Okay, so… mix writer's block and a seemingly endless semester's worth of homework with a dash of computer problems, and that's my excuse. The reviews were what really kept me going, so keep it up and so will I. Happy New Year, everyone!

Four days. Four days was the amount of time it took for the absolute repulsion she felt for China's imperial progeny to wane. For four days Yin-Ling's invitations came back with apologies and excuses from Mulan; and Yin-Ling, who was still very bitter about Wenli and Yuri, decided to follow her brother and Ling around. They would not let her accompany them to parties, but she would go out with them most everywhere else.

Mulan finally broke down on the fifth day, and against her better judgment, she went to the palace to see Yin-Ling. Also there were Ling, Jian-Sheng, Shang, Mingwei, Weihong, and Wenli. At Mingwei's request, Jian-Sheng asked Shang over under the guise of talking over the training of new recruits. Much to Shang's chagrin, Jian-Sheng never got around to talking about recruits, and Mingwei was going out of her way to get Shang to notice everything she did. Wenli, who did not care much for Mingwei to begin with, was very irritated when Mingwei would attempt flirting with Shang. "So pathetic," Wenli whispered to Weihong. "She just doesn't know when to give up, but then again she is past marrying age as it is. Desperation, I guess. Li Shang was smart in dropping her."

Mulan was so happy to be reunited with Ling, and for the first fifteen minutes the two of them talked about everything. Yin-Ling, who was naively excited whenever two of her friends had known each other in the past, listened intently to Mulan and Ling's conversation. She would ask questions about the people they talked about, and she would laugh when they would make inside jokes. Of course, she had no idea what "king of the rock" meant, but nevertheless she had laughed the loudest of the group. Jian-Sheng sat near Mulan, and he simply sat back and watched as Mulan and Ling kept talking, because he thought it amusing that someone as girl-crazy as Ling could talk to Mulan for so long without flirting. Weihong would continually try to enter the conversation by talking about his great granduncle in the military, but for the most part he was making up stories, and with every passing minute, he would promote his uncle's status from lieutenant to captain to general. Ling and Mulan would look listen to him out of courtesy, nod at what he said (no matter how ridiculous), and they would get back to their own conversation. As for Shang, Mingwei had sequestered him to a corner, and they were deep in conversation. Although Mulan knew hers was the conversation everyone else in the room wanted to participate in, she would have given most anything at that moment to know what they were saying to each other. But, Ling had such a commanding presence that Mulan's thoughts seldom drifted to that corner of the room.

"I got home, and I just couldn't go back to what life was before," Ling said. "My family runs an opera house, and they wanted me to take over designing and maintaining the costumes. So, I told them that I couldn't do it, and I wanted to continue being a soldier."

"Oh!" Jian-Sheng exclaimed in a struck-gold tone of voice. "We should have a costume party here at the palace!"

Everyone all at once became excited, and they began to talk about what they would dress as. Mulan tried to voice her concern that the party is unauthorized by the Emperor, but whatever she said got lost in all the enthusiastic talks. However, Shang was successful where Mulan had fallen short. He had heard excited exclamations at the other side of the room, and he instinctively knew that young people as happy as they were could be up to no good. And, once he heard more of their conversation, his beliefs were confirmed. "The Emperor is still away," Shang said, "and if he were here he would disapprove of it."

"My father is not going to be back for another two weeks," Jian-Sheng said smugly. "I received a letter from him, and he said that he will visit a monastery where he studied when he was a child after he finishes things up in that village. So, for the time being, I am in charge, and I say that we should have a party."

"Besides, Shang," Mingwei added, "it is going to be so much fun! It will be the talk of the town for years to come, I can feel it! We have to think of what to dress in."

"I won't be going," Shang said resolutely. "I do not agree with this going forward."

Yin-Ling ran to the corner of the room where Shang sat, and she continued pleading with a stubborn Shang while Mingwei moved to the area where everyone began talking about the costumes they would wear.

"I should dress in regimentals," Weihong said, "just like my great granduncle used to wear. He was a general in a war, I believe."

" I know just what to be!" Mingwei shrieked in delight. "When my father traveled to India, he brought me back a sari. It's what the Indian women wear."

"What does a sari look like?" Yin-Ling asked.

