A/N: Well, here it is! The final chapter of Daughter of Rebirth! Next weekend, I'll post the two-chapter interlude at the beginning of the final part of the trilogy!
"How's he doing?"
"Better than he was. For now, the best thing for him is to get some rest."
Mulan bit her lower lip, nodding slowly. "Can I see him?"
The doctor gave her a pitying smile. "He's asleep right now," he told her. "When he wakes up, yes, you can visit him. But for now, it's best to just let him sleep."
"Understood. Thank you, doctor, for coming on such short notice…and in the middle of the night."
"My job is to treat the sick and injured—even if it means waking up in the dead of night." His smile turned from pitying to reassuring. "Make sure to keep the wounds clean and change the bandages as often as you can. He should be back on his feet in a few weeks."
She nodded once more, watching as he headed down the hall. Once he was around the corner, she let out a sigh of relief and leaned against the wall before slowly sliding down to the floor. She rubbed her face and quietly cursed under her breath.
Her parents and Grandma Fa had just gone to bed and she was doing some last bits of cleaning before going to bed herself. She was just about to extinguish the final lantern when Zhu burst in, an unconscious and bleeding Shang in her arms. From there, the night's events turned into a blur. She could recall Zhu saying something about Mongol princes and the Emperor, but she couldn't remember what it was she had said.
"How is he doing?"
She looked up, seeing Grandma Fa walking towards her. "He'll live. He just needs plenty of rest." She didn't like how solemn Grandma looked. "And frequent bandage changes."
"Makes sense. The poor boy rode for days with those injuries. He needs all the rest he can get." She set her hand on her granddaughter's shoulder. "Did Zhu tell you anything?"
"She did, but I…I wasn't paying attention. I was too shocked by the sight of Shang."
"Then it's a good thing you're sitting." She let out a heavy sigh, closing her eyes. "The Imperial City was attacked by one of the Mongolian armies. Somehow, the princes got wind that the Emperor had sent his daughters into hiding so he wouldn't have to marry them off, except as a last resort. From what Chi-Fu said, they came in the middle of the night and they came fast. The city didn't stand a chance—the Emperor didn't stand a chance."
Mulan's eyes widened in horror and she felt her face grow pale. "You mean—?"
"The Emperor is dead and the Mongol princes have their army scouring China for his daughters."
She shook her head, unable to believe her grandmother. "But—but that's impossible! He had so many guards; he had Shang! There's no way that the princes would have reached him!"
"Chi-Fu said he and Shang found the Emperor already dying in his bedchambers."
Clenching her eyes shut, Mulan rested her forehead against her palms. "This can't be happening. It can't! Everything has been so lovely and peaceful and nice! How could the gods let this happen?!"
Grandma Fa wrapped her arms around her, hugging her protectively. "I know how unbelievable this is, child." she murmured. "But Shang and Chi-Fu are proof that this isn't just a sick joke. We need to accept that this is real and we need to do our best to help poor Zhi and those girls of hers. We may have lost an Emperor, but they lost a husband and father."
Sniffling, Mulan nodded against Grandma Fa's shoulder. "You're right," she mumbled, voice a touch strained as she did her best to hold back a sob. "I should—I should go see them. Even if they're too upset to talk, I can at least be there for them and—and make them some tea or something."
She took a step back, allowing Mulan to get to her feet. "I'll watch Sleeping Beauty while you're over there," she promised with a small chuckle.
Mulan smiled. "Thank you, Grandma." She headed down the hall with a small sigh. Part of her wanted to stay here, with Shang; even though the doctor had assured her that he would be fine, she was still worried about him. But she knew she would be of little help to him while he slept. For now, she could provide comfort and support to the princesses, who she was positive were awake.
After putting on a light coat and her shoes, she hurried across the street. Both the main house and the servants' house were fully lit as if it were daytime. As she came closer to the main house, she could hear the crying and wailing taking place inside. Before she could open the door, however, it swung inwards and she could see the silhouette of Ling in the doorway.
"O-Oh, Mulan." His voice sounded heavy and despondent. "Um. You may not want to go in there right now. Zhi and the girls are…well. I'm sure you can hear them."
"I came to see if they needed anything," she replied.
"Other than their father back from the dead? No." He sighed and shook his head, stepping out of the house. "In fact, they…don't really want us near them right now. They're only allowing your parents to see them." He closed the door behind him.
She frowned. "Really?"
"Yeah. After Chi-Fu explained everything that had happened…They just wanted to be left alone."
"That's understandable." Despite her words, she worriedly nibbled on her lower lip. "I…I don't know the full story of what happened. Grandma told me the basics, but…"
He plopped down on the porch, motioning for her to sit as well. "There was a traitor within the palace," he started, "and they had to have been close to the Emperor. Chi-Fu suspects one of the Emperor's personal guards; Shang apparently thinks it may be one of the Emperor's concubines. Either way, he's dead now and the Mongol princes are searching for the princesses. Sadly, they know the general direction that the princesses are in, because they followed Shang and Chi-Fu as they fled the palace."
"What?!" She shook her head in disbelief. "Shang wouldn't abandon the palace like that!"
"He had no choice," Ling assured her. "It was the Emperor's final orders to him: To get his daughters out of China to keep them safe from the princes. Chi-Fu said that, even then, Shang wanted to stay and fight with his men, but knew he couldn't refuse a dying wish."
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees before continuing. "The princes eventually caught up to Shang and Chi-Fu, but there was a bridge separating them. Shang got hurt when he cut the bridge's rope supports; some boards came flying back and hit him. But he made it so the princes would have to take the long way around—which means a delay of, at most, two weeks."
"But if Zhi and the princesses have to leave China, where are they supposed to go? Where can they go? They don't know anything about the world outside of China."
