The faint glimmer of fading sunlight and the early spring wind had cooled the air considerably, and Mulan watched the dancing swirls of her exhalation disappear into the breeze as they slowly climbed uphill.
The Marshal showed no sign of slowing despite impending nightfall but he'd already warned her that distance needed to be gained as much as the last rays of daylight allowed them. He finally came to a stop at the next ridge, eyeing the vista of jagged hilltops partially obscured by a descending fog.
They stood in silence for minutes, Mulan taking in the beauty of the land splayed out in dusky purple-orange hues. From what she remembered of the map, those distant, jagged peaks were the borderlands that they would ride for, if it all went well.
Despite the lateness of the day, the Marshal was still alert, his critical gaze bouncing over the landscape revealing his preoccupation with its topographical features rather than the breathtaking sunset.
"Don't you wonder if Yang Di had committed a grave error when he chose to drive the Huns from the northern regions?" Shang casually asked as he pulled out a blank sheet, marked a few things along the line of their journey and packed it back in the satchel.
"What do you mean?"
"It is a well-known fact that the emperor before Yang Di had was of mixed northern blood descent."
"He used his family ties to gain some form of unity."
Mulan shrugged. "There's nothing unusual in it, honestly."
It was an arrangement common enough that it didn't shock her at all. From the poor to the wealthy, such unions—especially inter-tribal or inter-regional ones between high-ranking officials and wealthy families with influence—were transactional in nature, had very little to do with personal choice and more to do with capital gain and financial security. In fact, she had nearly been part of an arranged marriage when fate had turned her life in a different direction.
Why would this be any different with the royal family who'd primarily used unions and offspring and dowries as bargaining chips?
"In some cases, the stakes are way higher. You simply have more to lose or gain when the marriage crosses borders and involves tainting pure bloodlines. The Sui Dynasty was built on the support of the northern tribes, in that year the south was unified. Some tribes were of Hunnic descent. Did you know that?"
"There were stories that Wen Di secured their loyalty, somehow. I assumed that it was unfounded myth. To be fair to us, this wasn't knowledge that we farmers had first-hand," she finished wryly.
This came as no surprise. As always, the palace guarded its secrets closely and disseminated what they thought best suited the ranks in society.
"No, I gather not," Shang looked at her speculatively. "But neither is it a secret. This shaky alliance was forged on familial grounds. Wen Di had distant but powerful cousins who believed in the bond of blood. So he ascended the throne with the approval of the northern nomads, in return for their peace and some cessation of territory to the Huns. And in doing so, he left the borders porous."
"And blood ties, with each passing generation, only takes you so far."
She understood it better now as some pieces fell into place. Alliances based on ancestral ties that frayed because of the lapse of time lasted only as long as the next generation's political ambitions.
The spillover effects of a crumbling alliance were immense. The Huns' aggressive southward trek from a region little explored strained the resources of the fortified cities that had traditionally been bastions of China's military might in the north and north-western front. And the first few provinces in their line of fire had simply included hers.
"But not all the tribes agree. There is some clear dissent among them," Shang continued, "even if we tend to think of them as a loose unit. There are those who choose aggression and their own expansion over peace. Like Yang Di, they also believe that these ties have failed."
"And now Yang Di disavows them. The fragile peace that his father brokered has deteriorated to the point where he sees no benefit maintaining it."
"Had not Yang Di ascended the throne under suspicious circumstances?" Pure speculation, but she had to ask.
His gaze locked onto hers. "Yang Di was forced to be a dutiful son, conforming to his father's standards until he came of age. After his father's death, he started to act in defiance of his father's legacy, pursuing projects and expansions that Wen Di would not have approved of, to the extent of taking his father's concubine for his own."
A frown creased her brows. "That was not my question."
He gave her an amused smile. "I was fully aware of how I answered. That is all you will hear from me concerning this subject."
To speak openly against the throne was at worst, punishable by death but that he tried to stay the moderate path even when they were they were the only two people around spoke of his integrity.
Nonetheless, the salacious details the Marshal was providing had never really reached the ears of the common folk and to hear them now so cavalierly spoken was in some way, as comfortingly spicy as the gossip and food that were always passed around the family table.
"And to think that we are supposed to hold the rulers in the highest esteem. Like the holy descendants of the gods who first shaped the Middle Kingdom."
He threw her a smirk in return. "That is how they want their story to be told. If you believe such tales, then you are probably more foolish than I thought."
"I believed those stories, as a child." Such were the tall tales told to a child as far as fodder for bedtime stories went. It was the kind of talk that thrived on the unbelievable, then arrowed straight into the land of gods and myths, each tale taller than the next in order to satiate a sleepy child's cravings.
