A/N: Hello everyone! Welcome to the beginning of the final segment of Zhu's Tale! Thank you for all the lovely comments you left on Daughter of Rebirth-it was quite amusing reading your reactions to the various twists I threw in there! Like its predecessor, Daughter of Life, there won't be much in terms of action/adventure in this one, but there is going to be plenty of worldbuilding/character interaction/stuff since. Well. They're going to literally be building a new settlement, lol. There will also be new characters for you to meet-some you'll like, some you'll want to strange (I made them and I want to strangle them).
But, you'll just have to see for yourselves as the story unfolds! I hope my lovely readers enjoy this final part as much as you enjoyed Daughter of Death and Daughter of Rebirth~! Happy Reading!
Three weeks into the journey
Mulan let out a quiet sigh and poked the fire with a stick. Around her, she could hear the sounds of her friends and family sleeping. As much as she wanted to sleep, she knew she couldn't—she was on watch duty, after all. Lately, however, sleeping had been hard even with how exhausted she felt. She knew it was because they were in a new place every night.
'And it isn't going to stop anytime soon,' she thought, yawning. 'Maybe I should ask Chien-Po to make me some sleep tea? I remember it worked rather well on Shang…'
One of the logs in the fire shifted, sending a burst of tiny sparks flying into the air. The log it had been supporting also moved, rolling out of the pile and trying to escape the stone ring surrounding the fire. Mulan used the stick to stop the log and shove it back into the pile.
'In another week or two, it'll be time for harvest back home,' she told herself. Leaning back, she rested her weight on her palms. 'The crops that Yao and Ling had planted looked like they were going to be fairly bountiful. It's a shame they'll probably rot…unless someone goes to check on the houses before then.'
Zhu had wanted the utmost secrecy about their trip, so no one in Tianshui had been told that they were leaving. She had even been tempted to ensure no one knew where they were going by burning down both houses but decided against it in the end. The houses could become homes for other families.
'I wonder what the townsfolk are going to think. Probably that we just vanished into thin air. Or maybe they'll think something supernatural happened to us? They can be rather superstitious at times, so it wouldn't surprise me if that's what they end up thinking.'
Out of nowhere, she started to hear whispering. She frowned; no one besides her was awake. She listened harder only to hear that the voices—or was it just a single voice? It was hard to tell—was coming from near the wagon. Standing up, she stretched and started to casually walk around the campsite. If she wasn't just hearing things and there was someone there, she didn't want them to know she knew about them.
After walking around the entire camp and checking both the wagon and the carriage for any possible intruders, she was relieved to have found nothing. But she knew she had heard something whispering.
There was a thud from inside the wagon and she jumped, startled. Her heart racing, she hurried over to it and threw back the canvas curtain that protected their belongings. With hardly any moonlight and the fire being some yards away, it was hard to see inside the wagon, but she could just barely make out a serpentine shape standing atop one of the barrels.
"Mushu?" she whispered, eyes wide.
"Oh, now she notices me!" There was a tiny flash of light and smoke billowed from his nostrils as he angrily huffed. "Didn't bother noticing me the last three weeks when I've been cooped up in that stuffy old chest. But now that I've gone and clawed my way out of there, she—" He was suddenly silenced as Mulan snatched him up and hugged him.
"I didn't know you had come out of your statue state!" she told him, doing her best to keep her voice quiet. "I'm sorry you were locked away; that was my father's doing. He didn't want to risk you and the other statues getting damaged." She blinked, feeling a tiny bit of weight bounce onto her shoulder. Turning her head, she found Cri-Kee perched there and she smiled, gently petting him with her finger.
He blew a raspberry, though he returned the hug as best as possible—it was hard to do, considering it was only two feet tall. "Oh sure, sure. Just throw dear ol' dad under the bus why don't you?" he teased.
"…What's a bus?" she asked, brow rising.
"Somethin' you won't have to worry your pretty little head about." He scampered out of her grasp and around her neck. "So, the ancestors have been keeping me updated on things, but just in case they missed anything, why don't you give me a quick rundown on the situation? And are there any leftovers from dinner because girl, you know I ain't eaten in nearly five years and this dragon is starving."
"I'm sorry, there isn't. But I can get you a small snack from the supplies."
"No, no. Don't worry about it. If I can go a few centuries without eating, I can wait until breakfast," he chuckled. Mulan was surprised by the sincerity in his voice. "So, about that rundown?"
Closing the wagon's curtain, she let out a small sigh. "So much has happened, I don't even really know where to begin."
He made a small noise of concern. "Then how about I tell ya what I know and you can fill in the rest?"
She smiled. "That sounds good."
"Right. So, I know that the Emperor had you and those three stooges watching over his wife and daughters while they were in hiding from some foreign royalty," he began. "Things were going all hunky-dory for about four months, but then Shang and Chi-Poohead came out of nowhere and told you that the Emperor was killed. So, you all packed up and started bookin' it across the world to keep the former princesses safe from harm."
Sitting down near the fire, she watched him scuttle down her arm only to practically sit in the pile of burning logs. "The foreign royalty would be the elder Mongolian princes."
He nodded in understanding. "Sounds about right. With Shan Yu out of the way, they were bound to be the next big threat. Them or the Manchurians. Or was it Maghreb?" He scratched his chin in thought. "No, definitely the Manchurians. But speaking of Shan Yu, the ancestors mentioned something about him. Was it him? Or was it something having to do with him…?"
"It was probably the fact that Zhu is back from the dead."
"…You mean big, buff Hun lady with the freak—" he quickly smiled innocently as he watched a pout starting to form on Mulan's face, "—ing gorgeous eyebrows? Didn't we blow her to smithereens?"
"It's a long story, but no. She did die but had help coming back. Also, it turns out she's the firstborn of the Empress…and queen of the Huns." She sighed, pulling a knee to her chest.
At that, Mushu's jaw dropped.
Mulan stared past Mushu into the embers of the fire. "Right now, she's riding to gather up the last of her people. She's going to bring them to the same spot where we're going."
"Just one question: Aren't the Huns our enemies?" He crossed his arms and tapped his foot against one of the logs. "What's she doin', bringing them to live with us?"
"There are less than three hundred Huns left," she explained, "and they're mostly made up of women, children, and the elderly. I don't think they'll pose much of a threat—especially if Zhu tells them we're friendly."
He didn't seem fully convinced—and she didn't blame him. She still wasn't certain she was convinced that it was a good idea. "And what about if they don't believe her, hmm? We'll have less than three hundred angry Huns tryin' to kill us all."
"Zhu wouldn't let that happen."
"Then I'm going to trust you on this one, girlie. You know that Zhu better than I do." When an ember landed on his shoulder, he brushed it off. "Now that I'm all caught up with the important stuff and what I'm goin' to be helping you guard your family from, let's get to the juicy stuff." He scuttled out of the fire and nudged her knee with his elbow. "Anything goin' on between you and that general yet?" As he spoke, he wiggled his eyebrows.
Mulan's cheeks turned as red as his scales. "Mushu!" she whispered in a scolding tone.
He grinned cheekily. "Judging by those red cheeks of yours, something is goin' on between the two of you."
Pulling her knees to her chest, looking away with a great deal of embarrassment. "We've been courting for the last two weeks."
Mushu's brow rose and his grin turned into a confused frown. "…Two weeks? That's it? Two weeks?! Girl, it's been five years!" He crawled up her leg and plopped himself on her knee before resting his fists on his sides. "What in the name of Mongolian barbeque took you so long!?"
"He was a general, Mushu," she told him, not impressed by his shock. "He had to stay in the Imperial City and rebuild China's army. Visiting Tianshui was a little low on his priorities."
"But he did visit at times, yeah?" He cocked his brow. "'Cause, girl, if he didn't, then he ain't worth waiting for."
She chuckled, his reaction managing to amuse her somewhat. "And just what makes you so knowledgeable in the area of romance?"
He pouted. "What, do you think just because I'm a family guardian doesn't mean I haven't had a relationship or two?" He crossed his arms. "I'll have you know, I've had a number of relationships over the dynasties! Why, I even nearly got married during the final years of the Han Dynasty!" A sour look sudden came to his face. "Of course, that's when Ping went and stole my girlfriend…"
Six weeks into the journey
"Are you sure that this is the right place?"
"I'm positive this is the right place. It matches up with both the map and the drawing she had me do."
"Yes, but a few days ago, we were at an area that looked almost identical to this place! How can we be so sure it wasn't where we were supposed to start heading due west?"
Ling sighed. "Ting-Ting, we went over this before at that other area: The riverbend wasn't nearly sharp enough and the hills were too small."
