by Kim Chee (沈菜)
illustrated by beili
After a month’s absence, Lieutenant-General Liu was back again that evening to celebrate another major victory, but one thing had changed: he was no longer a Lieutenant-General, but a full-fledged General. Word of Liu Yang’s courage and intelligence on the battlefield quickly spread. When Ying-Ying wasn’t afraid for his life, she worried that he might begin to choose the fancier diner over their modest wineshop due to his newfound fame. Most of the high-ranking officers chose not to mingle with the juniors and soldiers at mealtime.
But luckily for Ying-Ying, General Liu was friends with a small group of his men from his own province. As he rose up the ranks, he remained close to them, and these soldiers continued to follow his lead. Ying-Ying considered them a less pretentious bunch than most of the men she encountered. They were young and old, sickly and strong, warriors and commanders—but they stuck together.
After dinner, General Liu’s men ordered for him a large jug of hot liquor, ordinarily enough to turn four hefty warriors into one motionless pile of armor and flesh. They chanted for him to drink all of it in one swig, to which he answered in his steady tenor voice: “I don’t think I can even drink that much water.”
He wasn’t large for a warrior—perhaps the size of an average man from Ying-Ying’s village. A man of few words who chose to practice calligraphy and compose poetry in his spare time, he was rather sweet and unthreatening. He drank quite a lot, but never to the point of drunkenness. It was hard to imagine him as a ruthless leader of men without seeing him firsthand in battle.
As General Liu sat pondering how he might empty the jug, Ying-Ying handed out smaller cups of the same liquor to each of the men. The younger men made passes at her under the table when they thought the General wasn’t watching, and occasionally, someone would manage to grab her leg and cause her to stumble. She would then glance at the General to see if he had noticed, hoping that he’d have his head turned the other way so he wouldn’t think her clumsy, but he always seemed to be looking back at her.
Just as Ying-Ying was about to leave the room with the empty tray, a large hand encircled her arm.
“Don’t go yet,” said the man who grabbed her. He held her in his rough grip—though he tried hard to be gentle—and led her to their table, before General Liu. She complied, afraid that he might break her arm if she struggled.
The General shook his head. “Let her go, Brother Yu,” he ordered mildly. “She has work to do.”
“But she wants to see you finish the jug. Don’t you, auntie?”
Ying-Ying didn’t know how to respond. Truthfully, she wasn’t too eager to see General Liu drunk, assuming that he wouldn’t vomit all over the table before he finished.
“She’s just too shy to admit it,” one of the other warriors suggested.
“Come on, the old auntie is waiting.”
Ying-Ying knew they were fond of her and meant no harm by the joke, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at the General. This month, she would turn twenty. Her mother had given up hope of finding her a husband, and it was common knowledge among the villagers and warriors that she was no longer a virgin.
General Liu also lowered his gaze. Ying-Ying could sense his discomfort in her presence. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to being near an unclean woman; she noticed he was much less reserved in front of her mother and younger sister. He was so young—only twenty-six, although he appeared even younger—and it was easy for her to forget that he had already accomplished so much for his age. She wondered where his family was, if he had parents or siblings at home who prayed every day for his safe return.
Suddenly, he took a deep breath, picked up the heavy jug by the neck with one hand, and tipped it in her direction in a sign of respect. The men took this as a mocking gesture and laughed, but the General’s expression remained solemn. Then he swung his head back and lifted the jug to his lips.
The room fell silent. General Liu’s eyes were squeezed shut, his fine brows knitted, as if he were concentrating hard to remember something. The first few mouthfuls came easily enough, but after about ten large gulps, his arm began to shake. Still, he held on. Ying-Ying felt the room spin, just watching him.
“It’s qigong,” Brother Yu her whispered into her ear. “Watch—he can control his body so that the alcohol doesn’t go into his blood.”
More than halfway through, the General’s chest heaved and each swallow became more labored. His face and ears flushed from the heat of the drink. He made a strangled noise and small drop of liquor trickled from the corner of his mouth down his long neck—taut and sinewy from the effort of his posture—before disappearing under his armor.
Ying-Ying almost cried out, raising her hands to her face. She didn’t want to embarrass the General by seizing the jug from him (not that she had that kind of strength), but she could barely restrain herself. “Is he okay?” she finally asked, convinced that General Liu’s life was more important than his reputation for alcohol consumption. “Maybe he should stop. Has he done this before?”
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” said the elderly warrior who sat closest to the General, delighted by her anxiety. “No need to worry.”
“Look, he’s almost done,” another man pointed out.
Sure enough, General Liu finished the last drop and threw down the jug, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
The men cheered and slapped his back, proposing toasts and tossing their own drinks down. To Ying-Ying’s relief and wonder, the General appeared merely dazed, laughing along with his men. If anything, the alcohol had given his face a healthier glow.
Ying-Ying quietly slipped out of the room, but before she left, she took one last glimpse of the General, and it seemed to her again that he had been looking at her a moment ago. She closed the door behind her, smiling at her own foolish fantasies.
Outside, she found her sister carrying a basket of steamed buns to the adjacent room. There was smoke coming from the kitchen, which meant their mother was still working. The recent victory would keep them busy for the next few nights.
“Mei, let me help you with that.”
Mei hugged the basket in her arms. “But I’m having fun,” she whined. “There are two young captains in the main dining room who like me. They say I carry myself like an elegant woman. One of them asked if I was old enough to get married.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Of course, I told him I’m old enough—I am old enough—but I didn’t tell him I was engaged. He’ll talk to Ma if he’s serious, and she can turn him away.”
Mei’s future husband was a wealthy but good-natured widower, who’d fallen in love with her at first sight and offered their mother an unthinkable sum of money for her daughter’s hand. Ying-Ying personally wished to see her sweet dimpled sister with a younger man—perhaps a dashing warrior who was also from a working family—but Mei had been so indifferent about the arrangement that Ying-Ying stopped caring herself.
Almost. Mei was only happy to be admired by so many men; she was still too young to realize the impact of marriage on the rest of her life.
“Listen to yourself,” said Ying-Ying, patting her cheek. “You’re still a little girl.”
“What about you? You’re still in love with Lieutenant-General Liu. Or should I says General Liu?”
Ying-Ying frowned. Were her feelings so obvious? She noted to herself that she would have to do better at hiding them. “Don’t talk about what you don’t understand,” she chided. “I think he’s a very kind and worthy man, but I want nothing more to do with him.”
“Then why do you always insist on serving their table?”
“Would you like to serve them instead? I thought you said you didn’t like the way one of his men looked at you.”
“That was a year ago,” Mei retorted. “It doesn’t matter which room I’m in—they all look at me like that now.” She readjusted the basket in her arms. “Anyway, I need to bring these over before they get cold.”