"I don't know," he admitted, voice growing quiet. "I really don't. I just know that…Yao, Chien-Po, and I are going with them."
"Good. They need you three now more than ever."
Ling sighed. "Yeah…" He then slid a hand into his hair, letting his head rest in his palm. "I knew everything had been going too well…"
Mulan frowned and looked at him, curious. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "Just what it sounds like: Everything was going good. Yao, Chien-Po, and I had good jobs that paid well. We met women who were not just beautiful, but funny and sweet and intelligent as well—and those women liked us. We had a home. And then it's all ripped out from under our feet." He shook his head. "The gods can be cruel, can't they?"
"That they can," she agreed, closing her eyes.
"No, that route is too dangerous…Hm. But with the lieutenants, it may be doable…No. No, even with them, it would be far too much of a risk."
A knock on the door startled Zhu enough that she reached for one of the knives sticking out of the wall. She relaxed, however, when she realized that if someone wanted to kill her, they probably wouldn't be knocking.
"Come in," she sighed, tiredly rubbing her face. When the door slid open, she didn't bother to look to see who it was. Instead, she placed her finger on the large map in front of her, tracing out a route as she quietly mumbled to herself.
She closed her eyes, a shudder running down her spine. She had come to hate her full name. "Chi-Fu." Turning around, she faced her uncle with her arms crossed.
He nodded at the map behind her. "I see you're already plotting a route for your mother and sisters to take." His voice bore only a hint of the contempt that usually filled it and his face was thinner than normal. "Do you have a destination in mind? Or are you going to take them as far away as possible and find a place from there?"
"A bit of both, actually." She turned somewhat, pointing at a spot on the map that was in the far west. "This area here. It had good land, bountiful forests, clear rivers, and it is far enough away that the Mongol princes would not think to look that far."
"How do you know about that place?" he asked, stepping closer to get a better look at the map. He was surprised by its size and by how many trade routes and roads there were; he had only seen maps of China and the areas immediately surrounding it. To see that his home was so small compared to the rest of the world was almost intimidating.
Zhu glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "It is where my people used to spend the winter…before Shan Yu became obsessed with growing his army."
To her great surprise, Chi-Fu didn't show any signs of distaste. "How long of a journey would it be?" he asked, thoughtfully stroking his chin.
"Three—maybe three and a half—months by the quickest route. Four or five months by the safest route."
He nodded in understanding, remaining silent.
"With summer ending," she continued, using her bandage-covered hands to section off the middle part of the map, "crossing this stretch of land will be much easier, as we would not have to worry about the heat. However, we would have to be cautious of the tribes that are scattered throughout this land. Some are friendly with my people, some are not."
He made a concerned sound. "How likely are they to attack if they find out you're a Hun?"
"They may let the rest of you go. As for me?" She shrugged. "At the bare minimum, they will want my head on a pole."
Zhu couldn't tell which emotion was greater on her uncle's face: Excitement or horror.
"But, you will not have to worry about that. I will not be traveling with you." She turned entirely towards the map now, once again studying it.
His eyes widened. "What!? What do you mean, you won't be traveling with us?! You're the one who knows those lands!"
"Once I figure out the road you will take, I will give you a detailed map."
With a growl, Chi-Fu grabbed her shoulder and forcibly turned her around. He then pointed a bony finger at her. "The lives of your mother and sisters depends on you. You, Shan Zhu! And you're just going to hand them a sheet of paper and send them off on their merry way?" Even though he was nearly yelling, Zhu didn't flinch. "What will you be doing instead, hmm? Making your way to the Imperial City to try and lay claim to the throne yourself?!"
Grabbing his wrist, she squeezed it just enough that he was forced to release her shoulder. "I would not hesitate to join my family on their journey westwards," she told him in an eerily calm and empty voice. "In fact, I would much prefer to join them. But, instead, I have something else that I must see to." She released his wrist only to quickly regret it. "And do not call me 'Shan Zhu' anymore."
Chi-Fu used the back of his hand to strike her across the face. "Nothing in this world is more important that safety of Zhi and her daughters!" he nearly shouted. A cruel sense of joy and pride swelled inside him when he saw blood beginning to trick out of her nose. "Do you understand that, Shan Zhu? Nothing! As such, you will be accompanying us on this journey!"
"No, I will not," she snapped, ignoring the blood for now. "I will plan your route and I will give the map to my mother. After that, I will attend to my errand—"
He backhanded her again. "You intend to send us to our deaths, don't you? That's it, isn't it!?" he snarled. "That's why you refuse to come with us, isn't it? You're going to give us a map that will take us into enemy territory where we'll all be enslaved or killed!"
The blood started to flow more freely down her face and she tried to wipe it away. It was to no avail, though. "The only person I would give a false map to is you, you thrice-damned son of a louse!" she barked. "You don't deserve the safety and protection my family will—"
"I am your family, you ungrateful, barbarian bitch!" he shouted. "And it would seem that, by far, I care more for this family than you ever could!"
"I would do anything to protect my family!" she snapped. "I would gladly sacrifice my health, my life, and my happiness to ensure their safety! And that's just what I—"
"Says the wretch who's running away like a coward!"
"WILL YOU SHUT UP AND LET ME FINISH FOR ONCE?!" Zhu suddenly screamed, her voice filled with the frustration and anger she felt.
Chi-Fu stared at her, stunned by her outburst.
She took advantage of his silence. "For the sake of the spirits, if you would just shut up," she cried, "you would know that the army I intend to gather is the remainder of the Mongol army! And, before you open that spirits'-damned mouth of yours to ask 'how', it'll be done by marrying Mundzuc, the youngest of the Mongol princes. I'm positive you've heard of him: He was one of the two members of Shan Yu's elite to escape the Imperial dungeons."
"You're going to do what?"