She put her hands on her hips, frowning. "Rivers change over time, Ling; what Zhu may have remembered could be different from what the land looks like now."
"Rivers change, yes, but hills don't. These ones match the size Zhu described."
Ting-Ting sighed, putting a hand on her forehead in frustration. "Since we can't seem to come to an agreement over this, why don't we just ask my mother? She may remember this place."
"That's a good idea," he agreed. He started to follow her towards the carriage, quietly sighing under his breath. "Is she feeling well enough, though?" He didn't like arguing with Ting-Ting, but that last few days seemed to have been filled with nothing but disagreements.
What didn't help was the mixture of traveling and the changing season had made nearly everyone come down with a cold, but Zhi had had it the worst. She was almost always leading the group, regardless of the weather. It was only when she was nearly hacking up a lung that she finally relented and started riding in the carriage with the Fa family.
Ting-Ting brushed some stray hairs from her face. "She should be. Chien-Po made her some spiced tea this morning and it seemed to chase away most of her congestion."
Approaching the carriage, Ting-Ting lightly knocked before opening the door and poking her head in. "Mother? Are you well enough to step outside a moment?"
"Of course, dear. What is it you need?" As Zhi stepped out of the carriage, both Ting-Ting and Ling helped her down the steps.
"Ling and I can't agree about whether or not we've reach the spot where we're supposed to start heading due west," Ting-Ting explained. As Ling showed Zhi the drawing, she pointed at the river. "A few days ago, we were at an area nearly identical to this one, but the river's bend wasn't as severe."
Making a thoughtful sound, Zhi started to walk some yards away. Ting-Ting and Ling exchanged worried looks before hurrying after her; she was still rather weak and they didn't want her to hurt herself.
She finally came to a stop when she had reached a spot where she could see the hills and the riverbend at the same time. "This is the right place," she told them. "This is definitely the right place. Ling, would you be a dear and get Lan for me?"
He glanced at Ting-Ting, who, despite the uncertainty on her face, nodded. He hurried off to fetch the mare.
"Mother? Why do you need Lan?" Ting-Ting asked, shrugging off her shawl and wrapping it around her mother. She couldn't help but notice how Zhi's eyes were fixed on one of the hills.
"I want to go to the top of the western hill," she replied, voice quiet. "I need to see if something is still there."
"I don't think that is a very smart idea, mother. You're still recovering—you don't need to wear yourself out with the ride."
Zhi looked at her, an unhappy smile on her lips. "Then come with me," she said, voice quiet, "because you know I am going whether it is a smart idea or not."
Still wearing a frown, Ting-Ting nodded. "Alright then…" she mumbled. She glanced over her shoulder as she heard the jingling of a harness. Ling had returned with Lan; he still looked confused.
"Thank you, Ling." Taking the lead from him, Zhi patted the side of the mare's neck before mounting her. As Ting-Ting climbed on, she looked down at Ling. "We shan't be gone long." Before he had the chance to reply, she flicked the reins and Lan started off at a trot.
When they were halfway between the camp and the hill, Zhi glanced over her shoulder. "I see that you and Ling have started to argue more than joke around these days."
Her cheeks burned. "…You've noticed?"
"It's hard not to, I'm afraid."
She bit her tongue, her gaze falling to the ground. "I think it's the stress," she said. "Even though we're so far away from China at this point, it still feels like danger is nipping at our heels. And, since he's the navigator, Ling's been under an extraordinary amount of pressure—if he even leads us half a mile astray, we could end up lost forever."
"But you do not entirely trust his navigational skills," she stated, not asked. "As you revealed earlier."
"I do!" she countered. "It's just—there are so many places that look the same as the landmarks Zhu had him draw out. Rivers change course; hills erode; forests get cut down. How do we know which is right and which is wrong?"
Though she couldn't see it, Zhi raised a brow. "That sounds more like a great deal of doubt than confidence to me."
Ting-Ting sighed; she hadn't wanted to admit the truth to anyone—herself, especially. "…Then…I guess I don't entirely trust his navigation." Her stomach felt like it dropped away, being replaced instead by a clump of guilt. "But can you blame me, mother? I don't want us to get lost and die because we went too far north or didn't go westwards enough!" By now, the mare was trotting up the gradual slope of the hill.
"My child, part of being in a relationship is having trust in one another, no matter how bleak the times may be." She looked over her shoulder again. "While your concern is understandable, has Ling led us astray so far?"
Ting-Ting half-heartedly mumbled, "No."
"Then you must have faith in him. He certainly has a great deal of faith in you."
She felt her cheeks begin to burn again. With Shang still on the mend, Zhu had instructed Ting-Ting to take charge of the caravan. Though she had been taught her whole life how to be a good leader, actually being a leader was vastly different.
It had been difficult to give out orders to her friends, especially when they disagreed with her—thankfully, that had only happened once. As they had been travelling west, a nomadic tribe was approaching from the east. The others had wanted to head south to avoid interacting with the tribe, but she had them continue on their set path. Ling had been the only one on her side at the time, telling the others that they needed to have a little more faith in her.
The tribe, it turned out, ended up being friendly and they were able to exchange some jewelry and embroidered cloth for warm, rabbit fur jackets.
"Even if he wasn't your beau," Zhi continued, drawing her out of her thoughts, "don't you think it would be better to encourage one another than to dishearten each other?"
"It would be," she sighed, admitting defeat. "I just…Like I said, I think it is the stress of our situation."
Zhi nodded in understanding. "Stress has a nasty way of bringing out the worst in us. But you two love one another, and love conquers all."
Ting-Ting bit her tongue again, looking away. "About that, mother…"
"Hold on, dear. We've reached the top."
Bringing Lan to a halt, the two women dismounted. Ting-Ting got off first, helping her mother down and steadying her when she nearly lost her balance. At first glance, Ting-Ting could see nothing of interest atop the hill. Then, Zhi quietly gasped and started to head towards the western edge of the hilltop. Upon closer inspection, Ting-Ting could now see a small mound in the earth with a crudely carved stone at one end.
Zhi eased herself down to her knees, resting her hand atop the grave. It had to have been there quite some time; a thick layer of grass and dying wildflowers covered the mound. As she grew near, Ting-Ting heard Zhi sob. Eyes widening, she hurried to her side.
"Mother, what's wrong?" she asked, kneeling beside her.
Zhi swallowed hard, using her sleeve to wipe the tears from her cheeks. "This is your father's grave," she whispered. "Your real father's grave."
Ting-Ting quietly swore. She wasn't sure if she should be horrified or if she should be intrigued. Unlike Zhu, she had never known Shan Da—the only things she knew about him were his name and his reputation.
"How—how are you so sure this is Shan Da's grave?" she asked, biting her tongue.
"Because I will never forget this place." Twisting around, she looked at their caravan nearly a mile away. "This is the summering field where Fa Zhou and his men came to…to rescue me." Turning back to the grave, she reached over, taking her daughter's hand and closing her eyes.
There was concern written all over Ting-Ting's face. "…Mother?"
"Promise me you will never tell Mei and Su what I'm about to tell you," Zhi ordered, her voice soft. "I…I need to tell you, but I'm afraid if they knew, it would break their hearts." She gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
She frowned; she didn't like the sound of that. "I—I promise."
Zhi took a deep breath. She held it for a few seconds before slowly exhaling. "I never loved Taizong."
Gasping, Ting-Ting used her free hand to cover her mouth. "But—but, mother—" She stared at her in complete and utter shock, her skin having grown pale. It had to have been a lie; Zhi adored the Emperor! There was no way she didn't love him! "You loved him with all your heart! You've even said so on multiple occasions!"
"It was all an act," Zhi admitted. Her voice was heavy with guilt and sorrow. "All of it. I never wanted to marry him, even before I was taken by Shan Da. But how could I, the younger child of a disgraced nobleman, refuse a proposal from the Emperor of China…?" Shaking her head, she released Ting-Ting's hand and folded her hands in her lap. "Do not get me wrong, child: Taizong was a good man and he did love me. And he was a wonderful father to you girls; most women couldn't have asked for a better husband. When he died, my tears and anguish for him were genuine.
"But when we married, he was nearly twenty years older my senior and had already sired many children from his concubines. There were times when I felt like little more than a dolled-up accessory for him to flaunt to the royal court. I had little say in how my life was run." She paused, using her sleeve to wipe her eyes. "Chi-Fu, as both Taizong's advisor and my elder brother, practically ran my life. What I ate, how I ate, how I dressed, how I acted…None of it was under my control. That is, until I was taken by Shan Da."
"Because you were finally allowed some freedom?" Ting-Ting quietly asked.