“Just be careful,” called Ying-Ying after her. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
She helped her mother wash dishes in the kitchen for a while, then picked up the empty wooden bucket against the wall and headed for the well. When she got there, she set down her lamp on the stone edge and rolled up her long sleeves, securing each side in a knot. Then she attached the bucket to the end of the rope.
“I remember doing that a long time ago,” said someone behind her.
Ying-Ying jumped. The crank slipped from her hands and the bucket plopped into the water below. “You scared me,” she stammered. “I didn’t know you left the room.”
“I had to relieve myself.”
Ying-Ying blushed at the General’s frankness, glad that it was dark.
He sat down on the edge of the well, next to the sleepy glow of her lamp, and leaned back slightly.
“Are you all right?” asked Ying-Ying, holding out her hands in case he might lean back too far. “Do you need to lie down?”
“Don’t worry about me. I just want to watch you lift the bucket out.”
He didn’t sound drunk at all, but his request was so unusual that he had to be.
Ying-Ying slowly turned the crank, prepared for him to pass out any moment. What would it be like to wrap her arms around his chest and catch him before he fell? The thought terrified and excited her at once, but he only continued to watch her quietly with his large slanted eyes, like the eyes of a phoenix.
“This isn’t very interesting,” she said, after she unhooked the bucket and set it on the ground. They were alone, and if anyone saw them together like this, the General’s reputation would be tainted. “Why don’t I take you back to the wineshop first?”
“Are you scared of me?”
“No, why should I be?” Ying-Ying held back a smile. It barely crossed her mind that he was taller and stronger than her. She took him by the arm to help him stand, but when he flexed his muscles in response to her touch, she remembered her place and snatched back her hand.
After a while of walking, it became apparent that he had no trouble finding his way back to the wineshop on his own. What was she doing then? He probably wondered why an ugly unchaste girl like her was following him in the middle of the night, but was too polite to say so. Maybe he thought she was trying to seduce him and was thinking of ways to get rid of her.
She fell a step behind, hoping he would continue without her, but he slowed his pace until she caught up.
When they were almost at the door, General Liu suddenly stopped under one of the lamps and turned to face her. “Do you know how beautiful you are?” he blurted out hoarsely.
Ying-Ying’s heart skipped a beat. She had seen the look before—the passion in his dilated eyes was unmistakable—but it was a mistake: he was not just any man, and she was no longer the pretty innocent girl she used to be. He must have seen someone else when he looked at her. Her chest ached, thinking of that lucky girl.
“Could you be drunk?” she asked, hoping to lighten the mood with a playful tone. “You know, they say you have the tolerance of fifty men.”
She thought she saw General Liu’s face inch closer to her own. “I may be a bit drunk, but you’re even more exquisite when I can see clearly. Only I’m not as courageous when I’m sober.”
Ying-Ying was just about reply that he was brave enough without the alcohol, but instead she giggled aloud before she could stop herself, hiccupping as she tried to suppress her laughter. Her entire body became very stiff and weak, and even though she was laughing, she wanted to cry. Why couldn’t she stop? She cupped her mouth with a hand to stifle the unpleasant sound, glancing at the General to see if he was disgusted by her behavior.
To her surprise, he smiled. “So, Ying-Ying, what else have you heard about me?” he asked softly, prying her hand away from her face.
She dropped the lamp in her hand and it went out with a crash.
He was still holding her wrist, which she had left exposed when she forgot to undo the knots in her sleeves. She couldn’t stop gazing at the way his long slender fingers curled against her skin—warm and firm, but hesitant. His handsome youthful face was now so close to her own that she could smell the liquor in his breath, tinged with sweetness. He had long lashes for a man, a rather elegant nose that ended with full lips, framed by a smooth but strong jaw.
“G-General Liu, I hardly think this is appropriate,” she whispered, trembling under his grip, half wishing she could hide her face and half hoping he would hold on for a bit longer. To her horror, a tear leaked from the corner of her eye, burning against her cheek.
He instantly released her and took a few steps back. “Please forgive me,” he said, bowing his head. “I only wish you happiness.” He picked up the lamp that had fallen, placed it in her quaking hands, and hurried away to join his soldiers.
– – –
The next few days were the most delightfully tormenting days of Ying-Ying’s life. For three days, General Liu did not return, although some of his men came regularly for dinner. Ying-Ying had the good sense not to ask why he wasn’t there, serving them food and wine as she would any other day.
During the day, she found herself looking in the mirror more often than usual. Her eyes were smaller than her sister’s, but they weren’t ugly or different sizes. She’d stopped plucking her eyebrows years ago, although they were never bushy to begin with; nor were they very shapely. Her nose and mouth and chin were rather ordinary—a bit on the daintier side, or so she liked to believe—but her large front teeth ruined the lower half of her face, and she didn’t have her sister’s dimples. The only part of her face she truly loved were her ears, which were like perfect oyster shells, especially when she used to wear pearl earrings, but no one else ever noticed them.
With some make-up, she thought, she might make herself beautiful again. Finally on one afternoon, her sister left to go play with her friends and Ying-Ying could be alone for a while. Instead of setting the tables after washing the floors and cleaning the stables as she usually did, she returned to the small room they shared and sat down in front of the mirror. She found the box with Mei’s make-up, picked out a thin brush, and dabbed it with ink from the small porcelain container she had given Mei—the same one her mother had given to her.
Very carefully, she drew a thin line across her right eyelid, picking up the brush at the corner to give her eye a livelier look. She tried to do the same with the opposite eye, but it had been too long since she last held a brush, and the ink went on too thick.
Someone was coming. She flung the brush into the box without cleaning it and tucked the box back under the table. Then she hurried to wipe the ink off her eyes with her sleeve, but it had already begun to dry.
It was Mei. At first, she wore an expression of shock and concern, but then she started to laugh. “You look like a panda!” she cried.
At this, Ying-Ying laughed too. She laughed until inky tears streamed down her cheek, hugging her squealing sister until they were both out of breath.
“You weren’t supposed to come back so early, you little devil,” she said, when they were lying in a tangle of hair and limbs.
“And you aren’t supposed to be playing with make-up.”
“So what if I am? It’s not like I was going to show anyone.”
Mei sat up, propping her chin on her knees. “I can do it for you,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m better at it than you now. Then you can see how you look.”
She cleaned around Ying-Ying’s eyes with a soft cotton pad and some perfumed water, then dusted Ying-Ying’s face with powder. With some red ink, she tinted Ying-Ying’s cheeks, rubbed them with her pinky, and applied the same ink to Ying-Ying’s lips.
“Close your eyes.”
Ying-Ying complied, enjoying the coolness of the brush against her eyelid. She kept her eyes closed as Mei filled in her eyebrows.
Ying-Ying opened her eyes again and looked in the mirror. She beamed, revealing her teeth, then quickly closed her mouth and smiled in a more lady-like manner. The make-up enlarged her eyes and covered the lines around her mouth. She could have passed for a sixteen-year-old.