The Marshal barked a short laugh, the skin around his eyes crinkling in his amusement. It also made her heart race a little faster.
"Ancestors, give us strength," he implored mockingly, turning his eyes skyward.
"As a child," Mulan emphasised firmly, now smiling too. "Then I grew up and starting asking questions which my parents couldn't answer."
The twinge in her chest flared at the mention of her parents, blooming to a physical ache as she thought of the round, kindly face of her grandmother and the smiles she'd reserved for her grandchildren.
"I can't imagine that." His tone, soft and sombre, sent a shiver through her. "I have trouble thinking of you as a precocious and noisy boy causing your parents too much grief."
A precocious and noisy boy—a jarring and timely reminder that he did not see her as who she really was.
Desperate for a change of topic, Mulan fumbled for the first question that came to mind. "Do you ever hope to see peace in your lifetime?"
It was something she regretted as soon as it slipped out of her mouth. The impulsive question was too personal, too naïve, too wistful and too…soft for a hardened, cynical soldier to address without throwing some mockery her way in return.
But Shang bowed forward slightly as he considered her question, his shoulders stooping as though they bore the weight of the world. When his eyes lifted to meet hers, they were almost pleading…yearning…wanting.
"We have had periods of peace, some longer than the others." He allowed his head to fall back as he looked up at the canopy of stars that had begun to twinkle against the darkening sky. "It is all I have known. And I don't know how likely it is that we will ever experience a long, continuous stretch of it for as long as we live. What we have now is the calm before the storm, a false peace held together by a thread, and it unravels with a wrong word or a wrong move."
Mulan thought of the gossamer thin threads of the elegant gown she had to wear as she recited the final admonition—it now felt like that had happened in another lifetime, to a person she didn't recognise anymore—and that the gentlest of pulls would split them apart.
The days bled slowly into each other, the routine between them more comforting than chore. They pushed on as far as they could without tiring the horses, spent hours debating the topography and potential ambush sites, then rode in search for a place to set up camp, then spent even more hours hunched over food and strategic-talk.
If she could pretend that the days were energetic sojourns that cloaked the lurking danger of the mission they were on, the nights were becoming agony of a different sort.
The worn paths had grown narrower as the elevation rose, and the suitable places they could find to camp for the night had rapidly dwindled. Their tents were pitched incrementally closer and closer together, the lack of privacy becoming uncomfortably imminent.
The exhaustion of maintaining the persona of Ping was leaving her worn and anxious. But regret on having agreed to this mission despite her trepidation was never one she felt, particularly not as the image she held of the Marshal slowly became less of an unbending soldier spun from her own fantasies and more of a man made of flesh and blood.
This far into their journey, their camaraderie was finally solid and easy as they pushed northwards and mapped out more of the terrain. She'd learned to catalogue the tells of his emotions, committing to memory the profile of the strong jaw silhouetted against the sun, the lines of his face as he smiled or frowned, the slackness of it at rest. There were nights where she'd been excruciatingly aware of his nearness only to spend it in feverish dreams that left her panting awake with a myriad of unslaked thirsts.
During the day, the Marshal was surprisingly easy to converse with, his intelligence and knowledge impressively wide. Their discussions delved deep into strategy and tactical knowledge, meandered around difficult portions of history and tonight, finally settled on Shang's early days in the imperial army.
As a youth, he'd been more of a rebel than she could have ever envisioned, the unwillingness to stay true to the family path of becoming a scholar-officer changing only after his father had enough of his misdeeds and mischief and placed him out of sheer desperation, in the stocks for a week after his repeated lectures of honour and duty had gone ignored.
And now he stayed, breathed and fought to honour the life of his father.
Perhaps they both did. War was unforgiving, after all and broke the long chains of generations.
She in turn, told him the light-hearted moments around their dinner table. On some nights, she even ventured into the few war stories her own father told the family.
As though by some unspoken agreement, they never spoke once about the past five years.
She was fully aware that the reprieve was only temporary.
Mulan guarded her secrets jealously—her identity and gender above all, knowing that the knowledge she carried could be the very reason for her execution under the Marshal's weighty hand and his unbending sense of justice.
The faint metallic clinks of Shang's armour chased the weighty thoughts away.
Without realising it, she'd actually ridden up to a high glade in the hills surrounded by tall boulders. Shang had already dismounted, unloading his bundle from the saddle.
"We stop here for the night."
Thankfully, he had always chosen the places for their sojourns well: near heavily wooded areas with streams or near stagnant ponds, his only request was that either one of them kept watch at a respectable distance while the other washed. It was a request to which she had been more than happy to accede to.