Zhi nodded. Tilting her head back, she stared up at the darkening sky. The stars were just visible, glinting against the lavender sky. "At first, I was terrified—completely understandable, given that the Huns were the biggest threat to China. But Shan Da wasn't the barbarian I had been led to believe he was. No. He was intelligent and he was patient and he was kind." She chuckled, letting her eyes fall shut once more. "And, by the gods, he was handsome. Far more handsome than Taizong."
Ting-Ting couldn't help but giggle. "Were you smitten the moment you laid eyes on him?" She was still shocked by her mother's admission, but after hearing Zhi speak, she could understand why she had never loved the Emperor.
"Oh, heavens no!" She laughed, looking at her daughter. "He was handsome, yes, but it was a—oh, how do I explain it? It wasn't quite a roguish handsome, but it wasn't a charming handsome, either. Disarming—yes, disarming is the perfect way to describe it."
Her head tilting slightly, Ting-Ting changed her position so that she was sitting cross-legged. "I'm afraid I don't quite know what a disarmingly handsome person looks like."
"Think of your sister. She is the perfect example, since she favors Da's appearance…almost supernaturally so, to be honest." She, too, sat cross-legged. "When he didn't smile, Da looked as if he could take on the whole of China's army by himself and win. But when he smiled…" A wistful sigh left her mouth. "My heart melted. Every time.
"He never yelled at me or hit me. Not once. Even when I screamed at him out of frustration, he merely held me in his arms and let me continue screaming at him until I wore myself out." She quietly laughed. "I was so mad at him in the beginning—why was this man, the greatest threat to China since Attila the Hun, being so kind and gentle with me? Why couldn't he just treat me like a prisoner? Yu, Edeco, and Bleda hated me. Roua and Ruga were indifferent until Zhu was born. But Da? He…he respected me."
"I can see how that would frustrate you," Ting-Ting told her, "especially since you weren't used to it. Even as Empress, I'm sure there were plenty of people who didn't treat you with the same sort of respect and gentility that they do now." She brushed some stray hairs out of her face. "Then, you're ripped away from your home and the people you know only to be taken to the heart of your enemy's empire. Him respecting you was almost like adding insult to injury."
"Exactly," she laughed. "I had no idea that women could be treated as equals to men—it's just not part of our culture. But, when I lived among the Huns, I was taught so many things. How to hunt, how to fight, how to cook, how to ride…how to be a mother. I'm still surprised Taizong didn't divorce me because of how much I had changed in those five years. I left an obedient, silent wife only to be returned to him as a stubborn, outspoken Empress."
"He certainly didn't seem to mind that, though," Ting-Ting reminded her. "Fa—Taizong always seemed completely smitten with you."
She nodded slowly, the laughter fading from her face. "He did. He really did. And there are times when I wish I could have loved him back. But when Da was killed, he took my heart with him to the afterlife." She shook her head, sighing heavily only to start coughing.
Ting-Ting frowned. "We should get you back to camp," she said, her voice just a bit on the stern side. "You've been out in the cold too long."
Zhi let out a small, hoarse laugh. "I'm fine," she assured her. "But you're right. We should head back before they start to get worried." With help from her daughter, she stood up and pulled the shawl closer to her body.
Mounting Lan again, the two women started off back the way they had come. Neither spoke for some time. Eventually, though, Ting-Ting broke the silence.
"Mother? How did you know you really loved Shan Da?" she asked.
"Hm. Now that is a tough question." She mulled the question over for a few minutes, doing her best to recall the feelings she had felt when around Shan Da. "I guess the simplest answer would be that I just felt…I just felt whole when I was with him. Whenever he was away from me—even still, as a matter of fact—I felt like part of me was missing." She then glanced over her shoulder. "Why do you ask, child?"
Ting-Ting was thankful that her cheeks were already pink from the cold. "I was just curious is all," she said, hoping she lied as well as her older sister, "since everyone feels differently when they're in love."
She didn't see it, but a knowing look came to Zhi's face. "I see. So, then, what does being in love with Ling feel like?"
Unconsciously raising her hand to her mouth, she started to nibble on her knuckle. "Lately, it's been a—a mixture of things, to be honest." A heavy sigh left her mouth. "Being with him used to just feel happy and warm and comforting. But now, there seems to be less laughter and more frustration. But—but it just has to be the stress of what's been happening…?" Her voice betrayed her worry.
And Zhi's silence only worked to increase that feeling.
"Mother?" she questioned. "Does—does that sound like a logical explanation to you?"
"It does," she admitted. Ting-Ting was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when her mother continued to speak. "But, child, you must also remember that not all relationships are fated to end in life-long love and marriage." She had almost never heard her mother give advice that wasn't optimistic in nature.
The fact that this was one of those times made her start to feel queasy.
"Ling is your first love," Zhi continued, "and I know the two of you care a great deal for one another. But, as much as you care for one another now, it is extremely rare when first loves blossom into a love that lasts a lifetime. I do not want to make you unnecessarily anxious—I just want you to be cautious. Do you understand, Ting-Ting? I don't want to hurt you, but I also don't want you to hurt yourself from having too high of hopes."
"I do, mother," she sighed, pressing her knuckle against the leg of her pants. She had nibbled just a bit too hard and had drawn blood. "I…just hope that is one of those rare times." Despite her words, something in the back of her mind told her it wasn't.
But that didn't mean she wouldn't try to make sure it was.
Twelve weeks into the journey
The morning air was crisp and cool…and a bit smelly.
Shang stared out towards the rising sun, his breath leaving his mouth in small puffs of steam. Shaking his head, he turned back to his work of gathering up the dung the animals had dropped during the night in order to dry them by the fire. It was a disgusting chore, but with the last trees they had seen being nearly five hundred miles to the east, the dung was their main fuel source.
Normally, it wasn't him who did this job—under Zhi and Ting-Ting's orders, it had been Chi-Fu's job—but he had noticed their supply was beginning to dwindle when he woke up. It wasn't a very hard job, though he was quickly learning that an iron stomach could be required thanks to the smell.
"If you had asked me five years ago what I thought I would be doing now," he mumbled, carrying a shovelful of dung to the fire, "I would have said something like a well-respected general of China's army or happily married with a child on the way." He carefully laid the dung out beside the coals before going to gather more. "Not…baking animal poop while on the run from the Mongolian princes."
"It's a crappy job for sure, but someone has to do it."
He jumped, dropping the shovel. Turning around, he found Mulan a few yards away, giggling.
"I'm sorry," she told him, crouching down and retrieving his fallen shovel. "Did I scare the crap out of you?"
Rolling his eyes, he took the shovel as she handed it to him. "Only figuratively," he said, voice heavy with sarcasm. Despite his tone, there was an amused smile on his lips. "I think you've been around Ling for too long—that was as bad as one of his puns."
She laughed, her brow rising. "I'll take that as a compliment," she joked. As Shang started to walk towards the animals again, she followed alongside him. She was glad that he was finally healed enough to walk around and do chores; she had missed talking with him when he was cooped up in the carriage. "So…why are you up so early? I thought Ting-Ting had the dawn watch?"
"She did, but I didn't sleep very well last night," he explained, "so I took over for her so she could get some sleep."
"Good. She could use the rest." Tucking her hair behind her ear, she glanced up at Shang. "Why didn't you sleep well? Nerves?"
He shrugged, flipping the shovel over and using it to scrape piles of dung into a small pile. "To be honest? I'm not sure. I know it's not because we're traveling—the gods know I've traveled enough to be used to sleeping on the ground by now."
Watching him, Mulan frowned. "Then maybe you're worried about our situation," she suggested. "With how uncertain things are for us right now, I know I'm worried."
"Probably," he sighed. "But I think I'm also worried about what we're going to do when we reach our destination. By the time we get there, it's going to be winter. How are we going to make shelters? What are we going to have in the way of food?"
"Zhu and Zhi said there should be a handful of houses that we could use for shelter," Mulan reminded him. "As for food…well, Su and Chien-Po made sure to pack us enough to last us a nearly a year—or, at least, it seems that way. Especially since we keep rationing it like we do."
Stabbing the end of the shovel into the ground, Shang rested his hands over the top of it. "I just hope those houses are still there. Huns aren't known for their house making skills, after all." His tone betrayed a bit of his pessimism.
Mulan's voice, on the other hand, let Shang know she was full of optimism. "I'm sure that, if the need arises, we'll be able to make any repairs needed. Plus, we have Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po! They've built houses before, so they can help with any repairs or building that needs to be done. And I'm pretty good with roofing, so…" She shrugged, smiling. "Things will be rough, no doubt, but we'll make it through this just fine."