“Wow,” Mei whispered, combing the knots out of Ying-Ying’s hair with her fingers and pinning it into a neat bun. “There. You should keep it on. Maybe General Liu will be back tonight.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Ying-Ying, although her chest swelled with excitement at the thought of General Liu seeing her like this.
“Really, you look like a princess. Let’s show Ma.”
But Mei was already dragging her to the door. They giggled as they darted past the cows and chickens outside as if the animals were strange men, finally coming to the kitchen.
“Ma! Ma! Look!”
Mei pushed Ying-Ying inside. Their mother glanced at her older daughter and went back to grinding the rice grains in the mortar as if nothing had changed.
“You didn’t set the tables,” she said in a flat voice.
“Ma, just look at her,” Mei insisted, throwing her arms around Ying-Ying’s shoulders. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Ying-Ying took Mei’s hands into her own, knowing what would come next.
“I already saw,” said her mother. She didn’t look up again. “It’s not appropriate for someone like her. She looks ridiculous.”
Mei didn’t answer again, but Ying-Ying felt her sister’s wet face against her neck.
Ying-Ying squeezed her hands and led her outside. “Ma is right, you know. I can’t let our customers see me like this.”
Mei sniffled, lifting an arm to wipe her nose on her sleeve, but Ying-Ying pushed her hand back down.
“Stop crying. Ma and I aren’t dead yet, and you’re not a child anymore.”
This only caused Mei to sob harder. She threw her arms around Ying-Ying and cried into her shoulder, wiping her nose instead on Ying-Ying’s dress. She cried so miserably and in such earnest that Ying-Ying was touched.
“Don’t be sad for me,” she murmured. She laughed when Mei looked at her with pink teary eyes. “You’ve made me so happy already. See? There’s no reason to cry. Now go help Ma with the rice cakes.”
She dried Mei’s eyes for her and gave her a little push back into the kitchen.
The courtyard was empty and silent. Ying-Ying hurried back to their living quarters to wash the make-up from her face before heading to the stockroom to retrieve the table mats.
– – –
As Mei had predicted, General Liu returned that same night, but instead of taking his dinner with his usual cup of rice wine, he politely requested she exchange the wine for some hot tea. Ying-Ying did not ask him why, although she wanted to suspect it had something to do with the events of his previous visit.
Even after dinner, he refused any kind of alcohol and sat quietly through the evening, answering only when someone addressed him directly.
Ying-Ying remained in the room for a while, listening in on the conversations, raising her sleeve to her mouth whenever someone attempted to tell a joke or gasping when they recounted near-death experiences. As always, they found her delightful and she enjoyed their enthusiasm, but it began to trouble her that General Liu had not looked in her direction even once since he arrived.
After a while, he stood and excused himself from the room.
Ying-Ying waited for one of the men to finish his tale. When General Liu did not return, she moved the empty liquor jugs from the table onto a tray and took them out to be refilled.
He wasn’t in the courtyard. As Ying-Ying wondered if he had gone to relieve himself behind the house again, she heard the sound of a horse snorting and realized he was probably in the stable.
Ying-Ying straightened her hairpin and smoothed down her dress with her free hand, then went into the wine room and filled all four jugs almost to the brim. One of them—the one with two small chips at the mouth— was the same one General Liu drank from. Ying-Ying dipped her finger into the warm liquid and brought it to her lips, wincing as it burned her tongue.
With both hands she picked up the tray, now with the added weight of the liquor, and pushed the heavy wooden door open with her hip. As she leaned into it, someone held it open for her. She gasped and stumbled, catching herself and the tray.
Ying-Ying saw it too: one of the jars had slid to the corner of the tray, balancing on edge. But it was too late.
She swooped down and caught the fallen jug around its neck, balancing the rest of the jugs atop the tray in her other hand. A small splash rose in a perfect straight line and landed back into the jug. Now everything was too heavy for both Ying-Ying’s hands, and she sank down on her legs until she was squatting, placing the jug and tray safely on the ground.
From above, General Liu stared at her with his mouth open.
“I’m so sorry.” Ying-Ying’s heart was pounding so hard that she could feel it in her throat. She set the fourth jar back on the tray, hoping he wouldn’t detect the note of pride in her voice, and found that she was too weak to stand.
“No, no, it’s my fault. Let me hold that for you.” General Liu stooped and took the tray and its contents effortlessly in one hand, helping her up with the other. He added softly: “I also want to apologize for my behavior three nights ago. It was very irresponsible of me to have so much to drink, and I’m afraid I hurt you.”
“How could you have hurt me?” Ying-Ying replied, tucking in a strand of her hair that had come loose. “Every woman likes to hear that she is beautiful. I simply overreacted.” She had already rehearsed her response—yearning for him to confront her—and was quite satisfied with its appropriateness and honesty.
He released her arm and handed her the tray, motioning with a nod for her to walk a step ahead of him.
Her face turned very hot as it occurred to her then that he may have misinterpreted her words. What if he thought she actually believed him the other night, when he had called her beautiful? Perhaps he only pretended to respect her now, while thinking of how vain and ignorant she was.
“Have you ever held a sword?” asked General Liu.
Ying-Ying struggled to compose her thoughts, unsure if she had heard him correctly. “No, it’s always been my mother, sister, and me. We didn’t have anyone to teach us martial arts.”
“You would have mastered it quickly. You have good reflexes and nimble hands.”
Ying-Ying took a deep breath, moved by his kindness. They stopped in front of his dining room and she turned to smile at him, giving a courteous nod.
He spoke again as she inched toward the door. “You know, someone like you should learn to defend yourself and your family, should the need arise. I can teach you.”
“Really?” Ying-Ying bit her lip—she could feel the laughter bubbling inside her again. She shook her head before he could answer. “I can’t.”
“I’m a grown woman.”
“So? Women can fight just as well as men. I know a woman who can wield a fifty-jin spear with the precision of an arrow.” General Liu sucked in his breath after he said this and looked away, flustered.
He was clearly in love with this woman, Ying-Ying decided. And here she was, thinking that he had been impressed by her silly display of jug-catching talent. “She sounds extraordinary,” she whispered with a hint of a smile, and turned to go inside.
But General Liu caught her by the arm. “Ying-Ying, do you trust me?”
Their eyes met for the first time that night. “Yes,” said Ying-Ying, when she found her voice again, and she meant it.
“If you have time, meet me by the stable tomorrow, an hour before sundown. I will show you how to use a dagger.”
– – –
“You’re really going to sneak off to a military camp? That’s so exciting.”
Mei knelt on the edge of their sleeping mat, parting Ying-Ying’s thick long hair into three sections.
“Don’t be silly,” said Ying-Ying, glancing absently in the mirror as Mei braided her hair. “General Liu is just going to show me some martial arts nearby. He thinks I have potential.”
