A/N: Final chapter up! Thanks to all who have read and reviewed. I want to specifically thank Angel452 and WaitingIdeas again for the continued feedback.
Chapter 14: The Next Emperor
Mulan went into the palace with Shang and the others, but parted from them once inside. Shang and his two men were bringing Sung and the other man before Prince Ting in the council chamber. Shen-Li was going with them, still covered in the black cloak so that Bin-Ling wouldn't recognize him yet if he was there. She had to get back into the hidden passageways and out to the forest to let the Emperor and Prince Ying know about Mei-Lin and Sung.
She hurried off to the temple once she was out in the forest, Ming perched on her shoulder. She didn't know what had happened to Mushu.
"He's with Prince Ting," Ming answered, reading the question from her mind.
Ming nodded. "He heard Mei-Lin telling Bin-Ling to murder Ting tonight. She thought that if she killed his other son, it would draw the Emperor out of hiding and she could confront him. I think the woman is crazy. It was probably going to happen while the prince slept, but Mushu went to make sure he was there to stop it whenever it might happen."
"Good thinking on his part. I'm just hoping that this will all be over soon."
She hurried to the monastery behind the temple.
"Who is it?" came the commanding voice again as she entered.
"Captain Li Mulan."
The Emperor and Prince Ying appeared and Mulan quickly explained what she had found out about Mei-Lin and Sung. She told them her plan then.
"Prince Ying, you will remain safe here," Mulan told him.
"It is alright, Ying," the Emperor interrupted. "This immortal guardian can only impersonate one of us at a time. I am old and my time is short. If anything is going to happen, I want it to happen to me, not you. As I have already said, I want you safe and alive to inherit the throne."
Mulan stepped out of the monastery, allowing the Emperor and his son a few minutes alone. She knew that they were saying goodbye now, in the event that the Emperor didn't live through this, and the father was giving last words of wisdom to his son in the event that he really had to take over the rule of their country right away.
The Emperor joined her outside several minutes later and the two of them and Ming headed into the forest, returning to the palace.
Bin-Ling raced out of the palace and to the temple to find Mei-Lin. She was running toward him frantically as he approached.
"I know. General Li found them. They are all in the council chamber before Prince Ting. They have Shen-Li with them. I didn't see him. But I know it was him. He had his face covered."
Mei-Lin's eyes were wild and full of pain.
"They're going to execute my son!"
"Not if I can help it," he said, taking her hand gently. "I have an idea. Come on."
"What are we going to do?"
"We're going to get ourselves something to barter with."
Mi-Ying watched quietly as Chen and Su-Tan sat on the floor of Su-Tan's room playing a game. She would be playing next, against whoever won.
Chen stiffened suddenly, and a moment later the door to the room was forced open.
"It's them!" he exclaimed in alarm, leaping to his feet. "Mi-Ying, Su-Tan, hide!"
Mi-Ying opened the panel to the hidden chamber and stepped in. Su-Tan went to follow but didn't have time to get inside. Mi-Ying stifled a scream and shrank back as her new friend was pulled out of the entrance to the hidden chamber by the woman that had come into the room. She had to remain unseen and unheard. She couldn't do anything alone. She would follow them to see where they took her friends and then get Mulan and General Li to help.
She crept out of the chamber once they had left the room with Chen and Su-Tan. She peered out into the hallway and stepped out, following them at a distance.
"I am glad that you are well and returned to us, Shen-Li," Prince Ting told him. "I don't know where Bin-Ling is. He may know by now that you have been found."
Prince Ting spoke to Shang's two guards. "Take these two men to the dungeon. My father will sentence them when he returns."
As they bowed and turned to take Sung and the other man away, Sung began to struggle. Shang drew his sword in order to subdue him and his man regained his grip on him. He was about to sheath his sword when the sound of crying came to his ears behind him. He whirled around.
"Oh, no. Not again," he whispered as Bin-Ling and Mei-Lin appeared with Chen and Su-Tan, dragging them into the room.
Shang lurched forward involuntarily.
"Drop your sword, General Li," Bin-Ling ordered, tightening his grip on Chen, his other hand at his throat. "It won't take much to snap these little ones' necks."