His brow rising, Shang quietly laughed. "It is far too early for you to be this chipper," he teased.
She chuckled. "I guess Su's been rubbing off on me, too, then."
"It would certainly seem so." With another sigh, he pulled the shovel from the ground only to shove it under the pile of dung. "I wish I could be as chipper as the two of you."
"I cannot picture you as 'chipper'," she told him. "Happy, at ease, or laughing, yes. But 'chipper'?" She shook her head. "That sounds like it would be a disturbing sight."
He frowned, beginning to take the dung back to the fire. "Disturbing? Why would it be disturbing?"
"Because when I think of chipper people, I think of people who are kind of—kind of bouncy, I guess you can say," she explained, her cheeks turning red. She hadn't meant it as an insult. "You know, like Ling, Grandma, and Su who always seem like they're bursting with energy and a positive mood?"
"Go on." He laid the dung out.
"Well, you're not a 'bouncy' person," she continued. "You're more of a calm and collected person—like Chien-Po and my parents. Even when you're really, really happy, you still look calm."
Shang's brow rose as he chuckled. "Interesting, but it does sound correct. I can now see why me being 'chipper' would be more than a little startling."
Mulan smiled innocently. "It'd be like seeing Yao squealing over a cute puppy."
"Now that would be a disturbing sight." He wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead before once more stabbing the shovel into the ground; there was enough dung drying for now. "Everyone knows the only thing he gets even the slightest bit excited over is Mei."
"Can you blame him? She's gorgeous and adorable." Crouching down, she used a partially burnt stick to gather the coals together. She then reached into a bucket, pulling out an already-dried dung patty and adding it to the fire. "A potentially deadly combination, if you ask me."
His brow rising, Shang quietly laughed. "Adorable, yes," he agreed, "but since I'm all but her brother, I'm not the best one to judge her attractiveness. You, on the other hand…" His cheeks suddenly turned bright red as he realized what he just said.
Mulan also blushed, but she smiled, her brow rising. "I see your flirting skills have improved," she gently teased, making his face turn even redder.
"I—I have decent flirting skills!" he argued, pouting. "Just—just not when I'm trying to flirt with you."
Standing on tiptoe, she kissed his cheek. "Then it's a good thing you don't need to flirt with me to win me over, now isn't it?"
A defeated smile came to his lips. "It is," he chuckled. His smile turned into a smirk and he suddenly grabbed Mulan by the waist, easily lifting her into the air and holding her above him. She yelped in surprise but started to giggle when he began covering her face in quick, light kisses. "So long as I can make you smile, that's fine with me."
Thirteen weeks into the journey
The western horizon was nothing more than a great expanse of water.
Standing on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, her feet just out of reach of the tide, she felt impossibly tiny. When she was younger, Mei had been told stories of how large the ocean was. How it went on for ever and ever; how no one knew what kind of land laid out there beyond the horizon.
Though she knew this was no ocean, she couldn't help but wonder if, perhaps, it came even the slightest bit close to the size of the ocean.
She blinked, forcing herself to look away from the rolling waves and the foamy spray against the nearby rocks. Turning around, she found Yao walking towards her. There was a look of concern on his face and he carried her cloak in the crook of his arm.
"Yes?" she answered, walking towards him. She met him a few yards from the water, leaning over to kiss his forehead.
"You've been standin' there for nearly twenty minutes," he told her, wrapping her cloak around her shoulders. Though it wasn't terribly cold, night was fast approaching—then it would be cold. "Is somethin' wrong?" He pinned the cloak into place and began to fuss with how it lay over her shoulders.
She shook her head, slipping her arms around him and hugging him. "Nothing's wrong," she promised as he returned the hug. She sighed, enjoying the warmth and safety of his embrace. "It's just…it's so beautiful. I've always been told stories of oceans and seas, but I could never really picture them clearly in my mind. I never thought they could have such movement to them."
Chuckling, Yao kissed her cheek. "Ya thought they were still like ponds, huh?" he gently teased.
"Sort of," she admitted. "I knew they had movement—just not this much." She changed her position, now hugging him from the side so she could look out over the Caspian again. "I've seen lakes and they have small waves, so…I thought oceans and seas would be more or less the same."
"That's understandable." Raising a hand, he rested it on her forearm. "But since it's so much bigger than a lake or a pond, its waves are goin' t' be bigger an' its tides are goin' to be more severe. That's why we made camp so far away from the water—we didn't need it t' come floodin' over us in the middle of the night."
She giggled. "If that happened, at least then we would finally get a proper bath."
He shivered at the thought. "Love, I don't know 'bout ya, but I like my baths t' be warm."
"Anything's warm if you're around." She quietly laughed and nuzzled his cheek.
His brow rising, Yao chuckled. "An' here I thought I was the one who was supposed t' be doin' the flirtin'." He closed his eye and sighed in content.
They stood, unspeaking, as they let the sound of the crashing waves fill their ears. Mei could have stood there forever with Yao at her side, but her back eventually began to protest being bent over for so long. She kissed his cheek before standing upright.
"How much longer do you think we have until we reach our destination?" she asked, taking his hand as he started to walk along the shore.
Yao rubbed the back of his neck. "At least another three months," he admitted. "We've got t' follow the sea all the way t' the north an' then t' its western shore—that'll take at least two weeks. Then we've got t' cross an open stretch o' land until we reach the Black Sea before followin' its northern shore all the way t' the west. That'll be a good two months right there, since winter will be settin' in.
"Once we reach the western edge o' the Black Sea, we then go west until we reach the foothills o' some mountains. Then we follow the mountains north for a week or two until we find the spot Zhu told us about." He gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze. "If we're lucky, it'll be untouched by non-Huns like she remembers."
She frowned. "And…if we're not lucky?"
"Then we may have some unexpected neighbors." He kicked a piece of driftwood out of their path, watching as it rolled away. "From what she said, though, the area's pretty hidden. I think we'll be fine."
"I hope." Sighing, she lifted her skirt a bit so it wouldn't get caught on the pieces of driftwood they walked past. "…Yao?"
"Hmm?" He glanced up at her, finding her cheeks red; whether it was due to the chilly salt air or from shyness, he wasn't sure. But he was sure that the blush looked quite pretty on her.
Mei lightly rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb—a nervous habit of hers, he had come to learn. "When we get settled and start building houses and the like…will you be living with Ling and Chien-Po? Or will you be living on your own…?"
Now Yao's cheeks turned red. "Actually…" he murmured, voice betraying his bashfulness, "I was—I was hopin' t' build a nice, cozy house for two…maybe add onto it in a few years if a three an' four come along…" He peeked up at her, finding her eyes wide. "O-only if ya wanted, I mean! I'd be perfectly fine livin' with Ling an' Chien-Po if that's not somethin' ya wanted!"
"Yao, I'd like nothing more than to share a cozy house with you," she quietly giggled. "And a potential three or four in a few years. Maybe even a five."
His eye widened, a grin slowly spreading across his face. "R-Really?"
"Yes, silly! Why wouldn't I want that?"
"Well…" He shrugged, looking away as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, I'm—I'm not exactly a prince charmin'…"
Stopping him, she bent over and kissed him. "Yao, you are my prince charming," she murmured against his lips. "I love you so much and spending the rest of my life with you is exactly what I want."
Sixteen weeks into the journey
The days had grown short.
With autumn coming to an end, each day was shorter than the last. At first, it wasn't too noticeable; a few minutes here, a few minutes there. But, eventually, the hours of lost daylight became more obvious when the caravan found themselves not making good time.
"At this rate, it will take us twice as long to reach our destination," Ting-Ting sighed, tiredly rubbing her face. Beside her sat an untouched bowl of stew. "In the last week, we've traveled only about eighty miles. The week before that, we got nearly two hundred miles behind us."
"We could start riding a few hours into the night," Ling suggested. He plucked a bit of meat from his bowl and inspected it before popping it into his mouth.
Her brow rose. "Wouldn't that be too dangerous? What if we got ambushed?"
"We'd get ambushed whether we were travelin' or campin' for the night," Yao told her. "They'd just find us quicker." He was busy finding all the vegetable bits in his stew and shoving them off to one side.
"An ambush is highly unlikely," Fa Zhou informed. "The land is too flat and shapeless for an ambush to be of any success. There is nowhere for bandits or enemy tribes to hide." His brow rose and he plucked up Little Brother, who was trying to steal some of Li's hardtack when she wasn't looking. He set the dog down on the other side of his lap, between him and Shang.