Ying-Ying handed her a string. “I know, isn’t it funny? But I’ll go just to humor him.”
“I think,” Mei breathed into Ying-Ying’s ear as she tied the ends of her hair, pausing dramatically, “he wants to take you away.”
Mei burst into a fit of giggles and fell back on the bed.
“Don’t joke about these things!” But it was too late: Ying-Ying’s mind was already full of bad and impossible thoughts of General Liu falling in love with her. Perhaps such a noble man could see past her plain exterior and her lost virginity to the kind and hardworking girl she tried so hard to be. Or he might see her for who she really was: vain and foolish for having such shameful feelings for him.
“Would you go with him?” Mei asked, propping herself up on one elbow.
“Of course not!”
“Why not? He’s so handsome and strong, and he looks at you differently. I wish a man would look at me that way.”
Ying-Ying sighed. “No, you don’t understand. It’s because he pities me.”
Mei was still afraid of the dark, so Ying-Ying kept the lamp burning and waited for her to fall asleep. But even after Mei had long dozed off, Ying-Ying remained in front of the mirror. She pursed her lips and pushed up the corners of her eyes, remembering what General Liu had said to her the first night of his return.
There was absolutely nothing exquisite about her. And the way she had laughed like a donkey—how could he not be repulsed by her?
But perhaps she was more beautiful in the dark. She made sure again that Mei was asleep before blowing out the flame of her lamp. Then she caressed her own face and neck, watching the dark figure in the reflection. It was easier to love herself this way. She cupped her cheek, running her thumb down her nose and pausing at her lips, and kissed herself softly.
Something stirred within her. With trembling fingers, she opened her robe and pushed out her soft plump breasts, which she hated and took extra care to conceal. Her mother always scolded her for their size, saying that having large breasts was a sign of promiscuity. She must have been right, because when Ying-Ying’s rapist had held her down, her breasts were the first part of her body he reached for, squeezing and twisting them until they bruised.
Ying-Ying wasn’t sure where she got the idea to do it, but she now cradled her breasts in her arms, the same way she would hold a crying child.
Then, feeling dirty about what she had just done, she covered herself, curled up next to Mei on the sleeping mat, and closed her eyes.
– – –
As he promised she would, Ying-Ying found General Liu by the stable the following afternoon. He was feeding his horse—a majestic red mare—from a sack of grain that hung from the saddle. In daylight, he looked different: slightly older, but stronger and more spirited. For the first time, Ying-Ying noticed how long and graceful his legs were, even though they were for the most part hidden under his tunic and boots.
“I was just worrying that you wouldn’t come,” he greeted in his quiet voice.
“I didn’t have the proper attire,” said Ying-Ying, adjusting her skirt.
General Liu raised an eyebrow, causing Ying-Ying to feel even sillier about her situation. “How else would you dress? And what use would it be if you couldn’t defend yourself in ordinary clothes? Go get your horse—we’re going to a clearing in the forest.”
“Oh, our horse?” Ying-Ying glanced worriedly in the direction of the stable. “She’s getting old. We never ride her anymore. And my mother might notice if she’s gone.”
“Then ride on my horse, if you don’t mind sitting with me.”
He motioned for her to come closer. The last time Ying-Ying rode a horse was more than three years ago, when the enemy was nearly at their front door and she had to act as one of the messengers between her village and the warriors who were protecting them. Now she gazed up at General Liu’s mare, which was much larger than any horse she had ever ridden.
“What a splendid horse.”
“Don’t be afraid,” said the General. At first, Ying-Ying thought he was talking to the horse, but then she realized he was talking to her. “She listens to anyone who is a friend of mine.”
The horse turned her head and bumped one side of Ying-Ying’s face curiously with her muzzle. Ying-Ying stroked her silky mane before grasping the lower part of it and hoisting herself onto the saddle. A moment later, General Liu had also mounted behind her and taken the reins, and they were speeding off in a quiet gallop toward the woods.
Ying-Ying leaned forward as far as she could without losing her balance, clinging to the horse’s mane for dear life. She didn’t want to sit in the middle of the saddle either, in case she pressed too close to General Liu and made him uncomfortable.
She heard him chuckle. “Relax. You’re making my horse nervous.”
The horse reared as they came to the edge of the woods, and Ying-Ying slid backwards. Luckily, she could only feel the cool leather of General Liu’s armor—otherwise, she thought, she would never have been able to face him again.
They soon came to a ring of poplar trees by a stream. General Liu hopped off his horse and helped Ying-Ying down. “This is where I like to practice when I’m alone,” he said. “It’s only a short walk from our camp, but I don’t think anyone will bother us.”
Ying-Ying blushed at the suggestiveness of these words, but General Liu took no notice, closing his eyes and inhaling the fresh woody air.
He showed her how to meditate. At first, he searched for a clean rock for her to sit on so she wouldn’t soil her skirt, but she began to feel ridiculous and convinced him that she didn’t mind sitting on the ground.
It was almost mid-autumn, but the air was warm, and birds could still be heard in the trees. The earthy smell of poplar wood lingered in the fine mist left by the morning rain. Ying-Ying closed her eyes and tried to imagine—as General Liu had told her—that she was no longer Ying-Ying, but a tiny speck in the vast forest; and that forest was only a speck on a map of China.
She felt only a little more relaxed afterwards, if anything at all, but General Liu appeared refreshed, stretching his limber body and loosening his joints. “Come on, warm up a little!” he called to her. “Don’t be embarrassed!”
He made her do all sorts of funny stretches, then asked her to simply hold out her arm.
“Don’t lock your elbow,” he said, bending her arm. “Now make a fist.”
She did as she was told.
He pressed her arm down. “Firmer! Don’t let me move your arm.” He pushed her over and over until she held her arm still against him. “Good! I knew you were strong.”
They did the same activity with the other arm, except this time, he only had to give her three pushes.
He demonstrated how she should stand to anticipate an attack and how to deflect a strike to her head or upper body. When he was satisfied with Ying-Ying’s stance, he taught her how to throw a punch at someone.
She gave a few loose and awkward punches into the air, unaccustomed to making such sudden movements.
“Strong fists, remember? With that punch, at best, you might be able to scare away a sick old man, but an old man wouldn’t attack you anyway.”
“What about an old grandmother?” Ying-Ying joked.
“Old grandmothers are fiercer than you,” said General Liu, with the intention of provoking her, but Ying-Ying only wanted to laugh. “Now pretend my hand is the face of the person you hate most in the world.”
Ying-Ying tried to remember the face of the man who raped her, but at the moment, she could think of nothing but General Liu’s kindness. It made her heart ache to see him bracing himself for her punch, as if she might actually hurt him.
“I can’t… I can’t hit you.”
“Then pretend I’m your annoying little brother. My three older sisters used to hit me all the time.”