Her eyes widened and she spun around. Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po were standing in the doorway; how long they had been there, she didn't know. But seeing their wide eyes and pale faces, she knew they had been there long enough.
All of a sudden, Zhu found that she wanted nothing more than to hide from them.
"It looks like you've gotten an unexpected audience," Chi-Fu told her, a smug grin on his lips as he crossed his arms over his chest. "And, judging by your expression, they just learned something you hadn't been intending to tell them."
She threw him a glare. "Get out of my room," she quietly ordered. "Now."
"I don't take or—"
"Chi-Fu, if you want to leave this room alive, then leave now." As she spoke, she glanced at the daggers sticking out of her wall.
Seeing where her gaze went, Chi-Fu swallowed hard. "Step aside, you fools," he growled, shoving his way past Chien-Po and Ling.
Yao cracked his knuckles and started to follow after him, but Chien-Po set his hand atop his head, stopping him and guiding him back to the doorway.
Closing her eyes, Zhu let out a heavy sigh. "…How much did you three hear?" she asked, voice quiet. She crossed the room and sat on her bed.
"Technically, all of it once the two of you started shouting," Ling told her. "But we only heard shouting, not what was being shouted. That's why we hurried over, though."
Chien-Po nodded in agreement. "We got here right after you screamed…"
"…You're not really goin' to marry that guy, are ya, kid?" Yao asked, concern in his voice and in his expression. "If he's a Mongol an' one o' your uncle's elite, then that makes him an enemy. How do ya know he won't betray ya an' use ya as a way t' get your sisters for his brothers?"
She tiredly rubbed her face, not caring that she only ended up smearing blood all over it. "Because," she sighed, "the two of us have been engaged for nearly ten years. I was supposed to marry him before Shan Yu invaded China. Ever since then, he has had a…bizarre fondness for me."
Ling gave Chien-Po a small nod. "But that doesn't mean he wouldn't betray you," he told Zhu, Chien-Po disappearing up the hall. "He's a Mongol; you can't trust him."
"As much as I hate to say it, I can trust him." She shifted her position so that she had her back against the headboard. "There are three things in this world Mundzuc wants above all else: Power and to humiliate his brothers are the more important of the three."
Pulling a knee to her chest, she rested her forehead against it. "By marrying me, he inherits a third of his father's army—five thousand men—and he becomes his father's chosen heir." She thought it best to leave out that, in order to become the chosen heir, Mundzuc would have to have a child with her.
Yao frowned. "Five thousand men is pretty hard t' say 'no' to," he admitted. He sat on the foot of her bed, his hands clasped between his thighs.
"But we'll be leaving China," Ling argued, sitting down next to Zhu. "Chi-Fu said it'll be nearly two weeks before the princes will reach Tianshui. In that time, we'll have packed up and left hundreds of miles between us and here. We won't need an army at that point."
"You will not need an army, no," she murmured, "but I will."
Yao and Ling exchanged confused looks. "An' why is that?" the former questioned.
"Because I will be bringing the last of my people to the same place that I will be sending you to." She tilted her head so that she now rested her chin atop her knee. "Yes, there are still Huns who live—not many, but enough that they will need protection crossing the Sea of Grass."
Ling glanced over at the door as Chien-Po returned, a bowl and cloth in hand. "But…why? What's the point of bringing them?" he asked. He scooted down the bed so Chien-Po could take his place.
"There are less than three hundred of my people left," Zhu explained, letting Chien-Po begin tending to her bloodied face. "They are leaderless and are being taken advantage of by rival tribes. As their queen, it is my duty to—"
"Wait," Yao interrupted. "Queen? Since when did ya become their queen?"
Chien-Po frowned. "The moment Shan Yu died," he answered for Zhu. "She is his heir, after all, being that she is his niece and only surviving family member." He gently wiped away the blood staining her upper lip and nose. "And, as their queen, it makes sense that she would want to bring them somewhere safe, especially since their numbers are so low."
"But will they accept Zhu as their queen?" Ling asked. "She's been gone almost five years—for all they know, she could be dead. What if someone else took power?"
Zhu shook her head. "They know I live," she told them, "and…and they know I want to be there for them. They would not have let anyone else take over." She winced slightly when Chien-Po had to rub against the spot where Chi-Fu had struck her.
Yao rubbed the back of his neck, a heavy, tired sigh leaving his mouth. "So, this whole time, you've been their queen an' you've been livin' in China. Ain't royalty supposed t' live with their people?"
"Not when they're being held as a political prisoner." Again, it was Chien-Po who answered.
Zhu's brows rose in surprise. "How did you—?"
"For some time now, I've had a feeling that you weren't living quite as freely as the rest of us," he explained. "You didn't go to town very often and, when you did, you didn't stay long. Whenever the Emperor was brought up in conversation, you would look and sound displeased. The final tip was how the Emperor sent you on an 'errand'. If you disliked him so much, why would you willingly go on an 'errand' for him?"
She quietly laughed. "Someone has been practicing his observation skills."
"No kidding," Ling chuckled. "I didn't notice any of that stuff. And, even if I did, I would have just shrugged it off as having been raised to hate the Emperor anyway."
Having finished cleaning her face, Chien-Po stood up and carried the bowl of bloodied water over to Zhu's window. "There were times I wanted to ask you about your dislike of the Emperor," he admitted, opening the window, "but I didn't think it was a topic you would be eager to answer." He tossed the water outside.
"You are right." She changed her sitting position once more, letting her legs hang over the side of the bed. "The Emperor and I shared a mutual hatred for one another. I respected him, of course—he ruled over an enormous country and had a fairly peaceful reign. How could I not respect him? But he had no respect for me and he made sure I knew it."