"But what about the animals? Wouldn't that exhaust them?" Mei asked, not noticing when Yao started to shove some of his vegetables into her bowl. "We're already kind of pushing them with thirty or forty miles a day…"
Seeing Ting-Ting's untouched bowl, Ling frowned; this wasn't the first time in recent days that she hadn't touched a meal. "The animals are fine," he assured Mei. "They're called beasts of burden for a reason, after all." He then gently nudged Ting-Ting. "Hey, you need to eat," he told her, voice quiet so only she heard him. "You need to keep your strength up."
"I am not very hungry right now," she murmured, her eyes closed. "I agree with you, though: We should start traveling a few hours after the sun sets. The moon and stars will help keep us on track."
"When we can see 'em, at least," Yao said before shoving a spoonful of stew into his mouth.
"The weather in this part of the world is fairly clear during late autumn," Zhi spoke up. "The moon and stars will be easy enough to read. It's when we get closer to the sea that things will change." Little Brother came over and sat in front of her, reared back on his hindlegs as he tried begging for food. She smiled, unable to resist the cuteness and gave him a chunk of chicken.
Zhou nodded slowly in understanding. "By then, however, we will have a coastline to follow That will be direction enough for some time." Watching as Little Brother went to work his charm on Mei and Su—who always caved in and gave him far more scraps than what was needed—he shook his head. "Little Brother, you will be bigger than all of us by the time we reach our destination."
Su giggled, her cheeks turning red as she gave him a bit of carrot. "Aw, no he won't—he spends his entire day running all over the place!"
Ting-Ting cleared her throat. "It sounds like it is decided, then," she declared. "Starting tomorrow, we will start traveling a few hours into the night. We'll start with three and, after a few days, see if we need to go four or five before making camp for the night." Then, standing up, she straightened out her skirts. "I think I'll head to bed early. I'm fairly tired."
As everyone bid her goodnight, she started to walk away. She went to the wagon, intent on retrieving her bedroll, but she was stopped part way through her searching.
"Ting-Ting, is everything alright?" She jumped, not having heard Ling approach.
"I am fine," she told him, a tired smile on her lips. It quickly faded when she saw that he held her bowl of stew. "Ling, I told you: I am not hungry."
"You didn't eat breakfast today," he frowned. "And you've been either eating only a few bites of dinner or skipping it entirely the last few weeks. Something isn't fine, Ting-Ting." He placed the bowl on the floor of the wagon before setting his hands on her arms. "What is it?" he asked, voice gentle. "You know you can tell me."
Closing her eyes, she sighed and stepped closer to him. She rested her head in the crook of his neck, feeling him wrap his arms around her. "Stress," she finally answered. "I am just so stressed all of the time…and I know I shouldn't be. But I am."
"What are you stressed about?"
"Everything. Our food supply, our water supply, our health, the weather, whether we're going in the right direction or not, how far we're going in a day, whether or not Zhu's doing alright wherever she is…" She swallowed hard, feeling a couple of tears beginning to trickle down her cheek.
He rubbed her back and turned his head slightly, kissing her temple. "That's a lot of worrying you're doing."
She nodded against him. "All my life, I was raised to be a queen—or even the future Empress of China. I was taught how to act like a leader, how to look like a leader, how to be a leader. But now that I am actually in that position…?" Sighing, she wrapped her arms around Ling. "I feel so lost and confused. Everyone's lives depend on whether or not I can make the right decision. But how can I make the right decision if I can't anticipate the result of that decision?"
"If the future could be read so easily, then we'd all be astrologers," he said with a small chuckle. "Listen: We're all safe and healthy with plenty of food and water to last us, aren't we?"
Ting-Ting glanced up at him, nodding only slightly.
"And we're on the right path to this place, aren't we?"
"As far as we know…"
"Looks like you're doing a wonderful job to me, then." He leaned back, giving her a reassuring smile. "It's fine for you to be worried about us—in fact, the mark of a good leader is caring about the people they're leading. But when they start feeling sick because of how much they care, that isn't good."
A sigh left her mouth. "I cannot help it, Ling. These people are my family and my friends—and my lover. If I make one mistake, we could end up dead in the middle of nowhere."
He kissed her forehead. "Then maybe you should let someone else make the decisions for a while?" he suggested. "Your mother isn't ill anymore—or, if not her, then how about Fa Zhou or Shang?"
"Zhu left the caravan under my watch when she had to head off on her own," she protested. "I know it's alright to seek help once in a while, but lately, I feel like I have sought it out too much."
His brow rose. "It's not like you're ruling a country, Ting-Ting," he reminded her. "We're just thirteen people—it's perfectly fine if you ask us for help. Anyway, isn't that what friends are for?" He smiled again, rubbing the tops of her arms.
"Asking for help is fine, yes," she grumbled, stepping away from him, "but even you have to admit I've been seeking it like a lost child. And I shouldn't be!" She angrily stomped her foot and crossed her arms over her chest. "I was raised better than this. I should be able to make these decisions on my own, but—but for some reason, I just can't!"
"You were raised to lead a prosperous, peaceful country," he retorted, frowning, "not a small group of people running away to form a new country—or city or village or whatever. It's alright for you to not know what to do."
"But I should know what to do!" she snapped. "That's how I was—"
"You're not Zhu!" he interjected, his voice betraying his frustration. "She was raised to always expect the worst of the worst to happen. That's why she always has a plan ready." He shook his head, sighing as he used both hands to rub his face before looking at her.
"But you? You were raised to be hopeful about the future—that's why you're so scared now. Because this isn't the future you had planned for. And it's fine, Ting-Ting! It's completely fine! None of us but your sister could have ever anticipated something like this happening. It's alright that you feel lost and confused, because we all feel lost and confused!"
She stared at him in shock, tears still rolling down her cheeks. "I…"
"You're doing a wonderful job of leading us," he continued, voice now taking on a scolding tone. "We're all safe, we're all relatively healthy, we're going in the right direction—all because of you! You're being the leader you were born to be, Ting-Ting." He grabbed her shoulders, his grip gentle.
"But, Ting-Ting: You need to take care of yourself, too. Because while you're here, worrying about all of us, we're all worried about you." Lifting one of his hands, he tenderly cupped her cheek, his thumb caressing her skin. "Please, Ting-Ting. Just half a bowl of stew. You don't have to eat more than that. Just half a bowl and you can go to bed."
She looked away from him, frowning; she hated how right he was. She was doing a good job of leading them and it was alright if she asked for help. But her stubbornness had teamed up with her worry the last few weeks, convincing her that she had been doing a horrible job. When she started to overcompensate by taking on more nightly watches and doing more of the navigating on her own, it meant forsaking her own wellbeing.
She wondered if this is how Zhu constantly felt.
"Fine," she sighed. "I will try to eat some stew. I cannot promise half a bowl, though."
"That's all I ask." He tried to kiss her forehead, but she pulled away from him and begrudgingly went to retrieve her bowl from the wagon. Frowning, he rubbed his arm and watched as she started to eat. "I'm sorry for upsetting you."
"You didn't upset me," she sighed, stirring the stew around so that the cool bits could be warmed slightly by the still-hot bits in the middle. "I am upset with myself for how stupid I've been."
"Don't argue with me on this," she told him, voice a bit harsh. "Please. I'm tired of arguing. I just—I just need some time to cool down. I will be better by morning."
He was silent for a moment before nodding; for some reason, he doubted her words. "Alright," he murmured. "…If you need a shoulder, though, you know where to find me."
"I know, Ling. Thank you," her voice was softer now. She watched as he turned to head back to the campfire. "I love you." She wasn't sure if it was her frustration or her exhaustion messing with her, but for some reason, she didn't entirely believe herself as she spoke those words.
Glancing over his shoulder, he half-heartedly smiled. "I love you, too." He would never admit it, but he was also beginning to doubt her words.
Twenty weeks into the journey
"S-So c-c-cold…" Su cupped her hands together and blew into them, but her breath did little to chase away the biting cold.
Chien-Po came over, holding a cup of steaming liquid. "Here, this should help," he told her. He held onto the cup until he was sure Su had a firm grip around it. "Do you need another cloak? You can use mine if you do."
She looked up at him, frowning. "You need your cloak," she countered. "I'll be fine once I get this tea in me."
"Are you sure? I am running around enough that I am almost too warm with my cloak." Adding another piece of driftwood to the fire, he glanced over at her. "You, on the other hand, cannot walk at all with that sprained ankle of yours."
As she took a tiny sip of the tea, her brows furrowed; she knew he was lying. How could he be 'almost too warm' when there was half a foot of snow on the ground? "The tea is already helping," she assured him. "Keep your cloak—please. I don't want you to freeze to death just because you were fretting over me."
He frowned but nodded in understanding. "If you insist," he sighed. "But, like your concern for me, I do not want you to freeze because you cannot get up and walk around like us." He headed off to go start preparing dinner.