Ying-Ying smiled, imagining a younger General Liu getting abused by his sisters. She swung at him playfully, but he dodged her hand. When she tried again, he easily deflected her blow and she lost balance, falling sideways into a small puddle of mud.
She sat up, expecting him to rush to her aid, but he didn’t move.
She scrambled onto her feet, ashamed it even crossed her mind that he might get his hands dirty to help someone like her. One side of her skirt was covered in mud.
“Hit me again.”
Ying-Ying caught her breath and lunged, determined to prove to him that she wasn’t as weak as he made her believe. She missed. Then she spun around and leaned her weight into her fist.
“Remember to swing your body and don’t lock your joints! Again!”
She did, but failed. He was too quick for her. She wondered why he didn’t just stand still, if he wanted her to hit him so badly. Was he teasing her because he found her clumsiness amusing?
“Scream!” he told her. “Scream loudly and hit me!”
Now she was certain he was making fun of her, but she didn’t care anymore. She had already made a fool of herself and felt like screaming anyway.
She gave a piercing cry, hardly believing that she could produce such a savage sound, and threw herself at him. This time, her fist sank into his hand, and his feet slid a fraction of an inch across the dirt.
When Ying-Ying looked up, General Liu was watching her with an almost wistful gleam in his eye. He gave her a praising nod. “You could have been a warrior,” he said. “Now let’s see what you can do with a weapon.”
He untied the small dagger from his belt and handed it to her, still in its sheath.
It was heavier than it looked, and there were four pieces of jade set in the elaborate bronze handle, although they once had been six—one had fallen out from each side. She gingerly drew it out, terrified that she might drop it on her foot. The blade was curved at the tip and sharp enough to kill.
“How many—” Ying-Ying began.
“I use it to cut fruits,” said General Liu, laughing. “But I can let you hold my sword later.”
He helped her tie the scabbard to her sash and showed her how to handle the knife, how to slice and thrust in the most effective manner. He would hold her hands in his own, molding them until he was satisfied. Ying-Ying soon forgot he was a General, once pointing the blade between his eyes, twice coming close to slicing off his hair, giggling and pulling him to his feet whenever he pretended to be wounded. At times, it felt like they were dancing.
Then the sun’s rays through the poplar trees turned fiery red, and Ying-Ying remembered that she wasn’t supposed to be there. Her clothes were covered in mud and loose strands of her hair stuck to her face. She paused to fix her skirt, which had slipped, glancing at General Liu—who stood his ground, awaiting her next move—and slipped the dagger back in its sheath.
He ran up to her and gripped her by the shoulders, which only confirmed her belief that coming out here with him was a mistake. “Ying-Ying, what’s wrong? Are you tired?”
“We shouldn’t be doing this. A man and a woman shouldn’t be alone like this.”
“But no one can see us. And even if they do, I’m a respectable warrior and you’re a respectable woman and we’re practicing martial arts. If they want to think it’s anything more than that, then it’s their problem and not ours.”
“General Liu, I don’t know how much you know about me,” said Ying-Ying, looking away, “but I’m not a respectable woman.”
“Why not?” he urged, shaking her. “What happened to you wasn’t your fault. Those who can’t see that are just blinded by their own arrogance and stupidity.”
Ying-Ying raised a hand to hide her face, but he wouldn’t let her. “It isn’t just that. There’s something else.”
“I—” She swallowed. What use was lying when she had nothing left to hide? She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I have feelings for you.”
For a long time, General Liu didn’t move, and Ying-Ying began to think he hadn’t heard her. But then he answered, in a whisper even softer than hers: “And why can’t you have feelings for me? Am I not worthy of your affection?”
He patted Ying-Ying’s tears away with his sleeve and embraced her. She sighed, leaning against the cool leather scales of his armor, wondering if she’ll ever feel so content again.
“Our camp is moving forward tomorrow,” he told her. “We’ve secured the southern borders. But I’ll come see you again when the war is over.”
“Don’t come back. With your reputation, you could marry any woman of your choosing. Find the woman you love and marry her.”
“If I could do that, I would marry you.”
Ying-Ying frowned, pulling away. “You shouldn’t say that. What about the woman you told me about? The one who can wield a spear? Don’t you love her?”
General Liu reached between them and touched Ying-Ying’s cheek. His usually steady fingers trembled, which frightened her. “I have a secret to tell you,” he murmured. “I know you won’t tell anyone because you’re a kind-hearted girl, but I also want you to know so you won’t miss me when I’m gone.”
Ying-Ying held her breath, waiting for him to tell her the terrible secret—perhaps that he had slaughtered women and babies; or worse, that he was a demon in disguise, sent from the Underworld to lure her, while the real General Liu was already dead.
“I’m sterile. It would be unfair for the girl I marry and her family.”
Ying-Ying cupped her mouth, shocked. But at the same time, this news comforted her and made her love the General more. She took General Liu’s hand from her face and clasped in her own. “You’re wrong,” she said, surprised by the conviction in her own voice. “The girl you marry would be the happiest girl in the world, knowing that her children would have been brave and kind and intelligent, like their father. They would make her proud, even in another world.”
His adoring gaze made her dizzy with happiness, and for a moment, she worried she would faint. Just when she thought she couldn’t be any happier, he bent down and touched her forehead with his lips. “Ying-Ying… just like a budding cherry blossom. How I wish I could remain here with you.”
As he untied his horse and prepared the saddle, she began to remove the dagger from her waist, but he held out a hand to stop her.
“Keep it,” he said. “It was my father’s. His father gave it to him when he was a boy and he gave it to me. Since I can’t give it to my son, I want you to have it.”
They rode out of the forest just in time to see the beautiful red sun graze the edge of the earth. Ying-Ying sighed, clutching the strong arms that held the reins and encircled her waist. But as they got closer to the wineshop, she sensed that something was wrong.
The horse slowed to a trot and Ying-Ying stiffened. General Liu abruptly withdrew his arms.
Ying-Ying’s mother was waiting by the stable. Even from the distance in the dim red light, Ying-Ying could see her eyes brimming with tears of shame and disapproval—her arms hung loosely at her sides and her back seemed more hunched than before.
Ying-Ying jumped off the horse and ran toward her, but her mother turned away and headed for the kitchen.
“Don’t follow me!” she spat. “I don’t want to see you!”
She slammed the door. Ying-Ying heard the door lock and sank to the ground.
Another figure was coming in her direction from their living quarters. It was Mei, her pretty face red with tears and slap marks. “Big sister!” she screamed. “Don’t be angry! Please don’t be angry!” She clung to Ying-Ying, sobbing. “She didn’t believe me. I told her you went to pick mushrooms, but she knew I was lying, and I had to tell her the truth. I’m bad, bad, bad….”
Suddenly, she let go and began to hit herself. Ying-Ying grabbed her hands and pinned them behind her, pulling her wailing sister into her arms.