"Don't be stupid," Wenli said to her sister. "Every time that ambassador from India visits the palace, he brings those dancing women for show." Just then, Jian-Sheng smiled because he remembered what a sari was. "And they wear those silk outfits that reveal their midriff section." And she said the last part of the sentence in disgust. "Remember now?"

Yin-Ling gasped in excitement at the taboo of Mingwei exposing flesh at the party, and she began pouring out on how she wished she were that daring and how she wanted Mingwei to help her choose an outfit. But, Shang interrupted her.

"Mingwei, it's indecent," Shang said. "You can't wear it."

"I can't?" Mingwei interjected. "What should it matter to you what I should wear? It isn't as if we're getting married." Everyone stared at her in disbelief that she would be so audacious. "And you won't be there anyway. So, I guess I will have to get someone else to accompany me," Mingwei said, knowing that Shang would become even more incensed. "Let's see, Jian-Sheng will be busy running the party, as will Ling. Weihong will be with Wenli, so I guess that leaves Yuri..." Wenli gritted her teeth at the thought that Mingwei would steal Yuri from her like she did Shang. "or I will have to be paired with a stranger."

"You shouldn't be doing this Mingwei," Shang restated.

"I have a friend from the army who could escort you," Ling offered, but the all-too-familiar look of disdain on his former captain's face made him wish he had not spoken. Mingwei was ready to accept, but Shang would not hear of it. In the end, Shang reversed in his obstinacy and offered to accompany Mingwei. "But I'm not dressing up," Shang said in defeat.

"Now, if we could get Mulan to go," Jian-Sheng said.

"Oh, I can't," Mulan quickly replied. "I really have to study."

"I will dress up as Confucius, and that way the party will be educational for you as well," Jian-Sheng joked. "And, you cannot make that excuse when you are here right now and not studying."

"I know why she doesn't want to go," Wenli said, looking at Mulan in a condescending sweetness. "She doesn't have a costume to wear, and I don't blame her—after all, I've skipped a few events because I just could not put together an ensemble. Anyway—I can't imagine what costume Mulan could wear if she did go," Wenli teased. "She's already dressed up as a lady and as a man!" Wenli laughed loudly, thinking that everyone would join in on her laughter, but only Weihong let out a chuckle, and he did not even know what he was laughing about.

"Actually, I was planning on going as a princess with a rocket stuck up her butt," Mulan said, not masking the anger in her voice, "but you seem to have that role perfected."

"Well… fine," Wenli said, trying to suppress her feelings of humiliation with her superiority in ranking. "It does not matter to me at all what you go as. Go as a peasant for all I care… but then again, the whole point of a costume party is to dress as something else. I suppose that would be normal to you."

"Anyway," Jian-Sheng interceded, hoping to break up the daggers being shot back and forth between Mulan and his sister, "I'm sure if Mulan wanted a costume, Ling would be more than happy to supply her, so that is not the issue." He then turned to Mulan, "The issue is that you want to study over attending a party! Where are your priorities?!"

"Maybe she's so dense that she needs all the study time she can get," Wenli jibed.

"Leave her alone," Mingwei declared. The seriousness in her voice had caught everyone off guard and had quieted the whole room. "You all should be ashamed of yourselves. She told all of you that she needs to study for that test, and I for one respect that she is that dedicated and determined. And that exam is extremely hard, and you two are fortunate enough to not have to take it, but everyone else holding a government office has had to. Shang has taken it as well, and he can tell you how difficult it is and how hard he studied to get to the top of his class. I know that she will rank in the top twenty. She is not only the smartest girl, but one of the smartest people that I have ever met." She then turned to Mulan, and she said to her, "I am sorry that they are being so mean to you."

Mulan was too shocked for words to say 'thank you,' especially since Mingwei of all people defended her. This was the same Mingwei who had a few days ago complimented Mulan only on her looks, and now she only had praises for Mulan's intellect. This was the Mingwei whom she had quickly judged as superficial. This was the same Mingwei who incited every feeling of irritation in Mulan. This was the Mingwei who stole her horse for an afternoon and went riding with Shang. And, even though Mulan was grateful for Mingwei's intervention, she felt even more annoyed that it was Mingwei who had come to her aid, and it was Mingwei to whom she was now indebted.

"Well, I'm going to my room," Wenli said self-importantly. "Yuri is coming over soon to paint my picture, and I have to get dressed."