Su glanced down at her ankle. Hidden by layers of clothing and her boots was her swollen and bruised ankle. She had sprained it a couple of days previous when searching along the beach for edible kelp, clams, and crabs. Luckily, Ting-Ting had been with her and was able to carry her back to camp after she slipped on a patch of black ice.
Taking another drink of tea, she sighed and pulled her cloak closer around her body. Looking around the camp, Su watched as everyone else busied themselves with their usual nightly chores. Mulan, Zhou, and Shang were tending to the animals, making sure they had enough food and fresh water. Ting-Ting, Zhi, Li, and Grandma were out foraging for any edible vegetation or shellfish. Ling and Yao were digging latrines for the night. Mei was in the wagon, searching for more of her sewing supplies to fix a tear in someone's hat. Chien-Po was making dinner—a chore she usually helped with, but was unable to the last few days. As for Chi-Fu, she had no idea where he was.
'He's probably huddled up in the carriage,' she thought, sipping more of the tea. She hadn't lied when she said it was helping to warm her; her insides felt pleasantly defrosted the more she drank. Her gaze came to rest on the fire, eyes unblinking as she watched the flames. 'He thinks it's warmer in there than it is out here by the fire of all things. For being such a smart man, that uncle of mine sure can be dumb at times…'
Realizing she hadn't blinked in some time, she closed her eyes. They stung for a few seconds, but the pain was mild and didn't bother her much. When she opened her eyes again, she was surprised to see Mei coming towards her, a basket and the torn hat in hand.
"I thought you could use some company," she smiled, sitting down on the blanket beside Su. "You must be bored out of your mind, being unable to run around and help with the cooking."
She laughed. "It's like you read my mind," she joked. "But, your company is appreciated."
"Good! I was hoping you weren't sick of me by now." Setting her basket between them, she lifted the lid and sorted through it. "To be honest, with all of us together like this, I am surprised there haven't been any fights…"
"There've been a few arguments," she reminded her. "Mostly between Ting-Ting and Ling or Uncle Chi-Fu and everyone else."
Mei laughed. "Yes, but I mean actual fights—as in yelling and screaming. Those kind of fights."
Su tilted her head, brow rising. "Why would there be that sort of fighting going on?"
Shrugging, she pulled out a needle and some thread. "Well…The three of us used to get into fights like that when we were younger. We drove each other mad because we always had to be around each other or with our attendants. We never had any time to ourselves. But when we started getting different interests, the fights happened less since we saw less of each other."
"That is true." She sighed and looked down into her teacup. "Even at the farm, there was enough distance between us that we didn't drive each other totally bonkers." A small chuckle left her mouth. "A bit bonkers, yes, but not enough to scream at each other."
Mei nodded in agreement, threading the needle. "But now that we're constantly within three yards of one another with no way to have any actual privacy…It's surprising we haven't ripped each other's heads off."
Taking a drink of tea, Su leaned over to watch Mei as she started to sew. "Well, we're more mature now. Back then, we were just kids and we were pretty spoiled. Now, though? We're adults and…still a bit spoiled, yes, but now we actually appreciate our sisterhood and our privileges."
"That is true," she agreed with a small smile. "Though, I will admit I do miss some of the luxuries we had back in China—namely, a roof over our heads and a constant supply of fresh food."
"We'll have those again soon enough." She was always surprised by how fast Mei's fingers moved when she was sewing. How she managed to not prick her fingers with each stitch, she would never know. "It'll take some time to get a garden or field ready, but given that we're only a hundred miles or so from our new home, we could get started on them fairly quickly."
"After we build proper homes."
"Of course," she chuckled. "We wouldn't want our food to have a better home than us, now would we?"
Mei chuckled, glancing over at her. "Will you be living with Chien-Po?"
Su felt her cheeks grow warm. "I—I, ah…haven't really thought about it," she admitted. "In fact, it never even crossed my mind. I just assumed the three of us would be living with mother again."
"I…I'm not," Mei told her, her own cheeks turning pink. "I have already spoken with Yao about this and…I will be living with him." A tender smile came to her lips as she looked back to her sewing. "And, maybe in a few years, we'll have a child or two living with us as well."
Su's eyes widened and a broad grin spread across her face. "So, you're going to marry him?" she chirped.
"In a way, yes," she chuckled. "Though, I'm not sure if a proper marriage can be performed all the way out here. With no temples around…"
She blew a raspberry and dismissively waved her hand. "Who needs a 'proper' wedding, anyway? We're going to be forming a new settlement. Make up your own wedding ceremony! Have it be fun and joyous instead of the boring, serious weddings that were held back home."
"Says the one who doesn't want to get married!" Mei laughed. "But…you do have a point. With this new home, we'll be able to pick and choose which traditions to keep and which to do away with."
"And we'll be able to come up with new ones." She giggled. "You could make a holiday where everyone has to treat seamstresses like goddesses because of all the hard work they do to keep us clothed."
Tying a knot with the thread, Mei looked at her sister, a brow raised. "Now that I like the sound of," she teased.
"Like the sound of what?" The two looked up, finding Ting-Ting coming towards them. She sat down in front of them, her back to the fire.
"A holiday where seamstresses are treated like goddesses," Mei answered with a chuckle. "How was foraging?"
"It went well, actually. Chien-Po is going to be making some seafood soup for us tonight." She shifted slightly, sitting cross-legged instead of on her knees. "Why would you need to make a holiday, by the way?"
Su grinned. "We're essentially settling a new city, right? I told Mei we don't have to keep all of our old traditions—we can keep the ones we like and then come up with new ones!"
A thoughtful look came to Ting-Ting's face as she pondered over the idea. "You know…we could," she murmured. "But we will have to pass them by Zhu, since she will be queen, after all."
Mei dismissively waved her hand. "I am positive Zhu will let us come up with a few new holidays. I'm sure there are some Hunnic holidays she'd like to bring back. Don't you think?"
"Possibly," Ting-Ting smiled, "though, something tells me that holidays will not be very high on her priority list. Housing and feeding everyone is going to be the biggest challenge for her."
Su nodded in agreement. "That's true. Though, speaking of housing…Will you be living with Ling once we get all settled in?"
Ting-Ting glanced away, unconsciously raising her hand to nibble on her knuckle. "I…am not sure. I am sure you've noticed us butting heads every now and then." She watched as frowns came to her sisters' lips.
"We have," Mei admitted. "I'm not sure about Su, but I do not even know what the two of you are getting into arguments about."
"I don't know either," Su sighed. "You two seemed so happy together when we left Tianshui…"
Ting-Ting nibbled harder on her knuckle. "They're mostly navigational things," she sighed. "When we should stay close to the ocean, when we should head a bit inland, if we should linger a day or two in a certain area...how many miles we should travel in a day with the cold.
"But, sometimes we get into arguments over stupid things like him playing with my hair or me not paying attention when he's talking because I am either zoning out or daydreaming." She forced herself to stop gnawing on her finger, having to sit on her hand to do it. "I know it's the stress that's putting us on edge, but…"
Su frowned. "I thought you liked it when people played with your hair?"
She shook her head. "I absolutely hate it. But, when we were princesses, I had no choice but to let our attendants, well…attend to my hair."
"I did not know that," Mei gasped, eyes wide. "Does Ling know?"
"I have told him a few times, yes, but it's one of those things a person does unconsciously. He could be doing it and not even realize it until I push his hand away." As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on a spot on the ground between her sisters and her voice was a bit distant sounding. "Just like I can be zoning out and not realize it until he points it out after I've missed an entire conversation."
Su waved her hand in front of Ting-Ting's face. "Sort of like you're doing now?"
She blinked, startled out of her staring. "Y-yes, though my mind is usually elsewhere when I do it." Her cheeks darkening, she smiled apologetically at her sisters. "So, I guess my answer is no, I won't be living with Ling—at least, not until all the stress is gone."
"That makes sense," Mei assured her. "It will give the two of you time to calm down and get your emotions back in order." Setting her sewing things aside, she changed her sitting position. "Su doesn't know if she'll be living with mother or with Chien-Po yet, so there is a chance you and her will both be living with mother."
Her cheeks turned a bit pink, but she smiled. "I will be living with Yao."
"They're basically going to be married," Su giggled. "Which is actually how we got to talking about holidays and traditions. She said there wouldn't be any temples around to get married at, so I told her she could come up with her own wedding ceremony."
"That is true," Ting-Ting chuckled, her brow rising. "If you do come up with your own ceremony, you will be the first of us to be married."