"I know you're tellin' us the truth, kid," Yao said, "but it's a hard truth t' believe. Every time we met the Emperor, he was like a sweet ol' grandfather."
"And he was that way towards everyone, I assure you. Everyone, that is, except me."
"And Ting-Ting," Ling added. Chien-Po, Yao, and Zhu looked at him in confusion. "Yeah, I know the truth, Zhu," he chuckled, nervously rubbing his arm. "Ting-Ting is the younger daughter of Shan Da—she's your full-blooded sister."
"Was wonderin' where she got that strength from," Yao mumbled, his eye widening. "Makes sense now that I think 'bout it, though." He then shook his head and tiredly rubbed his face. "Gah, tonight's been just so damned strange…First, Shang an' Chi-Fu come out o' nowhere an' tell us the Emperor's dead. Then, we're told we have t' get the girls out o' China. An' now we learn that Zhu's a queen an' Ting-Ting is a Hun! Can someone slap me so I know this ain't some weird nightmare-dream hybrid thing?"
Both Ling and Zhu started to lean towards him, making him yelp and throw himself backwards.
"I wasn't serious!" he protested.
Zhu quietly laughed. "But you sounded so serious," she teased. She looked at the three lieutenants; their exhaustion was all too clear. "You three should try to get some sleep. The next few days are going to be…chaotic, to say the least."
Chien-Po nodded in agreement. "We will need all the rest we can get," he added. "The princesses will be in no shape to help pack, so it'll be up to us to get everything ready."
"We will discuss it more tomorrow," Zhu said, "after breakfast and after I have checked on my mother and sisters."
Sliding off the bed, Yao nodded. "Yeah…sounds like a good idea," he said through a yawn. "You try an' get some rest, too, kid."
"I will try my best." She gave him a small, reassuring smile before he left the room. Chien-Po followed, but Ling remained on her bed. "You should head to bed, Ling," she told him, voice quiet.
He looked at her; there was an emotion in his eyes that she hadn't seen before—or, if she had, she didn't recognize it. "Isn't there another way you could get an army?" he asked her, his voice also soft. "A way that doesn't involve you marrying someone you hate?"
"I am afraid not."
He frowned. "That's not fair! What if you fell in love with someone? You couldn't be with them because you were already married to that other guy!"
A sorrowful smile appeared on her lips. "It does not matter," she said, "because, with my luck, the only people I would fall in love with would have already given their hearts away." She hoped that her voice sounded casual enough; the last thing she needed right now was for Ling and Mulan to find out that she was in love with them. It would just make things uncomfortably awkward—even ruin their friendship.
Ling let out a heavy sigh. "It still isn't fair. Can't you just like…kill him after getting the army? His dad doesn't need to know."
She let out a small laugh. "Yes, I could kill him and then have five thousand angry Mongols chasing after me." Despite her sarcasm, her tone was humorous. "If I were an expert with poisons, then maybe I would have a chance. As it is, however, I am not an expert and would surely only end up poisoning myself instead of him."
"Well…Su's a botanist. Maybe she can slip a deadly plant or three into his morning eggs for you?" She laughed again, confusing him. "Why are you laughing? I'm being completely serious!"
"I know you are," she chuckled, "but the way you're saying the suggestions is the amusing part. Slipping a deadly plant or three into his morning eggs?"
He rubbed his arm, a smile coming to his lips. "…Alright, I can see how that's just a tiny bit funny," he admitted. "But better safe than sorry! If one of the plants doesn't work, the other two are bound to do something, right?"
"As true as that is, I would not want my youngest sister to turn into a murderess on my behalf." She rubbed the back of her neck. "It is not her burden to bear—nor is it yours. There are other, more important, things you should be worrying about."
Frowning, Ling shook his head and stood up. "You can be frustratingly difficult at times, you know that?"
"I have heard such a time or two, yes." She watched as he headed for the door. "Ling?"
He stopped, turning to look at her. "Yeah?"
"…Thank-you for still being my friend, despite how frustratingly difficult I can be."
"The times when you're not difficult more than make up for it," he chuckled. "Goodnight, Zhu."
"Goodnight, Ling." She watched as he slid her door shut before pulling her knees to her chest. Burying her face in her thighs, she quietly sighed and closed her eyes. "Ting-Ting is the one he should be more concerned about," she mumbled. "I'm not worth worrying over."
Mulan awoke to the sound of muffled conversation taking place in the next room over. Her brows furrowing, she sat up and, rubbing her eyes, looked around. She was in her own room and she was half dressed, half in nightclothes. It was then she remembered what had happened the previous night.
'That's right,' she told herself, slipping her legs over the edge of her bed. 'The Emperor's dead…' She rubbed her face, trying to get the crusty bits of sleep out of the corners of her eyes. 'And Shang is injured—' She paused in her movements, her eyes widening. 'He's injured!'
Bolting from bed, she made quick work of changing into a fresh set of clothes. Her comb in hand, she paced back and forth in front of her bed as she brushed her hair. The talking in the next room continued, letting her know that Shang was at least conscious enough to have a conversation.
'That's good,' she reassured herself. 'It means he got a good amount of rest last night—at least, I hope that's what it means. But has he eaten anything yet? Has anyone changed his bandages or given him his medicine?'
Once she finished brushing her hair, she tossed her comb onto her bed and left her room. It was only a few steps down the hall to Shang's room, where the door was partially open. Peeking inside, she could see that he was sitting up and there was a tray over his lap. Sitting on a stool beside the bed was Zhu, who held a large, rolled up sheet of paper.
Lightly knocking on the doorframe, she poked her head inside. "Hey, sleepyhead," she gently teased, smiling when Shang looked at her. "How are you feeling?"
He returned the smile, his features softening a bit as she stepped into the room. "Like I've been trampled by a herd of horses," he admitted. "I suppose you've already heard the news."
