A/N: I guess what I'm trying to do here is to make a sort of hybridity between the Disney Mulan and the traditional, Chinese culture...in other words, I'm attempting the impossible, lol. It's pretty hard to keep the Disney optimism rolling when you're dealing with sixth-century China - awful lot of things you can't just let your characters do. So I offer my profuse thousands of advanced apologies for any unpleasant kinks I may make regarding the Disney Mulan or the traditional China (where everyone's head get chopped for almost every little thing). Eh-heh. It is rather difficult writing them in character and at the same time traditionally correct, so I have to make some leeways here and there. *bows* Wish me luck anyway. ^_^0
"The true object of war is peace."
-Sun Zi, The Art of War
Mulan lighted the incense sticks from the small fire flickering on the small, dragon censer hanging from the belly of the tiled ceiling. She took a step back and bowed from her waist, facing the glassy, well-polished memorial stones of her ancestors, of generations and generations of the proud Fa family.
The thin wisps of incense smoke rose from the burnt tip of the sticks and curled upwards, diffusing the sharp, sweet scent around the family shrine.
It seemed strange that she was now home, merely one morning after her "service" in the Imperial Army. She had been given the gold crest of the Emperor and the malicious sword of the Tartar chieftain Shan-yu, and they now hung in this same shrine for the ancestral spirits to behold the honor this generation had given the family.
She straightened and carefully placed the incense sticks on the pot of the family altar, feeling her shorn hair rubbing on her cheek. They would grow to their full length soon. She knelt down and made obeisance in front of the stones, paying her respect and praying to the ancestors to consume the incense aroma she had offered to them.
At the slightest sound of an insomniac cock crowing, she had woken up this morning at the Hour of the Tiger, when the sky was still dark and the sun still slumbering. Clearly, the rigid routine of the military would not be so easily lost on her. She had lighted the lanterns after getting up from bed to prepare some porridge and tea for breakfast, but her mother, the ever-alert, caught her and hustled her back to bed, chiding her to get a full-night's rest to compensate for all the sleep she had lost in the service.
Mulan smiled as she rose from her kneeling position and saw herself on the reflection of the memorial stones. After a small protest which she had lost in favor of her mother executing her matriarchal duty, she had grudgingly gone back to sleep, to be woken up later on the Hour of the Hare to officially start the day.
Of course, she knew full well that her life would never be seen as the same again, or normal, at the very least. What with all the citizens of the Imperial City having witnessed her grab Shan-yu's sword with merely a fan and the Son of Heaven offering her a ministeral post...and she a woman at that! Chi-fu, that old salt, had said well what the Middle Kingdom thought of these creatures called females: "'Tis a woman! She will never be worth anything!"
And here she had broken that unspoken rule, saved the Emperor's life and with it the Kingdom that the gods looked upon, and politely declined a position in the Emperor's council. Why, on her way home from Beijing, she had even heard rumors of a bard composing a song about her...
Her right eyebrow arched slightly in amusement. A ballad of the young woman who had upsetted her own day with the matchmaker - my, the Middle Kingdom was certainly having modern thoughts.
A mischievous light glowed from her eyes then she said in a sing-song voice, repeating the lines she had once memorized by rote to impress the matchmaker: "Fulfill your duties calmly and respectfully. Reflect before you act..."
"...and this shall bring you honor and glory."
Mulan jumped in surprise, poise and dignity all gone. "Baba!" she said hastily, seeing her father's worn but dignified form standing at the embrasure. "Did you hear all that?"
Fa Zhou was smiling, leaning on the wall, his eyes twinkling with a mischief not far from the one that had twinkled in his daughter's just seconds before. Then he lifted his stick and pointed at the altar where the incense stick were burning. "I remember there was a day when I knelt there, so early in the morning, when the first cock crowed, and prayed to the gods that my daughter would give the matchmaker a good impression and be rewarded with a good husband."
"And we all know how well that went," Mulan quipped.
Her father chuckled and steadied himself with a stick. "Yes, the gods were certainly whimsical. Instead of giving my daughter domestic good fortune, they gave her a suit of armor, a helmet, and a sword, in exchange for her comb, and before I knew it, my daughter was saving the Middle Kingdom."