Chu Weihong followed her out of the room, wanting to calm down his hot-headed bride-to-be but only fueling her anger and making her more temperamental. Yin-Ling right away went to Ling to ask his opinion about costumes. Jian-Sheng went to Shang to try to convince him that the party would a success, but Shang's attentions were still focused on Mingwei and Mulan. He watched them through the corner of his eye, and he watched them leave the room together. He could only envision that whatever the outcome, a private discussion between the two of them could not be good.

"Mulan, do you mind if we talk together for a bit?" Mingwei asked, and she made a motion toward the library. Mulan did not dare to turn her down, and she entered the library first with Mingwei closing the door behind her. Mulan did not know what to expect from Mingwei next, and she was especially not ready for what Mingwei wanted from her.

"I know you hardly know me," Mingwei began, "but I feel like I can trust you. Shang used to go on about you, so I know you so well, and... I know that you don't know me," she reiterated, "but I already think of you as one of my dearest friends.

"I haven't talked to anyone about how I have really felt after Shang called off the engagement. I've told them that I understand how much pressure Shang is feeling, and everyone is confident that Shang will realize his mistake and come back to me... but" --Mingwei's tone softened to a quiver--" the other night... he came to me... and he looked me straight in the eye. He told me that he didn't love me like he used to." She wiped some tears from her eyes before continuing. "But he said he would keep his word to me, and that we would get married, unless I wanted to release him from his word, knowing how he felt." Mingwei felt choked up in her throat, and she took a pause to swallow. "Ever since I've known him, I have been telling people that I would marry him someday because it was like love at first sight. And that night, when he told me that, I didn't know what to say, and he wanted me to answer him right there. But, I thought he could have been testing me, or that when I let him go, he would come back tomorrow and take back everything he said. I never thought that he'd actually leave me, after everything that we've been through together."

Mingwei was very scared in talking to Mulan. She wanted to know what Mulan had been thinking, because the entire time that she had been speaking, Mulan remained completely wide-eyed and still. However, she was afraid of what Mulan had to say to her. Mingwei knew she had done certain things wrong, but she was ready to do anything to be back with Shang. Mingwei's strategy had been to simply plead to Mulan, but Mulan's eyes searched Mingwei for reason to everything she said. So, she continued talking, hoping not to trip up on her words, while inwardly awaiting and dreading Mulan's opinion. "And, about what you saw the other day, what Jian-Sheng told you was true. We have been friends for so long, and he was trying to help me. But, he did kiss me. I was weak, and I was angry at Shang, and part of me enjoyed it... but, Jian-Sheng is not ready to get married—and I'm still in love with Shang. I know you and Shang are friends, but please don't tell him this," Mingwei continued.

Mulan could not decide whether she was shocked, upset, or disgusted by everything Mingwei just told her. And what confused her the most was that, despite every feeling of animosity Mulan felt for Mingwei, she believed that Mingwei's tears were real, and she believed that Mingwei truly was heartbroken, and she felt guilty that what she had said to Shang had caused Mingwei's perfect world to come crashing down. "Why are you telling me this?" Mulan thought out loud, and she did not realize she spoke until Mingwei looked back at her to respond.

"I was hoping," Mingwei said cautiously, "that you would help me. You know how much I love him... I want you to help me win him back." Mulan looked back at her in disbelief, and her feelings of guilt lessened as her suspicions grew. "You do believe I love him," Mingwei asked her, "don't you?"

Mulan looked in Mingwei's sad eyes, anticipative of Mulan's response. Her gaze was so intense that Mulan had to look away, and although Mulan had always perceived Mingwei as frivolous and flippant, she could not deny Mingwei a truthful nod. "Would you help me then?" Mingwei asked, with a voice as soft and vulnerable as a kitten's.

"I don't see how I could help," Mulan said, hoping that Mingwei would stop persisting.

"The other day, Shang told me there were very few people he trusted," Mingwei said, revealing to Mulan that Mingwei had thought this through. "And you trained under him. And, even though you tricked him, he still has great respect for you."

"But would you want to marry someone who says he doesn't love you?" Mulan asked, trying not to be influenced my Mingwei's fragile state.