When Ying-Ying looked up, she found General Liu gazing at them with a blank expression. Dressed in armor with his red horse and the sunset behind him, he was like a magnificent bronze statue.
He walked past them and stopped at the kitchen door. Then he removed his helmet, dusted it off, and knocked three times on the door. “Madam Zhang, Liu Yang is here to apologize to you,” he addressed. “Please allow him to explain.” The door opened a crack and he went inside, closing it behind him.
Mei lifted her face from Ying-Ying’s shoulder and stared at the empty porch.
They were inside for a long time. Mei and Ying-Ying waited, holding each other. The birds flew home to their nests and the sun disappeared behind the trees, but General Liu still did not come out.
Finally, he appeared and came toward them. They watched him expectantly, but he said nothing, brushing Ying-Ying’s neck with the back of his warm hand before making his way to the horse. He put on his helmet, jumped onto his horse, and rode away without looking back.
A moment later, their mother also walked out. They could tell she had been crying.
“Ma!” Ying-Ying called. “Are you all right?”
Their mother looked from one daughter to the other, moving her lips, but no sound came out. She appeared stunned.
“Ma, what happened?” said Ying-Ying again. Her voice cracked. Mei was squeezing her so hard that Ying-Ying could barely breathe.
“He asked me if he could marry you.”
They all fell silent. To Ying-Ying, it was as if time had stopped.
Then, without warning, their mother knelt on the ground and embraced both her daughters at once. She wept; and they all wept together—for their dead father, for Ying-Ying’s lost innocence, for Mei’s future in a strange new home.
After a while, Mei tore herself from her mother’s grasp. “Well, what did you tell him?” she asked impatiently, unable to contain herself.
“What do you think I said, you stupid child?” her mother snapped. “Of course, I said yes.”
– – –
They already knew that General Liu would be too busy meeting with the other commanders to return for dinner, but Ying-Ying’s mother insisted on decorating the wineshop with red posters and paper lanterns. When asked if there was any special occasion that night, Ying-Ying only replied that the decorations were a gesture of gratitude to the warriors, who would be leaving soon to defend other parts of their kingdom.
After all the customers left, Ying-Ying cleaned up the dishes and went to bathe. Then she returned to her room. She didn’t see her sister there and assumed Mei had gone to see their mother, so she took the dagger General Liu gave her off the muddy sash she had been wearing earlier and examined it under the bright light.
Ying-Ying quickly sheathed the knife and hid it under her sleeve, but Mei had already seen what it was.
“Stop sneaking in all the time!” Ying-Ying laughed.
Mei’s eyes grew very wide. “Did he give that to you? Let me see it!”
“You can look, but don’t play with it,” said Ying-Ying, handing the dagger to her reluctantly. “It’s dangerous.”
“Wow,” Mei whispered, appearing rather comical with the hilt so close to her face. “It’s so beautiful. He must love you so much.”
Ying-Ying snatched it back from her. “Okay, you’ve seen enough. Go to sleep.”
“But I want you to show me some martial arts!”
“I don’t know any martial arts.”
“Well, what did General Liu teach you today? Unless… you two weren’t…”
“Mei!” Ying-Ying’s ears grew hot as she realized what was on her little sister’s mind.
“Then show me!”
“All right,” said Ying-Ying, putting the dagger down and sitting cross-legged on the bed. “First, you have to meditate and find your inner balance.” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, making exaggerated gestures with her arms.
General Liu had said nothing of ‘inner balance’, whatever that meant, but it sounded pretty awesome. After all, even with her eyes closed, Ying-Ying could see the expression of fascination of Mei’s face, and that was impressive in and of itself.
“Hah!” Her eyes flew opened and she raised one arm straight in the air, as if about to slice an opponent in half. She began to make dart-like motions in Mei’s direction.
Mei doubled over with laughter and Ying-Ying pretended to attack her, grabbing her stomach.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” Mei squealed, kicking and trying to grab Ying-Ying’s flying hands. “You’re making this up!”
“How would you know?”
A while later, Mei lay very still on the bed, tired and defeated. “Will you miss him?” she murmured sleepily.
“Yes.” Ying-Ying stroked her lovely head and watched her eyes flutter closed.
“Will you climb atop the big hill every day and look for him?”
Ying-Ying grinned and tweaked Mei’s nose. “Maybe.”
“You have to let down your hair when you do it. That way, he can see you from miles away.”
“Where do you get these crazy ideas?”
Mei didn’t answer and Ying-Ying thought she was asleep. But a moment later, she spoke again: “Big sister, I’m so happy for you…”
Ying-Ying sighed and picked up the dagger, moving it to the space behind her pillow. She blew out the lamp and slipped under her blanket, pulling it up to her neck, picturing herself standing before General Liu on their wedding day. She wondered what his parents were like. What if they didn’t approve of her and tried to make her life miserable? But they had given birth to such a gentle and brilliant son, so they must have been wonderful people too.
Then she realized something terrible. What if he never came back? What if he found another girl who would be just as happy to marry him, but was still a virgin? Or worse, what if he died in battle?
Just as she was about to torment herself with all the most awful scenarios, she heard a soft tapping noise outside. She rolled over and pulled the blankets tighter around herself, hoping it was just her imagination, but she heard it again—a very deliberate rapping—coming from the door.
Was it him? But he was probably getting ready to move out soon. Ying-Ying grabbed her knife and tip-toed to the door, pressing her ear to the wood.
“A stranger knocks on your door in the middle of the night,” someone whispered through the crack. “You don’t know who it could be. Do you have your dagger with you?”
Ying-Ying slid to the floor, laughing silently with glee and relief. Then she unlocked the door and peeked out. “General Liu, what are you doing here?”
The General was sitting on her porch, his head propped against the wall of the house. “I can’t sleep. I had to see you again.”
Ying-Ying made sure Mei was still asleep before taking General Liu’s outstretched hand and slipping through the door. He looked at her with his unwavering gaze, and for some reason Ying-Ying couldn’t stop smiling—she had to keep pursing her lips to hide her front teeth. When she tried to turn away, he trapped her against the wall between his arms.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, looking at his mouth so she wouldn’t have to meet his eye.
“I know,” he murmured. “But once I’m gone, who knows when I can come back?” He cupped her face in one hand, caressing her jaw with his thumb.
She leaned into his touch. “How long has it been since you’ve seen your family?”
“In two weeks, it will be eight years.”
“Wow,” Ying-Ying breathed. She couldn’t imagine being separated from her family for so long. “You must miss them so much. Being a man must be hard in a time like this.” She was babbling, thinking all the while that she had to keep talking somehow, although she wasn’t sure why.
At this, General Liu smiled a little. “Being a woman is never easy.”
“Well, it’s not so bad,” said Ying-Ying. He was standing so close that she couldn’t think. “Women can sometimes cry and people will understand. Like my mother, who rarely cries—what did you tell her to make her cry like that?”
“I asked her for your hand.”
