with panic.
“Help! Furen is drowning—”
She wanted to go home.
However, now she knew the truth—she was homeless.