"I'm afraid so." Her smile faded into a frown. As she came nearer to the bed, Zhu stood up, offering her the stool. "No, no—you can keep the stool." She also found that the tray over Shang's lap had a few small plates of partially-eaten food and a nearly-empty cup of tea.
Zhu shook her head. "I was getting ready to leave anyway," she said. "I have…a lot of arrangements to make and tasks to organize." She gave Mulan a small smile before looking at Shang. "Would you like me to leave the map with you or…?"
"Yes, please. I'd like to study it a bit more."
She set it on the bedside table before starting to leave. Before she could get halfway across the room, however, Mulan grabbed her arm.
"Don't overwork yourself," she half ordered, half pleaded. "You'll be useless to your mother and sisters if you're half-dead of exhaustion."
Her brow rose and a teasing smile came to her lips. "I assure you, I am good to go until I am three-quarters dead of exhaustion."
Mulan pouted. "Zhu, I'm serious. There's no shame in taking a break or two. You're human like the rest of us. You need rest."
"Do not worry," she quietly assured her. "Even if I get too absorbed in my work, I am sure Ling or Yao will force me to take breaks."
"Good." She let go of Zhu's arm. "I'll be over later to check on you and help out if it's needed."
Nodding, Zhu left the room. Mulan used her foot to scoot the stool a bit closer to the bed before sitting down.
"I'm sorry I worried you so much last night," Shang said, setting the tray of food aside. He pushed himself upright a bit more, wincing as he adjusted the pillows behind him. "I couldn't afford to stop at a healer on the way here."
"No, no—it's understandable," she told him, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "I would have done the same thing if I were in your position." She rested her hand on the edge of the bed. "I'm just glad you weren't hurt worse than you are. The doctor said that his biggest concern was how exhausted you were."
He nodded in agreement. "I didn't expect those boards to come flying back at me. I should have, though. Those ropes were pulled tight…" Closing his eyes, he let his head fall back against the pillows. "How're Zhi and the princesses doing?"
"Not well—but, it's to be expected." Biting her lower lip, she slid her hand a bit closer to his. "My parents are taking care of them."
"That's what Grandma was telling me earlier. I'm…surprised they're allowing your father to stay over there. I would think they wouldn't want to see him…"
"To be honest, I am, too. But, for all I know, he's the one making all the tea or something." She shrugged, a half-hearted smile on her lips. "But I'm glad that they can be there for them. From what I hear, they don't even want their lover-boys with them…"
At that, Shang cocked a brow and opened an eye to look at her. "…Their lover-boys?" he repeated, his voice bearing a distinct lack of humor. "Don't tell me you mean—"
"Yes, I mean the goofballs." She quietly chuckled. "I guess Zhi finally relented and allowed her daughters to start properly courting them."
"I should have known something like this would happen," he said. Mulan felt a bit of relief when he chuckled. "Those three goofballs had fallen head-over-heels for them at first sight, after all." A heavy sigh then left his mouth. "I suppose they'll be coming with us when we leave."
Mulan nodded, though she knew he couldn't see it. "Ling told me they would." She then reached over, grabbing the roll of paper and unfurling it on the bed beside him. Its size surprised her; like Chi-Fu, she had only seen maps of China and some of the land around it. "Is this dot way in the west where you'll be going?"
Opening his eyes, he looked over at her. "Yes. Zhu said it's a wonderful spot—apparently, when she was younger, the Huns would spend the winter there. She said there's good hunting, good land, forests, and clear rivers."
"That does sound nice. But…" Frowning, she ran her finger from China, across the paper to the dot. "It's so far away."
He nodded. "It is. It will take us at least three months to get there."
"Why so far? Couldn't you just stay within the Tibetan Empire?"
"It's so far away because the Mongols won't think to look for the girls that far from their home." Reaching over to the tray, he plucked up a half-eaten fruit dumpling. "That, and Zhu said the area is somewhat hidden in a mountain valley. Which is good, considering her plans to bring the last of her people to the area as well." He popped the rest of the dumpling in his mouth.
At that, Mulan's brows rose in surprise. "…She what?"
He nodded, chewing his food and swallowing it. "She'll be bringing the remainder of the Huns to the area as well." Seeing that Mulan was still surprised, he further explained. "They mostly consist of women, children, and the elderly. Apparently, the remaining warriors have been killing one another off in attempts to assume control. To make matters worse, rival tribes have started harassing them as well."
She frowned, letting go of the map and watching it roll itself back up. "How does she know all that?"
"To be honest? I'm not sure. I suppose she has a contact she meets with, since she hasn't been able to go there in person." He reached over to the plates of food once more, this time retrieving an untouched scallion pancake. "I just know that she's thinking about having them make a permanent settlement in the area." He took a bite of the pancake.
"She's gotten all that figured out since just last night?"
"It's Zhu," he said with a shrug. "She always has a plan."
The frown remained on her face; something didn't seem quite right about all this. Zhu was a quick thinker during stressful situations, yes, but even she couldn't come up with something so elaborate in such a short amount of time…For now, however, she had to take Shang's word for it.
"Do you plan on going with them in this condition?" she asked after some minutes.
He nodded, his cheeks turning a bit pink as he glanced away from her. "I must. I promised the Emperor I would make sure his daughters got to safety." He managed a reassuring smile as he looked at her. "This time, however, I won't have to push myself and ride for days on end with very little sleep. Even with us needing to make haste, we'll still be stopping at night to sleep."
"You had better get some sleep while traveling," she scolded.
"I will, I promise."
"Good." Leaning back slightly, she covered her mouth as she yawned. "It'll be bad enough, knowing Zhu's going to over-exert herself. I don't need you doing the same." She let her hand fall back onto the bed, her cheeks growing warm when Shang set his hand over it.