The comb! A sudden smile broke from Mulan's face as she recollected how she had left her flower-decorated comb by her parents' bedside before she had left. She had nearly forgotten about it.
Her father looked thoughtful. "After that day, I prayed every morning on the altar for the gods to keep watch over my daughter. Suddenly, I did not care how well she could impress all the matchmakers in the world, only that she be kept safe." He paused and beckoned at her. "Lai, wo de nu er."
Mulan obeyed and approached him. Zhou took the elegant comb from his robe and placed it on her black, silky hair, touching the flower on it. "The flower that blooms in adversity," he said gently, "is the rarest and most beautiful of all."
Something caught in Mulan's throat. "Xiexie, Baba," she said gratefully, hugging her father tight. After seeing the ravages of war, she had grown to understand the precious meaning of life, hers and of others.
Yes, the Mulan who had left for the war was not the same Mulan who had come back.
"By the way," her father said as he let her go, "I came here to tell you that there is someone here to see you."
Mulan tried to suppress a smile in vain. "Oh, Father," she chuckled chidingly, "not you too. As if Mama and Grandma weren't bad enough."
"Aiyaah!" Zhou exclaimed in merriment. "My daughter, you are suddenly quick to jump to conclusions. Is that what the military taught you?"
"Zhen shi de! I can see it in your face, Baba," replied Mulan with a laugh as she took her father's arm, leaving the family temple and going down the rock steps. "If I remember correctly, you were drilling him of all sorts of things over supper last night..." She paused to give him a meaningful glance. "...And you are not usually very talkative, Baba."
"He was a guest in our home; it was of great importance that we show him hospitality," said Fa Zhou defensively but with a smile. "Although I must say that any son-in-law of mine coming from the army must be well-versed with Sun Zi Ping Fa."
"He's got Sun Zi's The Art of War in his head all right; I should know," snorted Mulan in a quick lapse of un-femininity. "And he is not your son-in-law, Honorable Father. You need a matchmaker for that sort of thing."
"With you two, sometimes I think that a matchmaker will be unnecessary, shocking as it may be," said Fa Zhou with such confidence that Mulan had a terrible time keeping herself from blushing.
"He came to return your helmet, Baba; it was no big deal," Mulan said in self-defense.
"Ah yes, but during my time, young lady," answered Fa Zhou graciously, "the daughter of the house would not invite him to dinner-" he snapped his fingers for effect, "just like that."
"Father!" Mulan looked nettled. "He was a captain; surely it would bring honor to our house to have him for dinner!"
"Duei, duei." Fa Zhou nodded his head vigorously. "But I doubt you were thinking of honor back then."
Mulan colored. "Oh, I give up!" she exclaimed, releasing her father's arm humorously in resignation as they neared the complex of the Fa family. "Think what you may, Baba; as far as I'm concerned, he was merely my captain."
"Emphasis on my," added Fa Zhou cheekily, and before Mulan could think of a retort, he had slipped into one of the many rooms, sanctimoniously saying, "He's in the living hall, waiting for you; I'm certain your mother and grandmother would be eavesdropping, so I shan't add to that."
Mulan thought the whole family must be in a conspiracy to embarrass her.
She gave an inward groan as she quickened her pace on the walkway and turned to enter the hall. This reminded her of the time the annual xiangqi tournament was held in the village, and she was the only girl who joined. Every pair of eyes had seemed to be glued on her that day, and Grandma had brought an entire cage of lucky crickets which made such a racket that the xiangqi players could hardly concentrate.
They always made such a big deal about every little thing, thought Mulan good-naturedly as she stepped over the block in front of the room. And that was her family.
She looked around. The captain was standing in front of a painting of a waterfall, broad shoulders pulled back gallantly, his eyes looking at the painting in close scrutiny.
Captain Li Shang gave a start and awkwardly whirled around, his familiar red cape swishing in an arc around the leather shin-guards he wore. "Mulan!"