Mingwei looked at Mulan as if she didn't understand what Mulan had said. "Shang is confused," Mingwei said with conviction, shaking off Mulan's words. "His father just died, and he doesn't know what he is going to do. He doesn't have his ambitions anymore—he refused being appointed General, you know—and he only has his cousin Yuri left. Probably Yuri put him up to this," Mingwei said angrily. "Yuri always teased Shang that he would only be with me, and he said that Shang should be with other women before settling down. I hate Yuri!"

"You don't know that for sure," Mulan said.

"No, I just know it," Mingwei said more definitely. "Shang spends a lot of time with Yuri now. That's why you have to help me! Get Shang to see that Yuri is wrong about everything!" And then she broke out into sobs, and she only quieted down when Mulan acquiesced to Mingwei's bidding. Mingwei's face changed from sad and hopeful to absolutely ecstatic, and tears she cried before Mulan agreed to help her could have easily been mistaken for tears of joy. She hugged Mulan tightly, and against Mulan's feelings of awkwardness for being hugged by the same girl that incited in her pangs of jealously, she returned Mingwei's hug.

Mingwei let go, and she thanked Mulan repeatedly while drying her eyes. What did I just get myself into? Mulan asked herself as Mingwei was smiling back at her. And, as Mingwei wiped away her last tear, Shang entered into the library.

Shang had been a bit disconcerted to see Mingwei call Mulan out earlier, since he knew what Mulan thought of her, but to see Mingwei still smiling caught him off-gaurd. After all, he had half-expected Mulan to be yelling at Mingwei for stealing her horse the other day. Mulan also wore a smile, although he had a feeling that the moment he and Mingwei turned their backs, Mulan would be anything but smiling.

"Mingwei," Shang said, unintentionally getting Mingwei's hopes up, "Yin-Ling wanted to ask you something."

Mingwei's hopes fell again, but she still retained her smile. "Oh! I was going to help her with her outfit. I almost forgot!" She turned to Mulan before leaving, and she had the biggest smile on her face-- a kind of nonverbal "thanks for everything" type of smile that made Mulan feel all the more uncomfortable, especially with Shang in the room.

"So, do you feel bad now about judging Mingwei too quickly?" Shang asked. "Have your thoughts about her changed since we last talked, or rather, since she defended you in front of Wenli and Jian-Sheng?"

"Not really," Mulan said undecidedly. "Anyway, whatever I said before was because I was angry."

Shang raised his eyebrow. "So what do you think of her now?"

She is manipulative… she cornered me into helping her win you back… "She isn't as thoughtless as I thought she was," Mulan finally said after a moment of silence.

"Are you not at all grateful for what she did for you just now?" Shang asked.

"I am, and I told her so," Mulan lied.

Shang looked back at her, and then he looked away towards the only window in the room. The window faced a garden that Mulan had never explored in her brief stay there. While studying in the palace library, her thoughts would sometimes get lost in the mystery of this garden. She knew it existed because she could see it with her own eyes, but she could never find the right path that would lead her to that garden. Mulan caught herself before she could get any more lost in thought, and she tried to prepare herself for the next wave of questions Shang was bound to have ready.

"You two spent a long time in here," Shang said tentatively. "What did you two have to say to each other?"

"She told me what happened," Mulan uneasily answered.

Shang shifted his eyes downward guiltily. "What did she say?"

"Why did you call of your engagement with her?" Mulan asked.

"I know what you're thinking," Shang said, looking up at her again. "You think what you said had something to do with it, but it didn't."

For some reason, something in Shang's voice made Mulan doubt him, but she willed herself to believe that she was not at fault. "Are you going to go back to her?" Mulan asked diffidently.

"I don't know," Shang truthfully answered. "I don't know what to do. All I can be certain of is that my love for her is not what it was before the war."

Mulan would have given most anything to be talking about pigs, cows, and horses. At least on those topics she had something to say. But, she did not know what to say about love. "As long as you follow what your heart tells you, everything will turn out right," Mulan reflected.

Shang wistfully smiled. "You sound like a fortune cookie."

Mulan gave a cheesy big grin. "That's probably where I got it from."

Her cursory words meant nothing to him, but her voice moved him, and before long, he found himself wondering why he felt that way. "Anyway," Shang said, trying to shake off his thoughts, "I'm glad that you didn't cave in to Jian-Sheng's pressures. I think this party is going to turn out very badly. It's bad enough that I have to be associated with it, but if you were to be caught there, especially when you should be studying for the exam, those advisers would have even more reason to look down on you."