"I promise I'll take care of myself," he told her, voice soft. "And I'll watch over Zhu as best as I can for you." He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, a smile on his face.
She nodded slowly and she also smiled. "Thank you." She hated to admit it, but she had almost forgotten how handsome he was when he smiled. It had only been a few months since she had last seen him, after all. But it felt like a few years had passed between then and now. "I wish you didn't have to go."
"As do I." He let his thumb gently stroke the back of her hand. "As do I."
There was a knock on her door.
Lifting her head from the pillow, Su sniffled out a 'come in' before letting her face fall back into the cushion.
"Hey." It was Zhu. "I…ah, I brought you some tea. It is almond and orange flavored."
She turned her head ever so slightly, watching as Zhu set a teapot and teacup on her bedside table. "Thank you," she mumbled, voice nearly inaudible thanks to the pillow.
Kneeling down beside the bed, Zhu reached over and gently rubbed her back. "How are you doing?" she asked. Out of the three princesses, Su had taken the news of the Emperor's death the hardest.
"Everything hurts." She forced herself to roll over and, with a bit of help from her sister, sat up. "My throat hurts, my eyes hurt, my heart hurts…everything just hurts."
Zhu grabbed the cup of tea and gently placed it in Su's hands. "That is understandable. You lost your father and have been crying for nearly two days. I would be surprised if you did not hurt."
She took a long, slow drink of the tea. Its warmth felt nice and helped ease the soreness in her throat. The flavor, however, left much to be desired. "I've fallen asleep a few times," she sighed, "and I dreamt of when I was little. How father would take me in the garden and let me dig in the earth and get dirty. How he would teach me which plants were which. But then I wake up and—and I remember he's gone." She choked out a sob, clenching her eyes shut. But no tears fell; she had cried them all out.
Zhu reached over and rubbed her back again. She knew better than to try and say some comforting words; ones that would bring her calmness would only further upset Su. So, instead, she remained silent and, when Su abandoned her teacup in favor of clutching onto her big sister, she returned the hug.
"What are we going to do, Zhu?" she whimpered. "Where are—where are we supposed to go? We can't go back home! The Mongols—the Mongols will get us and force us to be their wives!"
"I will not let that happen," she promised, voice soothing. "I promise, I am going to do all within my power to keep you three and mother as safe as possible. You will not be the wives of anyone not of your choosing."
Su sniffled. "But they're going to find us, Zhu! Even you, yourself, said they would scour the entirety of China for us! We won't be able to stay hidden in Tianshui forever!"
"Shh, shh…They will scour China, yes, but you will not be in China." She squeezed Su just a bit to help her feel safer. "I am going to take you across the world to somewhere where you will be safe…and, eventually, happy."
"No. The goofballs will be joining us. Shang may, but I need to have a discussion with him about that…"
Su nodded, leaning away from her sister in order to wipe her eyes. Though she hadn't shed any tears, they still itched. "What about Uncle Chi-Fu?"
The corner of Zhu's lip twitched as she forced herself to not sneer. "He…will also be joining us," she said, her voice betraying her distaste.
But, her attempt to remain civil amused Su enough to make her giggle. "I had better bring lots of waxed cotton so we don't have to listen to his complaining…" Sighing, she pulled herself back up onto her bed and poured herself another cup of tea.
"Speaking of bringing things…" Zhu rubbed the back of her neck. "I—I admittedly did not come here just to give you tea and to check up on you."
"I figured as much." She slowly drained the cup in one drink, the soothing warmth managing to bring even more calm to her mind. "What do you need?"
"What sorts of seeds do you have?"
Su's brow rose. "What kind of seeds do I have?" she questioned, her voice still a bit hoarse despite the tea. "Do you mean seeds for edible plants or decorative plants?"
"Both, though the edible ones are more important."
She started to list them off, using her fingers to help keep track. "Well, I have rice, wheat, carrots, cabbage, basil, cilantro, rosemary, lavender, ginger, garlic, onion, scallion, leek…"
Zhu held up her hand, silencing her with a small laugh. "Alright, alright—you have more than enough."
"Why did you need to know?"
"Because…the place I am taking you to will not be just your new home. I plan on bringing the last of the Huns to that area as well. And…we are not known for our farming."
Su nodded in understanding. "You'd like me and Chien-Po to help teach them how to at least garden," she stated.
"How many Huns will there be…? Won't it be dangerous to have us around them?"
Zhu shook her head. "There are less than three hundred left and they are mostly women, children, and the elderly. If anything, they will thank you for teaching them how to garden because it means they will be able to better feed their children."
She nodded once more. "What is the area like?"
"You would like it. It is a large valley hidden amongst mountains. Its weather is mild year-round and the soil there is good and rich. There are forests and two rivers feeding into a large lake."
"That does sound rather nice…But, what about farming animals?"
"That they do know how to do." She smiled reassuringly. "We will have to get used to not traveling across the world twice a year, but I think that is something they would find preferable."
Su chuckled again. "I think so, too." She poured herself a third cup of tea.
"…Did I do alright making the tea?" Zhu asked, rubbing the back of her neck. "I wasn't sure how long to let it steep…"
"Oh, it tastes disgusting," Su told her, "like watered down orange pulp. But…it helps. A lot, actually. My throat isn't as sore and talking doesn't hurt as much as it did. So, thank you. I appreciate it."
Zhu's brow rose. "Even though it tastes bad?"
"Even though it tastes bad," she smiled.
"Ouch…Note to self: Don't place full weight on left leg again." Shang winced as he slowly eased himself down onto the edge of the bed. With everyone so busy, he hadn't wanted to trouble Fa Li or Mulan to open his window and, even though he knew he shouldn't have done it, he had gotten out of bed and opened the shutters. "At least there's a bit of fresh air in here now…"
"Could not wait for someone to come open the window for you?"