Mulan bit her lip to keep from laughing. It had struck her that she seemed to be the only one capable of making the daring young captain look uncomfortable. "Sorry, did I interrupt you?" she said, gesturing at the painting he had been studying.
"Oh, no, not at all," he returned hastily, suddenly rubbing his chin, looking a little flustered. "I was just admiring the calligraphy of the poem."
"My father did that; painted it and wrote the poem," she said, coming closer.
"He's got a good hand," he commented, placing his arms akimbo.
"Tea?" asked Mulan.
"Thanks, but your mother already gave me some...about four cups' worth." Shang laughed, motioning at the fat, rotund teapot and two porcelain cups sitting on the table.
Mulan lifted her eyebrow and said in a low voice, "She's here, isn't she?"
"I think it was your grandmother's idea." Shang jerked his thumb towards the wooden, lacquered dressing frame not far from them. There was a sneeze then a small "Aiyaah!" and Shang and Mulan laughed.
"So what did you come here for?" ventured Mulan, sitting on the wooden, straight-backed chair and crossing her ankles as she poured herself some tea and Shang's cup.
"Oh, I just thought you might want to know that the Emperor offered me a new position," obliged Shang, joining her and sitting across her.
"Second captain of his palace guards." Shang could not help puffing his chest out a little in pride.
Mulan's eyes widened. "Shang, what a great honor! You actually get to live in the Forbidden City in Beijing and not have your head lopped off for that! And second captain!"
"Yeah, I guess; no more duty-guarding outside the Imperial City's walls," he agreed, taking his filled cup and tapping the edge.
"And of course you accepted the offer."
"Well, not yet; I'm not slotted for an audience with His Majesty until this afternoon, at the Hour of the Monkey." He took a sip of his tea.
"But of course you'll take it," prodded Mulan.
Shang set down his cup and looked a little uncertain. "Actually...I was thinking of turning it down."
"What?!" Mulan almost spilled her tea on her lap, all decorum lost. "What do you mean, you're going to turn it down? You'll be living in the same vicinity as the Emperor, Shang, because he trusts you! This is the Forbidden City we're talking about!"
"That's the point. That's exactly the point." Shang leaned back, his brows furrowed. "The Forbidden City is where the Emperor lives, where almost everyone living there gets to whisper something in his ear. We're talking about internal affairs here; all that competitive politicking and deceit to get power for yourself. I'm better off protecting the city walls than trying to get the Emperor under my influence in a place like that."
"You're exaggerating," said Mulan, rolling her eyes.
"Think about it; I don't want to be mixed up with the Emperor's eunuchs and concubines, all plotting something, one way or another. Give me a good garrison of honest soldiers instead and I'll be happy." Shang looked troubled.
"Don't be silly; certainly not all of them are plotting something," she answered, at the same time wondering why Shang had chosen her to be his adviser. "Besides, you're not going to become one of them."
"But you don't understand; once you're in it, you'll turn into one of them." Shang stood up, pacing. "I didn't take all my government exams to become a scheming insider."
Mulan had never seen Shang this nervous before, and certainly not in front of her. She placed her own cup on the table and said, "Shang, sit down. I may be just a woman and just a peasant girl from the Hebei farmlands-"
"Bet that has never stopped you before," said Shang with an unconscious trace of admiration that Mulan picked up immediately and kept in her memory.
"The point is," she said, pushing her hair behind her ear and trying very hard not to redden, "I still know what honor being the second captain of the palace guard means. And I also know that you're not the type who would become as petty as to be trying to wrest for power in the court."
Shang hesitated as he sat back down. "Well, you turned down the Emperor too when he offered you that spot in the Council."
"That's different. I know nothing about government affairs or tactics; our troop was militia, Shang, just farmers informally conscripted because we were running out of soldiers." Mulan remembered her tea and quickly took a sip. "But you, on the other hand, you passed all your exams, made it to the top of your class...you were trained for this sort of thing. You just need to get used to the ropes a little."
There was a pause as Shang emptied his cup. "Do you really think so?"
"I wouldn't say so if I didn't, now would I?" reassured Mulan, secretly pleased that Shang had taken the trouble to ask for her opinion.