"Why do you think it'll turn out bad?" Mulan asked.

"Because Jian-Sheng planned it," Shang replied. "He and I have been friends for a long time, but he doesn't make the best decisions sometimes."

There was a knock on the door, and soon afterwards Ling's head peeked in. "Mulan—Oh! hi, captain, I didn't know you were in here too—Chi Fu just came by and said you should head back home and start studying because he's going to test you tonight." Ling quickly shut the door after that, hoping his interruption did not spoil any romantic tryst that he imagined was happening behind the closed doors.

"Oh, right," Mulan said disappointedly. "I'll be heading back home then."

Mulan turned towards the door and was ready to walk out, but Shang grabbed her arm. Mulan was too shocked to turn around and face him, and from the grip he had on her, she felt that Shang wanted her to just remain as is. "You have to focus on your studies," Shang instructed her. "You have little time to prepare as it is, and you are getting yourself involved with the royal family, and now you're getting involved with me and Mingwei. You can't do everything, Mulan, and if you keep this up you won't pass the exam."

He then released her arm and opened the door for her. She walked through without looking directly at him; she didn't want him to see her blushing from his touch.

Shang's words were the first true words of concern she had heard in a long time, and she was determined to follow them for as long as she could still hear it in her head. She allowed herself to forget all about everything else, and she studied. Over the next few days, Chi Fu became more and more impressed with the progress Mulan had made, and even though he considered her his personal adversary, he found himself going out of his way to teach her little hints for the test.

Mulan continued studying for days and days, and one day, after Mulan's lesson, Chi Fu told her to get dressed because he'd be accompanying her to the palace for a party.

"The Crown Prince is hosting a party," Chi Fu said importantly, "and Prince Jian-Sheng appointed me to make sure everything goes according to plan."

Mulan wanted to avoid those people for as long as possible, but she finally caved in to Chi Fu's incessant demands, and she went to her room to get dressed. Mulan's current room was Chi Fu's mother's room in the past, so much of her wardrobe was still there. She quickly dressed in one of his mother's old robes and ran out the door.

Chi Fu was caught off-guard to see Mulan wearing his late mother's favorite robe, but because he was running late he held his tongue told her to get into the carriage.

"Are you sure the Emperor would approve of a party in the palace?" Mulan asked him.

"Does it matter?" Chi Fu said distractedly, anxious to be present at the party he coordinated. "Do you think you can drive a little faster?" He yelled out the window.

"The Emperor wouldn't want his son to throw a party in the palace while he's away," Mulan said.

"Of course he would," Chi Fu said with a big sneer. "He is at a village festival right now, isn't he?"

Mulan remained quiet, and once they arrived at the palace, she headed straight for the library. She took out from her sleeve the Confucian scroll of poetry she was ready to study. Outside the library doors she could hear the talking and laughter of the future elite of China. Even though Mulan was making a conscious effort to study, she kept her ear keen to pick up any conversation about Shang and Mingwei. She even moved herself closer to the door, so that she could hear better.

"Princess Wenli looks like a bird. She even has feathers on her."

"She said she wanted to go as a peacock."

"Who is that man next to her? He looks like he can't move in his outfit."

"That's Chu Weihong. He's extremely rich, and he's engaged to Princess Wenli."

"He's not good looking at all."

"There's more to life than looks, especially if you're as rich as he is."

"Where is Princess Yin-Ling?"

"From what I hear, Princess Yin-Ling was supposed to dress up as a bird—a swan. Then Princess Wenli stole her idea, and now she's upset and refuses to come out of her room."

"It looks like Mingwei and Shang are back together."

"Yeah, I think so too."

"Her outfit looks so exotic, but Shang is just dressed plainly."

"She was complaining about that earlier. She wanted him to dress up, but he was absolutely against it."

"You know, I heard somewhere that Yuri—that painter with the blonde hair—is Shang's father's brother's son."

"Yuri is a Li? You must be joking. He is a foreigner. He lives in a small house on the outskirts of the city."

"I'm not sure, but they do look alike, don't they? Anyway, how do you know where he lives, Mai?"

"Umm… I've met him before. Wait. What's going on? Why is the party stopping?"

At this point, Mulan had her ear pressed to the door. She could no longer hear the laughter, music, or talking. Then, she could hear the voice again on the other side of the door.

"Oh my god. The Emperor's back."