His eyes widened and he looked over his shoulder only to see Zhu coming into the room. "I didn't want to trouble anyone," he said, sighing in relief. He had hoped it wouldn't be Mulan or Grandma, lest he get scolded. "What do you need?" Wincing, he pushed himself back against the pillows propped against the headboard.
"To speak with you." As she closed the door, Shang knew whatever it was serious. "About the journey."
"What about it?"
She sat down on the stool, looking him in the eye. "I think you should remain in Tianshui."
"Zhu, you know I can't do that. I made a promise—"
"A promise to see my sisters to safety; yes, I know."
He heavily sighed, shaking his head. "If I don't go with you, Zhu, it'll eat away at me for the rest of my life."
There was a frown on her face as her brow rose. "And if you came with us, the rest of your life will be spent wishing you had stayed with Mulan."
He looked at her from the corner of his eye. "…What?"
"You heard me." She continued to stare at him, blinking half as often in hopes of unnerving him just enough to make him listen to her. "We both know that this journey is a permanent one, Shang. We will not be coming back to China—not in this lifetime, at least.
"We both also know how much you love Mulan," she continued. Shang couldn't help but notice that her voice had a strange sadness to it now. "Everyone knows it, so do not try to deny it. And she loves you, too. Now that you are no longer a general, the two of you can finally be together—but only if you do not come with us."
Shang swallowed hard, glancing away from her. "Zhi and the girls are my family," he said, voice quiet. "I can't just abandon them for love's sake."
"And you cannot abandon love just for family's sake." She sat up a bit straighter. "My mother and sisters would understand entirely if you chose to stay here, Shang. In fact, I have no doubt that they would want you to stay. You would be happier here."
"I promised the Emperor, Zhu," he told her, his voice firm. "I promised him I—"
"The Emperor is dead, Shang," she interjected. "How is he supposed to know if you kept your promise or not?"
He frowned. "You know enough about Chinese religion to know how he would find out, Zhu," he snapped. "If I broke my promise to him, I would be bringing dishonor and bad luck upon myself—don't you dare roll your eyes at me, Shan Zhu!"
She tensed, her eyes widening ever so slightly while Shang winced.
"I'm sorry," he sighed, rubbing his face. "I didn't mean to call you that. I just—Zhu, you need to understand how important honor is to us Chinese."
"I do understand how important it is to you," she replied, "but that does not keep me from finding it ludicrous. You, a man who has spent his entire life devoted to protecting China and its people, cannot possibly lose the vast amounts of honor I am positive you've amassed by breaking one promise to a dead man. Does that not sound ridiculous to you?!"
He remained silent, not wanting to admit that it did sound ridiculous.
"Shang, you love Mulan," she continued. "And she loves you. After everything the two of you have gone through, don't you think it is time the two of you deserve to be together? If you stayed here, you would be able to finally court her—to marry her. You may even have children with her someday! Doesn't that sound so much better than living across the world, filled with regret?"
"…It does," he murmured, avoiding her gaze.
He finally looked at her again. "But, if I stay, then there will be no one to look after you."
Her brow rose in confusion. "Pardon?"
"I told Mulan I would make sure you didn't get hurt. If I stay here, then there would be no one to do that."
She shook her head. "Shang, you know that my route is different from the one my mother and sisters are taking. I will be traveling alone—at least…until I reach my people." He watched as a strange sadness filled her eyes.
"What about when you finally meet up with them again? Who will watch over you then?"
"My…husband." She shook her head again and rubbed the back of her neck. "This is not about me, Shang. This is about you and Mulan and the happiness you two deserve."
Shang was about to speak when there was a knock on the door. He looked past Zhu. "Come in!" he said, thankful for the distraction.
The door slid open a bit and Mulan came in with a tray of food. "I was hoping you were—Oh, hey, Zhu!" She smiled at the two as she brought the tray over to the bed. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"You were not," Zhu told her. "Shang was just telling me how he has decided to stay in Tianshui instead of coming with us."
Shang's eyes widened in shock; he couldn't believe she just did that.
Mulan blinked, looking between the two of them. "But, I thought you said you made a promise…?" she asked, gaze settling on Shang. "Going by your expression, however, Zhu just told me a lie."
"It is only a partial lie," Zhu admitted, standing up. "Shang is staying here because I am making him stay here." She straightened out her tunic as she turned slightly, intending to leave.
Shang glared at her. "Zhu, you can't just make me stay here—"
"As queen of the Huns, I order you to stay in Tianshui!" she suddenly snapped. She instantly regretted it when she saw Mulan jump, startled by the outburst. Closing her eyes, she sighed. "I am sorry. I did not mean to shout."
Mulan gave her a pitying smile. "You've been under a lot of stress," she said. "It's understandable. But…why are you so adamant that Shang stay here…? Is it because of his injuries?"
Zhu shook her head. "No. I want him to stay because he would be happier here."
"And I told her I couldn't stay here because I need to fulfill my promise to the Emperor," Shang sighed. "And my promise to you."
Mulan frowned, looking between the two of them once more. They were glaring at one another, each determined to force the other into concession. "You could do both…?" she suggested with a hopeful smile. "I mean, you guys will only be gone for a few years. When you come back, he could stay in Tianshui!"
Zhu looked away from her, cheeks burning. Mulan thought it was because she was embarrassed by not coming up with such a simple answer. As she quickly learned, however, that was not the case.
"…Mulan…we…won't be coming back," Shang told her, voice quiet.
She froze. "Wh-what…?"
"We won't be coming back," he repeated.
Her face paled. "You—You're joking, right?" She let out a nervous chuckle. "I know it's a long journey, but it can't be that long of a journey."