Shang dropped his sword to the floor and held his hands up, his palms out. "I'm unarmed. Let them go."
He gestured to the two guards to hold Sung and the other man, and not make any move toward Bin-Ling or Mei-Lin. Shen-Li moved in front of Prince Ting to protect him in the event that someone decided to go after him, and Shang suddenly caught a glimpse of the little red dragon Mushu, perched behind the prince's seat and peering around at him, also watching out for him. He turned his direct attention back to his little brother and the little girl Su-Tan.
"Release my son and we'll let these two go," Mei-Lin ordered. There was desperation in her eyes and her voice was close to being a screech.
Shang watched Chen closely, frantically trying to think of a way to help him and his friend. But his little brother didn't look scared, which was very puzzling.
He froze in terror as a moment later Chen made a sudden quick movement against Bin-Ling. A sense of pride suddenly rose in Shang in the midst of his fear as he realized that it was a move he had taught Chen. Of course Chen was too small and still not strong enough to fall Bin-Ling or even to knock him slightly off balace. But he executed the move well and Bin-Ling was caught by surprise, causing him to release his grip for a second. Enough to provide Chen with that little bit of time that he needed to duck away and scoot over to Shang.
Mei-Lin shrieked wildly, threw an epithet at Chen and tightened her grip on Su-Tan.
"No!" Chen screeched, beginning to hurl himself toward her.
"Chen!" Shang grabbed his little brother, holding him back as Mei-Lin pulled Su-Tan tighter against her body.
Su-Tan appeared too terrified to cry and Chen reached his arm out toward her, a pained expression on his face.
Shang gripped his brother's shoulders, feeling that he was going to hurl himself forward again. "No, Chen, don't," he whispered. "Don't be stupid. I'll handle this." He pushed Chen behind him.
Shang suddenly noticed Mi-Ying near the door, crying. He didn't know when she had arrived or why she was there.
"Let my son free," Mei-Lin demanded again, her hand at Su-Tan's throat. "Or I swear I will kill her!"
Shang caught sight of Mulan in the doorway. She had her sword drawn and she gave Shang a look indicating that he should be ready for anything. The Emperor and Prince Ying were with her. Mei-Lin had her back to the door and she began to back up with Su-Tan.
"Mei-Lin," the Emperor called out, stepping into the room. Mulan moved with him, ready to protect him from any attack.
Shang and the others in the room knelt down, but Shang kept his head raised, not taking his eye away from Su-Tan.
Bin-Ling and Mei-Lin whirled around and both of them let out an audible gasp at the sight of the prince that had supposedly been assassinated. Neither of them knelt down. But in her shock, Mei-Lin released her grip on Su-Tan.
Shang seized that opportunity to spring to his feet and lurch forward, grabbing Su-Tan away from Mei-Lin and setting her down behind him, next to Chen. During the distraction caused by his move, Sung and the other man broke free from the guards. The guard that held the other man instantly drew his sword and wounded Sung's accomplice, stopping him. But the guard that had been holding Sung wasn't as quick and Sung sprang forward, snatching up the sword that Shang had dropped to the floor, rushing toward the Emperor and Prince Ying with a wild cry, apparently determined to take the two of them with him.
Prince Ying pulled the Emperor aside and Mulan intercepted Sung's blow with her own sword. But Sung seemed to have gone completely mad. He ignored her and continued to lunge toward Ying with Shang's sword. He thrust the blade into Ying's chest and pulled it out. It was clean of blood and Ying didn't fall. He didn't even bleed. He just seemed to dissolve and a moment later they were all looking at the tiny monkey guardian, Ming.
"It's a trick!" Bin-Ling shouted.
Sung hadn't even noticed Ming. He had turned away from the figure of who he thought was Ying and was leaping wildly toward the Emperor.
"Sung, no!" Mei-Lin screamed.
Mulan got in Sung's way in an effort to protect the Emperor and the blade of Shang's sword swiped across her stomach. She winced against the pain, but kept fighting him, thrusting her sword into his chest finally.