At that, Mei let out a heavy sigh. "No, I won't." Ting-Ting and Su looked at her, confused. "Remember what Zhu told us…? She was going to marry the younger Mongol prince in order to get an army."
Su slouched, pouting. "That's right," she mumbled. "I hate political marriages. Just the thought of them alone makes me want to angrily chop up some root vegetables."
"We should be thankful that we no longer have to worry about it," Ting-Ting sighed. "Father died because he wanted to keep us away from political marriages to the Mongolians and Zhu gave up her happiness to continue keeping us from such a fate…" She closed her eyes. "Everyone around us gave up so much in order to help keep us safe…"
Mei quietly sighed. "It isn't fair, is it? We lost everything and now, our friends have lost everything as well because they decided to come with us. Mulan and her family could be in their nice, warm home eating a meal made with fresh vegetables and not having to worry about they'll keep their fire fueled—and Shang could be with them. Uncle could have left us to return to civilian life and maybe finally get himself a wife. The lieutenants could have gone anywhere and lived their lives out as war heroes…They could have been so much happier."
"But we wouldn't have been happy." The sisters jumped, having not heard or seen Chien-Po approach. "You three are our friends," he continued, setting a pot over the fire, "and that is why we're here with you. We love you and want to help keep you away from those princes." He poured a bit of liquid into the pot, waiting a few seconds before dumping in a bowl of diced vegetables. "Yes, we had to give up some things, but they're only material possessions. We can build new houses and plant new crops. We can't, however, replace you three and your mother."
A small smile came to Su's lips as she watched him stir the vegetables. "You always know what to say, don't you?" she quietly chuckled.
He glanced over his shoulder, returning the smile. "Not always," he told her. "Just most of the time." He looked back into the pot, moving it a little bit away from the flames to lower the temperature.
Su and Ting-Ting chuckled at his response.
"Regardless," Mei countered, "it seems like you've always got comforting words at the ready whenever one of us is feeling sad or upset. And you're always so calm. It's—It's nice, having you around when we're not feeling too good. The others are sweethearts, yes, but sometimes, they're not the best with words."
Chien-Po's face turned a bit red, though it was hard to tell if it was from the compliments or from being beside the fire. "I am glad to hear I have a use other than cooking," he chuckled.
"Of course you have uses other than cooking!" Su giggled. "You're great at gardening, at cheering people up, at medicine, at reaching things on the top shelf…but you're the best at giving hugs!"
He smiled as he stirred the pot once more. "Actually, I believe you are the best at giving hugs," he told her. Reaching down, he grabbed a large bowl that was filled with fresh crabs. They had been cut in half down the middle so that, as he dumped them into the pot, they hissed and steamed.
Mei and Ting-Ting excused themselves. Mei had to return her sewing kit to the wagon and Ting-Ting wanted to wash up a bit before the meal—or that's what they told Su. The two of them knew that, with Chien-Po and Su exchanging tender smiles, it would be best to leave them alone until dinner was finished.
Scooting herself over a bit so that she sat closer to both Chien-Po and the fire, Su leaned forward to watch him as he diced some herbs. "Seafood soup, huh?"
"Mhm. The others found a lot of crabs and clams this evening. Zhi even found a few fish in a tide pool."
"Ooh. It's been awhile since we've had actual fish. Are you going to use parsley or tarragon?"
"Tarragon," he replied. "I think it's flavor will go better with the clams and the crab."
She nodded in understanding. "That makes sense. What're you going to use for the broth?"
"Wine, fresh water, and a bit of seawater for the saltiness."
"Sounds delicious already!"
He chuckled and leaned over, tossing a spoonful of peppercorns into the pot. "I hope it turns out as such and that there will be enough for everyone."
"I'm sure there will be. How many crabs did you throw in there? Six? Seven?"
"Five," he laughed. "Almost enough for all of us. But, there are a good number of clams—a surprising amount, actually. I won't be using them all tonight; I have half of them in a bucket of saltwater to keep them alive."
Su rested her head against his arm. "If they don't freeze, that is."
"Well, if they do, then they will last for a bit longer than expected."
She let out a soft laugh, closing her eyes. "Frozen clams sound delicious," she joked. "Have them along with a bowl of frozen congee…it'd be a meal fit for a king."
Laughing, Chien-Po rolled his eyes. "Or a prisoner."
Cracking open an eye when she heard violent hissing arise from the pot, she found herself looking at a cloud of wine-scented steam. She let her eye fall shut again as Chien-Po stirred the pot yet again. Waiting until the hissing died down, she remained silent.
When it finally ceased, she asked, "Have you heard about Mei and Yao?"
"It depends. What about them are you referring to?"
"How they're going to live together."
"Hm. Yes, Yao did mention that a while ago, but he didn't go into detail about it. I assumed he was thinking about asking her to live with him."
She chuckled. "From what Mei told me, they are going to live together…as husband and wife."
He blinked, looking down at her in surprise. "Is that so? That's…quite surprising."
Opening her eyes again, she tilted her head back to look up at him. "Is it?" she asked, a small frown on her face.
"Not a 'bad' sort of surprising," he assured her. "Rather—well, they've only known each other for less than a year."
"That is true," she agreed, letting her gaze fall to the fire. "To be fair, though, it's all too obvious that they've fallen hard for one another."
"And neither are willing to stand back up." He poured half a bucket's worth of water into the pot before adding in a small cupful of seawater. "But I am happy for them. Yao has…never really had much success with romance in the past. He fell for a few people, but when they found out, they rejected him rather harshly. What made it worse was that he was rejected primarily for his appearance."
She sat upright again. "He won't have to worry about that with Mei. She thinks he's the most handsome man in the entire world." Bringing her good leg up, she tucked her knee under her chin.
"And he finds her the most beautiful woman in the whole world," he chuckled. "I guess that further proves they were made for one another." He continued to stir the soup, waiting for it to come to a boil so he could add the clams. "Just like how you were made for cooking."
A small smile came to her lips, but a feeling of guilt filled her insides. "Chien-Po?"
"Hm?" He glanced at her, brows lifted in curiosity.
"Do you ever…" She pulled her cloak around her a bit more, trying to partially hide herself within it. "Do you ever get upset that I don't love you as anything more than a friend?"
He fell silent, worrying her somewhat. But then, as the pot finally began to boil, a smile came to his lips. "Admittedly, I did get upset at first. I thought it wasn't entirely fair that Ling and Yao had found romantic partners while the woman I fell for didn't feel the same. And it didn't help that she was the perfect woman, in my mind."
Dumping the clams into the soup, he gave it a last stir before covering the pot with a lid. "But I came to realize—rather quickly, I might add—that it didn't really matter whether you loved me or not," he continued. "I enjoy being around you, whether we're cooking or gardening or just chatting. Yes, I love you as more than a friend, but our friendship is vastly more important to me than the idea of us being lovers. As such, no; I don't get upset anymore because I know, in the end, I'll still get to have your company as we do the things we enjoy."
Su suddenly hugged him, taking him by surprise. Smiling, he wrapped his arm around her and gently brought her a bit closer to him.
Twenty-Five weeks into the journey
It was just as Zhu had described.
After crossing the world and enduring all sorts of horrible weather, the caravan had finally reached their destination. Nestled in the forested foothills of a vast mountain range and shielded from the bitter winter winds was the valley that they would call home. To the east, west, and south, the valley was encircled by the hills, but on its northern edge, it was guarded by a large lake and the two rivers feeding into it.
To make things even better, the houses Zhu had told them about were in decent shape. There were seven in total, each a single room and large enough to house three people comfortable. One of them, though, looked big enough to house a couple dozen people; a sort of meeting house, Mulan thought. Of course, after not having been used for nearly a decade, they needed some repairs. Thanks to the lieutenants, Ting-Ting, and Mulan, however, those repairs were being tended to rather quickly.
Mulan grunted, pulling a rope up to the roof of one of the houses. At the other end of the rope was a set of four wide boards. Normally, it was best to let the wood dry out before turning it into lumber, but that would take years and they needed it now. 'Hopefully, with this stuff being mostly-frozen, it won't mold over or start to rot,' she thought. 'It only needs to last until the snows are gone—then we can start looking for earthen building materials…'
Once she got the boards onto the roof with her, she let out a sigh of relief and looked out over the area. Ting-Ting was on the ground a few yards away, making quick work of chiseling away any and all unwanted bits of wood from a set of shutters. Yao and Chien-Po were constructing a makeshift canopy between two of the houses as a place to store firewood. Her mother, grandmother, and Zhi were bringing over buckets of fresh water from the nearest river. Shang was in the largest of the houses, making it suitable for the animals to shelter in. What Mei, Su, Chi-Fu, and her father were doing, she didn't know.