Zhu looked at her, guilt in her eyes. "No, Mulan. This is not a joke." She rubbed the back of her neck, sighing.
Mulan's eyes started to fill with tears. "Why didn't—why didn't either of you tell me this sooner!?" she demanded. She looked between the two of them again, anger and hurt on her face. "Or were you planning on not telling me? You were just going to leave me here, wondering how long it would be until you came back, weren't you!?"
"That's not it at all," Shang told her, frowning. "I just—I just thought you…would have assumed we wouldn't be coming back."
"No!" she cried. "They way you talked about things, you made it sound like you'd be staying just long enough for the Huns to get an established settlement and then you'd come back!"
"That is why I wanted Shang to stay in Tianshui," Zhu said, voice quiet. "To stay with you. So the two of you could be happy."
"Well, you don't have to worry about that, because I'm coming with you!" she snapped, glaring up at Zhu.
Zhu frowned. "Mulan—"
"Don't you 'Mulan' me, Zhu!" she scolded, poking her, hard, in the middle of the chest. "I spent five years thinking you were dead! And now, just a few months after I get you back, you're telling me you have to actually leave forever!? Do you honestly think I'm going to let you leave me again!?"
"But what about your family?" Shang asked. He knew he shouldn't have been so shocked by her reaction, and yet, he found himself staring at her in awe. "You can't just leave them behind!"
She swallowed hard, her knuckles white as she clenched her fists. "Then I'll—I'll—" A sob escaped her mouth, breaking the dam she had tried to keep pent up. Before Zhu could react, she clung onto the taller woman, gripping the back of her tunic and sobbing against her chest. "You can't leave," she choked out, voice muffled. "You can't! I only just got you back!"
Zhu hesitantly wrapped her arms around Mulan, hugging her. She was filled with guilt and anger at herself for being too cowardly to tell this to her sooner. "I do not want to leave," she spoke, voice quiet. "Truly, I don't. I thought I had finally found a place to call home. A place where my friends and family were all at and were all happy. If—If I could change things, I would make it so we could stay. But—but I cannot risk my sisters being found by the princes."
Shang let out a quiet sigh, his eyes closing. He, too, felt guilty for not telling Mulan sooner. Seeing her crying like this only made him feel worse. "I'm going to stay in Tianshui," he quietly declared. "If I stay, then she'll at least have one friend here with her."
Mulan turned her head slightly, just barely able to see him overtop Zhu's bicep. "But," she sniffled, "I want all my friends with me. You, Zhu, the goofballs, the princesses. All of them." She sobbed and buried her face against Zhu once more. "But I can't leave my family…"
"You won't need to."
Startled, Zhu jumped; instinct made her bring Mulan closer to protect her from potential harm. But once she saw that it had been Fa Zhou who spoke, she eased up. How long had he been there, though? Had he been listening from out of sight?
"F-Fa Zhou," Shang stammered, also taken by surprise. "What do you mean, sir?"
Zhou stepped into the room and reached a hand out, setting it on Mulan's shoulder and giving it a slight squeeze. "I mean that my daughter will not need to worry about leaving the three of us behind because we will be coming with you."
Mulan pulled back, her eyes wide. "You—you are?"
He nodded. "You are not the only one who doesn't want to leave her friends," he gently teased. "Your mother and I have already discussed it with Lady Zhi." As Mulan hugged him, he balanced his weight on his good leg and hugged her with both arms.
A sigh of relief left Zhu's mouth and she plopped down on the stool. She sent a silent prayer of thanks to the Earth mother as she rubbed her face. A hand came to rest on her shoulder and she peeked out from between her fingers, finding Shang leaning over and giving her a reassuring smile.
"This isn't the best of situations," he said, "but at least we won't be going through it alone."
Too overwhelmed by various emotions racing through her head, she merely smiled and nodded tiredly.
Mulan stepped back from hugging her father, using her sleeve to wipe her eyes and nose. "Now that that's been solved," she said, voice still shaking a bit, "is there anything else you two haven't told me about this journey?"
It was before dawn.
In the courtyard, two of the remaining oxen had been hitched to the wagon. It wasn't nearly as packed as it had been before; it carried only necessary supplies. Everyone, however, been allowed to bring one trunk of unnecessary items—things like extra cooking utensils, Ling's paints, or some of the Fa Family ancestral stone guardians.
Beside the wagon, the carriage was ready to go as well. The last of the remaining oxen, as well as a freshly-purchased ox, had been hitched to it. Inside, it carried the Fa Family—including Little Brother—and Shang, who was still too injured to ride.
"Is everyone ready?" Zhu asked, squinting through the darkness at everyone. She, Mulan, and the lieutenants were all clad in their armor and had their weapons within easy reach. Zhi and the princesses, however, were dressed in men's clothing and, with Chi-Fu, would be riding between the wagon and the carriage for extra cover.
"I think so," Ling said, turning around and checking to see if Yao and Chien-Po were behind him. The three of them took up the flank of the group while Mulan and Zhu covered the front. "Yeah, Yao and Chien-Po are in position."
"Yes, dear, we're ready as well," Zhi said. Her voice sounded hoarse; Zhu knew it was because she had spent most of the night crying.
"Then…it is time for us to leave." Zhu let out a quiet sigh as she brought Umut around to face the gate. Like everyone else, she hated that they had to leave. Staying in one spot without worrying about traveling every few weeks had been so nice. And, as much as she hated to admit it, living inside a house had grown on her a bit. It was definitely quieter during intense weather than a yurt was…
Now she had to forget all of that. It was time for her to stop being Chinese. She had to become a Hun again—to become Shan Zhu again. But this time, she wouldn't be Shan Yu's coldhearted killer of an heir.
This time, she was going to be a kindhearted queen.
To be continued in Daughter of Life