Mei-Lin's anguished, ear-piercing shriek as she watched her son fall to the ground was hair-raising. She rushed to his side as Sung lay dying, gasping for breath, muttering inaudibly to his mother. She bent over him, weeping bitterly. Sung became still and Mei-Lin remained bent over him. The room was still, everyone too hypnotized by the scene to move or speak.
Before anyone could react, she suddenly grabbed Shang's sword that lay beside Sung and plunged it into her own chest with a scream.
"Mei-Lin!" Bin-Ling shouted, rushing to her. He bent over her, burying his face in her shoulder.
The Emperor moved toward her and knelt down beside her. Everyone else in the room bowed to the ground, to make themselves lower than him.
"Mei-Lin. For what reason…?" he began.
"Sung was your son. Your eldest son. He should have been the rightful heir to the throne. But you would not claim him as your own or even acknowledge him."
"It is not possible and you know that. The timing is wrong. But you could have talked to me, Mei-Lin."
She started to laugh slightly, the laugh turning into a labored cough. Blood ran from her mouth.
"It wouldn't have mattered anyway." She struggled to croak out the words. "I was just a cook."
The palace medic treated Mulan's wound. Fortunately it was only a flesh wound, but it was terribly close to the very first wound that she had received from Shan-Yu's sword, and a small part of that scar had been cut. Still, the medic felt there was no need for stitches and bandaged her up after applying a disinfectant.
He turned his attention to Shen-Li then. Shen-Li had been held in that cellar since the week before the Emperor's attempted poisoning, and though he didn't appear harmed, the medic wanted to check that he was healthy. Mulan waited with Shang until Shen-Li emerged, both wanting to make sure that he was okay. Then they returned to their room.
They embraced and kissed passionately when they got inside. Chen, Su-Tan and Mi-Ying were in their bed already, sleeping. The three children had been understandably hysterical, completely rattled by the night's events, as were Mulan and Shang, so they allowed all three of the kids to stay with them.
They sat on the couch in the room, their arms around each other and Mulan leaned her head on her husband's shoulder, beginning to cry. He turned and put his other arm around her, embracing her.
"Mulan," he murmured astonished, squeezing her tightly. "I don't think I've ever seen you cry."
"I killed her son. And by doing that, I killed her too."
"Mulan, you were protecting the Emperor. He was leaping toward him with my sword. And then he was going to harm you and you had to protect yourself."
"I know. But still."
Shang held her and stroked her hair, letting her cry. "You did what you had to, Mulan. It was the right thing to do in that moment."
"I know. It was just so sad. This whole mission has been so difficult. I never thought I'd say it, but fighting Shan-Yu and the Huns was so much easier than this."
"You know, when Chen held the letter that Bin-Ling wrote to her, he said that she didn't love him. I think that somehow she found him and saw that he looked exactly like Shen-Li. She only used him. But he really loved her. And he was willing to do anything for her. That's why he was involved in this."
"Maybe. Who knows, maybe he had his own reasons for wanting to hurt Shen-Li. But he didn't seem to even care when they sentenced him to be executed," Shang commented, softly. "Once she was gone, it didn't matter."
"Poor Shen-Li," she murmured, sniffling. "What a way to be reunited with your own brother."
She reached up and wiped away her tears but more fell.
"Do you think Sung was really the Emperor's son?"
Shang shrugged. "The Emperor said the timing was wrong, but that's an old excuse and it's her word against his. Maybe Sung wasn't his son, but the timing was close enough that Mei-Lin thought she could get away with saying it and put her own son in power. We'll never know the truth."
They held each other in silence for a long time. Then Shang leaned back to look at her and cupped his hand around her face, gently wiping a tear away with his thumb and kissing her.
"You missed the little Kung-Fu move that Chen pulled tonight," Shang said, lightening the conversation a little. "He didn't do much; he's too small. But he was able to escape from Bin-Ling."
"He's going to be a formidable adversary when he grows up."
They kissed and nuzzled each other more, then Shang sighed.
"Well, this is all we're going to be able to do tonight. Nothing else."
"No, not with present company."
"Ready to go to sleep then?"