"You alright over there, Mulan?"
She blinked, looking across the roof to find Ling wearing a concerned expression. "I'm fine," she answered, beginning to until the boards. "It's just still a bit hard to believe that we're here, you know?"
He chuckled, his brow rising. "Even though we've been here for nearly a week?" Lurching forward, he caught one of the boards as it tried to slide free of the rope. "I know how you feel, actually. We traveled for—what, five? Six?—months and thought we'd never reach this place. At least, that's what it was starting to feel like."
"I'm glad I'm not the only one who was beginning to wonder," she chuckled. Taking one end of the escape-artist board, she started to move it into place. Ling did the same with the opposite end. "I knew we would find it—I just started to doubt that it would be in the amount of time Zhu told us it would take."
"To be fair," he pulled a couple of nails out of a basket next to him, "we did have to linger in some areas when the weather was too bad or when we got too sick." He held the basket out to Mulan, letting her take some nails from it. "But, if we hadn't stopped, I don't think all of us would have made it."
She frowned and nodded. "Yeah…" Placing a nail, she held it in place as she gave it one, hard whack with her hammer. "But we all made it, safe and healthy." A second whack hammered the nail as deep as it could go into the wood. "And that's what matters the most."
"Well, most of us made it safe and healthy. Zhu isn't here yet," he reminded her, also hammering a nail into the wood. "Hopefully she'll be here soon, though. I've missed her."
"Me, too." She sighed and glanced over her shoulder at the others. "I miss talking with her. Yes, I'm good friends with Ting-Ting, Mei, and Su by now, but…There are things I can talk about with Zhu that I can't talk about with them."
Ling looked at her, a teasing grin on his lips. "Ooh, what kind of stuff?" he joked. "Oh, wait! I know: You talk about which one of us you find the most attractive!"
She laughed, rolling her eyes. "Nice guess, but no." Shaking her head, she lined up a second nail and smacked it into place. "Just—just things, you know? Reminiscing about Moo-Shung, helping Zhu figure out what new emotion she felt that day, sometimes about romance…and, yes, we do sometimes talk about you goofballs, but not about which one of you is the most attractive."
He feigned a pout. "Damn." He then shrugged and used his hammer to wave dismissively. "And here I thought I'd be the winner of that conversation…oh well, a guy can dream."
Mulan rolled her eyes, still laughing. "If it's any consolation, out of the three of you, you're definitely the most handsome." She placed yet another nail and started to whack it, not having even realized what she said.
Ling blinked, his cheeks turning just a bit pink. He had only been joking, but judging by her tone of voice, Mulan hadn't been. "Well, ah…th-that's good to know," he chuckled nervously, hoping she didn't notice the sudden influx of nerves. With his set of nails done, he made to grab the second board. "So, uh…Zhu was still trying to learn what she was feeling when we had to leave, huh?"
"At times, yes." Finishing her set of nails, she grabbed the second board and helped Ling put it in place. "She knew many of the negative emotions—anger, jealousy, guilt, sadness—but a lot of the good ones…" She sighed. "The way she put it, it was like trying to remember a deceased loved one's face when they had been dead for decades: It was there in her mind, but it had been so long since she last felt the emotion, it was hard to recall just what it was like."
"That…is a really interesting way of putting it," he murmured. Grabbing more nails, he offered the basket to her. "But it does make what she went through more understandable."
Mulan nodded, taking more of the nails. "I think she's remembered them all by now; though, there had been a few times when she wasn't sure." Accidentally knocking her knee against the board, she readjusted her end. "I just hope she gets here soon. As nice as it is here, I—Never mind."
Ling frowned. "What is it?"
She shook her head. "No, it's just something silly is all."
His brow rose and he tilted his head. "I'll be the judge of that."
Sighing in defeat, Mulan lined up the nail. "I feel safer with Zhu around," she admitted. "Not just here, either. Even before we found out about the Emperor, having her around just…" She bit her lower lip and looked away from him. "I don't really know how to explain it other than I just felt safe."
"That isn't silly at all."
"It isn't?" She looked at him, a bit confused.
He shook his head and readied more nails. "No. Or, if it is, then I must be silly too, since I feel safer with her around." Shrugging, he started to hammer the nails in. "I don't really know why I feel safer with her around, but…I do." He let out a quiet sigh.
"She's a protector," Mulan said. "She protects her loved ones…even if it means she has to make a sacrifice in order to do it."
"Which is a load of crap." He shook his head, swearing under his breath as he drove the nails home. "She's gone through enough hell. Can't the gods just grant her some peace and happiness for once?"
Grabbing the third board, Mulan also shook her head. "I don't know if they even pay attention to her, to be honest. She's not one of their worshippers. I…don't even know if she has a religion."
"She does. Her gods are the Earth Mother and the Sky Father," he explained. "I don't know much about it besides the Earth Mother being the protector of women, creator of medicine, and is also the goddess of death." He leaned forward to place some nails.
There was a loud crack and Ling startled to topple inwards with a yelp. Cursing, Mulan lunged forward, just barely able to grab his coat. Though he was a bit heavier than she was expecting, she was able to keep him from falling any further.
"Are you alright?" she grunted.
"F-fine!" he assured her. "Just a bit startled is all."
"I would be too if a roof collapsed under me!" A strained laugh left her mouth. "How far from the ground are you?"
"Not far. You can let go; I'm prepared for the drop this time."
Taking his word for it, she let go of him. She watched as he fell a couple of feet before landing with an 'oof!'. He nearly lost his balance, having partially landed on one of the pieces of broken beam.
"How does the damage look from down there?" Mulan asked.
Ling looked up at her, shading his eyes from the light. "It's extremely hard to tell," he said, voice betraying that he was about to tease her. "There seems to be a pretty woman in the way."
Rolling her eyes, Mulan threw a nail down at him and leaned away from the hole, her cheeks burning. She heard Ling say 'Ow!' before cracking up into a fit of laughter. He had made such jokes with her and the former princesses before, but for some reason, felt different to her this time. Almost like it was meant to be more of a flirtation than a joke…
She shook her head. 'It was just Ling goofing around,' she told herself. 'Anyway, why would he flirt with me when he knows I'm with Shang?'
Blinking, she leaned over again only to find Ling wearing a concerned expression. "Hm?"
"I didn't upset you, did I?" he asked.
"No," she chuckled, brow rising. "Why would you have upset me?"
He shrugged. "I don't know…it's just you normally laugh or giggle when I make one of my dumb jokes. You seemed kind of miffed this time."
"I'm fine, I promise," she assured him. "Just…after catching you like that, I realized how sore I am from all this roof work we've been doing." It was only a partial lie; she had been feeling quite sore from all the hard work.
"Then get your butt down here and relax a little bit. We'll need to make a new beam before we can finish hammering the boards down and that'll take a day or two, since we'll need to cut down a tree."
Her brow rose and she smiled teasingly. "Alright. Unlike a certain jokester, however, I think I'll use the ladder."
"Says the woman who once broke a ladder when descending it."
"Would you rather catch me because I took the quick way down?"
He glibly waved at her. "You're a big girl; you can make your own decisions," he joked.
"Alright, then get ready to catch me!"
Ling's eyes widened. "What!?" he gulped. He then cursed and flung his arms out, catching Mulan as she hopped down. As she burst into giggles, he pouted. "I didn't think you were being serious!"
"You caught me, didn't you?" she teased back. Her cheeks, he saw, were a bit pink. "And this time, you didn't end up as a cushion."
"Which is a good thing, considering the floor is littered with broken wood now. I probably would have broken my back or something."
She looked down at the floor around them, seeing broken bits of rotted timber laying around them. "True…and if it hadn't broken your back, it would have been incredibly uncomfortable at the very least."
"Yeah…and neither of those sound very appealing to me right now," he chuckled.
"Ling?" she asked, brow rising slightly.
"You can put me down now."
His cheeks darkened. "Oh. Right." When he set her down, he was careful to place her away from the debris so she wouldn't nearly fall like he had. "So, ah…I guess I'll go let Ting-Ting know we're going to need another beam and then head out to find a suitable tree."
She nodded in understanding. "Sounds good. Just be careful, alright? Don't need you trying to chop off your leg like Yao."
Laughing, he waved his hand dismissively. "Don't worry. I'm actually a pretty good aim when it comes to handling axes."
"If you say so," she chuckled, her brow rising. "I don't think I've ever seen you use one, to be honest."
"That's because Yao and Chien-Po don't like letting me chop wood. They think I'll end up hurting myself somehow." He then shook his head and started to walk off. "An ax head flies off one time and people will never let you live it down…Sheesh."