Like the gallant commanding officer he was, he'd ordered her to the fast-flowing stream perfumed by the night-blooming flowers to wash for the night.
Not wanting to take advantage of his generosity, she'd made a run for it, stripped, washed and finished in minutes, then returned to sit by the cackling fire around which their tents were pitched just as Shang stood up and left.
He'd been oddly quiet and tense the last few days, keeping his own counsel and speaking only when he needed to.
A mental run through of the region they'd traversed into made her wonder she could attribute his battle-ready stance to being in a hostile tribal region, but from what she recalled, they were yet days away before they came to a vulnerable point on the map.
She feared that she had in some manner, caused him offence. But he was never cruel or judgemental in the way he addressed her, leaving her even more bewildered at the sudden change in their easy dynamic.
Her maudlin musings were brought to a halt when she heard Shang's faint footsteps tapping across the wooded glade. He emerged with his body still wet, only wearing his pants and his tunic flung casually over his shoulder still dripping from the hem.
Despite having lived amongst soldiers for years, it still took Mulan a while to get past the reflex of wanting to turn away each time she saw a bare torso. Just as she thought she had succeeded in schooling her reaction, an uncharacteristic heat crept up her cheeks at the Marshal's tightly-muscled body as he moved in front of her to toss more twigs into the fire.
This…unnamed, growing fascination with Li Shang was unseemly, she reminded herself sternly. Who was a…remarkably striking man but who was also her commanding officer, no less.
Handing over some rations to him, she made certain that their hands did not touch.
"The evening meal, Marshal."
He sighed as he took the food from her.
"We are possibly a thousand li from the nearest village. Do you truly believe that military rank holds importance and weight that far from the capital?"
Her eyebrows nearly touched her hairline. The rank between them that served as appropriate distance had never been questioned, much less so given that it was him who'd brought it up.
"My name is Shang. Say it."
She cracked a hard cake in half and nibbled its flaky corner, trying to muster a response that would satisfy him. Swallowing down a throat gone dry, she took a sip of water before replying. "Rank and respect are deeply embedded in a soldier's mindset. Habits are hard to break. Maybe these habits should not be broken."
Shang slid her a sideways glance. "But not impossible."
Her acquiescence was slow in coming. "No, I guess not."
The Marshal placed his rations down, eased to his feet and paced the short perimeter of their camp site. Frustration rolled off him in palpable waves as his boots kicked up the dirt with the force of his steps.
"You confuse me, Ping."
The conversation was taking a disconcerting turn.
She confused him? In fact, it was he who confounded her.
That he'd singled her out, chosen her to scout out the enemy camp out of a hundred more able soldiers—all because of a sense of familiarity and a moment in time that they'd shared as soldiers in combat five years ago? Then talked with her like a friend for days before reverting to the polite but distant speech of a commander?
Mulan dared a glance up at him—the scowl still cutting deep grooves his brow—and immediately brought her eyes back down, to track the tip of a tiny orange flame that flickered and sputtered out only for a larger one to dance into its place.
Squaring her shoulders, she inhaled deeply and tried for levity instead.
"How so? I am but a simple, junior officer."
Shang said nothing, just merely waited until she finally, finally found the mettle to meet his intense stare.
"There is more to you than meets the eye. Pieces of you that do not seem to slot neatly into each other."
The hard glint in his eyes said that he was on the warpath. She knew by now that the grim undertone meant that he would leave no stone unturned, that he wouldn't stop until he had gotten what he wanted out of her.
Her heart leapt into her throat, the pounding of her heart suddenly loud and fast in her ears.
What if—what if he dug too deep…and…and found—
This was all she knew now—this very life that belonged to strict routine and discipline and doing whatever the emperor decreed, so far removed from the days waiting for the matchmaker's appointment or tilling the field or getting lost in domestic chores. To have it taken away because of her duplicity was not a consequence she had the courage to entertain.
The surge of panic brought her to her feet just as he stalked towards her, backpedalling her hard into the thick, slab of a boulder that shielded their campsite from prying eyes and nocturnal predators. Her palms came up to his hands where they gripped her, her short nails cutting into his skin as she dug her feet in to keep her balance.
"Tell me, who are you?" The question, phrased like a command, brooked no objection.
Pinned immobile, Mulan could not trust herself to speak, the hardness of his body against hers obliterating all thought and action.
Gone was the distance, the easy friendship and laughter—this was Shang at his most honest, his most brutal, just as her own voice and courage were failing. She swallowed hard, trying to throttle the fear.
The very things he'd thought defined her as a soldier—courage and determination—now felt like a joke in contrast. If he only knew how long her deception had stretched on—long before the avalanche—would he still call her friend? Would she still have his trust?