It took her a moment to realize that his mouth was touching hers and that she had stopped breathing. But he soon broke the kiss, pressing their foreheads together. “Forgive me,” he gasped. “I’ve wanted to do that for so long… I don’t think I could have waited…”
“You haven’t done anything wrong.” Ying-Ying reached around him, putting her hands on the back of his neck. Ten thousand emotions battled within her, but love was winning. She could finally admit it—she was madly in love with General Liu, ever since he’d first set foot in their little wineshop over two years ago; ever since he’d devoured each modest meal like it was the best meal he ever had; ever since Ying-Ying had first noticed his shy gaze, meant only for her, despite his knowledge of her past. “It’s my own fault for trying to lure you.”
“Are you really trying to lure me?”
“No—I don’t know. I’m a bad woman.”
“No, you’re too good,” said General Liu, to her surprise and confusion. He grabbed her by the waist. “Follow me.”
“But my little sister—”
“There’s no one else nearby, and we won’t be away for long.”
He led Ying-Ying to the stable, where her old horse was fast asleep in her usual alcove and his red mare was resting in one corner against a sack of wheat. She looked up as her master removed her saddle cover, then lowered her head again.
General Liu spread the tapestry on the soft ground. “Sit down,” he said. He also sat down, beside Ying-Ying. “I don’t want you to think badly of yourself, but I also want you to be happy…”
It was dark, except for the moonlight shining through the cracks in the roof and walls. Ying-Ying could see the faint outline of his cheekbone, the glow of his hair and eyelashes, the glint in his eye. “I don’t understand—”
General Liu cut her off with another kiss, once more stealing her breath away. There were tears on her face, but he brushed them away with the back of his calloused fingers. He loosened her long braid and ran his hand through her hair, pushing it back, kissing the lovely curve of her ear and down her neck.
A familiar feeling stirred in her breast, like it did a few nights ago before the mirror. She wrapped her arms around him, ignoring the discomfort of his hard leather armor against her body, thinking only of his deft fingers and soft lips.
He pressed his mouth to the sensitive area under her neck, close to the edge of her robes, and she froze. The last man who had touched her there had grasped the opening of her dress and stripped the fabric from her body, tearing away her bindings underneath. She felt only fear and repulsion then, but now she desired General Liu to do what the man had done, and she hated herself for it.
Her breasts were unbound under her thin robes. All she had to do was loosen her sash and reveal them.
“Can I see my future wife?” he asked softly, as if he had read her mind.
When she didn’t object, he reached for her robe, moving the fabric aside to reveal one breast, round and pale in the silvery light. She shivered from the exposure, but soon his warm hand was against her, and she began to shiver for a whole different reason.
He kneaded her doughy breast, supporting her back with his other arm, and whatever fears and doubts she had earlier quickly resided. She felt his short hot breaths against her neck and her hand found his wrist, running up and down the length of his arm and feeling the hard muscles twitch through his sleeve. Her breast started to feel sore and a strange sound escaped her.
General Liu licked Ying-Ying’s lower lip, eliciting another noise from her, before slipping his tongue inside her mouth.
He tasted surprisingly sweet. Their mouths melded together, warm and wet and wanting. Just as his tongue found hers, Ying-Ying had the sudden urge to urinate. She shrank away, gasping and clenching her legs, thinking that she had wet herself.
“Don’t be ashamed,” he cooed breathlessly, cradling her. “You’re so beautiful.”
It was the second time he had ever called her beautiful, and this time, she believed him. Her body slackened and she gave into his touch again, resting her head under his chin, feeling like the most adored and spoiled girl in the world.
Then, to her horror, he reached under her robes, where she could still feel the moisture between her legs. She gave an involuntary cry, and he abruptly withdrew his hand, murmuring his apologies and pressing little kisses to her ear.
“Shhh, shhh… don’t be frightened. I only wanted to touch your little flower petal, if you would let me. I would never hurt you.”
He made it sound so innocent and sacred. Ever since Ying-Ying was a little girl, her mother had warned her to never let a man touch her there, or no one would ever love her and she would remain alone for the rest of her life. But now she was engaged to a man who would soon be going far away—a dangerous and unyielding man in battle, but sterile and harmless to her. Wouldn’t it be all right for him—and him alone—to touch her?
“I don’t want you to look,” she whispered.
“All right. I won’t look.”
“Let me wipe myself first.”
She thought she could see him smiling kindly at her in the dark. “No, don’t,” he said, laying a firm hand over the lower part of her stomach, against the fabric of her robe. “Just imagine that you are a queen in the sky, where no human can see or reach you, and my hand is like Heaven’s throne.”
Ying-Ying giggled as he lifted her by the hips and straddled her over his legs. The breeze tickled her groin and breasts, but his hand flew under her and she felt hot again. Then he pushed against her, steady, encouraging, almost lifting her. She gasped, enveloping his hand in her silky folds. When she relaxed, he rubbed his palm against her in a slow sensual rhythm, and she was reminded of the wings of a large bird in flight. She moaned and sank down, feeling very weak, wondering what was happening to her.
While he continued to rub her in circles, he raised her hand to his lips, sucking on each finger until she curled them against his face, trembling. He pressed wet kisses to her palm, over and over, and she really began to think she was in Heaven. With feather-light fingers, she touched his nose, his ears, lingering over his beautiful phoenix eyes.
He opened them, cupped one of her breasts with his free hand, and took her delicate nipple into his mouth. Ying-Ying arched her back and stroked his smooth face with both hands, and he sighed against her breast, watching her through his long lashes as he suckled her sweetly.
His armor had become a nuisance. She had an urge to rip away all the layers that separated them, but feared what she mind find. Maybe she could just remove his shirt and leave his pants on, she thought, tugging at the string that held his cloak.
The heavy cloak easily fell away, but she couldn’t take off his armor. Her nipple slid from his mouth, drawing from him a silk-like string of saliva. General Liu gave her a peck on the lips and removed his hand from between her legs. She whimpered, missing him already, squirming against his muscular thighs as he licked a strange pearly fluid from his fingers. Then he gave her cheek a reassuring pat before lifting away his armor and pulling her into his arms, placing his hand back under her.
Ying-Ying pressed against him, delighted by the soft fabric against her tender breasts, even thinking for a moment that she could smell flowers in his clothes. She untied the sash at his waist and pushed his thick robes back, and they fell to the ground, on top of his cloak.
But when she grabbed a handful of his shirt, hoping to bring it over his head, he guided her hand away in his own. “I have scars.”
“That’s okay; I’ve dressed lots of wounds before.”
He kissed the corner of her lips. “I’ve never been with a woman. It makes me self-conscious to take off my clothes in front of you.”
Ying-Ying’s hand fell back into her lap and she lowered her head. General Liu did not say more after that, but continued to kiss and fondle her.
She felt guilty for reminding him that he wasn’t her first, so she told him: “You’re the first man I’ve ever loved.”