"If we can," she said, indicating the way the three kids were sprawled on the bed.
They both laughed softly and approached the bed. Mi-Ying was lying across the bed at the foot of it. Shang gently moved Chen and Su-Tan a little to make a spot for the two of them, and they climbed into the bed, being careful to step over the kids, stifling their laughter. Shang blew out the candle and they settled down, making sure that their legs didn't kick Mi-Ying at the end of the bed when they stretched out.
They remained awake, half sitting up in the dark, still finding it difficult to get comfortable and fall asleep with the three children crowded into the bed with them. Two sets of gleaming eyes watched them all. The two guardians were in the room, perched at the edge of the bed watching them. Mulan and Shang looked at each other and laughed.
"At least it's a big bed," Mulan giggled.
"Not big enough."
"I missed you, Shang," she whispered to him, softly, when their laughter subsided.
"You were busy running around inside the walls of the palace."
"I still missed you."
He put his arm around her and she leaned her head on his shoulder. "Well, one more night and then we'll be home in our own bed, Mulan. Alone."
She turned her face up to him and they kissed again. Then they stretched out. She turned over to sleep and he curled his body around hers, embracing her, and they settled down to sleep.
The next morning Shang and Mulan stood before the Emperor, the two Princes and Shen-Li, Chen standing between them. They were both somber despite the new medals of valor and the praise they received for their service. Though the gruesome scene in the council chamber had ended more than twelve hours earlier, the anguish and sadness from the night before hung heavily in the air, like a dark cloud, permeating everyone's mood. Chen was morbidly somber, weighed down by his perception of everyone else's mood as well as being engulfed in his own.
The Emperor himself maintained a formal, regal and pleasant air; but there was profound sadness in his eyes. His gratitude was genuine, though. He had asked Shang to have Chen stand with them. And after he bestowed his gratitude and honors upon Shang and Mulan, he spoke to Chen.
"You are quite an extraordinary young man already, Master Li Chen. Someday you will make a fine addition to the palace council. I assume that you are in school, preparing for the civil service exams like other boys your age."
"General Li, I would like to suggest that your little brother receive special one-on-one tutoring instead of schooling, to help him accelerate faster. There is a teacher that I could engage to work with him. This young man will do great things if he is pushed in the right direction and eventually put in the right position."
Shang knelt down and spoke eye level to Chen. "What do you think, Chen? This is a very great honor to be offered such an opportunity."
"I wouldn't have to go to school anymore?"
"No. You would be working at home. But you will be working very hard. A lot will be expected of you. And when you get older, you will have to pass very difficult tests."
"I don't mind. Will I still be able to keep learning Kung-Fu, too?"
"Yes, I'm sure we could arrange time for that, too. As long as you're doing well in your studies. That comes first."
Shang stood up and nodded to the Emperor.
"Very well, General. His name is Qin Tao. I will send him to you in a week or so, after you have all returned home."
"Will I be able to see Su-Tan again?" Chen asked Shang, softly.
Shang stared down at his little brother, sternly. But the Emperor was not offended by Chen's interruption.
"He is welcome here any time to visit Su-Tan, General Li," the Emperor told him. "And when I am gone, and Prince Ying is the Emperor, that will still be the case."
Grandfather Li hugged them all in turn when they arrived home after taking Mi-Ying to her own home.
"Mulan answered my letter to you," Grandfather said to Shang, resting his hand on his grandson's shoulder.
"A letter to me?" Shang turned to Mulan and she just mouthed the word 'Ming'. He nodded, then shook his head as he realized that Ming had impersonated him too at some point during the adventure and he had intercepted Grandfather's letter.
"I'm glad you're all back."
"I'm sorry we were away for so long, Grandfather. It couldn't be helped."
"And you, Li Chen. You caused quite a stir. You will behave yourself from now on, or I will kill you myself."
"The Emperor gave him permission to visit Su-Tan any time he wants," Shang told him. "So he will have no reason to run away anymore. Right, Chen?"
Shang laid his hand on Chen's shoulder and put his other arm around Mulan. The three of them walked into the house behind Grandfather Li, glad to be home again.