Another pause as Shang placed his empty cup of tea and took the teapot, pouring his and Mulan's cup thoughtfully. "You know what, Ping?" he said resignedly, taking back his cup, "You're right."
"Which part?" asked Mulan, smiling.
Shang brought the cup to his nose, smelling the fragrance of jasmine. "I was trained for this, in a way. That part I was sure of. What I was having trouble with was whether or not I'd get sucked into the messy business of power. But you - you think I'm not capable of that?"
Mulan gave a small chuckle. "Does it really matter what I think, Captain? But for what it's worth, yes, I don't think you're capable of turning into a power-monger. You're too good for that."
"I could only hope so anyway." Shang lowered his eyes to look at his cup.
"Besides, if I get wind that you're turning into one, I'll get Khan and rush to Beijing immediately," Mulan joked. "It's not far between here and the city."
"Thanks, Ping; I'm glad to know you got my back, at least." Shang raised his cup and gave a faint grin. "Your mother makes good tea."
Although slightly irked that Shang kept calling her Ping, Mulan raised her own. "Well, in celebration of your new position, Captain Shang, ganbei!"
"Ganbei," echoed Shang, but he did not sound very enthusiastic.
Mulan brought the cup to her lips as Shang finished his tea, then she stared at the tea leaves floating in the pale green liquid. Of course, having Shang away in the Imperial Palace meant that he would be spending all his time in the Forbidden City, where no civilians were allowed in unless they wanted their head chopped off. Strange. She had been so happy for him that she had not realized, until now, that the chances of seeing Shang again in this lifetime would be very few.
Mulan felt a small twinge in her chest and she winced. She had never thought that this day would, by most chances, the last time she would see Shang for a very long time. Her throat constricted at the throat and she hastily drank her cup.
"By the way, Shang," she said, trying to keep her voice mild and her fingers steady, "when you get this position, which I'm sure you would, it would mean that you wouldn't be spending too much time outside the Palace, wouldn't it?"
"Well..." The shadow on Shang's face darkened. "Yes, it would mean that. It's a pretty demanding position and I'll have to focus everything into protecting the Emperor."
Of course. How silly of her to even think that she would need to see Shang again. These sorts of things were managed by matchmakers, not by her own fancies, and as far she knew, she and Shang were certainly not an official match. Or even an unofficial one at that, in her book.
"Did you know this?" she blurted out, despite every effort she had mustered to keep her mouth shut.
Shang stared at the teapot, as if he had been expecting the question, and it seemed to take forever before he said in a low voice, almost to himself, "Why do you think I asked you?"
"What?" Mulan felt dazed, a thousand questions barraging into her head.
Shang smiled feebly, eyes still on the pot. "But like I said, Ping, you're right. This is the most practical route to take; I was trained eventually for this sort of thing."
She might as well have put her foot in her own mouth. She couldn't very well take her words back. "That's true."
"And I'm sure my father would have approved of this if he were here," said Shang, finally looking up and looking convinced. "Thanks for the advice, Ping."
Mulan was starting to feel that his calling her "Ping" was deliberate, although she could not think of a reason why he would do so. "Anytime," she remembered to reply a little hollowly, feeling like a little fool, and feeling frustrated that she was feeling like one. "More tea? she asked perfunctorily.
"Thank you, but I've had enough. I should be going now." Shang stood up very formally, arranging his cape. "Again, I can't express my thanks enough, Ping-"
"My name is Mulan, in case you have forgotten," she suddenly said before she could stop herself. Then she bit her lip in regret.
Shang blinked. Then he said quietly, perhaps with a hint of ice, "No, I haven't forgotten. I just got used to calling you by your other name, that's all. Mulan."
"Sorry," Mulan immediately apologized, wishing she could kick herself. "I'll see to the door."
"Thank you, but I know the way out." Shang bowed politely. "Please give my regards to your honorable parents. Good day." And before Mulan could register what to say, he had quietly moved out of the hall, and she could only hear his firm footfalls fading away.
She was left sitting on the chair, teacup nestled on her hands, hands placed on her lap, and on her face a mixture of regret, anger, sadness, and relief.