The Mind's Journey Home
AUTHOR: Chata Saladbar
Chapter One: The Journey Begins
With an involuntary small smile on this face, Shang watches her as she leaves the Imperial City. He sees the large enthusiastic crowd running after China's bravest new hero as if her honor would flow from her and into them like incense. He knows they will trail her for many miles. From high above the palace steps he can see her until she turns into a dot the mountainous landscape. He watches her until she is gone. Even then he continues to wait a few moments longer, glancing up at the sky and listening to the crackle of fireworks and the celebratory music from the square. He slightly scowls and presses his lips together, not ready to feel the confusing mixture of regret, sadness, pleasure and pride bubbling beneath the surface of his skin. The events of the day had unfolded before him like a sudden tempest. It had come and gone so quickly he barely had time to catch his breath. Had it all really happened?
Chien-Po had wordlessly handed him her helmet. His large quiet face seemed to know what he yet could not admit to himself. Either of them could have easily raced up to her and returned the priceless article to her, instead Shang had clutched the helmet in his hands and remained steadfastly near the palace. The feel of the cool metal now gives him some comfort and hope now that she is gone. A sigh escapes him as he turns his back to the mountains and he walks towards to palace.
He leaves Imperial City late the next morning after a long night of explaining to the Emperor's consuls his version of the war and what had happened in the palace. He then had spent the early morning preparing the orders to have the bodies of his father and the other fallen soldiers taken back to their homes. His soldiers now watch their quiet captain leave curious about his destination. They had told him what they knew about Mulan. where she was from and a few little stories of their lives together at the camp. Captain Li had said little and did not offer any anecdotes of his own, his young face had appeared numb and emotionless to them. He had only mentioned that the miserable first week of her training makes sense to him now, and that what she accomplished the following weeks defied everything he was taught to believe.
As Shang clears the villages along the edges of the city, he is thankful to be alone with his thoughts. He had not a chance to mourn his father's death in solitude. He travels further and further down the mountains and tries to think of the hero his father was, the man among men he had idolized all his life. For miles he tells himself how noble it was that his father died honorably in battle.
The mountain air stings his lips and hands, aggravating the bruises and cuts from his fight with Shan-Yu. He stops now and then to let his horse rest. He takes these moments to sketch the clearing mountaintops, remembering how his father thought that drawing and painting was a silly waste of time for a military man. For a moment he thinks he needs to hide his drawings once he gets home, then suddenly remembers that this secrecy wasn't necessary anymore. So many secrets he kept from the father he did not really know.
As the sky brilliantly dims his thoughts turn dark and disparaging. The cold mountain air seem to dilute the tenuous comfort of his earlier tried and true valorizing thoughts. Rather, he thinks, was it arrogance and overconfidence that killed his father? The same arrogance that he himself desperately clung to despite witnessing a field of Hun-slaughtered soldiers, that somber graveyard which included the lifeless body of his father? All their lives they were taught that discipline and brute strength would vanquish their enemies, but ingenuity, perspicacity, and intelligence were far better allies in war. As an unwilling student he had learned that from her, Mulan.
He halts his horse abruptly and shuts his eyes in effort to clear his brain of other images even less comforting. His white stallion paces nervously in place and he listens to the crunching noise of gravel beneath its hooves. His eyes slammed shut, the memory, startlingly vivid, plays on the backs of his eyelids: the mere moment he thought of killing her, killing Mulan. In that full measure of one heartbeat of burning bitterness she and he were sworn enemies: he was blinded by the wrath from her deception, obligated to the Laws of the Emperor, and feared the penalty of not carrying out His laws. Only one second of a brutal emotion would bring him a lifetime of regret. For when he glanced down at the prostrate female incarnation of Ping, he was struck by the familiarity of her face and the conviction of her voice. He could not do this despite the belligerant cursing of Chi Fu's voice. Then as he unsheathed her sword with its rasping ping and the neighing outcry of her black stallion echoing behind him, he walked towards her, all the while wondering how he could have not of noticed how beautiful this person was. His cold dark eyes watched how a few black strands of her hair fell in one delicate graceful arch over her smooth skin, how her cheeks were russet and fiery from the fever of her injury, and how her eyes, brilliant pure honest eyes, were set so perfectly apart in the pale oval of her face. Those eyes rested on him and pleaded for her life. He could never harm her, she had done so much for him. He had angrily hurled her sword to the ground in front of her, more angry at himself than her. A life for a life he had told her, those wretched hollow words. His chest had tightened when he turned away from Mulan for what he thought would be forever. He did not wait to her see if her eyes expressed his condemnation or forgiveness. He had been too angry and afraid, afraid of her, afraid of the death and destruction that could have continued if not for HER ...afraid of his own fervid new emotions.
Thereupon he abandoned her with her father's naked sword gleaming in front of her. On a frozen mountain bludgeoned with the graves of two thousand Huns he left one small magnolia bloom, holding itself sturdy against the storm, the hardness, the pain, the heartache of dishonor. All because he was unable to allow himself to question his implicit belief in tradition, those cobwebs of antiquity that almost felled China. He was unable to admit his failure. For as a woman Mulan was able to succeed where as a man he could not; she was able to save her father and China in the process.
It is night now. He lies staring up at the heavens as a quiet moon glows a silver cast over the landscape. The stillness reminds him of his loneliness and that his father is no longer alive.
He tries to sleep but his thoughts toss and turn back to Mulan on that ice-bound mountain. The recurring vision of the smooth pale loveliness that were her bare shoulders does not allow him to rest.