“I’m honored,” the General whispered, to her relief, brushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear. He rubbed her faster.
She whimpered, clinging to him. Her groin throbbed, leaking onto his hand—as much as she tried to hold it in—but he didn’t seem to mind at all, nibbling at her earlobe.
Suddenly, he stopped moving. Ying-Ying almost cried out in agony, grinding against him. “I’ll remove my shirt if you let me kiss you down there,” he said.
She tingled all over at his bold request. “You said you wouldn’t look.”
“Can I look now?”
“No, it’s not. And if it is, I don’t care.”
Ying-Ying gave his tunic another tug. “Take this off first.”
“What if you don’t let me kiss you because I’m too hideous? Let me kiss you first.”
He seemed so desperate to kiss her that she started to feel curious about what might be hidden there. “Okay, one kiss,” she agreed.
General Liu undid her sash and opened her robe, exposing her entire body. He opened her legs slightly, kissed her between the breasts and down past her belly button, and buried his face in the thick curly hair between her legs. She felt his mouth there, on her most intimate part, lingering, tickling her. He inhaled deeply and a heavenly ache spread from her groin to the rest of her body, but he kept his promise: he pulled away after one kiss, and the sensation faded.
She tugged at his shirt. General Liu sat up and licked his lips, and removed his tunic reluctantly. He had a solid figure and a slim and attractive waist. There were old scars—and newer, half-healed cuts and bruises—in the areas Ying-Ying could see; but his chest was tightly bandaged.
“You’re not hideous at all,” said Ying-Ying, hardly able to conceal the pleasure in her voice. Her fingers roamed the rich terrain of his back and shoulders. Then she blushed and took back her hand, remembering that she never deserved him in the first place. Was this splendid man really to be her husband? To her surprise, he really did smell like flowers. “You smell so good. Can I see your wounds?”
“You have to promise you won’t scream or run away, regardless of what you see.”
“I promise,” she said. There was no scar in the world that could make her run away from him.
He kissed her with his mouth open. She tasted the familiar sweetness in his breath, intoxicating her. His fingers found her privates again while his other hand unraveled the bandages around his chest.
The last of the bandages fell away, but the General continued to kiss her. When she tried to break the kiss, he clasped her to his chest, but instead of hard relentless muscle, she felt another pair of breasts—albeit smaller and firmer—against her own.
She shuddered as the ache between her legs erupted, clamping down on General Liu’s hand, muffling her beastly moans against his neck—except he wasn’t a man. General Liu was a woman, just like Ying-Ying.
A very strong woman.
Her free arm found its way around Ying-Ying’s hips and held them down as they bucked and quivered. When Ying-Ying lifted her face to catch her breath and settled back onto the inviting hand—moist and slippery with her own fluids—she unintentionally took General Liu’s finger inside her, and the convulsions started all over again. Powerless against her own body, but safer than she had ever felt before, she gave in, collapsing into the General’s arms.
“You…” she whispered, when her body was still, too exhausted to finish her sentence. Her vision blurred and she felt like she was lying in a field of flowers in Heaven.
They held each other for a long time, but when Ying-Ying finally found the energy to look down, General Liu hurried to hide her chest with her arm. That was when Ying-Ying noticed the crushed cherry petals, scattered over her lithe body.
Had they fallen through the roof from the trees above? But it was autumn. She must have had them under her bindings all along.
“If you hate me now, I don’t blame you. I was ready to make you wait for years, for a man who doesn’t exist.” Her deep quiet voice shook. Ying-Ying could see the outline of her long neck and her face, proud and elegant. Under the pale glow of the moon, she was like a goddess. “And yet, I still have the arrogance now to believe that you might forgive me out of kindness.”
What was there to forgive? Women could not fight in battle, but that crime was not for Ying-Ying to forgive, and no one ever said a woman could not love another woman. Yet General Liu was quick to assume Ying-Ying’s love would turn to hate. Was there some sort of unspoken rule? The more Ying-Ying thought about it, the more she began to think they had done something forbidden, but her heart was too full and tired to feel any regret.
General Liu eventually lowered her arm and Ying-Ying’s face grew warmer at the sight of her nakedness. She was clearly a woman, but her body was strangely beautiful and different from the other women Ying-Ying knew, reshaped by so many years of living as a man. Ying-Ying traced the curve of those delicate breasts—still tender from being so tightly bound—then the hard well-defined muscles below them. She felt General Liu’s hand cover her own, and she closed her eyes, nestling her cheek on the General’s left breast, right over her heart.
“I need to go back soon,” said General Liu. She drew Ying-Ying’s robe around her neck, cradling her smaller, softer body. “We’re moving out before dawn. And your sister needs you to protect her.”
Ying-Ying mumbled incoherently, already half asleep.
General Liu combed her long hair with her fingers, tied her robes for her, and pressed her lips to Ying-Ying’s temple. “I shouldn’t ask, but do you still love me?”
“Then will you still wait for me when I’m gone?” she asked, close to Ying-Ying’s ear, and held her breath.
“Don’t go,” Ying-Ying murmured. She only wanted to sleep, to wake up later in her beloved’s embrace and watch the sun rise and set. And still, she would remain with her.
“You’re mine—my little cherry blossom. I promise I’ll be back for you. Don’t run off with a man, okay? He won’t love you the way I do. And don’t tell anyone my secret, or I’ll kill myself.”
– – –
Ying-Ying had a dream that night: she was sleeping on the branch of a poplar tree, its large leaves tickling her body. The sun occasionally shone through, warm against her bare skin. She could hear the whisper of a sword nearby.
She woke up the next morning in her own bed, with no memory of how she got there. The dagger General Liu had given her was still next to her pillow. The sun was already out, Mei had gone to feed the animals, and her mother would soon yell at her for oversleeping.
But Ying-Ying remained in bed, stretching contentedly, feeling happier than ever, until she noticed a yellowing strip of cloth tied to her wrist in an elegant knot.
It was a piece of the ribbon that General Liu used to bind her chest. On one end of the cloth, General Liu had written her name—劉楊—in her flowing script with dark red ink and a blade of grass. Yang, the character for poplar—not the character for the sun, as the rest of the world knew her.
Ying-Ying held it to her face and inhaled the familiar sweet scent of cherry blossoms, mingled with sweat and blood, and tears came to her eyes. How many tales of Liu Yang’s victories would reach her from distant lands? How many more years would pass before Ying-Ying could see her again?
She sat at the edge of the sleeping mat and hugged herself, imagining that it was General Liu’s arms around her. She wondered what the General would look like in a long red dress, with jewels and flowers in her hair; General Liu must have been a very beautiful and proud woman.
Remembering that she was also a woman, Ying-Ying sat up a little straighter and drew her hair into a bun. Then she put on her dress and slippers, tied up her sleeves, and began her morning chores.