She did not know how to be vulnerable to him, as long as there was a part of her that remained shielded. But there was the uncanny sense that there were going to be difficult questions that she actually wanted to give him honest answers to.
Instinct however, made her press back against him, a reciprocal action that brought their faces and bodies impossibly closer. She flushed under his unrelenting stare, her own chest rising and falling in perfect synchronisation to each heaving breath of his, testing her fraying restraint.
Then she was somehow arching forward and clawing him into her, drawing his head and lips down to meet hers, her fingers working of their own accord to wind through the hair that he had loosened from its tie after his bath, wanting more of the heat and hardness of him…needing the closeness that she didn't know how to articulate.
The grip on his hair was her only sure anchor as she felt herself falling into his strength that bolstered her upright. His fingers drew gentle lines on her cheek, leaving scorched trails in their wake as she left her own brand of pressure on him as hers moved through his hair, down to his broad shoulders, finally resting on his straining biceps.
The firelight cast a filigreed shadow on them, its ambient heat replaced by the man who was torching her alive with slightest of touches.
But then he moved, lifting her high so that her legs curled around his hips as he drove her back into the hard stone. Winding his hands around her wrists, he pinned them above her head against the boulder as he sealed his lips over hers again and drank deeply of the gasps she made. Their hips ground hard together as she mindlessly sought for relief in a way she didn't know how to alleviate—
A measure of sanity returned as he pulled away slightly to release her, his bewilderment cutting through the sudden loss of contact.
"What is it about you, Ping?"
His distressed plea was as fraught as it was heavy with need.
With his hair untied and the slight shadow coating his jaw, Shang far from resembled the put-together, stoic Marshal she'd always known. He was as open as she'd ever seen him, the wildness in his eyes betraying the attraction and the desire that surely had to be similarly stamped on her face.
He gave her no time to reply, instead skipping his lips downwards to graze her skin, rasping words against the column of her neck—words that became unintelligible sounds in the harshness of her own breaths.
Mulan knew then what she was about to do would cost her everything. Possibly even more than what she could ever give. At present, she was sequestered in a space that left her permanently as a boy who never seemed to reach adulthood. The freedom to be who she was lay on the other side of the line that was so easily crossed.
Here, blanketed under the open sky where it was easy to pretend they were just Mulan and Shang, perhaps she could be braver than she'd ever been.
"Let me show you."
Reaching downwards, she took his hand, intertwined their fingers and brought them up to the gap high on her chest where the tunic folded shut. It parted under the slight pressure of their fingers as she moved to draw the left sleeve down her shoulder, followed by the right—
A sharp intake of breath.
He'd caught sight of the tight binding around her chest.
"You've been hurt. How did yo—"
Shaking her head mutely, she brought both their hands to the edge of the binding cloth. With a small twist of her wrist, their fingers slid underneath its fold at her side. Was it her imagination, or was his hand also shaking, like hers were?
Without the usual tension that she'd put on the cloth to keep it taut during the day, the thin white strip unravelled easily to pool in a small heap on the ground. Free of the constriction, she inhaled sharply, the movement of her rising chest bringing his eyes to exactly what he needed to see.
She'd never felt more exposed to him at this very moment—with her torso fully bared to the elements and to him, to the recent searing heat of his body and lips against hers, to the truth that she'd just served him in the most brutal fashion.
Waiting for him—for his anger, his absolution and judgement—to discover that her entire life had first been a desperate play to keep the family honour intact, then later on for survival…just this rationale alone barely kept her from splintering to pieces.
The vibrating silence seemed to stretch on as she watched him stare, up until the moment shocked comprehension dawned in his eyes.
Her vocal cords sounded like fractured glass, the higher-pitched timbre gradually taking over as her natural speaking voice finally emerged.
Hearing the feminine lilt, he jerked stunned eyes up to meet hers, clarity slowly replacing the haze of lust that was just a minute ago, dictating his actions.
"You asked me who I am. My name is Fa Mulan."
The Sui Dynasty lasted from 589-618 A.D (38 years), and the pre-Sui years were filled with conflict with the northern tribes and warlords who tried to assert their authority over each other. Finally, in 589 A.D, a man of mixed northern blood called Yang Jian became the first Sui Emperor, also known as Wen Di, only by making peace with several warlords and the northern tribes for a unified China.
His death was a suspected murder believed to have been engineered by his own son, who came to be known as Yang Di. Yang Di reversed policies made by his father, undoing the short peace when he drove the northern tribes out of the border regions. He was not a true black villain but at most, an ambivalent character that many historians still try to figure out.